The publishing industry is pretty good at talking to itself, as it did at the FutureBook conference in November and at the Digital Book World going on right now; but sometimes forgets to look beyond its borders. When it does, as in the transition from physical to digital (‘atoms to bits' as coined by Nicholas Negroponte), the observations have tended to focus other atoms-to-bits parts of the entertainment industry: music and movies.
But what can publishing learn from other entrenched, legacy industries like airlines or television?
When faced with internet disruption to their businesses, both the airlines and the TV networks formed arms-length new ventures to offer credible and compelling services to consumers. The U.S. airlines formed Orbitz to compete with Expedia and other e-sellers. This new venture offered consumers a compelling choice to upstart (and quickly dominant) Expedia. When faced with a rising digital monolith, the airlines created a viable alternative; increasing competition for consumers.
In the American television space, NBC and Fox (and later ABC) created a new venture called Hulu to complete with YouTube and Netflix and pirates. Hulu in many ways has become a victim of its own success. It has a complex relationship with the studios, putting their relationship with cable carriers into stress, but nonetheless offers consumers real, compelling competition.
It strikes me that since the major publishers are facing a dominant digital player, there's an opportunity to form a new, arm's length e-reading ecosystem complete with site, device, and apps. The fastest route to market would have been to buy Kobo from Indigo, but since that transaction's already closed, there is room in the market for a publisher's equivalent to Orbitz and Hulu.
Obviously, the publishers are rightly aware of any seeming collusion or anti-competitive behavior, but a new venture, funded by the publishers but run in a transparent, arm's length, way with independent management should avoid legal pitfalls. This isn't about price, but offering readers new choice and more competition in the way they discover, choose, and read e-books.
One of the ways that this venture could benefit the entire industry is by distributing the devices via indie bookshops on an affiliate revenue model; flowing a percentage of e-book revenue generated from each consumer initially brought into the ecosystem from that bookseller back to that bookseller - a revenue stream for every ebook purchased. This would broaden the base of e-book retailers, offer more choice to consumers, and give indie booksellers a piece of the e-market. Kobo already offers an affiliate scheme, but since major publishers already have a sales relationship with bookstores, they have both a duty and an opportunity to let indie booksellers into the walled garden of e-books sales.
The other benefit of a new ecosystem is incorporating self publishing in a new way; brining self-publishing closer into the fold of "traditional" publishing. Like film distributors seeking festival gems at film festivals or major league baseball franchises running farm teams, there's a way to open up this new e-book platform to self-published talent. Perhaps it's a seamless integration of Wattpad to discover and launch new talent or a completely new on-ramp for independent writers to reach readers, but self-publishing is here and it's time traditional publishers figure out how to benefit from it instead of competing with it.
If entrenched, legacy businesses like airlines and TV networks can create new, arm's length consumer offerings, surely the publishing business can too.
Jeff Norton is the author of the 'MetaWars' books (Hachette) and the upcoming 'Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie' (Faber). On the web at www.jeffnorton.com and tweeting at @thejeffnorton. He presented this "Big Idea” at The Bookseller's FutureBook conference in November, 2013.
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