A Progressive Online Distribution Center?


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

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.

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.