The Shatzkin Files

More thinking about how author and publisher marketing collaboration should change


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Because of our Logical Marketing work and our interest in author websites (admittedly just a corner of the author-marketing world, even if we think it is a cornerstone), I did a couple of recent posts, the basic thrust of which was that publishers needed to rethink marketing and the author interaction around it.

Now, British author Harry Bingham and American consultant and indie-publishing expert Jane Friedman have published the results of a survey they did asking authors what they think of their publishers. What Bingham and Friedman found suggests strongly that the topic of the author-publisher relationship around marketing will be the subject of attention from a lot more people in the months and years to come.

Bingham and Friedman corralled a really significant sample in response to their survey: over 800 authors, of whom nearly half had published six or more books, more than half said their last book was published by a Big Five or other large trade publisher, and more than 60 percent of whom had an agent. Fewer than 10 percent said their most recent book was self-published, so it is likely that the survey captures the views of the published author more reliably than the views of the self-published author.

But, in fact, these published authors are not strangers to self-publishing. Although about a third of the respondents said they had never considered self-publishing, well over 40 percent have done it and nearly a quarter say they’ve “seriously considered it”.

On the other hand, later in the survey 36 percent of the respondents were “horrified” at the idea of controlling every aspect of the publishing process while only 24 percent were “excited” by that idea.

The point to the exercise was to find out how authors felt about their publishers. There’s a lot of encouraging news in here for publishers around that. The authors are generally pleased with their editing, their cover designs, and the consultation with them around flap copy. But they’re much less satisfied with the interaction around marketing. Significantly more felt their books “weren’t really marketed at all” (28 percent) than felt that the publisher made “full use of” their “skills, passion, contacts, and digital presence” (17 percent).

Although half of the respondents were satisfied with the communication they got from publishers, only 20 percent thought they got the “systematic guidance” they needed so they could “add most value” to the overall effort. It is precisely that challenge that my prior posts, in perhaps an unneccesarily roundabout way, sought to address.

But what Bingham cites as most startling to him among the results was the publishers’ almost total lack of expressed desire for author feedback. About three-quarters of the authors say they weren’t asked for feedback at all from publishers and only 16 percent of the authors said feedback was solicited and they were able to communicate freely.

To me, the most telling questions were those that probed whether the author would leave their publisher or their agent if they had the chance. For the publishers: more would leave than would stay if they got an equivalent offer elsewhere. For the agents: by more than 6-to-1 authors who now have agents would stay with their representative even if they could get another. That’s powerful.

At the end of last week, we conducted a survey of our own among agents and editors, trying to discern whether self-publishing is a useful tool to get a deal. Much to my surprise, the consensus is that it is not useful. We got far more answers from agents than we did from editors, but the clear prevailing opinion is that publishers don’t know how to interpret independent publishing efforts and, most of the time, trying it does an author’s chances of selling that book to a publisher much more harm than good. Most agents responding said they really don’t want to try to peddle a book that has already been self-published unless it has achieved pretty extraordinary success.

(What’s “extraordinary”? One UK agent suggested that it would take at least 50,000 sales to get the attention of a British publisher. An American agent said in that market the number is about 100,000.)

Agents are less negative about whether self-publishing might be helpful selling a next or different book to a publisher, but, even there, they are far less than enthusiastic about the help it provides. One agent said that publishers care about the quality of the writing and very little about the author platform. (To me, this reflects the same lack of grasp of the importance of the author’s online presence that I was writing about in those recent posts. And whatever failures of understanding there are, they are more widespread among editors in publishing houses than they are among marketers.)

What the agents and editors seem to be saying to us is that they don’t think about self-publishing very much. There are definitely exceptions, but most seem content to ignore it unless an author has achieved outlandish success doing it.

It would seem that the level of concern among the establishment about the temptations of self-publishing at any particular time is directly proportional to the apparent health of bookstores and the growth, or lack of it, in the ebook market share at that time. Since, in the U.S., bookstores seem to be doing well right now (which I’d argue is still at least partially due to the subtraction of Borders’s shelf-space and the diminution in Barnes & Noble’s) and the ebook market share has appeared stable for some time, that level of concern is currently pretty low.

So, here are a few conclusions from all of this.

1. Agents are driving the bus. They control the authors; the publishers don’t. That’s not to say that publishers don’t know this; most of them surely do. But this reality — that publisher behavior is channeled by trading partners more powerful than they are — is definitely not appreciated by indie authors and it appeared not to have entered the DoJ’s calculations when they saw collusion in the marketplace a few years ago.

2. Publishers are missing a big opportunity by not simply soliciting author feedback on their experience with the house. Just asking for it would be a win and the chances are that ideas would surface that would be easily executed and could bend that author loyalty curve a bit more in favor of the house. And it would almost certainly also add marketing value with trivial additional cost.

3. Authors are starved for guidance to direct their efforts on their own behalf. They are looking to publishers for this, although they might also look to agents. Thinking through and then spelling out more clearly what authors should be doing to help themselves is a critical task the industry seems to have collectively avoided. Agents are good at providing career guidance. (What book to write? Which house to choose?) But they’re not marketers. They generally know little or nothing about SEO, mailing lists, accessing media and events and all the rest of it. Those things are squarely the publishers’ job and (with few exceptions) publishers have always preferred to avoid much author involvement

4. There are really simple things a publisher could do that would be very evident to authors and helpful to sales. Why aren’t publishers putting some lower-level marketing staff on the task of “retweeting” and “liking” author efforts online? At a slightly higher level of effort, why aren’t publishers evaluating author websites that already exist to make SEO suggestions? The author survey results suggest that doing even little things like this would help a publisher with author loyalty, which should be an objective for every publisher. Publishers should see virtue in the idea that providing authors with knowhow would make them more effective advocates for their own work. It would be very cheap to transfer that knowhow (once it was thought through) and publishers would effectively acquire enthusiastic, energetic and FREE marketing resources.

The two key assets publishers have are their network of authors and their network of accounts. The account side has been substantially disrupted in the past two decades by Amazon’s growth and knock-on effects that have included Borders’s demise and B&N’s increased power in the brick-and-mortar world. Part of the reason we are so emphatic about the importance of author websites is that their absence, or their weakness, creates a vacuum that strengthens Amazon’s grip.

But what the Bingham-Friedman survey reveals is that publishers are vulnerable on the author side as well. The agent world is consolidating too so each powerful agent is just getting more powerful. Every time a publisher signs a book, they get a crack at developing loyalty from that book’s author. Getting ahead of what are really pretty obvious and predictable developments, including the growth of digital discovery and reading and an increased interest from authors in being involved in their own marketing, would seem like an imperative which is escaping most publishers today.

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Seven key insights about VMI for books and why it is becoming a current concern


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Vendor-managed inventory (VMI) is a supply paradigm for retailers by which the distributor makes the individual stocking decisions rather than having them determined by “orders” from an account. The most significant application of it for books was in the mass-market paperback business in its early days, when most of the books went through the magazine wholesalers to newsstands, drug stores, and other merchants that sold magazines. The way it worked, originally, was that mass-market publishers “allocated” copies to each of several hundred “independent distributors” (also known as I.D. wholesalers), who in turn allocated them to the accounts.

Nobody thought of this as “vendor-managed inventory”. It was actually described as “forced distribution”. And since there was no ongoing restocking component built into the thinking, that was the right way to frame it.

The net result was that copies of a title could appear in tens of thousands of individual locations without a publisher needing to show up at, or even ship to, each and every one.

To make this system functional at the beginning, the books, like magazines, had a predictable monthly cycle through the system. The copies that didn’t sell in their allotted time were destroyed, with covers returned to the publisher for credit.

Over time, the system became inefficient (the details of which are a story for another day, but the long story short is that publishers couldn’t resist the temptation to overload the system with more titles and copies than it could handle) and mass-market publishing evolved into something quite different which today, aside from mostly sticking to standard rack-sized books, works nothing like it did at the beginning.

My father, Leonard Shatzkin, introduced a much more sophisticated version of VMI for bookstores at Doubleday in 1957 called the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. In the Doubleday version, reps left the store with a count of the books on-hand rather than a purchase order. The store had agreed in advance to let Doubleday use that inventory count to calculate sales and determine what should then be shipped in. In 18 months, there were 800 stores on the Plan, Doubleday’s backlist sales had quadrupled and the cost of sales had quartered. VMI was much more efficient and productive — for Doubleday and for the stores — than the “normal” way of stocking was. That “normal” way — the store issues orders and the publisher then ships them — was described as “distribution by negotiation” by my father in his seminal book, “In Cold Type”, and it is still the way most books find their way to most retail shelves.

After my Dad left Doubleday in 1960, successor sales executives — who, frankly, didn’t really understand the power and value of what Dad had left them — allowed the system to atrophy. This started in a time-honored way, with reps appealing that some stores in their territory would rather just write their own backlist orders. Management conferred undue cred on the rep who managed the account and allowed exceptions. The exceptions, over time, became more prevalent than the real VMI and within a decade or so the enormous advantage of having hundreds of stores so efficiently stocked with backlist was gone.

And so, for the most part, VMI was gone from the book business by the mid-1970s. And, since then, there have been substantial improvements in the supply chain. PCs in stores that can manage vast amounts of data; powerful service offerings from the wholesalers (primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor, but others too); information through services like Above the Treeline; and consolidation of the trade business at both ends so that the lion’s share of a store’s supply comes from a handful of major publishers and distributors (compared to my Dad’s day) and lots of the books go to a relatively smaller number of accounts have all combined to make the challenge of efficient inventory management for books at retail at least appear not to need the advantages of VMI the way it did 60 years ago.

And since so many bookstores not only really like to make the book-by-book stocking decisions, or at least to control them through the systems they have invested in and applying the title-specific knowledge they work hard to develop, there has been little motivation for publishers or wholesalers to invest in developing the capability to execute VMI.

Until recently. Now two factors are changing that.

One is that non-bookstore distribution of books is growing. And non-bookstores don’t have the same investments in book-specific inventory management and knowledge, let alone the emotional investments that make them want to decide what the books are, that bookstores do. Sometimes they just simply can’t do it: they don’t have the bandwidth or expertise to buy books.

