Booksellers v. Libraries? Publishers v. Amazon? These are the wrong battles to fight

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Four months ago (a long while back in Internet time), I wrote a piece noting how, in our research, we’ve identified libraries as representing the biggest short-term threat to Amazon’s (and others) ebook sales.

As you would expect, this was met with many questions and quite a bit of disbelief.

Why? The reason is obvious. If you’ve been following the book industry statistics closely, you’ll quickly see a strong belief in the exact opposite. Research from both Bowker PubTrack Consumer and Pew Research illustrates that library patrons are more likely to buy ebooks than non-library patrons.

Even further, just last week, The Bookseller had a piece focused on the fact that booksellers are seeing libraries as being “disruptive” to their operation.

Quoting from Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt,

Libraries who will soon start loaning e-books to users will be a disruptive force,” Daunt said. “If you can download a book for free and read it, why would you want to own it?

To add a bit more fuel to the fire, The Observer had a piece on May 14th illustrating why Writers won’t lose out if libraries lend ebooks.

You’re probably thinking, “Hmm, this is all very confusing.”

  • Are libraries good or bad for booksellers? Maybe.
  • Are libraries good or bad for authors? Could be.

This is enough to give you whiplash … and it’s all missing a major shift that has occurred (in earnest) in the last four months:

Four months ago, the real competition for booksellers WAS libraries. 

Today, the competition is much more severe – it’s across the entire ecosystem.

Today the real competition for booksellers, publishers and libraries is NOT READING.

Four months ago, it mattered if libraries were or weren’t a direct threat to booksellers. Today, this question is irrelevant. What matters is that the participants in the industry aren’t innovating at the pace readers are seeking and expecting solutions v. reading’s alternatives.

When looking specifically at traditional publishers and booksellers, two questions arise:

  1. Could it just be that traditional booksellers and publishers aren’t innovating quickly enough to meet the needs of today’s authors and readers? (Absolutely)
  2. Could it be that traditional booksellers and publishers are being out innovated by, of all parties, cash and funding-strapped libraries? (Absolutely)

Libraries have, for a very long time, been battling competition from not reading. They’re experts in this area – which is why they made such consistent inroads as an early competitor to booksellers and a thorn-in-the-side of publishers.

The not reading competition is now beyond libraries, however. It is forcing libraries, booksellers and ultimately authors to move, quickly, to remain a relevant and highly valuable resource for readers. Powell’s and Harvard Book Store, to name two, aren’t standing still. They’re adopting new models, experimenting with new technologies and generally innovating across the board. Libraries across the country are innovating as quickly as they can with ebook lending, ereader lending and myriad other programs. Authors are creating all types of new works to experiment with gaining readers and improving reader engagement.

It can be done – but booksellers, libraries and authors need even more help.

Here’s where the publishers come in.

Publishers (both old and new) must step up and provide the platforms (and rights management frameworks) for innovation needed by booksellers (all types of booksellers) and authors to push reading forward. If they don’t, publishers will fall by the wayside as true innovation will be limited to a few (one?) large players investing on their own behalf’s (see Amazon, Barnes & Noble + Microsoft) while authors take their storytelling to completely new platforms that are altogether outside of the bookselling and library frameworks.

The battle isn’t booksellers v. libraries. The battle isn’t publishers v. Amazon.

The reason this piece was written four months ago is because, four months ago, the competition for Amazon and booksellers WAS libraries. Today, the battle is reading v. not reading as a plethora of free and low-cost alternatives including TV, games, movies, videos, Twitter, Facebook are always at the ready.

Everyone in the ecosystem needs to step up to the plate and prepare to take back reading or an industry will be lost for everyone.

Chris Rechtsteiner

About Chris Rechtsteiner

Chris Rechtsteiner is the founder and chief strategist for BlueLoop Concepts, a research and advisory firm focused on helping companies establish defensible market positions for mobile / digital media. He is also the publisher of Thinking Out Loud - a weekly newsletter uncovering the top trends in digital media. You can follow him on Twitter @Rechtsteiner and read other posts on his blog. When Chris isn’t working with clients to help shape their product and customer engagement strategies, he can be found snowboarding with his two sons.

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17 thoughts on “Booksellers v. Libraries? Publishers v. Amazon? These are the wrong battles to fight

  1. This is something of a tangent, but:

    My seven-year-olds choose a book each for story time, before bed. They are no longer allowed to choose book-like apps such as “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” because the second time through, they’re not reading; they’re just skipping from one interactive illustration to the next.

    Those in the ebook business who think non-text-based enhancement is an across-the-board benefit, with no drawbacks, are wrong. Anything that moves and makes noise distracts from–and, often, overpowers–text.

    This is not to say audio, video, and interactive stuff is bad. It’s not–we’re at the beginning of a new form of art and communication.

