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Hachette v Amazon: where do publishers add value?

There has been much noise generated by Amazon’s dispute with Hachette (see, for example, “Amazon’s page turner", FT Sat Aug 16 2014). Most recently, over 900 authors placed an advert complaining at Amazon’s imposition of a maximum price on e-books.

Does any of this matter? Publishers claim they are suffering because their margins are being eroded by a powerful supplier. The real battle is elsewhere. In terms of market structure, publishers are only getting what they deserve. Trade publishing is the most primitive kind of publishing. Despite a brief flurry of technology producing e-books, the nature of print publishing has changed very little with the advent of digital. A paradox of XML is that publishing was one of the last industries to adopt XML widely, yet publishing was the very industry for which it was invented. Trade publishing remains largely a commodity business at the retail end – at least, that’s how Amazon views it.

Is Amazon squeezing margins in trade publishing? You could argue that margins are high. One example is classic paperback fiction. The average price of a classic paperback in the UK (say Oxford World’s Classics, or Penguin Classics) is around £9.99, approximately double the cost of a similar classic fiction title in France (Folio, Livre de Poche). Yet far more people read English than read French – hence print runs should be bigger for English-language titles.

What value do publishers typically add to trade publishing? If all they produce is the text, then digital publishing shows how easy it is to provide that text via a download without payment. For most publishing, but especially fiction and academic, the publisher adds value by its reputation. For classic fiction they add editorial apparatus such as explanatory notes and introductions. For non-fiction, they add colour (for cookery books) and for a very few publishers they add the ability to integrate text and images on the page – the leading exponent here was Dorling Kindersley. In that case, it could be said that the publisher added value. But for fiction publishing, the role of the publisher is often confined to copy-editing, and pretty poorly at that, in many cases.

One sad thing about print publishing is that is pretty much guarantees a complete separation between the publisher and the consumer. In twenty years of working in publishing I had just one visit to a bookshop paid by my employer: as part of my training, I watched the sales rep supplying local bookstores with their Christmas titles. And if I had seen anyone actually buying a book, it would have been coincidental. For the most part, publishers might as well publish into a vacuum. Digital changes the relationship between producer, the platform, and the end user.

Bookshops, in contrast, do add value to the publishing process: they provide discoverability. The classic market research on buying trade books suggested that customers go into a bookshop to buy a book, and come out with a book, but frequently the book they buy was not the one they went into the bookshop to buy. This happens rarely if ever with online bookbuying via Amazon. I carried out a straw poll in my household (n=4) and although one respondent claimed to have selected a title on Amazon they didn’t know about when they entered the site, such book-buying patterns must be the exception.

How could publishers add value? Stand-up fights with Amazon over margins are not a long-term solution. Publishers would do better to consider ways in which they could add value, for example by setting up communities of readers. People who read the same book usually have an interest in talking about it with others. Even if their interest is limited to stating ostentatiously how many books they have read by an author, or how many time they have read this or that book, that is nonetheless a potential community. Yet the number of publishers who have engaged seriously with developing communities of interest or communities of practice around their books is tiny.

So what is the future for publishing? A truly innovative publisher would explore the consequences of digital publishing to learn more about what happens before and after the reading process. Students and researchers read a text because they have to answer questions on it; researchers consult a text because they want to solve a problem or find a solution. Structuring the content to facilitate use is where value is added. Some academic publishers have started to investigate this process seriously.