May, 2010

Oil in the bookstore ecosystem marshlands; danger ahead


I am finding an eerie similarity between the disastrous Gulf oil spill and the parlous state of America’s bookstores. In both cases, the forces are in place for a disaster that will play out over the coming months and years. And while the tragedy of what is happening in the Gulf is far more consequential to everybody on the planet than what is happening to our bookstores, we are appoximately as powerless to prevent an eco-system disaster of the first magnitude in both cases.

Of course, the causes of the problems are quite different. British Petroleum, it would seem from here, could have operated differently and the blowout might not have happened. If the US government had the same offshore drilling rules as the Canadian government, requiring the relief well to be dug at the same time as the main drilling well, the disaster might have been averted.

Just like the shrimpers on the Gulf Coast, we are entering the highly visible stages of what will be a painful and accelerating change in the circumstances for general trade publishing. In an exchange in the comments of a post here from last November called “Why are you for killing bookstores?”, I was told by a resident of Orange County, California, that he didn’t even know where his nearest bookstore was. Now there is news that Laredo, Texas, is aware of its status as the largest city in America without a bookstore because its local B. Dalton outlet has been closed. Unfortunately, I don’t think Laredo will retain that status for very long. Much larger cities will be joining Laredo. These are like ships not bothering to leave the harbor because there is nothing out there worth catching.

Bookstores in the US are being pushed aside by the forces of what in the larger sense is definitely progress. The four biggest villains are the switch by consumers to Internet shopping (which affects all brick-and-mortar retail; Walmart’s sales are down too) and three aspects of that switch that amplify the problem: the ubiquitous availability of used books sold alongside the new, competition from long tail books that would have disappeared from commercial view in years past, and the rise of ebooks. All three of these effects reduce print sales in terrestrial stores, crippling retailers and damaging publishers as well.

The trend is impossible to ignore. Borders, just rescued by the latest White Knight that believes the business can be saved, announced that same store sales were down over 11% in the first quarter compared to a year agoBarnes & Noble’s reduction in same-store sales was put at “2 to 4 percent” in its most recent reporting. [Late add: B&N actually reported same store sales down 5.5% in the most recent quarter.] Borders is a financially challenged operation with an inadequate supply chain, which could have led to not having the books they need to get all the sales that might have been available to them. But, if that’s true, the well-financed and well-operated B&N would be benefiting from their rival’s problems. (They probably are; sales would have been down more if they weren’t.)

I first worked in a bookstore almost 50 years ago, in the summer of 1962 in Brentano’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue. I’m going to guess that there were about 25,000 titles in that store: 10,000 hardcovers upstairs on the main floor and about 15,000 paperbacks downstairs in the brand new paperback department where I worked. Maybe there were more, but not a lot more. And this was one of the best bookstores in America at that time.

There just weren’t a lot of bookstores in America in 1962. Mass-market paperbacks were on sale in many drugstores and on many newsstands, and were in somewhat limited supply in bookstores. Paperback distribution then was just about exclusively through rack-jobbing local wholesalers and offered lower margins than trade books. Even Brentano’s, which was one of the few stores served direct by mass-market publishers, displayed the mass-market paperbacks by publisher rather than by subject to make it easier for the publishers’ reps to check their stock and fill in empty pockets every week.

Department stores were critical outlets for publishers. They provided what amounted to local chains in each city which were, at that time, just beginning to expand into suburban locations through a nascent shopping center industry. Reps for Dolphin Books (Doubleday) and Collier Books (Crowell-Collier, later Macmillan), two trade paperback lines begun by my father, were putting racks of their books into barber shops and motel lobbies in many parts of the country which had virtually no bookstores at all.

Running a bookstore was very hard. Publishers were numerous, title acquisition was fragmented. The only national wholesaler, Baker & Taylor, was really a provider for the libraries, which were willing to wait for B&T to go get the book after they ordered it from them. Local wholesalers, sometimes the same operations that rack-jobbed the mass paperbacks, didn’t attempt to stock much more than the bestsellers, the resupply for which was their real profit center.

In the late 1960s, as shopping center construction heated up, this started to change. Two national chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers, grew on the back of that expansion. Shopping center developers preferred a national chain to a local independent as a tenant; they were more “bankable” when the developer was borrowing money to build. So these two chains started to grow as fast as suburban mall development would let them, which was pretty damn fast. When I went into publishing sales in 1974, each of the chains had about 300 stores nationally.

Dalton revolutionized backlist sales. Before scanning technology existed, Dalton instituted unique SKU numbers for every title which the cashier would punch into the register when each sale was made. (The SKU number was on a sticker on the book.) That enabled an automated reordering system to bring core backlist (designated “model stock quantities”) back in as they sold it.

Dalton had a “hot list” and a “warm list” of titles. The “hot” titles sold 10 copies a week across the chain. The “warm” list sold 10 copies a month across the chain. That was in a chain of about 300 stores and gave me my first real understanding of how few titles sold very much in a bookstore! Those lists were very important. If your book wasn’t on the hot list, it wasn’t going to get noticed by a buyer for re-ordering. And if it wasn’t on the warm list, the title was likely to be returned.

At about the same time, the early 1970s, the Ingram Book Company introduced technology that changed life for the independent bookseller: the microfiche reader that allowed every retailer to know, before they ordered, what Ingram was carrying. All of a sudden, just as Dalton was demonstrating how important a broader selection and in-stock backlist could be to a store’s economics, independent stores could imitate that strategy by ordering regularly through Ingram. Although computerized inventory management help was still a few years in the future, just being able to get the books from a single reliable supplier enabled independents to begin to compete and grow. (Of course, independents still didn’t have the advantage of 300 locations providing data so they could detect a “hot” book or “warm” book that might not be evident in a single store.)

There were two newer operations spawning stores with robust backlists in the 1970s: Paperback Booksmith and Little Professor. Both jump-started new independent stores with their branding, their inventory, and systems to support both new title buying and keeping key backlist alive. The Doubleday and Brentano’s chains had fewer stores, but bigger and richer ones.

From the publishers’ perspective, this was all providing more and more opportunity: more stores, more efficient stores, more backlist-conscious stores. So general trade publishers grew. Title outputs grew. Dalton and Walden grew. Independents and various smaller chains grew. Ingram grew. Baker & Taylor grew.

In the 1980s, the growth continued, fueled by increased efficiencies. Machine-readable fonts enabled Walden to imitate Dalton’s point-of-sale monitoring without having to sticker every book. Computerized inventory tracking systems improved efficiency at stores far and wide and at the wholesalers as well. New retailer Crown Books pioneered a new idea: a more limited selection of new books, combined with a lot of remainders and bargain books, and aggressive discounting of bestsellers. Even while the chains grew, the independents grew and became more powerful. A newly-energized American Booksellers Association became an aggressive advocate. They sued major publishers, ultimately forcing changes in sales policies that were deemed too chain-friendly.

Throughout the 1980s, the independents were the ones building the big category-killer stores. Good independents were confident that they beat the chain stores on title selection. They were even competing pretty much at full price against Crown’s deep discounting simply by being the place you could find the books you wanted. In the late 1980s, Borders and Barnes & Noble, along with Wall Street, saw the opportunity. Borders acquired Waldenbooks and B&N acquired B. Dalton to give them operational scale, and then they started to open very large 100,000+ title stores (under their own brands, not the acquired ones) in a model that had been developed by a Texas operation called BookStop (which was acquired by Barnes & Noble.) This just meant more growth for publishers; more backlist being stocked in more places. This might have been when the big indies first started feeling a pinch; I recall Andy Ross of Cody’s expressing concern about a big Barnes & Noble opening in Berkeley about that time. But the indies and the chains had a much bigger problem just over the horizon.

