[Note: I just published this yesterday and now I have to revise it! Apple has now made their play for a publishing platform. However a significant difference with Apple’s platform is that they have chosen to slant the platform to established published works by requiring a 13 digit ISBN number. They appear to be betting on ” apple-approved aggregator” to vet the books for copyright issues and quality. The program is currently limited to individuals or organizations with US ID tax numbers but that may change.
Link to apple self-publishing platform.
Barnes and Noble has recently announced their Pubit publishing platform to compete with Amazon’s DTP. Details are still sketchy but from the announcement it seems they are trying to create an epress much like Amazon’s digital text platform. Since Amazon finally has a competitor in this space, I thought it would be worthwhile to see what challenges this publishing model will present and what benefits it might provide. I recognize there are other companies that are publishing ebooks, but Amazon was the first to create an end to end creation, distribution, and consumption platform.
As I see it the challenges are threefold- infrastructure, quality, and search. And the benefits are twofold- inverting the publishing model, and reinventing the publishing house.
First the infrastructure:
Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon are adept at the “book as object model”. This model has slowly developed over the last 10-15 years. These two online firms play intermediary between the producer/publisher and the reader/consumer. This business model is sound. There are specific tangible costs to infrastructure. Brick and mortar building for storage, inventory costs, shipping costs, and of course the corresponding talent, and IT costs to make it all function correctly.
The new model requires a completely new infrastructure and Amazon is much more capable of building this infrastructure than is B&N. Our new publishing model requires massive data storage and redundancy systems for stability and the high priced IT talent to keep it all working and improving. Amazon’s AWS and S3 services positions it to really be the dominant player in this arena. Amazon can rely on their unused data capacity and IT talent to support this infrastructure so they will clearly have an advantage. Barnes and Noble are undertaking a massive infrastructure cost here. It is one think to create an online store, and something else entirely to create a new publishing model and distribution method. Their attempt at doing so will drag down profits for years to come.
I will revisit the infrastructure required later, since the infrastructure required will change after I’ve addressed a few other points in this discussion .
The quality of an e-book can be measured on many levels. For the consumer, quality refers to the quality of the writing, the knowledge of the writer, and production quality of an ebook. For the epress quality is accessibility, and marketability of the ebook. And for the writer quality will refer to the accessibility of the work, the quality of the publishing process and the quality or appeal of the device or software that will be used to read the work. And of course all of these quality measurements will affect sales, marketability, and the viability of the publishing model.
The challenge that will vex both Amazon and B&N’s self-publishing efforts will be quality of the material. Quality is a human judgement and though algorithms can quantify, using algorithms to rate quality of writing is a much more difficult task. Let’s take something as simple as grammar usage. You can use a machine to identify proper grammar, but proper grammar does not equate to quality writing. Any number of great books play with verb tense or use vernacular speech. So this means that there will have to be someone, or many individuals, working on discerning the quality of the writing. Most consumers will not buy a book if they realize what they are buying is the ramblings of an individual that is better suited to a vanity press. So the epress will have to manage the writing quality to improve profits.
The consumer will also have to discern the quality of the non-fiction author. By this I don’t mean the author’s writing abilities, but rather their knowledge on a subject. An author might be a great writer, but that doesn’t mean he/she can do research, or has any knowledge about a subject. So as a reader I would be looking to identify the author’s expertise in a field. This vetting process is usually performed by the publisher (e.g. fact checking and publishing contracts), but in our new model the publisher will not be the filter of written works, they are merely a conduit. So our new model will inundate readers with choices but not help readers to discern the quality of the materials. Though Amazon’s rating system is a step in that direction there is no way to be sure that the author has sufficient knowledge to write a book because others liked it. So an epress should really consider some vetting process for non-fiction works to keep the quality of the books higher.
The last consumer expectation of quality that will affect sales is the production quality. Consumers will not buy poorly designed or produced ebooks. The “early adopters” of the book will surely squelch sales through their ratings. And if there is a trial as most ebooks have, the trial will lapse without converting into a sale. So for an epress to be successful they must manage the production quality of the books. Amazon seems to be doing this for established presses by helping in the conversion process, but I wonder if they have something in the works for the self-publisher. Having tools to evaluate your own material-like Kindle preview–are great but it doesn’t mean this will improve quality. “You can lead a camel to water but you can’t make him drink.” So without some higher bar to entry or some incentive to care about quality (a higher search results position perhaps) these self-publishing platforms will always disappoint the readers production expectations.
The epress quality requirements will be very different from the readers. Sales is the name of the game and quality does not equate to sales. So we have a second form of quality that must be considered and that is marketability of a product. Quantifying of marketability and the marketing of ebooks will become a highly developed science over the coming years and that is a discussion for another time. But suffice it to say to epresses will have to identify books and authors that will sell well out of a “bit” slush pile. And those books that have the best chance of selling will take time and qualified experts to find. So we are talking here about hiring a pool of “Subject matter experts” to find these books or writing code that will help to surface what someone wants in a ranked order. And these search results must help them find the “best” results for quality (production, writing, and expertise) that have the highest likelihood of being converted into sales. An epress may currently rely on the impulse buyer for a significant portion of sales, but that will change as ereaders become more ubiquitous.
