There is growing consensus in the publishing community that certain types of books really lend themselves to online ventures. O’Reilly Media has implemented “Rough Cuts”, where readers can access books about new technology while the manuscripts are being written. In a world where people can master the software before the traditional publishing timeline sends a book to market, this new approach represents both great customer service and increased market share.
HarperCollins, looking, oddly enough, to old media models for inspiration, has launched an advertiser-supported program. Readers get the content for free. Remember when you didn’t have to pay to listen to songs? Think pre-Napster.
Why is this revolutionary? Only because it shouldn’t be. To quote Jane Friedman:
“We hope this pilot will demonstrate a win-win for publishers, authors and search engines. The new era does not need to be a zero sum game,” HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman said Monday in a statement.
It’s a nice article, right up to the point where I remember that journalists seem to have lost the ability to analyze statements:
There has been disagreement in the publishing community over the effects of making material available on the Internet. Some worry about online piracy and about readers simply downloading the text, as opposed to paying for it.
This is where the author neglects to point out that consumers will happily pay for content — if it’s delivered in a manner they can readily use. He also neglects to point out that there are legitimate anti-piracy methods available to publishers. The music industry could never wrap its mind around the idea that consumer desires could co-exist with industry desires; I hope the publishing industry doesn’t make the same mistake.
These are not trivial considerations. No one model will fit all sizes; the key to success in the future is serving the maximum number of consumers in the maximum number of feasible ways. That means not assuming anything about the end user. Because as fond as I am of M.J. Rose (and I am), her statement in this article doesn’t necessarily pass the smell test:
But several writers, including marketer Seth Godin and science fiction author Cory Doctorow, have made a point of offering free content online, believing that it helps sales. M.J. Rose, a marketing expert and author of “Lip Service” among other novels, praised HarperCollins for its “smart” initiative.
“We all know that readers don’t want to read the whole book online,” Rose said. “But as Seth Godin proved with `Unleashing the Idea Virus’ — people will start a book on line and if they get hooked — click over and purchase it.”
There is no proof — mostly because it hasn’t been tested — that readers don’t want to read the whole book online. Currently, online texts don’t have user-friendly features, like bookmarks. If I could bookmark stuff at Project Gutenberg, I would. I might even pay for a “My Project Gutenberg” feature because I access classic literature often enough that it makes sense to me. It might be an innovative way to support a great initiative while providing cool service.
If I were a self-help, non-fiction-of-a-certain-bent (say diet books, for example) person, I’d want to access the whole book online at my convenience. Heck, look at the O’Reilly example. “Rough Cuts” might prove to accelerate the adoption and maturation of many programming techniques (not to mention teaching your mother to work her DVR, if they go in that direction). The key is to remember that each consumer is going to interact with media in a way that works for that particular consumer — it is no longer the right of the content providers to dictate the terms of consumption. The generation behind the generation behind me already has inherent assumptions. That is where publishing should be looking.
Meaning books as we know them won’t die. But books as we know them might become the productions their authors envision. And HarperCollins shouldn’t view one experiment in isolation. They see the future, and it’s not going to be a slam dunk. At first.