Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 2 February 2001
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News Commentary
E-Publishing Competition Heats Up
Recent developments have squeezed traditional publishers
by Paula J. Hane

Traditional book publishers have had a tough time lately. In the face of rising competition from various e-book options, many have adapted to electronic publishing by choosing to partner with companies like netLibrary, Versaware, and others that offer digital-conversion services. They face competition for authors from companies like Xlibris and iUniverse, which provide self-publishing options. And, as reported in this issue, retail Internet bookstore ( has just entered the digital publishing arena by announcing the creation of Barnes & Noble Digital, an electronic publishing imprint. (See the news story on page 33.) The competition is definitely heating up, with publishers and retailers now fighting each other for authors and paying customers. (Of course, a similar battle is being waged as database and journal content publishers compete directly on the Web with online services.)

Industry observers have focused on the fact that Barnes & Noble Digital is offering its authors a 35-percent royalty rate on sales--much higher than the usual print royalty or e-book royalty--and is offering readers low prices for the books (from $5.95 to $7.95), which is quite a bit lower than other e-book pricing, until now. Some e-book publishers have charged prices that are almost the same as those of paperback copies. While some have warned that the pricing could cause a lower perceived value for e-books, others have speculated that just might be able to steal authors away and introduce healthy competition into the industry. (See Wade Roush's article, "Industry Debates Meaning of Barnes &'s Entry into ePublishing," at

With book retailers transforming themselves into publishers--and dealing directly with authors and readers--the traditional publishers could face being squeezed out. (Oh no, are we hearing "disintermediation" again?) The New York Times reported that Steve Riggio,'s vice chairman and acting CEO, said: "Publishers were slow to react and slow to embrace electronic books.... In an interesting way, the publisher may become an unnecessary middleman in the distribution of electronic content if they really don't do anything to build the market. We have the technology, the customers, the Web site, the traffic."

Of course, this bookseller-turned-publisher will have to prove itself. It may know marketing and distribution, but it's untested in the editing and publishing realm. And, authors will have to decide between a higher royalty on a lower sales price or a lower royalty with a higher ticket price.

Meanwhile, in addition to activity in the trade publishing business, the reference and textbook publishing fields have seen a flurry of digital publishing initiatives and partnerships. The textbook area, in particular, is considered to be a key point for development and growth, and has proven to attract a number of participants looking to capitalize on this opportunity. The traditional textbook publishers certainly don't want the field to be snatched up by any digital start-up.

Last month, Houghton Mifflin announced the launch of a digital textbook initiative with netLibrary's MetaText division ( (See or page 31 of Information Today's January 2001 issue.) MetaText has also recently announced plans to develop and manage electronic versions of college textbooks for Thomson Learning ( MetaText willhost the electronic texts in a Web-based learning platform and make them available for sale to college students in the fall 2001 semester. MetaText will convert dozens of textbooks from Thomson Learning's South-Western company, a publisher of business education textbooks, and from the Wadsworth Group, publisher of humanities, social sciences, and behavioral sciences texts.

This month, Addison-Wesley announced that it is partnering with an e-book device company to provide digital textbooks for college students (see page 33), while McGraw-Hill announced that it is teaming up with WizeUp Digital Textbooks to electronically publish, sell, and distribute digital textbooks for the higher education market (see page 34). I suspect that the announcements from publishers will just keep flowing in as the education market warms to the possibilities of the new content-distribution channel, and publishers make the decision to jump in. Publishers that ignore online distribution do so at their own peril.

Paula J. Hane, co-editor with Barbara Quint for NewsBreaks, is contributing editor of Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is phane@

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