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DBW, the iPad and Amazon

Digital Book World, held in New York City on January 26 and 27, was an unqualified success. I’d initially had doubts as to how it would hold up against TOC, which can be a life-changing conference – and is at the forefront of where technology meets book publishing. I was, in fact, leery.

But the focus of DBW was somewhat different than TOC’s. Trade publishers were in abundance, as were agents (of all things!). And the tone of the conversation was rather implementation-focused – how to use social media for marketing purposes, how NOT to design ebooks, what publishers and online stores are thinking about when they set ebook pricing.

The Tweetstream is a good indication of what folks were thinking while they attended. Two presentations in particular nearly brought Twitter down – Brian Napack of Macmillan speaking on digital piracy (urging publishers to spend heavily on finding pirates and issuing takedown notices “while they still have the money to do so”, and noting that it had gotten so expensive to do this in the music industry that many labels had laid off their anti-piracy staff); and Robert Gottlieb’s participation in Brian O’Leary’s panel on the challenges ebooks face when so much content is available for free on the web.

So it was lively! And educational. And extremely well-attended. And the iPad launched right in the middle of my panel on Wednesday, which I absolutely take as personally as it’s possible to take something.

But DBW is not done yet!

Every Thursday afternoon at 1 EST, DBW is hosting a Digital Roundtable. Pablo Defendini of Tor, Kate Rados of Chelsea Green, Bridget Warren (former co-owner of Vertigo Books), Guy Gonzalez of F&W/DBW, and I discuss our evolving landscape and take questions from those who’ve dialed in.

And! There are webcasts – an archive of them here and more to come.

Most importantly (to me) is an upcoming one-day intensive seminar called Digitize Yourself: Real World Skills for the Future. I’m hosting this, and we’ll be looking at tools, workflow issues, and other extremely practical matters for those folks who have to implement the blue-skies thinking their colleagues pick up at conferences. This will take place on April 15th in New York City, and more details will be available soon. Ish.

Well…after the DBW and iPad excitement, many of us were figuring we could sit back and breathe a little bit. But no! Talks between Macmillan and Amazon broke down on Thursday and by Friday Amazon had removed the “buy” button from all Macmillan print titles, and clicking on Macmillan’s Kindle titles only got you a “this book not found” error. Macmillan books also evaporated off of wish lists.


The unicorn is why. Apple is working on an “agency” model with publishers – pubs tell Apple how much they want to charge for a book, and Apple keeps a percentage of that. Amazon sells a book for whatever it wants. And while some argue that the Amazon model nets publishers more money in the long run, this is about one thing that’s more important to publishers than money: Control.

In the agency model, publishers set the price. In the Amazon model, retailers set the price…and customers come to expect extremely low prices for certain things, even though the retailers are losing money on those things. Those low prices are loss leaders for the retailers’ other inventory.

Amazon claims they are capitulating, though they are certainly taking their time about it. But in another sign of their concern about the iPad, they just bought a company called Touchco, which makes touch-screens.

As for publishers…I worry that publishers’ extreme desire for control in a world they can increasingly NOT control (piracy, author behavior, new business models that disintermediate them) is pushing them to make decisions that are not really in their best interests. If you are getting more revenue by NOT controlling prices, why is it so important to do so? If you are selling more books when you’re NOT controlling piracy, why spend boatloads of money going after torrent sites? Ebooks may not be viable to sell at $9.99 right now – and may serve as a loss leader for the time being – but costs of producing ebooks will go down (they always do) and eventually publishers can make a nice amount of revenue from $9.99 ebooks.

Controlling the scene is not always good for you. The need to control may indeed be an irrational (and rather panicky) response to uncertainty.

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