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Summary:

Amazon delivered today a beta of its free Kindle for BlackBerry e-book app, which provides access to more than 420,000 books. It marks the latest example of how the publishing industry is facing seminal changes. Are we on the verge of the death of quality content?

Amazon delivered today a beta version of its free Kindle for BlackBerry e-book app, a quick download that provides access to more than 420,000 books. It marks just the latest example of how the publishing industry is facing seminal changes. Will the end result be the death of quality content?

Amazon has been in the crosshairs of the traditional publishing industry for some time now, with regard to numerous issues. Its standard $9.99-per-title charge for e-books is the same kind of clear and present threat to existing business models in the publishing industry that the music industry faced as low-priced music became available on ubiquitous digital players. The music industry continues to reel from the effects of that revolution, and instead of reaching for workable digital business strategies, aims laterally for questionable solutions such as slapping a performance tax on radio stations.

I got into a discussion on a videocast yesterday with Dan Goodin, one of the best writers over at The Register, about the equally seismic shifts we’re seeing in book distribution and the publishing industry. He made the point that with the low pricing models for digital books, and more devices for reading them, the ultimate effect may be that the quality of written content suffers. Authors, in addition to publishers, stand to have their livelihoods threatened under the new e-book regime, he noted:

“Do we want to live in a world where content providers can’t support themselves? That is exactly where we are moving with the Kindle and the iPad because people suddenly want books for $9.99. I’ve got news: It takes about a year to write a book, you have to travel extensively, you have to do a lot of fact-checking. What Amazon and Apple are trying to do is significantly decrease the amount of money that publishers, and specifically authors, can make.”

“The quality of books and other types of published material is going to significantly deteriorate,” he added. He’s not the first person to allege that the sweeping changes in the publishing industry threaten quality content. Warren Buffett, for example, has predicted that with newspapers dying and reporters losing their jobs, widespread dishonesty will ensue.

I’m inclined to agree — up to a point — with both of them, and I say that as a book author who has always worked in the publishing industry. However, it also seems clear that new publishing models will arise amidst the carnage. For example, Mathew recently noted that some authors are signing exclusive Kindle deals with Amazon. One popular author, Stephen Covey, has struck a deal with Amazon where he gets about 50 percent of the revenues from his Kindle-delivered books, far above the royalty deals that most authors get. Perhaps the very providers of digital content and distribution devices will end up being the ones to make the publishing industry work again.

Let’s not forget that we’re seeing exciting new kinds of devices arrive for reading. I suspect that devices such as the iPad will be both a blessing and a curse for the publishing industry, creating short-term chaos but also long-term promise.  Om has noted that the instant he laid his hands on the iPad, he had visions of exciting new content types that will surely take shape for it. Apple may also introduce higher pricing models for content on the iPad than we’ve seen from Amazon for the Kindle. For a visual tour of how the iPad might be a promising trend for publishing, I recommend watching the video below of Wired Magazine’s concept app for the iPad, which looks quite slick.

The ubiquitous availability of e-books may also usher in more reading, and it’s a fact that readers of e-books buy more books. As a BlackBerry user, I already like the free Kindle for BlackBerry app, and I can see myself using it to read on the train when I might otherwise busy myself with other things. One way or another, quality content will make its way to interested readers on digital platforms, and new types of rewards for authors will arrive, too. In the meantime, though, anyone who writes better prepare for a bumpy — though never boring — ride.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

With the iPad, Apple Takes Google to the Mat

  1. What a load of crap. Publishers long ago stopped looking for quality and just push out tons of crap, hoping something will hit big and pay for the rest. Low cost digital publishing platforms will, in the end, mean more money for the creative people creating the content and less for the middle men and distributors. In the short term it may be a bit chaotic while we all figure out how to find the quality, but the pioneers of digital formats (like music) will show the rest the way.

  2. Sebastian Rupley Thursday, February 18, 2010

    @ Kearns — I tend to agree that much of what we’ll see as this plays out will parallel what happened with music, where great artists continue to march forward. There is no question, though, that it’s a tough life for authors under the current conditions. There are about half as many journalism jobs now as there were 20 years ago, and I know lots of writers who are totally stymied by the environment.

