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Book Publishers' Regrets in 2025
April 14, 2010 - 8:45pm

In 2025, when book publishers look back to try to understand why their business became first disintermediated and then displaced, the prevailing sentiment will be one of regret. They will ask themselves: "How did we fail to learn from the example of the music industry and newspaper business? Why didn't we take advantage of new technologies instead of fighting them? How did we manage to fail to create a new generation of book readers and book buyers?"

Book buyers are not born, they are created. Today's college students will become tomorrow's book buyers only if book publishers invest in nurturing their next customers. Book publishers are not doing this. At some point today's book buying market will age out of the purchasing mode (fixed incomes, more time etc.), meaning that the future of the lending library is bright indeed.

What Should Book Publishers Do:

- Sell the Book, Not the Format: Whenever we buy a book we should automatically have the option of receiving the book in all formats. This includes the paper format, the e-book format, and the audiobook format. Understand the need to meet readers where they are. Grasp that the demand for the reading platform shifts across time and place within a single reader. Sometimes I want to read my book on my iPad or Touch, sometimes I want to listen, and sometimes I want to curl up with the paper version. The marginal cost for providing the additional format is trivial compared to the revenue on the book sale. Nor does providing the book in 3 formats for one sale cannibalize profits, as readers do not purchase the same book twice.

- Integrate the Formats: Book publishers should partner with book sellers to make reading across formats as seamless as possible. Persistent web connection on portable devices (e-readers and audiobook players) should allow dynamic book marks and page progression. If I listen to my audiobook and leave off on page 120, than my e-book should automatically be at page 120 the next time I open it.

- Sell to the Tribe: The "star system" of book publishing, where a handful of books make enough money to carry an industry, serves nobody well. It does not serve authors, as this system limits the attention of editors to established "brand name" authors and disadvantages niche and specialized books. It does not serve readers, as we get less choice and less quality editing. And it does not serve publishers, as gambling on a few big "hits", and spending massive amounts of money to secure the rights and market the blockbuster represents a Vegas type gamble. Instead, book publishers should bring out more books, and sell these booksto smaller groups of passionately interested readers. Print-on-demand technologies, combined with e-books and audiobooks, will allow supply to meet demand. Book publishers overestimate the power of mass marketing to sell books, and underestimate the potential of social media. Publish what the tribe wants, and let the tribe market your book.

- Treat Book Readers as Marketers, Not Potential Criminals: Why can't the book publishing industry learn the basic lesson from the record industry that locking down your content (through overly restrictive DRM) is the fastest way to make this content irrelevant? If you offer the book in multiple formats (paper, e-book, audiobook) - a book borrower will be motivated to convert to a book buyer. If someone lends me a book, I'll want to reciprocate and be a lender (and therefore a buyer) myself.

- Start with College Libraries: Here is my nakedly self-interested plea. Start with the college libraries. Book publishers and book sellers (Amazon), you have the chance to both instill habits of lifelong reading to do engage in some experimentation. Find ways to to allow academic libraries to economically and efficiently build collections that are format universal. If the college library buys the paper book, give them the audio and e-book version. Help them deliver the new formats to their patrons. Hire local college reps (say students) to market the idea that a book checked out from the library can be checked out in any format, and read on multiple devices.

The grim future of the book publishing industry became clear to me as I began gathering my vacation books. Like many readers, I like to have an abundance of books on hand - and luxuriate in the anticipation of spending every possible moment absorbed in carefree vacation reading. But I will read less, and read with less satisfaction, because each of my books is locked into one format. The paper book will remain trapped between its covers as I walk on the beach, where it could have so effortlessly been transformed into my audio strolling companion. The audiobook will sit neglected on my iPod, instead of accompanying me to my quality time with my iPad. And of the four books I'm bringing on vacation, only two were purchased - as the paper books were checked out of the library. If I'd been given an audio and paper book with one purchase, I would have purchased all four.

Speaking of vacations, this blog will return on Tuesday 4/27, as I take an extended break from all things productive. Until then, happy book reading.


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