publishing business models

Kassia Krozer writes a fantastic blog that primarily discusses the book publishing industry. Her post today has an excellent quote from author Mur Lafferty (here’s his original post):

What really surprises me is when you hear publishing people say that they don’t know what to do, or that they refuse listen to Internet professionals. They seem to believe if they do what has worked in the past, eventually the storm will pass and the anchor of tradition will have kept them steady and safe. They look at the people who are succeeding by merging their digital plans with their traditional print plans and call them anomalies at best, or insane at worst. What they need to be doing is learning from them.

Then in the comments on her original post, Lafferty says this:

Actually I do advocate giving the book away – I have given away one novel (both audio and PDF) and five novellas (audio only). And someone actually brought up the boingboing thing to Cory this year at WorldCon – he replied that in the beginning (2003, when he gave his first novel away, which I am pretty sure was pre-boingboing, but I can’t find a date when he started on that blog), people said, “sure you can give your book away, you are nobody and you have nothing to lose.” and now they say “sure you can give your book away, you’re huge, but someone starting from zero can’t do it.”

When I started my podcast, and the same as JC Hutchins, Scott Sigler, and many other podcasters and authors who give their books away, I had no platform at all. I built it giving my stuff away.

Is it right for most people? I don’t know. (see myopic comment that was my caveat.) But everyone I know who has done it swears by it. It’s right for me.

My friend in publishing asked me this question in the course of our discussion – “If I took [two novels] and put them on my Website and said,”Here, you can have these books for free, but if you want enhanced editions, pony up and I’ll sell you some beauties,” wouldn’t I be conveying the idea that the written works themselves have no inherent value?” If written works themselves have no inherent value, then I’d like to have back the $2500+ per year that I spend on books! The point here is not that written works have no inherent value – they very clearly do. The issue is that perfectly copy-able digital content has a market value that is pretty close to zero. And the problem for publishers is that it is impossible to prevent the existence of digital copies – you can’t have a business model that requires constant ligation to be successful. Consequently, given that reality, it is imperative to find a business model that successfully incorporates free content.

Using free content to drive customers to the paid content only works because the written works the paid content is based on have inherent value. So my answer to my friend would be that using the model that he outlines actually conveys the message that the inherent value of those works is very high – so high that people will be willing to pay $17 for an officially printed copy, or $100 for an autographed copy, or $250 for some other version with some other special add-on. That only works if the original is great – and using a revenue generation model like that actually signals that the content is great.

This is obviously a huge shift, and it’s not an easy one to make. But it’s critical that it be done – I love books too much to see them killed off by faulty business models!

(photo from flickr/austinevan under a creative commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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