And the other is that both of the two largest book chains, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, are seeing virtue in transferring some of the stocking decisions to suppliers. B&N, at least, has been actively encouraging publishers to think about VMI for several years. These discussions have reportedly revolved around a concept similar to one the late Borders chain was trying a decade or more ago, finding “category captains” that know a subject well enough to relieve the chain of the need for broad knowledge of all the books that fall under that rubric.

This is compelling. Finding that you are managing business that could be made more efficient with a system to help you while at the same time some of your biggest accounts are asking for services that could benefit from the same automation are far more persuasive goads to pursue an idea than the more abstract notion that you could create a beneficial paradigm shift.

As a result, many publishing sales departments today are beginning to grapple with defining VMI, thinking about how to apply it, and confronting the questions around how it affects staffing, sales call patterns, and commercial terms. This interest is likely to grow. A well-designed VMI system for books (and buying one off-the-shelf that was not specifically designed for books is not a viable solution) will have applications and create opportunities all over the world. Since delivering books globally is an increasingly prevalent framework for business thinking, the case to invest in this capability gets easier to make in many places with each passing day.

VMI is a big subject and there’s a lot to know and think through about it. I’ve had the unusual — probably unique — opportunity to contemplate it with all its nuances for 50 years, thanks to my Dad’s visionary insight into the topic and a father-son relationship that included a lot of shop talk from my very early years. So here’s my starter list of conceptual points that I hope would be helpful to any publisher or retailer thinking about an approach to VMI.

1. Efficient and commercially viable VMI requires managing with rules, not with cases. Some of the current candidates to develop a VMI system have been drawn into it servicing planograms or spinner racks in non-book retailers. These restocking challenges are simpler than stocking a store because the title range is usually predetermined and confined and the restocking quantity is usually just one-for-one replenishment. We have found that even in those simple cases, the temptation to make individual decisions — swapping out titles or increasing or decreasing quantities in certain stores based on rates of movement — is hard to resist and rapidly adds complications that can rapidly overwhelm manual efforts to manage it.

2. VMI is based on data-informed shipments and returns. It must include returns, markdowns, or disposals to clear inventory. Putting books in quickly and efficiently to replace sold books is, indeed, the crux of VMI. But that alone is “necessary but not sufficient”. Most titles do not sell a single copy in most stores to which they are introduced. (This fact will surprise many people, but it is mathematically unavoidable and confirmed through data I have gotten from friends with retail data to query.) And many books will sell for a while and then stop, leaving copies behind. Any inventory management depending on VMI still requires periodic purging of excess inventory. That is, the publisher or distributor determining replenishment must also, from time to time, identify and deal with excess stock.

3. VMI sensibly combines with consignment and vendor-paid freight. The convention that books are invoiced to the account when they are shipped and that the store pays the shipping cost of returns (and frequently on incoming shipments as well) makes sense when the store holds the order book and decides what titles and quantities are coming in. But if the store isn’t deciding the titles and quantities, it obviously shouldn’t be held accountable for freight costs on returns; that would be license for the publisher or distributor to take unwise risks. The same is really true for the carrying cost of the inventory between receipt and sale. If the store’s deciding, it isn’t crazy for that to be their lookout. But if the publisher or distributor is deciding, then the inventory risk should be transferred to them. The simplest way to do that is for the commercial arrangement to shift so that the publisher offers consignment and freight paid both ways. The store should pay promptly — probably weekly — when the books are sold. (Publishers: before you get antsy about what all this means to your margins, read the post to the end.)

Aside from being fairer, commercially more logical, and an attractive proposition that should entice the store rather than a risky one that will discourage participation, this arrangement sets up a much more sensible framework for other discussions that need to take place. With publisher prices marked on all the books, it makes it clear to the retailer that s/he has a clear margin on every sale for the store to capture (or to offer as discounts to customers). And because the publisher is clearly taking all the inventory risk, it also makes it clear that the account must take responsibility for inventory “shrink” (books that disappear from the shelves without going through the cash register.)

Obviously, shrink is entirely the retailer’s problem in a sale-and-return arrangement; whatever they can’t return they will have paid for. But it is also obvious that retailers in consignment arrangements try to elide that responsibility. Publishers can’t allow a situation where the retailer has no incentive to make sure every book leaving the store goes through the sales scan first.

4. Frequent replenishment is a critical component of successful VMI. No system can avoid the reality that predicting book sales on a per-title-per-outlet basis is impossible to do with a high degree of accuracy. The best antidote to this challenge is to ship frequently, which allows lower quantities without lost sales because new copies replace sold copies with little delay. The vendor-paid freight is a real restraint because freight costs go down as shipments rise, but it should be the only limitation on shipment frequency, assuming the sales information is reported electronically on a daily basis as it should be. The publisher or distributor should always be itching to ship as frequently as an order large enough to provide tolerable picking and freight costs can be assembled. The retailer needs to be encouraged, or helped, to enable restocking quickly and as frequently as cost-efficient shipments will allow.

5. If a store has no costs of inventory — either investment or freight — its only cost is the real estate the goods require. GMROII — gross margin return on inventory investment — is the best measurement of profitability for a retailer. With VMI, vendor-paid freight, and consignment, it is infinity. Therefore, profitable margins can be achieved with considerably less than the 40 to 50 percent discounts that have prevailed historically. How that will play out in negotiations is a case-by-case problem, but publishers should really understand GMROII and its implications for retail profitability so they fully comprehend what enormous financial advantages this new way of framing the commercial relationship give the retailer.

(The shift is not without its challenges for publishers to manage but what at first appears to be the biggest one — the delay in “recognizing” sales for the balance sheet — is actually much smaller than it might first appear. And that’s also a subject for another day.)

6. Actually, the store also saves the cost of buying, which is very expensive for books. The most important advantage VMI gives a publisher is removing the need for a buyer to get their books onto somebody’s shelves. The publisher with VMI overcomes what has been the insuperable barrier blocking them from many retail establishments: the store can’t bear the expense of the expertise and knowledge required to do the buying. It is harder to sell that advantage to existing book retailers who have invested in systems to enable buyers, even if some buyer time can be saved through the publisher’s or distributor’s efforts and expertise. But a non-book retailer looking for complementary merchandise that might also be a traffic builder will appreciate largely cost-free inventory that adds margin and will see profitability at margins considerably lower than the discounts publishers must provide today.

7. Within reasonable limits, the publisher or distributor should be happy to honor input from the retailer about books they want to carry. It is important to remember that most titles shipped to most stores don’t actually sell one single unit. Giving a store a title they’re requesting should have odds good enough to be worth the risk (although that will be proven true or not for each outlet by data over time). Taking the huge number of necessary decisions off a store’s hands is useful for everybody; it shouldn’t suggest their input is not relevant. Indeed, getting information from stores about price or topical promotions they are running, on books or other merchandise, and incorporating that into the rules around stocking books, will help any book supplier provide a better and more profitable service to its accounts. After all, having a store say “I’d like to sell this title for 20 percent off next week in a major promotion, would you mind sending me more copies?” opens up a conversation every publisher is happy to have.

Of course, in a variety of consulting assignments, we are working on this, including system design. It is staggering to contemplate how much more sophistication it is possible to build into the systems today than it was a decade-and-a-half ago when we last immersed ourselves in this. In the short run, a VMI-management system will provide a competitive edge, primarily because it will open up the opportunity to deliver to retail shelves that will simply not be accessible without it. That will lead to it becoming a requirement. As I’ve said here before, a prediction like that is not worth much without being attached to a time scale. I think we’ll see this cycle play out over the next ten years. That is: by 2025, just about all book distribution to retailers will be through a VMI system.

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Starter thoughts for publishers to develop new author marketing policies


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In a prior post, we suggested that the time has come for publishers to have clear policies around what they should require from author web presences for an effective publishing partnership. This is a really complex and multi-faceted challenge for every publisher. The purpose of this post is to discuss that proposition in more detail, with a focus on how a publisher should approach developing those policies and the potential contractual relationship changes that they imply.

1. The first step is for a publisher to articulate their minimum standard for an author’s online presence. We have found that the role of web presences an author controls in helping Google and other search engines understand an author’s importance in context is routinely underappreciated. In addition to a properly-SEOd web site, publishers will want to make sure authors fill out their Amazon author page, their Google Plus profile, and their Goodreads page as well. All of this verbal metadata — along with images including photos and book covers — builds a strong foundation for discovery.

Obviously, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, Instagram, and Pinterest (among others) could also be a constructive part of the web presence for many authors. A publisher’s thinking should include them too, taking cognizance of the fact that they are more important for some authors and topics than for others and that it is hard and cumbersome to do anything about them if the author doesn’t do it for him- or herself.

2. Although many, if not most, authors will have a website or the intention to create one, many others don’t. In that case, the publisher will want to have a fast, inexpensive, and effective way to put one up on the author’s behalf. (The non-website components of the foundation don’t lend themselves as readily to publisher assistance.)

For authors who either don’t have the skills to put up their own WordPress site or the budget to pay for a unique one to be designed and built for them, the publisher should provide a templated interactive process to create a site inexpensively. They also will have to do the research into key words, topics, and phrases to inform the SEO. We believe that for a publisher who will operate at scale, building dozens and perhaps hundreds of these sites per year, the cost should come down to $2,000 or less per site, perhaps $1,000 or less for first-time author sites that have minimal needs for unique book pages.

3. The sites should be seen as author sites which have pages for the individual titles on them, not book sites. That means the publisher has to accept the idea of putting all of an author’s work on the site, which definitely enhances the author’s online authority even though it may promote books from other publishers. Making a site that ignores an author’s whole output is superficially self-serving for a publisher, but it is actually counter-productive if the objective is to promote the author’s online presence and discoverability.

4. Of course, in more cases than not, the author will already have a site. In that case, the publisher won’t be building one but does need to assure itself that the existing site meets the SEO standard. The means an SEO check is necessary, using much of the same knowledge and techniques as the publisher would use to establish the right key words, phrases, and topics they’d use if they were building the site themselves. In addition, publishers should evaluate the site for user experience, including the speed of loading. We’ve seen many author sites which failed on that scale.

