It is dawn in New York.  The rain is lashing down on a thousand Father Christmases on and off Fifth Avenue.  In the great tabloid tradition of this city I am going to write a story with a totally misleading and irrelevant headline.  In the great world of consumer publishing, it is the middle of the eighteenth century.  The rain is lashing down in London. They do not have Father Christmas yet, which is what makes that century so warmly special to me.  But they do have the bookseller Thomas Longman.  And he is worried about controlling his supply chain and his pricing.  So, often in consortium with his fellow bookseller/printers, he is about the business of controlling publication, unifying pricing, utilizing the ancient system of copyright in his interest, and in short, becoming a publisher.  And because he controls distribution he and his fellows triumph.

Here in NYC, his lineal descendents.  Carolyn Reidy of Simon and Schuster and David Young of Hachette, are working to hold onto that heritage.  From an article in today’s Wall Street Journal it looks as if they want to postpone eBook publication of major works until they have exhausted hardback sales.  They pitch the natural publication point of the eBook as after the hardback and before the paperback.  They say that eBooks reduce the sense of value and put pressure on hardback pricing.  They say that survival depends on the milking of first publication (and either WSJ or I may be misreporting them on this).

So consumers must be content with artificial deadlines for the emergence of works in certain formats?  Not in the Web they won’t.  This type of announcement invokes piracy (back to 1750) and gets everyone else wondering whether these publisher fellows are worth their value positioning in the supply chain.  Agents know how vital it may be to garnish first appearance publicity.  Amazon and Barnes and Noble are the eigthteenth century booksellers waiting in the wings to come out and re-assert market control – in the consumer’s best interests, of course.   And self-publishing may yet make a monkey of them all.

No-one has more respect for David Young than I.  When BookData (now Nielsen BookData) was a start up and I was one of its three founder directors, I identified him as a beacon of common sense, urging his fellow publishers to pay real attention to book identifiers and metadata online in order to ease a supply chain that creaked with misleading nonsense.  When a progressive moves retrogressively you may be sure that the perception of the problem is deadly serious.  But control is not the answer: control in networks has moved away from suppliers in favour of users. Publishers, in whom I believe profoundly, can only re-assert themselves by creating more, not less value.  But how?  By identifying with the reading community and giving readers what they want.  By rediscovering eighteenth century publishing.  I speak as one whose house has been taken over by some 13000 volumes, to the extent that I can never move again.

And Karl Rove?  He has, in good tabloid tradition, nothing whatsoever to do with this story, save that his memoirs, “Courage and Consequences “, is one the books whose eBook appearance  will be delayed by this move.  But come to think of it, he would be a good advisor to publishers at this time, with all of his experience in the King Canute role for US foreign policy.


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2 Comments so far

  1. Anne Foster on December 9, 2009 20:40

    However, Chef Karl was famous for his ability to shave the finest slices off the demographic truffle, so he must be sick as a truffle hound to see all those fine potential reading slices possibly losing interest, when he could have held them in thrall on his own self-published site. Might other authors with their own brand find that they do not need the imprimpatur any more?

  2. uberVU - social comments on December 12, 2009 05:37

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by iainkb: Karl Rove in King Canute Saga Some common sense from @dworlock #canutitis…