Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue


Is Publishing’s Distribution Game In for a Big Change?

The Tim O’Reilly fourth annual Tools of Change Conference just finished up 24 Feb 2010. This conference has become a heavy hitter event in publishing in four short years. Much spectacular news concerning new evolutions in publishing came out at the gathering but none more spectacular than O’Reilly, himself, entering the distribution business for ebooks! And in a BIG way.

I really got an insight into the distribution part of the publishing process reading Mike Shatzkin’s 4th March post on the Shatzkin Files RE O’Reilly’s foray into the distribution business:

One of the most significant pieces of news to come out of Tools of Change is that O’Reilly is going into the distribution business for ebooks. This is indeed, a “tool” of change. It is also a harbinger of times to come that threaten a lot of big companies: major publishers; the big distributors like Perseus, NBN, and IPG; the digital asset distributors including Ingram, LibreDigital, North Point codeMantra, and the fledgling operation at Bookmasters; as well as the digital wholesaling operations at Ingram, Content Reserve, and Baker & Taylor.

The O’Reilly offer is to do whatever conversion is necessary to deliver files to a wide range of ebook channels for free and then to make the ebooks available through that retailing network for a charge of 25% of the dollars received. One prospective client told me that O’Reilly is willing to do a one-year contract.

This both an object lesson and a serious shot across the bow of the legacy giants of the print book business.

We’ve made the point here before that big publishers have a competitive advantage built on print-world capabilities, among them being the ability to get fast printings and reprints; the ability to quickly move books in and out of a distribution center; the ability to ship books according to the receiving requirements of many intermediaries, large and small; and a strong sales network with accounts, mostly brick-and-mortar, that sell printed books. All of these things require pretty massive scale. You couldn’t consider doing them well yourself for a $1 million (in sales) company or a $10 million company and it would be challenging to be competitive doing them with a $50 million company.

The scale required to do effective print book distribution affects both the supply and the demand in the distribution business. It means there are a lot of companies too small to do it well for themselves (creating lots of demand) and very few companies with the scale to do it well (creating a limited supply of providers.) Even so, as the need for scale along with declining overall sales have driven the big publishers deeper and deeper into the distribution business (pushing up the supply of distributors), prices for distribution have fallen steadily for at least the past decade.

Of course, anything that requires expertise benefits from some scale to develop it. And that’s what O’Reilly has in digital distribution. Partly because of the nature of the company’s audience, but largely because they have been aggressive and innovative about exploring every conceivable avenue for ebook distribution and developing a tool set that makes it possible for them to try new channels and opportunities quickly, O’Reilly has more scale, and therefore more expertise, than anybody else in consumer ebook distribution (except, arguably, some publishers in the romance space.) It is quite believeable that they can put ebooks into more channels with more efficiency than anybody else. And that’s an expertise that is largely (but not completely) topic-agnostic.

So we have a real Man Bites Dog story here. In the print world, O’Reilly is distributed by Ingram, which has invested heavily in ebook distribution. But not only does Ingram not get to be the distributor of their client’s ebooks, O’Reilly is issuing what amounts to an open invitation for all other publishers, including their fellow distributees at Ingram, to use them for ebook distribution.

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