June, 2010

Ten More Commandments, Publishing Edition

The following post is a collaboration with my friend Joe Esposito, the CEO of GiantChair. The post was Joe’s idea, but I contributed enough to its completion to justify a claim of shared authorship. Joe has kindly agreed to allow this received wisdom to be delivered to the world through The Shatzkin Files.

As thunder roared above the mountaintop, God sat on a throne of light. She stroked her braid and contemplated her new shoes.

“Who goes there?” God shouted.

“It is but a poor publisher,” the tiny figure said.  “I have come for guidance in the treacherous ways of publishing in the digital age.  I have oodles of Googles, but no money in my pocket.  What dost thou command?”

“A poor publisher, eh?” God snorted, shaking the trees around them.  “That’s what the angels call a redundancy.”

“Oh, please, Lord.  Help me navigate the shoals of the noble Barnes and the forest where dwell the Amazons.  Take me beyond my borders to a realm of growth and economic success.  My very soul depends on my making buckets of money.”

God looked at the puny publisher and took pity on him.

“Do as I say,” God thundered, “and you will save your heavenly soul and a place for yourself in the value chain.”  She thus proceeded to lay down these precepts–but as God is timeless, they came in no particular order.

1. Thou shalt regard thy former competitor as thy future collaborator.

2. Thou shalt let no intermediary stop you from knowing your customer, nor stop your customer from knowing you.

3. Thou shalt publish no book intended for an audience outside your spheres of direct influence.

4. Thou shalt read Dr. Faustus in all its editions–Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google–and know that Mephistopheles always appears first as a helpmate.

5. Thou shalt not forsake thine own brand.

6. Thou shalt create new brands and master the power and importance of brands.

7. Thou shalt respect and value thy communities with the same devotion thou hath always given to copyrights.

8. Thou shalt recognize that metadata is everywhere and associating it meaningfully is thy job.

9. Thou shalt not fail to test a new marketing channel in order to protect an old one.

10. Thou shalt deliver thy content in every imaginable form that thy customers request or might require.


A brilliant Conference Council helps make a great Digital Book World

We had a very successful debut annual conference for Digital Book World last January, even though we didn’t conceive the idea until June, put together a group of helpers (which we now call our Conference Council) until July, or draft the initial program until August. This year we’re way ahead of that schedule. We’ve put together a fabulous Council to advise us this year and we’re having a meeting of many of them next week to discuss the agenda and to start getting suggestions for speakers.

The Council gives us wide exposure and connections to the trade publishing industry. That way we make sure we don’t miss any ideas and we don’t miss knowing about any talented people whom our audience would want to hear.

We have several publishing company presidents and CEOs (Sara Domville of F+W, Marcus Leaver of Sterling, Maureen McMahon of Kaplan, Brian Napack of Macmillan, Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks) and some presidents and CEOs from other companies and support organizations in the industry (Kristen McLean of the Association of Booksellers for Children, Tracey Armstrong of Copyright Clearance Center, Peter Clifton of Filedby, David Cully of Baker & Taylor, Joe Esposito of GiantChair, John Ingram of Ingram Content Companies, Scott Lubeck of The Book Industry Study Group, and Steve Potash of Overdrive Systems.)

We have other senior level executives, many with specific digital responsibilities (Peter Balis of Wiley, Ken Brooks of Cengage, Mark Gompertz of Simon & Schuster, Madeline McIntosh of Random House, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Larry Norton of Borders, Kate Rados of F+W Media, Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press, John Schline of Penguin, Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Maja Thomas of Hachette, and Tom Turvey of Google.)

We have agents (Sloan Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writer’s House, and Scott Waxman of the Waxman Agency) and industry consultants and commentators (Michael Cairns of Persona Non Data, Ted Hill of THA Consulting, and Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.) And because he is our media partner, we have help from Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace as well. And we also get great input from others on the F+W team: David Nussbaum, David Blansfield, Cory Smith, Guy Gonzalez, and Matt Mullin.

So we have all the Big Six represented, as well as small publishers, industry-wide associations and service providers, wholesalers, digital distribution partners, retailers, and agents. All of these people have real input into the topic list and speakers. Many of them are joining us for a meeting next week to review our ideas for the program, which we previewed on this blog about a month ago.

Because Digital Book World tries to be at the cutting edge of trade publishing and digital change, we often face one or both of two challenges. Sometimes we believe something should be happening, or be about to happen, but we may not know where or whether the publishers leading the charge will talk about it. Several topics come to mind that fit that description: vertical efforts inside general trade houses; what houses are doing to adjust to reduced expectations for print sales in bookstores; how houses are gearing up or changing their sales efforts to compete in and serve a growing list of digital intermediaries; how enhanced ebook and ebook first creation change the traditional order of things in product development.

The other challenge we have to work around is when people can say things privately but not publicly. One topic that is very tough to talk about is ebook royalties, which is a major point of contention between publishers and leading agents at the moment. The big houses are pretty adamantly trying to hold the line (publicly) at a royalty of 25% of net receipts. But upstart publishers like Jane Friedman’s Open Road appear to be willing to pay 50%; publishing through Smashwords yields 85% (but sells the books without DRM, which would frequently scare the copyright owners of valuable properties); and self-publishing through a distributor would deliver a yield somewhere in between. (Remember: self-publishing ebooks carries no inventory risk.) In that environment, some agents are able to wring some concessions from some publishers. But the agent can’t talk about that without jeopardizing her ability to get concessions for her clients and no publisher will volunteer to reveal the isolated concession and start turning that into a policy.

