Amazon’s AutoRip service is simple. You buy a CD, you automatically get a digital file of the same content. (A similar logic applies in DVD purchases of a lot of films these days - you get a free download as well as a hardcopy.)

For the consumer, it’s an obvious plus. For Amazon, the upside is a little bit more complex - it’s not just a sale, it’s about getting customers tied into Amazon’s cloud service. In case it’s not obvious, pretty much everything they do is about making themselves the goto life provider.

But the important point for publishing is that this is the direction of things. This is what Amazon is getting customers used to. This is what the online retailer which defines the term thinks is the next logical step for media. So put aside, please, the issue of whether print is different (yes, it takes longer to ‘rip’ a book; no, that does not make a huge difference in an environment where DRM-stripped files can be had for the asking) or whether, indeed, you believe that this is ‘not something people want’. I haven’t seen any research which suggests it isn’t, so as far as I know it’s your anecdote against mine, but that’s now beside the point: Amazon is creating a situation where content comes in hardcopy and download as normal. Books may lag behind, or they may not, but if AutoRip flourishes - and there’s really no reason why it wouldn’t - that perception of how things should work will bleed through into our industry.

So now that bundling is (probably) inevitable, should the industry consider how to do it in such a way that customers can be offered the opportunity to buy the audiobook and/or the sequel at the same time? Well, yeah. This is a classic example of a situation where the general direction is pretty clear but the specifics - the implementation, the side-benefits (for the trade) and structural advantages, ultimately all the things which add up to control - are still up for grabs. With several publishers starting to sell direct to consumer last year, this is also a moment to consider ways in which to draw readers to those sites - a happy confluence of interest. It’s in retailers’ interests to stop that happening, of course - to keep readers in their ecosystem. If publishing wants control of its relationship with readers and of access to market, then this is a pinch-point - one of the few places left where it’s possible to claw some market share away from its most scary friends at Amazon, Apple, Google et al.

As an author, I find that I’m less and less concerned about what happens in this context. It frustrates me that services my readers routinely ask me for are mysteriously difficult to provide (all right, not mysteriously; I know why they’re difficult, but I also know that in other industries those barriers would fall because the consumer wants them to) but I don’t greatly fear for my profession. I do begin to fear for conventional publishing, however, as the boom in digital reading levels out somewhat and the niches and positions start to fill up with small and large entities with sharp elbows and a desire to economise. Yes, it's great news that people are reading more than everyone thought (and that was invisible to us because until recently we didn't have the data - emphasising the importance of being able to gather that information, something the industry is presently unable to do through online retailers) but it's not enough to make a robust trade. It brings its own danger - of a structural increase in digital reading propping up middling practice, a natural and perhaps impermanent increase in digital sales papering over the cracks in the machinery.

As ever, 2013 begins with the certainty that the future is the product of what we do now, not a fixed course we must navigate. It’s not about whether you use sails, steam, or the combustion engine to travel on the river. It’s about whether you use a dredger to build a canal or just hope like Hell the other guy builds one deep enough for your keel.

 

Comments

A similar point is made in this blog post

What Can Publishers Learn from Indie Rock?:  http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/11/16/what-can-publishers-learn-...

"What indie rock bands have figured out is that the purchase of music does not have to be an either/or proposition. They don’t make their customers choose between analog or digital."

"They realize that they are not cannibalizing their revenue by “giving away” the digital edition because they were never going to make both sales."

I don't think I agree that this business model only works to the advantage of Amazon. The main benificiary is surely the consumer, who gets the content they have bought in whatever format they choose to consume it in. The book world might not need new business models to keep its head above the water, but if the strategy works - and it does for vinyl - then why shouldn't publishers want it?

There is one variable that is left out of the equation...

Timo Boezeman's picture

This is an interesting thought experiment, but there is one variable that is left out of the equation. And that is the fact that the music industry is in a position where we, I hope, will not end (any time soon). The music industry made so many mistakes, that what we now see as 'the' music industry, is nothing compared to what it was before the introduction of Napster (when the sh*t hit the fan). They need all the new business models they can think of to keep their heads above the water. The book world, still, doesn't. 

By that I don't mean that we don't need new business models, because we do. But there is a difference in seeing it black and white, or seeing it in shades of gray. This Autorip-example is something we don't need, and in my opinion shouldn't want either. I am an advocate of offering all the tastes the public wants (print, e-book, access over ownership, apps, etc.), but also one of doing so in smart business models. Autorip gives the consumer the digital equivalent of the physical product you bought for free. The only business model here is that this works in the advantage of Amazon. Not of the publisher (record company) and not of the artist. A good business model always takes care of the creator (artist, author), and after that other parties involved. This one doesn't. 

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