Sanity check for publishers

Sanity check for publishers May 10, 2010

Detail from Pietà by Carlo Crivelli
Detail from Carlo Crivelli's Pietà, Yorck Project.
In all the discussions about digital publishing, enhanced ebooks, and the future of publishing, let’s not forget that we publish books. We don’t design games, produce movies, or animate features. We publish books.

By “books” I do not mean a bunch of printed pages between covers, what is technically known as a codex. That format has been in wide use for the last nineteen hundred years or so. Before that the format of choice was the scroll. Today we have more format options—primarily audio and ebook—but the essence of what we do, regardless of format, is publish (to be necessarily redundant) books.

By books I mean sustained discussions or stories. The delivery mechanism is minimally relevant to what a book is. Tom Wolfe published Ambush at Fort Bragg as an audio book three years before it made its way to print, but it was still a book. In whatever format it comes, a book engages the mind and emotions in a rewarding and thoroughly unique way. God only knows why, but people in the publishing business seem increasingly intent on ignoring or dismissing this fact.

I sat through a recent trade event that featured several engaging speakers, one of whom said that traditional ebooks will be gone in two years. Apologies, but this is nonsense. We’ll still be printing books in twenty-four months, and there will be plenty of simple, unenhanced ebooks sold then too. Why? Because readers want books—sustained discussions and stories that immerse their hearts and minds in ways that only books can. Fragmented texts with splotches of audiovisual enhancement may make headway in the marketplace, but they will never replace books, nor will they provide the foundation for success in the future of publishing. But the speaker nonetheless advised us to move forward and innovate relentlessly.

In what direction? To what end?

What worries me is that publishers are losing touch with what God put them on earth to do. I have actually heard people say that we are no longer book publishers; we are “content providers.” I’ve heard this hundreds of times and spoken with all of the self-authenticating assurance of gospel. I recognize that statements like this come from the need to make sense of the tremendous change happening around us, but this language is unhelpful in the extreme.

Think about this: A company has a strategy to focus its efforts. Calling ourselves content providers is an unstrategy. It’s like Patton’s Third Army saying they’re about munitions instead of Berlin. It generalizes our efforts. Content is generic. Books are specific. Content is meaningless. Books have meaning. Content is data. Books are prose and poetry. As my wife likes to say, talking about content is like talking about ingredients. Any cook knows that cooking comes down to garlic, tomatoes, and onions. “Ingredients” is too vague to be useful. But that’s where we are headed.

Let me state the obvious. Bell South is content provider. So is Comcast, Wikipedia, Rick Warren, Sony Pictures, EMI, the San Diego Union Tribune, and Facebook. That’s a wide field. Can publishers compete with Jerry Bruckheimer, Xbox, Jimmy Wales, and Twitter? Forget about it. It’s a stupid question. But it’s the question we have to start asking if we insist on seeing ourselves as content providers instead of publishers.

It’s about books. Forget all the other crap and focus on books. Print, audio, electronic? Yes, sure, definitely—but don’t forget what it is that we are doing. We talk about the need to know our customers. We have it easy. They’re readers. We know that much. And we know something else. Readers don’t want content. They want books.

In conversations about this subject, the analogy of the music business is brought up time and again. The music business went through comparable disruptions, and publishers like to think of these colleagues as the first frog to cross the street. The comparisons are mostly unhelpful (there is, for instance, nothing truly comparable about listening to a song and a reading a book). But here’s one that actually means something: books are like symphonies or concertos—lengthy compositions, usually highly integrated with repeating themes and ideas, designed to carry the listener aloft by creating tensions that mount and release and intensify as the piece develops and grows. They represent sustained concepts, elaborate trains of thought that require attention and focus—attention and focus that are rewarded for their use.

Analogizing books to pop songs is wrong. Ditto for comparisons involving YouTube, video games, blogs, and magazines. They are not mutually exclusive, but the audience for one is not the same as the audience for the other.

