On his blog the other day, Eoin Purcell brought up an interesting point about how electronic books are changing the nature of the book market. In the old print market, bookstores could only present a limited number of titles so they concentrated mainly on new releases plus a very small selection of publisher backlists.
Of course, providing full access to the “long tail” of all titles was the foundation of Amazon’s business model, but even then it was limited to titles that were available in print. But with e-books, there’s no reason any title should go out of availability (and Google’s scanning project means that even out-of-print and never-publisher-scanned titles could be available for sale if they ever get the lawsuits out of the way).
Purcell points out that most people don’t focus on whether a title is newly-published or backlist—what matters to them is whether or not they’ve already read it. Where a consumer might be reluctant to buy it (or, more likely, never even notice it) as a beat-up used paperback copy, there’s nothing about an e-version of it that’s any different from the e-version of the very latest thing to be published. (Save that the price of the backlist title is likely to be lower, of course.)
He believes that is making publishers—who depend on good sales from their latest blockbusters to keep going—very nervous. While they could, of course, rake in money from their own backlists just as easily, they’re not necessarily set up to take full advantage of that market yet. (Not to mention that authors whose contracts pre-date mention of e-book rights might have their own ideas about where to take their backlist books.) Meanwhile, publishers such as Open Road Integrated Media are setting up specifically to handle authors’ backlists and finding that the future looks very bright.
As Purcell notes, the jury is still out on whether or not this is entirely a good thing—but certainly it’s going to make the next few years more interesting.