In the summer of 1995, Amazon.com opened for business. And, probably since Day One, but certainly increasingly and increasingly obviously, Amazon has been damaging the ecosystem which spawned a robust bookstore network and, which, in turn, fostered large and powerful general trade publishers. That was when the wall protecting the water that fed bookstores and trade publishers was breeched by the oil of digital distribution.

The analogy is not precise. Amazon is not a villain like BP. They aren’t just destroying an old eco-system; they are building a new one. To the consumer that is finding shopping easier than it ever was before, finding books they could never find before, being presented with cheaper choices of used books and electronic books that were not available before, there is no crisis here. In fact, there is no problem.

But to bookstores that depended on customers that had little other choice but to come to them for the books they wanted, shop from what was available under the store’s roof or wait for something to be brought in from outside, and who were effectively restrained by geography from shopping around for price or selection, the waters have become toxic. And to publishers that built a business whose principal competitive advantage is their ability to take intellectual property and put it onto bookstore shelves, the imminent prospect of reduced revenue, increased costs, more difficult title acquisition, and competition from old IP long-sold or long-dead, are now fouling the drink for them as well.

All of the eco-destroying forces that have so far hit the  bookstores, like the oil coming onshore in the Gulf, are just harbingers of much bigger waves of challenge to come. More and more people buy ereaders and cut print consumption drastically; more and more books get digitized; the long tail only gets longer as more and the more digitized stuff meets increasingly efficient print-on-demand. And more and more competitive material enters the supply chain with some appeal to the public but with no participation in the structure that makes bookstore stocking easy. The bookstores’ problem is not just about demand, it is also about supply. That’s competitive advantage for trade publishers in getting their books on bookstore shelves, but it is competitive disadvantage for bookstores competing against a universe of content a click away from more and more eyeballs and mindshare.

In an exchange in front of a large audience at BookExpo last week, one prominent publishing executive took relative comfort in the fact that “more than 90% of our business is still print.” That’s (still barely) true, but only about 70% of the business is still occurring through brick-and-mortar outlets. That number will be under 50% in 12 to 18 months, and the slide will still be accelerating. Big publishing grew in an eco-system of expanding retail shelf space. It has been challenged in the past 15 years as all that growth was stopped by the new forces unleashed online. Now that shelf space is going to start to shrink faster and faster, it is hard to see how big trade publishing can avoid doing the same.

Another aspect of this problem was raised this morning on a mailing list I’m on. Public libraries are losing the funding they need to stay open. Public libraries buy a lot of books from trade publishers, although most of those sales go through wholesalers and not all publishers are managing library sales discretely the way they should. Library purchases have tended to act like ballast in previous recessions; public funding wasn’t usually as volatile as consumer spending. Unfortunately and somewhat coincidentally, the erosion of the bookstore infrastructure is occurring when we’re also facing what is likely to be a longterm crisis in public funding as well.

Two Australian booksellers were in my office last week. The trauma they face is even worse than it will be here. Geography has protected Australia from competition so books are priced 50-to-100 percent higher than they are here. That’s been great for bookshops. Their trade looks like ours did 15 or 20 years ago.  With the arrival of ebooks and POD, they’re probably facing the changes we’ve seen since then in the next two or three years.

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Planning the next publishing model: a new take on “no returns”


Although there are some very good minds working on the next publishing model — Jane Friedman with Open Road and Richard Nash with Cursor being the first two that leap to mind — I have developed a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to them or to others planning to avail themselves of the new opportunities which are bound to be arising.

What I think both Jane and Richard have spotted is that “scale” is diminishing in its ability to provide a publisher with competitive advantage. Certainly, it is still true that the surest-fire big successes still require substantial advances to authors and aggressive laydowns of inventory that do require scale. If you want to publish Patterson or Evanovich or any author with a proven track record of bestsellers, guaranteed to move hundreds of thousands of copies, you have to take a cash risk for advance and inventory commensurate with their guaranteed minimum sales level and you have to go after the entire market, which takes money and organization, to recoup that investment.

But that covers no more than one percent of, let’s say, 100,000 titles a year published by established publishers and an even tinier percentage of the total number of new books if one includes those issued through self-publishing operations. (I am staying away from real numbers here because I haven’t done the analysis needed to discern them. The million-plus number of new ISBNs reported by Bowker contains hundreds of thousands of titles that are neither new nor self-published, but which are reissues of out-of-copyright books set up by companies that use technology to process the files into a print-ready state.)

Nash is explicitly expecting the collapse of the overall trade publishing model. Friedman has never expressed that expectation, but she’s exploiting the combination of old contracts that are ambiguous about ebook rights and the big trade houses’ reluctance to go beyond a 25% of net receipts royalty on ebook sales to make high-profile ebook captures. Her company professes to be “marketing-focused” and she has hired two of trade publishing’s most expert digital marketers, Rachel Chou from HarperCollins and Pablo Defendini from Tor. She has a partner, Jeffrey Sharp, with a filmmaking background. So there appears to be a clear emphasis on ebooks, new publishing forms, and digital marketing, not on “scale.”

A month ago I wrote that I expected 50% of the market for narrative books (words, not pictures; simple design, nothing complex like a cookbook) to be delivered through online purchases by the end of 2012. That was based on an expectation that 25% of the sales of those books would be ebooks.

Since then, I’ve decided that prediction is too conservative. Now I think narrative books might pass that benchmark six months or a year sooner than that. Hachette’s most recent financial results attributed 8% of US book revenue to electronic in the first quarter of this year. In a speech delivered last week in Australia, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster gave the same number — eight percent — as her company’s current share of revenue attributable to digital. Eight percent of revenue is something more than 8% of units (because ebooks are cheaper), and the number would be higher on their narrative books (because the 8% is across a list that includes a lot of books not available as ebooks.) If they were at 12% of units on narrative books in the first quarter of this year, they could be at 25% of units on narrative books by the first quarter of next year, which would be about two years ahead of what I was expecting just a month ago.

And what is true of both Hachette and Simon & Schuster must be a pretty reasonable approximation of what we’d see at any of the other Big Six companies.

The portion of the market that buys online doesn’t require pre-printed inventory. Setting up with Lightning and Amazon and perhaps Baker & Taylor would enable all online purchasers to get their print copies on demand. Today I am offering what I think is the solution for distributing  inventory more broadly into brick-and-mortar stores without a publisher risk. If Nash or Friedman have thought of this already, they haven’t announced it.

The brick-and-mortar world has three main components: chains, mass merchants, and independents. Here’s a deal structure that I think can be appealing to the big customers and, which, with a bit of tweaking,  can work to the benefit of the smaller ones as well.

When publishers sell to the trade channel, they collect approximately half of the retail price of the book for each one sold. They bill their channel partner that full amount when the books are shipped to the store, and credit their channel partner that full amount (with some relatively minor exceptions) when returns come back. Of that half they collect from the channel, about 20% (10% of retail) is the publisher’s cost of printing the book, 20-30% (10-15% of retail on hardcovers; actually less on paperbacks) is the author’s royalty, and the balance (about 50-60% of the money received) covers the publisher’s cost of doing business, including paying for books printed and not sold, and profit.