5. The publisher should also be giving authors advice about maximizing other opportunities. If the author might blog, suggestions about length, frequency, and topics are worthwhile as are very specific ideas about maximizing the other platforms like Facebook. The publishers should be giving authors a Wish List, making absolutely certain that no opportunity for author-based promotion is ignored because of a lack of awareness on the author’s part. By the same token, knowing what the author is doing enables coordinated marketing, such as the publisher’s own social presences being used to “like” or “favorite” or “recommend” what the author is doing. Doing these things will add to the publisher’s online authority as well as giving boosts to authors on a regular basis.

6. A number of publishing service companies and independent entities have created rosters of freelance service providers that can help authors with their publishing efforts. A lot of these — like cover designers or line editors — are not necessary for an author lucky enough to have a publisher. But we know that authors sometimes want help with ongoing content generation, from blogs to tweets. Although authors should obviously avoid handing over their online identities to surrogates they don’t even know (and that is not what is being suggested here), we know that busy authors can use help with what can be time-consuming social media. Publishers would be much smarter to develop their own list of trusted helpers for this kind of work, perhaps even instructing or training them in order for them to qualify for publisher referrals, than to allow these things to happen by accident or chance. (By the way, this might be a useful way to allow an employee who is on maternity leave or any other sabbatical to stay active from locations other than an office.)

7. Looking across a number of websites enables a publisher to see the impact of Google algorithm changes, which very few authors can do. (This will be particularly important on April 21, when Google starts “punishing” the ranking of sites that aren’t mobile-friendly.) Seeing the behavior of Google for different sites, those “whacked” by a change and those that aren’t (and changes to the algorithms occur all the time, not usually as dramatic or heralded as the one around mobile), allows insight into what needs to be done to benefit from the change, or at least avoid being punished. One person in a publishing house could be helping literally hundreds of authors stay optimized and avoid the need for each of these authors to know enormous amounts about SEO themselves. (Of course, it is also true that an author who is especially brilliant at SEO might not want a publisher focusing on the landing page she created that boosted traffic and teaching other authors to compete with it. Those authors are the exception, not the rule.)

This is not a capability we’ve seen publishers create for themselves, even though they can. We’d argue it is a great benefit for an author to be published by a house that has thought through these requirements and is providing an SEO check and research into search terms. Publishers should be doing this. The early movers will gain a temporary, but substantial, competitive advantage for themselves with authors and for their authors against the field.

8. What should be clear is that the author is being given a choice: they can build their own website (or do the tweaking necessary to one they already have to bring it up to standards) or they can have one built for them by the publisher from the templated choices the publisher offers.

9. This leaves two very large commercial questions for the publisher and author to negotiate, both of which should rise to the level of being covered in the contract. The first one revolves around the investment in and “ownership” of the author’s website and, perhaps the investments needed for ongoing marketing on the author’s behalf. Of course, there is nothing to discuss if the author builds and maintains her own site and social presences. The publisher should still provide all the help they can — SEO research at the beginning and analytics help all along — but there would be no reason for any compensation or publisher ownership.

However, if the publisher invests the dollars to build the author’s site or pays for any of the ongoing efforts by freelancers, there is definitely a negotiation to take place and there are a few moving parts to that negotiation. One way to address this might be for the publisher to advance the money for this work but have the opportunity to recoup it out of proceeds, as though it were part of the advance. Or the publisher could just render the author a bill for the site creation cost (remember, we’re positing $2,000 or less) which the author could simply pay. Another possibility is that the publisher might “own” the author’s website. That is not an end result we would recommend and, if it is necessary, there should be a “buy back” clause that enables the author to recover that ownership if, for example, they move on to another house. In any case, the point to these new elements in the author-publisher agreement is that they assure that what is necessary to optimize 21st century book publication is in place. Both partners in this arrangement — author and publisher — should want that to occur. It really should not be beyond the negotiating capabilities of the two parties to come to a fair agreement about how the necessary investments are compensated.

An approach that could evolve would be that houses have a “web site allotment”, making the sites they create “free”, but then they should pay that same amount in support of authors who create their own sites.

10. The other knotty element that should be negotiated is around the use of email lists that these optimized author sites will generate. It is self-destructive for either the author or the publisher to simply say “they’re mine!” Email list use has a lot of history, but best practices in cases like these are necessarily still evolving. For example, a publisher might build a mammoth email list by working with 10 authors with similar audiences for a promotion going across their email list base. Each author will benefit from being exposed to many readers of the other authors. Most authors will want that to happen if the opportunity is presented to them. Another possibility is that a house does a promotion and each author involved sends a personal note to his/her list letting them know about the promotion which, perhaps, could be a book signing or a webcast. The point is that the house has lists and the authors have lists, each can benefit from collaboration with the other and the house can create synergies by building joint efforts among authors.

These questions are complex but, while time passes, they are not getting any simpler. The value of the web and email list assets that can be optimized with cooperation is increasing, which means the cost of not doing this right is also increasing. It is simply not acceptable for every author and every publisher to avoid the discussion, leaving us with tens of thousands of entities operating in siloed vacuums. That’s the status quo. It isn’t satisfactory.

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No author website rules of the road in publishing contracts is a big fail for the industry


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The topic of author websites and what the relationship between publishers and authors around them should be is a big “fail” for the publishing industry at the moment. Nobody seems to have thought this through. Publisher policies are all over the lot, even within houses, and that demonstrates that agents haven’t figured out what policies and publisher support an author should require. When they do, there will be much greater uniformity across publishers. (Note to conspiracy theorists about often-alleged Big Five “collusion”: that’s how it actually happens. They’re bullied into it by agents or accounts.)

Although we have been thinking about this for a while, it has been hammered home to us, once again, by events in our own shop this past week. On one hand, we have supplied an agent who asked for one with a proposal to build a website for a key author. The agent is talking to the publishers on both sides of the Atlantic (different divisions of the same big house), trying to get some financial support from them for what the author wants to build and own. Each of the two imprints is lobbying to build the site themselves. We’re not privy to the details of that conversation, so we’re not sure exactly why they want to build it themselves or what other considerations — like domain name ownership, list ownership and management, outbound links, and day-to-day attention to the site — might be motivating the publisher side of this conversation (in addition, we’d assume, to legitimate concerns about the quality of the site and its SEO).

Last week we did a seminar at another house. As we usually do in those sessions, we gave the house the benefit of some of our research into digital footprints for some of their own books and authors. What we found, as usual, is that the author website deficiencies were handicapping their sales and discovery efforts, sometimes by their total absence. That is, on occasion we found no author website at all.

As far as we know, there is no clear policy in either of these big houses concerning author websites. The decisions around how much to help or intervene or invest are, like so many decisions in publishing, left to each imprint to negotiate with each agent for each author. In yet another big house where we have had live meetings and this question came up, it was clear that the marketers understood the author-owned website SEO issues much better than the editors did, and everybody was hamstrung by the editors’ widely varied ability and willingness to engage with their authors or their agents on this subject.

From where we sit, not having contractual policy around a host of questions that involve an author’s web presence is as big an omission as it would be not to have clearly-defined subsidiary rights splits. In fact, we’d argue that, for most authors, the commercial value of the assets around the web presence are more valuable than subsidiary rights are! No publisher or agent would accept a contract that didn’t cover subsidiary rights. It is a sign that the industry is not keeping up with the new realities that the website policy is so far from being worked out.

This is a big challenge on both sides: for agents and for big houses. Most agents don’t operate at a scale that would enable them to gather the expertise and the knowledge to set their authors up properly or to inform what the demands on the houses should be. But the biggest publishers have a hard challenge too. They’ve all structured themselves around clear delineations between what’s big, requires scale, and should be handled centrally (warehousing, sales, IT) and what’s small, requires an intimate relationship with the author, and should be handled in decentralized imprints (title acquisitions, creative decisions, individual title marketing and publicity). This is a really tricky balance to strike from an organizational perspective. It is reflected in job descriptions and in each staff member’s bonus structure. That is, it is really complicated stuff to mess with and requires attention from the very top of enormous businesses to affect and change.

And because there really is no “house policy” on these things anywhere, any agent except the very biggest would get nowhere trying to handle these issues within a contract.

This is a problem that can’t possibly be solved in a big house without CEO-level involvement because it cuts across too many lines: central and imprint, marketing and editorial, author and agent relationships and contractual terms.

There should be no doubt about the critical importance of an author’s web site (and no, a page on the publisher site isn’t an adequate substitute). The author site serves three absolutely essential purposes that will not be adequately addressed without one.

1. It gives an author the capability to make it crystal clear to Google and other search engines precisely who the author is. All SEO efforts are hobbled without it. An author’s website is a central hub of data (a Pete McCarthy point: “data” isn’t always about numbers, in SEO “data” is often words) about the author, to which both fans and search engines can go for authoritative information.

2. It gives the author an extensible platform from which to engage more deeply with fans, some of whom are megaphones and media from whom the benefits of deeper engagement are substantial. An  author can use it to gather email signups and really only with a site can an author reliably and systematically build and own direct relationships.

3. It gives a logical place for anybody writing about the author to link. That’s why author websites often score so high in search. (Inbound links are SEO gold.) And if an author doesn’t have a website, the next logical place to link might be the Amazon author page, or the Amazon product page (the book). The next choice would be a primary social presence, like Twitter or LinkedIn.

This last point is not registering in many places. At one big house, we know that their policy is to avoid linking to Amazon if they can; they’d rather link to B&N. But they also don’t highly value author websites, and they certainly don’t routinely make sure they exist. The omission of author sites means they’re creating links to Amazon, whether they like it or see it that way, or not. The contradiction is apparently not evident.

Let’s kill the thought once and for all that it doesn’t matter whether an author has a website. We’d maintain that if it’s worth the investment to print the books, it’s worth the investment to have a website. Yes, you can do all sorts of useful things in social media, but the website is the only platform the author can own. Everything else is a rental, and the landlord can change the rules about what you can or can’t do at any time. We note that indie author expert Jane Friedman agrees and is helping guide authors to set up their own sites.

There is one more over-arching truth publishers and agents need to understand. And this one goes to the “what’s big and what’s small” paradigm around which big houses organize themselves.

