The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.
Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two-tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry-pick the best-selling authors and offer lucrative one-shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self-publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.
The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer-turned publisher or a distributor turned one-stop-shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!
The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story-teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e-book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand-offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.
I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.