September, 2009

Holding back the ebook


The tactic of keeping the ebook off the market to “protect” hardcover sales, first executed by Sourcebooks this month on behalf of Bran Hambric, is becoming more widespread. At the same time that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was released simultaneously in cloth and digital, Ted Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass was released in print with the ebook withheld. Now Harper has announced that the new Sarah Palin biography will come out in cloth in November, but the ebook will be held back until the day after Christmas.

The Kennedy case is a bit different because the book contained color pictures that would not render on the most popular ebook platform (the Kindle), but in all these cases the primary motivation of the publisher seemed to be to avoid having a low-priced ebook competing with its hardcover sales.

Kassia Kroszer has written a nice little rant about the counterproductiveness of this strategy, with which on purely economic and marketing grounds, I substantially agree. She points out that there is no evidence that ebook sales come at the expense of hardcover sales (of course; there’s also no evidence that they don’t…) She also posits that the ebook reader and print reader are often different people. If that’s true (and it is a general notion I’m inclined to share), then holding back the ebook is bound to just lose sales because the title won’t be available as an ebook during “maximum buzz.”

If a publisher’s concern is that reckless ebook pricing bleeds sales away from the hardcover, there is another solution. (One that can work; I have proposed solutions that can’t work.)  The publisher could just sell the ebook exclusively at its own site and price it any way they want. It would be like the publisher download is the ebook “hardcover” (i.e. expensive) which is replaced by the ebook “paperback” (i.e. sold at retailers and priced more aggressively) with whatever timetable for that the publisher wanted.

If publishers maintain their retail prices and their discounts, then the aggressively-priced ebooks aren’t costing them any margin. In that case, they’d be making more money per unit on the ebook than on the print books. There’s a degree to which the retailers’ aggressive pricing constitutes a gift to publishers and authors, even if none of them seem to be seeing it that way.

But there are also two other elements  major publishers have to  considere when they make ebook decisions: their relationship with Amazon.com and the health — even the existence — of a brick-and-mortar retail book trade.

Amazon is the driving force behind cheap ebooks, and they’re doing it to herd more and more people into their closed market with the Kindle. That’s a perfectly reasonable objective from their point of view, but it is very threatening to everybody else in the industry, all of whom would prefer a more diversified ebook market for their own reasons. That’s part of why I think selling direct off the web site at the higher price is something you might see happen. It’s a polite way to stick a finger in Amazon’s eye.

The retail book trade is important for many reasons, but the under-appreciated one is that bookstore shelf space, at 45 to 50% discount off retail, is the cheapest marketing investment publishers can make. It sorts their books out and puts them on display (hey! sometimes even in shop windows!) in front of people who want to buy a book. There isn’t any better product placement than that. Every ebook sold weakens the trade, accelerates the reduction of opportunities to put books in front of readers in the most efficient possible way. Publishers have a real interest in preserving that asset.

Earlier today we interviewed Raelene Gorlinsky of Ellora’s Cave as part of our preparation for Digital Book World. (They will be on the program!) I was aware that Ellora’s Cave existed and vaguely aware that they were an ebook-first publisher, but, not being a romance reader I was not as clued in to them as I should have been. They’re nine years old and the company is quite a story.

I’ll save the story for another time but I want to pass along one piece of wisdom from this morning’s conversation that is relevant to this post. Ellora’s Cave publishes printed-on-demand editions of those books of theirs that they can (many are too short to be print books and are only put into print as part of anthologies.) Raelene explained to us that they generally hold the print book back for 18 months after the ebook is published (and they publish about 10 new titles a week!)

Why does Ellora’s Cave hold back the print book? Because they make more money on the ebooks, of course, even though the print books cost somewhat more! (They have to pay for that paper, presswork, and binding somehow…)

Of course, I’d tell them to just raise the price of the print book for the first 18 months rather than withhold it. They’re making a close cousin to the mistake I’m accusing the conventional publishers of. But at least they’re preserving the higher margin sale, not the lower margin one.

Sometimes being in publishing makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland.

16 Comments »

Beast Books: a sign of times to come


The story in today’s New York Times about the new Daily Beast publishing imprint created by Perseus obviously didn’t hit everybody else the way it hit me. I think it is really important news. It is also a smart approach. And I think it is a harbinger of many things to come.

The two things that struck Michael Cader about this initiative were not the things that struck me. What he said in Lunch:

The Daily Beast is the latest entrant in the shouldn’t books be written shorter and issued faster sweepstakes, launching Beast Books and focusing on current events. They plan to publish ebook editions first, followed by traditional print editions. The site has partnered with Perseus for sales, distribution and other services, represented in the deal by Larry Kirshbaum and Ed Victor.

Aiming to publish just three to five titles a year, the line begins with John Avlon’s ATTACK OF THE WINGNUTS: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, with a foreword by Tina Brown. The ebook will be available in December 2009; the trade paperback in January 2010.

“Written shorter” and “issued faster” are definitely part of the offer here, but I don’t think they’re the most significant news and, as Michael reminded me when I asked, people have been talking about shorter and faster for a long time. I share Michael’s interest in noting that the ebook will come out first and the print book will follow, which only follows the reality of what is available when! But even that isn’t the most noteworthy aspect of this announcement; as The Times’s story makes clear, publishers have issued ebooks ahead of print before.

What struck me about this initiative is that it shows the publishing power moving from the book publishers whose model is to own content to the website entrepreneurs whose model is to own eyeballs. It shows that online brands with regular around-the-clock followings can do books more efficiently and effectively than publishers with a big apparatus.

The reason that publishers have not shortened publishing schedules in general (they all know that it would be better to accelerate the recovery of the cash invested in author advances and title origination) is because of the marketing requirements that have become standard and part of the landscape. Publishers Weekly, perhaps still the single most powerful pre-publication review (but declining), wants to see galleys for a book four months before publication. Some major accounts want books presented to them as far as six months before publication. If you ask most experienced publishing marketers, I believe they would still tell you that anything less than six months’ lead time to market a book means marketing will both cost more and be less effective.

But The Daily Beast has announced that they will routinely go from a concept to an ebook in the marketplace in six months or less.

This kind of publishing is not primarily made possible by short books, or even ebooks, as much as it is because The Daily Beast has a big online audience and, in addition, serious chops at the practice of getting a story they publish going round and round on the Web. They can get the core audience aware of and talking about a book with their own proprietary engine, so if PW wants to skip reviewing the book they don’t care. And the retailers will know that there’s going to be demand for a book they’re hearing about less than six months in advance, so they’ll break their own rules and stock it on shorter notice.

