Over the last few years, publishing has been living a lie. The biggest lie: Digital is free and easy.

And more: Just take this thing you already have and sell it. In an additional format. Make big bucks.

The reality is that digital is not free and it’s not easy. While I would wholeheartedly argue that better infrastructure is good (and took a cathartic digital moment to force many of us to make changes), better infrastructure does not make the process of creating quality digital content any easier. And it negligibly makes it faster. Content preparation still takes same amount of time. So does the editorial process. And the design process. And production (especially when you factor in proper QA).

While our processes have arguably improved and modernized, the fact remains: viable digital business models require more than afterthought. Simply converting content and making it available for sale is a recipe for disaster. This prevailing free and easy digital model is actually harmful to our businesses.

At BEA this week, it was noted that this was “the BEA of discoverability.” Superficially, I agree that the conversation has been about discoverability. Why? Because better discoverability leads to better sales. In an ideal world.

But, I would offer an essential nuance to this assessment: what we’re talking about is not just discerability, we are really talking about the beginnings of alternative distribution models. The real advantage (and money) of digital products is in distribution.

Wide distribution is a natural extension of content ubiquity, another digital atout. In some respects, it is the most important quality of digital content ubiquity because it is the customer facing component. Big box online retailers understood this concept, hence the walled garden approach. Lock in as many people to your distribution channel and you own the market. Circumvent buyers, reps, and go directly to the source of the money, the consumer.

And it’s worked. Whether we admit it or not, distribution (and owning distribution) has been driving our businesses for some time now. Publishers have even turned their backs on champions of literacy promotion. In the digital P&L for libraries , the narrative is there, but the numbers don’t work with any currently proposed model. This distribution here does not make enough money to be worth the effort.

In the abundant digital world that Brian O’Leary talks about, availability and UX are primary drivers. Choice is made on the holistic experience.

Let’s look at the example of Wal-Mart v Williams Sonoma. I need a frying pan. I could go to either of these retailers to purchase one. I make a choice. We should ask ourselves why and how these two models exist side by side. Instead, we’re so caught up in making digital cheap because [REDACTED] wants it so, that we lose sight of the alternatives. I’ll remind you that Wal-Mart, too, has been known to strong arm suppliers into cheaper production, leading to cheaper wholesale costs, leading to cheaper cost at POS. They also tighten and sacrifice margins to win on volume. Sound familiar?

Remember: this is not the only paradigm.

What I hope will be coming down the pike is not just an acceptance of direct-to-consumer as an necessary channel, but what I’ll call for now the curated distribution experience. Right now, we take so much time to polish our content and our products, and then we just throw away. All this content curation we’re doing (or at the very least talking about) makes no sense at all if we simply hand over the UX ownership to retailers and their locked devices. In fact, not owning the whole customer experience with regards to digital has basically reduced us to little more than book packagers for our retail partners. And, we’re not even getting paid for it.

When we look at the curated distribution experience, things like DRM makes no sense. Things like walled gardens are counterintuitive to doing business. Things like standard price distribution based on format alone is inane. In a world where alternative distribution models are everywhere and customers have real choice, there is no need to lock people into to formats and devices. I mean, why are we willingly putting our customers in prison? From a customer-centric vantage point we are doing more harm than good.

For me, the biggest take away from this years BEA is this: let’s stop punishing our customers for being our customers. Let’s start focusing on them. Let’s open the gates a bit and start paying attention to every touch point, every interaction, every experience and make sure we own it, know about it, and that we like how it’s happening.


4 Responses to The Biggest Lie in Publishing

  1. Jane Morrow says:

    ‘The curated distribution experience’. Interesting, Brett. Have you seen Chronicle Books’ outlets in SF?

    • Brett says:

      Hi Jane! Hope all is well and that the rest of your trip was great.

      I have not been to the CB outlets in SF. But would be very interested in knowing more about them.

      Also, this may make for a good excuse to travel out to the West Coast again soon. San Francisco is such a great town.

  2. Eoin Purcell says:


    An interesting post throughout. I totally agree with much of the sentiment. A few things though:

    1) Free & Easy digital may not be, but cheaper and easier it certainly is. And in some ways considerably cheaper. It’s not that digital makes the entire publishing process easier, but that it makes key elements of it easier as you yourself highlight. Crucially it makes the large infrastructure of physical distribution that pint book require, from sales reps to warehouses (A hugely expensive investment) much less essential to success. That is massively liberating for small and self-publishers. We forget this, or ignore that reality, at our peril.

    2) I like your comparison between Williams Sonoma and Walmart but I’d raise one note of caution, many of the brands one might find in WS, cannot be found in Walmart. Even if the company that makes the WS brands sells to Walmart it is often a lesser brand or a cheaper product, one tailored to that customer. If we think of AMZ as Walmart, the audience there is not necessarily a bargain hunting one, it is not ONLY price driven. If you follow the logic you propose, you would need to lure many of them away from AMZ to another boutique/high end operation while either ignoring the AMZ market or selling something cheap there. That’s not a bad long term strategy, but it does imply a certain degree of pain while that transition happens. For me, this task is best accomplished at the niche/community level (like Tor have been doing).


    • Brett says:

      Eoin, thanks so much for the comments. I’m glad that there’s a conversation happening now around these topics.

      As for your points, I really could not agree more. As you are well aware, it’s not always easy to capture every aspect of every argument in a short and concise manner.

      We pretty much agree on the point that digital does make certain pain points easier for publishers, particularly things like warehousing and the COGS for physical books. That said, there are many “fixed costs” that are still relevant to eBooks (like editorial, copyediting, production, marketing, etc.) and other costs that don’t necessary find their way into a print P&L but cannot be ignored for eBooks (like infrastructure building and maintenance, and QA, etc.)

      As for the AMZN/WS analogy, my main point is that there can exist different retail models based on different user experiences, and by no means did I mean to imply that price is the ONLY motivation for purchase. Purchase behavior is made of a such a large set of factors and many simply cannot be quantified or articulated in a way that is rational. Here, it is an over simplification to prove a point: there is more than one model, they can exist simultaneously, they can even have overlap in their customer bases, but the motivation behind purchase at one vs. other is always very different.

      Also, yes. Agree niche/community level is a great area of focus. Was thinking more about that when I wrote about “curated distribution experience.” But, I plan on writing more on this topic in the future.


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