January, 2010

The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan


Now I swear all this is true. As everybody knows, a very serious food fight broke out between Amazon and Macmillan late Friday night. All weekend Michael Cader led the way in ferreting out additional useful information and I spent most of today (Sunday) trying to write an analytical blogpost. I got it just about finished in the early afternoon, and the bottom line to what I’d written was “Amazon will not be able to sustain this.”

I decided to hold the post until after going to see Crazy Heart this afternoon and, when I came home, Amazon had already folded. But I had written a post that provided a lot of useful information, even if events had stolen my punchline.

So I’m giving it the once-over to edit it for the reality that Amazon has already announced that they will not continue to boycott Macmillan books.

It is received wisdom in Washington that when you have news you have to release but would prefer to have minimum impact, you release it on Friday afternoon. The latest tiff in the Amazon versus Big Publisher brouhaha went that idea one better; it appears to have broken in the middle of the Friday-to-Saturday night.

About midnight that evening, David Wilk alerted the Brantley list to a VentureBeat post that indicated that Macmillan titles were no longer available at Amazon.

By noon the following day, Brad Stone had posted a further explanation to the NY Times blog.

The VentureBeat post had no clue as to what was going on and even carried a link to a post from author John Scalzi suspecting a “glitch.” But Stone pinned down that the disappearance of the Macmillan titles was, indeed, retaliation for Macmillan’s move to the agency pricing model, first revealed by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch and discussed on this blog last week.

Sometime late Saturday afternoon, Lunch posted a narrative explaining what was going on and including a paid insertion from Macmillan: a letter from Chairman and CEO John Sargent giving Macmillan’s account of what had transpired.

Which, as many people who care know by now (as I write this on Sunday morning and afternoon) is that Macmillan told Amazon about the new agency model, by which Amazon would actually get ebooks at lower prices than now but also by which Macmillan would set the prices to consumers. Amazon retaliated with what is, more or less, a “nuclear option.” Macmillan books are no longer on sale except through third party vendors (extending the ban to those dealers would open up yet another big can of worms for Amazon and they hardly need any more) and that includes Kindle. Most of the third party vendors are selling used books and no Macmillan books are being transacted directly by Amazon at all.

We have said on this blog, repeatedly, that publishers’ discounts to retailers would have to come down and that the windowing tactic (delaying ebooks from being available when the hardcover first comes out) was all about pricing control and nothing else.

What I want to accomplish in this post is to lay out clearly what is happening and then enumerate some key points about what’s going on: paradoxes and prospects.

Before the Agency Model (like “now”), publishers sell ebooks at about 50 off an often ridiculously high established price (“parity” is common; same price as a hardcover on a new book) to retailers who were setting the prices to the consumer themselves and, following Amazon’s lead, always discounting. The publishers are paying the authors royalties that are frequently 25% of net, which amounts to 12.5% of publisher declared retail. Some publishers pay 15% of retail; Sargent, in a previous letter to agents, indicated a desire to move from 25% of net to 20% of net, which would be 10% of retail.

The proposed Agency Model will have publishers setting a price lower than the established retail they had before but higher than the deep discounts Amazon led retailers to sell at. The publisher intends to  pay 30% of that established price to the retailer and 25% of either the full consumer price or of the 70% “net” (still to be determined) to the author. This means that the retailer will get a higher price from the consumer and a better margin than they realize now (even though a lower percentage of the “established” price). The author’s cut per copy could actually be reduced!

The wholesalers, Ingram and Content Reserve, often get the same discount as publishers. They handle the stores and libraries publishers serve don’t want to deal with directly. So those stores and libraries get less margin than the big ones publishers handle without an intermediary. One thing that was new to me that came out on the Ebook Supply Chain panel at Digital Book World is that publishers insisted on vetting the accounts that would be selling their books to make sure they didn’t violate territorial restrictions. So Ingram (and presumably Content Reserve) has to manage a granular control by title by publisher by account.

It is not at all clear how the Agency and price maintenance protocols get applied through wholesalers. Perhaps this means that smaller accounts and libraries just won’t have the newer titles that will only be released on the Agency basis (assuming that the scenario Sargent describes is what is also followed by other big publishers.)

This is a bizarre paradox, really. Macmillan actually proposed to sell Amazon the ebooks at what is, in effect, a lower wholesale price than Amazon gets now and their enforcement of a retail price puts more margin into Amazon’s pocket on every sale made than they earn now! And Amazon is fighting it.

Sargent’s note makes clear that the discount-off-retail pricing that has existed all along will still be offered, but that newer books wouldn’t be included in that offering. Those would be available only on Agency terms. What is not clear is whether Macmillan intends to continue the Agency terms past the nine-month “window” for new books. We’d guess they will for some accounts.

