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What is the answer to allow publishers to compete in the new world of the Internet on their own terms? On Futurebook, author Jeff Norton proposes that the publishing industry should do what the airline industry did in creating Orbitz, or the broadcast TV industry did in creating Hulu: create their own “arms-length new [venture] to offer credible and compelling services to consumers.” He writes:

It strikes me that since the major publishers are facing a dominant digital player, there’s an opportunity to form a new, arm’s length e-reading ecosystem complete with site, device, and apps.  The fastest route to market would have been to buy Kobo from Indigo, but since that transaction’s already closed, there is room in the market for a publisher’s equivalent to Orbitz and Hulu.

Obviously, the publishers are rightly aware of any seeming collusion or anti-competitive behavior, but a new venture, funded by the publishers but run in a transparent, arm’s length, way with independent management should avoid legal pitfalls. This isn’t about price, but offering readers new choice and more competition in the way they discover, choose, and read e-books.

It could also offer an easier way for publishers to benefit from self-publishing rather than competing with it, “open[ing] up this new platform to self-published talent.”

Of course, what Norton doesn’t mention is that the publishers already did try something like this, or at least some of them did. Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster had meetings starting in 2009, culminating in the launch of book-recommendation site Bookish in February, 2013. (The meetings were later a factor in the antitrust case against the Big Six publishers and Apple.)

Bookish doesn’t seem to have exactly set the world on fire; earlier this month, just 11 months after it launched, it was sold to a small e-book store, Zola Books. Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader noted that given Zola’s market cap it had to have gone at a fire-sale price, and it was only ever really used as a channel for marketing the books of its three participant publishers anyway. So if the publishers do want to challenge Amazon and change the e-publishing world, they’re going to have to do better than that. The question, the serious question, is whether they even can. Can publishers break free of the straitjacket of their own corporate culture?

Honestly, there’s no end of advice flying around these days. This, and Hugh Howey’s posts the other week, are just the latest. Most of said advice boils down to “change stuff.” And this is a spectacularly hidebound industry that has one of the biggest problems with changing stuff of any industry the world has ever seen. For crying out loud, it still runs on an incredibly wasteful (both monetarily and ecologically) system of allowing bookstores to destroy or return product for a complete refund that was established during the Great Depression. If it hasn’t been able to change that in 80 years, how can it change anything else in one or two? It doesn’t seem to know what to make of the brave new world of self-publishing, either.

The thing that got the Big Six leaders of the publishing industry in huge trouble over the last couple of years, the antitrust suit, came about because the publishers were desperate to maintain the status quo in the face of Amazon violently rocking the boat. As the remarkably unsuccessful Bookish indicates, they just don’t seem to have the knowhow to change. They’d better start figuring it out, though. (Maybe they could read some self-help books.) If the ongoing saga of the antitrust suit is any indication, the rest of the world is about out of patience with their attempts to turn back the clock.

 
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