Since Barnes & Noble announced that the company is sinking faster than a swimmer with cement shoes, there have been a myriad of articles written on what Mr. Riggio and his golfing buddies should do to right the ship. It’s an important question, but possibly the wrong one. Instead of focusing all of our attention on the retail train wreck, we should be working to ensure a long, prosperous future for those most impacted by Barnes & Noble’s demise – those who create the books. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, “What should publishers do to survive and take control of their own futures?”
In a twisted, drug-induced type of way, the Barnes & Noble debacle could be good news for the publishing world. Necessity is the mother of innovation and adaptation. Over the last few years, many publishers have passively hung their proverbial hats on the progress of B&N and Apple. But the one-two punch of declining sales numbers and the DOJ have hampered these two companies, respectively. Sure, Apple will continue to plod away and grow, but will they grow faster than B&N falls? And does Apple care enough about books to make great strides?
Ironically, the one thing the DOJ says it doesn’t want to happen – one company having monopolistic control over the industry – is beginning to happen. Amazon is in the driver’s seat. And the passenger’s seat. And it’s also taking up most of the back seat and trunk. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Publishers have one unquestionably strong bargaining chip – and that is, content. And they can use it to get back in the game if they make the following moves:
Go on the Offensive – Too many publishers have been playing defense, if you can even call it that. They have watched the industry change. Now they must make the industry change.
Amazon has roughly 70% retail market share of digital books in the U.S. But in the technology space, they are slow to innovate and books aren’t their core business. Just like time is not a friend to the publishers, speed is not a friend to Amazon. It’s hard to steer a ship that is selling televisions, cars, the latest game console, and oh yeah, books. But to date, we’ve given them all the time they’ve needed and more.
Publishers need to act, not react, in the digital space. Take a nod from the startup community. Not every decision will be the right one, but if a decision is made, it can be quickly implemented, tested and measured to determine if it needs to be tweaked. We need agile publishers, and in all fairness to the industry, there are more and more being created every day. An agile publisher would have realized when Goodreads was only a million users that the wave was coming their way . . . and could have built or bought the surfboard to ride it.
But publishers don’t need to create all new things to be on offense. They can also . . .
Set the Standard – Like a unicorn or a troll, nobody has actually seen a major publishing contract with Amazon. But apparently they exist. Every time someone wants to try a new idea, marketing strategy or promotion, the sales prevention team – otherwise known as “legal” – steps in and says, “We can’t do it”. If we did, we’d have to offer it to all our retailers, including Amazon.” Then the conversation stops.
But there’s an easy solution to this – abide by the contract. Offer it to Amazon. Just set the terms with which all retailers have to play. Want to bundle the digital version with the physical sale? Fine, but the publisher requires email addresses of all digital downloads. Want to sell ebooks in bulk to corporations and institutions? Okay, but all corporate accounts require a white-labeled redemption page and reporting. Want to create special promotions and flash sales for a day? Great, but data sharing is required for joint transparency.
If the publishers don’t set the standard for how to conduct business with their content, they will be manipulated by whatever outlets possess the most power. This isn’t healthy for the publisher or the author. There are dozens of areas in the digital space that have yet to be defined. Set the standard now on how content can be utilized. If Amazon doesn’t like it, then other companies will step up and fill the void.
Play to Your Strengths – You can’t be all things to all people. The power of digital is that a publisher or author can carve out a very specific niche – tall Norwegians who like fuzzy bunny slippers, Winnebago owners with bumper stickers, Windows Surface owners who drive Volvos (ok, I’ll admit that last one is a bit of a stretch). Whether these are referred to as content communities, tribes or sales verticals, it is important to clearly define what you will do. And just as important, what you won’t do.
It’s doubtful that any of this is earth-shaking wisdom for publishers. But hopefully it’s a gentle reminder to keep it simple. Move fast. And view your content and experience from a user’s perspective. No single sales outlet or distribution channel should determine the fate of a company. The best way to figure out what the future holds is to proactively be part of the defining process.
Jason Illian is the Founder and CEO of Bookshout! (www.bookshout.com), a dynamic e-book company which focuses on connecting people around books. BookShout! focuses on helping publishers create new special sales opportunities, corporations buy and interact around content, and authors build their audience and platform.