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The New Value Web: The Impact of Digital Distribution

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Article by Eoin Purcell ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

As digital distribution begins to be felt along the trade publishing value chain, what will emerge is not a NEW VALUE CHAIN as much as a NEW VALUE WEB, an environment that generates value in the industry, not in one way, but in many ways. What’s more, I believe that this state will persist because no particular method will emerge as the single ‘way’ of trade publishing (if that term even retains relevance), at least not for some time to come.

Everyone (at this stage) thinks that the book trade publishing value chain as we know it, is endangered. They’ve even created a word to describe it, disintermediation. And Everyone is right.

What I think they tend to ignore is the way in which the value chain is endangered. It’s not a simple change that we are experiencing, it’s far more dramatic and complex than that.

Until recently, the trade publishing value chain looked something like this:

Author > Agent > Publisher > Distributor/Wholesaler > Retailer > Reader

Some people fear that Amazon or Google or Apple will make a big move and the result will be something like this:

Author > Amazon/Google/Apple > Reader

And there’s some real danger of just that happening. You only have to look at how companies like Apple and Amazon have facilitated self-publishing and in so doing excised huge swathes of the old chain from certain sectors of publishing. Certainly on Amazon’s part the ambition to disintermediate the publishing industry has been obvious for some time, at least if you were paying attention, it was certainly clear long before they made this announcement, but sometimes it takes BIG HEADLINES to make people pay attention.

There’s an added complication in that authors themselves (or some of them at least) might just wish for something that looks more akin to this:

Author > Reader

And what’s to stop that? After all there is no reason why using Paypal or some other selling tool, an author could conceivably sell ebooks directly to readers and maybe even turn a small trade by doing so. You could argue that Amazon’s Kindle Direct Platform is a close approximates of that, but I think the platform ownership position of that player means its role is greater than just a service provider.

Hold on tight
But, and it’s a huge but, despite all this evidence of disintermediation there is absolutely no reason to believe that one way of reaching an audience or one way of delivering value will win out for ever and in every instance. For example:

  • Random House has just disintermediated the agent by doing a deal directly with Tom Sharpe for digital rights, and that is by far NOT the only way in which publishers, big and small are finding new ways to operate in the digital era.
  • Bricks and mortar bookstores, despite being at the coal face of the digital wave, are not against a bit of disintermediation themselves. B&N is quietly disintermediating everyone in the self publishing world (just like Amazon is) via Pubit service for their Nook platform. You should expect to see them take their print publishing arm (Sterling) even more seriously then they already do after Amazon’s announcement.
  • Agents are building direct channels to consumers and publishers, long the supposed victims of the piece are beginning to find direct selling attractive and capturing audiences to (hopefully) turn into readers.

The point being that as this digital distribution wave of change washes over the industry, it will radically reshape the value chain in unpredictable ways.

For some titles it will force authors to make hard decisions, it will reduce the predominance of publishers (or at least the traditional ones) while elevating the role of platform owners like Amazon, B&N, Apple and maybe even Google, but for some titles it will broaden the role of publishers and if they are lucky and smart maybe even the surviving booksellers.

All of this will happen despite, or perhaps because of the fact that, the actual slice of value captured by each player changes in size and shape. Publishers will be forced to cede more revenue to authors, the idea that 25% Net is a defensible long-term ebook royalty rate is a farce best forgotten about quickly.

Agents may find their 10% under threat too, especially on backlist titles, unless they offer something more valuable then just conversion, after all, their authors are pretty much able to upload a file to a platform for conversion themselves.

Authors themselves will face greater competition both from the increased numbers of writers (Good and Bad) facilitated by digital distribution and the existing databases of ALL titles ever published digitized and available for distribution. If most authors already have low incomes, then they will get lower. Though I’d also expect the winners to become even more gigantic!

As the influence of bricks & mortar retailers wanes, especially the chains, so too will their ability to demand such high levels of discount. I’m pretty sure the platform owners will be able to squeeze most players for a greater share of the revenue. How powerful they will become remains dependent on just how easy it becomes to read a file you buy one place anywhere (currently easier then I’d have imagined).

None of them will go away though. For some books, print will remain a huge segment of the market and bookstores or supermarkets will remain the best place to sell them and traditional publishers will probably remain the best home for such books. For others, the author’s platform will be large enough to justify a going-it-alone route, but even for the biggest authors, for the right book. partnering with an agent, a publisher or a platform owner might be the right move. That’s where the web comes into play.

The tidy chain discussed at the start begins to look, and will be in real life, a whole lot more complicated.  Instead of a publishing value CHAIN, we have something more akin to a value WEB. Different actors can work together on different projects depending on their needs at a given time. And that means title-by-title projects, agents taking on roles more akin to producers (or publishers or retailers or maybe all of them doing so but not on every title). Of course for large parts of the business the platforms and self-publishing will suffice, but overall, the change will be dramatic and will, I think, look something like this:

It’s not all going to be plain sailing
Of course there are going to be losers. The least well positioned players in the game are wholesalers and physical bookstores. Their roles are uniquely challenged because of the shift in format from physical to digital. Yes, as I have said, some print market will persist but what size and shape that will have in twenty years time is anyones guess, what we DO know is that it will be smaller and because of that we’ll have fewer physical bookstores, but how that shakes out we cannot be sure.

I’m sure too that we’ll see casualties among the publishing houses that currently thrive. Some because they make bad decisions and fail to adapt and some from just bad luck. Other will lose market share and fall under the wing of other players, maybe they’ll be publishers too, or maybe they’ll be retailers or platform owners.

The funny thing about this disintermediation business is that the only clear winners are at the ends of the old chain, writers and readers. The writer’s win is tainted by the knowledge that though their options, the costs of and their routes to publication will have expanded greatly, their chances of earning a living from writing will have decreased rather dramatically too.

Readers on the other hand will be faced with a surfeit of choice, less of a problem then most people imagine, but still an issue if too much time is wasted in filtering through those options. On the other hand they can expect to see the price of individual pieces of content to fall, especially when the creator, however talented and however the web has coalesced to deliver that content, is an unknown.


(c) Eoin Purcell first published at Eoin Purcell's blog

Eoin Purcell works and lives in Dublin, Ireland. He is a publishing industry analyst and commentator. He edits Irish Publishing News and runs Green Lamp Media. Eoin has worked as Commissioning Editor with one of Ireland’s oldest independent publishers Mercier Press and at Nonsuch Ireland (now The History Press Ireland).He writes regular blog posts and columns on the Irish book trade for The Bookseller magazine. As a publisher, Eoin recently released James Joyce in Paris by Conor Fennell, read our interview with Conor here.

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