Despite having extensive distribution operations, publishers have long been extremely reluctant to sell books directly to customers. Whether for lack of retail expertise, out of fear of competing with bookstores they need to thrive, or lack of concrete vision, publishers have completely ceded the e-book and e-retailing landscape to Amazon and others.
Even Bookish, a site built by three publishers, is oriented around discovery and not e-bookselling.
Why are publishers so scared of selling e-books? Amazon has shown no such compunctions about creating a book-to-customer vertical, adding publisher operations to go along with their extensive retail and e-bookselling behemoth.
Moreover, publishers have one big advantage over Amazon when it comes to e-bookselling: their authors.
Just about every author out there has a website and/or a blog and/or a Twitter presence. Why not incentivize them with higher royalties if they sell direct via a device-agnostic module they can place on their sites?
This would look a lot like the way J.K. Rowling is selling her e-books, via a central site compatible with multiple e-book formats, including Kindle.
Rowling built Pottermore herself, and 99.9% of authors don’t have the resources to do that. But publishers should give these tools to authors, so they can sell e-books directly to their readers.
The e-book landscape right now is built around central vendors, and there will still be appeal in that idea. But there’s no reason publishers can’t turn their authors into a dispersed e-bookselling juggernaut.
Art: Still Life With Books, Attributed to Jacques Bizet
Carmen Webster Buxton says
Having been self-published for the last two years, I concur. Amazon and Smashwords both let me set a price (although Amazon has limits) and see how many books I sell, but neither one tells me WHO is buying my books! This is very valuable info that I wish I had, and I don't see why publishers don't seem to realize it.
Scares me to think what a publisher would charge if they had exclusive ebook rights to their best authors.
The world of publishing is filled with landmines. Everyone is treading carefully, trying to keep indies happy, big box stores happy, publishers happy, the customer happy. The problem is that landmines don't help anyone. They make the journey to successful publication more awkward and difficult, which hurts the business overall. I think authors have to be literary politicians to survive the publishing world without alienating anyone. Meanwhile, Amazon isn't concerned about offending anybody and is raking in the cash.
Matthew MacNish says
I wonder how much of this has to do with the reader hardware? The two best readers are tied to the two biggest retailers.
Smart people could probably root the devices if necessary, but wouldn't the retailers block the devices from reading the file formats? Maybe not.
I suppose we'll never know unless it happens.
Brian O'Hallaron says
This is completely crazy–there is almost no overhead cost to have new writers published online. Whoever does this is going to have a MUCH better chance at finding the next Tom Clancy or Stephen King. Even if they don't sell, you still make money. If print copies were only reserved for previously selling authors publishers would make a killing.
Kerry Gans says
I have been wondering for a long time why the big publishers don't do this. They have the money to go direct-to-customer, and they have the big author names that would attract customers to their own store. Once they had the process in place, publishers could cut out middlemen like Amazon, and therefore stop complaining about the pricing–or at least then have some leverage with Amazon and other distributors when negotiating.
John Stanton says
Maybe I'm a cynic but it seems pretty obvious to me.
The big publishing industry was arrogant and slow to change. After centuries of the printed word, they could not believe there was any real threat to their positions.
“This ebook fad will never catch on.”
Borders books learned and tried to catch up with the Kobo but it was too late.
Some of the big publishers actually have stock and ownership in papermills.
It was this same arrogance and short-sightedness years ago that allowed J.K. Rowling to keep her ebooks rights. I can imagine some publisher snickering under their breath, “Yeah sure, let her keep the ebook rights heh, heh. See if that ever amounts to anything.”
The Tyrannosaurus Rex would have never believed anyone could challenge him or change his world.
Neil Larkins says
Hear! Hear! (Thumps desk.)
Wow, Nathan, interesting. It could be a terrific idea, making more money for everyone, and a perk for traditionally published authors.
I think the future will include author dynasties, and this could be a great match for that, as well.
Like Matthew, I wonder about the hardware. Would the Publisher (or author) need permission from B&N, Amazon, Kobo, etc. to download to their hardware? I don't know what Rowling worked out.
