July, 2010

Ted Williams: 3 stories you won’t have read anywhere else

Today’s post is about Ted Williams, the baseball player who might have been the greatest hitter who ever lived. There’s no attempt here to make the piece accessible to people who neither know nor care about baseball so, if you came to the blog for publishing or digital change today, please come back for the next post.

But if you know and care about baseball, you’ll be getting three stories of interest that never appeared in any Williams bio I ever read, and I think I’ve read them all. Each of these stories contains a little surprise about a character we thought we knew well. The first one is short and indicates that he wasn’t the hard-hearted SOB many sportswriters made him out to be. The second is a bit longer and shows that the great student of hitting learned from some apparently unlikely teachers. And the third is a lengthier tale that shows that Williams could also learn from a fan.

The first one came to me just a couple of weeks ago from Roger Waynick, the owner of Cool Springs Press, a gardening publisher I’ve written about before on this blog.

When Roger was in his mid-teens, before he had a drivers license, he went on a trip with his father to Islamorada, Florida to fish for tarpon. The group that included his dad breakfasted one morning and then, for some reason, left Roger behind when they went to the boat.

Ted Williams, a pretty famous tarpon fisherman (one of his major endorsement deals was with Sears for fishing tackle), noticed the young man sitting by himself and asked him what was going on. Roger explained that his dad and his dad’s friends had left him behind. Ted invited him to spend the day with him fishing on his boat.

Waynick has two great memories of the day. One was about the legendary Williams eyesight. (It was claimed that he could read the label on a 45 rpm record while it was spinning on the turntable.) Waynick explained to me that fishing for tarpon is like hunting; you see the target game first and then “cast to it.” As Waynick put it, “he had brilliant eyes and could see the fish long before I could!”

But the other recollection Waynick has nearly 40 years later is about Williams’s strength. “We caught several fish and I was amazed how he could hold his rod almost vertically as these huge fish pulled. For me, I was being pulled around the boat…but not him. He stood still and straight. Splendid.”

In the late 1980s, I spent a couple of spring training seasons in Florida with a press pass working on a book called “The Baseball Fan’s Guide to Spring Training.” I even saw Williams once working with young hitters on a back field at the Red Sox camp, then in Winter Haven, Florida. But that’s not the second story.

One morning I was hanging around with other writers and broadcasters at the batting cage at the Phillies spring home, then at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater. (Jack Russell was a charming red brick edifice, one of my favorite spring training ballparks. It has been replaced, but at least the new park the Phillies built, Bright House Field, is perhaps the nicest of the new generation of spring training parks.) Also at the cage that morning was Tony Kubek, the former Yankee shortstop who was then a broadcaster. Kubek was talking about his first All-Star game appearance.

He was witness to a conversation between Williams and Kubek’s teammate, Yogi Berra. This would have been in 1958. (I had to look that up. Kubek was rookie-of-the-year in 1957, but he didn’t appear on the All-Star roster that year.) Williams had won the batting champtionship with an astounding .388 average in 1957; he was on his way to winning it again in 1958, but with an average that was 60 points lower. The defenses were shifting on him, loading up the right side of the infield and daring him to hit to left field.

Berra was a left-handed hitter, like Williams, but, unlike Williams he could hit effectively to left field. So Williams asked Berra for at tip on going the other way.

As Kubek related it, Berra said, “you have to throw the top hand over. Make a throwing motion with the top hand as you swing to hit line drives. Otherwise you’ll pop the ball up.”

I was amazed. “You’re telling us that Yogi Berra taught Ted Williams to hit to left field?” I asked Kubek. “Exactly,” he said.

There’s a coda to this story that has nothing to do with Williams. As it happened, a day or two later I was at the Houston Astros training camp in Kissimmee, Florida. Yogi was a coach for the Astros at that time so, with my press pass again allowing me on the field before the game, I went looking for him. I learned that very hot day that Yogi sought the shade. He was never in the sun before that game. I found him in the dugout. So I approached him.

