Distribution of eBooks: More Responsibilities Shift to Publishers

Fri, Mar 5, 2010

Digital Culture

Distribution of eBooks: More Responsibilities Shift to Publishers

There is a fascinating change going on in book publishing, driven by the explosive growth of eBooks. It represents  yet one more fundamental shift of responsibility to the publisher in the evolution of print. A custom file or metadata table for each of potentially dozens of distributors is needed. The publisher pays for the customization now, but that is only one part of the evolution. The new workflow, staff and infrastructure required in-house or under the publisher’s direct supervision is far more significant.

I just learned that even when an eBook file is in the open ePub standard, separate files with slight differences are required by each retailer and must be managed. A publisher might have to make and track a dozen or more versions of their ePub files, in addition to those in common formats like PDF, Kindle/Mobi, eReader, .LIT, as well as a handful of proprietary formats ranging from Zinio and iVerse to Sony PSP .

The distributors and retailers see this as a “file distribution” problem that is the publisher’s responsibility and not something they want to take on.

It’s not so surprising though. Recent history has been all about shifting responsibilities and job functions to the publisher.

A seismic shift happened for publishers in the 1990s with the advent of DTP on Macs.

Formerly, publishers created paper mechanical layouts using output from typesetting machines at local vendors. They shipped those to pre-press companies along with a art or photos to scan… and copious notes. The pre-press shop took responsibility for converting those elements into plate-ready film. They handled everything including imaging the text layouts, scanning images, creating correct trapping, applying pre-separated color, and many more esoteric details. If anything went wrong, they had to fix it.

After DTP became the primary workflow for everything from design and layout to most of the pre-press functions, the publishers had to train or hire production people who essentially brought the work, the skills and the responsibility in house. In many cases it took years to recoup the investment in growing these departments. Making high quality digital files and keeping track of them required more than skilled workers — it required investment in servers, databases, and much more.

With eBook publishing, another category of responsibility now shifts to the publisher.

Now many functions previously handled by the distributor and the retailer must come in-house. Formerly, publishers need only ensure that a single print edition was produced to their specifications. Warehousing, shipping, tracking how many books went to each retailer, all could be handled by the printer and distributor. Customization for the retailer was often as simple as the retailer applying a pre-printed price sticker. The most complexity that the publisher had to cope with was the release of three or four separate products often with different release windows: A hardcover, a softcover, and perhaps a special Library or Scholastic Book Fairs edition.

Now, publishers must come up with a system of documenting numerous third-party requirements and specs, producing and  tracking each variant.  There may be 5 or as many as 20 or more versions, one for each retailer, each of which requires a slightly different ePub file and/or metadata file.Once again, the publisher must invest in staff and infrastructure — even if they hire Innodata or other conversion shops to make the variants. Some publishers keep the various files resident on their servers and hire programmers to create a reliable sales-based push — or permissions-based pull  — system. In effect they are the distributors and the “distributors” are just order takers or perhaps hardware device companies that just want the content as gas for their car.

The agency pricing model seems fraught with problems, and there is no clear source to guide publishers in praparing an agency model deal. Major issues come up, such as how to handle sales tax if the “agent” incurs sales tax liabilities via its physical presence in some or all states, versus Internet-only sales for which sales tax liability is simplified, and if the publisher then must collect that tax from the agent and pay it to each state.

I’m looking forward to the day when this is all rote, but for now it’s a huge learning curve. Publishing departments that have been able to take stability for granted don’t even know what questions to ask as e-Book-driven change hits them.

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