The Publishing Tortoise and the Technology Hare

For a long time, I have been critical of the book publishing industry’s procrastination in accepting the web as a sales, marketing and distribution force. It was almost as if publishers believed that the internet was some fad that was going to go away and that people would always want to read their books printed on paper. In light of the financial losses that the music, newspaper and motion picture industries were dealing with due to digital conversion of content, the book publishers’ apprehension was somewhat understandable, yet also frustrating in that they seemed to be avoiding the obvious and needed to develop their own digital content strategy.

I once met with the president of a major publishing house to discuss how online marketing could promote books in a cost efficient manner. I pulled up one of her company’s bestsellers on Amazon and showed her that more than 2,000 readers had written their own online reviews. Since she was the “owner” of the content, I explained that those 2,000 fans could be on her company website, where new titles could be promoted, authors could communicate with fans and a gathering of readers with similar interests could be created. She was not convinced and I clearly recall her stating that “Publishers are in the money business – we sell books to make money.” She did not see the web as a force to sell books. It would become a lost opportunity for publishers, but would soon be revived by authors who saw the web’s potential for promotion and created their own sites, attracted fans, and developed their own online communities.

When the Kindle appeared in late 2007, publishing companies were happy to accept the high commissions on eBook sales, but remained standoffish towards digital books as a profit source. It has taken until now, with Kindle sales in the millions (Amazon still isn’t giving exact numbers) and just as importantly, the introduction of the iPad, for book publishers to realize that digital books will be an important element of future revenues.

Along with that realization has come a new toughness from the publishers. Macmillan was the first of the majors who felt that Amazon’s subsidizing of eBook prices (albeit to sell more Kindles) was detrimental in allowing for consumers to get accustomed to unrealistically low prices. With the arrival of the iPad and Apple’s smart decision to allow publishers to determine their own pricing, Amazon has had to acquiesce and give publishers the same freedoms.

Although I’ve been tough on the book publishing industry, I now admire them for taking control of their own content. The Kindles and ePads hold little value unless they have product to consume. And if it’s the publishing houses who make the investments in authors, titles and marketing, why shouldn’t they have a voice in the pricing of eBooks? Perhaps this time, patience has been a virtue.
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