Now, that is power. How much power? The Times reports (suggesting, but not explicitly saying, that this comes from Brown) that Daily Beast has 3 million unique users a month!

The financial model aspects of this are interesting. The report says that Perseus is financing the publication, signing the author and paying Daily Beast for editing and design. Then Perseus splits profits robustly enough so that their CEO, David Steinberger, can say that authors will get “meaningfully more” than traditional book contracts pay. Obviously, Perseus believes that the marketing that Daily Beast can provide is worth giving away margin for, and that surely seems sensible to me.

The takeaway from this for the industry is that owners of eyeballs are moving into the driver’s seat. The world isn’t completely upside down yet; the owner of the copyright is still paying the owner of the eyeballs for the content and, ostensibly, dictating the terms of the deal. But as more and more web brands develop this kind of audience, publishers are going to get some hard lessons about where the power really will lie as the shift continues to take hold. Remember that what Perseus is bringing to deal is a commodity: lots of other publishers can offer the same suite of capabilities. What the Daily Beast brings is unique. Dollars flow to scarcity.

The one comment worth making on the substance of this is a relatively minor one. Why not enable a print-0n-demand edition to be offered simultaneously with the ebook, at a higher price, of course, which is pulled off the market when the print book’s pressrun arrives? There’s no reason to make somebody wait to read timely information just because they haven’t switched over to ebooks yet. A bit complicated and messy for the retailers; probably have to go to a separate ISBN that isn’t returnable. I’ll bet they’ll get there; this whole idea reflects people who are making total sense and thinking about their community!

18 Comments »

Why publishers need to understand brand


In the Internet world, brands will be more important than they’ve ever been before.

Why?

Because as the number of choices available to anybody seeking anything proliferate, brand is the shortcut that allows choices to be made quickly and reliably. And the Internet does nothing better than presenting us with more choices for any quest than anybody can possibly consider carefully.

In the next 20 years or so, the brands that will dominate for a very long time will be created.

Why?

Because the organization and delivery of stuff — including information — is being realigned into verticals; that is: subjects. The requirements of physical delivery required aggregation across interests that the Internet does not. So enduring horizontal brands of content like newspapers or book publishers but also outside content, among retailers, for example, that thrived across interest groups will find themselves challenged by new brands that are narrower and deeper. Being narrower and deeper permits a much more involved engagement with the audience. It strengthens the brand.

That’s how entities like Politico and Fivethirtyeight.com for political news suddenly challenged The New York Times and the Washington Post. That’s how Ravelry and Etsy arose out of nothing to become brands with real power in the crafts space, or how The Food Network or Epicurious became dominant in the web conversation about food.

The owners of the brands that matter will control access to the audiences that matter in the future. Content creators’ fates will be in the brands’ hands.

Publishers can compete in this environment, but only if they recognize the realities and try!

I am not an expert on brands (and I don’t even play one on TV.) But I have been paying attention this concept for about 15 years, since Mark Bide introduced me to it during our work together on the Publishing in the 21st Century program in the 1990s. There are a few simple truths that I believe are clear to anybody who spends any real time thinking about this.

1. For a brand to succeed, its message (often called its “promise” among the Brandanista) must be crystal clear and unconfused. You wouldn’t put the same brand name on toothpaste and tomato sauce. And if Ravelry wants to expand into gardening, they almost certainly should invent another brand.

2. Publishers particularly need to distinguish between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) brands. So a company’s name might be an acceptable B2B brand, communicating things about commerciality, quality, and its marketing effort to bookstore buyers, librarians, and reviewers who will be interested in its offerings across subject matters. But consumers require brands that are consistent as to subject matter, or as to the problems the content offerings solve (which is what makes “Dummies” work.)

3. Healthy brands reduce marketing costs. If you want to sell a romance book, you have to find the audience. In Harlequin’s case, the audience finds them! Yes, Harlequin is one of the exceptions to the rule that a publisher’s name is not a B2C brand. Why? Because they have a consistent product offering. If they decided to expand into mysteries or thrillers, they’d need another brand. Even within romances, Harlequin has sub-brands to give their readers shortcuts to the particular lengths and types of books they want to buy.

4. Precisely the same product with precisely the same marketing expenditure will sell better under some brands than it will under others, which is a corrolary to point 3 above.

5. We all well know that not all brand promises are about content. “Community” (interaction among the interested) and “service” (solving problems or providing help, which is what the content in Dummies books do) are important components of brand as well. My paradigm is to use content as bait to attract eyeballs, but then to use community and service to strengthen the hold of the brand on its adherents.

The overall vision presented in the Shift speech is that vertical communities are forming and that the stakes being planted in the virtual ground are analogous to the land claims made by settlers when Oklahoma was opened up. Each of those claims will ultimately be branded and many of those brands will endure for a very long time. Will important gardening brands be owned by publishers or seed and fertilizer companies? Will important cooking brands be owned by publishers or a food manufacturer or a restaurant chain? Will important travel brands be owned by publishers or a hotel or an airline? It depends on who delivers the combination of content, community, and service that pulls together the interested and then leverages that interest into an enduring brand.

Publishers have great tools to compete but they can only succeed if they know what the game is. Establishing enduring brands is the great opportunity of our time and book publishers are very well-positioned to win. If they play. Understanding content and how to deliver it to markets is a great start, but that’s all it is.

