Do eBooks Have to Fail?

I read with interest a post from Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press which outlined conflicts between a current print publishing business model and the emerging eBook business model. According to Schnittman, the incompatibilities between the two models means that consumer stand-alone eBooks must fail in order for existing print models to continue.

How does the publishing industry fund the creation, editing, design, production, marketing, e-warehousing, and sales of ebooks, if the income isn’t there? How do ebooks cover the huge advances needed to buy books if we cannot generate the cash, especially at their extremely low, discounted prices, cover the advances that an entire industry has come to require? The answer is that ebooks, alone, cannot.

What this means is that unless a very different model evolves, ebooks can never become the dominant version of content sold by book publishers. It means that ebooks will always be priced to sell, but sold as an afterthought, not as the primary version of a work. It means that the need for blended e plus p models will evolve, in order to take advantage of all the great qualities of ebooks, while providing the financial support and structure that print offers. It means that consumer ebooks, as a stand-alone version of an intellectual property, must fail.

As you can imagine, there’s lots of opinions expressed in the comment section of Schnittman’s post. Many mention the obvious: that print business models must change in order for publishers to survive (and thrive in) the eBook business. Thinking up a new model might be easy enough, but what about changing the culture inside these publishing houses? It seems publishers are their own worst enemies in this regard. The “we’ve always done it this way” thinking is a major contributor to the less than sound decisions book publishers make when it comes to eBook development, marketing and sales. What else explains their habit to instantly apply existing print models to the eBook business? Their entire infrastructure is built upon the print model, so it’s no wonder they struggle.

  1. Publishers need to have the will to bring in new people (i.e. new ideas) and avoid the career folks who’s corpus of knowledge is based on the past 3 decades (or more) of the book publishing business. They need to implement an eBook business model that eliminates the risks inherent in the print model. There are already a few out there that they can adopt. Once they do…
  2. They need to develop a direct relationship with the end-user customer so they can effectively execute the eBook model.

That’s a tough road to travel though, since the book publishing industry has, for the most part, completely avoided the customer and embraced the retailer. Of course, this all made sense before the Internet. Unfortunately, book publishers didn’t grasp the importance of the customer relationship when the web came along, and now they have allowed Amazon, Google and others to own the critical data. Amazon not only knows where the customer lives, they know his buying habits, and more importantly they know his credit card number. How many publishers have any of this stuff? How many publishers recognize the value in it? How many would know what to do with the data if they had it?

The success of the eBook business for traditional book publishers will depend on the relationship they have with the end-user customer. Every day they willingly give this away, they lose the one sales channel that will matter most. Yet, none of this will matter if they continue to embrace the vicious cycle of today’s print business models.

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