The increasing market dominance of Amazon and the relentless advance of the e-book are changing the face of the whole industry. It's time for some radical rethinking.
The dramatic decrease in high street bookselling that seems to be heading our way would mean two things. Firstly, with no shop window for their books, publishers would see their marketing opportunities greatly reduced. Perhaps more importantly, they would suffer a dramatic loss of market control. This year, for the first time, most publishers' biggest customer is not Waterstone's.
The purchase of The Book Depository by Amazon will fuel the demand for yet higher discounts and longer credit periods. E-books offer a similar control risk. Agents taking away rights, authors demanding bigger royalties, and more power given to a certain retailer that has the power to bypass publishers altogether; these factors cannot be good news.
So should we stick our heads in the sand like EMI et al and wish it away? Or is there something publishers can do to avoid the fate digitalisation wrought on the music industry? Well yes, as it happens, there is something that would strengthen the hand of publishers while at the same time slowing down the closure of the high street bookseller. It is called “free”, and it is very simple.
When a customer buys a physical book they get the e-book bundled in free. In many ways this is less radical than it sounds. When you buy a CD in a shop you can make a back-up copy on your computer, and although technically breaching copyright, people have been known to transfer these onto their iPod.
A concern might be that if the e-book was part of a package and not paid for, sales would be lost. However it's clear that the reverse would be true. Very few people currently buy both forms of a book separately, so only a tiny proportion of sales would go—and one thing we know for sure about British consumers is that they love a bargain. More copies of books would undoubtedly be sold and it would return power to the physical book and its publisher. Some people would continue to buy the electronic version on its own—like the people who use iTunes to buy their music.
At a stroke it would blow open restrictive use of DRM (Digital Rights Management) as every e-reader would have to be able to accept these free books, or risk becoming obsolete. Regular bookshop customers lost to Kindle would be able to buy their books (in whatever form) from their favourite bookseller again.
Digital would cease to be a threat, and instead it would be a shot in the arm for the traditional physical book, adding value at no actual cost to the publisher or the author.
Giving away something that's valuable yet costs you nothing. Now that is radical.