“Hello, Mr. Berra,” I said, offering my hand. He made no move and just stood there. “I’m Mike Shatzkin, a writer from New York. I’m working on a book on Spring Training. Yesterday at the cage in Clearwater Tony Kubek said you taught Ted Williams to hit to left field.”

Berra didn’t move. He didn’t acknowledge a word I said. He showed no expression.

“Is that true?” I said. “Do you recall it?”

Still no reaction. I gave up; “slinked away” would be an accurate description.

Later in the press box I told a Houston writer the story. When I got to the part about approaching Yogi in the dugout, he said, “Did you get him to say anything?” “No,” I said. “No surprise there. He doesn’t talk to writers he doesn’t know.”

The third story originated with a movie producer introduced to me by a Hollywood friend in the late 1980s. This fellow (whose name eludes me 20 or more years since I last spoke with him) had apparently secured the rights to do a movie about Ted Williams. The film would revolve around an amazing story about Williams, still largely unknown (not in those bios!) But, sort of like the Berra coda to the Kubek story, I have an extra twist to offer.

Williams had missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons serving in Korea. He came back for the last few weeks of 1953 and hit well, but, nonetheless, announced in a national magazine before Spring Training that 1954 would be his last year. He would become 36 years old during the season and had been in the big leagues since 1939. As the movie producer told me the story, his wife at that time had very clear personal preferences: “no weddings, no funerals, no ballgames.” And as if to confirm that his plan to quit was the right one, Williams broke his shoulder making a tumbling catch in left field in one of the first exhibition games of the spring. But he rejoined the club early in the year and was, as always, hitting well.

After a game with the Orioles in mid-season, Williams was alone in the Baltimore train station when he was approached by a stranger. “You’re Ted Williams, right?” “Yes.”

“Are you really planning to retire when this season is over?” “Yes.”

“Well, you better not do that if you want to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The writers vote for the Hall of Fame and they hate your guts. And your numbers just aren’t good enough. If you quit after this year, you’ll never make it on the first ballot.”

Since Williams had hit well over .300 in every season he’d played, and hit with power from the very beginning, he was skeptical. “What do you mean my numbers aren’t good enough?”

“You missed too much time fighting in the wars. Your lifetime totals just don’t cut it.”

Williams’s curiosity was piqued. He arranged to meet the fan again soon in New York. They stayed up all night talking. At the end of the session, Williams said, “OK, what do I have to do?”

The fan said, “you have to hit 500 home runs. If you do that, they can’t possibly keep you out of the Hall of Fame. They’ll have to put you in on the first ballot.” At that time, only Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Mel Ott had hit 500 home runs in all of baseball history. Lou Gehrig was 4th on the all-time list with 493 home runs.

At the end of the 1954 season, Williams had 366. The following spring, he was divorced, reported late, and started the season late. But his pledge to retire had been forgotten and he kept right on hitting. And his new friend kept in touch with him, kept encouraging him, and kept tracking how Williams was doing against the lifetime records that had been posted before him.

Williams hit .356 in 1955 and .345 in 1956. In 1957, the season in which he turned 39, that .388 average won the batting championship by more than 20 points over Mickey Mantle’s career-best .365. In 1958, the year Kubek played with him in the All-Star game, he won his sixth American League batting championship.

But age caught up with him in 1959. He had a painful pinched nerve in his neck that hampered him all year and, for the first time, his average fell below .300. He only hit .254. But he finished the year with 492 home runs, one behind Gehrig, eight short of 500. He couldn’t retire!

So he volunteered for a pay cut and came back for a final year in 1960. He climbed back above .300, hit 29 homers to total 521, and, in a final act that inspired one of the most famous New Yorker articles ever by John Updike (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”), hit a home run in his last at-bat in the major leagues. Five years later, after the mandatory waiting period was over, Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

What a story, I thought. I told the movie producer: you need to turn this into a book. He agreed. Could I help him find a writer?