Some things are just hard to discuss. Do booksellers, or even the publishers and wholesalers who supply them, want to talk about the possibility of their impending demise? But how can one plan for the future and ignore that elephant in the room? If a publisher suddenly sees the necessity of developing direct selling relationships with end users, after years of telling booksellers he was against it, does that publisher want to talk about those efforts in public?

When competitors participate in industry education initiatives, they must draw lines around what they will reveal and what they won’t. One ebook-responsible executive we know at a major house is persistently reluctant to reveal what he’s doing or what he’s thinking. But he has a boss, one who is proud of what he does and what their house does, who pushes him forward as a speaker.

Frankly, I think these challenges are greater for us than they are for other conferences on digital change that focus more on technology than they do on business practices. Very few publishers are masters of tech; usually they’re working with outside suppliers who are happy to share best practices. But business practices are different; they’re more sensitive. Sometimes the reluctance to share them is sound. Sometimes constraints are even legally required. Since our job is to focus on business practices, we’re glad to have relationships with very knowledgable players who will candidly engage with us on these challenges so we can figure out the best way to protect true proprietary knowledge but still disseminate valuable information.

We’re really proud of the illustrious group we have gotten to advise our efforts, and we get great value from them even though their first responsibility is to the company they work for. We feel confident that this group helps us cast a net that is wide and broad enough to assure us that any major development in the trade book world will hit our radar screen and that we’ll know if there are informed people willing to talk about it.


Cool Springs Press, a gardening publisher that really understands “vertical”

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been on the “vertical” trail for a long time and I try to stay abreast of book publishers’ efforts to realize the advantages of subject specialization and community building. I wrote a whole post about the Sourcebooks initiative, Poetry Speaks, when it launched last Fall. I have often referred to the vertical efforts of Hay House and Harvard Common Press. And I’m proud to have had a small role in Sterling’s creation of Lark Crafts and their forthcoming Pixiq site for photography.

But of all the efforts I’ve seen so far, the book publisher who seems to have taken the vertical vision we espouse the furthest — one that elevates community-building above content-selling as the first priority — is Cool Springs Press in Nashville, Tennessee. We spent some time earlier this week talking to Roger Waynick, their founder and CEO, to learn more about what they do, looking for lessons that other publishers can apply.

The thing that was most striking about our conversation with Roger was the frequency with which he referred to “our industry”, by which he did not mean the book business! He meant the lawn and garden business, which is the vertical that Cool Springs Press serves. This is a nuanced but massive differentiator. If a company thinks of itself as a “book publisher”, it is already off on the wrong track. If it thinks of itself as a content- and information-provider for an industry or a community, its self-image will lead to it doing the right thing much more often. And the very first right thing a book publisher with community aspirations has to do is to create a site that has very little reference to books, which they have.

Waynick knew nothing at all about publishing when he started Cool Springs Press in 1994. He was looking for a book about gardening and he started from the highly logical presumption that what he needed was local information, since gardening has to match the geography. A visit to a large and well-stocked local bookstore yielded nothing except confirmation that what he wanted didn’t exist.

So he created it and he created a formula. He found a local gardening advisor with a media presence and created a “Tennessee Gardening” book. Waynick had intuitively done the right thing. Finding content knowledge and promotional capability combined meant that he had recruited what the smartest publisher with experience would have called the best possible author. Before long, he was extending his franchise, creating gardening books by state, one after another. (At this point, Cool Springs has state-specific gardening books for 48 states.)

In 2003, large Nashville publisher Thomas Nelson embarked on a strategy to expand out of their religious publishing niche. (They didn’t ask me…) They acquired a few smaller publishers with non-controversial publishing programs and Waynick took the opportunity to sell his business. For the next few years, until Nelson management changed and the strategy changed to re-focus on their core business, he consulted to them and stayed somewhat in touch with the business he’d created.

But when the strategy at Nelson changed, Waynick was ready to buy his company back and turn it into a real content vertical. In 2007, he regained control of Cool Springs Press, set up trade distribution through Ingram Publisher Services, and started to invest seriously in the capabilities he needed to be more than just a book publisher.

Waynick’s key insight was that the lawn and garden customer was looking for solutions. And solutions, to be practical, had to be local. So he constructed a taxonomy around plants (roses, gardenias) and around actions (planting, weeding) to tag the content in his state-specific books. Waynick estimates that, since reacquiring Cool Springs in 2007, he’s spent a dollar on upgrading, tagging, and curating old content for every four dollars he has spent creating new books. And he invested that money upgrading his content repository with faith, but no clear plan about how he’d get it back.

In a formulation that echoes what we’ve heard earlier from Harvard Common Press talking about cookbooks and recipes, Waynick said he needed to see his content as a database of information, not as a collection of books. And just like Harvard Common, he looks at his database for “what’s missing” to direct him about what new content he needs to acquire.

He continued to build on his special retailing network. (Ingram handles Cool Springs’s trade sales, but Waynick maintains the relationships with the lawn and garden trade directly.) He recalls that, when he started, it seemed wildly counterintuitive to a national chain to put a Tennessee book in only the Tennessee stores, and so forth. But his sales were so robust that the skepticism quickly melted away. He built closer relationships with those special retailers by custom publishing: putting together books especially for a particular retailer. His path was smoothed in all these things by his author relationships; many of them were, like his first author, local gardening experts with radio shows popular with the core audience.