We live in an age when data is abundant and content is free. Synthesis and analysis are not. A book provides a reader what they cannot get for free. It provides a symphony of words. The composer/author arranges an argument or story in way that is engaging, pleasing, infuriating, fascinating, and in a way that can only be truly or effectively delivered as a book. Various enhancements might supplement this experience, but they will not supplant it.

Fragmented information is everywhere. Elaborate, composed, immersive information is not. It’s in books. As publishers, we are about books.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is excellent, and a much-needed antidote to all the nonsense being circulated in publishing circles today. I have been thinking about this ever since we discussed it over the weekend. Kudos to you for stopping the bus and asking where we are going!

  • Joel – just a note on a bit more behind being a content provider….i agree that books will always be with us. But thinking like content providers broadens our thinking, especially internally. To be maximize our effectiveness we need to process the content w/o regard to format.

    Btw, your dear FIL was not long ago signing the idea of being a content provider. Looks like you got to him.

  • Tod, I’m not sure that broadening our thinking is wise. I think we would be better served by narrowing our focus on what makes exceptionally good books. That’s where are resources are best and most easily allocated at Nelson and where we already have the intellectual capital. Just in terms of efficiencies, narrowing our focus is wiser.

    Please do not misunderstand, however. I’m not suggesting that we should cease working in multiple formats. I like paper but I’m not saying ebooks are out. I love ebooks–they make books easier and faster to access and read. I’m just saying that when I hear people say “innovate relentlessly” in a field where we are already losing sight of our core strengths, then we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We’ll find ourselves a year into initiatives that are way outside of our core because we weren’t paying attention to what our core really is: books.

  • Not quite sure what I think about all this…

    But I do think that people don’t just want books, they want good books. Too often books are not “books are like symphonies or concertos—lengthy compositions, usually highly integrated with repeating themes and ideas, designed to carry the listener aloft by creating tensions that mount and release and intensify as the piece develops and grows. They represent sustained concepts, elaborate trains of thought that require attention and focus—attention and focus that are rewarded for their use.”

    Too often people are making things into books what should essays, blog posts, magazine articles. I think if we can put the quality back in the book than we’ll have a better argument here.

  • Lindsey, I agree. Al Regnery famously said, “Most books are magazine articles, and most magazine articles should never be published.” I think the takeaway is that the chances for success in publishing are in producing better books–books that more often than not do engage readers at that level. When we do publish books like that, they do well and we reap the benefits. It’s like getting reacquainted with why we do what we do: Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer is like this for me. Total breath of fresh air–and a great book. We need to do more books of that quality. That’s where we need to be relentless.

  • Hmm. I mostly agree. I definitely agree with the large point of staying focused. Here’s the thing I’m not certain about – that books as they’ve been structured for three thousand or more years will be as big a part of the culture as they have been for the past fifty years or so. If our customers are readers of “books” as you defined them, what happens if over time only a third as many people want that product?

    I can actually answer that quite easily – what happens is that 50% of the publishers go out of business. And another portion expands into things besides books. All these publishing types talking about being content providers don’t want to risk being in the former group, so they feel like they must embrace the latter.

    Now, quite possibly the number of customers will not diminish too substantially. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable fear, and in that situation the behavior we are seeing makes some sense. My gut says most entities trying to make the transition will fail, and that would tend to support your argument. But all you have to do to find rationality in the behavior is look at the not improbable scenario where the number of readers of “books” goes down a lot.

  • Joel — I’m with you on this one!

    Often times when I hear the advice to “innovate relentlessly,” it is frequently and unfortunately perceived as permission to develop and sustain a kind of corporate ADD.

    I read somewhere “Clarity must precede Creativity.” (Please excuse the shameless self-promotion, however, it speaks to your point.) Organizations are experiencing such a stampede towards “innovation,” they have failed to realize they’ve simultaneously ignored their essential purpose.

    Which, of course, is why so few of their “innovations” have traction in the marketplace.

    Why do we seem to seldom have the conversation about the need to “IMPROVE relentlessly”? My guess is because it’s a lot more fun — and less measurable — to innovate than it is to get better at what it is we are already doing. Customers, however, would rather us get a lot better…than become a lot different.