But that leads to another paradox because publishers unambiguously benefit if retailers sacrifice their own margin and discount when hardcover price maintenance and NY Times Bestseller list rankings are not at stake. Lower prices to consumers sell more copies. Presumably retailers will continue to want to compete on price and will do so when sales terms allow. But what does that do to the publishers’ challenge of “setting” prices for those accounts that want that done across the entire list?

Yet another paradox is the position of the agents. On the one hand, we have seen that many of those representing big authors see the same danger the big publishers do of inexpensive ebooks undercutting valuable hardcover sales and Times Bestseller rankings. On the other hand, publishers lowering established ebook prices and reducing their take from their intermediaries could often mean lower royalties for authors. But not necessarily.

If publishers are paying on “net receipts” (and many are) and if a) retail prices aren’t cut by as much as half (which they often won’t be) and b) if the publisher doesn’t deduct the Agency “commission” from its computation of net (sure to be debated), then the basis of the author’s royalty wouldn’t go down.

Quick summary: if you have a $25 list price ebook on which the author’s royalty is 25% of net, the author is now getting 25% of $12.50, or $3.125. If that book becomes a $15 ebook with a 30% commission, the author would get $3.75 (a nice increase) if the commission is not deducted first and $2.625 if it is (a sharp cut.) Of course, the $25 and $15 prices described here are notional and with different prices (as they say) “your results will vary.” If that notional book had been priced at $30 in hardcover, the author’s share would have been $4.50 and the ebook price change would clearly cost them something on every copy.

Author Charles Stross had a very insightful post on his blog, speaking from the perspective a gored ox (he has books published by Macmillan which have been taken down.) Stross makes clear that Amazon is miffed because their competitive strategy of driving away ebook competition through aggressive discounting will be foiled by publisher price-setting. Stross says:

Amazon are going to fight this one ruthlessly because if the publishers win, it destroys the profitability of their business and pushes prices down.

I’m not sure it “pushes prices down”; I think it actually pushes (ebook) prices up, at least temporarily. But the points Stross makes about Amazon wanting to achieve ebook hegemony and the Agency model being part of the publishers’ plan to beat that back and strengthen other players seem right to me.

We had a lot of this conversation last Spring before Sourcebooks’s windowing move with Bran Hambric, followed by Hachette with True Compass and HarperCollins with Going Rogue, pushed this tussle between Amazon and publishers to the forefront. In his analysis at that time, Cader made the point that publishers were actually helping Amazon undercut other retailers with their “parity” pricing; making the ebook retail the same price as the hardcover print retail. His logic was that the high prices increased Amazon’s advantage over other retailers because they could better afford to sell high-profile titles at a loss than their competition. Meanwhile, the publishers (and authors working on “net”) continue to get higher ebook revenues than the consumer spending would really entitle them to.

My first question when all this arose overnight on Friday was “why Macmillan?” Sargent’s note may have answered that question: because John was in Seattle on Thursday officially delivering Amazon the Agency Model news that we only assume is going to come to them from other publishers as well. One presumes that Amazon thinks that taking such drastic action as this might discourage the other publishers thinking about doing the same thing (and the iPad announcement on Wednesday would lead us to think that four of the remaining five Big Six players are indeed working out the details of a similar consumer-price-controlling sales model.)

And Amazon apparently figured out, as I was writing these words, that the only brand blown to smithereens by the nuclear option would be theirs. It is hard to imagine how extensive the brand damage could have been if Amazon delisted even one more major publisher along with Macmillan for even a couple of weeks. For a brand whose principal attributes are dependability and dedication to the consumer, it would have been catastrophic.

Amazon says now that the boycott is temporary and they were candid about the fact that they have no choice but to yield. They take a swipe at the publishers’ copyright-based “monopoly” on titles. But this was a really bungled response on every level. Amazon deserves credit for being smart enough to walk this thing back within 48 hours. Amazon may have to learn something new for them in the ebook space: how to be one of a number of players, not the only game in town.

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New ways to sell ebooks aren’t easy to implement


A simple and perfectly sensible suggestion emerged on the Brantley email list yesterday but the conversation around it showed that some stark realities about the book world have not yet been taken on board, even in very sophisticated circles (which this list is.)

The list discussed a suggestion from librarian Josh Greenberg  that publishers take note of the “rental” model built into the iTunes store as an alternative way to collect money from readers for ebooks.

Greenberg’s piece calls out a fact that many people in publishing have a great deal of difficulty with: that all ebook sales must be licensing deals. They can’t be anything else. Greenberg says:

“When we think about iTunes, we think about a basic fee-for-purchase model. We’ll just leave aside the fact that you never truly “own” a digital file, you’re just buying a particularly-structured license to use it…”

He’s right. When you deal in printed books, you have a tangible object. When you deal in ebooks, you only have “code”. The first sale doctrine says you can re-sell the book or lend it or share it. But copyright law says you can’t re-sell, lend, or share copyrighted “code.” Many digerati (and many librarians not named Josh Greenberg) refuse to acknowledge this distinction.