This year, for the first time, substantial revenue has flowed to Cool Spring from content licensing. About 10% of Cool Springs’s revenue will come from licensing content to web sites and creating apps for other players in the lawn and garden space. About 25% will come from the book trade, 35% from home center book sales, 15% from individual lawn and garden centers, and the balance from other special outlets like hardware stores.

The way Waynick sees it, the licensing side of the business has just begun to work. Next year will be far larger than this. He expects licensing sales to surpass book sales for his company in 2012.

Cool Springs has an online bookstore at gardenbookstore.net. In his retailing capacity, he sells the books of all his competitors. The day we spoke, Waynick pointed out that only two of the 15 books on his retailing front page were his publications; the rest came from other publishers. Perhaps because he’s a “customer”, he says that more and more of his competitors seems receptive to collaboration, allowing him access to their material for his efforts to provide content to retailers and wholesalers in the lawn and garden industry.

Waynick is not terribly concerned about competitors. Having been the first to act on the insight that gardening is local and that content has to be developed with a highly local point of view, and then having invested to put his content into shape for re-use, he really sees no other player that can deliver the variety of relevant content that he can. And now he’s moving on to a new opportunity that he is uniquely positioned to exploit.

Reflecting the initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama, school gardens are springing up all over the country. Waynick says that over 3000 new ones were created last year. Working with school administrators, Waynick is developing curriculum for the schools from his content. This also puts him in a position to help his retailers and his authors find additional opportunities. And how convenient is it for him that education in this country is organized the same way his book program is: state-by-state!

Waynick also recognizes the value of his author base. He does his best to keep his authors working, and not just on books. They blog for him and create content for his licensing clients as well.

One point that Waynick made in our conversation is an important one for all publishers to take on board: the presentation of content needs to be sensitive to the audience. Too often, he says (and he’s right), publishers end up with catalog copy meant to sell a book to a store buyer being presented on a web site to an end user customer. The copy is wrong for the purpose. He credits his distributor, Ingram, with having a system that helps him deliver the right metadata to the right places.

The future for Cool Springs Press looks very bright. Waynick is already providing content for a number of national retailers, including one of the brand leaders, which is what has jump-started his licensing revenues. These players see good content as a critical competitive requirement. They represent a growth market for web content, apps, and custom books and the growth opportunities they will offer will far exceed the rate of shrinkage in the traditional book market.

What we think will be interesting to watch going forward is how much Cool Springs moves into the business of selling things other than content to the audiences they keep growing and nurturing. They’re certainly positioned to do that.

But the important thing is that they can readily withstand shrinkage in the book trade or even in the printed book business. They’re bound to become an increasingly important marketing mechanism for all their competitors, who will become increasingly dependent on them for exposure to the consumer audience. And they’re in that position because they’re vertical and because they were willing to invest in their long run value to their community.


Big publishers have reason to be happy about how the book market is evolving

Big publishers have to be very happy about how things have been developing in the ebook world over the last six months or so. In that time, we have gone from a situation in which Kindle appeared to so totally dominate digital reading that Kindle-only publishing seemed an imminent threat to disintermediate publishers to one where it is not only Amazon’s hegemony that is threatened. Even their position as the ebook market leader isn’t safe.

Although one of the big factors in this change, the iPad, was unforseen at the time, we wrote around 16 months ago about the possibility that Amazon’s position leading the pack on ebooks would be hard to defend in one of the first posts on this blog.

As the ebook world has evolved (so far), we have the following “facts on the ground.” You will see from this recitation why so many people outside commercial publishing see eliminating DRM as a key to ebook marketplace efficiency. Our guess is that, regardless of the merits of the idea, going DRM-free is a non-starter for the big houses because it will be a non-starter with most big authors and most big agents.

1. If you buy an ebook from the Kindle store, you can read it on many devices within the Kindle reader software. That software is currently available for the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, PC, Mac, and Blackberry with Android reportedly on the verge. If the Kindle book has no DRM, though, you can read it on any reader that supports the Mobi format or you can use a program like Calibre to convert your Kindle book to epub, which can be read on just about all other devices.

2. But if you buy an ebook from Kobo or BN (through their “reader” software, not for the Nook), you can do the very same thing (and Kobo’s Android app is at least a bit ahead of Kindle’s; it was announced over the last weekend).

3. If you buy a book from iBooks, the iPad bookstore, you can only read it on an iPad and, soon, on an iPhone. That is, unless it were DRM-free which is, some are told, an option for publishers.

4. If you want to read on a Kindle device, you can only read books you buy from the Kindle store (unless you select from DRM-free mobi files, which leaves out the biggest books).

5. If you buy a Nook, you can theoretically read epub content obtained elsewhere by putting it through its DRM paces at Adobe Digital Editions, but it ain’t easy. My expert on these subjects, Kirk Biglione, points out that this is one of the big advantages of loading devices through wireless means (which sidestep having to deal with ADE) rather than computer synching. Because ADE is a challenge for most people, the interoperability across devices promised for epub files is, for protected files, more theoretical than real.

6. The Sony Reader is like the Nook: theoretically able to handle anything epub but made much more difficult by Adobe DRM. Sony is also suffering at the moment from having no apparent mobile strategy.