Superior website management, particularly of SEO, is supported and enabled by knowledge of a lot of author websites. In fact, Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy has been noodling the process for a publisher-operated Google Analytics capability across multiple author sites that would, if implemented, apply learnings that would improve the performance of all of them. This is a Logical Marketing project still in its conceptual stages, but what we envision is that authors would get great benefits from allowing the publisher to put Google Analytics (or something else to serve that purpose) on the author site around the publication of a book or longer because they’d get better insight than they could get running it on their own. Publishers can help authors do this better than they could do it alone. To date, they don’t (that we know of), but they can and they should.

If you accept it as a fact that there should be at least a rudimentary website for just about every author, a little thought makes it clear that there is a lot a publisher and author should negotiate agreement on as part of their contractual arrangement.

At the very least, this includes site ownership, design, ongoing maintenance (including content creation), and to what extent it promotes author activity not related to the house (which could be other books). The site will gather email addresses; how can the publisher and author work collaboratively to get the most value from them? (Now, there is a question that has hardly been explored!) The site could well earn affiliate income from sales made through referral links to retailers; is that divided in any way?

The site ownership should logically be with the author, but ownership usually goes to whoever makes the necessary cash investments. That’s the tricky bit our agent client is dealing with right now. The agent wants the author client to own the site but also wants some financial support from the publishers. The publishers apparently are willing to pay for it, but they also apparently want to own it.

The design of the site touches three things: tech competence, SEO competence, and aesthetics. The house should be able to provide important expertise around tech and SEO, but the author will frequently want a voice in the aesthetics. And despite scale advantages that provide a real edge, no house we know of has clearly established that they can provide the tech to make something solid and extensible, or that they have the chops to really deliver the SEO.

The ongoing maintenance of the site opens up a number of questions, particularly around content creation. And content creation questions go beyond the site. Is the author, or the author’s staff, able to write the blog posts for the site, the Facebook posts, and the Tweets (let alone create what is needed if Instagram or Pinterest is being employed)? Or should the publisher or a freelancer be providing that help?

And how does that help, beyond the design and creation of the site, get paid for? It could be any combination of author pays, publisher pays, or publisher advances and recoups.

It is my plan in a subsequent post to lay out a scenario or two for a sensible House Position on these questions. It is my hope, but one not supported by any evidence I have in hand, that the Big Five houses and the biggest literary agents are already working on this problem.

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Asking whether Amazon is friend or foe is a simple question that is complicated to answer


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I’ve been invited to join a discussion entitled “Amazon: Friend or Foe” (meaning “for publishers”) sponsored by the Digital Media Group of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (only in England!) and taking place in London next month. I think the answer must be “both”, and I suspect that my discussion-mates — Fionnuala Duggan, formerly of Random House and CourseSmart; Michael Ross from Encyclopedia Britannica; and Philip Walters, the moderator for the conversation, will agree. This is a simple question with many complicated answers. I am sure that Fionnuala, Michael, and Philip will introduce some perspectives I’m not addressing here.

The first thoughts the question triggers for me are three ways I think Amazon has profoundly changed the industry.

Although just about every publisher has headaches dealing with Amazon, very few could deny that Amazon is their most profitable account, if they take sales volume, returns, and the cost of servicing into consideration. This fact is almost never acknowledged and therefore qualifies as one of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Because they’ve consolidated the book-buying audience online and deliver to it with extraordinary efficiency, Amazon must feel totally justified in clawing back margin; it wasn’t their idea to be every publisher’s most profitable account! But since they are effectively replacing so many other robust accounts, the profitability they add comes at a big price in the stability and reliability of a publisher’s business, which feels much more comfortable coming from a spread of accounts. Publishers strongly resist Amazon’s demands for more margin, partly because they don’t know where they’ll stop.

It is also true that Amazon just about singlehandedly created the ebook business. Yes, there had been one before Kindle was introduced in November, 2007, but it was paltry. It took the combination that only Amazon could put together to make an ebook marketplace really happen. They made an ereading device with built-in connectivity for direct downloading (which, in that pre-wifi time, required taking the real risk that connection charges would be a margin-killer). They had the clout to persuade publishers to make more books, particularly new titles, available as ebooks. And they had the attention and loyalty of a significant percentage of book readers to make the pitch for ebooks. With all those assets and the willingness to invest in a market that didn’t exist, Amazon created something out of nothing. Everything that has happened since — Nook and Apple and Google and Kobo — might not have worked at all without Amazon having blazed the trail. In fact, they might not have been tried! Steve Jobs was openly dismissive of ebooks as a business before Amazon demonstrated that those were downloads a lot of people would pay for.

The other big change in the industry that is significant but might not have been without Amazon is self-publishing. The success of the Kindle spawned it by making it easy and cheap to reach a significant portion of the book-buying audience with low prices and high margins. Amazon added its skill at creating an easy-to-use interface and efficient self-service. Again, others have followed, including Smashwords. But almost all the self-publishers achieving commercial success have primarily Amazon to thank. It appears that, in the ebook space at least, self-publishers among them move as many units as a Big Five house and, in fiction, they punch even above that weight. Without Amazon, this might not have happened yet.

So, in the three ways Amazon has really changed the industry — consolidating the bulk of online book buyers, creating the ebook business, and enabling commercially-viable self-publishing, publishers would really have to say the first two are much to their benefit (friend) and the last one they could have done without (foe).

The second big heading for this Amazon discussion is around the asymmetry between what Amazon knows about the industry and what the industry knows about Amazon. Data about the publishing industry is notoriously scattered and because of the large number of audiences and commercial models in the “book business”, very hard to interpret intelligently. Amazon, on the other hand, has its own way of making things opaque by not sharing information.

The first indication of this is that Amazon doesn’t employ the industry’s standard ISBN number; they have their own number called an ASIN. So whereas the industry had a total title count through ISBN agencies that required its own degree of interpretation, the titles published exclusively by Amazon, which only have ASINs and not ISBNs, are a total “black hole”. Nobody except Amazon knows how many there are or into what categories they fall.

Another piece of Amazon’s business that has critical relevance to the rest of the industry but is totally concealed from view is their used book business. There is an argument to be made that the used book marketplace Amazon fosters actually helps publishers sell their new books at higher prices by giving consumers a way to get some of their money back. But it is also pretty certain that people are buying used copies of books they otherwise would have bought new, with the cheaper used choice being offered to them from about the first moment a book comes out. One would intuitively assume that the effect becomes increasingly corrosive as a title ages and the supply of used copies keeps rising as the demand for the book is falling, inexorably bringing the price of the used books down. But none of us outside Amazon know anything about this at all, including how large the market is.

And, by the same token, we have no idea how big Amazon’s proprietary book business is: the titles they sell that are published by them exclusively. Beyond not knowing how many there are or what categories they’re in, the rest of us can’t interpret how the sales of Amazon-published titles might affect the prospects for titles a publisher might be signing up. Amazon has that perspective to inform their title acquisition, their merchandising, and to gauge the extent of their leverage in negotiations with publishers.

Going back to the original question, except for the possibility that some new book sales occur because the purchaser is confident of a resale, this is all foe!

In retrospect, it is clear that Amazon’s big advantage was that they always intended to use the book business as a springboard to a larger play; they never saw it as a stand-alone. This was an anticipation of the future that nobody inside the book business grasped when it was happening, nor was it imitated by book business pure players. But it was the key to Amazon’s economics. They didn’t need to make much margin on books; they were focused on “lifetime customer value” and they saw lots of ways to get it. Google and Apple have the same reality: books for them are in service to larger purposes. But they started with the larger purposes and, for that and other reasons, have never gotten as good as Amazon is with books. (One big deficiency of the Google and Apple offers is that they are digital only; they don’t do print books.) And B&N and Waterstone’s never thought beyond books; it appears that Waterstone’s scarcely thought beyond physical stores!

But it could well be that Amazon is approaching its limits in market share in the book business. What they did worked in the English-speaking world — for printed books two decades ago and for ebooks almost a decade ago — because they were first and able to aggregate an enormous customer base before they got any serious challengers. They will not find it as easy to dominate new markets today, particularly those that have rules that make price competition harder to employ. Language differences mean book markets will remain “local” for a long time and strong local players will be hard for Amazon to dislodge.

Amazon has powerful tools to keep their customers locked in. PRIME is the most effective one: once customers have paid a substantial fee for free shipping, they’re disinclined to buy elsewhere. Kindle is another one. The devices and the apps have broad distribution and, because of self-publishing, Kindle remains the ebook retailer with the biggest selection.

The marketplace is changing, of course. Amazon’s big edge is having the biggest selection of printed and digital books in one place. That’s been known for decades to be the best magnet to attract book buyers. But now a lot of book reading is done without the title-by-title shopping in a bookstore that it always used to require. We are at the beginning of an age of “distributed distribution”. Many different tech offerings — Aerbook, Bluefire, De Marque, Page Foundry, and Tizra among them — can make it easy for publishers to sell ebooks directly (and Aerbook enables that and promotion in the social stream). The subscription services Scribd, Oyster, 24Symbols, and Bookmate (as well as Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited) are pulling customers away from a la carte ebook buying and Finitiv and Impelsys make it easy for any entity to offer digital reading by subscription. All of these sales except Kindle Unlimited come primarily out of Amazon’s hide, since they are the dominant online retailer for books. Publishers mostly see this dispersal of the market as a good thing for them, even though some of the same opacity issues arise and, indeed, the big general subscription services are a new group of potentially disruptive intermediaries now being empowered.

For the foreseeable future — years to come — Amazon will remain dominant in most of the world as the central location where one shops online for books a la carte because they have the best service, the biggest selection, and they sell both print and digital books. But they now have their own new challenge dealing with the next round of marketplace changes, as what they dominate becomes a smaller portion of the overall book business in the years to come. Publishers face the same challenge presented a somewhat different way.

The event that gave rise to this post takes place the night before the London Book Fair opens. The entry fee is nominal. If you’ll be at LBF and want to attend, please do! I will, typically, have no real base of operations at LBF, but I’ll be there all three days with some time available to meet old friends and new. Email to [email protected] if you want to set something up. 

