"best sellers" section of a bookstore

Facing A Dominant Platform? Change The Rules, Not Just The Terms

In 2011 and 2012, Hugh McGuire and I co-edited and contributed chapters to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, which was published digitally in three parts by O’Reilly Media. After we finished the third and final section, O’Reilly also made a print version of the full book available for $25.

Hugh created the initial structure for the book, and the two of us worked without an advance to solicit and edit contributions. Output for each of the three successive eBooks and the full print version was delivered through PressBooks, which Hugh was developing to provide seamless delivery of production files from a single content source.

Although print copies of the book could be ordered from O’Reilly, few bricks-and-mortar bookstores stocked the title. This is pretty understandable. It’s a niche book examining ways that the book itself might evolve. The title was never likely to find a home in a major chain or most independent bookstores.

If the book had been specified by a college or university, there was an outside chance a store might stock a few copies. By design, however, the digital version was freely available online as HTML files, pretty much eliminating the need for physical copies in a physical bookstore.

At one point in 2012, someone on Twitter did send a picture of the book on display (cover out!) in a German bookstore. That was the anomaly: finding our labor of love for sale in Barnes & Noble or the bookstore I frequent in Maplewood, NJ was never in the cards for us.

I tell this story because every day, in bookstores all over the world, buyers make decisions about the books they want to buy. At the same time, they make decisions about the books they want to exclude.

The retail stores these buyers represent also make decisions about the books they plan to feature, whether in the front window, at checkout or as cover-out books promoted on shelves within the store. By extension, they make companion decisions about the books that they will not promote.

Often enough, decisions about the books that are promoted is a function of marketing dollars: how much a publisher is willing to pay to get access to the front window or the checkout aisle. There’s nothing wrong with that; it is well-documented and widely understood by people who work in trade publishing, though the general public may not fully grasp the system.

Absent a commercial agreement—the application of co-op money and an understanding of terms—no book is “owed” a front-of-store display. Some bookstores work hard to maintain at least a share of curatorial independence, but again, it’s a function of a separate judgment, not an entitlement.

More to the point: every privilege given to one book in a physical bookstore is denied to all of the potentially equally worthy candidates for those privileges. Yet, no one accuses these physical bookstores of being unfair. They make choices every day about what they stock, how they classify it and where they shelve it. Most books in print are not available at your local physical retail outlet—ever.

The same is true of publishers. They exclude the lion’s share of books they receive. It’s a commercial decision. Their model doesn’t allow them to edit, copy edit, format and publish everything. As a result, they make choices. While at least some of the authors who are rejected may feel those choices are ill-advised, it’s part of the way things have worked in traditional publishing.

No one has suggested that the culture is threatened by these choices. Some have even argued that this kind of choice is a critical part of maintaining the culture.

As eBook and print-on-demand technology has been made widely available, a model built on scarcity has given way to one based in abundance. While Hugh and I were editing the second section of Manifesto, I wrote “The opportunity in abundance“, a call-to-action talk whose primary point was simple: abundance (in 2011) provided publishers with an opportunity to rethink the business model and develop open platforms that encouraged more content consumption.

History longer than the last three years is needed to say if my thinking about abundance will hold up, but it seems clear that the battles over terms that I predicted in that talk have moved to the front of the line. This is natural, but it wasn’t inevitable.

Amazon, focused on digital goods, rightly sees revenue maximization as its measure of success. For leading books, Hachette (and likely the publishers who will negotiate after Hachette), wants to protect its hardcover sales by staging the retail price of eBooks to drop only after the less-expensive paperbook editions come to market.

Maybe there is no reconciling terms when two companies approach content sales in such fundamentally different ways. We’re only partially privy to the actual negotiations, most of which now seems to have descended into a series of press releases that get ripped apart by competing factions on Twitter and the bookish blogosphere. Forgive me if I take a pass.

Instead, I’ll go back to something a colleague, Don Linn, wrote when Amazon and IPG went head to head over terms: If you don’t accept the terms, then there is no deal. Parties are not required to take deals they feel are not in their best interests. Otherwise, book publishers should be explaining the titles they rejected, bricks-and-mortar stores should be talking about the books they don’t stock and Amazon should be regulated as a utility.

(Okay, there probably are a few publishers who wouldn’t mind that last one.)

When Manifesto was published, Hugh and I were offered a chance to buy print copies at 50% off the retail price. Only a minimal quantity of the books themselves were held in inventory; any orders beyond that were fulfilled by Ingram using print-on-demand (POD) technology. Knowing a bit about POD pricing, I had a pretty good sense of how much money they were making every time I bought a book from them.

Honestly, it was hard at times to pay O’Reilly a $5 premium on books that had been at best lightly edited and published without an advance, but that was the deal. It wasn’t new or different or even unusual; it just seemed a bit unfair given how much work Hugh and I put into the book. If I wanted physical copies of the books, I was going to pay O’Reilly the wholesale price, or I was not going to get them.

That experience reminded me to respect terms and think more broadly about alternatives. If I write or edit another book, I won’t accept the same deal. In all likelihood, that will cost me a chance to work with a traditional publisher. That’s my choice, consistent with my view of the value of various terms I may be offered.

If you don’t like the terms, though, you’d best be developing alternatives. In supporting Amazon’s proprietary file formats, publishers helped create the eBook dominance they now regret.

While the jury is still out on whether that dominance can be challenged, the verdict is in on what happens to publishers, wholesalers and retailers who argue about terms to solve a business model problem. Check out this year’s collapse of single-copy sales of magazines when Time Inc. and Source Interlink reached an impasse and Source Interlink closed up shop.

That’s the absurdity of “protecting authors interests“. We act as if reading were a preferred activity in this country. Look again.

There’s an oversupply of content and a relatively small base of demand. If we don’t grow the number of people interested in reading, we’ll be fighting yet another series of battles to divide what too many people treat as a static or shrinking pie.

Disclosure: I’ve done work (in 2007) for Hachette Book Group. I’ve also done work (in 2012) for Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, one of the links in this post. In 2006 and 2007, I did work for Sterling Publishing, a unit of Barnes & Noble. I continue to receive royalties earned for research I performed for O’Reilly Media between 2008 and 2010 on the impact of piracy on paid book sales.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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