7. Bottom line: DRM creates hassles if you try to read on anything except the platform on which you bought. But Kindle, Kobo, and BN Reader (not Nook), provide a pretty seamless experience across devices.

8. The promise of the presumably-imminent Google Editions is that you will be able to read them on all systems that browse the web (except that Kindle’s browsing is not going to provide a terribly satisfying experience and Sony, which doesn’t provide a web browser, is probably left out of the Google Editions party).

So the e-ink devices generate the real lock-in, or, more often, lock-out, problem. It is your Kindle device that locks you into the Kindle store; your Kindle file can be ported to a non-Kindle device using the Kindle reader software.

This is a mixed, but probably mostly negative, blessing for future sales of Kindle devices. On the one hand, consumers who figure this out will be increasingly unwilling to chain themselves to a reader that makes them buy files they can’t use elsewhere. On the other hand, the spouse of a friend cracked her Kindle a few days ago and because of the hundreds of books she’d bought over the years from the Kindle store, couldn’t really consider purchasing any other reader as a replacement. So she bought a new Kindle.

So while the Kindle store almost certainly still has the most titles of any ebook retailer, Amazon is definitely facing some uphill battles selling devices to new customers. Even before the iPad hit in April, DigiTimes reported that Nook devices outsold Kindles in March. (Could this be the power of 700 retail locations talking after the cream of the online customer base had already been harvested by Amazon over the past 2+ years?) Then they reported yesterday that total e-ink monochrome ebook reader sales were 700,000+ for April and May, of which 37% were Nook and 16% were Kindle. In the same two months, of course, Apple reports selling 2 million iPads. So, in two months, iPads outsold Kindle devices about 20 to 1.

That means that even if 2 million new iPad owners, on average, buy 1/3 as many ebooks as 700,000 new single-purpose ebook device purchasers, the larger, full-color, web-ready screens sold in the last two months would be responsible for as much ebook consumption as the book-dedicated devices.

Meanwhile, the device prices are coming down sharply. Kobo announced a $159 device on sale at Borders a month ago. Since then Borders announced their own branded device for $119. Then Barnes & Noble cut the price of the Nook to $149 for the wifi model and $199 equipped with 3G. Many had been anticipating a price cut before year-end by Amazon from the $259 level they have maintained; but the B&N move forced their hand and Kindle just announced they were coming down to $189. Because aside from all the competition that Kindle faces on the device side, the Agency model has made it harder for them to keep customers loyal with a pricing advantage on the biggest books.

What this adds up to is that a much more diversified marketplace is developing for ebooks than publishers would have dared hope for a year ago. This, in turn, makes the customized ebook offering that Ingram is enabling (as they announced last week in a deal with F+W) even more powerful, because more and more devices — and therefore consumers — will be able to readily take advantage of ebook offers that aren’t served up from the Kindle store. Since one of the great unmet challenges of book sales on the web is merchandising — making it quick and easy for consumers to find what they want — curated offerings on specialized sites might really work better for a lot of people. And then Amazon will feel some of the pain that big publishers do, being horizontal in an increasingly vertical world.

On the other hand, big publishers have apparently lived past the danger of a massive problem: the possibility that authors could find most of their audience by setting up with Kindle alone. There is still more complexity to be added. Google will arrive shortly with a big splash. Newcomers Copia (a client of Idea Logical) and Blio are still planning market entries in 2010, and they each have some unique propositions the current players do not. The more different places an ebook might successfully be sold; the more variety in the way ebooks get merchandised; and the more benefit that can accrue from effective distribution of files and metadata; the more a publisher with some savvy will look like a sensible option to an author who might be thinking of a do-it-yourself effort.

There was a conference called Untethered last week. I didn’t go because it was an “all publishing” conference about technology, and I am skeptical about any horizontal approach. But there was a panel of publishing CEOs asked to estimate how much of book sales would be ebooks five years from now. The high guesses were 40-50%. I think they’re low. And if the question is what percentage of the books that are narrative writing are ebooks by five years from now, I think they are way low. (Apologies to the first batch of people to see this post and those who got it by subscription because I hadn’t quite finished this thought when I put it up. I saw it later and fixed it.)


Introducing E2BU, indispensible for anybody investing in ebook enhancement

Last winter, before the announcement of the Agency model as the path to ebook price maintenance, some major publishers had acknowledged out loud that enhancing ebooks in various ways would be the way to keep the public paying print book prices for content.

That got me thinking. First I thought about the CD-Rom debacle of the mid-1990s. But then I thought: if publishers are going to be spending time and money enhancing their ebooks, maybe this time around it can be done thoughtfully and knowledgably. And that’s where the idea for Enhanced Ebook University, E2BU, came from.

E2BU is a partnership of The Idea Logical Company and Digital Book World, the unit of F+W Media with which we work on an annual conference. We are providing the content and our Digital Book World partners are providing the hosting, tech, and marketing. We’re delighted that, so far, Aptara and Copia have signed on as sponsors. We’re starting out with three core offerings which we hope the larger community of the ebook-interested will find of value.

Our White Paper, entitled “Enhanced Ebooks Today and Tomorrow: A Survey for Authors and Publishers”, is a soup-to-nuts survey of the possibilities inherent in enhanced ebooks, written for the publishing people, not the geeks. We hired Peter Meyers to write it. Pete is the former editor of O’Reilly’s Missing Manuals series and, as near as I can tell, the person on the planet who has done more thinking about how the ebook experience can be enhanced than any other. Pete was already working on his own project, “A New Kind of Book” when we met. He has written a really solid study, which itself was “enhanced” by peer review from more than two dozen industry professionals.

