I did a presentation for the NSW Editors Society a few weeks ago, which sparked a few thoughts. In particular I (very broadly) canvassed some ideas about the motivation for book publishers to get on book the e-thing. As usual, I drew some analogies with the music business 🙂
For publishers, there are few compelling reasons to embrace ebooks. The size of the ebook market is currently tiny, and whilst many have made titles available for the kindle and the sony reader, there has been no shift away from the codex– for most publishers, ebooks are an experiment, or a just-in-case maneuver.
An interesting parallel in the music industry is the shift in format from vinyl records to digital CDs. Consumer demand was driven by the promise of greater fidelity, longevity and convenience. But the motivation for record companies was also clear– they could persuade consumers to re-buy music they already owned in a new format, and they could charge a higher price for that privilege. The situation surrounding ebooks is very different; the motivations that persuaded music companies to invest in a format change simply do not exist for book publishers. In order to voluntarily reconfigure practices that have worked well for decades (or even centuries), they must see a format shift as an opportunity to make money.
The other motivation for industry change is fear. In the case of the music industry, Napster (and other downloading services) and the reality of dwindling CD sales provoked the major record labels into action. In the face of a threat to revenue streams, the music industry belatedly embraced online distribution. Arguably, this format shift was not voluntary, but a reaction to entirely new environment, driven by new computer and communications technologies– remember that it’s a computer company, not a music company that is at the vanguard of the digital music revolution.
For a moment, it appeared that google book search might represent a similar threat for book publishers; but the printed book appears so entrenched in consumer minds that google has, so far, not had bunch of an impact on the book buying public. There is really no threat to to the current method of book distribution– the bulk of the mass-market book trade is safely the domain of print and paper. In the absence of a something that actually threatens existing revenue streams, publishers have good reason to ignore possible incremental increases in revenue from niches and long tails.
Of course, all this would change if there was enormous consumer demand for the digital product, but that has yet to happen…