  • Edward, the concern that the number of readers will diminish is a real one. If the the decline is substantial enough, then several of us will be looking for work, but I would caution that the future isn’t here and to innovate outside your strengths is problematic under any circumstances. It’s a bit like stepping from one unanchored boat to another. It can be done. You can also end up in the drink.

    There is no solution (only math problems have solutions, everything else has tradeoffs), but I think the strategy has to be in-line with what Scott says. We need clarity before we create. I think we’ve lost (and are losing) that clarity so our creativity is mostly futile.

    I think the success will come if we stay focused on books and work toward improving them by constantly seeking to acquire books of excellence (and not settling for less whenever possible).

  • If I may venture in among the more noteworthy folks I see commenting here, I’d like to add my two-cents’ worth:

    1. I’m a church pastor. In the church ministry world, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot a good deal by “innovating relentlessly” without thinking about where we were going. At this point, many churches have exhausted themselves chasing more rabbits than we’ll ever catch. It’s not exactly the same, but it is somewhat relevant. The churches that have succeeded, both from a measurable and from, what I’d say is more important, not-so-measurable perspective have figured out why they were doing things, and then found if they needed to change the methods used to get there. We’ve innovated ourselves into an identity and purpose crisis.

    2. For her birthday/Mother’s Day, I paid a print-on-demand service to print and bind the first two years of my wife’s blog. Just one copy, for archive purposes, basically, because you never know when the digital is going to go away on you. That’s why I still want books, not just ebooks, but real books. I can read a book by a small flashlight in a dark room, and not miss anything. I can pick a book up, read 4 pages while I wait for a customer service representative to come to the phone. The batteries never die in my books, and I can read them by sunlight or candlelight when the electricity is out. Do I want a Kindle or an iPad? Sure. But I will always want books.

    3. Another note from the printed blog: it’s lovely, amateur content. I enjoy her writing. A few other people do as well. She’s even meticulous about spelling and grammar (more than I am!), yet there are still mistakes in the work. There are continuity issues, clarity issues, print layout issues (because they just printed exactly what the RSS fed them, which had some screwy line breaks in it). In short, it’s a novelty, not a real book. There is a difference in professional content and amateur content. It’s reflected in the difference in karaoke and real musicians, the difference in YouTube and Spielberg. As book publishers, publish professional content. Books written by people that have learned to write, edited and printed by people that understand those processes. The outcome is superior.

    4. Don’t push the people that are skilled in one area to produce content or methods they are not skilled to produce. This one comes back to being a pastor. I’m serving a small church. I’m the preacher, but I’m also the web designer, podcast producer, and financial advisor. Guess what? Our website is stock, our podcasts are decent, but neither are really impressive. Why? Because I’m trained in preaching, teaching, history, languages, but not HTML5 or sound engineering. When book publishers press into areas beyond books, while I hate to be the saboteur here, they should wait until they know they’re going to be good at what they’re getting into. Because if I’m paying my limited “content” budget, it had better be worth the money. It’s actually why I haven’t been in a movie theater for more than 3 films in 4 years. Too much money, not enough quality. With theaters, it’s the whole experience that isn’t worth it. With books, if you attempt to increase the “experience,” the quality’s got to be there in all of it, or the whole product will suffer. There are enough other producers of mediocre content to send money to, that book publishers will suffer deeply if they do it poorly. Better to do the simple well than to do the complex badly.

    Will book publishing have to change? Certainly. Between e-This and i-That, not to mention that someday, someone’s liable to decide to tax paper making since it requires cutting down trees (I’m ok with cutting down trees—we’re heavy in timber industry down here), the flood of books that I see in Wal-mart has got to slow down.

    I will, however, continue to buy good quality books. Because that can’t be replaced.


