30 June 2010

Exactly how is this supposed to work?

In an ever-increasing e-world, what is the role of publisher, distributor, sales agent - when everyone wants a piece of the sale. When you talk to publishers, the industry advice is don't buy the print book without guaranteeing the ebook rights. But Australia's supply chain for ebooks still has a long way to go. We've of course got the ebook vendors - EBL, Ebrary etc - with established distribution models for libraries. And in the case of EBL, Ebooks Corporation provides a wide range of services to publishers as well as fulfilment to individuals wishing to purchase titles. You've got readwithoutpaper.com which is powered by OverDrive, Kobo is making inroads with their exclusive deal to The Red Group, and we've got Blio coming in the months ahead from Baker & Taylor.

At the end of the day, however, the publisher still has to work with multiple vendors to get the digital content out there. So what happens with existing distribution agreements? Traditionally they wouldn't have included any ebook component. It's a physical book, going in and out of a warehouse. Widgets in. Widgets out. But if a press uses a distributor here for their traditional book, and then by-passes them by providing content to the Kobo's, the Blio's, the OverDrive's of this world, what role does the distributor have? Are contracts being updated to get a piece of the ebook pie. Afterall, in many circumstances the distributor or sales agent has done the pre-publication work, the reps have sold into the bricks and mortar stores, there's been marketing, advertising, promotions, publicity. All for the physical book. At the distributor's cost. So if the sale comes through readwithoutpaper, how is the commission or sales percentage being paid to the distributor?

It's a very different scenario if you are a first tier publisher, a local subsidiary, to being a second and third tier distributor. In the case of the latter, your contact in the traditional book supply chain is with the Sales Director, the Operations staff, Service people, marketing people, editorial. Authors. Everyone who's job it is to get the information to you and then the printed book in a timely manner.

But when the publisher or originating source has a Digital Director who's job is to put content in and out of platforms, they don't always have the full picture. They are tasked with the job of ensuring the content goes to as many sources as the company designates are appropriate. I'm assuming they are focusing on just the big guys and it's still a relatively small group. But what's going to happen when it explodes? Will there always be a dozen or so players in the market that has the ebook supply chain sewn up or will every man and his dog get into the act.

At least with book distribution, the supply chain is not very complicated. When you start putting more and more into the ebook mix, the distributor (who has the exclusive rights to all materials published) is not always at the front of their mind. Remember I'm thinking about the second and third tiers here.

What is the model that is working for people? Do the traditional book distributors eventually become just a sales & marketing office for the publishers they represent? Surely when you are speaking "e" that's not going to keep people in business. Everyone wants a cut, and it's the ebook vendors that get the larger slice. If local operators were solely working off a percentage of a percentage, surely that's not a sustainable model. I guess we don't know what percentage will go from p to e - and how soon that will be. And I'm talking the general reader here, not the student. The student expects "e". The library is "e-preferred". And what will happen when the patron driven model in libraries really takes off? What effect will that have on publishers and ebook sales? I'm all for getting collections right and managing budgets, but publishers will want more.

But back to the ebook mix. The existing print distributors want a slice. Ebook Vendors want a bigger slice. Publishers want their mix. And let's not forget the author who created the work. Exactly how profitable do we expect this supply chain to be? A new business model is emerging.

I welcome comments here on the blog as to how this is all working in reality.

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