Archive for December, 2009

The Call for Action

Monday, December 7th, 2009

The publishing world is continuing to evolve and transform rapidly with  2 recent announcements in the WSJ:

One is about Apple buying Lala.  I referenced Lala in an earlier blog discussing how the emergence of companies like Lala, and the interest they are garnering from  large corporations and more importantly, from end users, speaks to the accelerating evolution of content accessibility and pricing.  In this case, Lala lets you ‘rent’ a song for as little as $0.10 (i.e. you can stream the song but can’t actually have it downloaded on your device/PC), a concept that for many users just a few years ago would have seemed unpalatable.

Separately, News Corp and other publishers have announced a consortium to create a digital store to sell their content.  This initiative was certainly motivated in part by the publishers trying to take control of their business from “access” providers such as Google. But I believe that this offering will reveal a more interesting insight:  will users prefer having Google serve as their primary hub by which to access all the spokes?  Or will they be willing to add another ‘hub’ to their list of key destination sites?

And, similar to the above trend in music, the book industry is also experimenting with innovative forms of pricing and access.  For example, with Barnes & Noble’s new eBook reader, Nook, users can lend eBooks to friends.  There are also Netflix type services for books, such as Bookswim, where customers can rent physical books on a monthly subscription service.  It doesn’t take a genius to imagine a much more elegant and convenient eBook rental service that combines these two offerings.

In the case of books, users certainly prefer having Amazon as an additional hub, as opposed to using Google to hunt across a variety of small, niche book stores (or the publisher sites themselves).  As opposed to a consortium which is often limited or skewed to just the content from the players, the one-stop-shop focuses more on the end user and democratically serves up everything from the most popular to the most arcane tip of the long-tail.  This concept is now emerging in the world of scientific and scholarly publishing.  In a recent blog post on Scholarly Kitchen, Joseph Esposito proposes the notion of a…consortium (take that, Rupert Murdoch!) where users such as Joe can access content conveniently and easily.  (Note:  we should also point out in full disclosure that Joe is a friend and advisor to DeepDyve ).

Consortiums are tricky structures to make work as you have some of the steeliest competitors suddenly holding hands around a board room table.  It has been accomplished successfully on occasion (Hulu for online videos; Orbitz for airline tickets) although there were certain common elements, such as having independent financiers to provide the capital.  But as important as the money, the financiers contributed a voice that reminded each party of their fiduciary responsibility to serve the needs of the consortium’s shareholders above those of their ‘parent’ company’s.

So, could scientific publishers create a consortium like video and travel?  Setting aside the obvious risk of politics and bureaucracy crushing any successful effort, there are other factors.  For one, travel is not a long-tail market.  There are only a handful of airlines that matter whereas with scientific publishing, the long-tail is vital for completeness of research.  In addition, unlike the user-generated long-tail of video, the long-tail of scientific publishing can actually be monetized so once again, it proves to be a valuable and necessary component in the service offering - much like with books.  Finally, the video and airline companies had more “b-to-c” experience having directly served the end-user customer, whereas scientific publishers are more akin to “b-to-b” businesses that serve other (institutional) business customers.  By the way, the same arguments could be said for other ‘premium’ content industries such as business, financial and legal research.

So how will scientific publishing evolve?  Will it look like newspapers and magazines that suffer years of declining readership as users depend on Google as their hub to find “good enough” or pirated content?  Or will it resemble books, and to a lesser degree travel and video, where the aggregators moved rapidly and gained critical mass to become the hubs?

While the structure of the aggregator model may be up for debate, what appears most critical is the need for decisive action.  Change is happening, the question is whether our industry will shape it or be shaped by it.