But that’s a legal point, one that can be debated until a court or a Congress makes a ruling (and then beyond, actually, since we continue to fight battles even after courts or Congress have rendered their conclusion.) The challenge to Greenberg’s idea of switching to a rental model is not so debatable. It’s practical.

Implementing new models for book sales requires herding cats. It can never be done fast and many business ideas relating to content have foundered because it couldn’t be done at all.

What should be clear to anybody who has been following developments since the days a decade or more ago whenRocketbook and Softbook and Sprout were trying to get publishers to give them rights for their content propositions is that it takes a very persuasive sales pitch to get publishers to do so. That sales pitch must be delivered publisher by publisher, and then the impressive ability of publishers to discuss a problem to death takes over, and the new proposition might itself die before its owner gets an answer. Or certainly before its owner gets enough answers to get the new idea off the ground.

What was further made clear by the participation of agents at Digital Book World, and particularly by the opinions expressed by superagent Robert Gottlieb on the ebook “timing” panel, is that the publishers don’t make this decision without consulting with their upstream gatekeepers. Gottlieb made clear that a) it takes a very small number of lost hardcover sales to make an author’s book slip notches on the New York Times Bestseller list, b) he and his authors believe that a much cheaper ebook, or perhaps any ebook at all not reported as a hardcover sale, can make that critical difference between being Number 1 or being much further down the list, and c) the difference in several places on that list is worth losing some sales over.

So just imagine how Gottlieb and his star clients (and all the other agents and star clients) would react to a rental model!

Let’s add one more point before the next great suggestion is made. The same thing will be true of an even better model than rental (which also has plenty of precedent in media even closer to publishers, audio books): subscription sales.

The switch that Apple has made to the “agency model” is not of equivalent complexity from a business perspective. There we’re still “selling the book” (although we’re really licensing access to a file) and the amount of money flowing to the publisher is comparable. But, even there, the switch will not be simple. Publishers have signed contracts governing almost all their ebook sales (which is a further demonstration that this is different from selling physical books, for which signed contracts between publishers and vendors is by far the exception, not the hard and fast rule) which one could imagine the purchasing party (Amazon, Ingram, Content Reserve, Barnes & Noble, Kobo) believes prevents the publisher from changing the rules in the middle of the game.

What Michael Cader reported last week which we expanded on in a blog post and a CNN interview is that publishers can use the new agency model to hold back books from channels where they can’t control the pricing. This very much underreported exchange between Steve Jobs and Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal makes it very clear that Apple expects vendors who would undercut the pricing publishers set for them will be denied access to the content.

We can look forward to continued battles over pricing and over the terms of sale between publishers and the downstream players in the ebook supply chain. But I think it will be a while before real alternative distribution schemes to the public make any appearances. In fact, they’re likely to occur in vertical niches first, where the big agents are less involved and the number of publishers one needs to get on board is something less than “just about all of them.”

A quick thanks to everybody who attended Digital Book World (and there were a lot of you.) I am hoping that the fact that all I’ve heard is praise and enthusiasm for the two day event is not just a result of people being kind to the guy who put the program together. I think we really did generate discussion on some issues that had previously been neglected. But most of all I’m proud of the job we did selecting panelists; everyone I saw presenting was smart, well-prepared and entertaining. Some we had seen in front of audiences before; some we only knew through our interviews in person or on the phone. But picking them carefully and one by one certainly seemed to work and it is the same formula we’ll use putting together Digital Book World 2011. I hope we’ll see everybody again there next year.

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Are free ebooks a good idea or not?


Kindle is certainly engendering a lot of confusion by billboarding the downloads of free ebooks as “sales.” That paradoxical scorekeeping was the lead for an article by Motoko Rich in The New York Times on Saturday that quoted a lot of people, some apparently disagreeing with each other, but none of them necessarily wrong.

There really are three separate questions to consider, which get elided in these conversations.

1. What is the impact of giving away ebooks as a promotional device, either to boost the word of mouth on the book being given away or to promote an author’s other titles?

2. What is the potential impact on the industry overall of ubiquitous giveaways of ebooks that would apparently have commercial value?

3. When ebooks are given away, how should that sale be “scored” in any measurement of the book’s popularity?

The answer to the first question appears, anecdotally but just about universally, to be that giving ebooks away boosts sales of that title and related titles. Rich’s piece sites numerous publishers attesting to that. She apparently found no publisher that is skeptical about whether giveaway promotions work or has seen the tactic fail. And that would confirm my experience: I don’t know of one.

But as we’ve noted before, this effect could change over time. We’re still in a period where ebooks are not an acceptable format to most book readers. That means the benefits of giving them away is not confined to the word-of-mouth from the recipients, it can result in a print book purchase by the very person you gave it to! As ebook reading becomes more popular, particularly if we go to a DRM-free universe, the impact of cannibalization from giveaways could grow dramatically from what it is now.

