Author and journalist Gary Kemble made a great comment in response to my last post that I wanted to elevate to the main blog since it’s worth talking about.

I  interviewed Cory Doctorow a couple of years back. I asked him if film companies had the right to protect their multi-million dollar investment in a film by trying to stop online sharing of movies.

He said: “That’s kind of like saying the Catholic church invests three generations of labour into the construction of a cathedral, how will religion continue after this Protestant Reformation of yours, right? Well, I don’t think the important thing is cathedrals.”

Same goes for books. I think once someone comes up with a user-friendly, cheap, eye-friendly and nice-to-use ebook reader, it’s game over.

I like books. I like to buy Stephen King books, because I’m a fan. I think I would do this regardless of ebooks. BUT, a lot of books I read, I’m kinda *meh*.

So basically, I think a lot of people will buy most of their books in electronic format then, if they really like the book, may go out and buy the dead tree version.

Yeah it’s a good observation, Gary, and Cory Doctorow is certainly the poster child for free e-book distribution. If I was ever in a position of negotiating with a book publisher about digital rights I’d be arguing pretty hard to implement some of his strategies.

But for me, this whole topic is not really about e-books. Sure, e-books are coming and they are part of the digital transformation that is overtaking traditional publishing. But I think too many people get side-tracked by the e-book debate (will it be a format or a device? When will it tip? etc) and forget that there are other ways that technology can change or threaten your business.

Amazon is already proving it with their moves to form a vertically integrated supply chain from POD publishing to direct-to-consumer book sales. Given that POD is now cheaper than traditional print for runs under 1,200 copies I would think this is a far bigger threat to publishers NOW than e-books are likely to be even in the near-future. It should be of interest to Australian publishers especially since print runs are smaller here.

Some bricks-and-mortar booksellers, like Borders US, are moving to establish POD centres inside their bookstores, and offering author services to along with it, such as in-store events and distribution within their retail chain. They also promise new special areas of their stores which will give such titles physicla shelf-space. With retailer-supported distribution, this takes self-publishing to a whole new level and is encroaching on some pretty significant areas of publishing that used to be solely the province of trade publishers.

I also think some populous nations will jump right over the e-book device debate altogether. In fact, they already have. Phone manufacturers have already stopped shipping 2G phones to Japan. You can only buy 3G there now. And mobile phone penetration in Japan is higher than 100%. So when there are more phone subscriptions than there are people in the country, and those phones are also high-speed internet browsers, integrated media centres with increasing memory capacity, why would a device that only reads book be of any interest? This is the same country, by the way, that last year shot five novels written on mobile phones into the top ten bestselling books list. Those readers didn’t need an e-book device to become fans of the books and turn them into hits.

The thing about structural changes in markets, though, is that they always create new business models and lucrative opportunities for those who can be the first to work out how to exploit them. So the thing I don’t understand is why every publisher isn’t experimenting like crazy to to find those opportunities. (Of course, some are experimenting, and I’m very happy about that and keen to point it out wherever I can)

The biggest opportunities may not be in e-books at all, but it in cheaper, more effective ways for publishers to connect with communities of readers, to brand and market their authors and to wring more long-tail sales from their backlist.