The quality expectations of a writer will be far beyond what Amazon or B&N can provide. Every writer (myself included) writes because they feel that what they think and write will have value to others. As a writer “you birth” words. Hokey I know, but what I am trying to convey is the attachment writers have to their own writing. So they are usually reticent to cut words, or revise large portions of their works. Traditionally editors address this problem and they have the leverage of a publishing contract to do so. Leaving a writer to decide what is valuable writing will not work. There are a good number of writers that will continue to seek feedback and improve their writing, but there are many others that will upload their writing without substantial editing to “preserve the integrity of the work”. Though this is not an expectation of quality from the writer I start with it here because it will frame my discussion about the writer’s expectations(I have discussed building an infrastructure for improving the quality of materials in an essay I called Cloud and Crowd editing)
As a writer it will be difficult to understand ranking in search results. There will always be writers that feel their works should rank higher than they do or will feel that the search mechanisms are flawed because their works do not come up at all. So this expectation of quality by the writer will affect the submissions to the platform. And thus it will affect sales and customer satisfaction. And to address the problem the the epress will need to spend more on infrastructure and IT talent.
The other expectations are that the platform will be easy to use and that finished works on the ereader or application will be of high quality. The writer will expect a “quality” experience. I may spend four years writing a novel, but I will want to publish it to the world in four minutes. So the interface for the writer will have to be simple to use, and the resulting ebook will have to be of high quality. Amazon’s publishing platform is fairly simple to use, but they have had some issues with the ensuring publishers have the appropriate copyright clearances. And that problem will be compounded as they move into worldwide markets (but that is a discussion for another time and that issue does not really affect the author). The resulting ebook quality can vary depending on the users ability and understanding of html tags.
And the last issue in the writer perception of quality has to do with the reading device or application. If a writer produces a high quality ebook file then the reader will have a high quality reading experience, right? Unfortunately it is not that simplistic. The device design and the functionality of the application will affect the reading experience. So this will be a similar expectation that the consumer/reader will have, but since they already own the device or use the application they have accepted its quirks. The writer on the other hand may decide that the application or device lowers the perceived value of their work. And in this race to be the dominant ereader/publishing platform accessibility to an audience will have an effect on the quality of the offerings and thus the profits.
Inverting the publishing model
In an earlier post I discussed my belief that this new publishing platform would lead to an inversion of the publishing model. Companies like Amazon will eventually find authors that are selling and negotiate deals to get hard copy books published via on-demand (most likely) or through a traditional publisher. For the issues I believe this will cause and the benefits that are inherent to those models please see that post. I would just like to add here that there will be significant profits and incentives inherent in an inverted publishing model. Less risk and less money tied up in inventory will make epublishing a much more profitable venture than the traditional publishing house could ever realize.
Reinventing the publishing house
In an earlier post I also addressed this issue, but I’d like to focus on the benefit that it will add to the epresses and self-publishing ventures. Their overhead will be much lower and their costs for development will be much lower as they develop skills and tools to help self-publishers. There will be significant costs early on to streamline processes and reach an economy of scale, but that investment will be quickly repaid in sales by providing consumers with depth and breadth of choices. There will be many that participate just for the chance to be involved in choosing their favorite authors. And if these self-publishing schemes bring in enough money it also allows the epress to take larger risks in other publishing ventures (the long tail of the market if you will). Translating literatures or printing marginally successful works as ebooks or hard copies can easily be supported by blockbuster professionally developed publisher ebooks and the occasional success in the self-publishing model. And for every success of an unknown there will be a huge number of new submissions as writers of every ilk try their luck at the ebook lottery.
Detriments to this new model
Of course there are inherent detriments to this new model. Creating an epress identity will be difficult. For example for many years Knopf books was known for printing high quality hard-bound books and their willingness to take risks on international or non-mainstream writers. This type of niche publishing will probably be a casualty. The new metrics will allow large companies to find the right formula to sell more books so there will be less incentive to specialize. Imprints will probably stick around though since it will be one of the few ways that a publisher can categorize their own offerings.
The sheer volume of new writing will tax the tried and true formula of publishing. Amazon and B&N will open the floodgates and inundate readers with material. But even if they tried, they would have a hard time retaining the quality literature that many publishers achieve. So the new measure of an ebook retailer/epress will be its filtering mechanisms. The company that best surfaces high-quality and marketable literature will sell the most books.
And as I stated at the beginning I will return to a quick discussion of infrastructure. Throughput of works, storage, search, and deployment will all depend on infrastructure and resources. Prior to launching this type of platform there will be significant investment to ensure that the service works and that it is scalable. If the service is a failure a company is out their initial investment and nothing more (though that will probably be significant). But if a company is successful then they must balance the services and expectations of their stakeholders (publishers, writers, consumers, copyright holders. . .) while at the same time continuing their investment in infrastructure and innovation.
To be successful epresses will have to contend with a volume of writing never before addressed in any significant way by a publisher. Besides filtering they will have to scale an infrastructure and hire individuals able to create mechanisms that please customers, writers, and publishers. These infrastructures will have to retain a semblance of even-handedness while at the same time helping a reader to find quality writing which of course means ranking or judging the works. And of course as they do this they will constantly have to make sure they do not become a victim of their own success. They must achieve a balance between investment, and profits while simultaneously achieving a balance between quality and selection. Needless to say it is a huge feat to achieve, and though these two companies are innovating the epress, they will not be the only ones. My bet is Kobo will announce a similar venture in the future, and others will surely follow.