E2BU will also launch a series of nine webinars for publishing professionals on June 29. The first session in the series will be free. The kickoff program describes the “state of the art” for enhanced ebooks today. In later sessions, we will cover the complex rights issues that ebook enhancements raise, the complications of multiple platforms, the options for and challenges to producing enhanced ebooks, and issues of analytics and marketing.

Our webinar moderator is Kirk Biglione, whose Oxford Media Works advises publishers and others on tech issues. Kirk is also the Chief Technology Officer for the whole E2BU project. Joining Kirk for the kickoff session will be Jessica Goodman of Wiley (who will talk about their amazing How to Cook Everything app), Theodore Gray of Touch Press (behind the renowned iPad app, The Elements), and Rhys Cazenove of Enhanced Editions in London (the creators of one of last year’s most successful enhanced ebooks, Bunny Munro.)

In addition to the webinar series, E2BU plans a special session especially for authors who, we believe, will find it increasingly necessary to know what ebook enhancement is all about and to be preparing material for enhancement as they create their books.

The third offering will be the E2BU Resource Directory. The Directory will be an increasingly robust guide to services on offer to help publishers with ebook enhancement. It will cover app and web developers, software, a/v, development tools, digital conversion, media production partners, DADs, content management services, analytics, and social media/ereading platforms. The Directory will launch with over 100 company listings.

The entire E2BU project is overseen by Jess Johns of The Idea Logical Company, who will take charge of the blog and field what we expect will be many suggestions for more webinars and Directory entries.

So what is a guy like me, who is a skeptic about many aspects of ebook enhancement and who makes a living trying to get publishers to do “the right thing”, doing creating a program like this?

I see signs everywhere that, even though the initial impetus for ebook enhancement — that it would help maintain prices — has receded a bit, the impulse to explore the possibilities remains very strong. Our analysis of publishing’s “shift” includes the observation that format-specific publishing will yield to format-agnostic publishing. Format-specificity was a requirement of the physical world; you couldn’t distribute printed books through the airwaves and you couldn’t embed in a magazine.  When content creators and audience owners deliver to their customers through files, constraints disappear. Files can be anything: words, pictures, sound, moving images, amination, games, productivity software. Newspaper web sites have had an explosion of video content in the past few years; reporters are often carrying flip-cams these days.

And publishers are feeling an increased need to master video. On a recent tour of HarperCollins, I was shown the new TV production facility they have in the New York office. They do author interviews whenever authors come in. Last week, Peter Kaufman, a longtime TV and publishing veteran, was explaining his ideas about a holistic approach to video creation for publishers which he believes could save them lots of money and deliver them much higher-quality footage for various uses.

On the same day, I saw the Managing Director of an independent literary publisher in London who is currently hiring a video professor for his staff. Earlier in the week, we had a visit from a game developer who wants to develop game “apps” for publishers built around the characters and plots of books they are already publishing.

In other words, publishers are going to be spending money and effort enhancing their ebooks, whether Mike Shatzkin’s instincts say that’s likely to pay off or not. It would be best if that were a thoughtful process. Publishers investing in enhancement should do so understanding the full range of possibilities and having absorbed an informed dialogue about what their effors are likely to mean to the reader and the author, critical stakeholders who are sometimes a bit inconvenient to consult during development. We’re confident that the whole E2BU program: the paper, the webinars, and the directory, will help publishers make sounder — and less risky — ebook enhancement decisions.

I would add that while all this is going on, I am currently reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my iPhone and wishing that they’d built in a way for me to identify all those Swedish proper nouns with a click. That would be enhancement I could really go for.


A roadmap for the future: 6 suggestions for today’s publishers that many can’t follow

I had occasion during this past week to speak at the global strategic meeting of Harlequin. Often when I am asked to speak, even internally to publishers, I am explicit told “we want you to scare the hell out of them.” Since I think of myself as a pretty unthreatening guy, I’m always a bit disconcerted by the reality that I’m doing that. But, of course, my core message is not very comforting to most people in the legacy publishing business. (And, I hasten to say, Harlequin never made that suggestion, nor, as this post should make clear, is it really relevant in their case.)

The message is scary for most because the essence of what I’m saying is that publishers over the next decade or two will have to change the way they think about how they deliver value. Their core asset base will shift from being the intellectual property they own or develop to the audiences they command. Publishers with vertical content offerings have a big head start to making that adjustment and general trade publishers hardly know what to make of the message at all.

I think my argument is pretty simple. It has two principal components.

I posit that the price of content must go down because of the laws of supply and demand. Even though digital delivery does actually increase “demand” (because people can consume more media if they have the means to do so always at hand), it increases supply much more. You used to need a publisher to spend some money and to commit an organization to get content into “supply”. Now you just need an internet connection. So I see downward pressure on the selling price of content going far into the future. This does not mean that eventually all content will be free, but it does mean that everybody will consume more and more free content and, therefore, be generally less willing to pay money for content to augment what is free.

The second component of my argument is that audiences for content will be (mostly)  aligned around interests. I call that “vertical”. The most successful legacy consumer media, including all of the biggest book publishers, tried to satisfy a wide range of interests, which I call “horizontal”.

