Information Entrepreneurs and Publishing Overlapping Titles

For those offended by the commercial side of publishing, this post about information entrepreneurs is definitely not for you. If you’ve ever spent a serious amount of time window shopping amongst the 100,000 plus titles in a Barnes & Noble superstore or browsing the subject categories at Amazon, you’ll have noticed that there’s more overlap than uniqueness between titles. It’s even true for fiction, where copycat titles from new authors or even the same author as a previous bestseller crowd the shelves, and classic works are available in a dozen editions and bindings. In the nonfiction areas, the phenomena of overlapping and tribute (i.e., all but copied) titles is so epidemic that you can set out to buy a particular book that’s been recommended to you and come home with the wrong one by mistake. Publishers don’t just use the same titles, they imitate each other’s designs, page counts, layouts and styles.

If you step back and look at all of the overlap in the book publishing world, it leads to an interesting question. How many unique books are there? I’m going to stick with nonfiction from here because I’ve found some people get their backs up when you suggest that their favorite author is merely repeating the same book over and over again, or even worse, repeating somebody else’s book. When I look at a section of shelf in Barnes & Noble or a category on Amazon, I wonder how many titles would be left if a disinterested information entrepreneur distilled it all into a single work. Given the amount of fluff that gets included in most books, it would surprise me if the average category of nonfiction could be boiled down to about a half a book.

Some modern information entrepreneurs focus on what they perceive as the low hanging fruit, information that is freely available for repackaging without copyright restrictions. Because of the extremely low transaction costs in publishing public domain, mainly government generated documents, it’s a natural target for the home based publisher. The trick is that the government is getting better and better at publishing the same information online themselves, so the packaging ends up being the product. If you succeed, there’s very little to prevent other publishers from imitating your packaging, and since you can’t copyright the public domain material yourself, their transaction cost to get into the business is even lower than your cost was.

Nonfiction how-to and self-help books are pitched to a general audience in the theory that the author actually knows quite a bit about whatever the subject is and is writing the book to share their expertise and make a buck. This is usually true for the first book out on a subject, and sometimes for the last as well, but many of the books that come in between are churned out by technical writers who are being paid to "write a book that competes with X." All of these in between books tend to be highly redundant, and while an argument can be made that they are necessary to the publishing economy, it would be hard to convince me that they are necessary to the readers. I say that despite the tendency for some readers to buy every book they can on a subject, as witnessed by the "Also Bought" lists on Amazon. The incremental books may give them confidence and a tax write-off but they may not give them any new information.

Self publishers of nonfiction books are essentially functioning as information entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that existed as long as the printing press, but one for which the transaction costs have been greatly reduced by the Internet. Some information entrepreneurs derive their living directly from monetizing their websites and don’t even bother publishing books. My own model for self publishing is more of a hybrid. I started out strictly as a book publisher with online marketing and have drifted into some online monetization, more as a convenience than as a goal.

But what about those information companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) for whom monetizing the Internet is THE goal, and what about those old trade publishers and textbook publishers (McGraw-Hill, Norton, and the rest) whose sole focus remains monetizing information on paper? The internet bookshelf means bad news for the paper publishers because all of my experience online indicates that the winner gets the spoils and the derivatives get the ghosts of departed quantities. I believe that in the next five years or so, some company will emerge as the default information publisher. Maybe one of the majors will get brave with their existing content and put it all online. Maybe one of the information companies will pay to have a thousand books written, and if they avoid overlap, it may cover 90% of what people are looking for. Maybe it will be a new information entrepreneur who puts together a network of a thousand diverse authors. All I know is I won’t get credit for the idea.

No comments: