The failure of the traditional music industry has become the standard cautionary tale for content industries adapting to a digital era. But for scholarly publishers, many factors make the music industry a poor comparison. We have more in common with smaller niche markets. Watching their electronic experimentation and new business models may be more informative as we seek new strategies for presenting and selling content.
Music isn’t similar to STM publishing because the market for music is essentially every human being on the planet. The market for high-level journal articles or detailed scientific books, however, is extremely limited. Much of what is published is of little interest outside of the research community and is often written at such a high technical level that few have the training to read and understand it. It’s unlikely we’ll see mainstream culture seeking out the details of ubiquitination or the epithelial-mesenchymal transition, at least not with same level of interest shown for downloading Beyonce’s latest single.
The really interesting developments in the music industry involve a move toward taking advantage of scale through streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. These services depend on massive levels of traffic for revenue generation. Take a look at this infographic which shows the level of activity needed for an artist to earn a minimum wage salary. I doubt very many individual journal articles see more than 4.5 million pageviews per month, which makes these types of approaches difficult to adopt for our more specialized content and limited audiences.
So if not music, then where should we look for innovation and new business methods that can readily be applied to scholarly publishing?
Two more comparable markets that are undergoing a great deal of experimentation are worth watching — short stories and comic books.
The short story market has been in a long, slow decline:
In the good old days it seemed that authors had it easy selling the short story. Hundreds of magazines existed to handle the flow, and many great and famous authors certainly got their start or gave their careers much needed impetus by selling to this market. From Jack London to O. Henry to John Cheever to Asimov to Isaac Bashevis Singer all started with the short story in their genre. Believe it or not, in the good ole’ days some authors actually made a living out of pouring their hearts into short stories and selling them. . . .
Then it was blamed on Television. Today we blame it on the Internet. Whatever we blame it on it is remains true that there are only a handful of journals left willing to publish and cater to the short story market. Short story collections or anthologies are worse than difficult to sell. Anthologies are usually impossible to put together, and collections will usually not be touched by a publisher . . .
Print publishers have not had any viable means of selling individual short stories directly to a reader. But all that is changing. The rise of the e-book offers a new freedom from traditional containers. The music industry did teach us the lesson (much to their chagrin) — customers want to buy content their own way, and they prefer buying songs over buying albums.
The Hachette Book group recently announced their plans for a digital short fiction publishing program (more details can be found in the comments from Hachette’s Tim Holman responding to author John Scalzi’s analysis). The mobile market seems an ideal place for the short story, providing a quick but complete read on the subway or on line at the bank.
Science publishers are already experimenting with the idea of breaking away from the journal as a container, and focusing instead on the individual article. If this trend catches on, the short story market may provide some useful business lessons both for acquiring and selling material on this level.
One could easily see putting out a variety of small packages of chapters covering subject areas, then allowing each individual instructor to assemble his own textbook (the logical extension of MacMillan’s recent Dynamic Books venture). I can think of many book proposals I’ve had to turn down because there didn’t seem to be enough substance to carry a whole collection. Instead, these could become small, focused sets rather than trying to stretch them out to a traditionally sized book. The poor economics of printing and trying to sell a 50-page book disappear in an electronic format. As Scalzi’s article notes, there are all sorts of details that need fine tuning, from selling price to payment of authors, but these first steps into a market free from previously defined containers should be interesting.
While movies based on comic books are doing great business, the comic book industry itself is, like the short story market, in a long decline from its heyday. Comics have become more and more marginalized due to their move away from widespread distribution and toward an almost exclusive direct market approach, selling only through specialty comic shops. The advantage of the direct market over the newsstand was an elimination of returns of unsold comics (retailers, in return, receive a greater discount from publishers). If you’re in the publishing business, that may sound familiar.
Direct market sales continued to grow through the mid-1990s, fueled by growth of a speculation-based collector’s craze. Much like what was seen for baseball cards, the comic collection market crashed in the mid-1990s, and nearly two-thirds of specialty comic book stores closed. The market has not yet recovered. There are around 3,000 stores still open in the US (5,000 worldwide), with sales revenue around $700 million in 2008.
I think they’re interesting as an apotheosis of the Apple design aesthetic, which is very much Star Trek: The Bay Area Generation. It’s a bland-looking Eighties Star Trek device. It is, however, a fine form factor for reading comics on (if you’re indoors, or in the shade). And here’s the thing: Marvel only have to get 5,000 Marvel Apps on iPads to outnumber the count of physical comics stores selling Marvel comics. Each one of those apps is a retail station. And as much as we all love physical comics stores, I know lots and lots of people who don’t live near a physical comics store, and I don’t know any comics stores that are open at two in the morning if I suddenly fancy reading a certain comic.
Preliminary forecasts indicate that Apple may sell seven million iPads by the end of the year. Here’s the thing about Apple technology: once you own a piece, you want to use it. Not least because it was expensive. Not least because they’re a simple pleasure to use. If comics look good on the iPad…then things are going to get interesting very quickly.
Ellis correctly points out the great advantages in distribution provided by an electronic product. Most specialized STM works aren’t likely to be found in your local Borders store, so increasing availability and ease of ordering could be a big positives. The immediacy of delivery is also likely to be appealing, particularly to a frustrated scientist working late at night who desperately needs that chapter on optimizing an uncooperative reaction. However, Ellis does also note the inherent dangers of this sort of distribution– for instance, how easy it is for your product to become lost, condemned to obscurity as part of a huge category dump in the iTunes store.
The parallels continue: comic publishers are already struggling with widespread online piracy; readers are balking at the proposed prices for electronic comics ($1.99 per issue); there are worries that electronic comics are going to drive brick and mortar stores out of business; publishers are beginning to play around with form, to experiment with new ways of presenting material now that it’s freed from the printed page. As with the book, there’s an increasing split in the customer base between those who view books/comics solely as a means of delivering content and those who see the physical product as a fetish object, to be coveted and collected.
The successes and failures of electronic short stories and comics are likely to be directly relevant to scholarly publishing, certainly more so than the music business’ continued struggles. Moving forward, the way these container-less forms of content reach paying customers bears watching.
Now, if we can only get Hollywood to start buying the film rights to lab manuals . . .