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Object Lessons from 978 (Bookland)

It’s been almost exactly seven months since I started working at Firebrand, and sort of put blogging and newslettering on hiatus. But I think (insert a million caveats here) that I’m now feeling grounded enough in this work so that I can start commenting publicly again without fear of putting my foot in my mouth (okay, I’ll never be without that fear…but this does not stop me!).

In these seven months, we’ve been working very hard on developing, testing, and releasing Firebrand’s Content Services – which allows publishers to upload, convert and distribute ebook (and other) files to our Content Services Cloud. Our conversion partners are eBook Architects and Digital Divide Data. And our distribution partners are growing exponentially. I’m not going to pimp Content Services here (I was at BEA doing that for three days), but I’ve realized that I’ve gathered a lot of information just by being out in the field, and being part of a team that really understands the infrastructure of the book market.

To say I’ve learned a lot is a vast understatement.

Lesson 1 – These vendors are not like those vendors.

The new Big Six (Apple, Amazon, BN, Sony, Kobo, Google) are very very different from traditional book retailers. In fact, of the six, only one is also a traditional book retailer – and runs its ebook business separately and with different goals.

The rest, as Peter Brantley points out, are tech companies. And while some of them are informed by traditional bookselling, publishers are facing the fact that ebook retailers require different standards than print book retailers.

Publishers have been extremely comfortable with the book supply chain as it’s evolved. They know how it works – they know the nodes where things can break down. A lot of work has gone into building up the print book infrastructure: standards for shipping, standards for inventory, bar code placement, and communication between publisher and wholesaler, wholesaler and retailer. ONIX for print books did not happen overnight, nor did bar codes on boxes of books that immediately inform a warehouse exactly what’s in the box, what size the books are, and how much they weigh.

The ebook landscape is (lest we forget) still new. And we’re starting with a new set of players, some of whom have never been in the book industry and really do not care all that much about what has gone on before they got here.

We can’t make them care. And given the rate of ebook sales, we can’t ignore them.

So what’s a publisher to do? Right now, the best he/she can. At this point it’s a matter of recognizing and acknowledging that the market is chaotic. Standards are not just in flux – they are undefined. It is frustrating…it is also our reality at the moment.

Lesson 2 – The world is going to get bigger

At the Firebrand User Conference last September, Fran Toolan said that “slaying the rights dragon” is a critical issue. Brian O’Leary points out that Amazon recently has made significant investment overseas – meaning that publishers will have the opportunity to sell ebooks in markets other than the US. The dissolving of physical boundaries affects pricing, availability, and it will shake up the publishing business even more than anything else to date. Artificial restrictions on ebooks to protect existing business models will inevitably lead to piracy – the business models themselves have to change.

They will change – but not without a lot of pain and expense beforehand. It’s extremely tricky for publishers to work out what business practices are in fact sustainable and what are not. A lot depends on context – what types of books are published, what previous experience the publisher has with digital initiatives, who the audience is for specific publication programs.

Lesson 3 – There are no easy answers

Or, the answer to everything is, “It depends.” Just as there is no one single book market, there is no one single ebook market. The trends are very different in textbooks and trade books.  They are very different in the libraries and in the bookstores. Even in trade books, there are wildly different trends from genre to genre, subject area to subject area.

The market is complex – and it is growing more and more complex. It is difficult to scale. And competing in this market requires a lot of work – work that publishers are, by and large, unused to doing or even thinking about…such as file size, wifi vs. Ethernet connection, and whether or not the files were actually ingested on the vendor end. These are new workflows. As we know, new workflows are hard, and it takes quite a while to get good at them.

So what’s the good news? I don’t have any simple answers about how things will shake out – but I do know that once a book is digitized, you can do a heck of a lot more with it, which makes it more accessible to more people, whatever their location, disability, or economic background. My own opinion, based on what I’ve seen these last seven months, is that for all our pain and suffering now, we are working towards a pretty near-term future of “more books in more places”. Which is why a lot of us got into this business in the first place – we are passionate about books, passionate about their value to people, and we want to create opportunities for as many people as possible to be able to read them.

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