In a print-on-demand scenario, the manufacturing cost doubles (or more), so 20 or 30 points of the 50 or 60 remaining to the publisher are chewed up. Some contracts allow the publisher to get back some of the author royalty in that scenario, but absent that the publisher’s margin is definitely reduced so that they only “clear” 20 to 30 percent of the cash received. On the other hand, they shed the costs of unsold inventory (which can be substantial), they lose the requirement to capitalize inventory, and they can diminish or eliminate all sorts of operational costs for warehousing and inventory management. Sellers of print-on-demand services, including Lightning, have been laying out this reality to publishers for years.

In the present scenario, the channel partners — retailers or wholesalers —  are at cash risk for the return freight (and sometimes the inbound freight). And they have the full cost of the book tied up until they sell it or return it.

Here’s the new solution for a no-returns, no-inventory-risk-for-publishers world.

Publishers say: we are doing an initial press run which you can be part of. There will be no inventory maintained at the publisher. If the channel demands a subsequent run and will support it, we’ll do it. But otherwise, everything beyond the press run is available only from the wholesalers providing POD services.

The press run offer to channel partners works like this: you pay the cost of printing and delivering the book. And that payment is firm. You buy that inventory at its cost and you own it; no returns. That’s going to be about 10% of the established retail price.

But the payment above that, the rest of the purchase price by the channel, is paid on sale (or, to use the term of art, “pay on scan.”) To provide some incentive for the retailer to support a book with inventory and push up that first (and often only) press run, and then later to give them the margin for markdowns, I’d suggest that the second payment diminishes over time. The total “cost” to the retailer should be 55% of the retail price for the first 60 days after inventory is delivered, dropping to 50% for the next 60 days, and 40% thereafter. That would leave the publisher 30% of the retail price in margin on the slowest-selling books, of which the author, under the best contracts that exist today, would get half. The publisher would get half, but would have no inventory cost (that was paid up front) and no returns processing.

This formula should work fine for Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and the mass merchants, who can buy 1000 or 2000 copies of a book they want to carry and get that press run price. Serving the independents is more difficult.

We stipulated at the top that all books are set up for print-on-demand at Amazon and Ingram; perhaps at Baker & Taylor too. If those books are ultimately sold to the wholesaler on normal discounts (about 50%), the relatively higher POD cost would chew up most of the publishers’ margin. We’re positing that POD could be 25% of retail (rather than about 10% for press run), which would leave only 25% for royalty and publisher’s margin. By today’s standard contracts, that might only leave 10% for publisher’s margin. There are two possible ways to claw back margin and both of them could work.

One is to negotiate lower author royalties for sales made through print-on-demand. Let’s remember I’m formulating how a new publisher ought to operate; they don’t have any legacy contracts yet. And, I might add, both Open Road and Cursor have aspects of their model that are more advantageous to authors than today’s standard. That’s how Open Road is getting those ebooks, paying 50% instead of 25%. And Cursor offers a short-term deal that nobody else does. So, on balance, the author might see herself as better off even though the royalty on some trade sales would be reduced.

Another possibility is that Ingram or Baker & Taylor (and you only need one to say yes to more or less oblige the other) can be persuaded to accept a lower discount on these POD books. For one thing, they make a bit of margin on the POD. For another, these books will not be available at all direct from the publisher (which has moved to a no-inventory model), so the wholesaler can offer a lower discount to their customers as well and still be “competitive.” And the wholesaler has no inventory risk or carrying cost either and no cost of sending returns back to the publisher. A slightly reduced margin structure still ought to work out profitably for them.

Of course, many devils are in the details. Publishers would need retailers working this way to report sales to the publisher on a daily basis and pay promptly, perhaps weekly (after all, the retailer is only paying after they’ve collected the customer’s money.) There is “shrink”, books stolen or which otherwise disappear without going through the cash register. That cost is entirely borne by the retailer today and the publisher will need some check and balance to assure that it doesn’t become a payment dodge under this arrangement.

But as the publishers move to a world where inventory risk can be substantially reduced, it just makes good sense to look for a way for the brick-and-mortar sales channel to gain some benefit from that idea as well. Working this way can enable a 21st century publisher to cut operations costs dramatically and even, perhaps, improve their cash flow.

When I first recognized that we’re in sight of the day when half the sales can be achieved without inventory, it looked like an obvious game-changer for publishing. Now I’m seeing the way to change the other half of the game as well.

And having walked through this door of perception, I close with a message for all the no-returns advocates out there among publishers. You want to eliminate returns to reduce your risk. That’s reasonable. But your risk is really the cost of printing the books; it wouldn’t be royalty on books not sold and it shouldn’t be profit on books not sold. So shouldn’t any no-returns policy also relieve the store of those elements of the risk as well?

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Losing the secondary business can kill you


Before the Internet deconstructed the publishing value chain and enabled new models, both publishers and booksellers benefited from a lot of what I’d call “secondary business”. Secondary business was not what they were set up or primarily intending to do, but which they easily could accommodate to earn easy margin that supported their primary operations.

Publishers controlled an apparatus that could make bound books out of manuscripts and put them on bookstore shelves for patrons to buy. These were not trivial capabilities and they were much in demand. Although  the principal business model for a commercial publisher was to select what to publish, develop it editorially in collaboration with the author, and then take the risk of printing inventory and distributing it in hopes that it would sell, sometimes opportunities arose that were less risky ways to employ their skills.

I had my first experience with this kind of publishing in the late 1970s when my friend Caroline Latham was the writer-for-hire and then publishing consultant to a wealthy man named Jack Eisner. Eisner was a Warsaw Ghetto survivor with an exciting and moving story of his experiences on the run from the Nazis during World War II. After the war, he built a very successful import-export business so that by three decades after the war he had the time and resources to deliver his story to the broadest possible audience.

Caroline co-wrote his book, The Survivor. Eisner hired Abby Mann (the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Judgment at Nurenberg) to write the screenplay for the movie, and the play was written by Susan Nanus. Jack financed the production of the play on Broadway, where it had an extremely brief run.

Caroline engaged me to help her make the book deal. We were working with William Morrow, a fine and venerable publisher. They paid Eisner no advance. Eisner agreed to put up a substantial sum (I think it was $75,000) for advertising and promotion of the book. Morrow made all the decisions about printing and distribution. With a deal like that, they couldn’t lose. And they didn’t, although the book didn’t sell very well in relation to the investment made in it by Eisner. It is worth noting that there is a paperback edition of the book, renamedThe Survivor of The Holocaust, still available from Kensington.

The more common author of this kind for publishers would have written a business book that “paid off” for the author in ways other than trade store sales. Sometimes it just enhanced their reputation and improved their primary business. Some business book authors move large numbers of copies of their books themselves. In bygone days, “selling” your book to a trade publisher (for little or no advance) with contractually-stipulated author buy-backs was a deal that worked for both sides. I remember a very significant trade publisher telling me over a decade ago that “author sales” constituted one of their largest distribution channels.

Working with an established publisher has a couple of distinct advantages: the imprimateur of a brand name is one and their ability to move copies through commercial channels is another. But it also comes with definite drawbacks for the commercially-minded author. The profit on books the author moves is shared with the publisher. And the time schedules for trade publishing are traditionally glacial; virtually every author’s first disappointment is how long it takes from the time their book is completed until the time a publisher puts it out.

