Too big, too frail

November 2nd, 2011

Much fuss is being made of late in the West over news that has gone into publishing. It has already brought out a handful of books. By turning into a publisher, not just a retailer, is bridging a gap in the books trade that has for the last century or more been filled with middlemen — agent, publisher, distributor. This means that can now stand alone between author and reader. Because it gets so much consumer traffic, which it can analyse, can claim to know what readers want, and give it to them. Unlike any other publisher in the world, this company has direct access to tens of millions of consumers.

So, publishers are very worried. As it is,’s market muscle has allowed it to demand deep retailer discounts from publishers. Now it will compete with them on their own turf. It can offer its authors a degree of access to their readers that no traditional publisher can.

So much for ink-and-paper books. What about e-books? Well, there, too, has been leveraging the popularity of its Kindle products and its role as the prime retailer for books to set its own terms. From price to format, has had more or less the last word. Is the e-books market, too, now all zipped up?

Don’t count on it. E-books, because they are “e”, can be produced and sold by anyone anywhere on the Internet. Nobody has to pay to have them printed, bound, shipped, stocked, displayed… This is’s Achilles heel. Right now it may be a matter of habit and convenience that a book-buyer in an Amazon-served market will automatically look for any book, even an e-book, on — just as one uses Google to search, without really thinking about it. Traditional publishers, who know that is where the customers are, will sell e-book versions of their titles only through

Suppose, however, that there was a really good e-books search engine, one as effective at finding e-books as Google is at finding results. A search engine that could look into publishers’ sites, university press websites, newspaper sites, individuals’ sites, library systems’ websites, historical archives, memory sites, and so on — just about anywhere that an e-book is to be found — and then give you the results simply. Well, then, you would be able to find the e-book you wanted, howsoever obscure, without recourse to You could buy an e-book direct from a publisher, who might want to sell it for less than the $10 or so that charges, or direct from an author’s website, say, for $6. Or you could pay for time-limited access to an e-book via whatever library system you have access to (in India, that’s many years away yet).

What’s more, you would not need to be trapped by the hardware you use. No more only-Kindle-readable e-books, for example.

No doubt someone’s working on such a search engine right now. No doubt it will be tricky to set up and administer. There are many e-books search engines already, but none so comprehensive. A really good one will genuinely liberalise the way e-books move.

So much for the supposed dominance of in the future of books. If I can sell a book that I have written, as an e-book off my personal site, via a search engine that can bring my book to the notice of potentially hundreds of millions of users, then who needs

Not that the big traditional publishers should feel much reassured by this. Their costly skills, of shaping, selection, production, marketing, nurturing authors, building a backlist, acting as nodes in an ongoing civilisational conversation — none of which they now do very well — are difficult to protect in such a profit- and growth-focused economic environment.

Unless, and this is interesting, the big global publishers reverse their direction of the last three decades and decentralise into loose confederations of small imprints, each with a clear mandate and a certain kind of reading market. Smaller is safer, on the whole, and, with a clear editorial mandate and no deep pockets for massive and speculative author advances, profits will be small but steady. Hopefully, there will also be more choice for the discerning reader than there is today.

The future may look a bit like the past. And that’s good news. big, too frail digg:Too big, too frail newsvine:Too big, too frail reddit:Too big, too frail Y!:Too big, too frail