14 Comments »

Aggregation and curation: two concepts that explain a lot about digital change


Aggregation and curation: two concepts that explain a lot about digital change
Every time I read a story about why newspapers are failing that doesn’t mention the role of aggregation and curation in their troubles, it reminds me that something very fundamental is being missed, even by very sophisticated observers.
Aggregation is one of the core concepts of content presentation and commercialization. Any analysis of what happened to the record business, what is happening to newspapers, or the future of books and bookstores and magazines and TV that does not feature this concept prominently is almost certainly flawed. Aggregation, of course, simply means pulling together things which are not necessarily connected.
Curation is a term that has always referred to the careful selection and pruning of aggregates, such as for a museum or an art exhibition. But the concept in the digital content world means the selection and presentation of these disparate items to help a browser or consumer navigate and select from them. Aggregation without curation is, normally, not very helful. Curation creates the brand.
NOcontent makes its way from its creator to the public without aggregation. Agents are aggregators, pulling together the work of many writers to present an (agent-) branded offering to publishers. The business would be considerably more inefficient and expensive if agents didn’t aggregate the work of writers to present to publishers.
Publishers are aggregators, pulling together lists of books to present a (publisher-) branded offering to bookstores, libraries, and various review media.
Bookstores are aggregators, and their curation is reflected in front tables and shop windows and store sections that create a (retailer-) branded offering that consumers can navigate.
In the music world, record companies aggregated 10 or 12 or 15 songs by a single artist into a single offering (called an “album”, nomenclature that goes back to when it took a collection of 78 rpm records to deliver a concerto or a symphony, and those were delivered inside the sleeves of a bound volume.) When long-playing technology (33 rpm records) was perfected, the longer form became more cost-efficient than the single, on a pennies-per-minute calculation, so the longer form took over.
Or it took over until it wasn’t more cost-efficient anymore, which it wasn’t when the Internet happened. Aggregation and curation into 40- and 50-minute offerings no longer served the purpose that it used to. And since the unit of appreciation always had been the individual song, the aggregated album lost its sales appeal. It wasn’t just piracy that downloading enabled; it was the ability of the listener to curate for herself!
Newspapers are obviously aggregators and curators. The differences in their curation create their brand. The New York Times leaves out the comics. The New York Post leaves out the multi-syllable words. The Daily News beefs up its sports section and, for years, was known for having the best pictures. But one thing has been common to all of them and to all other newspapers: they cover the waterfront. (I have called that being “horizontal.”) They aggregate news of the world, the nation, and the city with sports, weather, stock quotes, advice to the lovelorn, and many other things. They sell almost all their advertising against the aggregate and against the brand, not against any specific item or interest being aggregated. And the competition for each paper is against other curated aggregates.
Newspapers sold the curated aggregate to people who didn’t want most of it because the total price was a good deal for the parts they did want, just like the album was a good deal even if you only liked some of the songs.
And now they are suffering precisely the same fate as the record album. The unit of appreciation is smaller than the whole. And for each unit of appreciation — each ball score, stock price, report from Washington, or political cartoon — there is a whole new host of competition.
So the long story short on newspapers is this: a business model of selling a horizontal (many-subject) aggregate, curated by something other than subject, was based on the economics of a physical world where aggregation produced efficiencies of production and distribution. The Internet changed that. It is no longer necessary for an aggregator to provide news to deliver me sports, or to provide a whole newspaper to deliver me the weather or a stock quote.
Horizontal aggregation was more efficient in a world of physical delivery. Vertical aggregation makes more sense in a world of digital delivery. And enabling the customer or user to have some control over the curation is possible in the digital world but hardly is in the physical.
What are the takeaways from this?
1. Don’t blame newspapers for not being ready for the new world. Their strategy of aggregation and curation was created for a physical world and it does not port to a digital one. This is not about whether the content is free or behind a pay wall. It is about the Internet rewriting the rules for what constitutes sensible aggregation and curation.
2. Booksellers must also take the new realities on board. Until the Internet, aggregating the largest possible selection under one roof had enormous customer value because the difficulty of obtaining what was not under that roof was high. It isn’t anymore. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and any retailer served by Ingram has a nearly-universal selection available for delivery within days, if not hours. So the gap between what’s in the store and what’s not has narrowed dramatically. The relative power of the large aggregate has been diminished.
3. The importance of curation becomes more prominent. If having lots and lots of books in a store doesn’t have the power it used to, having the right books becomes more important.
4. Publishers’ aggregation and curation created their brand, and their brand (in most cases) was intended to communicate meaning to retailers, librarians, and reviewers, not to the public! In  world where the powerful intermediaries are becoming more responsive to subject than to format, publishers need to rethink what they publish and how they present the collection that they choose.
5. Recommendation engines aside (“based on what you bought before, have we got a book for you!”), online book retailers have a long way to go to enable the customized curation that seems both possible and desireable in the digital age. Even as sophisticated a retailer at Barnes & Noble will present multiple duplicate entries of a public domain scan from Google to an ebook search for a Shakespeare play. And even as sophisticated a retailer as Amazon will sell you a Kindle ebook that is a self-published tome in a way that is indistinguishable from a book from a legitimate publisher. These are failures of curation.
Except for the writers, all of us in the book value chain are part of the effort to aggregate and curate the offerings of writers to others. Every editor and publisher, every bookstore and agent, got to where they are by aggregating and curating writers’ work in ways that made commercial sense in a physical world. Some of those assemblies are challenged; I’ve been saying that the more horizontal is the collection, the less likely it is to work in the digital world.
But, remember this: when you are looking for reasons to explain why a winner in print media is losing on the web, it almost certainly starts with aggregation and curation and how it needs to change to suit changed circumstances.

Every time I read a story about why newspapers are failing that doesn’t mention the role of aggregation and curation in their troubles, it reminds me that something very fundamental is being missed, even by very sophisticated observers.

Aggregation is one of the core concepts of content presentation and commercialization. Any analysis of what happened to the record business, what is happening to newspapers, or the future of books and bookstores and magazines and TV that does not feature this concept prominently is almost certainly flawed.

Aggregation, of course, simply means pulling together things which are not necessarily connected.

Curation is a term that has always referred to the careful selection and pruning of aggregates, such as for a museum or an art exhibition. But the concept in the digital content world means the selection and presentation of these disparate items to help a browser or consumer navigate and select from them. Aggregation without curation is, normally, not very helpful. Curation creates the brand.

No content makes its way from its creator to the public without aggregation. Agents are aggregators, pulling together the work of many writers to present an (agent-) branded offering to publishers. The business would be considerably more inefficient and expensive if agents didn’t aggregate the work of writers to present to publishers.

Publishers are aggregators, pulling together lists of books to present a (publisher-) branded offering to bookstores, libraries, and various review media. Bookstore buyers would find it much more difficult to purchase tens of thousands of new books each year without this branding.

Bookstores are aggregators, and their curation is reflected in front tables and shop windows and store sections that create a (retailer-) branded offering that consumers can navigate.

In the music world, record companies aggregated 10 or 12 or 15 songs by a single artist into a single offering (called an “album”, nomenclature that goes back to when it took a collection of 78 rpm records to deliver a concerto or a symphony, and those were delivered inside the sleeves of a bound volume.) When long-playing technology (33 rpm records) was perfected, the longer form became more cost-efficient than the single, on a pennies-per-minute-of-sound calculation, so the longer form took over.

Or it took over until it wasn’t more cost-efficient anymore, which it wasn’t when the Internet happened. Aggregation and curation into 40- and 50-minute offerings no longer served the purpose that it used to. And since the unit of appreciation always had been the individual song, the aggregated album lost its sales appeal. It wasn’t just piracy that downloading enabled; it was the ability of the listener to curate for herself!