    Sebastian

  3. Most of us know quality when it hits us and those who don’t are not looking for James Joyce anyways.
    If anything, I would be worried more of the Google Books service who will eventually steal income from authors as part of their “no (revealing) evil” policy.

  4. Could the Kindle and iPad Kill Quality Content? – Gigaom.com | Bargain Ebook Readers Thursday, February 18, 2010

    [...] Post By Google News Click Here For The Entire Article February 18th, 2010 | Category: [...]

  5. Oh, come on. The decrease of books prices due those publishers deal with Apple, per se, doesn’t seem as a potential harm to authors. Why? Because that price cut certainly would reflect lower costs that are inherent to digital publishing! Things like price of paper, ink, printing, distributing, managing stock, etc. just vanish right away! So the question is, why should the price be the same when the product itself looses part of a significant factor that makes up its price?

    1. @francisaugusto: This is a fairly common misconception, but one that does an incredible disservice to the book industry. Do some Googling: only about $3 of the $25 price of a new-release hardcover pays for printing and distribution costs. The rest encompasses the distributor’s cut, the author’s cut, and the publisher’s cut – and before you say it, we can’t just do away with the publishers, as they provide vital services to book production. Authors are well aware that they can’t do their own editing, design, and layout, and have been aggressive defenders of their publishers in this debate because they recognize the added value that they provide.

  6. First, it would be interesting to note who actually owns the digital rights. Is it like the music industry for example? Secondly, we are witnessing hybrid models where for example, and independent artist cannot submit music to the iTMS. How do they submit materials to similar bookstores? Is it possible, and if not, why?

    Artists historically never made much from their published works, and copyright was supposed to solve that. My bet is that more are subject to servitude rather than payment. It is going to be an ugly decade for artists, because publishers have immense amounts of value to shed before they can make money in the models we see.

  7. Sebastian Rupley Thursday, February 18, 2010

    @ Nicholas — yes, publishers have to completely reengineer their business models and be more lean — no question.

    @ francisaugusto — yes, paper, ink and all the rest are expensive. In the cases of most newspapers and magazines, it costs much more to print them than to buy them. I agree with that, but getting rid of those costs doesn’t automatically solve all problems, as many web site publishers learn.

    Sebastian

  8. I am not sure that the Kindle and others will kill quality content just as itunes has not killed quality music. What the digital age has done is kill the artists and writers ability to have an encouraging path towards monetization. Great writers will continue to write because that is what they love to do just as young talented musicians continue to record. Hopefully in the future there will a “next generation” label and publisher that will create the marketing and distribution engines so these talented people can be found and make money.

  9. Most people who buy CDs don’t know Deutche Grammophone, but most classical musicians do. Most people who haven’t studied engineering don’t know Springler Verlag. Those publishers are way down the long tail. Their importance will grow, as will popularizers of critical and important content.

    Here’s the thing. The advertising industry has, in my opinion, forever been guessing at the influence of their products. So every market that is funded by advertising has been voodoo economics, including our notions about whom is ‘educated’ or ‘well-read’. Twenty years ago if you were trying to do appeal to the kind of person you might think wants to buy a new Jaguar you might spend many thousands for a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and it would be ok to spend that because you were simultaneously spending for people who couldn’t afford it and glamorizing your brand.

    Today you know every current and prior Jaguar, Lexus and Hummer owner and advertisement is more scientific, and cheap. You will not subsidize anything but your narrow focus on the long tail. There is no glamorous spillover.

    Amazon will charge 99 cents for an MP3 of Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin and 1.29 for Akon rapping through a vocoder. Only a class retailer who cares is going to carry the Horowitz. Maybe Amazon will have class, maybe just the next Pirate Bay will have class.

    There has always been a small minority of people who have been willing to go out of their way to find the better quality content. Today we know exactly how small they are, and that scares us. But when has it ever been different? I mean, really – how many people do you think they let in the Sistine Chapel? In a world of 99% literacy, everybody’s gotta read something, but most of it will be bad.

  10. What a load! If you can print, advertise, ship, and otherwise handle, distribute, and place for sale a paperback book for $7.99 to $9.99 then surely everyone involved can still make money selling the one copy of bits and bytes that a digital publication consists of at $9.99. These people are just as greedy as the folks running the music industry.

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