During last Thursday’s Round Table on ‘Digitisation and the Trade Book’, organized by the department of Book and Digital Media Studies at Leiden University, the focus was on the future role of ‘intermediaries’ (distributors, booksellers and librarians) in the age of the digital book. What kind of value will these ‘old players’ still add to the value chain of book production in the digital era? Three representatives of the book field where present to defend their position: Hans Willem Cortenraad, from the Centraal Boekhuis (the main Dutch book distributor), Dennis Eijsten from Bibliotheek.nl (library.nl) and Erik Rigters from ebook.nl.
Some of the main issues concerning the transition from the book to the digital medium were fiercely discussed during the round table, at which the audience was highly participatory. Hans Willem Cortenraad defended the efficient distribution of the paper book in the Netherlands, which, according to him, will pave the way for an equally efficiently coordinated system for digital books, because it has the efficiency and the system in place to create standardization in a digital world. Next to that he argued that the world is only slowly changing into a digital world, estimating that it will take another 10 to 15 years before there will be more Ebooks than print books. Cortenraad argued that this will give them enough time to develop the way the trade book value chain is organized now into a similar digitized one. The knowhow and the expertise of the old will also in the future allow them to develop services for the publishers’ content.
Dennis Eijsten stated that the main task of the library is to provide easy access to reading. This means that the library needs to make sure books are available, be it on paper or on e-paper. In his vision, POD is only a step on the way to a fully digital reading culture. Thus POD is just a form of migration to digital reading: it makes the transition to digital reading easier. Eijsten argued that within ten years everything will be digitized and we will do (almost all) our reading from gadgets.
Erik Rigters emphasized, amongst others, that in the transition from print to digital booksellers ought to do more to extend their customer relations to a digital environment. There are some obstacles they fear though in this transition. Rigters argues that Ereaders will convince people that reading from a screen is possible.
One of the main topics addressed during the following discussion revolved around the question ‘what is the value of scale in the digital age?’ Will there be a few major players (Google, Amazon) or will there still be a role for the smaller players and intermediaries?
Dennis Eijsten argued that Google will certainly play an important role as search engine and in this respect will serve as the front office. However, there will be a second layer of services and information brokers that will come up from these searches that will distinguish themselves by their selection and quality mechanisms which will enable the survival of niche markets.
Another issue that arose was ‘what is the value of these platforms in a digital age when in theory everyone can be a publisher?’ The platforms, be it in the form of publishers or other intermediaries can serve as advisors, they can take care of selection, enrichment, administration and marketing of the content. Next to the selection and marketing mechanism, the platforms can also serve as a community building mechanism. These communities of book readers can take care of further selection and enrichment. This is where a possible future for intermediaries can lay: in the creation of platforms that make a selection of the immense data available on the web and at the same time host all kinds of community building opportunities and user interaction services.
This development was also reflected in the discussion about possible future Ebook business models. Erik Rigters defended the advertising model, in which content can be free to the end user by means of advertisements in or next to the content (comparing it to the Google model). Next to that he (and others) argued that in the future the most important issue is access to data: with all these massive amounts of data the issue no longer revolves around ownership but around accessibility. New Ebook business models will revolve around access to databases instead of access to items, be it single books, pages or chapters. And this access is where we will pay for. And in this respect, the players with the most data will play the biggest roles as information brokers in a digital age.
A few other interesting remarks that came up from the discussion:
– The fixed book price will disappear since the digital knows no borders.
– Authors want to be read more than to be paid: it is the secondary services (lectures, tours, promotions) that come with the fame after being read that make authors’ income in the new model.
– Copyright is old fashioned. This means that the business models modeled around copyright feel old fashioned too. We need to find new ways to ensure the author and the publishers get paid for their added value. Copyright makes this change slower.
These are just a few reflections of a round table that in my experience offered some very fruitful discussions. The next round table will be organized at the beginning of 2009.