    It’s just not reading.

    • Keith – I don’t that’s a tangent at all. This is precisely the point. The “game” is changing so quickly that, as new forms of storytelling come to market, they need to be equally focused on entertainment and reading. If they aren’t equally focused, the reading part will fall quickly by the wayside b/c it is always easier to watch and listen to something than to invest the mental energy to read and visualize it. (Sadly)

      • But Chris, isn’t Keith’s point that the entertainment takes over and the reading falls out?
        Why do you say then that

        “as new forms of storytelling come to market, they need to be equally focused on entertainment and reading. If they aren’t equally focused, the reading part will fall quickly by the wayside b/c it is always easier to watch and listen to something than to invest the mental energy to read and visualize it.”

        Aren’t you actually agreeing that the entertainment takes over, yet you recommend that
        entertainment and reading must be equal… Something is not adding up here for me…

      • Chris—I think whenever there’s an equal focus on reading and non-reading elements in the same book (not so much stills and illustrations, but the more multisensory and interactive stuff), the reading will be relegated to “those lines of black stuff.” I don’t think there’s a way around it.

        I hope books that are just text don’t die out. (I also hope to see artists up to the challenge of integrating video, audio, and interactivity with text. True integration, not just stories with pictures that move.)

        Listening to music took a hit when music videos got popular. Now it’s hard to listen without seeing the pictures along with it. I hope something similar doesn’t happen to reading.

  2. Earl – I don’t think it’s black & white by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it’s going to be a rapidly shifting continuum that requires constant innovation. By this I mean that the reading value is going to have to be equal to (and in all likelihood greater than) the media entertainment value in terms of telling the story to remain relevant. If, as you suggest, the little black letters between the entertainment, it will struggle.

    However, when the writing / reading is the integral part of the story and the media is used to enhance these elements, not tell a story in and of itself (in effect rendering the text unnecessary) – there is a strong opportunity for reading’s success.

    Again, this isn’t super clear right now, at all, and I don’t expect it to be for a little while yet.

    • One thing we can guess, though, is that once this new form is mature, text will be one of the medias, and each will have its roles to play. In a well-integrated work, none of the elements will be removable without damaging the whole, just as is true now in non-enhanced writing. We don’t look at n0uns to “enhance” the verbs; we use nouns or verbs because that’s what’s called for at this moment of the narrative.

      The elements will have to take on meanings they don’t have yet, same as cinematography evolved into the language viewers now understand.

      Even the term “enhancement” means the basics are already there; you’re just adding to them. The mixing of text and media won’t be grown up until it can achieve unity to a much greater degree than anything we’re likely to see for a while.

      At which time I’ll still want to read books with nothing moving or buzzing in them.

  3. We live in a non-reading culture in which less than 30% of American households buy a single book. With so many other distractions, and many people not able to even concentrate on a brief blog post, let alone several pages of a novel, it will be a real challenge for traditional publishers to keep producing the same ‘product’.
    Fortunately, the ebook does not have pre-defined page counts or word requirements (such as ‘lines’ at certain genre publishing houses do). What is so compelling about the ebook world is that it is constantly in flux. If you are a control freak or determined to defend the (paper) book as you know it, this is not an industry you want to be in right now. On the other hand, if you are willing to see what the few people who are still reading are doing, and willing to try to merge new technology with new opportunities for reading, these can be fun and exciting times indeed.

  4. I agree that the text, the well-wriiten story, is paramount to reading. The enhancements should be integrated into the story to extend the reading experience. Media Mint Publishing has launched two fact based non fiction books, which enrich the reader’s understanding of the characters and the plot. For a demo go to the Blog page on enhanced eBooks on mediamint.net

  5. My children are well past this age. How many times do six year olds watch the entertainment before they tire of seeing butterflies appear, eyes blink or some creature do a dance? Do they then want to focus on the still pictures and the text? I have seen many excellent apps where the illustrations seem to me to be detailed enough to provide interest without moving, and a sufficient hook to make a child want to pass to the next page without even thinking about prodding here and there and investigating possible lurking animation.

    If the animation is a focus for the child, could it be that the verbal hooks are not strong enough and there is insufficient ‘read it again’ appeal in the text – it is not written to a high enough standard?

    I understand that many feel that the delivery method provides a reader expectation of content. Up until now. Could animation ‘special effects’ be a novelty that will be used to enhance some stories, but others will be acceptable without, even on a tablet? Just because we can animate everything, does that have to be done on all works for children for e-delivery? Is it possible for children to enjoy ebooks/apps without extras if we write and illustrate them well enough? There are still plenty of print picture books being published and appreciated.

    Just curious. Many thanks for a great post and discussion.