One stark example of an author who does better self-publishing than he could do with a trade house is Michael Durkin. Michael is a sales trainer and motivational speaker who sells his own self-published book, bundled together with audio CDs that are simply recordings of his speeches. The package of the book with about six of the CDs sells for $100 and he sells about 25,000 of these a year, mostly through the 100 or more speaking engagements he usually does, plus a few from his own web site. Durkin is so averse to sharing his margin that he doesn’t even try to sell his material through Amazon! Durkin also points out that his book is a fabulous prospecting tool; he uses it regularly as a door-opener. It gets people to hire him for the speaking engagements that fuel his product sales which, if you figure that his cost of goods leaves him with a margin of more than $80 per package sold, is producing a solid seven-figure profit for him annually.

Durkin agrees that 20 years ago he almost certainly would have worked through a publisher with a buy-back arrangement which would have meant a significant hit to his margin. And it would have constituted a very nice subsidy for a publisher.

Bookstores also have lost what is collectively a vast amount of secondary income to the Internet. My father briefly fought a battle in the 1950s to stop the practice of giving wholesalers more discount than bookstores got. Len wanted to force library supply to go through retailers so that library purchases were subsidizing the retail bookstore network, not warehouses that simply extended the publishers’ supply chain. It was a great insight (although both libraries and wholesalers, deeply cognizant of the value-added services wholesalers perform today for libraries, would argue persuasively against it today as, apparently, they did then.)

What often distinguished a successful independent store was its ability to do “back door” trade: serving local businesses, schools, and community groups. If a local reading group needed 10 copies of a book, they’d buy it from their local bookshop. Bulk business, and there is lots of it in every community in America, was most conveniently transacted through a local merchant. Now it is most conveniently transacted through the Internet. When a “back door” book business succeeds (like Jack Covert’s 800CEO-Read business based in Milwaukee and originally spawned by the independent Schwartz Bookstores), it is because it develops a far-flung following (served largely through the Net) rather than a local one.

It only works now if it is built on a vertical principle so it can appeal to a global audience. Being local doesn’t provide enough of a competitive edge for a local purchaser who is looking for wide selection, the ability to buy in bulk, the ability to ship to different recipients, and the ability to handle all that business online.

It is almost impossible to prove this with data, particularly retrospectively, but my intuitive hunch is that competitive independent stores in the 1980s and 1990s outdid their chain competition largely because of their ability to develop and serve secondary business — business above and beyond what is delivered by the traffic that comes in  the front door, shops the displays, and walks out with the goods. If that were true, it would explain why independents seemed to be hit harder than the chains in the first decade and more of the Amazon-led online bookselling revolution.

But all publishers and all brick-and-mortar book retailers earned critical margin in bygone days from sources that have alternatives they didn’t have then, even though neither the publishers nor the booksellers would have identified this business as critical to their survival. That’s another manifestation of the permanent alterations occurring to the ecosystem that spawned and enabled the existence of a general publishing business.

BookExpo America is this week. I’m really sorry I’m missing the Self-Publishing Day on Monday. That’s clearly a movement that is rapidly growing in importance; one we’ll have to “cover” a bit at Digital Book World next January. It’s an increasingly potent commercial force that all elements of the trade community — authors, agents, publishers, wholesalers, and retailers – will want to understand. I can’t make it because I’ve got meetings elsewhere in the city all day Monday. I am planning to be on the floor all three days the exhibits are open. I know many big houses are off the floor in meeting rooms this year; I’ll be paying attention to  how that changes the feel of the show.

I can already tell I’m glad to have Cader’s BEA LunchtoGo app; I don’t believe I’ve had such a simple stand number look-up device. (It has lots of other data and functionality as well, but that’s mainly what I’ll use it for.) I’ve got an iPhone now but I have had a handheld organizer since 1986. I remember a few years ago Frankfurt offered data of this kind for the Palm Pilot which you secured by having it “beamed” from one of the kiosks they set up around the Book Fair for the purpose. The process was klunky and, as I remember, so was the tool. I don’t think the experiment made it into a second year. But Lunch’s tool is much cooler, and it shows how a web site can work just like an app (as long as you’re connected; the data’s in the cloud, not in your hard drive) and dodge the restrictions of the Apple environment.

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A benchmark event occurred today


A shoe dropped today.

Author J. A. Konrath, who has been self-publishing on Kindle and reporting about it for quite some time, just contracted to have the latest in his series of novels featuring female cop Jack Daniels published by the new Amazon Encore imprint. Encore was originally announced as Amazon’s way to pick up and feature already self-published books. They apparently bent the guidelines a bit to include Konrath’s yet-unpublished book, Shaken. Amazon will publish the Kindle edition at $2.99 in October and release a paperback at $14.95 next February.

Although Konrath is a media- and tech-savvy author who has published with major New York houses (the Jack Daniels series was previously published by Hyperion), he is not a regular NY Times Bestseller brand. Not only is he not a multi-million dollar advance recipient, he makes it clear that the novel he just signed with Encore was rejected by the New York publishing houses. So Amazon had a low bar to jump to secure him for its Encore line.

Nonetheless, this is a significant jolt to conventional publishing economics. Sales of Konrath’s $2.99 ebook will deliver him about $2.10 a copy (Konrath says $2.04; not sure where the other six cents is going…), as much or more as he would make on a $14.95 paperback from a trade publisher, and significantly more than he’d make on a $9.99 ebook distributed under “Agency” terms and current major publisher royalty conventions. And, however one feels about the degree to which pricing is a barrier to ebook sales, one must assume that the $2.99 price will result in a lot more ebook sales than a $9.99 price would. Many times the sales!

We’ve been imagining a split market for ebooks: “branded” ones from conventional publishers being sold in the $10-$15 range and “commodity” ones from lesser-known sources (authors and publishers) at $1.99 and $2.99. Over time, we figured that improved curation of the cheaper ones, plus promotional pricing by the branded ones, would drag the overall pricing down. That’s been behind our concern that maintaining anything close to the current pricing for print will be almost impossible to do over time.

I think “over time” just became more compressed as a result of Konrath’s move.

Here are a few things to think about and watch as we go.

1. Konrath made it clear that his deal with Amazon is under a strict NDA. We’ve gotten used to reading about his financial results and, indeed, Amazon loses a major benefit of their relationship with him if they don’t allow him to talk about how much money he’s making.

2. We got a comment on another blogpost from a reader complaining about not being able to get books on Nook that were available on Kindle. Without any detail as to what books the reader was talking about, it was impossible to diagnose the reason. I could only assure the reader (who wondered if the retailer was declining to stock some titles) that Barnes & Noble certainly wanted everything possible available on Nook. Although Amazon intends to try to sell the print book through non-Amazon channels (an effort Konrath frankly admits he doesn’t place great stock in), it would be a bit of a surprise if they made the ebook available through any non-Kindle channels.

3. Giving up non-Kindle channels today for an ebook isn’t necessarily giving up a lot, particularly with Kindle clients available to be used on other devices. Publishers have been hoping that iBooks and the Agency model would result in a more diverse ebook ecosystem, reducing their dependence on Kindle to reach the ebook audience. What happens if more authors, and bigger authors, follow Konrath’s lead. Could Kindle end up being the only ebook outlet for enough important titles to seriously impede attempts to compete with it?

