A Progressive Online Distribution Center?

By Z Staff


Suppose this Fall three different companies release new “electronic book” products. These are book size “consoles” weighing a pound or two, with a very readable screen meant to replace books (and/or magazines) as we know them. The written material is a digital computer file. To get it into the book you might buy a disk but more likely download it over the Internet. You then read it on your screen, just as if it were a page of text, holding the electronic book in bed or bathroom or wherever else, just as you hold a paper book. You turn pages by pushing a tiny button; there is no scrolling. You can write notes in the margins.

It doesn’t have the tactile qualities of a printed book, obviously, but one electronic book can hold many books at once. You can go to the beach or to class with a small library in tow—weighing only a pound or two—and replace one book with a new one easily.

Books and magazines no longer require paper and each person has free access to huge libraries of old and new printed materieal at a modest cost. A book is no longer a tree resized and modified. It is bits and bytes displayed on your personal electronic viewer. The publisher no longer worries about printing the product, only preparing an electronic version. And unless book and magazine stores offer tremendous ambiance and a meeting place or social experience, what good are they in the new world of e-books?

Right now, independent bookstores are taking a beating due to the conscious efforts of chains and superstores to close them down. The big chains enter a region with a few well placed superstores and provide every imaginable title, offering discounts. They soon take enough business from the independents to shut them down. Later, they close many of these outlets leaving people longer trips to get to the one remaining superstore, which has no remaining competitors.

They reduce stock to increase profits. This is bad enough in its broad implications, but it’s horrible for progressive publishers who lose one of their few outlets. The reduced visibility this entails is already cutting into distribution and revenues. The future for progressive book publishers who rely on store distribution is bleak.

Progressive publishers of books and magazines each have different agendas and priorities. Alone they are too small to support ample outreach. Yet merging to fight the difficult times via having economies of scale, etc., would sublimate many editorial agendas into one, many offices into one, etc. This is neither politically nor editorially desirable. So what is to be done?

The progressive media community could benefit greatly from having one operation which handles electronic distribution and promotion for everyone. It needs to be one operation, not many, so its scale can sustain the infrastructure essential to effective outreach, speed of delivery, and appearance. Imagine that we create an Online Distribution Center for progressive periodicals, audio materials, video materials, and other media materials.

Each publishing operation continues its editorial process more or less as it has been. Some may keep doing printed versions for store distribution, others not, depending on constituencies, costs, availability of net access for digital versions, and so on.

But an electronic version of the product could be sold over the net for a very low fee, there would be no printing costs, no transport or shelving costs, and many other cost reductions as well. People might pay $4 for a new book downloaded, $1 for an issue of a magazine, and similarly reduced rates for other types of material.

The shared Distribution Center would become huge in scope and cutting edge in technical resources so folks could easily access virtually anything and everything progressive they may want, with browsing and searching capabilities, etc. Publishers retain responsibility for content and may do some promotion of their own, as well, but mostly they funnel their media products to the Distribution Center.

One could imagine a subset of folks who work at each publishing operation also doing some work for the Distribution Center since computers make that sort of thing easy enough, but the main point is that each operation would retain editorial autonomy while merging distribution, sales, and promotion.

The above is but one possible idea. It would take some doing to implement. But progressive media institutions have got to begin taking seriously that the playing field on which we operate is changing dramatically, so much so that if we don’t change with it we are all going to disappear.