May 3, 2009

The Future of Books and Why Access is the Key

Yesterday I visited the Blackwell book store at Charing Cross Road in London, to have a firsthand look at their new Espresso Book Machine. It is said to revolutionize the book distribution and give readers access to out-of-print books. As Blackwell’s Andrew Hutchings puts it:

"It's giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon.”
"If you could walk into a local bookshop and have access to one million titles, that's pretty compelling."
Great Selection, Quite Old Though
I like the idea of having my local bookstore stock “all” books. Just pop down on a Saturday and order a book I fancy reading. This was what I tried yesterday. The book machine was all in place but what surprised me was the fact that there was no possibility for in store searching of which book I would like to get printed. I could ask the store attendant to find a book for me. But I could not browse around as I usually do in a book store, trying to find a good read.

The Blackwell book machine has access to some 500.000 titles of which most is out of copyright and therefore free for all. I was told that I could search myself at for books to be printed. Sure, it is a good way to do it. But in the same way as mp3 is a good format for music and most mp3 players are capable of playing the files in a acceptable way. It is the Apple iPod that has won in the market place. I believe that it will be somewhat the same in the book market in the, hopefully, near future. The service which offers the best integrated search and distribution model will have a great advantage.

The Long Tail
The concept of the long tail is based on that you can offer an almost unlimited range of content with electronic distribution. No shelf space to consider. When looking at the sales number of this content a curve with just a few top sellers and an unlimited tail of titles selling less and less. It has of course been a typical problem in the book store business that you only have a limited shelf space and to prioritize between titles have been hard.

My prediction of the future is that the distribution method of the content will be of declining importance. If it is a tangible book as the ones we are used to, or if the written text is distributed to a reading device will be a choice of preference by the reader. The relevant part is the content database and the size of it. In a long tail distribution model the key is the amount of titles offered and the ability to make it attractive to look through and easy to find what you were looking for, or did not know you were looking for.

This is also what was lacking in the Blackwell store. A way to actually browse through the extensive content they actually have access to. I believe that this will be even more imminent when they add titles still in copyright to the database. Especially since they most likely, to some extent will compete with the already printed books on the shelves.
Licensing Model
To be able to use the book machines I do not believe that there is that much needed to be changed in the contracts with the rights holders. The end product is still the same, even if it is produced in store instead of in larger quantities. From the knowledge I have of royalty models in publishing, it could perhaps be some other models needed to be negotiated. Especially since the risk element is somewhat limited without any large quantities printed. Differentiation between the first and the rest of the sets of printings might be of declining importance. Perhaps the first step is to introduce a clause offering a flat rate of sharing the revenues from this form of distribution.

Business Model
In the future there are several possible licensing models for this type of distribution of content. For example:
  • Pay per copy
  • Full access and limited prints of each
I guess that the most probable in the in bookstore book machine case will be something which have close resemblance to how you buy books today. Pay per copy will therefore be the most likely option.
Since the book content in most cases already exists in an easy to access pdf format there are initially probably no direct intellectual property issues, especially since the tangible carrier of the content is the same. Just another form of distribution.

The Future
The publishing industry is about to enter in to the stage where the music industry were some 10 years ago. The carrying media is challenged and you need to be thinking ahead and question your current business- and distribution models in order to survive. But the future looks bright and with some interesting, but also frightening creatures emerging.
Just think of the Google Book Project will reach its goal of scanning all books there are. This source of information and content will create interesting new business opportunities. Both for distributors and aggregators. Perhaps Google and the publishers need to get to an end with the current licensing issues first though.

What did I then end up buying? Well one of the books which they knew to print out fine was “Sonnets and other poems” by William Shakespeare. I picked it up still warm from the printer and paid £7.99 and went out in to the London sun to get me some culture.

Johan Örneblad
(follow me on Twitter)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. The Espresso model looks like it could really catch on as a sort of half way house between the digital and physical book worlds.

    E-book readers are great for the sheer number of titles they offer at your fingertips, but I enjoy the feel of a real book.

    So I think there is massive potential for such machines. They have the potential to provide a virtually limitless number of titles, something which the long tail principles explains is increasingly important in todays marketplace. They could fairly easily interface with a user's mobile phone to enable search, recommendations reviews etc.

    I can imagine Amazon popping a machine like this in an airport and making a fortune.



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