shatzkin1[1] Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin has another interesting post on his blog. I don’t know that I entirely agree with this one, but he does raise some good points that are worth thinking about.

Unlike a number of pundits we’ve heard from in the past, Shatzkin holds that it is logical for publishers to try to keep e-book prices high to protect the print market. He feels that publishers should stick to doing what they do best, and what they do best is putting books on shelves. From that point of view, “the fate of the big publishers is inextricably linked to the fate of brick-and-mortar stores. So of course, they would try to preserve them.”

But without bookstore shelves to fill, I fear the major publishers have very little to offer. In their own defense, they tend to fall back on “curation” as their strong suit, but I’m afraid their curation is B2B and the B they curate for is the book trade! They have very little curation “brand” with consumers.

This puts me in mind of some of the previous stories I’ve covered here about publishing industry representatives who concluded that publishers needed to build a better relationship with consumers. The question is whether they can.

Shatzkin also points out that it is really an oversimplification to refer to “the publishing industry” because there are actually two publishing industries: the big publishers, and the rest of the industry. The big publishers are the ones who pay the best royalties and get the best terms from those they deal with. They have entirely different pricing and revenue models from smaller publishers such as O’Reilly.

Shatzkin concludes:

It is often said that the big mistake railroads made was not realizing they were in the transportation business, or they wouldn’t have let airlines pass them by. I don’t buy that; running a railroad in no way qualifies you to run an airline, let alone to invent one. One listmember in the discussion in which I appeared to convince nobody suggested that the big publishers should focus on how to be more upstart and more vertical. I am afraid that trying to be something that you’ve never been is a very hard path to follow.

Actually, that’s said of competing with other forms of transportation in general, not just airlines. Trains could have competed with trucks—both being cargo-carrying vehicles that go along the ground at about the same speed—a lot more easily than they could with faster airlines for carrying passengers.

The idea was not that they should try to expand into other forms of transportation—trying to “run or invent an airline”—but that they should have competed better by offering a more compelling reason to use their form of transportation. If they couldn’t compete on speed, they could compete on price and bulk, for example, or on quality of service.

And from my point of view, the same holds true for publishers. No matter how hard they try to cling to brick-and-mortar bookstores, their role is going to dwindle as print dwindles in years to come. While print books are probably never going to go away entirely, there is still a question of just what level of print book sales will be enough to sustain brick-and-mortar stores.

What happens if even 50% of print book sales go digital? Will bookstores be able to survive on half their previous revenue? Little wonder that the pre-eminent paper book e-store and all the major paper book brick-and-mortar chains are trying to hitch their wagons to the e-book star.

It’s like Marc Andreesen said: traditional media needs to “burn the boats” and forge ahead with their efforts to go digital. While in the case of book publishing they shouldn’t drop them entirely, but they should try to figure out how to leverage new technologies like print-on-demand to increase efficiency and reduce cost and waste, rather than remaining mired in a decades old legacy infrastructure that results in printing twice as many books as they need and then having to absorb the cost of taking half back.

Or to put it another way, companies tend to underestimate the disruptive effect that innovations have on their business model until it’s too late to change. I’ve previously mentioned Mike Masnick’s piece in Techdirt about how Kodak waited until it was nearly too late to switch to digital photography, and Blockbuster did wait until it was too late to copy Netflix.

Publishers can’t just cling to print books forever, because consumers are starting to move forward. They need to figure out how to move with the times, or consumers will leave them behind. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders are already trying to move forward—but publishers’ agency pricing might be holding everybody back.


  1. Screen book sales are not 50 percent of paper, paper books are digital and only out put to paper on demand, paper book sales continue to grow or diminish without regard for screen adoptions or sales. Raliroads now expand and airlines contract.

  2. I scanned his blog, but to be honest I find analysing this kind of article by Mr Shatzkin to be a bit of a waste of time.
    Shatzkin is, at his core, part of the insider Publishing business and his only real interest is in keeping high prices, high commission and high earnings for all concerned at the expense of the reader. That’s what all of his opining adds up to essentially.

  3. “The idea was not that they should try to expand into other forms of transportation—trying to “run or invent an airline”—but that they should have competed better by offering a more compelling reason to use their form of transportation. If they couldn’t compete on speed, they could compete on price and bulk, for example, or on quality of service.”

    Exactly! The news industry is in the same boat as well, burying their heads in the sand while the Internet and smart phones pass them by as they desperately try to hang on to their dinosaur.

    Pricing ebooks high will just help kill them in the end. Those are the books that will be pirated, or not read at all. If the price is too high, I just read an indie book instead. If it’s a favorite author, I buy the physical book on the used market for pennies. The publisher loses out either way. However, if the ebook price is reasonable, I don’t hesitate to download, it’s much quicker than pirating or waiting for prices to come down in the used market.

    The same logic will eventually kill DRM, just like in the music industry. With a fair price, it’s easier to download DRM-free MP3s from Amazon than to pirate.

  4. Whenever I see a person looking at a paper book I have the impression that the book is being read. Whenever I see a person looking at an i-Pad screen I have the impression that book reading is not going on. Screens are much more adaptable to multiple functions and even dedicated readers eclipse book format content. Book reading on screen can easily diminish as non-book display, enhanced connectivity and visual literacy behaviors emerge. Distraction is inherently compromising to book reading.

    Such uncertainty will discourage print publishers from the screen based markets.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail