Too big, too frail

E-Mail This Post/Page
November 2nd, 2011 Rrishi Raote

Much fuss is being made of late in the West over news that Amazon.com has gone into publishing. It has already brought out a handful of books. By turning into a publisher, not just a retailer, Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com can now stand alone between author and reader. Because it gets so much consumer traffic, which it can analyse, Amazon.com 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, Amazon.com’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, Amazon.com 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, Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com’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 Amazon.com — just as one uses Google to search, without really thinking about it. Traditional publishers, who know that Amazon.com is where the customers are, will sell e-book versions of their titles only through Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com. You could buy an e-book direct from a publisher, who might want to sell it for less than the $10 or so that Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com?

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.

2 Votes | Average: 5 out of 52 Votes | Average: 5 out of 52 Votes | Average: 5 out of 52 Votes | Average: 5 out of 52 Votes | Average: 5 out of 5 (2 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

Disclaimer

All the content posted in the 'Business Standard Blogs' section, unless specified otherwise, are made by Business Standard employees. The content posted in 'Business Standard Blogs' does not follow routine internal Business Standard reviews and editorial processes and should be considered only as the views and opinions of the employees and not of Business Standard.
del.icio.us:Too big, too frail digg:Too big, too frail newsvine:Too big, too frail reddit:Too big, too frail Y!:Too big, too frail

3 Responses to “Too big, too frail”

  1. Rrishi Raote Says:

    It occurs to me now that it’s both expensive and very difficult to set up a good search engine, of any kind. If someone spent that kind of money, would they not want a share of the revenue that others earned by using their product? And, it’s perfectly possible that a huge retailer like Amazon.com would just buy out the competition. So, that’s not an obvious solution.

  2. Rrishi Says:

    Arun: Thanks, yes — marketing, huge challenge. Getting people to pay, also a challenge!

  3. arun Says:

    That’s a good piece Rrishi. Yes, the possibilities are enormous. The challenge for the author who chooses this route, whenever it is available, will be in marketing.

Disclaimer

All the content posted under the 'Comments' category are made by the readers of Business Standard, unless specified otherwise. Business Standard is not responsible for the opinions of the readers and the content posted by the readers are not representative of the views and opinions of Business Standard.

Leave a Reply