Books, physical, printed books, are incredibly democratic devices. They can be acquired anywhere — retail outlets, libraries, thrift stores, and even on subway cars (some folks intentionally leave books behind for the next reader) — and they can be read anywhere. Within reason: you cannot read while underwater, unless you and the book are wholly encased in a waterproof device.
Books, physical, printed books, can be shared. If I like a book very much, so much that I want Jim to read it, I can hand my copy of the book over to Jim and he can do the same with Tim. While the author and publisher lose some money because of the practice, they are gaining readers, readers who might fork over cash for future books.
At Book Expo America 2008, Dave Hanley of Shelfari said something startling — startling because I realized how absolutely true and sad his words were, not startling because I didn’t know the fact on the ground — readers who engage in Shelfari’s online community often face the desire to acquire a book being discussed right there, right now. Can’t do it. There is very little instant satisfaction when it comes to books.
Think about it: you have a reader who is so enthusiastic about a product that he or she wants to make a book purchase immediately and start reading that book immediately, and it can’t be done. How absolutely stupid is that? We have sent men to the moon, yet we cannot find a way to connect readers and books electronically and immediately.
What has happened, of course, is that The Fear of Piracy has stifled the business. Today, I read a lovely quote that summarizes and exemplifies the problem:
This reminds me of a comment I heard from a music industry executive at a conference a couple of years ago. “One day there was the iPod and iTunes. The next day 20% of our business was digital. The day after that more than 50% of our revenues came from digital music. Yeah, we believe in digital music now.”
Of course, that 50% of digital was, uh, tied directly to the iPod and iTunes store. Apple owns the customer. Apple owns the business. You want to purchase music for your iPod? You want to sell music to iPod owners (and you do because ain’t nobody doing volume business for the Zune)? Apple is the gatekeeper.
So what’s happening with publishing? As Kirk noted recently, Jeff Bezos has plans to own the digital book business. Publishers are complicit because the lurve digital rights management. No pirated books for them (nevermind that DRM never stopped anything but legitmate customers). Publishers have tied their readers to a device.
Well, two devices. Don’t count out the Sony eReader.
So what happens when that person at Shelfari wants to read a book right away? Well, if he or she is a Kindle owner, then problem solved (provided the book is available in a Kindle edition, and, you know, that’s not a given; publishers are still not anywhere near the levels they should be when it comes to digitizing books). If he or she is a Sony eReader, same problem.
And those who check ebooks or audiobooks out of the library? Libraries are contracting with proprietary services to provide books that only work on specific devices and technologies. What we’re seeing is the publishing industry creating silos, silos that aren’t serving the consumer in any meaningful way. What happens when the technology behind Kindle 3.0 makes it impossible to read Kindle 1.0 book purchases?
Don’t laugh. Anyone who’s ever dealt with backward compatibility problems in Windows knows this can happen.
Publishers are afraid to enter the retail space because they don’t want to destroy the relationships that have served them well. It’s not inconceivable that physical retailers will come to see ebook sales as a part of their business mix — after all, what is the point of serving as curator and advisor to the customer if you end up sending them elsewhere to make a purchase? — but that will only work if ereaders allow the consumers the necessary freedom to make purchases from the retailer of their choice, not only from the manufacturer of their device.
I don’t think that physical books will be departing this earthly plane anytime soon. But I do think that ebooks will become a larger, eventually significant, part of the reading mix as consumers change. Consumers, of course, want convenience, portability, and decent prices. Does this mean that Shelfari must make a deal with Amazon and Sony to provide ebooks to readers…only to face a customer base that doesn’t have any of the above?
Or does this mean that publishers should demand that devices are decoupled from the purchasing process, allowing consumers and readers to get what they want, in the format they need, at a reasonable price?
The publishing industry is waiting for its iPod moment, but the music industry has learned a hard lesson: when you cede your business to one retailer, then, well, you’ve lost control.