4. In explaining his decision to sign with Encore, Konrath credits Amazon with being able to “send an email to every person who bought” a previous book of his through their website.  This underscores the importance of email list organization at publishing houses, and the opportunity almost totally missed by publishers to entice book purchasers to register their interest in an author. (Yes, some publishers make a half-hearted effort in that direction, but where are the experiments — like Thomas Nelson’s — to give all the bookstore purchasers something of value if they’ll check in with the publisher after they’ve bought the book from a retailer?)

5. It will be fascinating to see how the rest of the retail trade — bricks-and-mortar — reacts to buying a book which delivers profit to Amazon on each and every copy sold. Sterling was a client of mine when Barnes & Noble bought them. Borders stopped stocking their books almost immediately. Only long-standing relationships with independent retailers saved their distribution through that channel, but there was definitely negative feedback from indies about supporting their perceived enemy. A retailer’s first loyalty is usually — and should be — its audience. By the time Shaken comes out in print, it is likely to have sold tens of thousands of copies as a Kindle ebook and, especially because of its unique role as a groundbreaking publishing model, is going to be known and anticipated by the audience of print book customers who haven’t made the switch to digital reading.  Will Amazon sell print to their competitors successfully? Will they offer return privileges? Will they offer competitive discounts? Will they use wholesalers? This will be fun to watch.

Konrath’s deal with Amazon was negotiated by his agent (which, according to Publishers Marketplace’s “Who Represents” database is Jane Dystel, but this was last updated in 2006.) We know that Amazon has reached out to agents lately. Many authors will be asking their agents to investigate this alternate avenue to the marketplace on their future books. Signing up new books for what publishers would consider reasonable advances just got harder. So did maintaining a 25% royalty rate for ebooks.

I met Joe Konrath once, in January 2007 at Google’s Unbound conference, which I emceed and at which he spoke. So I’ve been aware of his ongoing narrative, making pretty serious bucks selling books of his he controlled (out of print or never published) through Kindle. I have been surprised recently at who did not know about him, including a close friend who herself is a successful mystery writer and all of the agents at a pretty large NYC shop thinking hard about their digital future. His days of relative obscurity are over; Konrath has carved out a permanent place for himself in the annals of publishing history with this move.

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What will be the big digital issues in January 2011?


I have found a way to describe the difference between the Digital Book World conference we organize for F+W Media and the O’Reilly conference Tools of Change which I believe is accurate and is certainly not intended to be a pejorative description of  Tools of Change. I go to TOC and I find it very valuable, but different from what we’re trying to do.

Tools of Change explores developments in technology that have impact or can have impact on publishing (in general) and helps publishers (of all kinds) understand how to apply them. Digital Book World explores business challenges to trade publishing (defined as book publishers who work primarily through the retail network, or “the trade”) generated by digital change and helps publishers address them. So if I were organizing Tools of Change, I’d want to scan the horizon for technologies that could have an impact and ask “how?” Because I’m organizing Digital Book World, I’m looking at trade publishing’s commercial environment and operations for the impact of technology and asking “what should we do?”

The next Digital Book World Conference is set for January 25-26, 2011. That obliges us to ask: what will the hot digital change questions be eight months from now? What should we be planning to discuss then that will be immediate and relevant to the attendees we’re targeting: the editorial, marketing, sales, and digital strategy people in trade book publishing houses?

To help us figure that out, we’re in the process of recruiting the DBW 2011 Conference Council. That group of about 30 people — CEOs, digital strategists, and marketers from publishing houses large and small, agents, retailers, and independent industry thought leaders — will help us define the panels and choose the speakers that can enlighten and inspire. I’ll introduce you to that group in a future post; the team is in formation at the moment.

Today’s blog is to recruit the readers of The Shatzkin Files to help too. I hope you will.

Here are 15 topics, or speculations, we’ve identified to start building an agenda for discussion next January. Do you have any thoughts on any of these to refine our thinking? Some of these are ideas looking for examples: do you know particular people or companies doing things suggested here (or not suggested here) we should be highlighting? And, most important, what are we missing?

1. What’s going to be in an ebook? We’re definitely moving past the stage where the ebook is a “straight lift” from the print: half-titles, blank pages, and all. As ebook sales are rising, publishers are paying more attention to presentation and quality control. And there have been a few experiments with “enhanced ebooks” that contain added content and features, some of which are presenting books as “apps” to increase the functionality that can be offered. Where will we be drawing the line between “standard” new ebook features — dictionaries and linked notes, for example — and enhancements that might be worth extra money? And what enhancements will we see working in the sense that consumers see them to be worth paying for?

2. What will ebook sales channels look like eight months from now? In addition to the main ones we have today — Kindle, iBooks and the App Store, Nook and B&N, Sony, Ingram Digital and Content Reserve — will we be seeing substantial sales through Google and the Android marketplace, B&T’s Blio, and Copia as well? Will the mobile phone service providers be creating retail outlets that matter too? Will the retailers newly in the ereader game — Walmart and Costco and Best Buy — also be motivated to create a branded outlet of their own to sell ebooks?

3. To what extent will publishers view single-title marketing as a practical endeavor? We’ve maintained that title-by-title marketing is the Achilles heel of general trade publishing and that the steady erosion of book-format-oriented marketing opportunities (book review pages in newspapers, radio and TV talk shows) and verticalization call for different marketing strategies. Where will publishers’ thinking be next January on the challenge of launching each new title into the marketplace?

4. How much progress will publishers be making on establishing direct-to-customer contact? What has characterized trade publishing is its dependence on intermediaries to reach the market. And what has made trade publishing possible is the leverage provided by those intermediaries, allowing publishers to reach millions of readers through mere thousands of touch points. But all publishers today acknowledge that the intermediary structure is breaking down and direct contact with end users is necessary. How is that working out? We may need two panels to answer that question: one of niche publishers that will find it pretty natural to do and one of general trade publishers who will undoubtedly find it very hard and complicated.

5. How important is the mobile phone market? How fast is it growing? What kind of books work best on it? And what do publishers have to do differently to please that market than what they do for larger-screen PCs, tablets, and ereaders?

6. How are publishers tackling the shrinking marketplace for printed books? Are they shedding warehouse space or considering consolidation with other players? Are they renegotiating printing contracts, reconsidering what constitutes a “minimum run” or acceptable print book margins? Are they developing new short-run and POD models to complement their prior pressrun models? Are they launching any new books with a no-pressrun strategy?

7. How much progress are publishers making toward changing their workflow, so that we have “ebook first” editorial processes? Since the beginning of ebooks over a decade ago, the standard technique has been to make them after the print book has been completed, and for the editor and author to focus their efforts on making the best possible print product. There is an increasingly widespread belief that this is backwards, and more complex ebooks help make a compelling argument for reversing the order of things. How far will we have moved in that direction by next January?

8. Does the growth of ebook sales change the thinking of publishers and agents about the efficacy of dividing up the territories for single languages? Do publishers start to see a growth in offshore sales facilitated by ebooks? Anecdotal reporting by O’Reilly, which owns global rights in all its titles, suggests that they’re seeing big sales growth in digital from markets that are hard-to-reach with print.

9. Do non-US publishers start to establish more of a sales presence in the US exclusively through virtual means? We’ve been suggesting on this blog that the growth of online sales — print books and digital books — will soon enable reaching a majority of the US sales potential without inventory, which means without the need for a warehouse or a distributor. That should lead to greater penetration of our market by offshore publishers, in all languages. Will we see enough signs of this by January 2011 to build a discussion around it?

