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Jesse Aizenstat Headshot

The Big Six Book Publishers Need to Innovate Like the Good Americans That They Are

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In case you missed it the other week, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against Apple and some of the "Big Six" publishers for conspiring to raise the price of e-books. Of course the Big Six are guilty. They're scared that online e-books sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will keep discounting their prized titles and that will cut into print-book sales. But the mean, cold-blooded truth is that Amazon is not to blame. It's the Big Six themselves: one of the last great American industries that stayed in business while riding on the musty coattails of the past.

Yep, it's a sad day for the Big Six -- but not because they're in a bitter race to the bottom. It's sad because of their thinking. It reflects their pathetic victim mentality of "cannot do." These big publishers would rather close the doors and slash their staff than innovate in a changing market. And as a publishing entrepreneur myself, it's downright infuriating to watch. Funerals are not entertainment.

All the analysis I've read about the price-fixing scandal has more or less led to the same thing: book publishers will do what the music business did with the proliferation of digital music: put up a legal fight, and eventually hold on to something.

But what kind of victory is that? With the book business as a whole more profitable than ever, doesn't this seem like an opportunity for the Big Six? After all, they are known to publish some pretty cool reads.

By raising the price of their coveted e-books, the Big Six are rejecting the times and hanging on to the high-priced paradigm of the past. Do they not know? The world has already changed, and people like their e-books cheap. Like music, consumers will just pirate it if it costs too much. But also like the music, if they like what they get they'll definitely come back for more.

So for the Big Six, why not save the fight with the U.S. Justice Department and buy more titles to sell on the cheaper e-book market, throwing in a small print run for the hell of it? With more market-proved titles, double down on production and focus on making beautiful products that go way beyond reading ink text on a Kindle. Get into selling the experience of a book.

When creating hardcover books, start with customized end pages that reflect the scenes the author is writing about. Hire some graphics guru to throw together a tasteful color insert that makes readers tear up with their emotional connection to the story. Craft eye-popping flap jackets and cover art that captures the original enthusiasm; make us feel the magic that inspired the author to start writing the book in the first place. Simply, create a product where the book production is integrated with the narrative, and where the product as a whole reflects the spirit of the thing. Amazon's e-books can never compete with that.

In addition, the Big Six could experiment with Pad book apps. Meaning that the narrative can be built out with all the cool graphics, pictures, videos, original documents -- and really anything that creative people can come up with. The Big Six could team up with TV and video game production studios, building interactive worlds with some of their most engaging, best-selling titles.

There is no question that the Big Six will have innovate if they want to get into the next generation of the book business. They need to become great product companies, focused on bringing the best stories and entertainment to readers. And there's hope, because what the Big Six already do well is publish great stories. You have to have that solid foundation; it's what the production will feed from.

So the bottom line here is innovation and great products.

It's how every novel about the American Dream begins.