Independence in The Era of the Aggregators

POSTED ON May 18, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Marketing, Self-Publishing > Independence in The Era of the Aggregators

Aggregators—people or companies who gather material into a whole for another purpose, or as representatives of all the parts of the whole—are in new prominence. Particularly with Apple’s iBookstore, a new retail location of incredible potential.

But who will sell to the iBookstore? For independent publishers and small presses, Apple has anointed eight companies as aggregators. In other words, Apple will only do business with these eight companies for getting new inventory for the iBookstore from indie publishers.

In order to publish to their store, you will have to become a client of one of these companies. Here’s the list (with thanks to Publishers Lunch Daily Newsletter and Scott Flora’s blog on

  1. Bibliocore
  2. Cdbaby
  3. Perseus Digital
  4. Ingrooves
  5. Ingram
  6. Libre Digital
  7. Lulu
  8. Smashwords

Now, certainly this is good for independent and self-publishers. Books coming from Smashwords are already up on the iBookstores, and having this access is going to be more important when and if the iBookstore becomes more dominant in bookselling.

The New Era in Books Cuts Both Ways

But there’s another side to this situation. It’s easy to see that Apple will save a huge amount of overhead only having to do business with these 8 companies rather than all the hundreds or thousands of publishers who will supply the content to the aggregators. Instead, companies who are used to dealing with these content creators, like Smashwords, Ingram and Lulu, will absorb the cost.

Like the bookstore owners who don’t really need rabid hordes of publicity-seeking, hyper-marketing self-publishers descending on them, each trying to open an account at their store for their 1 book—a nightmare for a small business—Apple can stay at arm’s length.

Having to rely on these aggregators brings up different issues. They are mostly huge companies. Once again, the content creators—the authors and self-publishers—who have so recently grabbed the means of production and started to change the publishing industry with it, face a different kind of disenfranchisement.

If you are just an account of a huge company, what control do you really have over your distribution? Because that’s what we’re looking at here, the new face of distribution within the ebook industry.

Forces in Equilibrium?

It’s interesting that these two forces that are so opposed to each other, are developing at the same time:

  • The move toward differentiation, the ability of everyone to be a “publisher”, and
  • The move toward aggregation, the need of the market to present logical and consistent ways of buying all that differentiated content.

This has happened with other industries, other delivery systems. iTunes works as a portal for major label music companies as well as one-man-band indie musicians because iTunes itself is a kind of massive aggregator. And it works, because how else would we find, preview, buy and download the huge variety of music we like to consume without it? Going to hundreds of little websites, each with one artist, or one album?

Amazon, of course, is a massive aggregator for printed books (as well as just about everything else you can buy, at this point). They bring everything together, we get to pick and choose.

But I think it’s reasonable to question just how “independent” independent publishing really is, if you are essentially just one of hundreds of suppliers to your aggregator, and you need to conform to their requirements just to maintain your ability to provide them with content.

And what if the political or cultural winds start to change? With aggregators, it’s easy to tighten or loosen the definition of what’s “acceptable” content. If you can’t get your product into an aggregator, what chance do you have of selling it? What if Amazon decides they don’t like your books, or your business practices? As bookstores continue to close, are you still a viable publisher if you don’t have a presence on Amazon? Is that independence?

We like to think that the “new media” world is already upon us, but in many ways we’re shuffling the chairs around while the owners of the store look on.

Aggregation Everywhere: It’s Not Going Away

Many discussions I’ve participated in over the last couple of months have revolved around plans for new ways to distribute ebooks. New ebook distribution sites appear on the web like mushrooms after a nice rain. Tools for converting your Word files or InDesign files into ebooks are proliferating faster than we can evaluate them.

For almost one hundred years people have been trying to “reform” the distribution system for printed books. Let’s face it, an industry that gambles millions of dollars on books that may or may not sell, and relies on chains of huge consignment stores to deliver those books, only to pulp about half of them, is ripe for reform.

Every new scheme I’ve heard—and I’m sure I haven’t heard that many—is a variation on the theme of aggregation. It’s almost as if the drive to independence, the ability to produce my book, my way, with the tools I choose, in the format I settle on, produces the equal and opposite reaction of trying to amass all these wildly different products into neatly organized sales racks.

What do you think of the changes happening in the ebook market? As ebooks continue to take market share away from printed books, a process that is slow but inevitable, these questions will become more urgent. What is the way to honor and promote diversity while maintaining individual creators’ true independence? Any ideas?

Takeaway: While content aggregators seem necessary to deal with diversified content creators, concentration of power often has negative consequences.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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