The second question is what is apparently paramount to David Young of Hachette (as quoted in the Rich piece) and is influencing the policies described at Penguin. As more and more ebooks are given away, it offers a wider array of choice to people who prefer to select from the free offerings and just never pay. For the last 15 years of his life, my father, Len Shatzkin, refused to buy anything except remainders. He shopped from several mail order catalogs and, if he was in a bookstore, shopped at the bargain tables. His position was that if publishers were going to be dumb enough to reliably give the books away six months or a year later, he’d just wait and choose his reading from among what had been marked down. With free ebook marketing the way it is today, sometimes you don’t even have to wait!

And that’s obviously what was on Young’s mind when he said the tactic was “illogical.” It is illogical if you take a long-term, industry-health view of the situation. It is totally logical if you’re trying for short-term advantage to break a new book or build a particular author, as most of the other authors and publishers were trying to say.

There was a long comment string on the HarperStudio blog about this question six or eight months ago. I said at the time that I figured that if these giveaways kept spreading, one of our more industrious web entrepreneurs would create an ebooksforfree.com site which would be a consumer directory to “free” offers at various publishers and web retailers, title by title.

It’s a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Each person giving away ebooks succeeds in their intentions to boost their sales, but everybody will pay for the overgrazing in the end.

The third question is a tricky one. It is worth noting that the App Store makes it very easy to for the consumer to decide whether to shop the free apps or the priced apps. I think Amazon is hurting themselves by not at least sorting their bestseller pages that way. And they don’t. Amazon says the Kindle bestseller listings change every hour: I just checked the Top 10 and found one 25 cent book, one book at a substantial price (higher than $9.99), and eight free. Some of the eight free were self-promoters like the lead in Rich’s story; some were public domain; some were multi-book authors from established publishers. But only one of the Top 10 was elected with votes paid for with dollars from the Kindle clientele, which is what I think most people looking at “best sellers” would be looking for.

This raises a question I don’t know the answer to and my way to do the research will be to see if somebody with knowledge posts a comment. Kindle reports to the USA Today Bestseller List. This is, as far as I know, the only reflection of ebook popularity in the public domain. It would be interesting to know if USA Today has a standard for that reporting. Of course, most of the “weight” of the USA Today list, quite properly, would be print sales so whatever Kindle reports might not move the needle much. Most sales today are still print sales. But we’re headed for a crazy world if the concept of what “sold best” is expanded to include what people were willing to take for free.

On the other hand, if you try to separate free from paid, you will still face the question of where to draw the line. If publishers sell a $20 hardcover as a $5 ebook, should those units count equally in determining bestseller status? How about a dollar? How about a penny?

A tip of the hat here to my sometimes colleague Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media, who hinted at what I have said at length in this piece in his brief turn in Rich’s article. Brian has done extensive research that tends to confirm what Rich’s interviews and my anecdotal information suggest: that giving away ebooks boost sales in the present marketplace. But Brian managed to bridge the enthusiasm of the giveaway marketers and the incredulity expressed by David Young with his observation that there was a risk that free reading could eventually “supplant paid reading.”

And that wouldn’t really be good for anybody.

This is absolutely the last post you will see promoting Digital Book World 2010, which is on this Tuesday and Wednesday at the New York Sheraton and which is turning out to exceed my fondest hopes when we started out planning it this summer. But we have a panel on the very subject of this post called “Ebook challenges: competing with free and getting the timing right.” Brian O’Leary is moderating, and the panelists include agent Robert Gottlieb of the Trident Group; marketing director Mindy Stockfield of Hyperion (which published Chris Anderson’s book “Free”); ebook retailer Kobo’s VP Michael Tamblyn, and Steve Ross, who has been a publisher at both Random House and HarperCollins. There’s another panel on “Ebook pricing: what should they cost and why?” which includes the head of Penguin’s ebook publishing efforts, Tim McCall.  I enjoy having The New York Times stamp the topics we selected last August as “current” 72 hours before our show begins, even if just implicitly.

If you like this blog, I know you’ll enjoy Digital Book World. I hope to see you there.

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Apple’s disruption of the ebook market has nothing to do with the tablet


If the reporting by Publishers Lunch today is accurate (and I’ve never known it not to be), publishers may have used the entry of Apple into the ebook arena as an opportunity to change the entire paradigm of ebook distribution for major books. And while the great excitement about Apple and ebooks has been based on hopes that the new Apple Tablet that the world expects to be announced next week will add a lot of new ebook consumers, the change in the sales protocols will probably have a much more profound impact on the ebook market than the device. Or at least that’s how it looks from here.

Sorry, I can’t link to this story because it is only in the subscriber version of Lunch and a link would just send you into a pay wall. If you’re paying, you’ve got the story in your email version of Lunch.

What Michael Cader reports in Lunch is that publishers have worked out agreement with Apple to switch from a “wholesale” model to an “agency” model for ebook sales. The wholesale model imitates the physical world: the publisher “sells” the “book” to an intermediary (could be a retailer like Amazon or BN or a wholesaler like Ingram) based on the publisher’s established retail price and a discount schedule. Then the purchaser will re-sell that ebook at whatever price they like. When publishers offered discounts that were the same as the physical world discounts, they partially subsidized retailers who wanted to offer much lower ebook prices to consumers.