Newspapers are obviously aggregators and curators. The differences in their curation create their brand. The New York Times leaves out the comics. The New York Post leaves out the multi-syllable words. The Daily News beefs up its sports section and, for years, was known for having the best pictures. But one thing has been common to all of them and to all other newspapers: they cover the waterfront. (I have called that being “horizontal.”) They aggregate news of the world, the nation, and the city with sports, weather, stock quotes, advice to the lovelorn, and many other things. They sell almost all their advertising against the aggregate and against the brand, not against any specific item or interest being aggregated. And the competition for each paper is against other curated aggregates.

Newspapers can sell the curated aggregate to people who don’t want most of it because the total price is a good deal for the parts they want, just like the album was a good deal even if you only liked some of the songs. Or they could.

But now they are suffering precisely the same fate as the record album. The unit of appreciation is smaller than the whole. And for each unit of appreciation — each ball score, stock price, report from Washington, or political cartoon — there is a whole host of new competition.

So the long story short on newspapers is this: a business model of selling a horizontal (many-subject) aggregate, curated by something other than subject, was based on the economics of a physical world where aggregation produced efficiencies of production and distribution. The Internet changed that. It is no longer necessary for an aggregator to provide news to deliver me sports, or to provide a whole newspaper to deliver me the weather or a stock quote.

Horizontal aggregation was more efficient in a world of physical delivery. Vertical aggregation makes more sense in a world of digital delivery. And enabling the customer or user to have some control over the curation is possible in the digital world but hardly is in the physical.

What are the takeaways from this?

1. Don’t blame newspapers for not being ready for the new world. Their strategy of aggregation and curation was created for a physical world and it does not port to a digital one. This is not about whether the content is free or behind a pay wall. It is about the Internet rewriting the rules for what constitutes sensible aggregation and curation.

2. Booksellers must also take the new realities on board. Until the Internet, aggregating the largest possible selection under one roof had enormous customer value because the difficulty of obtaining what was not under that roof was high. It isn’t anymore. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and any retailer served by Ingram has a nearly-universal selection available for delivery within days, if not hours. So the gap between what’s in the store and what’s not has narrowed dramatically. The relative power of the large aggregate has been diminished.

3. The importance of curation becomes more prominent. If having lots and lots of books in a store doesn’t have the power it used to, having the right books becomes more important.

4. Publishers’ aggregation and curation created their brand, and their brand (in most cases) was intended to communicate meaning to retailers, librarians, and reviewers, not to the public! In a world where the powerful intermediaries are becoming more responsive to subject than to format, publishers need to rethink what they publish and how they present the collection that they choose.

5. Recommendation engines aside (“based on what you bought before, have we got a book for you!”), online book retailers have a long way to go to enable the customized curation that seems both possible and desireable in the digital age. Even as sophisticated a retailer at Barnes & Noble will present multiple duplicate entries of a public domain scan from Google to an ebook search for a Shakespeare play. And even as sophisticated a retailer as Amazon will sell you a Kindle ebook that is a self-published tome in a way that is indistinguishable from a book from a legitimate publisher. These are failures of curation.

Except for the writers, all of us in the book value chain are part of the effort to aggregate and curate the offerings of writers to others. Every editor and publisher, every bookstore and agent, got to where they are by aggregating and curating writers’ work in ways that made commercial sense in a physical world. Some of those assemblies are challenged; I’ve been saying that the more horizontal is the collection, the less likely it is to work in the digital world.

But, remember this: when you are looking for reasons to explain why a winner in print media is losing on the web, it almost certainly starts with aggregation and curation and how it needs to change to be optimal in the new digital environment.

14 Comments »

Serious thoughts about the business (published by Barnes & Noble)


Daniel Menaker was not long ago the Executive Editor-in-Chief at Random House and writes knowledgeably about the state of play and state of mind inside Big Publishing today. His piece Redactor Agonistes  is a psychological snapshot of a declining industry, a catalog of the frustrations that are increasingly common in an environment where, as hard as everybody tries, the numbers just keep getting harder and harder to hit.
The first point to make about Menaker’s article is that is published by “review”, barnesandnoble.com’s online magazine. I knew that B&N was working hard on online content, but (not being much of a book review reader) I hadn’t actually looked at it until this article. Of course, it shows the magic of the web; I was directed to the Menaker piece by a number of online referrals and now I’ve discovered a whole new source of interesting content. This kind of intellectual article is not what I previously would have expected to see in a free publication created by a retailer! And it shows that BN.com is thinking about the value of a community of readers who think about the book business.
Menaker makes the overall point — familiar to anyone in the business — that publishing is about saying “no” far more often than it is about saying “yes.” Most submissions don’t get an offer. Most of the books that are published don’t get much attention. Most of the books that are published don’t earn out their advance (although that is not saying the same thing as “most books don’t make money”, which Menaker comes dangerously close to conflating. And if you use the benchmark of “make money”, you get drawn into a conversation about how charges for overheads are handled, which is a conversation we love having but we’ll save it for another day.)
I have said for years that “publishing a book presents the temptation to make an infinite number of decisions, which must be resisted.” Menaker notes this aspect too when he points that out that editors have to deal with nitpicking about the jacket, the design, the flap copy, all of which can be labored over forever if every thoughtful comment is responded to.
Menaker also notes the disconnect between the editors, who acquire the product, and the sales team that has to turn the investment back into revenue. Despite his years in the business at a reasonably senior level, Menaker admits “you don’t know what sales reps say about [the] book when they make sales calls.” He admits to a suspicion “that salespeople’s and buyer’s biases and preferences play a greater part in a book’s fortunes than most editorial people want to allow themselves to understand”. While I can quantify his benchmark about the editorial people, I can tell him from years of experience with sales that rep and buyer prejudices — which they would call either “tastes” or “instincts” — are, indeed, a significant component of the success of all books below the very top echelon.
Menaker notes that success in frontlist publishing is “very often random.” This is a level of humility and honesty that probably would be very hard for top management to accept from anything but a former executive editor-in-chief.
Of course, all these things — and many other things Menaker says in this piece — not only are true of trade publishing, they have always been true! In fact, with the consolidation of accounts, it is probably easier today for an editor to talk to buyers constituting a significant portion of a book’s potential than it was 20 or 40 years ago. (The sales department would hate the idea, but three or four conversations could cover more than 50% of the potential for most books.) The randomness he notes in frontlist success was probably greater when the account base was more decentralized. Publishers have always turned a lot of books down. Publishers have always done very little for most of the books on their list (besides putting them in a catalog, printing them rightside up, and sending them on their way.)
But I think Menaker is right when he suggests that publishing houses aren’t as happy places to be as they used to be. I just don’t think he has put his finger on the reason why.
He comes closest at the end when he talks about the creative acquirers’ need to feel that they have the “knack” of recognizing raw intellectual property that ends up making a lot of money. That’s really the problem; it is getting so hard to make money.
But that’s not because of the time-honored problems; it is because of the changes in the environment around publishing.
Each new book today is competing with millions of other book choices quite accessible to the consumer; 20 years ago it competed with about 100,000 other books. Forty years ago it competed with fewer than 50,000. Used books are offered right alongside the new ones online — a development of the past 10 years — and will increasingly be in the stores over the next 10 years. The amount of shelf space available for books at retail is shrinking for the first time in our lifetimes, while the number of titles competing for space is mushrooming. Menaker says 150,000 titles are being published annually; counting by the new ISBNs each year, the number os two or three times that large. Industry output was about 10,000 titles annually in the 1960s.
And all of that is before we take into account the information you would have gone to a book for 20 years ago that you go to the Internet for today: to choose a hotel in Paris, to figure out how to tend to a sick geranium, to find a great recipe to turn leftover ham hocks into soup.
It’s not anybody’s imagination that the business is getting harder and that it is also becoming more depressed. People in books are not as happy as they used to be, because success, as measured by dollars in over dollars out, is not as ubiquitous as it used to be. The change Menaker takes note of is not attributable to the changes in the way we do business; the changes in the way we do business are a response to a changing environment all around us. It is characteristic of an industry that is getting smaller after several hundred years of only getting bigger.

