Independence in The Era of the Aggregators

by | May 18, 2010


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 SPANnet.org):

  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.

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7 Comments

  1. Uvania

    Dear Mam/Sir

    My tertiary institution is interested in becoming an iBooks aggregator. I
    was wondering what the process involved would entail? We want to follow the correct processes and avoid any licensing issues.

    1) Is there a cost involved in becoming an iBooks aggregator, and do we
    have to sign up via Apple?

    2) Does publishing through the Apple store preclude publishing elsewhere?

    Any help in this regard would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanking you in advance!

    Reply
  2. Debbie

    You do NOT have to do business with these companies alone to get your book into the iBookstore! I know, because I recently uploaded a book to Apple myself without any of these aggregator services. It’s mis-information to put things like this out.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks so much for your comment, Debbie. Please note this post was written in May, when that was the only way to publish to the iBookstore. Apple has opened up the process in the interim.

      Reply
  3. Joel Friedlander

    Mayowa,

    I really like your picture of the ceaseless ebb and flow of hierarchical control, resistance, revolution and the rise of new controllers. It’s got a rhythm to it. Right now, we are heady with the options opening before us, but it won’t always be so. It just seemed to me that the mechanisms of efficient markets keep bringing us back to the need for “economies of scale” that inevitably flatten the landscape and squeeze out the little, idiosyncratic producers who just won’t fit in.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and for adding to this conversation, Mayowa.

    Reply
  4. Mayowa

    Great post.

    I like your comment about an equal reaction on the distributor side to moves by authors to control their own distribution.

    Perhaps the most easily identifiable victory for authors is this. Unless the aggregators intend to take over the “gatekeepers of literary culture” role that publishers and agents play or to restrict access by publisher size, the arrival of these aggregators will do little to diminish the capability of indie authors to distribute their work (outside of things like marketing budgets etc.)

    There’s also this. Indie authors are now more aware than ever before about their options and hopefully we’ll fight any attempts to take them away. If the aggregators become the new oppressors, another business model will rise up to take its place. When this new business model takes becomes oppressive, another will overthrow it. It’s almost a form of “class struggle” that will repeat itself (at a much faster pace now given the digital age).

    Reply
  5. Joel Friedlander

    And even if they aren’t on the way out, they are looking at competition (at least in ebooks) from anyone who cares to aggregate and distribute products. All it takes is the ability to identify and sell to a specific market niche. And a computer, of course. Not a very high barrier to entry. Thanks for the thoughts, Mike.

    Reply
  6. Mike Lipsey

    The amount of competition in any industry is largely determined by ease of entry. For example, we only have three major auto manufacturers because it is very difficult to start one. But we have hundreds of thousands of building contractors, eBay stores and nail salons, because these are easy businesses to get into. Seems to me there are likely to be a multitude of ebook distributors simply because it will be very easy to become one. If you google almost any book on Amazon it already comes up on a zillion other websites that copy the info, all over the world. And that is for physical books, which they actually have to obtain and ship. With ebooks it becomes far simpler to “stock” and “deliver” the product. Perhaps the whole Titanic of big commercial publishers, Ingram, Amazon, etc. are on their way out, to be replaced with a far more distributed system of distribution.

    Reply

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