The “agency” model is based on the idea that the publisher is selling to the consumer and, therefore, setting the price, and any “agent”, which would usually be a retailer but wouldn’t have to be, that creates that sale would get a “commission” from the publisher for doing so. Since Apple’s normal “take” at the App Store is 30% and discounts from publishers have normally been 50% off the established retail price, publishers can claw back margin even if they don’t get Apple to concede anything from the 30%.

So making this change, if it works, accomplishes three things for big publishers. The obvious two are that they gain a greater degree of control over ebook pricing than they ever had over print book pricing and they get to rewrite the supply chain splits of the consumer dollar.

But the third advantage for the big guys is the most devilish of all: they may gain a permanent edge over smaller players on ebook margins. That is one that, truth be known, was already playing out as Amazon used its leverage to reduce the share smaller publishers got from Kindle sales. But this could institutionalize it.

Cader reports that the conversations between Apple and publishers have, so far, been confined to the Big Six (Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Macmillan.) Obviously, these are separate conversations and they might not all come up with the same splits. (One can only imagine how hard publishers are fighting for “most favored nation” clauses. What a nightmare it would be to find out two months from now that you’re paying 5 or 10 points more commission than your competitors!)

To say that this news leaves us with more questions than answers would be a major understatement.

How will this work, mechanically? Will the publishers actually serve the titles, or will Apple or the other consumer-connected entities making the sale? Well, of course, we don’t know, but Brian Murray of HarperCollins, extensively quoted by Cader and, after all, the publisher whose discussions with Amazon were the first to break in a Wall Street Journal story, has long championed the idea that publishers should maintain control of their files, not distribute them to many intermediaries. The agency concept fits neatly with that paradigm. On the other hand, one would presume that Apple has to serve what comes from the App Store and, certainly, that Amazon would have to deliver what went into a Kindle. So departures from executing a pure agency model should be expected. Call it a “virtual” agency model!

How will retailers not named Amazon react? Presumably this will make players like BN.com, Kobo, and others very happy because, with publisher-set pricing, they no longer have to lose money on every sale to compete with Amazon. On the other hand, retailers really like to control pricing; it’s one of the main weapons in their arsenal. And if Amazon doesn’t play along (yet another question), then these other retailers could have a temporary advantage because they’ll have hot titles that Amazon would not.

How widespread will be the implementation, across publishers and across lists? One has to assume that the hidden hand of the agent community is present in these decisions. For one thing, agents have been as concerned as big publishers with the market and pricing power being concentrated at Amazon and this tactic addresses that directly. Since big publishers are even more responsive to agents than they are to major accounts, that would suggest a) that all the Big Six will play and b) that they will implement this strategy across their lists. And, as Cader points out, having some books handled as Agency and others as Wholesale is a potential management nightmare.

What will Amazon do? The question might be “what can Amazon do?” It is relatively easy for Amazon to pressure one publisher at a time, using their control of buy buttons and marketing recommendations. Nobody I know can say how extensive that kind of behavior is from them, but we know they engaged in a public spat with Hachette in the UK and threatened publishers a few years ago that they wouldn’t sell their POD books if they were at Lightning and not in Amazon’s own POD repository. And there are stories told privately — never publicly — of pressure tactics of a similar kind aimed quietly at particular recalcitrants at particular times. But if all the Big Six publishers do this with widespread support from the agent community, it is hard to see exactly what Amazon can do. Certainly, not having high profile titles available that are being sold at competing retailers for competing platforms would not be an acceptable situation, even for a fairly short time. But Amazon is resourceful and creative, they have a lot of power, and they are being faced with the first real threat to their marketplace power.

What does all this mean for enhanced ebooks? Frankly, if this works, I think publishers may find enhanced ebooks (except in very standardized ways such as I suggested in one, two, three blogposts many months ago) losing their allure. As I wrote last week, nobody has really invented an enhanced formula that has gained widespread public acceptance. The attraction of enhanced ebooks was their potential for keeping ebook prices up for branded authors. If the agency solution works, that mission might be accomplished with a lot less investment and risk, and delivering a product we know the public wants: books in the creative form that they have enjoyed for years.

Although I’m as excited as the next guy by the coming Apple Tablet, I really don’t think it will change the world for ebooks. It’s too big, too heavy, too expensive, and likely to be too consumptive of battery power to be a better ereader for most people than a Kindle, a Sony Reader, an iPhone, or one of the many other devices announced last week at CES. My own hunch is that the Tablet won’t be as powerful a catalyst for ebooks as the Kindle was or the iPhone has been. (That’s okay: year-on-year ebook sales are up 300% through November so they don’t actually need a lot of extra impetus…)

But Apple’s entry into the market, if it was the tool to get this Agency model off the ground, might have a very profound effect on the ebook world going into the future. I wonder if this is the last big disruption before Google Editions. And I the next thing to ponder, although we have a bit of time, if this will in any way disrupt that.