Daniel Menaker was not long ago the Executive Editor-in-Chief at Random House and writes knowledgeably about the state of play and state of mind inside Big Publishing today. His piece Redactor Agonistes is a psychological snapshot of a declining industry, a catalog of the frustrations that are increasingly common in an environment where, as hard as everybody tries, the numbers just keep getting harder and harder to hit.

The first point to make about Menaker’s article is that is published by review, barnesandnoble.com’s online magazine. I knew that B&N was working hard on online content, but (not being much of a book review reader) I hadn’t actually looked at it until this article. Of course, it shows the magic of the web; I was directed to the Menaker piece by a number of online referrals and now I’ve discovered a whole new source of interesting content. This kind of intellectual article is not what I previously would have expected to see in a free publication created by a retailer! And it shows that BN.com is thinking about the value of a community of readers who think about the book business.

Menaker makes the overall point — familiar to anyone in the business — that publishing is about saying “no” far more often than it is about saying “yes.” Most submissions don’t get an offer. Most of the books that are published don’t get much attention. Most of the books that are published don’t earn out their advance (although that is not saying the same thing as “most books don’t make money”, which Menaker comes dangerously close to conflating. And if you use the benchmark of “make money”, you get drawn into a conversation about how charges for overheads are handled, which is a conversation we love having but we’ll save it for another day.)

I have said for years that “publishing a book presents the temptation to make an infinite number of decisions, which must be resisted.” Menaker notes this aspect too when he points that out that editors have to deal with nitpicking about the jacket, the design, the flap copy, all of which can be labored over forever if every thoughtful comment is responded to.

Menaker also notes the disconnect between the editors, who acquire the product, and the sales team that has to turn the investment back into revenue. Despite some years in the business at a reasonably senior level, Menaker admits “you don’t know what sales reps say about [the] book when they make sales calls.” He admits to a suspicion “that salespeople’s and buyer’s biases and preferences play a greater part in a book’s fortunes than most editorial people want to allow themselves to understand”. While I can quantify his benchmark about the editorial people, I can tell him from years of experience with sales that rep and buyer prejudices — which they would call either “tastes” or “instincts” — are, indeed, a significant component of the success of all books below the very top echelon.

Menaker notes that success in frontlist publishing is “very often random.” This is a level of humility and honesty that probably would be very hard for top management to accept from anything but a former executive editor-in-chief.

Of course, all these things — and many other things Menaker says in this piece — not only are true of trade publishing, they have always been true! In fact, with the consolidation of accounts, it is probably easier today for an editor to talk to buyers constituting a significant portion of a book’s potential than it was 20 or 40 years ago. (The sales department would hate the idea, but three or four conversations could cover more than 50% of the potential for most books.) The randomness he notes in frontlist success was probably greater when the account base was more decentralized. Publishers have always turned a lot of books down. Publishers have always done very little for most of the books on their list (besides putting them in a catalog, printing them rightside up, and sending them on their way.)

But I think Menaker is right when he suggests that publishing houses aren’t as happy places to be as they used to be. I just don’t think he has put his finger on the reason why.

He comes closest at the end when he talks about the creative acquirers’ need to feel that they have the “knack” of recognizing raw intellectual property that ends up making a lot of money. That’s really the problem; it is getting so hard to make money.

But that’s not because of the time-honored problems; it is because of the changes in the environment around publishing.

Each new book today is competing with millions of other book choices quite accessible to the consumer; 20 years ago it competed with about 100,000 other books. Forty years ago it competed with fewer than 50,000. Used books are offered right alongside the new ones online — a development of the past 10 years — and will increasingly be in the stores over the next 10 years. The amount of shelf space available for books at retail is shrinking for the first time in our lifetimes, while the number of titles competing for space is mushrooming. Menaker says 150,000 titles are being published annually; counting by the new ISBNs each year, the number is actually two or three times that large. Industry output was about 10,000 titles annually in the 1960s.

And all of that is before we take into account the information you would have gone to a book for 20 years ago that you go to the Internet for today: to choose a hotel in Paris, to figure out how to tend to a sick geranium, to find a great recipe to turn leftover ham hocks into soup.

It’s not just in people’s imagination that the business is getting harder and it is also becoming more depressed. People in books are not as happy as they used to be, because success, as measured by dollars in over dollars out, is not as ubiquitous as it used to be. The change Menaker takes note of is not attributable to the changes in the way we do business; the changes in the way we do business are a response to a changing environment all around us. It is characteristic of an industry that is getting smaller after several hundred years of only getting bigger.

4 Comments »

Is the ebook and POD combo a viable publishing strategy yet?


