The new book publishing business is starting to look more and more like the software industry
Last week, we looked at the ebook's Giant Disruption. A new ecosystem in which Amazon eats publishers' and agents' lunch by luring authors into self-publishing.
Today, we examine the new regime's impact on bookmaking and distribution processes.
The outcome will surprise few readers: Over time, the new book publishing business will look more and more like the software industry.
1/ Managing abundance. Traditional publishing's most salient feature is the maintenance of high barriers to entry. The journey from manuscript to bookstore is an excruciating one. Publishers are deluged with book proposals; a quick glance at a few pages and the bulk of submissions is rejected. Still, far too many books get published. Several Parisian booksellers told me they sometimes have to return unopened boxes of books to distributors, simply because they don't have enough space for them. Therefore, the 80/20 rule applies: most of the revenue comes from a small assortment of books. Digital publishing removes those barriers – brutally so – the floodgates are now indiscriminately open to every aspiring writer. This will have two effects: more difficult choices for the reader (see Barry Schwartz TED's talk on The Paradox of Choice) and, on average, lower-quality products.
Overtime, two factors will help solve the problem of the choice: search engines and manual curation. As semantic search rises, books content gets treated like data, searchable not only by words clusters, but by variations of meaning, pitch and, at some point, style. Put another way, a search engine will soon be able to differentiate and to attribute texts written by two novelists working in the same segment of literature.
Such breakthroughs will impact recommendation engines systems that already act a serious sales booster. Again, tech companies, such as Amazon (more than Apple, which does not seem to "get" search) will ride the wave thanks to their past and future investments into search and data analytics.
Semantic recommendation engines won't kill the need for human curation. Like the app business where abundance creates a need for more human-powered guidance and suggestions (see Jean-Louis's idea of a Guide Michelin for Apps), book sections of magazines and newspapers will have to adapt and find ways to efficiently suggest e-readings to their audience.
2/ The need for editing. The most potent selection tool will remain the quality of the product. In the iPhone/iPad AppStore, Apple guarantees the overall technical quality of what lands on its shelves. Apple's primary motive is to avoid poorly coded apps that crash or, worse, interfere with the inner core of the iOS. No such things on Amazon. Once a manuscript is properly formatted (not very complicated), it's eligible for sale. That's where reality barges in. Many self-published authors insouciantly flog texts replete with grammatical errors and typos. Very few seem to rely on proper editing and proofing, this is the main divide between amateurs and pros. Editing is both a mandatory and costly process – but worth every penny. It is probably the most critical part of the value added by traditional publishers. In the digital world, it must remain a key component of the process.
3/ Segmented manufacturing. Self-published ebooks won't escape the laws of digital economics, of decentralised and specialised crafts. Again, ebooks publishing and the making of applications converge. The entire process will be handled by dedicated freelancers focused on specific tasks: manuscript formatting (easy for text, but complicated otherwise); cover design – it will become more important as digital bookstores gain sophistication; editing and copy-proofing the manuscript by a competent and well-paid professional.
At a higher level of complexity for a book production (rich media contents, interactive learning features and more), two forces will kick in: cloud computing and offshore outsourcing. The most recent example is the San Francisco-based startup Inkling: last month, the company made its own cloud-publishing setup Habitat available to the general public. It went a step further by relying on companies such as Aptara, a US corporation with the bulk of its 5,000+ workforce located in India. Note that Aptara is a contractor for almost all traditional publishing houses such as Hachette, Pearson, Oxford University Press. Inkling will bypass publishers by connecting customers and contractors through a collaborative platform that provides highly sophisticated correction and versioning tools. It is no incident that Matt McInnis, Inkling's chief, is an alumnus of Apple's education division, as told in this recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek story.
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