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Better book marketing in the future depends a bit on unlearning the best practices of the past


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A few years ago, publishers invented the position of Chief Digital Officer and many of the big houses hired one. The creation of a position with that title, reporting to the CEO, explicitly acknowledged the need to address digital change at the highest levels of the company.

Now we’re seeing new hires being put in charge of “audiences” or “audience development”. I don’t know exactly what that means (a good topic for Digital Book World 2016), but some conversations in the past couple of weeks are making clearer to me what marketing and content development in book publishing is going to have to look like. And audiences are, indeed, at the heart of it.

I’ve written before about Pete McCarthy’s conviction that unique research is needed into the audiences for every book and every author and that the flow of data about a book that’s in the marketplace provides continuing opportunities to sharpen the understandings of how to sell to those audiences. Applying this philosophy bumps up against two realities so long-standing in the trade book business that they’re very hard to change:

How the book descriptions which are the basis for all marketing copy get written
A generic lack of by-title attention to the backlist

The new skill set that is needed to address both of these is, indeed, the capability to do research, act on it, and, as Pete says, rinse and repeat. Research, analysis, action, observation. Rinse and repeat.

I had a conversation over lunch last week with an imprint-level executive at a Big House. S/he got my attention by expressing doubt about the value of “landing pages”, which are (I’ve learned through my work with Logical Marketing; I wouldn’t have known this a year ago) one of the most useful tools to improve discovery for books and authors. I have related one particularly persuasive anecdote about that here. This was a demonstration to me of how much basic knowledge about discovery and SEO is lacking in publishing. (The case for how widespread the ignorance of SEO in publishing has been made persuasively in an ebook by British marketer Chris McVeigh of Fourfiftyone, a marketing consultancy in the UK that seems to share a lot of the philosophy we employ at Logical Marketing.)

But then, my lunch companion made an important operational point. I was advocating research as a tool to decide what to acquire, or what projects might work. “But I could never get money to do research on a book we hadn’t signed,” s/he said, “except perhaps to use going after a big author who is with another house.” (Indeed, we’ve done extensive audits at Logical Marketing for big publishers who had exactly that purpose in mind.) “But, routinely? impossible!”

The team Pete leads can do what would constitute useful research which would really inform an acquisition decision, for $1000 a title. If the capability to do what we do — which probably requires the command of about two dozen analytical tools — were inhouse, it would cost much less than that.

Park that thought.

I also had an exchange last week with Hugh Howey, my friend the incredibly successful indie author with whom I generally agree on very little concerning big publishers and their value to authors. But Hugh made a point that is absolutely fundamental, one which I learned and absorbed so long ago that I haven’t dusted it off for the modern era. And it is profoundly important.

Hugh says there are new authors he’s encountering every day who are achieving success after publishers failed with them. It is when he described the sales curve of the successful indie — “steadily growing sales” — that a penny dropped for me. An old penny.

We recognize in our business that “word of mouth” is the most effective means of growing the market for a book. If that were the way things really worked, books would tend to have a sales curve that was a relatively gentle upward slope to a peak and then a relatively gentle downward slope.

Of course, very few books have ever had that sales curve. Nothing about the way big publishers routinely market and sell would enable it to happen. Everything publishers do tries to impose a different sales curve on their books.

A gentle upward slope followed by a gentle downward slope would, in the physical world, require a broad and very shallow distribution with rapid replenishment where the first copy or two put at an outlet had sold. But widespread coordination of rapid replenishment of this kind for books selling at low volumes at any particular outlet (let alone most outlets) is, for the most part, a practical impossibility in the world of distributed retail.

In fact, distributed retail demands a completely out-of-synch sales curve. It wants a big sale the first week a book is out to give it the best chance of making the bestseller list and, even failing that, the best chance of being worthy of continuing attention by a publisher’s sales staff, and therefore, the marketing team. Books in retail distribution are seen as failures if they don’t catch on pretty quickly, if not in days or weeks, certainly within a couple of months. And if a store sells two copies, say, of a new book in the first three months, it probably doesn’t make the cut as a book to be retained. If they bought two, they’re glad they’re gone and not likely to re-order without some push by the publisher or attention-grabbing other circumstance. If they bought ten, they’ll want to get their dollars back by making returns so they can invest in the next potentially big thing.

But that’s not the case online, where there is no need for distributed inventory (especially of ebooks!) If the first copies sold lead to word of mouth recommendations, the book will still be available to the online shopper. And there will be nothing in the way it is presented — it won’t have a torn cover hidden and be hidden in the back of the store, say — to indicate it isn’t successful. People can buy it and the chain can continue, building over time. Three months later, six months later, it really doesn’t matter; the book can keep selling. And, by the way, this will be true at any online retailer with an open account at Ingram (including for print-on-demand books), not just at Amazon.

But, in the brick and mortar world, the book will effectively be dead if it doesn’t catch on in the first three months. And the reality of staffing, focus, and the sales philosophy of most publishers means it won’t be getting any attention from the house’s digital marketers either.

If you live in the world of indie success like Hugh Howey does, you are repeatedly seeing authors breaking through months after a book’s publication, at a time when an experienced author knows a house would have given up on them.

Now park that.

I also had a chat last week with a former colleague of mine now at a periodical. He was explaining that one major conceptual challenge for his publication in the digital age was to see their readership as many pretty small and discrete audiences, not one big one at the level of the “subscriber”. No story in his publication is intended for “everybody”; what is important is for a newspaper or magazine to know whether particular stories are satisfying the needs of the particular niche of their audience that wants that topic, that kind of story. Talking to this former colleague about digital marketing and publishing was a variation on the themes that are topics with Pete.

One thing I learned in this conversation made another penny drop. Let’s say you have a story on any particular topic, from theater to rugby, my friend posited. Your total “theoretical market” within the publication’s readership is every person who ever read a single story on that subject. But your “core market” is every person who has read two stories on it. If a high percentage of those read it, the story succeeded. If not, the story failed.

And a further implication of this analysis is that seeing your audiences that way, and growing them that way, will also ultimately allow monetizing them more effectively. This wouldn’t be advertising-led, so much as harvesting the benefits of audience-informed content creation, but it is totally outside the way editorial creation at newspapers and magazines has always occurred.

And now park that.

We had a meeting two weeks ago with a fledgling publisher whose owner has a great deal of direct marketing expertise. As he heard Pete explaining what he did, looking for search terms that suggested opportunity (lots of use of the term and relatively few particularly good answers), he wondered if we could tell him through research what book to write. We’ve gotten some publishers in some circumstances to do marketing research early enough to influence titling and sub-titling. McVeigh in his ebook makes the same point under the rubric that SEO should be employed before titling any book.

Of course, we don’t sell that kind of help very often or we haven’t so far. It would require getting marketing money invoked early to pay for research like that. But we know it is useful.

And all of this together brings into sharper focus for me where trade publishing has to go, and how the marketing function, indeed, the whole publishing enterprise, needs to be about a constant process of audience segmentation, research, tweaks, analysis, and repeat. A persistently enhanced understanding of multiple audiences can productively inform title selection and creation. And systems and workflows need to be built to systematically apply what is being learned every day to every title which might benefit. Audience segmentation and constant research are really at the heart of the successful trade publishing enterprise of the future, even if we are only lurching toward them now with a primitive understanding of SEO, the occasional A-B test for a Facebook ad, and the gathering of some odd web traffic and email lists that don’t relate to any overall plan.

A publisher operating at scale ought to have the ability to provide those authors that want to build their audiences one reader at a time better analysis and tools than they would have to do it on their own.  Publishers have always depended on the energy of authors to sell their books; the techniques just have to change. Instead of footing the bill for expensive and wasteful author tours, publishers should be providing tools, data, and helpful coaching to be force multipliers for the efforts authors are happy to extend on their own behalf. The publisher’s goal should be have their authors saying “I don’t know how I could possibly be so effective without the help I get from my publisher.”

Publishers should also be doing the necessary research to examine the market for each book they might do before they bid on it. They should have audience groups with whom they’re in constant contact, and they also need the ability to quickly segment and analyze audiences “in the wild”. The dedicated research capabilities need to be applied to the opportunities surfaced by constant monitoring of both the sales of and the chatter about the backlist.

Size, scale, and a large number of titles about which a lot is known should give any publisher advantages over both indie authors and dominant retailers in building the biggest possible audience for the books it publishes. But getting there will require both learning the techniques of the future and unlearning the concepts and freeing themselves of the discipline of “pub date” timing that have always driven effective trade publishing.

The publishers creating new management positions with the word “audience” in the title would seem to be very much on the right track. It is worth recalling that my father, Leonard Shatzkin, carried the title of Director of Research at Doubleday in the 1950s. Research would be another function to glorify with a title and a budget assigned and monitored from the top of each company. Note to the CEOs: a budget for “research” for marketing and to inform acquisition should be explicit and it should be the job of somebody extremely capable to make sure it is productively invested.

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Alternative paths to publishing proliferate but the path for authors most likely to be lucrative is still the oldest one


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The Guardian reports that Big Five British publishers are aggressively courting authors to come directly to them rather than through agents. The specifics cited make this sound more like “toes in the water” than “a change in the value chain”. The Tinder Press division of Hachette is holding an “open submissions fortnight”. The editorial director of Random House imprint Jonathan Cape tweeted a request for submissions one time and got 5,000 of them. And HarperCollins’s new Borough Press imprint is holding its second annual “open submission”. They got a single publication out of 400 submissions last year.

The same story also acknowledges that agents are changing their processes too (and have been, as we’ve noted, back in 2011), specifically pointing to a creative writing program operated by the Curtis Brown agency which has “found 15 debut novelists” (presumably meaning they got them publishing deals) “in two and a half years”. It is also true that many self-publishing successes, including Hugh Howey, use literary agents to help them reach publishers outside their home market or language.

The writer featured in the story, Andrea Bennett, was picked up by HarperCollins after getting nowhere submitting to “a dozen” agents and getting nothing but rejection letters, some of which came so quickly after her submission that it felt to her like her material was not even read.

The publishers quoted in the story, not surprisingly, indicated that their interest was in getting to promising talent that the agents might be weeding out. But with one of the houses working its way through 5,000 submissions (“three have real promise”, the publisher says, and I have no idea if they see the irony in that statement that I do) and another repeating the exercise when last year they published one out of 400, the data suggests that the curation the agents are doing is a valuable service for the publishers.