I had a friend named Lawrie Mifflin, who was one of the first woman sportswriters. She had started covering the New York Rangers for the Daily News and then covered them for the New York Times. Her husband at that time, Arthur Kimmel, had just left a job at an advertising agency. Arthur was a good writer, and really knew sports. I decided to see if he’d be interested.

So I called Arthur and said, “I have a guy who wants to make a movie about Ted Williams and needs a writer to do a book of the story.” And Arthur said, “have you ever heard the amazing story about Lawrie’s father and Ted Williams?”

The fan who influenced Williams — almost certainly the most important fan in baseball history — was Eddie Mifflin.

Lawrie is still with the Times, a Senior Editor working on new digital initiatives, and still a friend. What a nice series of coincidences. The most influential baseball fan in history is the father of one of the first women to cover professional sports for a major daily. Her friend who dabbles as a baseball historian finds out about it through the most circuitous imaginable route. And a dabbling baseball historian has three stories about the greatest hitter that ever lived which never made it into mainstream lore.


It isn’t wise to draw lines in the sand that ultimately can’t be defended

Apologies in advance for a much-longer-than-usual post.

It is not like the publishers haven’t seen the ebook royalty fight coming. On a panel he and I were on together in March of 2009, John Sargent, the Chairman and CEO of Macmillan, identified ebook margins as the critical issue for publishers going forward. Even though ebook sales at that point were financially insignificant and the growth surge that we’ve seen in the past 15 months wasn’t yet evident, Sargent expressed the belief that ebooks would be the future and that publishers had to be diligent to preserve their margins in the digital environment.

There are three moving parts to the publishers’ margin equation for ebooks.

The one that I think Sargent was thinking most of at that time is ebook pricing. If “misguided” publishers or market forces drive down prices a great deal, that could threaten publishers as sales migrate to digital.

The second one, which was then and remains today a focus of publishers, is the potential consolidation of sales channels so that power moves from a multitude of publishers to a small number of, or perhaps a single dominant, point of contact with the customer. Until the Nook came along from B&N last winter and the iPad from Apple in the spring, Amazon and Kindle looked dangerously close to being able to dictate both pricing and margin in the ebook supply chain.

And third, of course, is the amount of the consumer spend that is taken by the authors: the royalty.

The ebook pricing and channel consolidation issues have been front and center for the past year, ever since Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks put “windowing”, which had been tried before for ebooks, in the spotlight as her solution to the perceived damage deeply discounted ebooks could do to print book sales, particularly of the hardcover edition. After she announced that she was holding back the ebook for Bran Hambric, similar announcements came from other publishing houses. At that time, only a year ago, Amazon was the dominant ebook vendor with Kindle sales amounting to 80% or more of the ebook sales for narrative trade books.

But the introduction of Barnes & Noble’s Nook device began to eat into Amazon’s hegemony last winter as 700 B&N stores started pushing a Kindle-type experience on their millions of customers. Then, in April, Apple introduced the iPad and changed the game two ways.

First of all, their tablet computing device, which can serve as a larger-than-a-cellphone screen for an ebook reader, started adding tens of thousands of new device-equipped potential book customers every day!

But along with the device competition, the iPad and its iBooks platform added a new business model called Agency. And, under Agency, the pricing of ebooks at retail theoretically becomes standardized across the web, not subject to discounting by individual retailers. This visibly upset Amazon, which appeared to pick a fight with Macmillan over the terms. It looked to those of us with no inside knowledge of their conversations to be an attempt to bully publishers to give up the Agency idea. In retrospect, this was perhaps a bad fight to have picked. Amazon’s threat was to stop selling the print editions of titles from those publishers who sold ebooks on Agency terms. Since five of the top six publishers were moving in that direction, and none of them blinked, Amazon had to, in their own words, “capitulate.” (On the other hand, we are not aware of any other publisher, beyond the Big Five, to whom they also capitulated, so the final score on this fight isn’t in yet.)

So it would seem that the big publishers have solidified two of the major components of their ebook margin. With their help, consolidation in the ebook channel has been reversed and they’ve taken critical steps to control prices to the consumer, while ebook sales have continued to rise at an accelerating pace.