  • I completely, totally, utterly agree. Just finished reading a novel, Poisonwood Bible, that floated like a symphony, had crescendo, forte, pianisssimo, repeating staccoto of truth, mind-sweeping rhythm and theme, and brought the reader right back around to the original–but much changed point–at the end. It was exquisite. Non-fiction can do the same (which is my ultimate goal with the books I hope to someday publish). But they CAN’T if they’re informatical, grammatical, unpoetic conglomerations of words and ideas (sorry, but business and vision books come to mind). No, writers must be more than that. Writers must be artists. Writers must be called back to use their fragile pens as brushes instead of thickened, pecking fingers. Writers must be composers. I, for one, do not want that sort of symphony to be lost. Thank you for this!

  • Joel, I think you’re right on here. I was nearly nabbed by the “content provider” argument, but you have saved me from that nonsense. Kudos.

  • I wonder if I am the only one out there who views a good book as a multi-sensory experience? Not video and sound, either :-).

    For me, a “good book” is something with a great story, yes, but a “good book” also emits a wonderful, other-worldly smell that cause memories to linger with me in the moment.

    I can touch it, turning pages…which fans that wonderful scent toward my face all the more. 🙂

    Also, any books–even fiction books–that resonate with me, I highlight and make notes in the margins. A good book becomes just one more volume in my chronicle of my personal earth journey. One of my favorite books is Healing Shine, and I remember feeling that the author wrote from the perspective of a fly on a stall wall aboutmy life with one of my horses. I argued with him in the margins and highlighted passages of brilliance that held keys that I had, apparently, missed in my own experience.

    For me, the best thing in the world is snuggling up next to a fire on a cool, rainy day…a mug of white chocolate cappuccino in one hand, and a good book (highlighter nearby) in the other…scents from both mingling…ah…heaven! I can never imagine replacing paper bound between covers with anything electronic. 🙂 It just seems like literary infidelity to me. Er…well, something like that.

    Just my .02 worth. 🙂

  • I love this discussion, especially your analogy comparing books to symphonies, Joel. I think publishers might want to not worry so much about technology replacing real live books, but instead, figure out more ways of finding the symphonies that are ready to soar. I think that task is a bigger challenge than the new technology. With all the writing books, writing conferences, and writing blogs, many people find encouragement to write, even if they are not ready for publication. Being able to locate the symphonies can be like panning for gold–a lot of fool’s gold to sift through, but every so often, the sifting will produce nuggets of pure gold.

  • I think we need to define what we mean by “content provider.” I think that Tod is using it to emphasize that we should be developing great content, regardless of the delivery mechanism. I think you would agree, Joel. Whether we deliver in print or in a digital format doesn’t really matter.

    However, I think you are bringing an important distinction to this conversation. As book publishers, we are experts at publishing long-form, text-based content. This is where our core competency lies. We are not video producers nor audio producers, though we occasionally produce these as ancillary products.

    While people are reading blogs and magazines, watching videos, and listening to audios, I still believe there is a huge market for immersive text experiences where authors have the opportunity to develop their arguments or stories and where readers have the opportunity to use their cognitive and imaginative skills.

  • I think the fact that we have to define “content provider” is part of the problem. It’s too broad. The strength of being mindful of our role as book publishers (as distinct from content providers) is that it’s focused. I think formats have minimal impact on the “bookness” of a book. (Tom Wolfe’s experiment with audio-only thirteen years ago is interesting in that regard.) But the moment we forget we’re doing books, we get into the weeds.

    I’m defining book as a sustained discussion or story. Format is not a part of the definition because books have historically not been format-dependent. The Book of Joshua was a scroll before it was a codex before it was an audiobook before it was an ebook before it was an iPhone ap. I do think saying “long-form, text-based content” is helpful because it defines what kind of content and keeps it in the forefront.

