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.
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