Five Digital Publishing Questions for Rick Chapman

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

The Digital Book World Conference + Expo, kicking off on January 13, 2015 is packed with an incredible amount of information and ideas about the digital publishing landscape at a time of remarkable transformations. To help attendees make the most out of those three days, Digital Book World is sitting down with conference speakers to help lay the groundwork for conversations that will take place at the conference and continue for many weeks and months afterward.

This is the fourth installment in our “Digital Publishing Questions” blog series, featuring Rick Chapman, an author as well as the Managing Editor of Softletter.

What do you think has been the most newsworthy event for authors in the past year around publishing and digital change?

The Amazon vs. Hachette struggle was certainly the story that generated the most ink/pixels, but from my standpoint, I didn’t find the battle that interesting. My background is in the software and high-tech industries, where conflicts between suppliers and channels are common. They always revolve around control of pricing models (“agency” vs. wholesale), margins and market development funds. That’s it. There was nothing new to me about the fight.

What I found particularly fascinating was the fact that so many so-called indie voices, pundits and commentators chose to become aggressive Amazon advocates despite the fact that self publishers had no stake in the outcome of the battle. Worse, the amount of misstatements and distortions of the terms of the dispute from these sources have done a real disservice to independents.

For example, many of these sites and pundits continue to reinforce the myth that Amazon has paid you a “royalty” after it’s extracted its 30%–65% download fee despite the fact that those charges are simply expenses that comes off your bottom line. The real concerns of indies are high download fees, huge margin grabs on international sales, Amazon’s placing of independents in a $7 dollar pricing box, and related issues. The Amazon advocates do not like to talk about these points.

What are you anticipating as the big change we will see in 2015?

Amazon will continue to aggressively grow out the Kindle infrastructure and build more service layers on top of it. They already control what I call the “data layer” of the business. Amazon, via its channel and Kindle infrastructure, knows far more than publishers about what their customers buy and why; knowledge is power.

The Kindle Scout program is designed to replace traditional agents with a crowdsourced model. The Goodreads acquisition enables Amazon to build a community around book reading and information sharing. Their house imprints move them into the content layer of the book creation model. Amazon also has a dominant position in ebook reselling and will of course try to increase its market share.

What is the most important thing publishers need to accomplish in 2015?

I think publishers must rethink their relationships with the author community and give up the gatekeeper mentality. Publishers must reposition themselves as facilitators for authors and as coaches to writers. The Amazon-Hachette battle uncovered the fact that there was a great deal of pent up resentment toward publishers. Many writers perceive them as an unfriendly blocking force that takes away opportunity from people who are certain they have a book or books in them. Publishers need to understand this and proactively reach out to this community.

For publishers, my advice is this:

  • Leverage your relationships with established writers and mentor new voices.
  • Harness the publishing community to provide tools and services that help writers grow their skills (and uncover new talent that the current model misses).
  • Start to learn how to market into niches and genres, and build new imprints and
    product lines to fulfill these new categories.
  • Rethink publishing as an analog to the baseball system, where different levels of talent are segmented into different circles and encouraged to improve their skills until they’re ready for the big leagues.

Will Amazon’s ebook market share grow in 2015 or will this be the year that Apple, Kobo, Google and Nook (or someone else) push them back?

Another thing I’ve learned from my years in high-tech and the software industry is that once a technology platform is established, it’s very hard to overturn it. I think Amazon’s Kindle platform is very powerful. Its reader technology and the Mobi format are ubiquitous and widely distributed. I think Kindle/Mobi is going to be the standard for years to come, and the industry should prepare to accept this and learn how to leverage this platform on their own behalf. From the buyer’s standpoint, a standard makes sense. Who wants to manage multiple copies of the same thing?

From writers’ and publishers’ standpoints, who wants to produce and maintain multiple file formats? The only company I can think of that might challenge Amazon is Apple, but after the collusion case, I don’t think it’s high on their agenda.

Related: How Many New iBooks Customers Will Apple Get from iOS8?

Are there any companies (start-up or otherwise) now flying below the radar that you think may break out in 2015?

I think technology that enables publishers to community-enable ebooks is something they should look strongly at. It’s a service layer they could manage and control and use to learn more about the people who read their books. I actually created what may have been the first book to possess this capability in 2002, but I was way ahead of my time. Companies such as Digerati do offer this type of technology for periodicals, but it can be easily adapted for ebooks.

Rick Chapman is an author and the Publisher and Managing Editor of Softletter, a twice-monthly publication focusing on the business realities of running a successful software company. He’ll be speaking at Digital Book World 2015 alongside recent contributors Jane Friedman and Dana Beth Weinberg on a panel called “Authors Facing the Industry: Business and Marketing Decisions,” about the how the landscape for authors is evolving and what publishers can do to adapt.

Compare Jane’s and Dana’s thoughts on this subject with Rick’s point of view, and if you’re an author, share your experiences in the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, the results from which will be debuted at Digital Book World 2015.

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