Power to the Paper: the inverted opportunities of ebooks

With the dawn of the ebook emerging from the crepuscular stage, publishers are desperate for a model to cling to so they surf ride the burgeoning light towards the morning tea-time of the ebook market. Strangely, I think, this is not producing much change in the traditional book. The opportunity to streamline or seek advantage in the traditional format of the book, possibly even ending the dominance of hardbacks and trade-paperbacks, shouldn’t be missed.

Big publishers have always been wholesalers rather than retailers so with ebooks they’ve understandably flailed around, in search of the magic model they can stick their product into the appropriate end of. This has led to some degree of panic when they’ve chosen the wrong end. Now they’re essentially waiting for Apple or Amazon or Google or Someone Inc. to sort out how the system will work so they can throw their product at it and get back to what they want to do: publish books, e- or otherwise.

And fair enough, I guess. Not an overly ambitious strategy but, then again, publishing is a high risk business that rewards, over the long-term, a conservative temperament. Smaller publishers, who have always been a bit more nimble and adventurous, are dabbling with some interesting approaches that may, through pocket evolution, eventually produce something for the whole industry, while working on sensible benefits for themselves. But, ultimately, small publishers will go with whatever model the industry settles on.

Again, fair enough. Though, as an aside, I think everyone should consider the very real possibility that an absolute model will not present itself, more likely to be needed are flexible responses that bow to inevitable technological evolution; publishing is committed to entrenched models, and technology isn’t into that.

What this seems to leave behind is the book itself. The kind with paper in it. I think a short-term experiment could be made. Get rid of the initial hardback/trade paperback print run and publish directly into paperback. Sure, publish a few hardbacks alongside to cover collectors, libraries and aficionados, but just stick to paperbacks for general sales.

Hardbacks and Trade Paperbacks are pre-built failures – in publishing the majority of books lose money, it takes the big sellers by the literary giants like Margaret Atwood or J.M. Coetzee, massive sales by popular authors like Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling to make enough profit to cover the costs of producing a larger catalogue that might contain something that will catch the literary or popular zeitgeist. These catalogues also give a publishing house some serious street cred for nurturing talent and producing good books.

Now, as with other things, size denotes prestige with books (see this excellent article about it from the Guardian), but that’s a peril to negotiate rather than one to define an industry by. The amount of money flushed down the toilet by publishers on a yearly basis is staggering – and that’s knowing the limited amount we know about such things. Publishers are not keen for people to know how many books they pulp each year. Just one of the major publishers in New Zealand pulps about 20,000 books per year.

20,000.

Gods know what the global numbers are like. That’s not economics, that’s a raving mad aunt locked up in the sound proofed attic.

Even ignoring the mind-blowing waste and money loss pulping entails Profit margins for HB and T books are tight. Margins are greater on HB & TP books, per book sold, but losses are also greater if/when the book fails (which most do). Change to PB books, take a cut in profit per book and look to increase profit through selling greater quantities of cheaper books. Do the math on the differing format profit and loss models, adjust the author royalties and suddenly you’ve got something that would compare favourably to ebooks in price.

So, in the short-term, conserve failures. Save money on alternate printing costs, returns and reprints, all while making customers happier with lower prices (never a bad move) and less ungainly objects (which would certainly improve bookseller dispositions). It may be a bit Fabian in tactic but, in that spirit, it allows time to adapt to the changing world of publishing while promoting books at affordable and, significantly, competitive prices.

It may or may not work, but it would be interesting if someone were willing to give it a try. The timing couldn’t be too much better for such a venture.

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