Wednesday 7 January 2009

"Chunking"--The Next Big Thing in Publishing and Digitization?

You have to love the way that terminology gets adopted in the digital world. My favorite term of recent vintage had been "mash" or "mashing". No more, though--I ran across an interesting little ditty in the December 8, 2008 issue of Business Week ("This Chapter is Cut Out for You") where the word of the day is "chunking". For someone who grew as a child craving for the chocolate confectionery product "Chunky" I had to make a huge effort to understand the "chunking" has nothing to do with candy and everything to do with publishing.

When chunky was chunky

According to the article, "chunking" was one of the hot issues at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair. And what, pray tell, is "chunking"? It is the "slicing up [of] books to sell the pieces". If once we talked about the salami theory of copyright--namely slicing up copyright into as many pieces as possible, "chunking seems to be taking this strategy of monetization one step further. Now, a single work is itself carved out to extract more value from it. A rough analogy might be the experience of iTunes in selling single cuts of musical works otherwise contained as part of a CD. That said, books are not CDs, and rare is the book whose price tag is as low as a CD, despite the moaning and groaning of purchasers of CDs.

Several examples of "chunking" are given in the brief article. Thus Hay House, which is a publisher of materials in the self-help and spirituality area, now uses its contents to make calendars and cards. (That said, this seems less an instance of pure "chunking" and more one of merchandising by product extension). 

More conventionally, at least in a "chunking" sense, are the efforts of McGraw Hill to sell single chapters of technical titles in the chemistry area. Even more augustly, Harvard Business Publishing is offering via Amazon single chapters of 120 of its titles, each at the amount of $6.95. Whether "chunking" will come to the rescue of the depleted Harvard endowment remains an open question.

Harvard Business School: "chunking" to the rescue?

The key business question here is whether "chunking" will augment or cannibalize book sales? The argument in favor of "chunking" takes the position that the audience of such single chapters is not likely to consist of the same persons who would otherwise purchase the entire book. I suspect that there is some truth in this, particularly for professional titles that command a three-figure price tag. As a non-fiction author, I would welcome the "chunking" of my tome into discrete chapters. Presumably, this will be lead to increased overall revenues as well greater distribution and exposure. It will be interesting to see whether this product/marketing scheme is the herald of something substantial, or just another buzz word that will come and go.

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