  • Great dialogue here. Love the stimulating thoughts. Not sure if I will properly articulate my thoughts but here goes… I think we all agree that how people choose to consume their content is vastly changing with availability and portability. Fragmentation and niche offerings are altering the game to enable the consumer to have many options on how they want to consume content, but it doesn’t change the core of what that content is (in my opinion). I think we can get all wrapped up in the main medium to which something is distributed and we end up having an identity issue. Just like people referred to music as a CD, Tape, or 8Track a while back. When iTunes launched I didn’t know what to call it when I went to download something. I remember thinking, “Do I call it a CD? An album? What?” The content (in this example music) becomes synonymous with the medium (iTunes, CD, Tape) but the content is the same regardless of how we consume it (mostly). The experience of consuming the content might change but the base content is the same. It’s great music that people want, regardless of the way it gets to them. The content of books is much the same. When I want a good book, I just want a good book but I have come to associate the word “book” with what I experience as the content within a book (not a magazine article and not a blog post but rather something with some length, thought, chapters and expanded content). I may choose to read it in its traditional form of hardcover or paperback… or I may listen to it on iTunes or download it to an eReader. If book publishers focus on making good books, however books are defined, then that is a key. Develop good authors, expand on distribution opportunities and leverage technology to offer books on the hottest mediums (devices) but keep the content king versus just the way it’s delivered. If content slips because we’re chasing the medium alone then we’re all toast.

  • Well, I’m not a publisher. Nor am I particularly published–with a scant few not-quite-worth-mentioning exceptions. But I am a reader, and I am a professional proponent of the transfer of ideas and knowledge, regardless of the medium. Books still seem to be the most popular mechanism on our planet. I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon. Granted, I may be a bit of a (non-militant) Luddite in that regard, driven by a personal preference to have a blue, medium, ball-point pen in one hand when I’m reading a book.

    And an iPad doesn’t like ball-point pen.

    But that aside, there’s one phrase that particularly resonated with me. You said, “A book engages the mind and emotions in a rewarding and thoroughly unique way.”

    I’d abstract it even one level back, to the source of a book. In my humble opinion (as one looking forward to being a published author), a book is an author’s invitation to dialogue, at least an internal dialogue, but more likely a public one. It’s the instigation of a conversation.

    If I think a thought and do nothing else with it, it may change me, but when I’m gone, it’s gone. If I think a thought and write it down, it takes on a new life, and can outlive me. Books are the closest thing we have to a handle on an earthbound eternity. At least for now.

    And that’s pretty powerful.

    There may be inherent conflicts of interest when we treat books as economic sources of livelihood instead of uncontrollable containers for ideas. But on the other hand, there’s a relationship between financial backing and popularity. So long as rich people are smart people and good people, which may be a stretch, we’ll be getting the best of other people’s ideas.

    Your job as publishers is not to provide us with content, but to provide us with brilliantly and exquisitely and elegantly organized and articulated content from intelligent and insightful authors. THAT is something special.

  • I think that current emphasis on media-rich ebooks is a rehashing of the multimedia CD-ROM fad of the 1990s, which went no where. Interactive CD-ROMs were to be the next big thing, but it didn’t happen.

    While today’s devices make it a bit more convenient to access content, which was partially the problem with CD-ROMs, current rich-media, like television, DVDs, etc, have not done away with books. When you replace the written word with something more “immersive,” you loose something. I don’t foresee traditional text-only books going away anytime soon.

  • Joel –

    There is a lot of talk about enhanced ebooks. I do think they will catch on in some areas such as children’s books and reference product. Still, I am amazed even at Nelson how many publishers want to do them, but can not yet answer these basic questions:

    1. Why do we believe there might be a market for digital versions of our product?
    2. What is the consumer need we are fulfilling?
    3. How do we know that consumer need exists for this product?
    4. What does the product look like?
    5. What platform(s) will the consumer utilize for this product? (iPhone, Android, etc.)
    6. Who is the target customer?
    7. How would we market the product to the target consumer?
    8. Are all your assets properly digitized in XML?

    Some say that the customer does not know what they want. Perhaps, but understanding some of these fundamantal questions will give pubishers a better chance at devleoping relevant products.

  • I agree with these questions, Tod. Also, I find that a lot of people who are driving for this ARE NOT READERS THEMSELVES! Hello?

    We need to build books that WE want to read. If we do this, we won’t be led astray. I do read a lot and frankly don’t need more distractions. This stuff may work for short-form, magazine time publications, but I do not see it being very valuable beyond that.