There’s a new publishing model afoot, which is to lead with the ebook and just print what you need. That might be POD, and it might be press runs, if you can sell out whole press runs. If the ebook becomes a substantial chunk of sales and if ebooks maintain their prices, this looks like it could be a new way to do much lower-risk publishing.
Some very smart publishing people are moving in this direction. It had been the plan of the meteoric Quartet, which has already flamed out. It is part of the plan of Richard Nash, an experienced publisher (Four Walls Eight Windows) and a budding entrepeneur. It is the model for a young and aspiring Irish publisher named Eion Purcell. And last week, tor.com announced that it would be publishing books (this is distinct from its “parent”, St. Martin’s sci-fi imprint Tor) with an ebook first and POD methodology.
Can no pressrun publishing work? That’s a subject for discussion at Digital Book World in January, but, based on an interesting post by Kassia Kroszer, one of the four principals in Quartet, I have real doubts.
Kassia’s post makes it clear that direct sales at “full margin” (meaning no cut to anybody else in the supply chain) were an important part of Quartet’s budget and plan. They figured that by sticking to niches, and the first one was going to be romance, they’d be able to build up a direct audience and avoid sharing revenues with retailers and wholesalers. Kassia points out that savvy ebook readers (who hate DRM, high prices, lack of interoperability, etc.) are willing to support their “local” publisher, knowing that more money gets to the author that way.
This all makes me more skeptical about the model.
First of all, savvy ebook readers are a large part of the current readership, but they won’t stay that way. If ebooks are going to become a business, than casual and uninformed ebook readers will have to join the party. Although I’ve been reading ebooks for 10 years, I’m one of those. I don’t shop around for my ebooks; I buy from what I deem to be the most convenient sources. When I read on a Palm (in pre-Kindle days), there was no such animal, but Peanut Press followed by Palm Digital followed by ereader had to serve. Then Amazon and Kindle changed the game. And now B&N is providing me exactly what I need for my iPhone.
If a web site I was on anyway offered me an ebook I wanted that would work in my BN reader software, I’d not be reluctant to buy it. But I wouldn’t be “shopping” anyplace else.
The loyal and informed crowd of romance readers may have learned that they can find the books they want at Harlequin.com or Ellora’s Cave, but there has to be a limit to the number of individual romance publisher sites the community will support. And you’d expect some critical mass of available material — as well as other content and participation opportunities — would be necessary to attract any substantial number of customers.
Secondly, the idea of building a niche presence through publishing in it, rather than through building a real vortal or community site, seems futile. What the internet has taught us (so far; it could change) is that making your own content and selling what you make is not a viable model, except at the very highest price points. You have to figure out how to leverage other people’s content and community participation. That’s what Google does. That’s what PublishersMarketplace does. That’s what the future successful publishers I envision in the Shift speech will have done.
Cutting costs and cutting waste, which ebook-first publishing does, would certainly seem like a path to financial viability. But it takes revenue to pay the bills. If you don’t go out and reach customers where they are — at the bit Internet retailers — it is hard to see how the ebook sales can be substantial enough to run a business. And if you do use those retailers, they extract their share of revenue for delivering access to the customers.
It may be too soon for the ebook-first model to succeed, except in very particular niches (which, indeed, is Purcell’s initial approach) or when it is supported by another business (which is, if you think about it, tor.com’s approach.)

There’s a new publishing model afoot, which is to lead with the ebook and just print what you need. That might be POD, and it might be press runs, if you can sell out whole press runs. If the ebook becomes a substantial chunk of sales and if ebooks maintain their prices, this looks like it could be a new way to do much lower-risk publishing.

Some very smart publishing people are moving in this direction. It had been the plan of the meteoric Quartet, which has already flamed out. It is part of the plan of Richard Nash, an experienced publisher (Soft Skull Press) and a budding entrepeneur. It is the model for a young and aspiring Irish publisher named Eoin Purcell. And last week, tor.com announced that it would be publishing books (this is distinct from its “parent”, St. Martin’s sci-fi imprint Tor) with an ebook first and POD methodology.

Can no pressrun publishing work? That’s a subject for discussion at Digital Book World in January, but, based on an interesting post by Kassia Kroszer, one of the four principals in Quartet, I have real doubts.

Kassia’s post makes it clear that direct sales at “full margin” (meaning no cut to anybody else in the supply chain) were an important part of Quartet’s budget and plan. They figured that by sticking to niches, and the first one was going to be romance, they’d be able to build up a direct audience and avoid sharing revenues with retailers and wholesalers. Kassia points out that savvy ebook readers (who apparently also hate DRM, high prices, lack of interoperability, etc.) are willing to support their “local” publisher, knowing that more money gets to the author that way.

This all makes me more skeptical about the model.

Savvy ebook readers are a large part of the current readership, but they won’t stay that way. If ebooks are going to become a business, than casual and uninformed ebook readers will have to join the party. Although I’ve been reading ebooks for 10 years, I’m one of those. I don’t shop around for my ebooks; I buy from what I deem to be the most convenient source. When I used to read on a Palm (in pre-Kindle days), there was no such animal, but Peanut Press followed by Palm Digital followed by ereader had to serve. Then Amazon and Kindle changed the game. And now B&N is providing me exactly what I need for my iPhone.

If a web site I was on anyway offered me an ebook I wanted that would work in my BN reader software, I wouldn’t be reluctant to buy it. But I will only be shopping at places that offer me a choice of things I want. It’s hard to imagine a single publisher doing that.

The web constantly reminds us of the value of monopoly. Amazon has a huge advantage in being the best place to shop for books because they’re the biggest. The size of the purchasing community adds value: more reviews, more data to make better suggestions or respond better to search queries, and it gives them the scale to add unique content through Kindle and BookSurge. In the same way, we’re likely to see a dominant horizontal ebook retailer emerge.

So no matter how good you are at selling your own stuff, if you want to sell to the public at large, you’ll almost always have to use intermediaries. And if you want to sell stuff to your own niche, you’re going to have to be an aggregator, not just a creator, to offer enough product to keep even a niche audience interested. And, if that’s true, then even within the niches, most of the small creators will have to share their revenue with an intermediary.

The loyal and informed crowd of romance readers may have learned that they can find the books they want at Harlequin.com or Ellora’s Cave, but there has to be a limit to the number of individual romance publisher sites the community will support. The right move for Harlequin would be to imitate tor.com and start selling their competitors’ books. (Tor hasn’t done this for ebooks, yet, but they have done it for print.)

The idea of building a niche presence for most subjects simply through publishing in it, rather than by building a real vortal or community site, seems futile. Another lesson from the web (so far; it could change) is that making your own content and selling what you make is not a viable model, except at the very highest price points. You have to figure out how to leverage other people’s content and community participation. That’s what Google does. That’s what PublishersMarketplace does. That’s what the future successful publishers I envision in the Shift speech will have done.

