As part of my job here at Jackson Fish Market when I’m working on our children’s book service, A Story Before Bed, is to license books for our library from children’s book publishers. (BTW, I recently read an article where Netflix has at least 80 people doing this job for them for movies. ) Getting most publishers on the phone or to respond to e-mail is pretty hard in its own right when you’re a small reseller, much less getting an agreement with them. Despite that we have over a dozen publishers whose books we sell, and we have more lining up all the time. That said, it’s super hard.
Where I really should be spending my time is in selling their books by making sure we have the absolute best possible experience on our service. But instead, I’m making phone calls, bugging publishers, and sending contracts back and forth.
Since I come from a software background I keep thinking about the web services I use. What if much like Amazon’s web services, or services like Heroku, iStockPhoto, or even Amazon’s Associates program I could just go to a website, fill out a form, and start selling trade publishers’ books on my service?
I recognize that publishers have traditionally worried about the context in which their books are sold. And that they may still believe that the digital book marketplace will narrow down to just a couple of players that they need to deal with. This seems so fundamentally backwards to me. If Amazon is worried that I’ll host a site they don’t approve of using their back end they put it in their terms of service. And if IP protection is the issue, iStockPhoto also puts the guidelines in their license to the material. I’ve even heard… “you won’t sell enough books for us this year to justify how much it will cost us to assign lawyers to review your agreement.” Maybe the right answer is not for each reseller to sell some larger number of books, but for the publisher to lower their own costs of letting smaller resellers sell their books. After all, how can small resellers become bigger resellers without being able to sell the publisher’s books?
I understand that a publisher could give me a long list of the challenges in doing this.
However, I believe that today’s book publishers should believe that the scenario where they can let a thousand resellers bloom is the one they want to enable in a friction-free fashion. I am convinced that once they focus on that scenario, the problems they need to solve in order to make friction free relationships with resellers will be eliminated.
Today at Digital Book World in New York City, Michael Shatzkin said that he thinks the thing that separates trade publishers from other publishers is that they depend on others to sell their books. He added that it’s a good thing for many publishers as they infrastructure and expertise necessary to sell directly to consumers is non-trivial. So if a trade publisher’s only customers are its resellers, why would their infrastructure be designed to exclude most of their potential salespeople?
Yahoo learned this lesson the hard way with overture. They designed their ad system to focus on the largest part of the market – the advertisers with the biggest budget. Google took the exact same ad placement concepts and opened them up to everyone – even mom and pop dry cleaners. We know what happened here.
I’m happy to say that our publishing partners, all fundamentally understand this to some degree. They work every day to lower the barriers for more resellers to be able to carry their books. They don’t focus on whether their reseller partners will sell 1 or 1000 books for them that year because they know that the more resellers they work with, the more books they’ll sell. And isn’t that the point?