But there remains this tricky question of royalties.

Agency pricing compounded the 25% problem from the authors’ and agents’ point of view because the base price for Agency books is 25% to 40% lower than it is for the old model, wholesale, so the authors’ share is commensurately reduced. Most agents liked the principle of getting uniform pricing, likely to create a healthier ebook marketplace, but were understandably miffed that their per-copy take could be reduced without any agreement required on their part. The publishers would no doubt point out that their take per ebook unit was going down as well. And Random House, still selling at wholesale, is no doubt making the point that their 25% amounts to substantially more per unit than the other guys’ 25%.

There had already been signs for a while that a lot of legacy backlist wasn’t being enticed by the royalty offers of its current publisher. Jane Friedman, formerly the CEO of HarperCollins and an important player on the New York publishing scene for four decades with a lot of very solid relationships, started a new publishing company called Open Road. Among her propositions was to secure ebook rights to some very well established backlist titles by offering a royalty of 50% of receipts while many of the big publishers were apparently holding the line at 25%. The early headline “get” for Open Road were novels by William Styron.

Then in December, S&S bestselling author Stephen Covey announced that he was putting some of his backlist into ebooks for a deal calling for more than 50% of receipts through Rosetta Books, which had litigated inconclusively with Random House about these matters a few years ago. Through Rosetta, Covey’s books were going to be exclusively offered for a time through Kindle. At the time that announcement was made, Nook hadn’t taken hold and iPad hadn’t come out and Kindle was the dominant platform in the market. A time-limited exclusive with them at that moment didn’t seem crazy.

Last week, the plot really thickened.

In retrospect, one could say that there were two preliminaries to the big news about the intentions of the agent Andrew Wylie.

On Tuesday Teleread carried the story that Knopf was pushing ahead to digitize more backlist. There appears never to have been a formal announcement of this, and it seemed a bit curious on a couple of counts. One is that Random House, of which Knopf is a part, has already digitized backlist for years. What could they have missed in their prior efforts? The other is that it always seemed that Random House’s digital efforts were corporate, not imprint-specific. Why would there be news about Knopf on its own?

Then my good friend Evan Schnittman published a post on his Black Plastic Glasses blog called “Pass the Gestalt, Please.” Evan’s point was simple and forcefully made. Ebooks don’t exist in a vacuum; they can’t be evaluated with stand-alone economics. Publishers acquire intellectual property and they monetize it every way they can. They make more from some formats and channels than they do from other formats and channels. But what matters in the end is how much total money they produce, for themselves and for their authors.

I have a problem jumping from the math Schnittman lays out to the characterization that agents are being unreasonable when they ask for a higher percentage of ebook receipts than they get of hardcover receipts. Schnittman argues that margin is irrelevant because the parties aren’t negotiating a profit-sharing deal. I’d say the receipts comparison that he draws is irrelevant. Hardcover receipts are offset by printing costs, handling costs, and spending for excess inventory that receipts on ebooks are not.

Schnittman’s post, which was debated as soon as it hit, turned out to be prologue to the events which then dominated conversation for the rest of the week.

By all public appearances, big publishers were being very stubborn about their 25% ebook royalty, even on very important backlist and more or less daring authors to do something about it.

On Wednesday morning, the plans of the Wylie office were dropped like a bomb, apparently by Amazon. (I am told by a source I trust that Amazon revealed the news and that Andrew Wylie himself was, and is, away on vacation. The Times, as you can see, didn’t report it that way.) It was announced that Wylie that had formed a new publishing company called Odyssey to handle some significant backlist  and — in an apparent middle finger to the entire publishing community — were putting the books into Amazon for a 2-year exclusive. Left unrevealed were what Wylie was paying the authors, what splits Amazon offered Wylie’s authors, and whether any money changed hands between Amazon and the new Odyssey entity. The announcement of Odyssey followed a long period where Wylie had complained publicly about publishers’ reluctance to pay what he (and many other agents) thought were reasonable ebook royalties for legacy backlist.

