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Apple, Amazon and the uncertain future of the book startup

13 May 2014

From Gigaom:

Over the past few years, I’ve encountered countless startups that claim they are going to disrupt or revolutionize book publishing.

I once thought we might see one of those take off. Today, I’m not so sure. Book-related startups face a particularly tough path forward. Here are a few reasons why.

. . . .

 Any company that comes along trying to reinvent book publishing is competing not only with traditional book publishers but also with Amazon, which is almost 20 years old but keeps finding new ways to shake things up. Print book buying continues to move online and Amazon, which is now delivering on Sundays and offering same-day delivery in a growing number of cities, has a lock on that business. Kindle, launched in 2007, is the dominant ebook reading platform and Amazon is continually rolling out improvements to the Kindle e-reader and Kindle apps — sharing, search and so on — that rival what many startups have tried to do.

. . . .

 Unlike newspaper publishers, the large traditional book publishers are doing pretty well, thanks in part to increased profits from ebooks. This week, for instance, we saw profits rise at Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. Titles from traditional book publishers dominate bestseller lists. A lot of self-published authors are doing well, too, but quite a bit of their success is tied to Kindle and it’s unclear that startups can do much to assist. It’s going be tough for them to draw authors away from either traditional publishers or Amazon. That’s why I’m skeptical of companies that aim to crowdsource publishing.

. . . .

 Startups that focus on delivering original ebook content or on helping readers find new books begin from the premise that readers have trouble finding enough things to read. This notion seems absurd: Anybody on the internet these days is overwhelmed with an infinite list of free things to read and a zillion services trying to curate reading material for them. There is not room here for a new recommendation service that is focused specifically on books: Readers don’t have time for it. They have too much other stuff they’ve been meaning to read already, whether it’s a book or a blog post.

Link to the rest at Gigaom and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

PG says a lot of the ebook startups aren’t terribly original or innovative. For one thing, he hasn’t seen any that demonstrated any serious technical chops (although he might have missed some).

He thinks Goodreads would have been an excellent target for disruption because of its crude infrastructure, but nobody seemed to be able to do much about it before Amazon acquired GR. He suspects Goodreads crudity is on its way out.

Amazon, Disruptive Innovation

12 Comments to “Apple, Amazon and the uncertain future of the book startup”

  1. I think there are times this sort of discussion is based on a flawed foundation. I think the idea that “any company that comes along trying to reinvent book publishing is competing not only with traditional book publishers but also with Amazon” is inherently erroneous. Too many are written without the realization of the lens with which they are written; I’m not sure Gigaom, for example, really has an argument to make, here. I think they’re just tossing out a bunch of random ideas and hoping something sticks.

    Amazon has forayed into publishing, but it is, at its core, a retail business. It offers myriad other services–web services, etc.–but it’s still a retailer first. It’s strange to think of competing with them. It’s telling what book publishers know about business that they think they’re competing with Amazon.

    I think the flawed argument is most visibly demonstrated by the section headed “Book publishers aren’t obsolete” and which features

    the large traditional book publishers are doing pretty well, thanks in part to increased profits from ebooks.

    They’re doing well financially, but the increased profits aren’t necessarily from sales or innovation in the marketplace. The increased profits are because they reduced their production costs to nearly zero and don’t have to produce any physical object, and simultaneously reduced the royalties they paid to authors. More authors will, hopefully, start to realize this, and hopefully go elsewhere.

    Not all disruption comes from start-ups focusing on apps or subscriptions or newfangled whose-its. When I founded my start-up, I focused on author-friendly terms–limited licenses and the highest royalties paid to authors in the entire industry. It’s really kind of sad that actually is a terribly original and innovative idea. It shouldn’t have been.

    • Traditional publishers don’t want to compete with Amazon, for two reasons:

      1) Competing with Amazon is competing with Barnes and Noble and every other bookstore in the world and that will not look good.

      2) Much more importantly, competing with Amazon means selling retail and dealing with… readers. Charitably, that is outside their core competency. Uncharitably, they think of readers much the same way I think of spiders: I know the ecology needs them, and I’m grateful, abstractly, that they exist, but they are icky, and I don’t want them anywhere near my personal space, because gross.

      (Fun Fact: The myth that you are never more than three feet from a spider is just that, a myth, but odds are there’s one close to you and if you count mites OH MY GOD THEY’RE ALL OVER YOU RIGHT NOW.)

      I really think this latter, consciously or subconsciously, goes a long way to explaining the absolute dog’s breakfast that most traditional publishers make every time they try to sell direct on a large scale. (Bookish, I’m looking at YOU.) They don’t want to do it, they don’t think they need to or should do it, and the attempts to do it are really just halfass mollification attempts to the shareholders and stakeholders who realize that they’re being stupid. When the halfass measures fail, they just say, “See, people want… BOOKSTORES!” and sell or write them off, blaming the attempt and not the implementation.

      • Totally agree. I don’t know if that’s clear in my comment, but that’s what I was intending. Not only should they not compete with Amazon, but publishers shouldn’t want to compete with Amazon. That’s not their job.

        Then again, sometimes it seems they’ve lost track of what their jobs actually are. Of course, it may be likely that Amazon’s doing its job so well readers and writers no longer need publishers to do theirs, but that’s a separate thing entirely. And even still, competing with Amazon–whatever that means–isn’t going to help.

      • “Uncharitably, they think of readers much the same way I think of spiders: I know the ecology needs them, and I’m grateful, abstractly, that they exist, but they are icky, and I don’t want them anywhere near my personal space, because gross.”

        I am so hopelessly arachnophobic, my dear friend Barbara Morgenroth (whom I met via PV) removed (temporarily) a spider scene from a book of hers that I wanted to read, then sent me the spiderless version!

        Howzat for a FRIEND!

        • That’s so sweet.

        • I set the Flat State standing long jump record when something rustled among the papers beside my desk and a giganormous wolf-type spider sauntered out. My feet didn’t touch the ground again until I was on the other side of the doorway.

          Spiders in their natural habitat are fine. Spiders in my habitat, ix-nay.

  2. I really hope somebody either makes GR less of a pain in the butt to use, or starts up a viable competing social site. I love the community there, but it’s terribly designed.

  3. He suspects Goodreads crudity is on its way out.

    God, I hope so. I still haven’t figured out how to use that site.

  4. “He suspects Goodreads crudity is on its way out.”

    If only Goodreads crudity could be on the way out in every possible sense- from the general poorly designed user experience on the site to the (copious) garbage reviews. You know, the unhelpful ones with gifs of poo and chock full of strings of expletives that Goodreads/Amazon somehow thinks are OK to leave in place.

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