The new thing in bookland is the eBook. It doesn’t seem new, ebooks have been around for a long time, but early 2010 Amazon announced that there were 115 ebooks being download for every 100 paper book sales. Ebooks had come of age. 2011 bookland was in a hurry to take ebooks seriously and discussions at publishing events changed their tone from “what will happen?” to “what just happened?!”.
To undertstand what just happened, and what is about to happen, it helps to understand what an ebook actually is. An ebook is a digital file (also called ‘format’) that can be read by devices like iPads and Kindles. There are many different kinds of ebook formats and each has its own strengths and, consequently, weaknesses. Some are made to be viewed in the Kindle, others in the iPad, still others for reading online. Kindle, for example, works with the MOBI format, whereas the iPads iBook reader works only with iBOOK or EPUB formats.
EPUB is one of the most popular formats because no one owns the format like, for example, Microsoft owns the .doc format. Anyone can produce an EPUB without having to pay royalties. That makes EPUB a popular format for publishers.
The most interesting thing about many of these formats is that they share a lot in common with the webpage. EPUB, for example, in the words of the International Digital Publishing Forum2 (the group taking responsibility for managing the development of the format), is:
“…a means of representing [...] Web content — including XHTML, CSS, SVG, images, and other resources — for distribution in a single-file format.”
An EPUB contains HTML, the language of the web. EPUBs are webpages.
This change, from paper to HTML, changes everything. Bookland appears to believe that just the format of the book (ebook and ereaders) and the distribution process (net) have changed. These are enormous changes but what about everything else? What about the rest of the bookland ecosystem?
To get an understanding of how this transformation of content medium, from paper to webpage, effects bookland lets first take a birds eye view of the dominant post Gutenberg and pre-Bernards Lee publishing processes. Painting it with very broad strokes it looks something like this:
- Production - production of the book. Generally a linear process and tightly managed by editors. Editors, proof readers, translators, researchers, and designers are all involved with very clearly demarcated roles.
- Object - the creation (printing and binding) of the paper book
- Market - distribution to retail outlets and sales through those outlets
- Life - after being read the book becomes an archive. The shelf life is connected to the value to the reader or owner (shelf life).
This is the general scenario before the internet and digital books came along. Digital networks of course changed everything and there has been a lot of innovation effecting how publishers work. However the disruption has really been limited to the 2nd (object) and 3rd (market) segments. The current state of turmoil in the publishing industry can be captured in brief by the following changes:
- Production - no change
- Object - eletronic books added
- Market - online sales, devices
- Life - no change (or reduced)
There has been little or no innovation regarding step 1 – the production of books. There are some notable exceptions. For example OReilly is experimenting with some networked and ‘agile’ (fast moving and iterative) production processes but overall there is no movement in this segment. In the second stage the object is obviously undergoing radical change since the introduction and recent rise in the popularity of the Ebook. Online sales have also been a relatively new addition to the publishing model (preceding the effect of the electronic book) which is also recently having very disruptive effects. New devices have also entered the market and there is a constant ebb and flow of press releases announcing the newest and hottest features or reading device. Whereas stage 4, shelf life, is more or less the same. It could be argued that shelf life has not remained static but has been reduced since digital files have a far shorter expected life span than paper pages and resale or transfer of DRM protected material is not permitted or possible in many cases. The general idea however is that once the book has been sold it sits in an archive on a book reader somewhere, like a paper book would sit on a book shelf.
In general the innovation and change hapennign now is constrained to everything that happens after the book is produced and before the book is archived by the reader.
As it happens this is about as far as the publishing industry can innovate. They are too heavily invested in production workflows, tools and methodologies to change the production process. It is simply too difficult for publishers to change without breaking things completely. The production process, for example, generates single author works which are an important part of the reputation based sales process. You can’t change one without the other. It is simply bad business and logistically too hard for publishers to innovate around production. at the other end of the cycle publishers do not seem to be interested in the life of the book beyond purchase except where they retard life expectancy with DRM, delete it off your device, or surviel your reading habits inorder to offer the next book for your consumption. After reading, the book on your reader, sits there like it would on a book shelf with little value to the publisher.
Ironically for the publishing industry the biggest opportunities are in the areas they cannot address. The new publishing world, one which might be populated largely by those individuals, collectives, ‘groupings’ and organisations that are currently not publishers, looks like this:
- Production - collaboration and social production
- Object - paper and eletronic books
- Market - distribution to retail, sales, online sales, devices
- Life - living and growing books
The life of the book is also undergoing a lot of change and holds a lot of opportunity. Free licenses are enabling the reuse of content, and new softwares which enable easy reuse are becoming more popular; consequently the life of books are being extended. Books are no longer static objects – increasingly books can be reused, extended, updated, and improved as necessary to meet the needs of a particular audience or individual.
This is entirely unlike the current book industry. Even publishers that specialise in out of copyright materials (Penguin books for example) preserve the texts intact. However books have enormous ongoing value if they are allowed to live and have a life beyond the shelf. Additonally digital technology means we can have both the historical artefact and the improved work existing side by side.
The real problem for the publisher is not that they are just not thinking enough to get out of their own box. Its not that they are just being frustratingly uncreative. The real problem is that their business is dissappearing. Publishers are increasingly relying on ebook sales, just like they relied on paper book sales, and it is likely that ebook prices are going to trend downwards to zero or near-zero. While sales are probably going to increase in volume and decrease in overhead the overall effect will be a net loss for the publisher.
Without innovating outside of commodity based sales and looking to other parts of the value cycle publishers are not going to have a business.
The change in the format of the book from paper to ebook is killing off the foundation for the bookland model. At the same time it is opening up enormous opportunities for people that want to make books.
- http://openlibrary.org/dev/docs/bookreader ^