The Eternal Sunshine of Open Publishing and the Transparent Booksphere

sun graphicBook publishing appears to be going through a great period of experimentation transition as it responds to changes in its core technologies and the new generation of web marketing tools.  So will it be a golden era or a dark period?  It could be either, depending on the role you play in the current ecology of book publishing, marketing and selling.

“Long tail” bookselling (ala Chris Anderson) and distributed (local) print on demand combine to preserve a publishr’s back list indefinitely.  The searchability of the “booksphere” is improving steadily – e.g. Google Book Search and Amazon tools.  Web-based peer-to-peer recommendatin tools are challenging traditional book reviews in mainstream media to guide customers book selections.  

Audiences and their preferences are now more measurable and predictions about customer buying behavior can be more grounded in analytics.  What actually sells is based on real data gathered from retail outlets, both online and in the stores rather opinion and guess-timate.   And authors – at least new authors – share their ideas and build their audiences before they pubish.

In a sense, each stage of the publishing process is beomning more transparent.  How might publishing models of the future look?  Below is one possibility (open publishing) compared with the traditional mode. 


Create manuscript – keep it secret Share your ideas – e.g. blog or podcast
Sell manuscript to agents, publishers Build audience
Publish Market yourself and your ideas
Market Create manuscript
Build audience Publish
Make money?? Make money!!


In this scenario, publishers’ overall margins should improve since titles will have a much higher probability of being profitable.  Also, if the traditional retail channel is compressed by local print on demand (POD), publishers will no longer have the costs of inventory, storage, fulfillment, shipping and returns.  There may be savings in marketing as technology makes finding and aggregating buyers in the typically fragmented book market easier.  In this model, revenues and costs are more evenly matched across a title’s life cycle.  Publishers can return part of the savings in production, distribution and marketing to both authors and consumers, and still improve their margins.

Hot selling titles may still need a more centralized production process and inventory – at least for awhile.  But distributed POD technology improvements should reduce the time required to produce books and make it easy for retailers to create and replenish inventory locally in high demand situations.  In such a model, the emphasis shifts to the backlist.  A produtive backlist makes up the greater part of the value of a book publisher anyway.  With the ability to continue the backlist indefinitely, the aggregate value of the publisher  increases with the growth of the backlist in a fairly predictable fashion. 

As new production, distribution and marketing technology penetrates the publishing industry, one can imagine the balance of power shifting.  Here’s my guess.  The winners?  Consumers, authors and publishers.  The losers?  wholesalers, distributors and centralized production houses (whether POD or not).  The uncertain and stressed out?  Booksellers (since the door is open for more retailers to jump into the fray).  For all involved, the time has already arrived to make adjustments to old though patterns.

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