All of this just makes me glad that Michael Cader is one of my panelists on the Ebook Tipping Point panel next week at Digital Book World! And that I’ve got a powerful agent, Larry Kirshbaum, joining Michael, Ken Brooks, Evan Schnittman, and me on the stage for that discussion.

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Are “enhanced ebooks” the CD-Rom era all over again?


Is this where I came in?

In the early 1990s, the computer manufacturers and Microsoft were doing everything they could to persuade businesses and consumers that they really, really, really needed CD-Rom drives. That Microsoft would benefit from them was very clear; the software they were selling was taking more and more diskettes to deliver in those pre-broadband, pre-Web days when all software was “shrinkwrapped.” If computer owners could take their new software on CD-Roms, the cost of delivering the product would drop dramatically.

Only a year or two before, Bob Stein had developed what we can now identify as the first “enhanced ebooks”. His company, Voyager, introduced the “Expanded Book”. These were the first efforts to use the book as the foundation to do something much more ambitious: linking in pictures and sound and video and databased information. No web links yet, because there was no web yet, but the Voyager Expanded Books really foresaw the possibilities.

Microsoft encouraged publishers to build on the Voyager Expanded Books example with CD-Roms, and, indeed, the Voyager product itself moved quickly from a diskette-based product to a CD-Rom, which gave it a multiple of the digital space to add content.

Publishers at that time had recent experience with new product forms. In the early 1980s, a few had experimented with software publishing, but that was quickly seen not to work and the publishers who tried it, like Wiley, pretty quickly got out. In the mid-1980s, audiobooks first came on the scene, however, and their acceptance, fueled by the ubiquity of tape players in cars and the relatively new Sony Walkman family of portable cassette players, was very rapid. With the encouragement of Microsoft and the hardware makers promising that all computers would soon have CD-Rom drives, many publishers jumped into what we can look back and see was an enhanced ebook business with both feet.

It turns out they jumped into an empty swimming pool. Many legs were broken.

The whole idea that people who wanted a cookbook needed video in the middle of the recipe or that people would “read” a book on a desktop computer because of sound effects in a CD-Rom version always seemed like a stretch to me. Sometime in the middle of the CD-Rom craze, I learned that McGraw-Hill had a big animal encylopedia on which something like 60% of the cost went into the sound. This was for a high-priced professional product. This made no intuitive sense. It wasn’t placing the investment where I thought anybody would find the value.

What seemed more likely to work to me at that time was to just put the book on a diskette (they were still much more common then than CD-Rom drives) to allow one to just read it on their laptop. The writer and enrepreneur Po Bronson might not remember this, but he and I discussed that idea at great length at the time. Meanwhile, I predicted in 1995 and 1996 that CD-Roms were going nowhere, that the “action” for book publishers would be online, and that the first important thing that would happen online would be increased sales of plain old printed books, all of which turned out to be utterly correct.

Now, as Yogi Berra allegedly once said, we have deja vu all over again.

In the later 1990s, the simple ebook delivery I imagined happened through online distribution, not diskettes. The devices of choice were plain old PCs (mostly reading PDFs) and handheld PDAs, reading the Palm Digital format, Microsoft’s new “dot lit” format (remember how revolutionary that was supposed to be when it first came out!), and then Mobipocket which, until Amazon bought them and largely buried them, was going to be the cross-platform standard.

Now that I had what I wanted, I was a happy guy. I started reading ebooks predominantly and I went out on the prediction limb again. I figured that PDA-reading would become widespread, and quickly.

Talk about jumping into an empty pool!

In fact, underscoring my misunderstanding, I wrote in about 2004 or 2005 that PDAs were the key to ebooks. If you carry a PDA, was my thinking, then you shouldn’t need anybody to explain the advantage of ebooks to you. It was transparent; you always had your book with you. And, conversely, I figured that if you did not have a PDA, there was no great advantage to ebooks. What I saw as the big advantage was not having to carry the book as an “extra.”

Still, ebooks just didn’t happen. I couldn’t understand it. A lot of people told me the problem was that ebooks didn’t really do anything that couldn’t be done with plain old print books. They didn’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digital books. No video. No audio. No web links. That didn’t seem like the answer to me. I remembered the CD-Rom fiasco.

Then Kindle came along. On the one hand, it proved me wrong because here was a device that had to be carried around (like a book) and didn’t do anything for you except let you read a book. On the other hand, Kindles sold well (particularly considering Amazon was the only place to get one) and, more important, Kindles sparked an explosion of interest in and uptake of ebooks. And that, I thought, proved that “just the book” was enough for many people to have a satisfying ebook experience.

