Should publishers sell their own e-readers?

Should publishers sell their own e-readers?

Digital reading is growing in popularity and e-readers and tablets are becoming more popular by the month. Until now, this is entirely the domain of the retailers. Who are, logically as you can conclude, able to lure the customer into their stores and bind them to their brand (draw this line a bit further and you're talking about Amazon, wanting to claim the complete the chain). And here is where the opportunity looks around the corner: why shouldn’t publishers do the same? Sell ​​your 'own' e-reader or tablet, make sure it gets a pre-installed application of your own store and give-away some of your e-books with the device. In that way you can bind the digital reader to you, in your ecosystem, and maybe even create an advantage on the competition.

This statement was made by Dutch media and entertainment lawyer Hans Bousie, who regularly writes columns for Boekblad (the Dutch equivalent of The Bookseller). On occasion he uses these columns to pose a statement that makes you (someone in the book world) really think for a minute. At least, that is his intention. And with this last column he did this quite successful. Normally, I only quote his columns on Twitter and in my weekly digital digest and leave it by that. But this time I thought it was such an interesting thought, that I wanted to give it a bigger podium. Because it is both an interesting statement to think about, as a very complex one to implement, if you would like to even go there.

As I said, an interesting thought. And, why not? In theory, something like this is certainly possible. But as I also stated, it is complex to implement. I will try to explain why.

First the pros:

  • You build up a (more) direct relationship with your readers.
  • It is a new business model (selling hardware), which might be interesting in times of declining revenues from physical sales.
  • You can take the lead in the attention of your titles on such a device.
  • Or, in other words: you are less dependent on what the ‘big ones’ do.

 But there are also cons:

  • Do you as a publisher also want to become (in part) a retailer?
  • How do you fit this in in your organization?
  • What are the effects of such an operation on your relationship with the bookstores?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the possible disadvantages (costs, relationship with existing clients)?
  • Doesn’t this shift the focus of the publisher too much?
  • How does such a structure relate to the e-readers with pre-installed titles that are already available (at least in The Netherlands)? And, how can you, as a publisher, then still benefit from this?
  • And suppose you would decide to do this, what e-reader would choose and why?
  • And if you choose a popular device (let’s say the new Sony Reader T1), would you mind customers rooting it (one of the factors of success for some e-readers)?

That publishers are increasingly moving towards direct sales of their content is something you already see at this moment, and what will even grow bigger in the future. But what shouldn’t be underestimated, is the relationship you have with the bookstores. A relationship that exists for many, many years. One you do not want to put at risk in an eyes blink. Because the physical book is still, in most countries, the biggest form and go through the regular channels. Besides that, there is also a big difference between selling content yourself and selling your own e-reader with that content. If you are undergoing a transformation towards retail, there are also organizational changes to it, in terms of sales, development (your own store application) and support. And certainly the latter should not be underestimated. Neither with the direct sales of content as a matter of fact. Is there a problem with the book, the e-book, the shipment or the e-reader, the client must be able to come to you. You need manpower, expertise and time for that. A large investment in itself in some respects.

Nevertheless, I find it a very interesting thought, which I am very curious about what others think. Would you, as a consumer, buy an e-reader from a publisher (with like 10 titles pre-installed and a branded store, where you also can buy content from other publishers of course)? Or do you do still prefer a retailer? And for the publishers: would you even think about making steps like these? Or is it a no-go area, to farfetched or impossible to turn into a success?