Of course, there is a compensating financial element for publishers who do the work to find unagented books worth publishing. They can almost certainly make a more advantageous deal than they’d make with an agent. Not only can they almost certainly secure the book for a smaller advance (a point amply made in the piece), they are also more likely to get world rights. A picture caption suggests that the Bennett novel HarperCollins picked up has been sold to six markets. If they’re not all English, that’s an opportunity most agents would have denied the publisher.

An unagented author is not without cost and complication to a publisher, who would have to take on the agent’s function of explaining the lengthy and sometimes complex process of publishing to the author every step of the way. This posting from HarperCollins, saying that only their new digital-first imprint accepts “unsolicited manuscripts” is typical. It contains language protecting themselves by explicitly rejecting any responsibility to read, comment on, or even return the unsolicited manuscripts sent to them. (This is almost certainly less of a problem than it was in the past when all submissions were paper, not files. One friend recalled an author who wanted to sue a major house 15 years ago because the author foolishly submitted his only copy of his manuscript and it was “lost” by the publisher.) The exception HarperCollins cites for its digital first imprint is mirrored in an apparently much older posting on the Penguin site which excepts DAW, their science-fiction imprint.

But even if a house would process its “slush pile” (the long-standing term for the unagented and unsolicited submissions) efficiently, and few, if any, do, it couldn’t be a big winner for the publisher to spend much time with it.

Nothing in the Guardian piece suggests to me that my advice to aspiring authors should change. I always tell them to get an agent if they possibly can. (And I also tell them to use the deal database in Publishers Marketplace to find the right agent.) No agent works with odds as long as 1 in 400 or 3 in 5000 with their submissions. Some of the submissions that got lost in those numbers might have been looked at differently if they’d come from an established agent. It is also extremely likely that those submissions that were agented would have been improved somewhat by the agent before submission. Agents don’t just curate. They also edit.

Even the lead author in the Guardian story doesn’t prove the case. Yes, she got a deal with HarperCollins after having had a few agents reject her. But might another handful of agent submissions have gotten her representation that would have resulted in a better deal than the one she got? Or, put another way, what are the chances that a competent agent would have failed to submit to HarperCollins? And then, what are the chances that as an agented author she would have gotten a better offer than what she got?

Patience here might have been remunerative.

Because there are self-published books achieving commercial success, publishers are well aware that the funnel for projects managed by the agents is not delivering them every book that might sell. It almost certainly never did, but, without self-publishing, the books they missed never got the chance to prove themselves in the marketplace without them. Now they do.

This is a great thing for authors. Self-publishing can be a path to a publisher or an agent as well as a way to reach readers directly. For those authors comfortable taking on the tasks beyond authorship — editing, creating a cover, cleaning up the text file, setting up their metadata, and publishing through the various portals — the new paradigm can be a valid alternative to the time-honored, and laborious, process of finding an agent and then letting the agent get the publishing deal.

And it is clear that both publishers and agents recognize that there are alternatives to the historical standard and that they’ll miss good projects from extremely capable authors if they don’t make themselves more accessible to aspiring writers.

But even an exponential increase in the number of self-publishing successes or, now, in the number of authors going directly to publishers without an agent, doesn’t change the realities of book publishing. The big money almost always goes to the agented author whose work is sold to a big house. The rest of it is, from an overall industry perspective, still a sideshow.

Due to many inadequacies of Feedburner email distribution, including that it seems to be locking up Outlook for some of our subscribers, we’ll be switching to a new delivery mechanism shortly, perhaps with whatever (and whenever) will be the next post. So those of you who get these posts by email should be aware that the format and look of what we put in your inbox might change next time or the time after. Presumably all changes will be improvements.

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Doing SEO right requires research into the audience, not maximum knowledge of the book


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There is a core point that Pete McCarthy made clear to us when we first started working with him on digital marketing challenges a year or so ago, which, critical though it is, seems extremely difficult for publishers to take on board.

For all our careers, descriptive copy — catalog copy, title information sheets, press releases — about any book was written by somebody who really knew the book. That normally meant it was drafted by a junior editor or marketer who had read every word of the manuscript, and perhaps even worked on developing it.

But in today’s world, where the most important job of descriptive copy is to make the book “discoverable” through search to the person likely to buy it, it must be written with knowledge of the potential audiences, and that knowledge can only be gathered through research.

The reason for this change is not hard for anybody to understand. Almost all publisher-generated copy until the past ten years was intended for B2B intermediaries: buyers at accounts, book reviewers and editors, or librarians. It was their job to translate an accurate description of what was in the book for their audiences. Most consumers never saw publisher-generated copy except if they were browsing a shelf and chose to pick up a book and read its flap or cover copy, which usually differs only slightly from the B2B copy.

And whether or not consumers today see publisher-generated copy on a product page, search engines do, and consumers are increasingly driven by what search engines tell them. Writing copy without knowledge of the potential audiences, the language they use, the frequency with which specific search terms arise, the ability to interpret what they mean about consumer intent, and the other people, places, and things (let alone books!) competing for those terms, is not going to achieve the desired results for discovery, no matter how accurately and eloquently the book’s content is described.

Even if the logic is fully absorbed and appreciated, the challenge for most publishers to change their process for creating descriptive copy is substantial. We’ve now replaced “knowledge of the book”, which has usually been routinely gained through work that takes place before the copy is needed, with “research into the audience”, a separate task that can take a couple of hours or more and requires a dedicated effort.

(A parenthetical point here: if that audience research were done before the book was completely written, it could inform what content would sell best, not just what descriptive copy would be most readily discovered. That’s where publishers have to go in the long run, which would actually suggest that editorial staff needs to learn the audience research techniques as urgently as marketers. And we will add the massive understatement that knowing what this research would tell you can be extremely helpful in gauging the true potential audience for a book or author, which would influence the amount you’d calculate would be a sensible advance.)

The research exercise we’re suggesting is a prerequisite doesn’t just take time: it takes knowledge and skill, as does applying what is learned to the copy. Even if the knowledge were there and distributed across all the people who write descriptive copy today — and there is no publisher on the planet in which it is — the time required for the research would tax the resources of any house.

And that’s before we get to the distractions that can make publishers forget the core point, and they are plentiful.

The most recent one we’re aware of arose twice recently, two weeks ago in a piece by Porter Anderson and then again last week in an article in Publishing Perspectives  which featured the new tech-driven book deconstruction and analytical capabilities developed by an ebook distributor called Trajectory. They acquired the assets of another auto-analysis engine, described in the piece as a “book discovery site”, called Small Demons.

What Small Demons and now Trajectory do — somewhat like BookLamp, which was acquired by Apple — is use natural language processing and semantic indexing to identify characteristics of the book that can be discerned by examining the writing. Small Demons seemed to focus on proper nouns, so it could find all the books that had action taking place in Paris. Trajectory and BookLamp focused as well on writing style, sentiment analysis, and story construction.

The logic is that if you like books set in wealthy suburbs with handsome 34-year old male protagonists who break four hearts before falling hopelessly in love and who speak eloquently with the frequent use of five dollar words, and then get chased by bad guys until the heroine comes to the rescue in the last chapter, we can find them for you.

Even before I met Pete McCarthy, it seemed dubious to me that the kinds of similarities these analyses could document really predicted what a person would want to read based on what they’d read before. This logic would only make sense if the objective were to recommend a “next book” to a reader, assuming they liked what they were reading and wanted their next book to provide a similar experience. (There clearly are readers like this and they are very visible in fiction genres, but I’m quite skeptical that most readers are like this.)

But if the point to the analysis is to create copy that will promote “discovery”, off-page keywords or even “comps”,  and you buy Pete McCarthy’s premise that delivering solid SEO (search engine optimization) depends primarily on “understanding audiences”, it is clear that calling this kind of analysis a tool to aid “discovery” is a massive misnomer that mostly leads to a wild goose chase.

In fact, it is doubling down on the very thing the industry needs to rethink. It is not nearly as important to develop a deeper tech-assisted understanding of “the book” as it is to do research into the audience. And analyzing a book’s text doesn’t deliver that understanding.

The promise of BookLamp, Small Demons, and, presumably, Trajectory, is that they can deliver an analysis that requires little or no staff time because they use sophisticated technology. And the main barrier to wider adoption of Pete McCarthy’s SEO techniques is that they require research that, even using the best tools, will take 2-to-4 hours of human investigation before the first word of copy can be written.

If you’re looking for books that are similar in style and content, the tech can help you and you should use it. But if what you want is to make your book pop in the searches of likely readers, you can’t dodge the work. And finding a book that is similar in writing style, pacing, and story construction really won’t help you at all.

“Discovery” is often discussed by publishers as though it were a problem consumers consciously have. I don’t think they do. My own unproven paradigm is that there are people who are always reading a book and people who are not. The former group knows well how to find them, but using search is part of many of their arsenals. For the latter group, the books tend to find them rather than the other way around, but today the best way for the book to find them would be when they’re searching for something else and a book would be a relevant return to the query. In either case, publishers have a vested interest in showing up for the right searches for the right people at the right times.

The Logical Marketing Agency we’ve built around Pete’s knowledge of digital marketing offers a variety of ways to help publishers with this challenge, including both having us do the audience analysis for particular books and delivering training seminars that can teach a publisher’s staff what it needs to know.

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No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one


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One of the best-attended breakout sessions of Digital Book World 2015 was the discussion called “Should Amazon Be Constrained, and Can they Be?” which shared the very last slot on the two day program. That conversation was moderated by veteran New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta, and included Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, thriller author Barry Eisler, and Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation.

It turns out that the two Barrys, who have pretty much diametrically opposed positions on Amazon (Lynn wants them investigated by the DoJ as a competition-stifling monopoly; Eisler casts them, for the most part, as the heroes of the book business’s digital transition) have a common position on the Big Five publishers. They refer to them as a “cartel”. Eisler is sneeringly dismissive of “New York”, which he refers to the way Republicans of the 1980s referred to “Moscow”, as an obvious pejorative. He appears befuddled by how anybody interested in the well-being of authors and the reading public could take the side of these publishers who maintain high prices for books, contract with authors to pay them smaller percentages of sales than Amazon does (either through Amazon’s own publishing operations or through their self-publishing options), and notoriously reject a very high percentage of the authors who come to them for deals.

