Mike Shatzkin writes about a serious issue facing big publishers. That issue concerns publication rights owned by publishers, and what they know or don’t know about those rights. This is something I’ve also thought about and it really is a big deal. Most publishers have a terrible system for storing rights information about a book they’ve published. That terrible system is typically paper based and searchability is extremely difficult. The ramifcations of this organizational nightmare will soon come to a head once Google builds the Book Rights Registry, something they’re compelled to do as part of their settlement with the AAP and the Author’s guild. Publishers will find that they need to invest lots of time and money into the process of pulling data from paper and inputing it into the Google database. My bet is they won’t do it, and as a result, thousands of books will remain orphaned. That’s a shame.
Book publishers have had a tough go of it lately. Not only is the economic downturn hitting them especially hard, they must contend with a growing consumer desire for digital content. But what do you do when you’re only known for publishing words on paper? You partner with technology companies who can help you promote your content. A group of major publishers recently announced a partnership with a company called Scribd, best known as a document sharing website where content is offered by download at no cost. As in, free. More on that in a moment.
So, if promotion is what publishers need in order to show that they too can play the digital game, why not just use Google Book Search and Amazon? Well, publishers need additional help in promotion if they have any hope at success with digital books. And while Amazon and Google provide plenty of eyeballs, they don’t allow easy sharing of content, something Scribd does with their iPaper technology. Using iPaper, bloggers can share and embed content into their posts. The end result is the book publisher garners the muscle of a cadre of promoters at virtually no cost. Bloggers can help promote both the digital book and the print edition too, and they can do that by sharing much more than just their opinion. Using iPaper, they can embed excerpts, or they can allow for an entire book to be distributed free of charge.
But there’s still that pesky issue of making money. If you’re giving your digital content away in the hopes that someone will buy a print copy, what happens when you want to charge money for the digital copy? Kind of hard to put that jeannie back in the bottle. Many technology consultant types hold to a position that says you gotta give away stuff in order to get people to pay for stuff. I think the jury is still out on that. If I were to give advice to a book publisher, I’d encourage them to give away a free print copy of a book in exchange for buying the digital edition. This way, they begin to build a community of customers who want to purchase pure digital books, and they can go back to them for future digital offerings. Publishers will need to begin to build a direct customer channel and this is one way to do it. Why give customer ownership to other partners? And if they charge for the digital content, they won’t have to face the argument of “you gave me digital books for free before, so why do I have to pay now?” Publishers can still stay focused on their print book partners (see Google and Amazon). Worst case, they’d still sell the same amount of print copies.
Unfortunately, book publishers are being bombarded with the notion that you have to be digital today (that’s true), and as a result, they make hasty decisions. We’ll see if working with Scribd is just another one of these.