Publishing 2.0: Content Is Marketing, Profits Come From The Packaging

from the moving-with-the-times dept

Publishers find themselves confronted by a difficult dilemma at the moment. On the one hand, they might want e-books to succeed, because digital devices represent a huge new market to which they can sell their back catalogs. On the other, they might want them to fail, because e-books will cannibalize sales of traditional books, and it's not yet clear how low the price of e-books will have to go in order to avoid the kind of piracy problems the recording industry exacerbated through persistent overcharging.

But maybe publishers can have it both ways selling high-volume, low-price e-books, and small-run, high-price physical books. As a recent feature in the Guardian devoted to the rebirth of "beautiful books" put it:

What the rise of electronic publishing has done, rather, is create a context in which the book's two distinct incarnations as beautiful object and as a set of vaporous pixels - are linked not by "or" but "and".

This is certainly what they believe at the Folio Society. You might think that a company that has dedicated itself since 1947 to publishing exquisite editions of classic texts everything from Beowulf to Elizabeth David's Italian Food would be feeling glum about its chances in this new landscape. But David Hayden, the publishing director and a bookselling veteran, is feeling perky. An unabashed fan of new technology, he reckons the result of the seismic shifts in publishing will mean "fewer and better-produced books". In particular he believes in the model of the "retroactive purchase", which goes something like this. You buy an e-reader and, at a stroke, have access to thousands of out-of-print classics via Project Gutenberg. One evening, at a loose end, you download The Mill on the Floss, having always wondered vaguely what it was about. You find yourself transfixed. You love this book, you really do, and want to suggest it to your book group. So you buy the Penguin Classic edition, because it's easy to scribble on and pass around. And then, when your Mum's birthday comes around she loves George Eliot and has been on at you for ages to take the plunge you give her a handsome presentation copy of the book, bound in buckram and silk, the sort of thing that the Folio Society does surpassingly well.
The rise of beautiful books described in the article is a classic example of using abundance to make money from scarcity. Freely-available e-books encourage people to read a text they might not have encountered otherwise. When they discover they enjoy it, they decide to buy it in a form that enhances the pleasure of reading a high-quality physical book.

This phenomenon is why publishers should not see low e-book prices which are likely to come, whether they want it or not, not least because of Amazon's growing power as the end of the world. In the digital age, where raw information can and will be copied freely, it no longer makes sense to pursue a business model based largely on selling what's inside the book. Instead, publishers should think about the unique elements of the content's packaging, which can't be shared in this way. That's exactly what companies built around open source have done, and Red Hat is now a billion-dollar business.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    frosty840, 8 Feb 2012 @ 1:27am

    Still missing...

    Still missing the "Click here to just hand over some money to the author (and the author's publishing, editing and typesetting team, according to the author's contractual obligations, etc.)" button, but otherwise a pretty decent outlook.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Yogi, 8 Feb 2012 @ 2:32am

    I'm in

    I'm sure Hayden will make a lot of money in this environment as ebooks and paper books are not mutually exclusive at all. Any book lover will tell you that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Loki, 8 Feb 2012 @ 3:07am

    Re: I'm in

    Agreed. While it is vastly more convenient to have the majority of my book collection in digital form these days, there are still certain books/authors I refuse to give up my physical copies of (or certain ebooks I've read that I want the physical copies of).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Dionaea (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 3:51am

    Re: Re: I'm in

    I agree as well, a lot of the books I've read for free are things I'd otherwise never have read or bought. And it's not just special editions in my case, I like owning an actual copy of books I really like, even if it's just a paperback. In my case I've also downloaded books which I already own just for convenience, I think it would be ideal if publishers would supply an ebook with the real copy (preferably for free, but I'd also be willing to pay a bit extra).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    SomeGuy, 8 Feb 2012 @ 4:13am

    Re: I'm in

    Seconded. There are benefits to both digital and physical books. Digital is great because I can carry my whole library with me on long business trips, or just about anywhere else I go. It's quick and convenient. But you can't put an ebook on a bookshelf or a coffee table. A huge portion of my home decoration centers around books, and I don't see that going away any time soon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Isaac the k (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 4:50am

    physical culture will always exist

    Just as Facebook friends don't substitute for physical relationships, ephemeral goods are a means to enhance the value of real, scarce ones.