I put those two things together and I say that getting from today (selling content) to tomorrow (selling audiences) depends on using today’s asset to build tomorrow’s. This might sound like something close to insanity if you’re Random House or Simon & Schuster or Penguin. It can make a lot of sense to you if you’re F+W Media or Hay House or Chelsea Green or Cool Springs Press. It seemed to make total sense to the people at Harlequin.

To prepare for the Harlequin conversation, I made a list of “most important things to think about” for them going forward. Here it is. If you’re really a vertical publisher, it should be a useful road map. To the extent that makes no sense at all, it indicates that your company is locked into competition for a pool of revenue and sales opportunity that will shrink, slowly for a while, but only for a while.

1. Use content as bait. When you make the leap that the eyeballs you own are the key to future monetization, not the copyrights you own, then you readily see the value of exploiting the content to attract eyeballs. This means many different things in different contexts, and, of course, the content-selling model still provides most of the cash and will for quite a while, but this is a key principle to apply. The free and freemium strategies you use will be different if your objective is to build a loyal community than if  you have the more immediate objective of selling something on the back of the giveaway.

2. Be sensitive to low-overhead competition and be prepared to imitate their new models. We’re heading for the day — actually we’re already in it — when it won’t take a big organization to reach a lot of book readers. (We’ll be transacting half our book purchases online in the next couple of years.) When companies smaller than yours are offering cheaper products with different delivery models — subscription, print-on-demand, whatever — watch them closely and try what they’re doing so you understand it. (Of course, Harlequin was already very much onto this idea. They just launched their own low-price imprint, Carina Press.)

3. Grow! Acquire competitors, or coopt them. Once you’ve defined the audiences you are going after, you have defined the way in which you will seek “scale”. If somebody else is going for the same audience you are, you want first to hope they don’t see it as an audience-acquisition play (and most publishers don’t yet.) While you’re fortunate enough to have competitors who are still focused primarily on monetizing IP, they’ll want to work with you if you have access to an audience that might buy their IP. Then you can use their content as bait to attract eyeballs for your community.

4. Find multiple ways to engage your audience. For community-building, it is not nearly sufficient to deliver product offers online. You have to figure out ways to make your community come to you; you have to figure out ways that members of the community can create value for each other. A key metric for you is how frequently you touch each member of your audience (or, even better, how frequently they touch you). The number of people absolutely guaranteed to open an email you send them will be an important measure of the health of your asset base.

5. Sell everybody else’s ebooks (the recent F+W and Ingram proposition). Almost nobody in your community gives a damn about which books are yours and which are somebody else’s. They want entertainment or information or to solve a problem; if you’re serving them as a community you don’t win by cutting them off from what they want because somebody else published it. A complete (but curated) ebook offering is a first step in the right direction. Ultimately, of course, you want to offer all the print books and all the other “stuff” that is relevant to the community, information-based or just plain products. That’s part of your monetization potential.

6. Build multiple brands with meaning. There are a very small number of companies whose name itself has true consumer meaning as a brand. (In fact, Harlequin is the leading one.) But if you can appeal to a community, you have an oppotunity to build a brand. Brands are shortcuts for consumers; they orient us as to what to expect in products or services, including social cred, quality, and  price. For as long as we have robust print delivery (and I think that might be as little as another five years), we have an opportunity to deliver URLs to people offline. That’s not as “efficient” as delivering them online (where the recipient can immediately click through) but it offers the chance to reach a lot of people who might not be online explorers. (I don’t want to give away Harlequin’s trade secrets here, but I was taken aback to hear how many senior citizens are in their audience; people who might well not be available to be pinged online.) But don’t use a book to push people to promote a generic web site where they’ll arrive and say “why am I here?” Deliver them to something relevant, something that will entice them to come back; a site you can, in good faith, urge the reader of a book to visit with the expectation that it will extend the engagement between you and your reader, to your mutual benefit.

When I deliver this message to the general trade community: publishers, authors, agents, retailers, the reaction is often a blank stare. That’s understandable; getting from a horizontal trade publisher to becoming one that “owns audiences” is a long and winding road. It is a totally rational decision to say, “that’s not the business I’m in; I’ll stick with what I’m doing until I’m the last one standing.” But there were no blank stares from the people at Harlequin. They know they have a large and loyal audience that cares about their brand. Even if the game changes from IP to eyeballs, they can readily see how they can still play.


Metadata is the new most important thing to know about

Several very recent conversations have come together for me.

1. Joe Esposito, the new CEO of GiantChair, says metadata is the key to publishing in the future; he describes metadata as the modern equivalent of Allen Lane’s discovery that cheaper paperback books sold in mass merchant locations could boost book sales. Of course, Giant Chair is very much involved in metadata as a way to help publishers find marketers and customers.

2. F+W and Ingram have come together to make a deal enabling niche web sites to sell the full range of applicable ebooks to their community. Of course, finding “applicable” ebooks will be dependent on the quality of the metadata that publishers provide to Ingram. I really liked seeing this happen, because it is the first significant example of something I’ve predicted and advocated: that publishers who want to go after communities should sell the books of their competitors and that all web sites should deliver curated ebook stores of the titles of interest to their site visitors.

