Try to get through the cute in TechCrunch's latest on e-books and you come down to a simple question.
What's a publisher for?
Like Jon Evans, I too have written books. Publishers traditionally gave me 15% royalties, taking the rest for editing, marketing, and printing. In the tech world books were pre-marketed - they knew how many and what they would sell before they hired the writer. I like having editors, and I have no feelings on killing trees although my dear wife, a lifelong reader, is all in favor of it.
Still, the question remains, what's the real use of a publisher in the 21st century?
They scout the market. A publisher knows what the market wants and finds someone to fill the need.
They edit. A publisher hires someone to work with the draft and render it into a form people will buy.
They curate. A publisher flogs the work and maximizes revenue from it.
They market. A publisher finds you markets.
The problem with the models of Amazon (AMZN) and Apple (AAPL) in this area is that neither really does any of that. They're basically running stores. For a cut of what you take, they'll move the files around, electronically.
The smart move for either of these players would be to buy a publisher (say, Tim O'Reilly) and make them the conduit, the marketer, the curator and gatekeeper of book-length files.
Unfortunately book publishers like O'Reilly are more likely to see digital stores as rivals, as threats. They remain devoted to their old business models, and are falling as fast as their music and video brethren, these key elements of the publishing business seem to be going away. Artists of all kinds are being left without the means with which to haul themselves up by their bootstraps.
I know. I'm an artist. I may look and write like a journalist, but the differences between a trade like journalism and an art like fiction aren't as great as they seem. They're more like the differences between being a line cook and a famous chef. The raw material is the same. The difference is that the line cook does what he's told, to order, and the chef designs the business, then gives the orders.
What's being lost in all this is, as with so much in today's world, the middle class. Middle class authors who can dependably churn out a book that finds 10-20,000 readers at a time, are being lost as bigger-and-bigger names above the title dominate. Like J.K. Rowling. Stephen King. John Grisham. These authors can find their way forward, and even get the rest of us to work for them if they want, because their names move merchandise, no matter the format.
What TechCrunch is alluding to is Rowling's first effort at publishing, at helping other writers produce work they can profit from in a ready-made market. The same sort of thing is happening in entertainment, where comic Louis CK found he could bypass the networks, and others like Jim Gaffigan are following suit.
The real bottom line here is opportunity. For you.
There is a huge hole in the market for someone who can turn middle-market entertainment of all kinds (including this kind) into real money. Amazon and Apple don't seem interested in that opportunity. If you're up for it, this is your way to becoming a billionaire. You'll be making these stores their next few billion along the way and, until someone is found to take on this function, I wouldn't be bullish on either.
But when you find a way to make money, they will too.