Potential disruption of the traditional publishing model is a recurring theme on this blog. So, too, is the power and risk of weak signals – data uncertain enough to suggest a range of possible implications.
Through their Radar brand, O’Reilly Media employs a data-driven approach, parsing weak signals while searching for insight. Their analytical approach to publishing helped put us together for work on the impact of piracy as well as 2009’s StartWithXML project.
O’Reilly has analyzed and published the nature and source of the titles in Apple’s recently opened iBook store. Their work represents a snapshot in time, something that will change as the store matures and the mix of participants evolves.
I’ll acknowledge my own risk of confirmation bias, but the O’Reilly post showed that a wide range of mid-sized and smaller publishers are among the early leaders in getting titles into the iBook store. Particularly notable is Smashwords, which helps individual authors and small presses participate in the e-book space.
There are some problems with the initial analysis (a comment by Michael Cader points out that the publisher segmentation is a mixture of imprints and parent companies), but that doesn’t change Smashword’s share or relative position.
As new digital distribution channels evolve, we’re again facing the practical question, “Do I need the middle?” Publishers have struggled to go directly to consumers, as it often requires a new set of skills. Direct sales also challenge the established trade model.
Unencumbered by these concerns, authors may find that Smashwords, Lulu.com and other services offer “just enough” publishing infrastructure to get started, while digital content stores provide distribution without the overhead of inventory and warehouses. The parallels suggest that “good enough” solutions take hold in the strangest places.
Edited May 12 to add: For a sense of the skirmish taking place at the frontier of self-publishing, take a look at Tracy Buchanan’s “Why self-publishing isn’t a good start” and the response she gets from Sue Collier.