3. A list discusses whether the publisher has a role in the future, what it is, and how the spoils in a new world should be divided between the publisher and the author. One observer points to the nuances in royalty rates: the royalty implications of the wholesale model versus the agency model, whether or not the commission paid to the agent is or isn’t deducted from “receipts” for purposes of calculating royalties, and what the competitive implications are for publishers going after authors. This gives rise to the next question: are publishers differentiated on royalty rates alone, as though each publisher would sell the same number of books? And that gives rise to the next point: understanding, quality, and richness of metadata can determine how successfully publishers can sell a book.

4. One of the biggest issues for publishers in managing and providing quality metadata is associating all the works and editions of them for each author with that author, and while that challenge intensifies when they look at the author’s books published by others, the fact is that most current royalty systems have plenty of problems keeping track of the multiple titles and editions of any author that they themselves have published.

5. Filedby, the directory of author web sites I co-founded with Peter Clifton, has a new metadata clean-up service called Author Data Advantage that makes it simple and economical for publishers to organize their works and edition data properly tied to each author and to keep it that way as new works and editions are created. Filedby’s service, which any publisher can avail themselves of, can tie all the editions of a work together, relate them accurately to each author or other contributor, and provide each of the authors with a unique ID. That allows the publisher to tie the marketing, reviews, conversation, community, rights, and digital promotions back to the right work and the right author.

Metadata work for publishers is, really, a bottomless pit, since it is, in effect, “information about the book” and there is no limit to that. There will be no end to the categories of quality, interest, and association each book can have attached to it. How many books published in years past, for example, should now be associated with “Gulf oil spill?” If you published one discussing whether using chemical dispersants is a good idea or not, I think you’d probably want somebody googling “Gulf oil spill” to find it, wouldn’t you?

The list conversation referred to above was really about the difference in royalty rates offered by publishers and how the authors cents-per-copy is affected by the agency versus wholesale model. My own hunch is that this won’t matter much in the short run because dollars offered in the advance will still be far more important to the authors’ and agents’ decision than selling policies that can change between signing and publication. In the longer run, differences in the ways publishers handle metadata might be relatively more important because it will affect how many copies they sell.

In an earlier post, I made the point that we’re approaching the day that half the sales of new books will be made online. All the sales of books online are highly dependent on metadata. Very robust metadata can enable a book and author to get discovered when more minimal, even though correct, metadata would omit it from the conversation. Incorrect metadata can prevent a book from being found even if the customer knows pretty much what they’re looking for.

Metadata, what it is and how it affects discovery and sales, is a subject that every book professional will find increasingly important to understand and master in the days to come.

Last year I wrote a post suggesting that one way publishers might deal with piracy is by posting sabotaged files on offending sites, rather than just playing whack-a-mole. This triggered more than a few hostile reactions. I found it ironic to see yesterday that the new Stephanie Meyer ebook could be the occasion for software mischief-makers to come into conflict with copyright mischief-makers, using infected PDFs of a book many people want as a way to gain entree into people’s computers with malware. So now the hackers who want to attack your operating system are the allies of the publishers who want to discourage people from downloading ebooks from anything but clearly-authorized sites.


Ever heard of Tata Consulting? Well, I hadn’t either…

The publishing industry faces some mammoth challenges that it will be very hard for any one publisher, even the biggest, to address.

Costs have to be cut dramatically over the next few years. New technology is going to enable upstarts to compete in the marketplace with far less overhead and infrastructure than legacy publishers have built. The legacy cost structure will be competitively unsustainable and, at the same time, investments are needed to create whole new infrastructures for marketing and new processes for product creation. What the products themselves will turn out to be is something that will only become clear through experimentation, trial-and-error, and an iterative exchange between publishers and their markets.

There are some challenges that are simply awesome. The big publishers are sitting on rights they can’t exploit because they don’t know what they own. The typical “rights database” in a major house is an ocean of filing cabinets containing hard copy contracts that could be 20, 40, or 80 years old and still in effect. The biggest emerging market might be the use of publishers’ material on web sites that do, indeed, need to “buy licenses” to use the material, but the granularity of potentially millions of very low-value transactions would defeat any attempt in the current environment to make this business profitable.

In fact, transaction costs are going to be one of the closely-watched metrics distinguishing publishers in the 21st century from publishers in the 20th. Everybody is going to have to be paying attention to cutting them to enable those low-value transactions to be profitable.

We’re going to need concerted and focused efforts to enable today’s publishing companies, particularly in trade but really in all areas except a few professional niches that have already made the transition, to do what’s necessary to reconfigure and rebuild for new paradigms that are still being invented.

All of this leads me to introduce an organization I hadn’t heard of a month ago which could well be the White Knight riding to the rescue of publishing. I don’t know them well — I’m still in the process of getting introduced — but a publishing systems veteran who has been my client twice before has just taken an important position with them. We’ll be working with them to hone their approach to the publishing community, which I’m sure will have a profound impact over the next few years.

The company is the Tata Group, and more specifically, the unit within it called Tata Consulting Services, or TCS. The executive is John Wicker, with whom I worked in the 1990s when he was at Vista Computer Services (now Publishing Technology) and more recently when he was at Klopotek. (We did the Digital Asset Distribution project together three years ago.) Tata is extraordinary.

The company was founded in 1868 and today the Tata Group comprises 96 different companies with over $70 billion in annual revenues (not far off the annual revenues of the entire book publishing industry, worldwide.) The consulting group is about 10% of the company, with annual revenues of about $7 billion, growing at about 20% a year. TCS has 160,000 associates worldwide, with more than 14,000 in the United States. All of them, of course, have a technology background. Hundreds have experience with publishing and thousands have experience with other media.

