The transformation of the book industry
Readers have never had it so good. But publishers need to adapt better to the digital world
Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
DURING the next few weeks publishers will release a crush of books, pile them onto delivery lorries and fight to get them on the display tables at the front of bookshops in the run-up to Christmas. It is an impressive display of competitive commercial activity. It is also increasingly pointless.
More quickly than almost anyone predicted, e-books are emerging as a serious alternative to the paper kind. Amazon, comfortably the biggest e-book retailer, has lowered the price of its Kindle e-readers to the point where people do not fear to take them to the beach. In America, the most advanced market, about one-fifth of the largest publishers’ sales are of e-books. Newly released blockbusters may sell as many digital copies as paper ones. The proportion is growing quickly, not least because many bookshops are closing.
For readers, this is splendid. Just as Amazon collapsed distance by bringing a huge range of books to out-of-the-way places, it is now collapsing time, by enabling readers to download books instantly. Moreover, anybody can now publish a book, through Amazon and a number of other services. Huge choice and low prices are helping books hold their own on digital devices, even against “Angry Birds”.
For publishers, though, it is a dangerous time (see article). Book publishing resembles the newspaper business in the late 1990s, or music in the early 2000s. Although revenues are fairly stable, and the traditional route is still the only way to launch a blockbuster, the climate is changing. Some of the publishers’ functions—packaging books and promoting them to shops—are becoming obsolete. Algorithms and online recommendations threaten to replace them as arbiters of quality. The tide of self-published books threatens to swamp their products. As bookshops close, they lose a crucial showcase. And they face, as the record companies did, a near-monopoly controlling digital distribution: Amazon’s grip over the e-book market is much like Apple’s control of music downloads.
A new chapter
Yet there are still two important jobs for publishers. They act as the venture capitalists of the words business, advancing money to authors of worthwhile books that might not be written otherwise. And they are editors, picking good books and improving them. So it would be good, not just for their shareholders but also for intellectual life, if they survived.
They are doing some things right. Having watched the record companies’ impotence after Apple wrested control of music-pricing from them, the publishers have managed to retain their ability to set prices. But they are missing some tricks. The music and film industries have started to bundle electronic with physical versions of their products—by, for instance, providing those who buy a DVD of a movie with a code to download it from the internet. Publishers, similarly, should bundle e-books with paper books.
They also need to become more efficient. Digital books can be distributed globally, but publishers persist in dividing the world into territories with separate editorial staffs. In the digital age it is daft to take months or even years to get a book to market. And if they are to distinguish their wares from self-published dross, they must get better at choosing books, honing ideas and polishing copy. If publishers are to hold readers’ attention they must tell a better story—and edit out all the spelling mistakes as well.