But now it looks like market forces are going to tempt publishers to invest in enhanced ebooks all over again. We are awash in news of new ebook readers — meaning both software that can play on PCs, netbooks, iPhones, or various more dedicated devices and a slew of those more dedicated devices to choose from. So people are going to be reading books on devices that can do a lot more than a Kindle or Sony Reader can do.

Two other things happening at the same time also push for more complex ebooks. One is that the tool sets to deliver them — and even to allow any author working with a bright young person alongside of them to deliver them — are getting more ubiquitous. And the other is that publishers think they see a connection between more complex ebooks and higher-priced ebooks, and that makes them very interested in exploring the subject.

A lot has changed in the past 15 years since the CD-Rom era. I am not in any way suggesting that the CD-Rom disaster of the mid-1990s will be repeated in the enhanced ebook era we are heading to now. But nobody figured out what compelling consumer product could be made from a book with lots of digital space to play with then and we’d be kidding ourselves to think anybody’s figured it out now either. There will be a lot of trial and error work done by the industry in the next couple of years trying to find the book-into-something-better formula that works artistically, functionally, and commercially. The answers are by no means self-evident.

One cautionary tale from the CD-Rom era. One of the first big successes on CD-Rom was issued by Simon & Schuster and based on StarTrek. In retrospect, we can see that StarTrek was the “perfect subject”: the one thing that would work with early-adapting techie geeks even if nothing else would. Unfortunately, S&S read the StarTrek success as an endorsement of the CD-Rom product idea and rapidly expanded their new media division to do more titles. Nothing else came close to matching StarTrek’s success.

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The tipping has really already started


The idea of an “Ebook Tipping Point” panel for Digital Book World arose when I wrote a blogpost last August http://www.idealog.com/blog/ebook-growth-explosive-serious-disruptions-around-the-corner on the occasion of the regular monthly release of the IDPF’s ebook sales figures. It was clear then that very substantial percentages of the sale of new narrative fiction and non-fiction were going to move through ebook channels and this post raised the point that this would be disruptive just before Dominque Raccah and Sourcebooks started last Fall’s cascade of strategic moves by publishers to try to slow things down, at least for Kindle.
In October, really writing about the same situation, http://www.idealog.com/blog/a-coming-new-obsession-how-to-handle-a-smaller-print-book-business, I predicted that major publishers would be challenged to cope with the problem of de-scaling.
When I wrote the August post, I was in the early stages of organizing the program for Digital Book World and I decided to put together the “Ebook Tipping Point” panel. I knew that current C-level executives, focused as they must be on making numbers for this quarter and this year, not to mention always having to be aware of the impact their statements could have on their companies, wouldn’t be the right panelists. So I just decided to recruit the four savviest people I knew — about ebook publishing, about the finances of publishing houses, and about the ecosystem publishers live in — to discuss the topic with me on stage.
Yesterday that panel — Ken Brooks of Cengage; Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch; Larry Kirshbaum, ex-TimeWarner Books CEO and currently a literary agent; and Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press — met in my office for a preliminary conversation to help me formulate the questions that will trigger the discussions.
Ken Brooks is my go-to person for all things related to ebooks and digital production. He the SVP, Global Production & Manufacturing Services at Cengage Learning. Before that, Ken created and sold a company called Publishing Dimensions that did digital format conversions in the early ebook days. He’s run warehouses and other operations for Bantam and Simon & Schuster and he even had a brief stint setting up an early attempt at ebook distribution for BN.com ten years ago.
Michael Cader is the creator Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, the new nexus for conversation and information about the publishing business, which he developed from scratch starting with a free email newsletter less than ten years ago. Before that, he was a book packager. Cader is the single person who knows more about book publishing — the people, the deals, the business practices, the view of the business from the standpoint of the investment community — than anybody else I’ve ever met.
Larry Kirshbaum turned over the reins at TimeWarner Publishing to David Young three years ago, just before the company was sold to Hachette. He was known for his eye for bestsellers and his ability to make them work. Since then, he’s been a literary agent. Kirshbaum knows exactly what it is like to run a big publishing company; he did it for more than two decades.
Evan Schnittman is Vice President, Business Development & Rights at Oxford University Press. In that role, Evan combines the zeal and focus of a sales executive with targets to hit with the vision of a strategic digital thinker, a very unusual combination. Oxford is a university press, of course, not a trade house, but they have a trade list big enough to make them real players in that sandbox. Evan knows and understands trade, but he has the objectivity and vision of somebody who is not entirely dependent on that business.
One scorecard worth keeping is this: Brooks, Kirshbaum, and I were all sure ten years ago that ebooks would happen much faster than they did. Cader was sure they wouldn’t. Michael has been the hardest among us to persuade that ebooks would substantially displace print anytime soon.
We had a rollicking 2 hour conversation that would have entertained anybody who could have heard it. I am not going to steal the panel’s thunder by revealing much about it except to say that there was a strong consensus that big publisher overheads are going to have to shrink dramatically for them to survive. Michael Cader is particuarly articulate — and particularly experienced — about the point that legacy businesses carry legacy cost structures that handicap them making a transition to a new paradigm. He lived that advantage as the David that slew the Goliath of PW.
So I awoke this morning to get the news in my mailbox that Simon & Schuster has redesigned its sales coverage to be “more phone”. Cheaper. Less overhead. But also (likely) less effective and (certainly) less differentiated from what any small publisher based anywhere can do.
So what distinguishes the big publishers from their competition are the capabilities of “scale.” And the albatross for big publishers going forward is the cost of “scale.” This is a tough box to get out of.
I think some eyes are going to be opened when this panel takes the stage on Wednesday, January 27.

