In 1447 a new technology was introduced that revolutionized reading and the dissemination of information, it was called the printing press. Suddenly books could be printed quickly and cheaply. It was the beginning of the era of mass produced books.
In 1999 a new technology was introduced that revolutionized access to music and dissemination of information, it was called Napster. Napster ushered in the era of peer-to-peer file sharing. The music industry was slow to accept this technology and at first tried to kill it. They failed. P2P is hear to stay and in fact is distribution method of choice for music. Ignoring P2P as a distribution model did not help the music industries profits but in fact hurt them!
In 2001 Apple unveiled iTunes and the music industry finally saw the light. iTunes sales have continued to rise since the launch. In addition to reducing the friction associated with online music distribution Apple coincidentally reinforced the power of the Long Tail by making hundreds of thousands of songs available. They suddenly made it possible to monetize the back catalogue of many record companies.
And what does all this have to do with book publishing? Changes to the distribution model. Book publishers have not embraced online delivery of their content. As a result fewer books are sold than could possibly be sold. While speaking at Google’s Unbound event Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, informed an audience of several hundred publishers that the average book sells 500 copies per year, “a depressing statistic” that places over a third of books squarely in the long tail.
I love books, I love to read. The problem with books is that you don’t know what you are getting until it is too late. Wouldn’t it be great if you could do a book only search on a subject and then get excerpts from the book? This would allow you to find the best book for your needs not just the only book your library or bookstore has! In fact if you find the right book then you can go to your favourite library or book store and request it.
It is unfortunate that many book publishers do not see online access to their content as beneficial. The overwhelming popularity of sites like Youtube and iTunes is a clear indication that digital distribution is the way of the future. Publishers have two choices: embrace this new model or reject it. My bet is the publishers that embrace online distribution are the publishers we’ll be hearing from in ten or twenty years.