10. How does the future look for the brick-and-mortar bookstore marketplace? On this blog (and elsewhere), concerns have been expressed about the impact on bookstores of the increasing shift to online purchasing for both print and ebooks. Christmas 2010 is being viewed in the consumer electronics industry as the “ebook Christmas”. When we’ve had a chance to digest the sales numbers of new devices and we combine that with what we know about the impact devices have on a consumer’s print book purchases, how do we see the future of bookstores when next January rolls around?

11. Is “profitable self-publishing” an idea gaining credibility or is it a pipedream? In 2009, author J.A. Konrath made a bit of a splash when he blogged about the substantial revenues he was earning putting his short stories and out-of-print backlist on Kindle without a publisher. Will there be more stories like this by January? Will this look like a viable option for established authors?

12. What’s the best approach to ebook distribution for small and mid-sized publishers? Will the original DADs (digital asset distributors) like Ingram Digital and LibreDigital provide the full service suite and sales effort that smaller publishers need? Or will the publishers-as-distributors model — notably including O’Reilly, who went into the business last February, as well as trade publishers and trade distributors like Perseus and NBN and Ingram Publisher Services, be the better option? How much is effective ebook distribution dependent on technical competence and how much of it requires sales competence?

13. After many years of discussion, are we yet beginning to see some new revenue models with any impact, like subscriptions (Disney has tried it now, in addition to O’Reilly’s Safari), selling books by the slice, or new models to compensate for library lending? We know that publishers need metadata-labeled fragments of their books for marketing purposes, but, for trade publishers, is there yet any indication that there’s a real payoff for that kind of tagging in sales revenue?

14. How much of the print backlist is still locked up by rights issues and what impact can different royalty offers have in clearing it up?Jane Friedman’s Open Road has had some success signing up established backlist for higher ebook royalties than the majors want to pay. Is the reservoir of candidates for this treatment substantial? How are agents and big publishers going to resolve these issues?

15. Is the notion of publishers building vertical presences on the web, so often expressed and promoted on this blog, gaining any significant traction in the real world? How are Poetry Speaks and Oxford Bibliographies Online and the forthcoming Pixiq from Sterling doing at establishing a new publishing model? What other examples are emerging or will emerge of publishers using delivering vertical solutions to create new business models?

At the Digital Book World conference, we want to be strategic and we want to be practical. And we want to be focused on the real-world problems digital change is forcing trade publishers to face. Have we left out any of yours?

I have finished this but not posted it yet and am already thinking of things I left out. A substantial publisher I spoke to last week learned from having his trip to the London Book Fair cancelled that he doesn’t need to go there anymore. This company has already given up its BEA floor space in favor of a meeting room. And this CEO himself is no longer going to go to Frankfurt and can see the day not far off when his company will no longer take space there either. Are trade shows  an anachronism in the age of digital communication? I have a feeling you readers and the Conference Council will think of a lot more.

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We’ve had “gradually”; get ready for “suddenly”


I don’t think too many future predictors are .300 hitters, and one ground ball I tapped out to shortstop was my hunch that the iPad wouldn’t have an immediate significant impact on ebook sales (although I thought it would be important over time.) According to data and analysis uniquely developed and provided by Michael Cader, published last Wednesday (which you need to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace to get and, if you don’t yet, what are you waiting for?), I was proved wrong in less than a month. Apparently if we get slightly larger and portable screens into people’s hands, they want to read books on them. And they don’t need to be e-ink and be lightweight (like Kindle and Nook and Sony Reader and the new Kobo Reader and a slew of forthcoming devices) to have that impact.

All we know from Apple is that they sold about a million iPads in the month of April, with 3G sales beginning only at month end. (Virtually everything sold in April was wifi-only.) We got download numbers, but no real guidance about what they meant in terms of sales. We can figure out that any sales numbers we can gather are for an average installed base of 500,000 iPads.

We wouldn’t expect the monthly sales rate of a million units to be sustained; there were a lot of pre-orders and launch-hype sales in April’s numbers. But with May being launch month for the 3G version and both the wifi and 3G models available going forward, and the 3G model apparently much more popular than the wifi-only, a sale of 500,000 in May which is 3G launch month and a “run rate” of 300,000 a month going forward would seem a modest expectation. If that’s right, then the average installed base in May will be 1.25 million, in June 1.55 million. So the installed base for June will be triple what it was in April.

Cader got anonymized information from an unknown number of large Agency publishers for the April sales. He says that for most of the companies he surveyed, iBooks sales were 12 to 15 percent of their ebook total before the 3G models landed! And then two companies reported sales jumps of 300 and 400 percent on the weekend that they did. And one publisher who showed Cader figures by title revealed that there were already books on which the iPad sales exceeded Kindle sales.

Cader’s analysis pointed out two nuances that need to be considered when interpreting these numbers. The Agency Five impact is overstated because of relatively restricted competition. They have far fewer titles competing with them in the iBooks environment than they do in the Kindle store, the Kobo store, the Sony store, or from the ebook independents. Giant Random House and lots of smaller publishers just weren’t there. So even if the sales of all five publishers were 12 percent of their total ebook sales in April, it wouldn’t suggest that iBooks constitute that portion of overall ebook sales. Yet.

But, at the same time, these numbers also understate the impact of the iPad because iPad owners also buy and consume books on the device from the Kindle and Kobo and B&N readers which wouldn’t be reflected in Cader’s survey numbers. One ebook retailer who shares information told me that sales for his company were very strong in April. I had asked that question to probe whether sales were adversely affected by the price increases mandated by the Agency model. Were they reducing business? No, definitely not. (This is a very big sub-point, but we’ll leave it for another day.) So while one must assume that some of the sales being made from iBooks would otherwise have been made by Kindle or Kobo or another existing retailer, the market is apparently growing fast enough to mask the impact of any cannibalization.

With five of the Big Six and most of the big titles in the iBooks store, it would seem reasonable to assume that 65% of the sales potential is reflected in those books. Applying that assumption to the average of the reported 12-to-15 percent market share (13.5%) would suggest that the overall share of iBooks sales is just a tad under nine percent.

But it would seem to me that number will more than double in May. The installed base will be more than twice as high and the 3G model, from which publishers are reporting much more activity, will constitute a significant portion of the May base after having been non-existent in April. In fact, it seems at least as likely that the number could triple! So by June, we could well be seeing a quarter or more of all ebook sales occurring through iBooks. The rise will probably be slower after that (May sales will reflect the huge installed base increases generated by initial sales in April of the wifi model and in May of the 3G) but Apple climbing into a solid second place behind Kindle in 60 days is pretty dramatic.

Even more exciting for publishers is the evidence that the iBooks sales are expanding the ebook market. Cader reported that many strong titles skewed to a younger and male demographic and that iBooks sales boosted the performance of some nonfiction titles. Most people figured that the iPad would appeal to an audience of not-as-heavy book buyers compared to Kindle, which was part of the reasoning behind my own flawed expectation that sales would be modest at first. But what we may be seeing is that people who get a decent reader in their hands might consume more books digitally than they had in print. If that proves to be true, it would be very good for publishers and authors.

Meanwhile, even before this analysis was delivered, we got news last week from two publishers that increased ebook sales were their best financial news. Both Simon & Schuster and Harlequin reported that print results were disappointing, but digital sales were stronger than expected.