    Here's a good article I read on that just this morning: -friendship/

    A large swath of religious Jews openly embrace the digital revolution with ebooks of sacred texts, yet will gladly pay $60 or more for a folio of Talmud that's leather bound and laser printed for them to take their copious notes in. But you can get all that and more on your phone with a $15 app.

    People value high quality physical products, whether as a status symbol, an expression of inner self, or as a means to a connection with others.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2012 @ 6:07am

    What is really funny here is that for all the posers looking to fill their shelves with great titles, I could see an entire business in producing empty shell books. If the content isn't important, why not just get a wonderful cover filled with blank pages, so you can decorate your house?

    Oh wait, the content is actually what you want. Nevermind, just more twisting for those who seek to devalue content and excuse their own pirating ways.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    MadCow (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 6:21am


    Do you not see how unintelligent you sound when you make unfounded, completely baseless statements like that? Your comment doesn't even pertain to the article at all. You took a subject that was being discussed and completely twisted it in a direction that wasn't even remotely close just to bitch.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Jeff (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 6:50am


    obvious troll is obvious...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Joe Publius (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 7:11am

    Super special limited collector's edition!

    Being a huge RPG geek and a fan of nice books I did drop $200 on a collector's edition gaming book (The Deathwatch RPG from Fantasy Flight Games for the curious). It was the most frivolous purchase I have ever made to date, but it I am genuinely fond of it, and the book sits like a gargoyle over the rest of my collection.

    I also have a Kindle and a growing collection of eBooks, but there will always be a place in my wallet for covers and paper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Lord Binky, 8 Feb 2012 @ 7:46am

    I for one definitely wish I had options for nice hard cover versions of some of my favorite books. I am a little OCD in that I read paper backs without creasing the back, it irks me so badly when I even see it on books. I certainly want my books to look nice after I read them so I sadly won't lend them out, too bad there isn't an option for books that do not have a physical presence that can be ruined...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Lord Binky, 8 Feb 2012 @ 7:54am


    I believe they make these already. The false books often,but not always, function as containers for your non-presentable items. They are often classic books of well known authors that are recognizable by even the less than avid books readers.

    You seem to be reaching quite far for that conclusion you draw from your "I didn't know it was real" hypothetical.

    TL;DR : FAIL

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Torg (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 8:24am


    Content * packaging > Content. This is simple math. If content was all that mattered no one would have bought a copy of Dracula or The Art of War since Project Gutenburg began. Heck, I found one story on the Internet that I really liked and, since it was only freely available on the Internet, I had a physical copy printed. Content is nice, but it's sometimes better to have things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Zangetsu (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 8:37am

    Amazon wins again

    I agree with the overall concept (ebooks are good, but there are some books that need to be in print), but the turnover is not going to be as large. Instead of 10 paperbacks at $7.50 each they will sell 10 ebooks at $4.99 and 1 leather edition at $39.99. For some books, they may never sell a physical copy (there are some really bad books out there), but for others there may be an even higher ratio.

    All of these physical book requests will either need to be printed in advance or printed on demand. If I was in the publishing business I would look into how I can print beautiful books (leather bound, silk wrapped, full colour covers, vellum pages, etc.) quickly and cheaply.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Dementia (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 9:25am

    My appetite for books can be quite accurately described as voracious. While I have read some books e-books, I still prefer the hard copy. I believe that a market exists for both, or maybe I should say all three e-book, regular book, and "beautiful" book. That said, I believe the prices for regular hard copies is getting to high, and e-books have always been to high.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    AdamBv1 (profile), 8 Feb 2012 @ 11:36am

    Re: Still missing...

    This! Why can't every book, TV show, game, or movie have a Flattr button or something? Imagine being able to use Flattr to spread out however much you can afford each month between all the things you enjoyed?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.