Perhaps because the focus was Amazon, perhaps because Eisler was both emphatic and entertaining in his roasting of the publishing establishment, and perhaps because the facts to defend them are not well known, neither moderator Auletta nor panelist Lowrey challenged the big publisher baiting from Eisler with which Lynn mostly agreed.

It was just as well that I wasn’t on the panel. I am not certain that Amazon can or should be constrained, but I am damn sure that the Big Five publishers are not villains, and they are certainly not a cartel. They do seem to be extremely poor defenders of their own virtue but they are doing yeoman work maintaining the value in the old publishing model — for themselves and for authors — while adjusting to changes in their ecosystem that require that they develop strong B2C capabilities while maintaining their traditional B2B model, the death of which has been greatly exaggerated. If I’d been on that stage, the discussion of Amazon would have been diverted when the trashing of the big publishers began.

I took the step of confirming in an email exchange my recollection of the counts in Eisler’s very entertaining, persuasive, and unchallenged indictment of the big publishers.

1. Their basic contract terms are all the same, which it felt at the time he was suggesting demonstrated collusion, but which in our subsequent exchange he clarified he interprets as evidence of “asymmetrical market power and a lack of meaningful competition”;

2. They pay too low royalties on ebooks, which he also attributes to their “asymmetrical power” and “an implicit recognition that publishers come out ahead if they don’t compete on digital royalties”;

3. They only pay royalties twice a year, rather than more frequently or more promptly, which Eisler also attributes to a lack of competition;

4. The term of big publisher contracts is normally “life of copyright”, which Eisler calls “forever terms”, and;

5. They reject a lot of authors. Here Eisler clarifies that this is not an “indictment, just an axiom”. I agree when he applauds self-publishing for creating a better world where “readers have more to choose from”. But we quickly part company again because he characterizes self-publishing as freeing us from a world where “an incestuous cartel” makes “virtually all the decisions about what tiny fraction of books readers will every have a meaningful opportunity to learn of and read”.

In our exchange, Eisler expressed the belief that “the only reason people have been okay with this is that the Big Five are ‘my people'”. So they get a pass which he likens to what conservatives gave George Bush or liberals give Barack Obama. (In another point of disagreement between us, Eisler seems to find very little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. I guess that is some people’s way of saying “nonpartisan”. What it says to me is “not discerning”.) And Eisler finds it “interesting” that the publishing revolution has “people decry” Amazon for “doing, or often only for potentially one day doing, the very things that are the definition of the Big Five.” (I have problems with this too, because none of the big publishers have a dominant market share selling books online and ebooks. In other words, Amazon and the publishers really aren’t comparable. Check back with me if any of the big publishers builds — or buys — a market-leading retailer.)

I’m going to plead “no contest” to the charge that the Big Five are “my people”, which I hope won’t discredit my arguments any more than the fact that Eisler is an Amazon-published author discredits his. But the cartoon picture of publishing in Eisler’s reviled “New York”, where some small group of extremely like-minded people apply their narrow views to effectively restrict what people read is a massive distortion of reality. Let me try to set the record straight about this world so many of my friends inhabit and with which I’ve been interacting for the better part of five decades.

First of all, the Big Five have plenty of competition: from each other, as well as from smaller niche publishers who may but be “big” but certainly aren’t “small”. (That is why the big ones so often buy the smaller ones — they add scale and simultaneously bring heterogeneous talent in-house). They are all quite aware of the authors housed elsewhere among them who might be wooable. In fact, since we have started doing our Logical Marketing work, we have done several jobs which were big author audits commissioned by publishers who wanted to steal the author, not by the one which presently has them signed. Eisler explicitly resisted accusing the publishers of “collusion”, but he does accuse them of “not competing” with each other. That is an accusation that is simply not supported by the facts. Nobody who has spent any time talking to people who work in big houses could possibly get the impression that they don’t compete.

(In fact, a friend of mine just moved from one big house to another. He is explicitly persona non grata at his prior employer. Now, in this case, I think the house that lost him is behaving childishly, but it certainly underscores the fact that they believe they are in intense competition and now this one-time colleague has gone over to “the other side”.)

But the big flaw in Eisler’s logic is the same one that dooms Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” project to irrelevance: the assumption that the per-copy royalty terms and rights splits are the most important element of publishing contracts. In fact, they’re not. Actually, those terms matter in 20 percent or fewer of the agented author contracts with the Big Five. Why? Because the agents get the publishers to pay advances that don’t earn out!

In fact, I have been told by three different big houses what they calculated the percentage of their revenues paid to authors amounted to. We could call that the true royalty rate. The three numbers were 36, 40, and 42 percent. That includes what they paid for sales of paperbacks, all of which carry “stipulated” royalties of well less than 10 percent of the cover price (and therefore below 20 percent of revenue).

Take that on board. Big publishers are paying 40 percent of their revenue to authors! That leaves them 60 percent to pay everything else: overheads, manufacturing, and profits! Compare that to the margin Amazon has even if they pay a 35 percent digital royalty, or compare it to what anybody else has in any other business after paying to acquire the raw material for what they sell. If there were really an “asymmetrical” power equation favoring publishers, you’d think they could acquire the author contracts for a bit less, wouldn’t you?

Not only were the authors’ collective royalty rates much higher than contracts stipulated, the authors got most of that money in advance, eliminating the authors’ risk. The only contracts on which the royalty terms matter are those that do earn out (and, arguably, those that are close). For all the others, most of Eisler’s list of complaints is irrelevant. And, for the record, I have never heard an author complain about that show of confidence, the work that follows in helping him or her reach an audience (which benefits all involved), nor the cash upfront.

More frequent accounting doesn’t matter if you aren’t owed any money. And if the solution to “forever” contracts were that you could buy your way out by paying back what you got in advances that your book didn’t “earn”, how many authors would do that?

But, in fact, agented authors don’t have forever contracts; agents have been negotiating performance clauses for publishers to keep rights for years. And, on top of that, no author in the US can possibly have a “forever” contract because the copyright law of 1978 requires the publisher to revert rights to the copyright holder after 35 years on request. Agents tell me this is has been resulting in additional “advances” for re-upped books for the past couple of years. Note: this is the law. No publisher disputes it. But the “forever contract” argument ignores it.

But, even beyond that, the negative characterization of Big Five New York publishing is terribly unfair.

First of all, the standard terms in big house contracts are almost always more generous than the terms in smaller publisher contracts. Few — if any — of the smaller ones pay a hardcover royalty as high as 15 percent of list. Although higher digital royalties can sometimes be found, usually those are from publishers who have little capacity to deliver print sales, so digital royalties is all you’re going to get. (That might be okay for a romance novel where a big majority of sales could be digital. It would be disaster for the author of just about anything except genre fiction.) And some smaller publishers actually pay less than 25 percent for digital royalties.

So the Big Five terms are generally better and they routinely pay agented authors advances that no other publisher would attempt to match.

But, beyond that, the idea that they are a “cartel” (a characterization enthusiastically seconded by Amazon critic Barry Lynn after it was introduced by Amazon supporter Eisler), is really preposterous. In fact, the Big Five are, to varying degrees, federations of imprints that even compete internally for books, sometimes to the extent that they will bid against each other when an agent conducts an auction. And it would appear from Eisler’s pre-Amazon publishing history that he himself has, in fact, been the beneficiary of bidding competition among major houses.

The internal-to-the-house competition occurs because of the way big publishers are organized. It has been understood for decades that some aspects of a publisher’s operation benefit from scale and size and other functions must remain small. In general, publishers deliver accounting, manufacturing, and sales as centralized functions and editorial acquisition and development, packaging and design, and marketing as localized capabilities housed within the imprints. The power of imprints, which are individual editorial units, varies, but it is generally the case that they have autonomy over their acquisitions and must “compete” internally for the centralized services.

The digital transition is definitely straining that organizational structure. Having the by-title P&L responsibilities distributed makes it more difficult for houses to organize cross-imprint initiatives for everything from direct sales to audience-centric (vertical- or subject-oriented) marketing. Having multiple imprints that all contain “general” lists is probably an anachronism in an age when we want brands (which imprints are) to make sense to consumers. Publishing imprint brands were always B2B, meant more to inform such trading partners as libraries and bookstores and reviewers, not the general public.

But the big houses reap large benefits from the power of their central services. They get rock-bottom prices for printing and lightning-fast service for reprints. They have daily contact with the biggest accounts, which matters for getting reorders onto suddenly-empty shelves or to execute a short-lived price promotion for an ebook. They have teams of people staying abreast of every promotional opportunity at every account or service like BookBub. They are increasingly developing teams and tools to keep their marketing metadata fresh and relevant, to monitor the online world for marketing opportunities, or to build or advise authors on creating effective web presences.

Although authors can certainly be found who felt they were signed and then ignored, most houses sweat all the details: editing the book, packaging it for sale, and following rigorous pre-publication routines to get endorsements. They all have special sales departments that are regularly working catalogs and specialty retailers for the books appropriate to their audiences. Smaller houses don’t have all these capabilities. To suggest to an author with no publishing background that s/he can do all this themselves, even with an unlimited budget to buy outside services, is really setting a novice up for frustration and failure, or at the very least near-certain dissatisfaction.

I asked Eisler about the competition among the big houses that doesn’t seem to enter his calculus. Here’s what he told me:

As for competition among the Big Five, I call it kabuki competition. Competition that results in decades of zero innovation and the same antediluvian lockstep contractual terms is by definition meaningless. It’s managed competition, agreed-upon competition. A lack of industry innovation is like the dog that didn’t bark: the absence is itself evidence, because in the presence of meaningful competitive pressure, industry players innovate. To argue otherwise, you’d have to argue there has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices. I think that would be a hard argument to make.