Wicker’s new job is to head up the Publishing Segment for TCS’s Global Consulting Practice (GCP), but he is building on a substantial existing base. There’s a major media company of great importance to the publishing community that has been having TCS handle its back office functions for years. Another major publisher was halfway through an Oracle system implementation that was over budget and behind its schedule working with a big brand consulting firm. TCS took over the project and delivered the implementation within the original timetable and budget.

And a substantial portion of the apps on sale for the iPad were developed by TCS. They have dealt with publishing’s legacy challenges and they’ve got experience at the things publishers are just learning that are critical to our future.

In the 1990s, Wicker helped us pioneer a new fusion between envisioning publishing’s future and educating the industry by organizing Vista’s “Publishing in the 21st Century” program, which I co-chaired with Mark Bide of Rightscom in the UK. The White Papers and conferences we did then were really groundbreaking. We can read what we said was publishing’s future more than a decade ago with pride. (Most of the speeches on this web site that are from before the year 2001 were delivered at Vista conferences.) We tapped the thinking of a lot of smart people to develop our understanding of the challenges publishing faced and to feed our imaginations about where things were going.

But the degree to which we could address the challenges directly was limited. Vista was the biggest provider of ERP (that’s “enterprise resource planning”) systems to publishers, but they were a tiny company, far less than half a percent of the size of TCS. What we learned influenced Vista’s systems development but we really couldn’t help much with a lot of the challenges we saw.

We didn’t have the resources to boil the ocean. TCS does. TCS can’t stop change (nor would they want to try) but they really have the capabilities to help publishers do what’s necessary to adapt to it. From the perspective of guys like Wicker and me, who for years have been contemplating issues so large they were more frustrating than enlightening to consider, being able to help steer such a massive rescue flotilla into publishing waters looks like the opportunity of a lifetime.


Agency seems (to me) to be working; I hope it’s legal

A year ago, before Agency was ever publicly discussed, I was grasping for what publishers could do to get control of ebook pricing and curtail, or at least manage, the degree to which ebooks undercut paper and, in turn, brick-and-mortar. At the time, people told me that it was possible for a manufacturer to control the pricing of their goods at retail and pointed to Apple’s success doing that and to other manufacturers like Bose that managed to do it. I believe the key was that they controlled the entire supply chain, right to the point of consumer purchase (although we know that other retailers do sell Apple products.)

I never got a grip on how this could be made to work, legally.

Then, along came Agency. The concept is that the publisher is the selling party in the retail transaction so the publisher sets the price. The intermediaries (the retailers) wouldn’t actually buy and sell the goods, as they always did. They would, instead, be “agents” for the publisher. That approach pushes the responsibility for sales tax back to the publisher, no trivial matter (although services are springing up to help with it). But it gives the publisher price control.

From Publishers Lunch, and then picked up by the Wall Street Journal, comes the news that the Attorney-General in Texas is investigating Apple and the publishers participating in Agency over the legality of the Agency arrangement. For publishers who had been struggling for years with the real market control exercised by Amazon, Apple’s arrival on the scene and willingness to accept unform pricing across outlets (to be followed shortly by Google doing the same) constituted liberation.

But one can see a logic to the Texas investigation. Amazon’s strategies required no cooperation with any other company. They bought the ebooks at the prices publishers charged them and sold them at the price they thought was best for them in the marketplace. But the Agency agreement with Apple (as I understand it; I’ve never seen one) allows (or maybe requires) that Apple meet any lower price for the same title offered by another retailer. So there is a “combination” and it is “restraining” trade. That’s a speaker-of-English talking here (which I am), not a lawyer (which I’m not.)

It would make many publishers very unhappy if the Agency model were deemed illegal. One major house CEO I spoke with two weeks ago was positively rhapsodic about the control the new paradigm gives the publisher. That CEO told me about one major bestseller at their publishing house which suffered no loss of unit sales when the price went up from the Amazon-set $9.99 to the Agency price of $12.99. Struck by that, the CEO further raised the price of that title to $14.99 and saw immediate sales erosion. So, two weeks later, the CEO took the price back down to $12.99 for that title, where it sits.

As this person said, “I can’t ever see going back. I have never had this ability to maximize revenue before or to experiment with pricing.”

I’m personally persuaded that universal set prices for ebooks are good for the industry and, ultimately, for consumers. They will definitely foster competition among retailers. My belief for a long time has been that the day will come when almost all web sites will offer their own curated selection of ebooks. (Why shouldn’t ESPN.com be selling the new Willie Mays or Steinbrenner biography?) That will work great in a price-set world. It would make the retailing opportunity about “location, location, location”, rather than “price.” It would boost sales for publishers and authors by putting ebooks a click away from interested consumers across the Web. But it isn’t going to happen if web sites figure that their curation efforts will just be triggers to send people to a deep-pocketed etailer that is pricing for market share.

It would appear that the Agency model is good for just about everybody except the etailers that would use price to drive others out of the market. But will it ultimately be ruled legal? I don’t think we know yet.

Late add: The vision of every-site-a-curated-bookstore got some confirmation a couple of hours after I posted this when Ingram and F+W Media announced a partnership by which Ingram will power sales of all publishers’ ebooks through the online stores F+W operates for their communities. I’d expect this to become increasingly common.