What’s Next After EBooks?

Who knew that ebooks were going to turn publishing on it’s ear? Or that Amazon, Smashwords, B&N would result in a self-publishing boom? Authors with languishing backlists are making a mint through savvy self publishing, breathing new life into titles that haven’t seen daylight in years to decades.

And things aren’t done changing yet. Big name authors are starting to turn down deals in order to self pub. As I put in a previous post, I imagine the traditional publishers will come out in lean fighting form at some point. It’ll take some time, but I think it’ll happen.

So, what’s next?

We had a system, where there were traditionally two tiers of pricing:  one for releases that are pretty new, and one for older titles.  (Sometimes retailers would provide discounts for the higher tier, but their still more expensive than older titles.)  Then, digital content came into the picture.  Most people still got their titles through the old way, but a growing subsection of the public obtained some of their content through digital means, as pioneered by one ground breaking company.  Others eventually joined in, but mostly it was the one company.

As things progressed, the number of people getting at least some of their entertainment digitally grew significantly, and a smaller subset utilized nothing but digital means.  Soon, the traditional purveyors experienced declines in revenue.  Within a few short years stores started to close, entire national chains had to restructure or liquidate, and their brick and mortar presences became scarce.  All the while those who led the way with electronic means prospered.

Not content to rest on their laurels, the pioneering company who started it all branched out into two innovative new ways.  First of all, they started creating their own content, utilizing professional means with a high standard of quality.  Secondly, they started providing the older content for a set monthly fee as long as it was delivered solely through electronic means.  A backlist digital buffet, if you will.

If you think I’m talking about Amazon, you’re WRONG.

I’m talking about NETFLIX, and the changes they created in the business of DVD entertainment.

They started out with a set fee to have three movies out at a time, whether they were blockbusters or older movies.  The attraction was that you could mail back as many movies you wanted to during the monthly, for a possible smorgasbord of movie goodness.  I don’t know about you, but I found that as time went on we generally watched less than three movies a month (I know – sounds boring.  But when the kids go to bed at 8, and the wife’s eyelids slam shut at 9:30, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for movie watching.)  Still, the monthly fee was less than our late fees generally were at the brick and mortar stores, so it was economical for us.

Then Netflix added streaming digital content to their service.  You can get older movies and TV shows streamed through your computer, XBox, Playstation, Wii, iPad, tablet, or phone.  They’ve now announced their separating the services, so you can just have the older content through streaming, or you can add that to a plan where you can also get blockbusters delivered to you.

As Netflix has grown, others have suffered declining revenue streams.  Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, etc.  If you still have one of these near you, I’m amazed.  There isn’t a physical video rental place within at least 40 miles of me, where there used to be several right here in town.  And, Netflix announced last fall (I think) that they were producing a series strictly for broadcast through their services.

So, what’s the point of this example?  I think it’s a pretty good analogy for where books might be headed, though it isn’t a perfect one.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional publishers, especially if any merges occur, come out with a similar service through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  Imagine an app or device where, for a flat monthly fee, you could read as many titles out in mass market paperback as you wanted to.  Stop paying the fee?  Titles get erased from your device.  It would require a certain degree of internet connectivity to these devices.  How they determine how much to pay the publishers as part of this arrangement would keep the lawyers busy for awhile, but it could be done.  The percentages going to the particular publishers would vary depending on usage of their titles, for example.

But what about hardbacks?  Well, that could be left out of the equation, or there could be a similar Netflix model for that.  Imagine having access to only a couple or three titles at a time for a certain amount.  If it were, say, $15 per month that would make economic sense for the consumer.  I might not read more than one a month, but having the opportunity to read more would be worth it.

That would, of course, leave the question of what becomes of the self-publisher or the smaller publishing companies.  Well, there are a lot of bright people at Amazon and B&N.  I’m sure someone could come up with a system to handle that.

It would all hinge on the technology being available to ensure people get only what they pay for (which is probably simple to do), and the big publishers agreeing to it.  How would authors get paid?  I’m not sure.  It’d have to be an incentive system strong enough to keep them with the publishers.

It might not happen for awhile, but I have a feeling as more publishers feel the heat from the ebook industry someone somewhere will get a Netflix DVD in the mail and a big light bulb’ll go off over their head.  The music industry is following along the same track with a single monthly fee for a buffet of music.  TV’s getting there too.  Hulu, anyone?

Thoughts?   Comments?