    Best wishes to all

    Peter Taylor

  6. Libraries have never been a threat to publishers or authors. They have done enormous good to promoting literacy and developing a taste for reading. The demand from some publishers to make sharing a love of reading difficult is short-sighted and pound foolish.

    I think there is ample evidence today that reading is a popular pursuit. The NEH was wrong. Reading is thriving. The only question is whether the publishing industry will meet the needs of readers or not.

    Readers will read. Writers will write. There’s a lot of both going on, more than ever in history. Preventing reading or introducing friction is not a strategy for growing the market for books. It’s not even a good strategy for preserving market position.

  7. Evelyn I think you could be spot on re: the fact that an ebook doesn’t need to have pre-defined page counts or word requirements. The fact that \books\ will continue to dramatically morph in the near future is really paramount to their success as they continue to find the right parameters for their audience.

    What makes it so exciting, as you note, is all of the change and the fact that the right parameters for a book’s audience are also changing on a daily (if not hourly) basis.

  8. I’m wary of stories about the future of book publishing that assert something \absolutely.\ There are too many unknowns, too many fast-changing variables to be that certain of almost anything right now. Yes, it’s time for bold new thinking. But keep in mind that for consultants and pundits it’s relatively easy to tell publishers there’s a right or wrong way to proceed; if they get it wrong or things change, they can admit it and revise their prediction in a few months. For publishers risking their own capital, change is a more complicated proposition.

  9. Yes, Chris, if we think about it, publishers can really only sell books that people actually want to BUY/READ/CONSUME. I use the word consume because, for instance, many people enjoy audio books. But that is clearly not reading. Many visually challenged people, for example, can’t access valuable non-fiction and entertaining fiction if publishers do not allow them too. Remember the huge fuss over not allowing PDF read-aloud a few years ago, because publishers thought it would cannibalize audio book sales? That people could ‘listen in’ and get a ‘free’ \read\?

    The only constant in the book industry is change at the moment, but publishers who are prepared to listen to customers can not only survive, but thrive.

  10. “four months ago, the competition for Amazon and booksellers WAS libraries. Today, the battle is reading vs. not reading as a plethora of free and low-cost alternatives including TV, games, movies, videos, Twitter, Facebook are always at the ready”

    So, four months ago some of these alternatives didn’t exist?? Chris, I applaud the evolution in your POV but there’s no need to hang it on a supposed recent shift in consumer behavior for which you provide zero evidence.

    • Bill – Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s much appreciated.

      I’m not suggesting that four months ago these alternatives didn’t exist. Not at all. Alternatives to reading have existed forever.

      We’ve been tracking consumer experience with ebooks for quite a while now (over 3 years) – and in all of our research (conducted on behalf of clients) we have found that, up until 4 months ago, the readers we were surveying were increasingly looking to use / using libraries as their alternative for ebook purchases. It was about four months ago when our surveying started showing that non-reading pursuits and purchases were impacting the ebooks purchase decisions we were tracking. This trend has continued.

      Is this a sub-set of the market? Absolutely.

      Has not reading been an issue for longer than four months? It’s been an issue for decades, or longer.

      From these vantage points, while there may not be perfectly clear answers, there should be the opportunity for the community to contribute additional, unique insights, experiences, thoughts, etc. to help everyone arrive at the best possible answers and strategies.

      • Thanks Chris. My thesis is that this may reflect a change in the population of digital readers driven by evolution to e-Reading on multi-function tablets and smartphones. Up until some months ago, the likelihood in U.S. was if you survey an eBook reader, you get someone wwho is using a dedicated E Ink device, pretty much useless EXCEPT for reading. More likely they are the heavy readers. Now we have millions more people reading on iPads, Kindle Fire, Nook Color, retina-resolution smartphones, and other multi-function devices. The devices themselves are multi-function but in addition the users who might not be as reading-centric in the first place. This doesn’t necessarily imply any change though in consumer attitude just that e-Reading is now reaching a part of the market that is already less reading-centric. And, the devices coming to market don’t necessarily directly *promote* reading as do E Ink devices. My school-age sons are big readers but their use of iPad is definitely not reading-centric. Hence we bring the E Ink devices on vacations even though we rarely use them any more at home ;-).

        • Bill – I totally agree with your thesis. I just wish it was possible to get actual eInk (dedicated ereader) stats in the same way it is possible to get multi-function device stats (smartphones, tablets, etc.) to better understand the correlation.

          What concerns me is that if in fact ereading is already saturated (as you note reaching a part of the market that is already less reading-centric) and what can we, as an industry, do to improve the depth of readers / a love of reading.

          I’d also postulate (perhaps incorrectly) that you aren’t the only family that uses eInk on holiday and other times when the focus needs to be on reading and not Flick Fishing (as it would be with my sons).

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