    By the way, so much of what people are describing already exists. It’s called “a web page.” I think we are in a completely different business.

  • “It’s like Patton’s Third Army saying they’re about munitions instead of Berlin.” This is why I love you. You’re grounded. [No, that doesn’t mean you’re in trouble and have to stay home.] It means you’ve got the right legs for all the plates that seem to be shifting beneath us. And you still believe it’s about great books.

  • I agree with the quality argument. We will always need professional publishers to deliver a superior experience. However, as I read the description of books/symphonies as “elaborate trains of thought that require attention and focus—attention and focus that are rewarded for their use” I was reminded of the myriad video games that offer exactly that. Ever watched someone playing a video game? Ever tried to divert their attention? Nigh impossible, be they teen or adult. They can play for hours without interruption.

    It made me wonder, how is escape in the form of an immersive game any different from escape in the form of an immersive book? I can think of two ways. A (fiction) book requires active use of the imagination, whereas a game simply requires fast reflexes and focused attention. Both can make time fly, but the after effects are very different. A game taps into adrenaline and left-brain logic, so it leaves you mentally exhausted from all that fast decision-making. A (fiction) book, on the other hand, taps into the day-dreaming right-brain creative side of the brain, so it leaves you calmer. It’s easy to see how a bored person might choose the excitement of a game, whereas a mentally-tired person might prefer the peace and calm of a good book and some silence.

    Will printed books become a class differentiator, just as symphonies/ballet/opera have become since movies (for the masses) were introduced? If e-books (like movies) are cheaper, faster, more convenient, they may very well outsell printed books over time. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I am hopeful that this will restore the level of quality in publishing, so that a book is once more, a work of art, worthy of re-reading at a later date. How many books can we say that about these days?

  • Joel:
    I think you hit the nail on the head with “it’s about books. Forget all the other crap and focus on books. Print, audio, electronic? Yes, sure, definitely—but don’t forget what it is that we are doing.” When, as publishers, we start thinking of ourselves as video producers, multi-media producers, etc. we tend to take our eye off the ball that we need to hit – intriguing content that grabs people and makes them think, or laugh, or cry, or whatever endless variety of responses the author is seeking to elicit. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by the three-ring circus that multi-media opens up, we are likely to settle for less distinctive core content and then try to distract from that with all the lights and smoke of multi-media. Big mistake. That said, I think we do need to embrace being “content providers” in the sense that people now want the content – a compelling “symphony of words” as you put it – provided in many forms. A traditional book for reading by the fireplace, an ebook version for the plane trip, and perhaps an audio version for the morning run. Same content, different ways of providing it. When we can provide that type of content in many forms with one easy delivery mechanism, then we truly will have improved upon the concept of “book”. If we are going to be “content providers” that is where our focus should be.

  • Belinda and Bruce: I think your comments taken together are illustrative. Belinda: You’re right about the “flow” state that people playing games can find themselves in. Publishers just have no natural strengths in creating those experiences outside of books–though there are those who suggest that we should develop that direction despite this limitation. And for clarification, I’m not against ebooks. I think we should publish books in all formats that make sense. To your point, Bruce, this is the context in which “content provider” label works. But I frankly don’t see it as a fundamentally helpful label. It requires additional explanation and elaboration to and is open-ended enough that people without the explanation and elaboration fall prey to pipe dreams masquerading as new business models.

  • Joel,

    Compelling and erudite assessment of the situation. I am not a publisher. I am not responsible for a bottom line. But I am a prolific consumer of “sustained discussions and stories that immerse…hearts and minds.”

    I read books for the same reason that I would rather run or walk through a city than drive or ride a bus. I want to breathe it, hear its sounds, feel the thrum of it around me, dodge a stray cat or hover over a warm grate to escape a wind tunnel. There is an intensity of experience in walking a city, or reading a book, that will never be found on an air conditioned bus or in a book/audio/visual presentation that callouses the senses.