Cutting costs and cutting waste, which ebook-first publishing does, would certainly seem like a path to financial viability. But it takes revenue to pay the bills. If you don’t go out and reach customers where they are — at the big Internet retailers — you need to be selling ebooks to a very large community for sales to be substantial enough to run a business. And if you do use those retailers, they (quite reasonably) extract their share of revenue for delivering access to the customers.

It may be too soon for the ebook-first model to succeed, except in niches more tightly defined than “romance” (which, indeed, is a big part of Purcell’s initial approach) or when it is supported by another business (which is, if you think about it, tor.com’s approach.)

4 Comments »

A Little Ado About Something


The transition from print to digital is going to be a continual lesson in branding for publishers and in merchandising for retailers. I got a dose of that trying to make use of modern technology to deal with an old common problem last week.

I knew two or three weeks before that I was going to Boscobel to see Much Ado About Nothing on Friday night. If you’ve never been there to see Shakespeare, I recommend you put it on your calendar for next summer (this season being about over.) Boscobel is a beautiful site above the Hudson on the eastern shore opposite West Point, with beautifully manicured gardens leading to a stunning river overlook.

They put on Shakespeare under a big tent. The direction is uniformly excellent and imaginative; the performances often very good. (I am not an expert in theater, but I did have the good fortune to act in several Shakespeare plays in my youth, including a turn as Tybalt in a Romeo and Juliet that had subsequently famous actor Peter Strauss playing Benvolio. Our duel in the first scene is a story I’ll save for another time.)

I didn’t think I had ever read Much Ado, and it turned out I hadn’t. But I was both busy and dilatory. So it was only last Thursday, the day before the show, when I got back from London, that I finally went on BN.com to buy a copy of the play to put in my iPhone so I could get it read over the next 24 hours.

And that’s where I encountered some branding lessons.

What you get on the first screen from BN.com when you search ebooks for “Much Ado About Nothing”, in order, is the SparkNotes Guide for $4.95 (that’s a dormant Barnes & Noble-owned brand, and I’m sure the notes are good, but at that point I wanted the play); a “Digital” (that’s presumably a brand) eBook for $2.99 on which I could get a free sample; then 8 free versions each labeled “from Google Books.”

I should have loaded the “Digital” sample (but didn’t at the time; I am not familiar with the brand) and I would have seen it was well worth the $2.99 to buy it. I tried 3 from Google; they all turned out to be from Princeton’s “William Seymour Theater Collection” and they were, to put it gently, unsuitable. The typography, design, and editing were old and impractical.

So I changed my search criteria to “Shakespeare’s Comedies” and bought a Modern Library volume by that name that came up on the first page of the search. It came equipped with a Table of Contents and it is quite readable. Only twenty bucks. I paid it. I needed it and in my disappointment over what I got from Google I had forgotten the much-cheaper “Digital” edition of the single play above all the Google-branded ones.

But then on Friday afternoon, I had hardly cracked the play and I was running out of time. I remembered that last year at Boscobel time I had bought a copy of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare for my Kindle. I found it stashed at Amazon online and downloaded it to my iPhone. When I looked at it, I remembered what was wrong with it: no Table of Contents. Last time I had to scroll through the entire book page by page to find the play I wanted to read. I remembered that what I had done was make the font on the Kindle the smallest possible size to make that laborious process go faster.

Then I remembered that I had figured out after the fact that I could search on the Kindle for the play title and find it! Great. But the Kindle for iPhone doesn’t have the search function! So I retrieved the Kindle from my wife (who got it as a hand-me-down when decided I could do all my reading on the iPhone), searched for “Much Ado About Nothing” and was taken to the opening page of that story. I noted the Kindle text chunk number, found that chunk on the iPhone and, bingo, I was in business.

That wasn’t easy. It uncovers a number of points worth noting as we enter the digital book age.

1. Google’s books will be acceptable if they are the only choice available for the title. They will almost certainly not be the version of choice if something really prepared as a digital version in a modern way is available. Their “brand” will rapidly be seen as “last choice” if you have a choice. This is not good.  And if they intend, as they suggest, to sell new books as well as giving away PD books, they better do something about it. Imprint branding may not be the most highly developed skill set at Google (but don’t get advice from a publisher!)

2. And the retailers shouldn’t interpret downloads as popularity when they present choices. It wasn’t good merchandising for BN.com to show me all those identical Google editions for Much Ado so near the top, which one might assumes might have happened because they are free.  B&N should note, if they’re keeping score, that I downloaded them because they were free. If they’re looking into my ereader for useful information (in ways that will give many people the creeps, of course), they will see that they’re already deleted.

1A and 2A. Both Google and any retailer selling their books would be very well-served if they tagged (“branded”) the books which are uniquely available in Google editions.

1B and 2B. Both Google and any retailer selling their books would be very well-served if they refrained from displaying multiple copies of what is effectively exactly the same thing, particularly since they do so without making that clear.

3. Random House’s Modern Library brand sold me a $20 book of Shakespeare’s comedies because I wanted to read this play and didn’t have time to fiddle around once I’d found that a presumably competent commercial publisher had an edition available. This undercuts my supposition that publisher brands are meaningless. I still think that’s true for most purposes, but in this case it wasn’t and the brand was worth a high-priced, high-margin sale to them.

4. Kindle for iPhone isn’t as functional as Kindle on the device. There’s no text search capability. There is such a capability in BN.com’s ereader, however. That’s a reason I’ll be buying and reading from BN, not from Amazon.

5. Non-functional (unlinked) Tables of Contents are a real no-no in an ebook.

Having found the right spot in Lamb’s, my wife and I were both reading the story of the play in our seats during the ten minutes before it began, she on the Kindle and I on my iPhone. This attracted a great deal of interest around us and no small amount of envy. I think it is highly likely that we inspired some of our neighbors to be doing this themselves next summer. By then there’s hope they will have a smoother shopping experience than I just did.

Two codas to this piece.

Right after I finished it, I got a note from Ami Greko of Macmillan to tell me that Tor is making its Wheel of Time series available on Kindle for the first time and, to do it, the full text of the books has been retypeset to better accommodate the ebook format and all original illustrations and maps will be retained in these new releases. Tor appears to be the industry leader in establishing a 21st century sci-fi brand and taking this kind of care with a flagship series is good for their readers and good for the brand.

