Back in Fall 2009, with anticipation running high that Apple would release a tablet computing device (they did; the iPad, in case you haven’t heard), I wrote a piece called ‘Rebooting the Book.’
In it, I theorized that the book business, and the book medium itself, was poised to undergo a massive transformation every bit as significant as when the ‘talkie’ usurped the silent film in the 1920’s.
The moral of the story from the film industry’s revolution was that such a cataclysmic event in the book industry would not only change the economics of the book business and the way books are made, but the very concept of what books are.
Since then, Borders, the second largest book store chain, has gone into bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble has put its entire business up for sale (its Nook eReader is widely perceived to be its greatest asset), Amazon has announced that they are now selling more digital eBooks via Kindle than hardcover and paperback print books – combined – and Apple’s iPad has become a runaway success, with books being the second most popular paid app category after games on the device (according to Nielsen).
Such is my backdrop for trying to making sense of Book Expo America, North America’s largest gathering of book trade professionals, which I attended last week in New York. What follows are the key takeaways:
- Death of the Book Store: It was jarring how completely unprepared the book publishing folks seemed to be for the end of the ‘bricks and mortar’ book store. For example, the rumors that I hear are that Liberty Media, the company negotiating to buy Barnes & Noble, is doing it to get the Nook, and will shut down the bricks and mortar retail stores. If true, this presents a serious conundrum for publishers since, unlike manufacturers of other types of products, publishers today are at the total mercy of book stores for book marketing and book discovery. Yet, when I asked different execs at the show what their strategy would be if/when there are no bookstores, the response was akin to a deer in headlights. The silence was deafening. Barring a serious course correction, this suggests that they will be at the mercy of either Apple or Amazon in the long run, which is unfortunate.
- There is no governing industry eBooks Philosophy: As the graphic below underscores, the term eBook can mean anything from a static, HTML-like Kindle book to something App-like that is animated, interactive, audio enhanced and which can respond to touch, tilt and shake. Unsurprisingly, there is no industry consensus on when, how and under what circumstances to deploy the various types of eBooks. Nor is there much consensus whether eBook creation is necessarily a core competency to be developed in-house or something to be outsourced. Part of this is stage of market, part of this is cost relative to return expectations and part of this is simply the DNA of the industry.
- Cost Sensitivity + Leverage: The two core takeaways I heard repeatedly were: A) show me how to take the cost per book down to a level where ROI (return on investment) is a no-brainer; AND B) show me a model where I can leverage technology to churn out a series of books rapidly as opposed to one book at a time, spread out over multiple months per book. In other words, this is an industry looking for about scale, leverage and return on investment.
- Amazon is the Boogie Man: Not only did Amazon tout a new publishing solution at the show, but they recruited a big-name from the publishing world to go direct to authors and cut out publishers. Needless to say, this stirs incredible fear, uncertainty and doubt with publishers, who are deeply afraid of Amazon. Later this year, when Amazon comes out with their much-rumored Android Kindle tablet this will only accelerate.
- Publishing rights complicate greatly: The thing to remember is that each book has a contract with the author that defines what rights the publisher has to re-purpose the content. Mobile apps are a new category so it is very common for the publisher not to have rights to make an app, or if they do, then to be constrained by the level of interactivity before it is considered a movie or multimedia, which they may not have rights to. As such, the move to deeply interactive eBooks will be gated by such constraints.
- EPUB 3: This is the new standard that is coming that will supposedly make books interactive. Also, it is based on HTML 5. In theory, such a standard could unify eBook standards and break down proprietary barriers. In practice, my experience is that these things take longer than predicted to take hold, and are often as much a blessing as a curse for proprietary approaches.
UPDATE: It looks like the other shoe has dropped, and Borders is now officially liquidating. The 400 remaining stores are closing, and 11,000 jobs are going away. WSJ has got a decent write up on this, as does paidContent. Any way that you slice it, there is no "lateral move" for the vast majority of people in middle-to-upper management at Borders, and with one of the two major remaining US book chains now gone, it also stands to reason that many of the folks that serviced these relationships on the publisher side of the fence risk being similarly affected. As to how this will affect authors, I guess the question is, "Is it easier or harder for new bands and new CDs to be discovered now that there aren't record stores anymore?" That's a somewhat comparable analog to books. And in the music industry, at least there is the blocking/tackling aspect of bands touring and playing gigs to build their audience and support themselves. Publishers and authors don't have this venue as readily, since book stores were a primary endpoint for book signings and book tours. Now, the short-term trend worth watching is whether this helps independent book stores to carve out profitable niches. I sure hope so.