    There will always be people who will want to be told what to think, what to like, how to vote, what to wear. And there will definitely be people who like books that do all the work of imagination for them. And that’s fine. But I am not one of them. Give me a story that makes me work. Create characters that invade my thoughts long after I finish reading about them. Present me with paradox and turmoil, with courage and creativity, with LIFE, audacious, organic and raw. Trust me, the reader, to fill in the details. I will. I promise.

    Incidentally, method of delivery does not for a moment intrude upon the experience of bringing a book to life. Truly, I love the feel and smell of books. Holding one in my hands brings me great joy, and I have been known to choose one over the other because of the way it feels in my hands. But audio books have given me the wonderful ability to incorporate more reading into my life, and I am grateful for them. I am not, as yet, the owner of an iPad or a Kindle. But, as I am preparing to travel for over a month in Europe with only a backpack, I am somewhat regretting this fact.

    Whether or not you want to be the producer of the “enhanced book” is a question I am not qualified to address. But, PLEASE, do not abandon books that allow the reader a part in their creation. It is tragic to imagine there might come a time when we would no longer possess the capacity to do this.

    Thanks for the provocation.


  • What is standing before the world’s book publishers today is an unprecedented opportunity in a marketplace that apart from the Amazon phenomenon has changed little over many generations. As sure as the internet and e-Commerce created sales opportunity on which Amazon leveraged its book sales platform, the e-Book and e-Reading devices will create a new even larger sales opportunity . However what I hear from many publishers is terror in their voices as they bestow the woes of losing control of copyright material and therefore not receiving revenues that are due to them or their authors. May I suggest that what they should be doing is embracing the technology and delivering their product to the widest possible paying audience and therefore serving their authors by providing the optimum in global distribution. Publishers now have the opportunity to promote authors and books to a global market hungry for literature, without the burden or investment required to print the physical book. It is the content of the book that should create the best seller, not the great looking cover on the bookshelf. In recent years the Amazon recommendation engine has proven the concept that we listen to our fellow book readers, remember the time when we just looked at the cover in the bookstore and then hoped our chosen book would be as enjoyable as the cover depicted. The eBook will be distributed via recommendation, social networking and viral marketing techniques something far more powerful than a shelf in a bookstore.
    In a 2008 study Accenture projected the digital book (e and audio) marketplace will be worth $8bn by 2013. More recently another predication in a research paper produced by Morgan Stanley stated that internet access via cell phones will exceed that of PCs by 2013. It has taken Apple with its iPhone and iPad to turn the industry on its head. The billing relationship that Apple has secured through its iTunes store is now being leveraged to distribute books. Apple claims to have a 16% market share in the smart phone market, what will happen when the other 84% start producing devices that are as compelling as the iPhone and the iPad and the mobile operators start leveraging their billing relationships. I actually have two products on my desk today that I believe will surpass sales of the iPad in 2010-11 and make no apologies to explain that my company is at the forefront of distributing books across mobile networks. This means I spend a lot of my time discussing our distribution technology with both publishers and traditional retailers. To illustrate the power of this distribution model and the technology, recently one of our ‘white label’ e-Book stores sent out 1.2m SMS txt messages to its cell phone subscriber base, offering a free bestselling book; don’t worry the cellular provided purchased the e-books and the publisher received the revenue. Over an 8 hour period in excess of 25,000 books were downloaded to various smart phone devices. My thoughts as a marketer were; why would anyone download a bestselling novel if they were not actually a book reader themselves, and yes, they want books delivered to their smart phone devices. Furthermore a 2% response rate without specifically targeting smart phone or large screen devices is very compelling. When you also consider that the average mobile operator may have at best a 20%-25% base of smart phone users, the assumption could be made that only 300,000 of those SMS text messages where actually received by viable e-Reader devices…which means that they actually received a 8.33% response rate. I think that most marketing professionals would love that type of response from any campaign.
    Finally and to reiterate the origin of this blog…..Books are a medium from which we relax, educate, and entertain ourselves. For many a book is the one thing that relieves the stresses and strains of everyday life. A good book when read at every opportune moment rejuvenates us, keeping us alert and helping us appreciate life. Publishers everywhere the table is set and you have the opportunity to serve the highest quality product at a price afforded by the masses while maintaining or even increasing profitability. Expanding your markets, evangelizing your product without the burden of the investment required to print and traditional distribute. Alternatively, as technology creates a much larger opportunity and passes you by, be stubborn and protect that traditional model. I also remember how the same industry, amid similar fears, fought hard against the arrival of desktop publishing in the mid 80’s.
    Finally, the digital download era has indeed changed the way we distribute music and closed down many Music stores, unfortunately traditional Book Stores face the same plight. I do accept however that a book should not be compared to popular music; it is a symphony, a concerto, a cherished form of art. However, the last time I actually frequented a music store there was indeed a sizable classical section.

