With lower costs, independent eBook publishers hold the advantage

Have you been following the Amazon eBook “price fixing” case?

Yes or no, don’t let this story discourage you from eBook publishing. If anything, this case should be encouraging independent news publishers to jump into the eBook market.

Why? As Talking Points Memo explained, this case boils down to an alleged attempt by big book publishers to collude to get an “agency” deal where they would get to set the price of the books they published and were sold on Amazon.

The TPM summary didn’t mention it, but that agency pricing model is the pricing deal that you get with Amazon as an independent eBook publisher. Why is that a price fixing offense for them and not for you? In short, because they allegedly colluded to get particular prices under that deal, according to the TPM summary.

Econ 101 lesson here: If you can enter a market where existing players are colluding to hold up prices, you have a huge business opportunity if you can undercut them on price. Typically, when big businesses try to collude on price, it’s because they have high barriers to entry in that business that keep potential competitors (i.e. disruptors) on the sidelines.

And that certainly was the case in the book publishing industry just 10 years ago. Today, however, the barriers to entry to book publishing are about the same as the barriers to entry to website publishing were 15 years ago – pretty much zilch. You need some tech know-how, but it’s nothing more than a sharp learner can teach herself or himself within a few weeks.

Remember, the big book publishers – like the big newspaper chains before them – have highly specialized, multi-level workforces that can drive their operating costs higher than Voyager 2. The traditional book publishing operation model includes

  • authors
  • agents
  • book editors
  • copy editors and proofreaders
  • interior designers
  • cover designers
  • manufacturing
  • publicists
  • distribution
  • retailers

Each book sold must pay a portion of the salary or wages of each person that chain. And don’t forget that each company involved needs to pay for all the managers overseeing these people, as well as a cut for profit as well. No wonder book publishers are trying to inflate the prices they charge.

Publishing an eBook independently through a retailer such as Amazon takes the manufacturing, distribution and retailing roles off your table. Independent publishing also removes the need for acquiring an agent and a book editor (though I recommend showing your work to a trusted colleague for feedback before moving into copy-editing).

As an online journalist, I have the ability to write my own book, to edit it, and to code up the HTML for the eBook design. As a website publisher, I have built an online community of tens of thousands of frequent readers to whom I can market my books, and the social media skills to help empower them to spread the word virally on my book’s behalf.

All this means that I can handle pretty much all the work of publishing and marketing an eBook. Which also means that I can keep all the money my books earn for myself. Sure, retailers such as Amazon will take a cut, but in Amazon’s case they do bring something very valuable to the table – a recommendation engine and category best-seller lists that help drive sales of your books. That’s worth the cut they take, in my opinion. (Barnes and Noble? Not so much.)

All the rest is yours. You don’t have to set aside anything for managers or for shareholders. That should give you the ability to produce and market your work for a fraction of the cost of producing and marketing that same work through a traditional publisher, even if they were producing only the same eBooks. And you can do that while making more money than you would as an author if you had published through a traditional publishing house. So let the federal government, the New York publishing houses and Amazon fight it out. Ultimately, the future of book publishing belongs to the independents.

I’m nowhere near unique among journalists. If you’ve worked in online journalism, you probably have a similar skill set to me, and can handle the work of self-publishing your best reporting work into eBooks. With lower expenses, you can undercut “the big kids” on price. That leaves it up to you, and your skills as a storyteller, to compete to attract the attention – and purchases – of readers.

You want to stay in the news business? Here is your purest, most direct shot to do that. If you can tell stories that people want to read, eBooks are a marketplace in which people are paying authors – nearly directly – to read them. No employer or publisher can tell you ‘no’, or silence you. No big business can beat you on price.

So why not jump in?

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.