It was only about six weeks ago that I looked at the IDPF’s most recent numbers, applied them to what I’d heard in my own anecdotal conversations with major publishers and agents, and had an epiphanic moment realizing how close we were to what we called at BISG’s Making Information Pay conference last week a “point of no return.” I wrote in my London posts and then repeated at the conference last week that I saw ebook sales to be 25% of a narrative book’s unit sales expectation by the end of 2012. With print book sales made online thrown in, I saw virtual cash registers ringing up half the units for narrative books by then. Two Big Six CEOs privately agreed with me as did a retailer knowledgable about both print and ebook sales. Then I spoke to a Big Six digital strategist who said I was being conservative.

This view is not universally accepted. An executive at a trade book distributor last week told me (nicely, he’s a nice person) that he thought I was nuts. He still sees ebook sales as trivial and not likely to reach the levels I expect by the end of 2012 by even the end of 2016.

Well, I intended to be conservative because I was so surprised at my own realization at the beginning of April. But I remind myself (and all of you) that things happen “gradually, then suddenly.” It now looks to me like the iPad — joined as it will be by a flood of new ereaders and tablets and even whole new platforms like Blio and Copia — may be the catalyst for the transition encapsuled in those three words.

When I examined the Random House tactic of staying out of the iBook store initially, I said it made sense but that it constituted a bet that iBooks sales wouldn’t be robust right out of the box. Now that sales results seem to have proven that conjecture (which I shared) wrong, I’d expect that Random House will join the other big publishers in moving to the Agency model to enable them to join the iBook offering. The numbers we discuss in this piece would suggest they’re losing sales and the agents representing the authors not in the iBooks store are bound to be pointing that out. In the meantime, Random House has gained some benefits from having less expensive ebooks in the marketplace in other storefronts, but it would be surprising if that compensated for not having an outlet selling 12% or more of the ebook units.

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A Mother’s Day Tribute to My Mom: Elky Shatzkin


I’ve written several times about my father’s life in the book business, which shaped quite a few careers, including mine. Here’s one. Andanother. This post, for Mother’s Day weekend, is about my father’s other great passion: my mother.

Eleanor Oshry Shatzkin — Elky to everybody who knew her — was the first woman to graduate from the engineering school at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon), earning her degree in physics in 1941. She was, in a way, a management consulting pioneer, running the consulting operation for the accounting firm J.K. Lasser and Company from 1957-1962. For a dozen years after that, until Dad dragooned her into the family book distribution business, Two Continents (the place where I really learned about the trade), Elky ran her own consulting company. She was a “better, faster, cheaper” consultant: a designer of systems and the rigorous author of “procedures” (as workflow documentation was called then.) Her clients included substantial law firms, for which she designed billing systems in the days before computers, and the Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency.

One of Mom’s clients for many years was The Longacre Press, a printer of book jackets based in Mt. Vernon, New York. Among other things, she designed a scheduling system for them. Working for Mom on that project was a critical piece of my early education in the book business.

She was a feminist before Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique”, although she explicitly resisted the label. But she was so totally devoted to my Dad that there were aspects of her capabilities and personality that we didn’t see in full flower until after he died when they were in their 80s.

Elky Shatzkin grew up in Pittsburgh, the younger child and only daughter of a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist family. Her father, Sam Oshry, sold life insurance in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. It was family lore that when Sam encountered a person begging for money for a meal, his frequent response was to bring them home for dinner. Mom’s older brother, Howard, was her intellectual inspiration (before she met my Dad) and since he became a physicist, her inclination was to follow in his footsteps.

Elky and Len got married in Harlem in 1940 (Len’s family lived in New York) and went back to Pittsburgh for their senior year at Carnegie Tech, living together at the Oshry home. Their marriage was not announced on campus to protect Elky’s scholarship, but they were serving together on the school paper, the Carnegie Tartan: Len as editor-in-chief and Elky as managing editor.

In the winter of that year there was a strike at Kaufman’s Department Store in Pittsburgh and scabs were hired to break the strike. Len wrote and published an editorial castigating that practice in the Tartan; the problem was that the Kaufman that owned the store was a regent of the university. About two months later, the administration used the claim that an April Fool’s issue that imitated past practices of lampooning faculty and staff was in bad taste as the excuse to fire Len from his position. My mom, his secret wife, took over as editor for the balance of the school year and, in effect, nothing changed. That incident characterized their 62 years of marriage: they had each other’s backs.

During World War II, Elky worked for Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, doing pioneering work with radioactive isotopes. In early 1943, she was getting bored with the job and she went to Columbia University to apply for another position. It didn’t sound appealing to her, so she decided to decline it by saying she expected Len to be drafted soon and she expected to be going to wherever he was in basic training and interrupting her career. “What does your husband do?”, she was asked. “He’s a printer,” she said. Len was then Production Manager for House Beautiful magazine. “Where is he?” “He’s waiting for me downstairs.”

This led to Len being interviewed and hired to work on the Manhattan Project, which kept him out of the war. But while the war was going on, he didn’t tell Elky what he was doing. The secrecy requirements were stringent and she would have understood that and not pressed him.

About a year later, Elky and Len went to the theater with a woman friend who had a loud voice and a vivid imagination. Len had to visit the draft board every six months to get his deferment renewed, and that was the night, so he didn’t arrive at the theater until the intermission. While they were outside between acts, friend Florence said, “I know what you’re doing, Len. You’re working on that new atomic bomb!”

Elky jumped in immediately. “Oh, no, Florence. Of course, he isn’t. We discussed the possibility of an atom bomb in my senior class in physics at Carnegie Tech. It’s simply not possible to gather enough fissionable uranium to create a chain reaction. You can’t make an atomic bomb.”

Elky could never have told a lie. If she didn’t believe that to be true, she wouldn’t have said it!

After the war and after my sisters and I were born, she got a job, with her physics background, working for the Picker X-Ray Corporation in White Plains. In short order, she was reorganizing their files and systems. That piqued her interest in management consulting and she was lucky enough to get a meeting with Peter Drucker for career advice. He hooked her up with a consultant named Bill Porter, who took her in and trained her. That led to her consulting career.

Aside from being a devoted wife, career woman, fantastic hands-on mother (she created a Benjamin Franklin costume for me on Halloween in 1957 that was definitely the coolest one in the entire village of Croton-on-Hudson that year), and running a complicated house that always had guests coming and going, Elky was a very active “citizen.” For example, she went by herself to the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. (I never really got the story about why she went and Len didn’t and we didn’t and now it is too late to ask.)

Elky’s greatest civic achievement was the Croton Shakespeare Festival, which she organized in 1962 with two other local Moms and which ran every summer, introducing the Bard and theater skills to local students and their parents, for 25 years. The full story of the Festival could take a book, let alone a blogpost, but it was a product of her boundless energy, unbelievable organizational skills, and public-spiritedness.

Over the years, Mom mentored countless young people. I have many childhood memories of the children of her friends coming to our house to be tutored in algebra. My sisters and I have many contemporary friends who learned office and organizational skills working for Elky. She was a tough boss: a perfectionist who never tired of making you go back and do it again to get it right. She could yell and scream at you too, and she terrified some people. But you found out pretty quickly that she had a heart of gold and unlimited generosity and, in fact, her demanding perfection of you was a compliment, because she knew you could do it.

For the last few years before Len died in 2002, Elky’s singleminded focus was helping him maintain a high quality of life as congestive heart failure progessively weakened him. They didn’t cut back much on their lifelong habit of traveling as often and as broadly as possible. In the last two decades of Len’s life, they traveled to every continent and spent months at a time living and doing volunteer work in Brazil, Venezuela, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Russia, India, and other places too numerous for me to recall. They maintained a wide circle of friends the world over.