  • Mark Taylor

    I’m a publisher, and my colleagues and I publish our book content in numerous media (traditional ink-on-paper bound books, audio books, e-books). I read lots of books, but some are consumed only orally. As an example, my wife and I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. But our “reading” took the form of listening to the audio book as distributed by It was a wonderful experience, and we’ve recommended the book to many friends. And regardless of the medium, interaction with the underlying book content is a rich experience.

    As a publisher, my job is to get the author’s message into the hearts and heads of my customers. I hope most will still prefer to do it via traditional printed books, but my own experience reminds me that various customers will prefer the book in various media. So we will provide our books in various media.

  • I totally agree with you about the importance of books. As neat and as exciting as computers and multimedia can make things, books will, or at least shouldn’t ever be replaced. Books are one of the most valuable ways that we have to pass on information from one generation to the next. Books also allow people to communicate in a way that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I really like that you said that books allow people to provide a sustained argument with sufficient supporting documentation. Books are essential to progress.

  • Ali

    Joel, you ask the question of whether publishers can compete with twitter (and facebook for that matter), and I think this raises an interesting point. Lately I have seen several books that are being published and that have been highly promoted on twitter prior to their publication. I do not think twitter is a bad way to promote a book, but I wonder about the authors who do not have twitter accounts and who are not touting their books on this medium. I am aware that social media is an important part of the communication process in today’s world, but I am also leery of people who shamelessly promote their books–and the fact that their books are selling out in different venues–on twitter. There are many, many excellent authors who do not use twitter to promote their books, and these people are just as worthy of being read as the others who are out there constantly promoting their books on twitter.

    Now I am not an author–as I am aware that you are–so I do not understand all the dynamics behind the publicity for the publication of a book. But I have a particular concern for Christian authors who seem to be more concerned with the dollar signs behind the publication of their book rather than spreading the Gospel or a Christian message of hope that needs to be heard in today’s world.

  • Brian Hampton

    Great conversation. I’m glad you’re leading it, Joel. If we are going to “find the future,” as Michael Hyatt would put it, it is vital to understand what draws people to books specifically rather than content generally. Forget all the arguments about things like physical books vs. e-books. Our target audience is book lovers. Why do people who love books love them?

    I don’t think we can afford to listen to the counsel of people who rarely read books because they do not understand the powerful, fundamental motivations of our audience. Paul Theroux said in the current Atlantic fiction edition, “Fiction writing, and the reading of it, and book buying, have always been the activities of a tiny minority of people, even in the most-literate societies.” You could say roughly the same thing about non-fiction writing, reading, and book buying. We are serving that minority. Obviously we must develop all sorts of strategies and tactics, but it starts with understanding why that minority is drawn to the book-reading experience again and again.

  • AJ

    Good stuff, Joel! In my opinion, Christian books are getting predictable because so many take a tired strategy: 1) Pick a thesis. 2) Write a series of illutrations and anecdotes and arguments about the thesis. 3) Turn a god 15-page pamphlet into a 200-page book with a bunch of personal anecdotes. If publishers want more innovation, seek to impove the books! No more books that should have been magazine articles. The thesis-book is overplayed in Christian publishing. Write stories!

  • Lee and Low Books is an independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity. They take pride in nurturing many minority authors and illustrators who are new to the world of children’s book publishing.

    For more about their history and their books, visit:
    Minority Book Publisher