It’s reported that J Sainsbury, the British supermarket chain, has bought a stake in the ebook seller Anobii, expects to own 64% of the site, and is preparing to “take on Amazon”.Quote: “Sainsbury said it will work with the publishers HarperCollins, Penguin and Random House Group.”

Let’s stop right there.

Sainsbury makes a great deal of money from intermediation, if we may call it that – adding value to basic foodstuffs by doing some or all of the preparation. Or rather, by paying somebody else to do it and then marketing the results under its own name. The apotheosis of that is the revolting “ready meal” you just stick in the microwave and serve.

Books are not TV dinners. Authors are not white-clad, netting-hatted workers in some glass and stainless steel factory in the north of England. On those grounds alone I would say that Sainsbury is venturing into dangerous territory, but what it doesn’t seem to have twigged is that the name of the ebook game is disintermediation. The middleman has to justify himself or he’s out.

HarperCollins and the rest are middlemen, and their relevance is shrinking by the day. Authors seeking a traditional deal, like Joanna Novins, are waking up to that fact, and when the majority of established authors (as Barry Eisler did so notably) realize what a crummy deal they’re getting they will follow in his footsteps.

The fact is that publishers must pay their overheads, which are high, especially given their fondness for expensive restaurants and offices in fashionable places. Those costs are passed on to the reader. The result: high ebook prices.

Authors typically live in garrets and eat gruel. The result: low ebook prices. And yet, on a self-published ebook priced at $2.99, the author makes more than he or she would on a $10.99 title published by HarperCollins, Penguin, etc. The author not only earns more but retains full creative control, and the all-important reader gets a better deal.

The trend is for authors to self-publish. As more and more excellent and professional writers embrace self-publication, the old stigma (“vanity publishing”) is fading away. Publishing is undergoing disintermediation, and I would be surprised if HarperCollins, Penguin, etc., even existed in ten years’ time: they are owned by media conglomerates whose only interest is the bottom line.

Complete disintermediation comes when authors sell their ebooks from their own websites, and that is already happening. The need for “discovery” (i.e. for readers to learn about books they might want to read) mandates some sort of site where books from many authors are listed, preferably with reviews and reader reactions. Most authors, I suspect, will not want the bother and expense of maintaining their own websites and will be happy to let a third party retain a fair cut.

And that, really, is as far as intermediation in the ebook business goes. Amazon is already there, and so are Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Sony and the rest.

To make an impact, Sainsbury has to think at least one step ahead. It is wasting its time talking to traditional publishers. It should instead launch a self-publication platform, making it really easy and quick for anyone to upload a text in any common format. It should provide self-pubbers with copious statistics. And it should beat Amazon and the others on royalties.

But Amazon being what it is, I suggest Sainsbury should just forget the whole thing and stick to the TV dinners.

Hat tip to the Passive Voice for link to the Joanna Novins article.


  1. Yet given the chance to publish with a Random House, many self-publishing authors would give up self-publishing.

    Until there is no longer such a thing as a pbook, there will be a role for the traditional publisher, especially if there are physical outlets for pbooks. The role may change or diminish, but not disappear.

    And it is disingenuous to always cite the handful of very successful self-publishers, especially those who built a following through traditional publishing and then decided to wrap up their marbles and play solitaire, as proof of the death of traditional publishing and the rise of the self-publisher. If there are 1,000 successful self-publishers who never had a traditional publisher out of 1,000,000 self-publishers, that still doesn’t speak of favorable odds.

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