Sunday, November 18, 2012

Looking Back: My 2008 Publishing Predictions


Amazon Changes the Digital Landscape


First published in The Center for Independent Publishing newsletter, Summer 2008
Recently, the industry was shaken by an announcement by Amazon that the company was changing its order fulfillment policy. In a nutshell, Amazon threatened to disable a book's "Buy Now" button if that book's publishing company did not subscribe to Book Surge Print, an Amazon owned print-on-demand (POD) printing service. Many called it a blatant attempt at a monopoly, because Book Surge is the only POD option available if one wishes to sell books through Amazon using its "Buy Now" button.

As the market evolves and embraces digital distribution options, we at the Center for Independent Publishing (CIP) find Amazon's move both troubling and exciting. Amazon wants to be active all the way along the digital supply chain from production to marketing to distribution. By force of will its Book Surge gambit will make Amazon the de facto virtual digital warehouse for hundreds of thousands of digital book files. What role will Amazon play in helping (or hindering) our members to make better use of their digital assets?


It strikes me that from Amazon's large and powerful river might flow not just POD books, but e-books, books disaggregated and re-purposed for mobile hand held devices, audiobooks and other digital derivatives -- whether now known or hereinafter invented. Our hope is that in the swirl of that digital river, we will see new digital revenue streams emerge for smaller and independent presses. If Amazon remains committed to the indie press segment, and acts as a bridge not just between publishers and traditional readers, but between publishers and digital readers, it becomes an enabler, and, perhaps, the best friend an indie publisher could have. However, Amazon's favoritism to Book Surge is a slippery slope that could easily decrease diversity. Amazon is steering consumers to books that are produced by its owned-and-operated press.

While it doesn't look like the cost of gaining access to the number one online bookstore has gone up (except for duplication costs associated with files formerly entrusted to other POD printers), the CIP is concerned about Amazon’s monopolistic intentions. The company’s claim that it is not seeking exclusivity (i.e., requiring POD titles be printed exclusively through Book Surge), seems to be a subtle bit of specious reasoning. Amazon's gain is the ability to monopolize the POD market. It is offering a single printer option. Just as Amazon deserves our praise for having been a good publishing partner for our publisher members, it deserves our scrutiny as it moves from online bookstore to what is beginning to look suspiciously like a celestial publishing house.

Traditionally, bookselling was separated from publishing, with booksellers (including Amazon) realizing the benefit of combining the wares of many publishers. Now that Amazon has the ability to perform all of the activities that take place between delivery of an edited manuscript and delivery of finished books to readers, the publishing industry needs to take a hard look at its current business model. Publishers have the potential to get squeezed on both ends. For example, there is the Barnes & Noble - Sterling combo with an increasing number of book sales being titles self-published by B&N. It is the same deal with Amazon, which is actively going after new product to self-publish with Createspace as well as original audiobook projects from Audible. To the extent publishers covet virtual shelf space at Amazon (with one-click ordering), Amazon's move should give indie publishers pause.

What if this virtuous publishing partner determines that it is profoundly profitable to publish their own books? If Amazon does not use its great size and ability to bring its own books to the attention of readers, we will be very surprised. When Amazon does this, we fear it will be at the expense of independent publishers whose distinctive personalities are reflected in the books they publish. To date, Amazon has been a good partner, but operating under the aegis of a publicly traded company who has shown the ability to act arbitrarily is disconcerting to the CIP and our publisher members. Publishing is a competitive business. It is likely to become more competitive if Amazon starts favoring its own self-published books

So, as a general proposition, vertical integration is a bad thing. Perhaps, the market will correct itself, as publishers move over to www.barnesandnoble.com, and other digital asset distributors and e-tailers pop up. Likely, that won't happen. Book distribution is not sexy enough, and Amazon is like the slightly abusive partner we tend to tolerate for the benefit of the kids. If the industry doesn't get an order of protection from the Justice Department, then perhaps we need a Plan B.

Physical distribution of books is largely the preserve of large conglomerate publishers and a handful of large independent distributors. It’s not a pretty business. It employs the equivalent of Yankee peddlers who hand-sell books to brick and mortar stores, with full return privileges for oversold books. If we extrapolate, the Book Surge gambit may be seen as a relatively painless first step in managing the digital distribution of titles to e-tailers and licensees. Amazon has the amazing ability to manage and organize content. It also offers a painless online experience for the consumer. Instead of Amazon merely being the recipient of digital assets, it’s easy to imagine Amazon providing comprehensive consultancy services to our members, helping them prepare their content for digital distribution for and beyond the traditional Amazon platform. Is the Book Surge gambit a disguised opportunity for indie publishers? Perhaps. Indie publishes are the small furry mammals scurrying around the legs of large dinosaur publishers. The digital meteor has hit. To survive, indie publishers need to be able to present content in a variety of digital formats. Is Amazon a friend or a foe? Only time will tell.

If I had to guess, I'd say in the next 24-months Google buys Ingram (Googlegram?) for its digital group assets (including Lightning Source), and it out-Amazons Amazon by creating the ultimate digital warehouse/distributor in the sky.

If Google were to exhibit digital favoritism, it would steer book buyers to its wholly owned and super- efficient Lightning Source imprint. Amazon owns the online store. Google owns the web. Amazon merchandises books. Google sells them contextually. Balance is restored to the planet.

The short- to mid-term changes in trade publishing are going to be dramatic. Large publisher dominance is shrinking in the new media economy. When the change comes, we believe the main winners will be independent publishers. They music industry taught us that. Amazon has confirmed it.


Postscript / Scorecard
So, how well did I do predicting the future of publishing? 


These are the publishing predictions I made in 2008: 

Prediction
:  Amazon acquires book publishing companies
Verdict:
  Correct.  In 2012 Amazon acquired Avalon and Dorchester.

Prediction
:  Google skews search results to favor its own  content
Verdirct:
   Correct.  Currently, the FTC and European Commission are readying antitrust cases against Google 

Prediction:
  Google Acquires Ingram (GoogleGram?)
Verdict:
  What do I look like?  A  psychic?

1 comment:

  1. Very cool ideas. How exactly did you make those predictions in the first place?
    Any new ones?

    ReplyDelete