If they did have to work out a deal with the retail site for hardware access, it could still be worth it. I'd guess that Nook and I-books would have no issue with working with the Big 5.
If Publishers didn't have to work out a deal, then things could get really interesting. They could play with pricing – price author site books less than Amazon, for example. Of course, that might make Amazon mad, which could be a big deal, but it's interesting to think about.
So, will this actually happen? Unfortunately, I'm guessing no….although I could be wrong. My concern is that Publishers won't want to do this because they may feel it will lead authors down the wrong track. I could be wrong, but I think it conflicts with the current publishing culture of author dependence.
It's still worth discussing and advocating for, though. Maybe some minds could be changed.
On a very different track, this does raise a question. Is it standard to include a non-sell clause in writers contracts, so they can't sell books themselves? Because if not….that could open up some real possibilities. Authors could just start selling their books.
Some authors who aren't worried about piracy could decide to simply sell nicely formatted Word files. Or they could have a password protected part of their website they could sell access to, so readers could read it on the web.
Wouldn't it be cool if they could price their books lower than the ones on sale at retail centers and take all profits?
And for self-publishers – Amazon is making it difficult to do free giveaways, except through KDP. What if they hosted a free giveaway on their blogs?
How much would the infrastructure for this cost? Maybe a group of authors could pitch in. You've got my imagination going, Nathan. 🙂
Peter Dudley says
Of course, you can imagine the executives at publishing companies pacing around their high-rise suites: "No! That's just what they'll expect us to do! We'll surprise them all and keep doing exactly what we've always done."
steve davidson says
Very interesting, but I don't think it takes things far enough.
What I have been wondering of late is – why are established authors with inventory bothering with online distributors at all? Why are they giving away any percentage of a sale?
There are fairly easy to implement on-line store suites (some even open source) – turnkey operations – that can handle all of the transactional issues (credit cards, downloads, etc) that will also capture purchaser information.
Amazon/B&N offer an author the "those who read X will enjoy y" sales pitch – but that cuts three or more ways; a competing title might get the dollars instead – an author's website offers no competitive sales option. The author can take the distributor's cut and plow it in to promotion and advertising or pass it along to the purchaser. The author's website can offer far more background and personalized promotional information. The only thing missing is the questionable "additional exposure" or "floor traffic"; that can still be obtained by retaining a single title and a really good author's page on such sites (rather than all of the inventory). Most authors don't see any real promotional effort spent on their books by the publisher (we're being told constantly that a lot of that is being pushed off onto the author already) – so why do that extra work AND pay for the privilege when one could do the extra work and add 10 or 30 or 30 percent to their take? No, the above won't really work for emerging authors initially , but for someone with a track record who can regularly attract some press…it would be another round of cutting out the middleman, but this time the spoils go to the author.
I could be totally wrong but I think mainly the Amazon haters would buy there. The publisher site would have to be competitive in price to sway the general public. And I have a feeling their prices wouldn't be.
If they were exclusive? I don't know. They're probably too scared. I would be. No one has been able to match Amazon's ability for book browsing or selling. Why would a company full of editors and marketing pros?
I don't think most authors or publishers want to get involved with this. I'm a "hybrid" author and my plate, so to speak, is full right now. I'm thankful(thrilled) that there are so many venues where I can distrubute my own digital books that I have indie published.
What I'd like to see more of is support for smaller web sites that sell digital books, like ARe for romance and their new line of New Adult books. God bless brick and mortar bookshops, but you never hear anyone in the mainstream praise or promote small digital web sites where e-books are sold. These are the small businesses of the future. And those who specialize in selling e-books have events, promotions, and all kinds of features I personally don't want to get into for lack of time. These small web sites HELP sell my books.
If I were to start selling my e-books on my own web site I wouldn't have a life at all. As it is, even with selling my indie e-books in other venues like ARe, I'm constantly doing customer services on my own for readers. It's part of the job; no complaints there. But selling my own e-books on my own site might just push me over the edge 🙂