The economics of shelfies

Digital technologies have obviously disrupted the publishing business as they have music and film and will do higher education. The record business was first to experience the shock and in its response offered plentiful examples of what not to do. To my mind, publishing has done much better, both in terms of the incumbents safeguarding their position and in terms of innovation with new formats and new creative options.

This is not to say that everything is ideal. There are new, damaging concentrations of market power in e-book distribution. There are too many celeb biographies and cookbooks due to the winner-takes-all dynamics – dynamics that Anita Elberse’s recent book  explains.

[amazon_image id=”0571309224″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Blockbusters: Why Big Hits – and Big Risks – are the Future of the Entertainment Business[/amazon_image]

Still, as I’ve said a few times, the balance is positive in terms of innovation, and also number of titles available and book sales. This weekend I read this post about the ‘book porn’ phenomenon, the growth in websites like Bookshelf Porn and Explain Yourshelf, the ‘#shelfie‘ vogue on Twitter. The author of the post explains it in terms of the physical pleasure, turning pages, feeling the heft of the book, seeing the spines on the shelf.

There’s an economic account, too, namely that reading online and reading offline are complements, not substitutes. Many people made the assumption that e-books would substitute for physical books. But the sales numbers don’t bear that out, as physical book sales have not declined much (during an economic downturn) while e-book sales have soared (from a low base).

It’s the same mistake that was made when people predicted the paperless office; in fact, access to more information led to more printing of documents, not less. Or when it was predicted that telephones, or social media, would reduce face-to-face contact, when all the evidence is that they increase it (see Ed Glaeser on this).

Generally, forms of communication and vehicles for ideas are complements, not substitutes.


Google, books and public value

Already much has been written about the American court’s ruling in favour of Google being able to digitize millions of books without express permission from the copyright holder. The EFF warmly welcomed the ruling, other commentators have some reservations, and the Authors Guild has said it will appeal. Judge Denny Chin was absolutely clear, writing:

“In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,” the ruling reads. “It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.”

The judgement suggests Google Books will act like a store allowing people to browse before they go ahead and buy the book – that it will be an unusual example, in other words, of a monopoly in the public interest.

Hmm. There is obvious potential for researchers and readers to benefit from increased access to books. It is possible that authors will benefit if searchability increases rather than decreases their sales – this is plausible but it is an empirical issue, so we will see.

However, the ruling (on a quick read) ignores other potential side-effects. Google is a commercial company, not a public library, and the architecture it uses to present search results will not be based on the same kind of criteria. It may well divert people away from libraries, which are important social and cultural institutions. It may have a market impact in bookselling depending on the links given alongside search results – can retailers buy those slots? I don’t know. The e-book link is a solo link in the examples I looked at, taking you to pay in Google Play with Google Wallet. There will be other unintended consequences I’ve not thought of yet.

If there is an appeal, it isn’t quite the end of the saga, but I think it is clear the game is probably over for the Authors Guild. However, the remaining delay gives Google time to reflect on how it implements Google Books – what are the principles, and what role does public service play in this initiative?

Coincidentally, I spent this morning at a fascinating conference on public value organised by Channel 4 (talking about how the BBC Trust thinks about public value – here is a link to our publication on it, Public value in Practice). I believe commercial organisations can have a public purpose, that this has a large overlap with the profit motive, rather than conflicting with it. But it behoves Google as a massive commercial entity providing one of the most important public goods – knowledge – to tell us more about the principles by which it will run Google Books.


How brave a new world for publishing?

This morning’s Financial Times reports a study saying the number of insolvencies among publishers in the UK has been trending upwards, to 98 in the 12 months to August 2013, from 69 and 36 in the preceding two years. The suggestion is that although entry barriers in publishing have declined and it’s easier to reach customers thanks to digital technologies, margins have been squeezed. After all, in 2012 there were 2,450 books per million people published, which is apparently more per capita than any other country.

I’m a moderate optimist about publishing, which has been more innovative and responsive to customers than some of the other industries, swimming with the digital tides rather than paddling furiously against them. Indeed, I’m sufficiently optimistic to dabble a bit myself with Perspectives.

The FT story does note that many of the insolvencies concern magazine publishers, facing full-on competition from online and often free content. It quotes Richard Mollet of The Publishers Association (they omitted the apostrophe, not me) saying the biggest threat comes to very small publishers from self-publishing. I’m not sure that distinction makes much sense any more – it’s all competitive fringe to the bigger publishers. It isn’t entirely clear from the PA figures, but it looks to me like margins have been increasing for the book sector as a whole – sales values rose 4% in 2012 and volumes declined by 1%. And e-book margins are surely much higher than those for physical books, given the pricing points that have been so successfully established for e-books. Sales of digital books in the UK rose by 66% in 2012.

The really good news about the effects of the technological changes is that people have much greater access to things to read, and greater voice if they want to engage in the debate. So we have the paradox of an increasingly vibrant, engaged public conversation online at the same time that conventional political debate in many countries is becoming increasingly impoverished and ritualised. The public space is reverberating with informed debate – you just wouldn’t know it if you stuck to the conventional channels.


Two histories of publishing

Courtesy of a link tweeted by @TheLitPlatform comes the splendid History of Publishing infographic below.

It merits reading in conjunction with this optimistic article in The New Republic about the future of books. When I linked to this recently, there were some comments suggesting I was being delusionally optimistic about the outlook for the industry. Maybe, although I still think it is encouraging to see how innovative the industry has been compared to the early days of the digital tidal wave washing over the music industry, for example. There are other optimists – this in the Virginia Quarterly Review is another fascinating take on getting people to pay for value in books.

Anyway, the point is that the infographic above is a technology history, and it needs a business history alongside it. Publishing has always been a technology business, and lies at the intersection of monetary and non-monetary values.

A Brief History Of PublishingInfographic by Finvy



Digital disruption: good news for publishing

My personal technology correspondent tells me (and all of Twitter) that in the UK, books are flourishing:

Good news from UK publishers – total sales in 2012 up 4% to £3.3bn , digital up 66%, with physical book sales down just 1%
01/05/2013 07:07

As we have a fixed time budget, e-books must be causing people to substitute away from some leisure activities, but it evidently isn’t away from p-books. As TV viewing isn’t declining either, and there are large crowds at every live event, from concerts to dance to pointy-headed public lectures, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what people are not doing so much of.

The genre break-down of the publishing figures is interesting too:

More on those positive publishing figs – 26% of fiction revenues now digital, but just 5% non-fiction and 3% children’s books
01/05/2013 07:31

This must be partly the way books are used – propping a cookbook by the stove, reading to a child cuddled up on your lap – but also surely reflects the fact that much fiction is escapist relief and people know they won’t want to keep the book afterwards? It points to a different kind of pricing point for fiction e-books or even a pure rental model.

Overall, the sums for UK publishers were encouraging for the industry:

.@SheilaB01 66% rise from a small base to £411m + 1% fall from high base to £2.9bn = overall 4% rise to £3.3 bn
01/05/2013 08:10

Roughly flat revenues in real terms in the context of declining real-terms disposable incomes is pretty good. More support for my hypothesis that the digital revolution is fundamentally good news for purveyors of words, and is encouraging tremendous consumer-serving innovation in publishing.