giant.jpegIn yesterday’s post, I gave four reasons (five if you want to count returns separately) why the giant publishers are on their funeral march: they are too big to react quickly to market conditions; they haven’t learned the Dell lesson; they let others sit in the catbird’s seat of deciding industry policy; and they haven’t come to grips with who are their future customers. Essentially, the giant publishers are early 20th century behemoths who have yet to adapt to 21st century technology and consumers.

These are interrelated problems, all stemming from the same root, which is the giant publisher having ceded industry leadership to outsiders.

In a way, the Dell lesson – Tell the customer he can have it his way and then limit the options – was tackled in my end-the-paperback proposal. Publishers have to learn to create their markets, not be led by markets imposed on them. This is the difference between Amazon, Apple, Google, and the giant publishers.

Amazon led the market by creating the Kindle and Kindle editions, and Apple and Google are inventing their own book markets. The giant publishers are trying to catch up. But Amazon (soon to be joined by Apple and Google), by leading the market defined it and is setting the terms. Amazon is also applying the Dell lesson: You can have an ebook in any format you want as long as it is a Kindle format. The giant publishers, who should have led, instead fumbled so badly that they are in disarray over how to catch up. More importantly, perhaps, for the publishers is that Amazon is turning them into the bad guys in the public relations war for the consumer soul. It’s the problem of the giant publishers being a sumo wrestler when a ballerina is needed — and not recognizing the problem.To survive the days ahead, the giant publishers need to lead the marketplace, not follow it. If it is true that ebooks are the wave of the future, then publishers need to grab hold of this market and lead it or prepare their funeral pyres.

Publishers need to gain the upper hand in the pricing, geographical, DRM (digital rights management), and format wars. They have started by slowly adopting ePub as the uniform format, but otherwise are in disarray.

My solution: Create an international book repository owned and operated by a consortium of publishers!

Publishers should unite and create a single international repository for every ebook published by member publishers and by self-publishers. Membership should be open to all ebooks with an ISBN. All books would be kept on the repository’s servers. Consumers would buy a book once from a bookseller such as Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, but then be able to read the book on any device they own, without the need to transfer the book from device to device.

Publishers would create a single software system so that if a buyer started reading a book on his dedicated device at home, he could continue reading from the place he bookmarked on his smartphone while commuting to work, on his computer during lunch, on the smartphone for the commute home, and on his dedicated device at home. The repository would also give consumers the option to download a copy of the purchased book to a single device, just as is done now.

This would benefit both consumers and publishers in multiple ways. Here are a few: Because the books would be held remotely, they would be device agnostic. Publishers could use a single uniform format with a single uniform DRM scheme that every device manufacturer could use royalty free. Publishers could enable consumer sharing on a book-by-book basis by allowing, for example, the book buyer to give some number of named individuals access to the book, giving buyers some reasonable ability to share ebooks; different books could have different sharing limits. Consumers could buy a book and access it anywhere at anytime on any device capable of displaying the text — today, tomorrow, and for 99 years into the future.

The idea is not to replace booksellers. Rather, the bookselling world could continue as is but when an ebook is bought, access to the book would shift from the bookseller to the repository. It could be done as “smoothly and flawlessly” as done now, even with automatic wireless downloading. With the repository, publishers will lead the ebook marketplace and enhance their survival prospects.

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. @Rich,
    The proposal’s not bad. But practical? I’m not so sure.

    For one thing, I think the likelihood that “all publishers” will join forces and run one site seems, well… unlikely. Global and local politics alone will probably keep that from happening. And as there will be plenty of self-publishers that likewise won’t want to (or be able to, depending on membership/entry requirements) get into the site, there will still be multiple sites for buying books.

    Beyond that, about the only part of the proposal I don’t like is the idea that all of those books will stay on the publishers’ site, to be streamed out on demand. Sure, it solves the bookmarks across devices issue, but device interconnectivity at any level could solve the same thing. I suspect that, even a few decades from now, a lot of the world will not be regularly and reliably connected to the web 24/7/365. Purchased books should be kept by the purchaser, so they can access them at any time they like. Otherwise, you’re just leasing the content.

    Personally, I’m not on-board with the sharing angle, but that’s me. My take on sharing has always been that it’s essentially an old-world practice, that high prices and lack of previewing are what make sharing commonplace… remove those obstacles, and sharing is not needed. But I wouldn’t call it a deal-breaker, either.

  2. @Steve,

    All publishers already joined forces at least once with the Copyright Clearance Center, so it is possible for forward thinkers to do it again.

    The idea is to have an independent operation, one that doesn’t rely on the survival of any publisher or of several publishers, to provide access. As I envision it access would be both remote and local, not just remote. But registration would provide certain advantages that could not be had locally.

    As for sharing, that would still be up to the individual publisher. I don’t do much sharing of my physical books and wouldn’t expect to do much more of my ebooks, but I sure would like to be able to buy a Steve Jordan ebook and tell my son how much I liked it and here it is, just like I can do with the physical book. 🙂

  3. @Richard:

    There would be no antitrust violation. The publishers would continue to set their own pricing as they do now. The repository would not sell ebooks, it would simply be a central location for obtaining books bought elsewhere. Amazon and B&N and Smashwords and other booksellers would continue to sell books at whatever price they chose. The repository would be open to any publisher, including self-publishers. Think of it as more like a library. There are no — at least in my vision of it — Sherman or Clayton Act problems.

  4. All publishers already joined forces at least once with the Copyright Clearance Center, so it is possible for forward thinkers to do it again.

    Ah: So, you’re talking about a Copyright Clearance Center for e-books, with publishers as the guiding influences, and e-books as the content being “licensed” to consumers. Obviously not exactly the same in terms of product, but I see the similarities in organization.

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