By Callie Oettinger | Published: February 24, 2012
Last week Shawn talked about publishers selling their own books, via his post Last Year’s Model. I want to see publishers doing more of their own selling—and I want digital libraries, too.
Part I: Pay Attention
1998 was the year of You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan played the owner of the independent book store being forced out of business by the big chain store going up around the corner.
Booksellers embraced the film for being on target with what was going on in the book world.
Looking back, right on target would have been a film about online sharing and innovative content selling killing the chain stores. Within a year, Napster was rocking the music industry, Apple was developing its first-generation iPod, and Netflix was launching into the video world.
As the music industry desperately chased online sharing, instead of creating it themselves, it left warning signs in its wake. The closing of landmark Virgin Megastores was one clue. A second clue came from video: Blockbuster anyone?
Part II: The Blockbuster SuperLibrary
Back in 1998 I had an obsession with the library. I was convinced that all would be good if the chain stores, Blockbuster and the libraries joined forces.
My 1998 mind frame:
- Libraries are broke. They don’t have the resources to acquire all of the amazing books out there. At the same time, what they do provide access to is a valuable resource. Students have access to books for research, young kids can pop in with Mom or Dad for “story time,” and those who can’t afford to buy everything they’d like to read, can take books out on loan. Outside the lack of money – and the “no eating” rule – libraries had a good thing going.
- Chain stores have money for books. Like libraries, they let people hang out all day and read their books. Unlike libraries, the people hanging in books stores can munch on a scone from the coffee shop in the center of the store, while sitting on a comfy couch—and if you wanted to bring the book with your scone crumbs in the spine home, you have to buy it.
- Blockbuster and the library both loan books. Blockbuster is profitable because it charges fees. The library will never collect on all the overdue book fees owed to it.
When you mash them together, the libraries will provide the community center, but with the comfy couches and coffee bar from the bookstores. With the bookstore dollars, students will have access to more books—and with the library lending, anyone with a student ID can take books out on loan for free. Other readers will benefit from the larger numbers of books, too. If they want to take them home, they have the option to buy them or take them out on loan. For the latter, there would be a small fee for first run books and special collections.
Don’t ask me if I ever ran any numbers on this mash-up—or if I figured out how to keep little kids in the coffee shop from mangling the rare book collection. I didn’t work any of that out.
Part III: Back to the Future
I’m a long-time fan of O’Reilly Media. I’m not a programmer, which leaves me out of many of their actual book offerings, but that’s ok. It’s everything else they offer that has my interest.
Around the time I was focused on libraries, O’Reilly was, too—but in a way that made a hell of a lot more sense.
In Tim O’Reilly’s own words, from his 2009 article “Safari Books Online 6.0: A Cloud Library as an alternate model for ebooks”:
There has been a lot of attention paid to ebooks lately, and for good reason. Electronic books are portable, searchable, and more affordable than print books. The web has accustomed readers to having the latest information at their fingertips; we all ask why books should be any less available “on demand.”
Amazon’s Kindle has received the most mainstream attention (with new entries like Barnes & Noble’s Nook making dedicated ebook readers into the latest competitive horse-race), but ebooks are taking off even faster on the iPhone and other smart phones. Ebooks are one of the most popular classes of iPhone application. Recent releases of O’Reilly ebooks as iPhone applications have even outsold the same books in print. Direct sales of the ebook bundles we offer from oreilly.com (PDF, epub, or mobi files) also exceed our direct sales of print books from the site.
Yet our most popular ebook offering by far is often not even thought of as an ebook. Safari Books Online is an online book and video subscription service, launched in partnership with the Pearson Technology Group in 2001. It contains more than 10,000 technical and business books and videos from more than 40 publishers. It has more than 15 million users (including the number of concurrent seats available through libraries and universities); it is now the second largest reseller of O’Reilly books, exceeded only by Amazon.com, and its revenue dwarfs our sales of downloadable ebooks. It’s also the most affordable of our ebook offerings for those who are regular consumers of technical content. The average Safari Books Online subscriber uses at least seven books a month, and many use dozens (or even more), yet the monthly price (depending on the subscription plan) ranges from little more than the price of a single downloadable ebook to no greater than that of two or three.
Here’s the rub: most people thinking about ebooks are focused on creating an electronic recreation of print books, complete with downloadable files and devices that look and feel like books. This is a bit like pointing a camera at a stage play and concluding that was the essence of filmmaking!
At O’Reilly, we’ve tried to focus not on the form of the book but on the job that it does for our customers. It teaches, it informs, it entertains. How might electronic publishing help us to advance those aims? How might we create a more effective tool that would help our customers get their job done?
It was by asking ourselves those questions that we realized the advantages of an online library available by subscription. One of the best things about online technical books is the ability to search the full text of a book. How much better would it be to be able to search across thousands of books? Safari Books Online was our answer.
So in those early Napster and Netflix days, when execs in books, movies, and videos were focusing on the chains and how to get on top of sharing, O’Reilly figured it out.
And in the decade since they figured it out, I’ve not seen another publisher do it on the same scale—and at such an affordable price. Yes, there are other digital libraries, based on subscription models, which are sold to universities and the like, at thousands a pop, but to the individual readers? There’s a void.
Part IV: Let’s Get It Together
In last week’s “What It Takes” post, Shawn mentioned a suggestion he gave to a friend about ten years ago, when the friend was consulting some of the big publishers.
What if the big six came together and “saved” Borders? They don’t ‘take over’ Borders, they “bail it out” with a major capital investment that gives them preferred voting shares and allows them to bring in their own management? That’s a good story, right…”how the big publishers joined forced, saved jobs and kept books vital!”? And they could brand the stores with sections devoted to each of their offerings…can’t you hear your wife saying to you… I’m going over to the Simon and Schuster boutique, meet me at the Macmillan store after you’re done at Penguin.”
“That’s never going to happen. Too many cooks, too much risk. That scenario is a non-starter.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Too much money at stake. Too many moving parts…I guess you’ll have to recommend that they do the obvious thing.”
“Yeah, that’s the first thing I came up with.” My friend looked at his noted, “here it is…number one…Take a page from upstart amazon.com and start selling your books directly to consumers, build your own marketing database and connect buyers with your authors.”
I agree with what Shawn was thinking ten years back. My add-on, with the knowledge I have now, would be the library.
Booksellers come and go–as do publishers… But libraries . . . Those have been a constant throughout world history. They never go away.
Safari Online has tapped into that truth. I hope other publishers do, too.
Part V: Closing Notes Via Tim O’Reilly
… the more we realized that important as O’Reilly books were to our customers, we didn’t cover every topic, and the service would be even more powerful if we brought in other publishers. That’s when we approached Pearson Technology Group, one of our biggest competitors, to join us in a joint venture, and invited other publishers to participate as well.
Safari Books Online now contains more than 17,000 books and videos from dozens of publishers, and is the richest source for professionally curated technical and business content on the web. And we’re somewhat amused by the disbelief that the “paywall” erected by sites like the New York Times appears to be working, since we (as well as a host of scientific and professional journal publishers) have been serving our customers with subscription-funded sites for the past decade or more. As I predicted back in 1994, the web has room for every business model imaginable, and smart publishers will learn to exploit all of them.