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Scribd and Smashwords Working to Build New Publishing/Distribution Models for Ebooks
Posted On January 14, 2014
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The Transformation of Publishing Continues

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2006) basically argued that by selling a few copies of a wide range of products, you can “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” for the attention of consumers and, as in the Chinese example, allow new ideas to emerge. Anderson believed that Amazon, for example, was able to inventory a wider range of books, allowing these often older backlist books or niche titles to find their audiences and allow for growth based not on a few blockbusters but, using the internet as a medium, allow for sales from that long tail to develop and grow, resulting in still-strong profits. Thus Netflix does good business from old as well as new movies and television programs, and the Internet Archive and Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) are able to offer “different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together in a single platform and portal, providing open and coherent access to our society’s digitized cultural heritage,” according to DPLA’s website. In a digital world with cloud storage and global internet access, the basic rules of business success are changing.

At a December trade conference, Amazon presented data showing that as many as one-fourth of the top 100 Kindle books sold at Amazon are now from indie publishers, which if true represents a sea change in publishing trends. Orna Ross of the U.K.’s Alliance of Independent Authors notes, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we reached a situation where the majority of the top books are author-published.” Amazon remains the elephant in the indie publishing arena. Amazon’s ebook publishing service Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace, an online on-demand service, remain the largest single indie publishing platform today with Bowker reporting that CreateSpace’s ISBN registrations have increased more than 3,000% from 2007 to 2012. “The most successful self-publishers don’t view themselves as writers only, but as business owners,” notes Beat Barblan, Bowker’s director of identifier services. “They invest in their businesses, hiring experts to fill skill gaps and that’s building a thriving new service infrastructure in publishing.”

Smashword’s Coker says that “the market for ebooks has actually enjoyed exponential growth in the last 5–6 years, from less than 1% in 2007 to about 30% today.” Palmer notes that “there is a huge market for ebooks, especially for niche titles. If you have a popular blog or website, then you can generate regular sales of your ebook, even if you sell it directly through your site. The ease of automatic downloads and payment methods like PayPal open up a lot of opportunities.”

Last week, Digital Book World reported on a survey of 9,000-plus authors it conducted with Writer’s Digest’s author survey. “Despite the rise of self-publishing and the enthusiasm with which self-published authors celebrate its ascendance,” noted Dana Beth Weinberg, “overall, the authors surveyed are more interested in traditionally publishing their next book. The greatest preference for [traditional] publishing was reported by traditionally published authors (87.2%) followed by not-yet-published authors (76.8%). Among authors who have self-published, more than half hoped to publish with traditional publishers—53.5% of self-published authors and 57.8% of hybrid authors.”

If there was ever a question about the deep foundations that ebooks have already achieved, fast-food giant McDonald’s is now offering a major ebook marketing approach. As of November 2013, free interactive ebooks were being made available on McPlay, McDonald’s Happy Meal app, to “allow kids to read, discover and explore exciting new worlds.” All of the books are from DK Publishing and include Spanish-language versions.

“I think while there was hype in the early 2000s,” Scribd’s Adler says, “the combination of less hype and impressive growth have demonstrated the market for ebooks. I think ebooks will continue to be successful and print books will remain a part of the book industry for a long time. We believe Scribd’s subscription service is expanding the marketplace for books and encouraging new people to read and existing readers to read more. With Scribd, consumers search for what to read, not what to purchase.”

“As for the long term,” Pilkington says, “the traditional industry is going to have to let go of the idea that the content contained within an ebook is the real price-determining factor. When readers can find great books in the 99-cent to $3.99 range, they’re not willing to embrace the idea that the next hot bestseller should be priced only marginally cheaper than its print counterpart. We have publishers rolling out $17.99 hardcovers, and pricing the ebook at $12.99 to $14.99. Consumers aren’t willing to be duped into believing that the small price difference there is the inconsequential cost of paper, printing, and shipping. Mass market ebooks are going to have to come down in price; I’d personally rather they didn’t, because I’d love to see consumers taking a chance on unheard of self-published or small press authors instead.”

“While the rate of growth for ebooks has slowed down,” Esposito concludes, “it’s important to understand that a rate of growth inevitably slows down as a market matures. I think the next big leap in ebook growth will be with platforms or services that enable other kinds of books to be rendered as ebooks. For example, the most successful ebooks today are narrative texts such as novels, but academic publishers need formats that handle graphs, charts, and many illustrations. And we haven’t even mentioned simulations yet! When ebooks can handle these things, we will see a new blip in the growth rate.” For the time being, however, the overall ebook market appears to be thriving, growing, evolving, and innovating. A very positive sign for authors and readers alike.

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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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