Publishing analyst Mike Shatzkin, back from Digital Book World, has an interesting piece on his blog looking at the effect that non-publishers getting into the publishing business could have other publishers. He talks about a discussion he had with a distinctly non-tech-savvy publisher of renown who was now running his own smaller operation.

This publisher felt that the advances in reducing the cost of small-scale publishing should make it that much easier for him to publish books. He wasn’t concerned by all the self-published stuff he would be competing with, since 99% of it would be dreck, but as Shatzkin points out, it’s not just self-published stuff he had to worry about—it’s the stuff put out by organizations that have big names in other fields but have heretofore stayed away from books, as well as stuff being given away for free.

At Digital Book World, some panelists expressed concern that there might be enough free promotional books being given away that people will just read them and not bother buying commercial books. And news has also come out that the New York Times and ProPublica are also getting their feet wet in publishing actual books: the New York Times is publishing a $5.99 e-book on the Wikileaks affair, and ProPublica is publishing a 99 cent Amazon Single on the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Remember when it used to be that in the weeks after some major story broke, like Iran-Contra or 9/11 or the O.J. Simpson trial, you’d see a veritable blizzard of “instant books” published as writers and publishers tried to chase the ambulance as quickly as they could? Now it’s possible for major-name respected journalistic institutions to do it themselves.

Shatzkin notes:

Ten or fifteen years ago, “Open Secrets” would have been an “Instant Book” from a major publisher (if it were anything at all.) The Times could have an opportunity like this 10 or 20 or 30 times a year. They provide themselves with brand extension, revenue, an opportunity to give more exposure to their reporters and their reporting, and total flexibility without the need for the complexities, including contracts and corporate interactions, that arise when getting a book published by somebody else.

So the publishing industry is going to heat up with more competition to independent publishers, including e-publishers. In addition to “free samples,” cheap and free content from respected news and other institutions will give publishers more competition for readers’ scarce attention (and dollars). And the instant-publish ability of e-books will only exacerbate this. situation.

It’s no wonder publishers are getting nervous.


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