The Hulu For Books That Never Was

It was just five years ago when both NBCUniversal and News Corp stopped complaining about YouTube and decided to actually do something about it.

They formed what is today known as Hulu.

It’s gone from being a skeletal ad-supported video streaming service to one with content YouTube can’t match and a premium tier that has over 1.5 million subscribers and prospects of future growth.

How’s that for fighting back?

The formation of Hulu should have been a wake-up call to the Big Six of publishing.

They too should have banded together to form a Hulu for Books.

Instead, they decided to risk their future by betting on a price-fixing trust strategy instigated by Apple, today known as Agency Pricing.

This has not saved them from the threat of being put out of business by Amazon and by all of the writers who have discovered they no longer need a publisher to reach readers.

It hasn’t saved them from the inevitable day when Barnes & Noble collapses under the weight of its stores, leaving the Big Six with basically only outlets run by tech companies to sell their eBooks: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo. (Sony, given the way its been bleeding money, will not last.)

Is there still time for the creation of a Hulu for Books?

Is the Amazon threat ever going to go away? No.

Is the Apple threat ever going to go away? No.

Is the Google threat ever going to go away? No.

So there’s still time for a Hulu for Books.

And since no one in the Big Six seems to understand how this can be done, I will lay it all out for them.

Not because I love them and want any of them to survive — but because my proposal is first of all also good for my fellow writers.

1) The Big Six should pledge equal financial resources to form a separate arm’s-length company. For now, let’s just call it Hulu for Books or HFB.

2) HFB is to be a profit-making venture, not a beard to continue the failed policies of its retrograde publishing partners. Let me make this clear: The Big Six can have representatives on an Advisory Board. None of them should ever sit on the Board of Directors.

3) The task of this company — HFB — is to create an industry-standard eBookstore better than anything Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo have or can ever offer. It has to be so because this is the entirety of all book publishing that’s at stake.

4) It has to take in the reality of how the Internet works right now, how eBook marketing and selling works right now, and have a vision for how HFB can actually shape the marketplace. It must lead, not be a me-too venture.

5) The overarching structure of the HFB eBookstore is as one bookstore. No favoritism is given to any Big Six partner. HFB has as its goal pleasing customers first, selling eBooks second, and pleasing its partners last.

6) HFB would be open to all publishers, not just the Big Six. Why? Because the entirety of all book publishing is at stake. The emphasis of this company is to preserve the market for books first, not the Big Six. This reflects what Hulu itself does — preserve the market for conventionally-produced TV and movies, not just preserve its financial backers, and to compete against what YouTube offers in shorter form by “self-publishing” uploaders.

7) Unlike all other bookstores, each publisher (which, again, is not limited to the Big Six) can have its own store within it. It will have the same UI and purchasing system as the rest of the store, but this store-within-a-store is a place where each publisher can do its own style of marketing and speak in its own voice to its readers. Rather than seeing its big book of the month ignored by the general store, in this area of its own sub-store it can tout it to its heart’s content. Publisher brands and their brand imprints are thus preserved.

8) HFB would offer an open API that affiliated stores can tie into. If a small publisher has its own eBookstore on its own hardware and has been content to do it that way, it can continue to do so. But it can now tie into a larger entity. A small transaction and maintenance fee would be the price for using the API. This API is crucial to derail the anti-trust and restraint of trade charges that all tech companies — with their closed systems — are inevitably going to face at some point.

9) This open API would also be marketed to hardware makers. Kobo and other device makers could use it in their eBook readers. All Android tablet makers could use it in their hardware. There would be a small licensing fee for this. Do you think Kobo wouldn’t use it? Kobo ties into public libraries, so Kobo would. And Android tablet makers would jump at the chance to have a books outlet that didn’t require customized software and licensing from different companies just to offer books.

10) HFB would also offer affiliate links for all blogs that would have them, with priority going to sites and blogs that focus on books. Spam sites would be blackballed.

11) HFB, being the tech tail wagging the industry dog, would educate the Big Six and its other publishing partners on where it sees eBooks going and what is needed from all partners to help them stay current in the market. This is distinct from the statistical aspects of the site. This is Vision. HFB should be for eBooks what Apple has been to gadgets.

12) HFB would enable publishers to see how their books are selling directly, without the kind of reporting delays that other eBookstores have. Real-time statistics would be available and marketing departments of publishers could see for themselves the success and failure of their campaigns and strategies. Did you just tweet a special offer? Check in an hour later to see if there’s been any change in sales.

13) HFB would allow self-publishing, bringing back into the fold of the book world all of those who have been lost to the tech companies. There are writers out there who today have banded together to sell as co-ops. HFB would offer them the chance to relieve them of all of the housekeeping burdens such efforts require. They could set up their own store-within-a-store in HFB.

14) Note that I have not discussed concrete fees for anything. It will take imagination, determination, and far more number ability than I have to hazard a guess about what API licenses and transaction fees — for publishers and self-publishers — should be. But I do know there should be an aggressiveness to all this because the entirety of all book publishing is at stake. And that is not hyperbole.

15) HFB is meant to be the leader in eBooks, taking away that perception — if not current reality — from Amazon and to blunt the looming threat that hundreds of millions of iOS devices and Apple’s iBookstore present. As such, it would help develop tools and set standards for eBooks in a way that the slow IDPF cannot and never could accomplish. For example, it would see the wisdom of creating ePub Author and other tools like it. It would create the standards for eBooks, not have them dictated by the whims of tech companies.

16) The entire point of HFB is to:

1) Have books take a stand of their own
2) Preserve the idea of books
3) Shape the future of books
4) Promote books

Until a Hulu for Books is realized, the Big Six will find their futures becoming increasingly precarious. It’s not just Amazon, Apple, Google, and the rest who are threats. It’s every writer would can make a living selling one or two thousand $2.99 ebooks a month — a sum the Big Six consider insignificant until that writer catches fire and sells a hell of a lot more.

A Hulu for Books is a long play. It’s not something that should be seen as immediately generating profits. It’s an investment. But the history of such investments have shown that eventually the graph forms like a hockey stick, eventually shooting up with crazy growth. The market is big enough for everyone and everyone can profit — and stay in business.

Rather than continue the hostility that has developed — and which I have often also instigated — between the Big Six, writers, and readers, it’s past time to band together as lovers of books, as lovers of the written word and its distinct place in human culture, and ensure that the destiny of all book publishing remains in the hands of those who actually care for it and deeply love it. Those are emotions alien to every tech company currently competing with publishers and that continue to fool writers into thinking they’re a friend.

Update: Sarah Weinman directed my attention to this: Bookish – the New Digital Destination for Readers – to Launch Summer 2011. Well now. So we’ll all see how their creation matches what I’ve written above.

4 Comments

Filed under eBooks: General

4 responses to “The Hulu For Books That Never Was

  1. HI Mike,

    you have essentially described what we are doing here at Anobii (www.anobii.com), a startup backed by Penguin, Random House and HarperCollins. We are a few months away from being able to do most of the things you describe but the spirit is spot on ;-)

    Matteo

  2. Pingback: Hulu For Books Is A Great Idea, Just Don’t Do It Like Hulu | The well-prepared mind

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