On another front, a great discussion broke out on Brantley’s list about publishers trying to squeeze textbooks onto iPhones. A number of us made the point that books originally intended for 150 square inch presentation need to be rethought to be effective within 6 square inches. Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly was the most articulate and compelling on the point when he said:

The bigger issue I see is that thinking of the problem as “how do we get a textbook onto an iPhone” is framing it wrong. The challenge is “how do we use a medium that already shares 3 of our 5 senses — sight, speech, and hearing — along with geolocation, color video, and a nearly always on Web connection to accomplish the “job” of educating a student.” That’s a much more interesting problem to me than “how do we port 2-page book layouts to a small screen.”

Even when all a publisher is doing is presenting the same text in an ebook, the way Andrew suggests we be thinking is the right approach. And almost every publisher has a long way to go to cover even the basics on a consistent and competent basis. Defining what “competent” ebook-making consists of in 2010 will be a topic at Digital Book World.

7 Comments »

One brave publishing executive speaks out on ebook pricing, and we comment


When I did my two recent posts on ebook pricing — first one proposing “debut pricing” and then one taking it back as not viable — I got a note from a major company CEO saying that, of course, no publisher could discuss pricing with me because of anti-trust concerns. At the same time, I have been trying to staff a panel for Digital Book World on ebook pricing and was told by one of my Board of Advisors, who is from another of the big companies, that I shouldn’t expect any publisher to be able to discuss that issue.

So it was mildly refreshing to see that Arnaud Nourry, the global CEO for Hachette Books, expressed some pretty strong opinions about ebook pricing to the Financial Times in an interview. Nourry said publicly what I have only heard expressed privately before: that the aggressive pricing by ebook retailers (led by Amazon) where they actually sold ebooks at a loss could come to no good end.

On Amazon’s current policy of selling many high-profile new releases at $9.99, FT quoted Nourry as saying: “That cannot last . . . Amazon is not in the business of losing money. So, one day, they are going to come to the publishers and say: ‘by the way, we are cutting the price we pay’. If that happens, after paying the authors, there will be nothing left for the publishers.”

Nourry also expresses concern about the reported one million public domain titles that Google is releasing as free ebooks. Although the article is wrong in its reporting that Amazon charges $9.99 “for all its e-books in the US” (Michael Cader has reported several times that many are higher than that and, of course, many are also lower), we can understand Nourry’s expressed concern that “all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99.”

I agree with Nourry’s characterization of the present condition as unhealthy and threatening, but I think things look a little better for him and his fellow large publishers than his comments would suggest. And as powerful as Amazon’s position in, there is reason to believe it is at a high-water mark in the ebook marketplace and that, at the very moment Barnes & Noble is stepping up, the conditions are perfect for a competitor.

The downward pressure on ebook prices has been apparent for some time. I reported that John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, said at a panel discussion for agents (I was one of the panelists) several months ago that maintaining ebook margins was the key strategic concern for publishers over the next few years. Since Sargent made that statement, very shortly after the announcement of Kindle 2 and Kindle DX, we’ve had a reported surge in ebook sales, a host of new reader and retailer announcements, and the further entrenchment of the epub standard. These, combined with B&N’s entry into the market, are good news for publishers.

Epub is probably the publishers’ best defense against Amazon and the Kindle. With all other device manufacturers able to coalesce around a non-Amazon standard, we have a situation analogous to the VHS-Beta conflict of the 1980s and the Mac-Windows duke-out of the late 80s and early 90s. On one side, we have a standard that remains closed to enable “control” (Beta, Mac, Kindle.) On the other side, we have a wide-open standard to enable multi-player use (VHS, Windows, Epub.) In the two cases we know about because they are historical, the consensus was that the “loser” of the numbers race (Beta and Mac) provided a superior technological performance. Kindle does not seem to have even that element in its favor. Whether you use something larger that does e-ink (Kindle, Sony Reader) or something you’re carrying anyway that is backlit (the iPhone or any other smartphone) is a matter of personal preference. But does anybody doubt that a world full of hardware creators will soon make a device that is similar but demonstrably better than the Kindle?

Right now, Amazon has a huge head start on the narrative-reading consumer ebook market. By putting Kindles into the hands of (estimates are) 1 to 1.5 million of the heaviest book consumers, they jump-started ebook uptake and grabbed a huge lead in sales. Anecdotal information gathered from publishers and agents suggests to me that, right now, 70% of the ebook sales for most titles offered in Kindle and epub are Kindle. And a lot are still sold as pdf.

But Google just put a huge thumb on the scale by making one million public domain titles available in epub for free! Those can’t be read on a Kindle without a little bit of technological bridge-building. On the one hand, if Amazon makes that bridge-building transparent and shows that it is easy for people to load epub titles on the Kindle, they compromise the whole Kindle business model. But the perception of choice — and the relative number of titles that will show up under any consumer’s search — is attacking what has been one of Kindle’s greatest advantages: a bigger title selection.

Amazon made what looked from here like a major concession last winter when they released an iPhone app for Kindle. I am hesitant to read too much into my own behavior, but that was the catalyst for me to give my Kindle to my wife and do all my reading on my iPhone. So it was easy for me to switch over to B&N when they came back into the marketplace a month or two ago. And, you know what? The shopping experience is just as good as Kindle. My wife may buy Kindle books again, but I won’t. (The Kindle on iPhone mimics the worst fault of Kindle’s presentation on the device itself: it only presents justified lines, no ragged right!)

Of course, all this means that the blades and razors strategy is going too. When Sony launched the reader, it looked for all the world like they figured they’d make their money selling the books. That was Palm’s idea too nearly a decade ago. Amazon blew them away because they were real booksellers, which they parlayed into both more title availability (they had the contacts) and a better presentation.

It will be a big surprise to me if B&N and Indigo’s Shortcovers don’t rapidly become the dominant horizontal purveyors of epub-formatted titles. And every web site and blogger will sell ebooks in their niche (why not?) which will include offerings that might not make the full-line distribution system. The next question is how long it will take Amazon to start selling epub titles as aggressively as they sell Kindle and print books. Or make Kindle transparently epub-compliant, which amounts to the same thing. They’ll need to do one of the other to protect their overall franchise, but it might mean the end of a meteoric Kindle era (remember the Commodore 64?) when they do.

Oh, and one note on all that to Mr. Nourry. If I’m right about the overall situation, don’t worry about Amazon telling you they need more margin. Because they’re going to need your titles fully as much as you need their sales. Expect to start seeing movement on this first from the smaller publishers, some of which report that they have been pushed into relatively low-margin deals by Amazon. There will be competition among epub vendors; they’ll all want to have the biggest number of titles (and accept the challenge of curating and presenting that.) If you can get higher revenues by 25% or more in one channel, might you be tempted to try to “force” consumers to buy it there by withholding from the lower margin channel? You’d surely be tempted.

41 Comments »