disk-dark-matterLen Epp, Lead of Customer Development at Leanpub, has an interesting and provocative essay on TechCrunch looking at the “dark matter” of the publishing industry, as demonstrated by major publishers’ antipathy toward e-books. He begins with a look at the failure of e-book subscription service Oyster.

Oyster’s fundamental problem was that, like many of the more egregious failures of the Dot Com boom a couple of decades back, it simply didn’t have enough venture capital to build up a proper launch. It was built on the idea of paying full retail price for the e-books it “checked out,” and its fatal flaw was that it simply couldn’t afford to keep doing that in the long run.

Epp proposes that publishers were fully aware that Oyster wouldn’t be able to last for very long at that rate, and they effectively sabotaged the start-up by insisting on these self-destructive contracts—because publishers simply don’t like e-books. Those same publishers seem to snicker behind their hands with “digital Schadenfreude” whenever some e-publishing initiative goes by the wayside, or e-book sales rates seem to decline because the publishers forced e-book vendors to raise their prices.

(Though Epp doesn’t bring Amazon into this, it’s interesting and instructive to compare the way Amazon went about setting up its Kindle Owners Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited services by comparison. Though early trials of it also paid full retail price for the e-books they checked out, KU soon transitioned to a more reasonable check-out royalty rate that should prove more sustainable in the long run—despite the grumbling of authors every time its compensation rates change. But unlike Oyster, Amazon had built up the heft necessary to swing such contract terms, instead of being at publishers’ mercy.)

Next, Epp looks at the surveys showing that traditionally-published e-book sales were tapering off, and compares the self-published sales that those surveys didn’t reflect to “dark matter,” the astronomical phenomenon of some invisible object or force making the universe behave in ways we’re unable to explain. He puts his finger on the fundamental problem that publishers “evolved around the externalities of paper.” When confronted with a new publishing medium that doesn’t behave the same way, their first impulse is to try to force it to behave the same way, with things like restrictive digital rights management that retrofit paper-book-style ownership to electronic data.

To be clear, what I’m saying is that traditional publishers actually make their money not from the traits of novels, or biographies, or any other kind of text: they make their money from bundles of paper that can essentially be seized or held up at the border, or be pulped, or burned, or just deteriorate in ways a digital file can’t.

Even Amazon isn’t immune, as Epp suggests their KDP exclusivity conditions “fling [these nets] on authors who have internalized their traditional oppression”. But digital publishing is by and large bypassing the restrictions publishers have been trying to put on it.

I wonder how long the major publishers are going to be able to behave this way? Are we looking at some kind of sea change in the making, the same kind of change that saw travel and cargo shipment drift away from railroads and toward airplanes and trucks around the middle of the last century? Or is self-publishing headed for a “train wreck”? One way or another, the next few years are going to be a very interesting time for digital publishing.


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