When Len died, Elky lost the focal point of her life, but it didn’t slow her down for very long. A month or two later she was bouncing back, joining a weekly vigil and protest of America’s impending entry into Iraq. In 2004, she spent the last week before the election walking the precincts of Florida, trying to get John Kerry elected.

In the winter of 2006, Elky discovered a Democratic Congressional candidate in her local (always Republican) district named John Hall. She quickly “sold” him to my activist sister Nance (whose family had lived since 1990 with Elky and Len in the house we grew up in) and they joined the campaign. Elky didn’t let the pancreatic cancer diagnosis she got six weeks before Election Day slow her down; she ran phone banks and volunteer operations for Hall right up until Election Day. And the very last trip she took was to Washington in January, 2007, to be in Hall’s office to congratulate him when he came off the House floor after being sworn in. She died about two weeks later.

My mother was a great person, a great teacher, a fabulous parent. She didn’t teach me as much about the book business as my Dad did, so she doesn’t show up on this blog as often, but she sure taught me as much about life.

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Ruminations on returns


I contributed to a long-standing industry argument I usually try to avoid when I speculated that ebook growth could lead to a situation which threatened the returnability model for book inventory shipped to retailers and wholesalers. I should have been more emphatic that what I was actually suggesting was that the model of using speculatively-printed inventory to sell books was threatened, and that returnability, which is a subset of that model, would go along with it.

Coincidentally, Ken Auletta wrote a New Yorker piece at the same time in which he demonstrated that lots of smart people, he among them, don’t actually understand the economic impact of returns, let alone the promotional impact of the practice of using books as posters and display props, which is responsible for most of them.

Misunderstanding the economic implications of returns, failing to grasp how it is most useful to think about and analyze them, and various misinterpretations of them are very common up and down the ranks in publishing, in big companies and small.

I recall in the early 1980s I had a small publisher client that was distributed by a larger one. I used to go into the big publisher’s office every couple of weeks and leaf through the sales rep orders, trying to figure out which reps were best selling my client’s books effectively and which ones perhaps needed to get a refresher course on the sales handles.

The sales director in this shop, who ran sales departments for several large publishers in his career and who was both a nice guy and thought of as a “numbers man”, kept tabs on the returns percentage from the two national chains: at that time, Walden and Dalton. He calculated those percentages meticulously at the end of each month, based on that month’s shipments out and returns processed.

Well, you could count on the fact, every year, that returns percentages for both chains were astronomical in February, when few new big books shipped and every excess of optimism going into Christmas was punished. And you could also be sure that both chains had low returns in November and December, when retailers are much too busy building up stock for holiday sales to send anything back.

In other words, the calculation produced a result that was, literally, useless. It simply confirmed the obvious. I bring up this straw horse because it demonstrates an important fact that is just as true when analyzing returns for an account for any period of time, even a year.

The returns in any period of time are at least partly driven by purchases made in a previous period of time. So if sales in a prior period were high, the returns percentage in a subsequent period of lower sales will also be high, and that’s regardless of the appeal of the books being shipped in either period.

So as sales fluctuate, as they inevitably do, publishers will find that all weak sales years have apparently high returns and strong sales years have low returns. This isn’t cause and effect; it is more like a tautology: the inevitable consequence of the fact that returns are based on the sales made three months ago, six months ago, and sometimes a year ago, not on the sales being made right now.

One way a publisher might try to analyze their way around the timing problem is to look at returns by title which, if the calculation were done when an edition’s life was completed (perhaps on the hardcover after it has been remaindered deep into the paperback’s life), would seem to be a valid number to analyze on a stable base: the shipment of one particular book.

But even calculating things that way is not very useful as an analytical device. Returns come from the inventory in the pipeline when the book declines or dies. If the book has already sold for years in that edition, the base for the returns calculation (all books shipped) includes those from many printings long past. The copies in the pipeline at that point might only be 10% or 5% of the total the book has shipped in its lifetime, so the returns will, of course, come in under those percentages.

A publisher trying to manage inventory efficiency needs to be concerned with the books in her own warehouse and the books currently in the supply chain and subject to return. Those sold long ago are not part of that inventory. Taking 100,000 copies back on a book that sold a million or two million and calculating the returns percentage won’t produce any flashing caution lights, whereas taking back 25,000 of 35,000 pushed out on a new “make” book will produce a lot more internal scrutiny and hand-wringing in most houses. But a tighter focus on how to to manage the inventory actually in the supply chain in the face of declining sales would be much productive than an “analysis” that produces nothing but a historical observation. A publishing company can realistically make a lot more progress and save a lot more money figuring out how to reduce the 100,000 than the 25,000.

One factor that affects returns percentages and is not often considered by a publisher is the frequency with which an account orders. I’ve never had the opportunity to do the analysis, but I’d bet there is a very strong inverse relationship between the frequency with which an account orders a publisher’s books (whether direct or from wholesalers) and returns percentage. There are two interrelated reasons for this.

The obvious one is that the store that reorders is signaling that they’ve sold books, meaning that what is available to be returned as a total of what they’ve ordered is less, the effect we’ve noted above. But the other is that an account that orders less frequently is raising returns as a percentage in one of two other ways (depending on the book): they’re either over-ordering to prevent going out of stock or they’re failing to reorder when they are out and losing sales, which means that whatever is returned (of other titles, in this case) is calculated against a smaller sales base than should have been the case.

And all of this is very important to take on board right now because publishers are likely to be entering a sustained period of declining brick-and-mortar sales (which is the part of the inventory pipeline most likely to generate returns), caused in part by declining brick-and-mortar shelf space. That means that advance sales on new titles are going to be lower than before and the number of backlist titles being stocked is going to steadily decline at the same time. And that adds up to a higher returns percentage on a declining sales base.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if stores close or cut back their shelf space, they’ll be sending books back that will increase returns rates. But it will not be simple to separate out how the current strategies for inventory placement are working and to avoid having the “noise” of returns made because of contraction cloud those judgments.

The “good news” is that the old measurements (total returns in a year against total shipments out in a year) will deliver an exaggerated picture of how much current new title sales are declining (although they will be delivering a true picture of a very sad fiscal reality.) The bad news is that we’re going to start hearing about companies whose overall returns percentages have gone from the 20s to the 30s and then higher.

I wrote in the piece that I referred at the top that it looks like sales registered online — whether print or electronic — will be half the sales of new narrative text books published by 2012. When that number gets to 90%, there won’t be much of a premium on a publisher’s ability to understand, and thus to be able to manage, their returns with sensitivity and sound analysis. But between now we will be living through several years when it will be one of the critical skill sets for all publishers fighting to survive sea changes in the business.

For a few years earlier in the decade, we had a thriving little business called “Supply Chain Tracker” in which we took the sales and inventory data provided by major accounts and delivered publishers reports in Excel to help with analysis. We created what we believe were some critical metrics to watch: percentage of stock on hand sold, week by week in each account; percentage of each book’s stock in an account’s Distribution Center (if they had one); total inventory in the retail pipelines we could see and what percentage was selling through in a week (by title), and then the same for wholesale and distribution centers. Most of a publisher’s supply chain inventory is really visible today, if a publisher takes the time and care to look. Just glancing at each spreadsheet an account delivers for how things are going on top sellers was never sufficient; the price to be paid for such inattention in the future will only escalate.

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