iPad Challenges Traditional Publishing Economics

There have been various stories about the iPad emerging as the savior of print media, and an equal selection of reports that print publications have balked at the profit-sharing business model proposed by Apple. Print media appears to be making the same mistake that other traditional entertainment media have made in transitioning to a digital delivery system.

Publishers have revolted over digital pricing and still need to find a balance for digital pricing.
Media businesses--whether music, movies, books, magazines, or newspapers--seem to cling to a pricing model that fails to account for the significantly lower overhead of digital distribution. These entities seem hung up on pricing narcissism, rather than realizing that production costs are different and distribution is almost universal--changing the economics entirely from traditional models.

The problem is not unique to the iPad. It is indicative of traditional media reluctantly embracing digital distribution in all its forms. Amazon--which established the Kindle based on selling new release best-seller's for $9.99--recently experienced a publisher revolt and has had to agree to let major publishers set prices above the $9.99 mark for their titles.

I have written or contributed to a number of books. Royalties are generally calculated as a function of net revenue, not retail price. Distributing a book in ePub or Kindle format doesn't require the same investment in paper, printing, binding, packaging, shipping, etc. On the retail end, there is no brick and mortar store--no need for leasing space, paying employees, etc. Virtually all of the overhead in producing and selling a book is removed.

Basically, publishers should be pricing digital distribution based on what it would expect in net revenue from the traditional distribution method, not based on some calculated percentage of the traditional retail price. I don't know the exact numbers, but If Wiley is only going to net eight dollars when it sells a printed version of my book, then it should create a digital pricing scheme that nets the same.

The issue goes beyond printed media too. Music CD's typically sell for around 15 dollars. Buying the MP3 version of the songs one at a time ends up costing nearly as much as purchasing the hard copy CD. You might save a few bucks if you buy the MP3 version of the whole album, but not as much as the distributor is saving by not producing and packaging discs, and by erasing the logistical expense of getting the discs to the store shelves.

My IDG peer Robert Cringely points out that there is more to the overhead than the cost of materials and distribution. "The premium rates publications charge(d) for print advertising subsidized a great many things--like teams of researchers, fact checkers, copy editors, and multiple line editors--that online ad models simply don't support."

Fair enough. Publishers should continue to factor those things in to the overhead associated with the digital distribution of their publications. The point stands that materials, and logistics make up a significant portion of the cost of a book, magazine, or newspaper, and that the online economics are entirely different.

There is also an economy of scale to consider. When a publisher prints and distributes a book, it publishes a finite number of copies which it makes available from a finite number of retail establishments. Digital distribution has no such constraints.

It remains to be seen if the iPad will be the savior of print media. The thing is, the iPad will probably do just fine regardless of what happens to print media. However, the reverse is not necessarily true.

Traditional media--whether books, magazines, newspapers, music, or movies--still need to grasp the digital landscape, and the changes that it brings for the economic models they have built their businesses on for decades. Somewhere out there is a revenue structure that creates a win-win-win for the publishers, the platforms (like the iPad and the Kindle), and the customers.

Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies . He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW , and can be contacted at his Facebook page .

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