When news broke this week that O'Reilly Media was closing its ebookstore in favor of Safari Books Online and distributing to retailers like the Kindle Store, customers, fans, and supporters reacted with dismay, anger, and outrage.
Some saw it as a betrayal of everything Tim O'Reilly said he stood for, while others were understandably angry that they could no longer buy their preferred format, PDF (and no, the version in Google Play is not a suitable replacement).
O'Reilly Media had broken the first rule of sharing bad news, leaving them to scramble after the fact to conduct damage control.
They tried to put out the fires when they posted an explanation on Friday, but if they had published the explanation first then there would have been no fires.
There's a simple trick to sharing bad news or announcing an unpopular change in policy, one which will cut the angry shouting by 90%.
As I learned about a decade ago, the trick is to share the explanation first and the bad news second. It short-circuits the angry response, and it really is that simple:
- We've been evacuated in advance of an oncoming hurricane, so the conference is canceled.
- The company has filed for bankruptcy today, and we will not be able to ship your order.
In the case of O'Reilly Media, what they should have said first was that direct ebook sales no longer justified keeping the store open.
Alas, they did not tell anyone this until Friday, two days after informing customers that the store was closing.
According to the O'Reilly blog, both print and ebooks sales are on the decline:
Meanwhile, sales of books have declined consistently year after year since 2000! Ebooks expanded the market for a while, and direct distribution from oreilly.com was a great way to make them widely available while traditional retailers other than Amazon were slow to embrace that market. But starting a few years ago, ebook sales too started to flatten, and then to fall. Running oreilly.com as a distribution platform was effective, but also costly. It required a dedicated investment in e-commerce software, staff, marketing, and so on. It also required us to choose whether to direct incoming customers to the declining e-commerce business to buy standalone units, or to our growing subscription business.
O'Reilly is seeing the same trend that has nonfiction authors retiring, worries academic publishers, and has also disrupted the college bookstore industry, leading B&N Edu to turn some of their bookstores into gift shops.
The trend I am referring to is: Books are no longer the main way people learn.
O'Reilly has even seen this trend in their own products:
As new learning modalities emerged, O’Reilly moved to embrace new formats. We developed an amazing video training series (thanks to a talented author base and editorial team willing to try something new), we purchased a small screencasting company and integrated it into our editorial offerings, we developed Oriole, our own interactive learning technology that integrates video and in-browser coding, and developed a formative assessment program for our popular video learning paths.
And that has led them to this crossroad. "So we had to make a tough decision, and we chose to support the side of the business that has the most customers, that is growing the fastest, and that supports all of the learning modalities that customers are demanding," O'Reilly president Laura Baldwin wrote in the post on Friday.
In short, there's no chance of O'Reilly reversing their decision, but there is a small light at the end of the tunnel.
O'Reilly isn't going to reopen the store, but they will start offering PDFs through their subscription service:
After our announcement, the bulk of your requests have been for PDFs versus kindle or EPUB format. We're already working on offering PDF downloads as part of the Safari subscription, as well as other new features to support offline reading. And we are looking into ways for our resellers to support unit sales of PDFs. I regret that we didn’t get those arrangements in place in advance of this announcement.
O'Reilly could have also given themselves a grace period to solve this kind of problem simply by putting off the closure for a month.
Or better yet, O'Reilly could have found a replacement store first and announced its closure second.
In fact, I can think of one such store that would fit the bill.
What About Baen?
Baen Books has been selling DRM-free multi-format ebooks for as long as O'Reilly. Yes, Baen is an SF&F publisher, but their store meets almost all the requirements for a replacement to the O'Reilly store.
The only way Baen comes up short is that they don't currently sell PDFs. Founder Jim Baen abhorred the format, and no one saw a reason to go against his wishes in the decade since he died.
Now would be a good time, don't you think?
image by ell brown