Publishers, that is enterprises devoted to bringing to life the intellectual work of content creators for commercial ends, thrive in the world of digital distribution when they most skillfully manipulate three key levers that are entirely within the publisher’s control: 1. The timing of release and point of first access, 2. The digital list price and associated price multipliers for access models across vendors and 3. The selective deployment of digital rights management. I believe the primary objectives of a publisher in the educational space should be to simultaneously maximize revenue return to authors and creators and drive exposure and usage of the published content. The three-levers available to publishers should be continuously monitored, skillfully adjusted, and then measured by reader/viewer/listener engagement and usage and royalty return to authors and content creators. The following explanation of the three levers is intended primarily for those seeking to understand why publishers make the distribution and access decisions they do, especially as concerns their publisher-direct strategy.
The timing of release and point of first access
The most important decision a publisher must make, again and again, is when to release a title into partner distribution versus restricting access of the title to the publisher’s business models. Ultimately this is a function of the channels strategy each publisher crafts and the priority placed on publisher-direct business models versus partner solutions such as aggregated, usage-based products or demand-driven distribution models than ensure single title pricing maximization. Netflix, for example, has taken the strategic decision to not release its original content into any other distribution platform, whereas HBO and Showtime have both made their original content available as part of Amazon Prime subscriber access and/or purchase within Prime. Showtime, for example, has released new shows to Showtime subscribers only for first-season access and then extended access in year-two and beyond to Amazon Prime. At the company I founded, Business Expert Press, we retained what we projected to be our top 10% of new eBook titles for access only through our complete, publisher-direct collection. The principle at work in these examples is prioritization by the publisher of prized access to its most valuable assets. The decision not to release these titles to third-party distribution is a decision to return more royalty to the publisher’s authors and content creators, but limits access.
The digital list price and associated price multipliers across access models and vendors
Once the publisher has decided to release a title into partner distribution many decisions must follow as concerns access models and price points. While a stated publisher list price, or digital list price, will be evident in the publisher’s catalog and across its web presences, the percentage multiplier of that price will vary based on the access models selected and, sometimes, by the vendor. For example, a publisher of academic books is presented with many options, including one-user, three-users, unlimited users, one, seven, 14 or 28 day short-term access, and more. The publisher can select, by title, which of these access models to use and the multiplier of the digital list price by model. It is not unusual to see a publisher, for example, place a title into unlimited user access but then apply a multiplier of 300% to the single title digital list price. That same title may well be accessible as part of a publisher-direct subscription package or for single title purchase directly from the publisher at a much better price. Finally, a publisher may choose to offer access models and price multiplier discounts from one vendor and not another based on a proprietary relationship with the vendor that may well be returning a higher margin of sale to the publisher than that commonly available from other vendors. The decision to move a title from available only from the publisher into third-party distribution is done to increase total return across publisher-direct distribution and partner distribution, and it is often done with the objective of increasing exposure of the title with the hope that the purchaser will choose the more advantageous publisher-direct price.
The selective deployment of digital rights management
Digital rights management (DRM) technologies are designed to control, or attempt to control, the access, use, modification and distribution of copyrighted works such as videos, ebooks, streaming music and podcasts. Very often discussions about the deployment of DRM are focused on efforts to forestall digital piracy that leads to illegal file sharing across unscrupulous platforms. But publishers just as often use DRM as a lever to drive purchases toward preferred models or, at minimum, restrict what is perceived as misuse of the content. For example, very strict DRM controls on an eTextbook are often put into place to ensure chapters are not printed, scanned and shared across a student population in lieu of students purchasing the eTextbook. Publishers may elect to remove all DRM controls, especially when delivering publisher-direct. At Business Expert Press we sold our eBook collection DRM-free, publisher-direct from our own platform, but we enforced rather strict DRM when single titles were purchased through third-party eBook vendors. Music creators may allow purchase and download of a new album directly from the band’s website but allow “listen only” on streaming services like Spotify.
On more than one occasion I have been in a room of licensing agents or librarians or bookstore managers or platform leaders and heard the complaints about publishers and their unwillingness to deliver content DRM-free or at preferred pricing available directly from the publisher’s website. My view was always more nuanced, based on my many years as a publisher but, more importantly, my many personal interactions with authors, documentary filmmakers, podcasters and other content creators. I will not naively contend that all publishers are first and foremost concerned with maximizing royalty return to authors, but I will contend that publishers have a duty to authors that third-party vendors do not. And it is this duty, however deeply or remotely felt, that drives the publishers strategic deployment of the three levers they control in an ecosystem of digital delivery where they control little else.
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