Isn’t it curious that the most profitable aspect of the publishing business is also the hardest to control? Backlist, especially those lovely older titles with lower associated costs, prop up the houses — much like the catalog of motion picture studios. It is this evergreen product that keeps the lights burning and air conditioning cooling.
For years now, the smarter studios have been digitizing their backlist. This is an expensive — extremely expensive — and time-consuming process. Yet the industry has been moving toward digital with grim determination. They don’t like the free-wheelin’ ways of the Internet, but the lure of digital distribution, satellites and fast wires and sometimes no wires at all, is irresistible. Even now, as they step warily into new media markets via services like CinemaNow and Movielink, and even now, as the dollars are relatively small compared to the initial investment, they worry about piracy.
But they keep on moving forward.
This year, publishers like HarperCollins announced initiatives to start digitizing their backlists. It makes you want to bang your head against your keyboard. If we take 1994 as the dawn of the new age, then you’re talking about a dozen years wasted on the sidelines. In those dozen years, scores of movies and television series have been digitized. This is product ready to hit the virtual shelves. Why in the world is the publishing industry just now looking at backlist and digital and putting the pieces together?
First, of course, is the fear factor. Piracy is so terrifying that it stops grown men and women cold. Never mind the profit margins when the specter of piracy lurks. Do. Not. Go. Out. There.
Considering how books are freely traded and constantly bought and resold on the secondary market, you’d think the piracy fears would be adequately tamed. Most people aren’t willing to expend the necessary effort to engage in piracy. Sure, it’s a scourge that has been fought on many fronts ever since mass market entertainment was born, but entertainment companies have been engaged in this battle for so long, it should be normal course.
I think the second reason for publisher hesitation is the disingenuous preciousness about books. You the know the song, “I just love the way books feel and smell. Nothing can replace a book.” Sure, nothing but a zillion and one electronic devices. The printed book is not going away any time soon. The digital book, be it text or audio, is a rising force however. Publishers have a choice: get their books out there or someone will do it for them.
(In addition to piracy born of frustration, there are, of course, projects like Google’s, and it’s rather stunning that publishers continue to exert such resistance without engaging in a serious internal debate about what how the Google project can benefit them. Digitizing books does not come anywhere near the cost of digitizing movies, but there is a price, and when someone else wants to bear the cost, why not try to make a deal that works to your benefit?)
I heard the new business team from Harlequin state that, right now, e-books are a tiny piece of their income but growing. The fact that this publisher isn’t making money hand over fist is more likely a function of availability — in the past, they’ve been conservative in their e-book release schedule, but are growing more aggressive — and price. As long as publishers consider e-books competition for “real” books and worry about stepping on other distribution channels, prices are going to be out of line with product.
Publishers like Ellora’s Cave have proven that there is a massive appetite for electronic books. Sure, this market seems skewed toward erotica and/or erotic romance, but the longevity of other publishers such as HardShell Word Factory and New Concepts should tell the big publishing houses something: the consumer is there. Just as motion picture studios are forcing themselves to relax their notions of stepped windows, publishers need to grasp the idea that digital product consumers are not necessarily the same as physical product consumers. You’re not siphoning off sales if those sales didn’t exist in the first place.
There is no good excuse for e-book prices that mirror hardcover, trade, or even mass market paperback prices, except either ignorance or greed. Today’s books are already in digital format. Creating a DRM’d product requires almost no labor, the highest part of the cost. Distribution expenses are, sure, still in existence, but let’s face facts: storage and delivery are relatively minor costs. Given the way the distribution channel works, there is profit even if a title sells only one electronic copy.
This should make electronic books highly desirable for publishers — all that lovely profit with so little effort. Unlike motion picture studios, publishers don’t own the product they distribute, so, yeah, there are going to be uncomfortable moments when it comes to acquiring digital rights that aren’t implicitly or explicitly granted. And because publishers don’t own all of their backlist, authors will be seriously considering the DIY model, for all the reasons I’ve stated above.
Publishers, then, have to make the case for their business. They need to explain why they are the best source for distributing Long Tail product. Why their machine is better than Joe’s Book Distribution Website. Pricing and compensation are generally key factors — add in trusted brand name, and you’ve got something.