My top five red herring ebook stories, 2010
December 9, 2010 | 10:13 am
By Joanna Cabot
The pundits have been out in full force this year, as ebooks finally hit the mainstream. But amidst all the hot air about pricing and contracts and DRM and i-Whatevers, a lot of ink was shed on some red herrings—issues which, on the surface, seem very important but in my opinion are mere diversions from the real story of the future of the ebook world. What are my top five red herrings, and why do I think they are not the stumbling points the pundits make them up to be? Keep reading to find out!
RED HERRING #5: THE WAY THINGS WORK
This excuse was trotted out dozens of times to explain things like pricing, geographical availability, DRM and other publisher excuses. The reality is, the way things work now is not the way they will always work, nor is it necessarily the best of most efficient way for them to work.
Yes, there are certain realities of the supply chain right now. But these realities came about based on a business model of shipping, storing and producing physical objects. In a mixed model where a portion of the customer base will be purchasing products which are not physical, all of these excuses become a moot point.
My father calls publishing the finest business model ever put forth by the bright minds of the 17th century. He is not far off. If ‘this is the way things work’ was really a viable excuse, we would still have professional telephone operators, and a portion of the money you pay for your car would be going toward subsidizing the buggy whip makers who are now out of business. The ‘industry’ will surely fight change, but it just as surely will happen, in the end. Such is life.
RED HERRING #4: THE AGENCY MODEL
The agency model is a royal pain in the butt right now, but it will sort itself out eventually, and here is why: the reality is that in the end, its going to matter very little what the publishers ‘want’ to do, unless they can get customers to pay for it.
I’ll give you an example: I recently worked with my boss on the opportunity to run a for-profit after-school program in the new year. There were many aspects we negotiated, including use of space and resources, how much help I could rely on from the admin and other support staff, what their cut would be, what my cut would be and what we would charge the parents, This was all important stuff and very interesting, but the bottom line was this: there was a limit to what people would pay for this sort of thing, and if we could not make it profitable to run the program within that limit, the program wasn’t going to happen.
To bring this back to the publishers, there are many stake-holders there too: agents, authors, distributors, editors and so on. But at the end of it all is a customer who is going to pay, or not. If the ‘agency’ model continues to lead to situations where customers don’t want to pay, they won’t pay and the publishers will have to change their tunes. And given that this seems to be the only area of the book market that is experiencing major growth right now, I think they’ll change it in a way that keeps them in the game.
RED HERRING #3: THE BLAME GAME
The blame game comes up whenever a customer or reader has a complaint. Book not available? Author says it’s not their fault. Publisher says it’s not their fault. Vendor says it is certainly not their fault. There are contract issues or there are workflow issues or blather blather blather? Here’s why none of this matters: because the customer doesn’t really care. They just want the book, and if someone won’t sell it to them, they will get it elsewhere or do without—and no business wants their customers to be sitting there with money on the table and nowhere to spend it!
The bottom line is that of all the people whose ‘fault’ it may be, the one completely innocent party is the paying customer who is willingly offering up their money of only someone will let them have the book. And as I said earlier, any publisher who has not come to terms with this yet will have to do so, soon. All the behind the scenes negotiating and issues and deals or whatever is needed to sort this out will happen once they do so. There are problems, now. But I think these problems are fixable, and will be fixed, because it just makes more sense to let people buy stuff if they want to.
RED HERRING #2: EVIL BIG CORPORATE
Being in Canada, I hear this a lot. Amazon is going to take over the world and squeeze out the local publishers. Google is going to take over Amazon AND the world. Regional publishers will be decimated by the upcoming ebook shift and we can look forward to a world where the only books people can buy will be Stephen King. John Grisham, Nora Roberts and JK Rowling. It’s nonsense, and here are two words that prove it: Giller Prize.
This was one of the more interesting stories to come out of the ebook business this year, and outside of Canada, was under-reported. The short version is this: The Giller is a major Canadian book award, and when the shortlist was announced, Kobo (which is majority-owned by Indigo, our major book chain) set out to bundle the shortlist into a convenient one-stop shop on their own site. The problem? Not all the books had available ebook editions. So they took the initiative and approached the publishers, offered to make the ebook versions for them, and had the whole shortlist up on their website for weeks while the Giller people were out promoting these books to the media. And it doesn’t end there—the eventual winner was put out by such a small press that even the print version was not in stock—anywhere—when the win was announced. The only place Canadians could read this hot property was Kobo—in ebook!
It gets better. According to the numbers Kobo sent me when they announced this little coup, the book (and the other titles on the shortlist as well) were not only top sellers at Kobo, but they were out-selling another hot book—the winner of the Mann Booker Prize. So what does this prove? It proves that Canadians really do want to read Canadian books if they are made available to them. And I am betting the same thing holds for Australians wanting to read Australian books, or Spaniards wanting to read Spanish books. If Kobo continues their strategy of partnering with local book chains—and in this case, local publishers—when they launch their reader in a new country, they could potentially be far more of a player than any uber-Empire could be! People want to read Stephen King and Nora Roberts, but they want to read local books too, and the internet is not going to change that. Smart marketing and local partnerships really can give local presses leverage in this digital age. They just have to DO it!
RED HERRING #1: THE UBER-DEVICE
The iPad is going to kill the Kindle. The Android is going to kill the iPad. And so it goes—or not. Here’s why: we all have different needs, and one device is not going to do it for everybody. I’ll use myself as an example. Sure, I could replace my iPod Touch AND my cell phone with one device, an iPhone, that would ‘do it all.’ But I don’t want to. I am not a major phone user (really, the only person who phones me regularly is my mother) and my phone is a cheap phone on a very cheap plan. The cheapest iPhone plan is nearly three times as costly! So having that one device may be handy, but it would cost me a fortune. It’s better for me to have separate devices and pay less, even if it means keeping more ‘stuff.’
Or take the iPad as another example. I love and adore my iPad—for games, for light net surfing on the go, for Netflix while on the exercise bike and for keeping my work stuff with me when I need it. I don’t read on it, because my Kindle has features it lacks which I need. Specifically, it has support for multi-language dictionaries (I read in French) and text to speech (I commute and like a hands-free option I don’t need to look at sometimes). I have an uncle who does not read in French and does not care about text to speech and he is happy as a clam reading on HIS iPad! Different needs, different devices.
Of course, I can’t predict what future technology will bring. But I remain unconvinced that one device will rule us all. More likely to me is a scenario where we get to a hard-drive-on-a-stick sort of endgame with one’s entire OS—apps, files, media, all of it—on a SIM card and just gets plugged into various dumb terminals. Plug it into your phone, plug it into your television-sized screen, plug it into your book-sized screen, it doesn’t matter. No need to sync across devices or rely on the vagaries of the ‘cloud’ because you’ll just always have it with you. Those who want to run it all from their phone are more than welcome, and those who need more specialized devices can plug it all in to whatever hardware they need.
So, those are my top five red herrings of the year. Anything I missed? Leave a comment with your ideas!