To put it another way, what the Big Five cooperate on is far more significant than what they compete on. By it’s [sic] nature, competition is more noticeable than cooperation, so a little bit of competition obscures a lot of cooperation.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell me much. I don’t know what the Big Five “cooperate” on. And though the argument that there “has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices” would, indeed, be nonsense, so is the claim that there has been no innovation. A “failure to innovate” doesn’t describe the last five years that I’ve been living through. All the Big Five houses have continuously reorganized, brought in outside-of-publishing digital talent at a high level to up their game, and introduced digital-first operations and contracts, all at the same time that they have had to manage down fixed investments in plant (warehouses) and change manufacturing-and-inventory processes to take advantage of improved digital printing capabilities.

It is now often forgotten that, while it is true that Amazon “made” the ebook market really happen, publishers had for a very long time before Kindle been creating editorially magnificent products and were far ahead of Amazon in seeking to publish in ebook formats, only partly because of better economics. (At the time all costs were additive and the market was tiny.) They published them because readers seemed to want them and big publishers, whatever their bashers might think, feel a responsibility to assure maximum distribution of a writer’s work.

In fact, the big houses all are comprised of competing imprints. Among them they employ hundreds of acquiring editors who are each trying to build their own successful lists (competing with each other). They are shamelessly commercial: a book with the potential to sell only a few thousand copies won’t get their attention. But, beyond that and those things that are far outside prevailing public morals and sensibilities, I can’t see any restrictions on what they’ll publish.

The Big Five houses have negotiated the digital transition that has occurred so far with startling success. The self-publishing business has grown, fueled by investment from Amazon and other big players, but big houses have hardly lost any authors. They are facing down dominant retailers in their two biggest channels — brick bookstores and online — and managing to maintain their margins and profitability. They are all moving on a variety of initiatives to build vertical (audience-centric) capabilities and extend their global marketing and sales reach.

But even if one assumes the “worst” of the big publishers, it is a total canard to say, as Eisler did to me, that “in the absence of meaningful competition, the Big Five has exercised incredible power over what books are published and what people are functionally permitted to read.” In fact, the argument that authors can reach their audiences successfully through self-publishing (which on other days, Eisler and his fellow musketeers Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath make with gusto) explicitly contradicts that contention. But so do Harry Potter, published by Scholastic, and “Fifty Shades of Gray”, picked up by Knopf after a self-published start, to name two sales phenomena of relatively recent times. There are a number of very capable publishers just a bit smaller than the Big Five (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has the Lord of the Rings books, for example) and there are legions of specialty publishers who do books the Big Five would generally not even consider.

Sometimes the Big Five acquire those publishers to add diverse author and publishing talent to their rosters to compete in niche markets. Harpercollins’s acquisitions of Thomas Nelson and Harlequin fit that description. How much a big house can publish is one thing; what they can publish is also a function of the talent onboard and the audience development that has already taken place.

The Big Five are actually specialists of a different sort: they do the books with the biggest commercial potential. I’d argue that having five very large companies all capable of making a book a mammoth commercial success is a pretty big number, not a small one. If those companies were broken into more of their component parts and we had 15 or 25 large-ish publishers rather than five giant ones, it is not at all obvious that author advances or sales would be higher. There would probably be more manufacturing and sales staff per title (and less investment in tech to support either) than there is now, but those salaries would be subtractions from the company’s margins, and would therefore likely increase book prices. That’s not going to produce more value for either authors or readers. So I actually think author advances — which one must always remember is the metric that matters most in determining how well authors are getting paid — would be lower.

During our on-stage conversation at Digital Book World 2015, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, took great pains to express his view that self-publishing capabilities are good for authors and for readers. On the same morning, Judith Curr, who is the President of S&S’s Atria imprint, explained how her house specifically targets successful indie authors to bring them in. Every big house has some respectful variation on those themes. The animus between big publishers and some components of the self-publishing community is really a one-way street. In a prior post of mine about the illogical publisher-bashing, the comment string taught me that the mostly rhetorical and histrionic arguments from the self-publishing side against the big houses constituted an emotional, not a rational, reaction.

A dispassionate examination of the facts and an understanding of how things really work make it clear that big publishers — both goaded and constrained by powerful agents — are very good for authors. That doesn’t mean self-publishing isn’t good for them too but, then, no big publisher I know is saying that it isn’t!

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Kids book publishers need to massage their data to understand where their books are really going


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The day before Digital Book World (which this year was last Tuesday, January 13th), we organize a conference about publishing for young people called Publishers Launch Kids. Because my involvement with juvie publishing over my half century in the business has been relatively cursory, we are fortunate to have recruited our friend, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International, to be the Conference Chair and program the show. She invites me to join a wrap-up session at the end of the day. I bring a “fresh perspective” because I am relatively lightly burdened with prior knowledge before I hear all the speakers.

Lorraine delivered a consistent theme, which was that kids’ publishers are finding new revenue streams. Subscription is one of them. Tapping big brand promotional dollars was another. And some of the new-style digital publishers who are creating their own IP are turning books into a subsidiary right, licensing back that IP to more pure-play book publishers.

I was delighted that I found myself able to offer comments in the wrap-up that the audience seemed to think added insight to their day, so I’m repeating those observations here and adding another in hopes that it will do the same for yours.

The first point is around the general consensus, widely reported and commented upon, that kids publishing is the one big bright spot in the industry, carrying all of the Big Five publishers to expanding margins and profits. But when the facts are examined a little more closely, it is clear that there are real limits to the conclusions that should be drawn from the data that lead people to that belief.

Publishing revenues are credited based on the BISAC codes associated with each book published. The phenomenon of the past few years, really going back almost two decades to the launch of the first Harry Potter book, is the massive adult audiences for books intended, and tagged, for YA audiences (and sometimes, as in the case of a book called “Wonder” — or Harry Potter itself for that matter — books that are tagged for even younger readers).

Well, the stat-masters from Nielsen Book made it clear how distorting those sales can be in their presentation, where they showed that 80 percent of the sales of YA novels are made to adults for their own reading! Since one of the core challenges we acknowledge for juvie publishing is how to overcome the teacher and parent gatekeepers between the books and their intended audience, that data would make it appear that the gatekeeper question is not nearly as consequential as we might have thought. Or, at the very least, for a big chunk of their list, it isn’t the most relevant marketing challenge.

And that raises a second point. It is clear that juvie publishing, like all trade publishing, needs to clearly separate the titles and attributable revenues that are straight text from those which are not. We have long advocated this perspective for adult publishing because of the clear and consistent evidence that straight text books port successfully to digital and other books do not. Of course, that would be true regardless of the age level of the books. But aside from the differences in performance based on format, YA has a divide that is also based on audiences.

In a whole day’s conversation, there was never any indication from any publisher that they clearly delineate their businesses that way. That is, even if you accept the idea that 80 percent of your YA straight text sales are to adults for adults, it does not facilitate an easy recalculation of how much of your total audience and sales are for adult consumption as opposed to being for youth consumption unless you have already separated out the YA and middle-grade chapter books from your other output. (I include the middle-grade chapter books here because of my awareness of the book “Wonder”, aimed at 9-year-olds but a rewarding read for kids of all ages.)

Without making that distinction, meaningful analysis of sales data to inform marketing becomes nigh on impossible.

There is an analogy here to a different dichotomy. We have said for years on this blog that looking at the division between print book sales and ebook sales by genre or category or publisher is much less meaningful for analysis or business decisions than looking at the sales made online versus those made in stores. Obviously, about 100 percent of the ebook sales are made online but that only tells a part of the story. As publishers consider resource allocations from marketing and sales staffing to where promotional efforts should be focused, the more meaningful distinction is how people buy than in what format they read.

And the meaningful distinction for publishers looking at sales to figure out how to get more of them is who buys and reads their books, not what reading level they were theoretically aiming for.

There are some other implications of this matching of books and actual audiences. One is that it certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that the ability of the kids’ divisions of Big Five houses are better positioned to go after those adult audiences than a kids-only house would be. To the extent that adult-division marketers get involved in pushing the books that come from the kids books editors, they press that advantage.

I also came into Pub Launch Kids with an old idea that the discussion that day only reinforced. I can’t understand why each of the Big Five publishers isn’t operating its own subscription program for juvies: all of them across grade levels, picture books and chapter books. Here’s my logic. Just about every parent would love to be able to hand a kid the tablet or phone they could read on and let them do their own “shopping” for books. But they don’t want to give them the ability to spend money. Subscription is a simple answer for that.

Lorraine had put together a great panel of companies for Launch Kids with subscription offerings: MeeGenius, Speakaboos, and Smarty Pal. All of these companies had more to offer than just subscriptions, including enhancement (read-along narration), curation, and data that could be useful to parents and teachers. But they also had both a limited number of titles (in all cases, fewer than any one of the Big Five publishers could deliver on its own) and a commercial model challenged both by the operational cost of content acquisition and the need to have their own share of the revenue in addition to what the publisher takes (to share with the author).

Meanwhile, the Big Five publishers have digital files of all their books and the ability to promote a subscription service to their target audience by the very simple device of promoting it on the covers of all the print books they sell and within all their ebooks. Unlike a third party subscription service, they could live with a relatively small and slowly-growing subscription base to keep the cost of subscriber acquisition low. They’d learn a lot by observing the behavior of their readers. They could find that a subscriber who looked at a picture book 27 times might be enticed to buy a print copy, so the subscription activity could also be lead-generating.

And this kind of intel could really drive sales through another of the new revenue streams discussed in some detail at Launch Kids: personalized books.

Subscriptions from the owners of juvie book IP for digital versions of their content also have another massive potential market: schools. All of the subscription sellers recognize that. Any publisher who had such an offering would have that market to chase as well. One publisher I discussed this with sees the institutional market as the first one to pursue but agreed after we discussed it that the ability to pursue an opportunistic single subscriber strategy, rather than needing to get enough of them to build a free-standing business, made a real difference in how profitable those single subscribers could be and how low the acquisition cost might be driven.

I have been waiting expectantly for Penguin Random House to offer its content to schools on a subscription basis, which could give them a huge structural advantage over everybody else in that marketplace. I say this despite PRH consistently reporting back to me (in only the nicest ways) that my speculation about what’s best for them doesn’t square with their own thoughts on that matter.

But were they to do that, the most sensible response from the other four big houses would be a combined offering to schools, since it would pretty much take all four of them to present a comparable alternative. One wonders what the DoJ would think about that.

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