The idea of an “Ebook Tipping Point” panel for Digital Book World arose when I wrote a blogpost last August on the occasion of the regular monthly release of the IDPF’s ebook sales figures. It was clear then that very substantial percentages of the sale of new narrative fiction and non-fiction were going to move through ebook channels and this post raised the point that this would be disruptive right after Dominque Raccah and Sourcebooks started last Fall’s cascade of strategic moves by publishers to try to slow things down, at least for Kindle.

In October, really writing about the same situation I predicted that major publishers would be challenged to cope with the problem of de-scaling.

When I wrote the August post, I was in the early stages of organizing the program for Digital Book World and I decided to put together the “Ebook Tipping Point” panel. I knew that current C-level executives, focused as they must be on making numbers for this quarter and this year, not to mention always having to be aware of the impact their statements could have on their companies, wouldn’t be the right panelists. So I just decided to recruit the four savviest people I knew — about ebook publishing, about the finances of publishing houses, and about the ecosystem publishers live in — to discuss the topic with me on stage.

Yesterday that panel — Ken Brooks of Cengage; Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch; Larry Kirshbaum, ex-TimeWarner Books CEO and currently a literary agent; and Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press — met in my office for a preliminary conversation to help me formulate the questions that will trigger the discussions.

Ken Brooks is my go-to person for all things related to ebooks and digital production. He the SVP, Global Production & Manufacturing Services at Cengage Learning. Before that, Ken created and sold a company called Publishing Dimensions that did digital format conversions in the early ebook days. He’s run warehouses and other operations for Bantam and Simon & Schuster and he even had a brief stint setting up an early attempt at ebook distribution for BN.com ten years ago.

Michael Cader is the creator Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, the new nexus for conversation and information about the publishing business, which he developed from scratch starting with a free email newsletter less than ten years ago. Before that, he was a book packager. Cader is the single person who knows more about book publishing — the people, the deals, the business practices, the view of the business from the standpoint of the investment community — than anybody else I’ve ever met.

Larry Kirshbaum turned over the reins at TimeWarner Publishing to David Young three years ago, just before the company was sold to Hachette. He was known for his eye for bestsellers and his ability to make them work. Since then, he’s been a literary agent. Kirshbaum knows exactly what it is like to run a big publishing company; he did it for more than two decades.

Evan Schnittman is Vice President, Business Development & Rights at Oxford University Press. In that role, Evan combines the zeal and focus of a sales executive with targets to hit with the vision of a strategic digital thinker, a very unusual combination. Oxford is a university press, of course, not a trade house, but they have a trade list big enough to make them real players in that sandbox. Evan knows and understands trade, but he has the objectivity and vision of somebody who is not entirely dependent on that business. He’s also a really entertaining and insightful blogger.

One scorecard worth keeping is this: Brooks, Kirshbaum, and I were all sure ten years ago that ebooks would happen much faster than they did. Cader was sure they wouldn’t. Michael has been the hardest among us to persuade that ebooks would substantially displace print anytime soon.

We had a rollicking two hour conversation that would have entertained anybody who could have heard it. I am not going to steal the panel’s thunder by revealing much about it except to say that there was a strong consensus that big publisher overheads are going to have to shrink dramatically, and soon. Michael Cader is particularly articulate — and particularly experienced — about the point that legacy businesses carry legacy cost structures that handicap them making a transition to a new paradigm. He lived that advantage as the David that slew the Goliath of PW.

So I awoke this morning to get the news in my mailbox that Simon & Schuster has redesigned its sales coverage to be “more phone”. Cheaper. Less overhead. But also (likely) less effective and (certainly) less differentiated from what any small publisher based anywhere can do.

So what distinguishes the big publishers from their competition are the capabilities of “scale.” And the albatross for big publishers going forward is the cost of “scale.” This is a tough box to get out of.

I think some eyes are going to be opened when this panel takes the stage on Wednesday, January 27.

I am getting increasingly excited about the 2-day Digital Book World conference coming up January 26-27. Now that the work of recruiting nearly 100 speakers and moderators (and, boy, do we have GREAT moderators!) is done, I am able to take some satisfaction from the body of work. (Take a look.) I am also really appreciative of the great marketing job that has been done by our partners in this endeavor, F+W Media. Just about everybody really is going to be there. Are you?

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