How to make e-book Publishing Truly Competitive

Posted on April 16, 2012

Following Apple and the major publishers’ indictment for anti-competitive practices in the e-book market, it’s interesting to look at what it would take to make e-books truly competitive.

In the traditional publishing model one company takes a book, prepares it for sale, prints it and then markets it. That’s the role of the publishing house, and a very valuable role it is. In the current e-book world, only the printing is removed, so there is still a lot of value provided by a publisher.

Yet that model is still not really competitive. Some competition comes from your choice between books of different authors, hence implying that all authors are more or less equal. But authors are not more or less equal.

So for real competition in publishing to take hold, different publishing houses should publish the same author’s work. In this Multiple Publisher Model the next Amitav Ghosh book would be published by Penguin, Macmillan and HarperCollins, for example.

The Advantages of the Multiple Publisher Model:

  • Quality: in terms of the actual text, the only way for one publisher to stand out from the others is to offer a better quality copywriting and type setting service. Fewer errors and better flowing text that’s more delightful to read.
  • Innovation: no book today should be written for print, but as an interactive e-book. The publisher that can deliver the greatest value through interactivity and taking advantage of tablet technology should be able to garner the greatest sales due to a better reader experience.
  • Marketing: the publisher with the best marketing department can better drive sales.
  • Community: books will have to be discussed more, as readers will want advice on which edition to buy. The book-review industry will be bolstered.
  • Cost: due to competition, costs should fall, except where innovation can maintain a higher selling price, but there will be value to that innovation which is better for the consumer. We may see a cheaper “light” version of the text and a more expensive “interactive” version.

The Disadvantages of the Multiple Publisher Model:

  • Variety: we may see fewer books published as the cost to publish goes up, risk increases and hence publishers battle it out for the banal beach books. New authors will find it more difficult to be aided by the publishing industry as the rewards for their risk are lower.
  • Confusion: is choice always a good thing? Having to decide not only which book to buy, but which edition from which publisher can be a major headache for consumers. Will it even be possible to know what the best version is just from marketing material and reviews? Even in the age of crowdsourced reviewing technology, choice will be difficult.
  • Only the rich publish – only the rich will be able to afford to take the risk to launch a book as publishing becomes more a service paid by authors as risk shifts from the publisher to the author.

In reality, the biggest threat to the publishing industry will be the shift in risk from the publishing house to the author; enabled by the ease of self-publishing. As self-publishers directly assume the costs of copy-editing, distribution and marketing, they will assume more price-control as well. This can potentially result in a downward pressure on price points and create disintermediation in the industry.

Publishers will have to prove their worth, both in terms of how they innovate around e-books and how they provide strong marketing services. In all cases, the hope for the consumer over the long term is a further realignment of pricing in their favour.