Response was quick. John Sargent, tongue deeply in cheek, welcomed Wylie to the community of publishers and suggested he should perhaps be paying AAP dues. Random House announced they would not be buying any books from the Wylie agency until this issue was resolved. And many people observed that signing an exclusive deal with Amazon when they’re losing market share quickly and are likely to lose more soon was questionable, not to mention whether there was a conflict of interest for an agent publishing his own clients’ books.

Without knowing what incentives Wylie got for his authors from Amazon in return for the exclusive, it is hard to be sure that it is a mistake (although it seems likely, given the current growth pattern of the ebook suppy chain.) But the conflict of interest for an agent charged with looking for the best possible deal for an author and then self-publishing, in the face of potential litigation, is transparent. And even if Random House is the only house that openly boycotts the agency, there’s an impact on all Wylie clients in return for a theoretical advantage for the ones being he will publish through Odyssey. One must imagine there are more than a few current authors with that office who are scratching their heads about what this might mean for them.

From my perspective, there’s plenty of justification on all sides of this argument. Although I didn’t like his math, Evan Schnittman is entirely correct to say that a publisher making a deal for a copyright plans to exploit it through all channels. In words I’ve heard often from John Schline of Penguin, “you don’t do a P&L on a format; you do a P&L on a title.” They’re right that the author negotiating a deal with them accepts a basket of compensation schemes for different channels in return for an advance. Logical fallacies can creep in when you take one element of it in isolation and say it “isn’t fair” (although, in practice, that’s exactly how contracts are negotiated.)

But the controllers of old copyrights — the Styron estate and Stephen Covey, among others, and apparently several other estates and authors represented by Andrew Wylie — are also right to believe that the ebook rights weren’t contemplated in the contracts for the books in question and that a publisher starting today to publish those books electronically will have a tiny cost base and relatively astronomical margins.

Certainly not all publishers are being stubborn about the 25% number in all negotiations. And agents usually feel they can’t talk about concessions they get publishers to make. One made it very clear to me that s/he was getting concessions from publishers on ebook royalty terms in the form of escalators, but would never say so out loud for fear of angering the customers of s/he’d wangled those concessions from.

(On the other hand, things might be changing fast. In a story I saw just as I was finishing this post, the Financial Times wonders if the Wylie plans don’t signal the conclusion of publishing as we have known it. In that story, superagent Amanda (Binky) Urban is quoted saying her ICM office is getting significant royalty concessions from major publishers, including Random House. Perhaps the Wylie story has changed the dynamic so that now publishers want all the agents to know they’re ready to be reasonable. I’m not aware of an agent having been quoted to that effect before, and it would seem highly unlikely that Urban said what she said without having consulted any house she would name in advance. All of that would anticipate the suggestion I’m making below.)

All public statements are, by definition, posturing.

But the arguments publishers have made publicly to this point have elided the fact that their negotiating position is not the same for these books as they are for a new book. When a new proposal is put in front of them for purchase today, whether they are offering $10,000, $100,000 or $1 million for the rights, they’re in a position to say “if you want my check, it comes attached to these royalty terms.” But they didn’t stipulate those terms when they published books 40 or 30 or 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. At a minimum, they require agreement from the author on a royalty rate to publish the ebook today; they may need agreement from the author to publish the ebook at all.

Why would the publishers expect an author whose book has earned out long ago, who has no requirement to allow the publisher to publish the ebook and (at the very least) a case to make that they’re free to sell ebook rights elsewhere, to accept the same terms that are offered to authors not in that position?

Publishers may have trapped themselves by not articulating that distinction. Their public position seems to be that they can’t make a competitive deal on this backlist because it would create precedents for the new titles they’re negotiating for today. But it doesn’t have to. There’s a very simple, clear policy they could declare that would make this whole issue go away. Maybe there are one or two already acting this way, but it would be nice if even one publisher would just say this:

“Our policy for all new titles we sign up in the context of all our other standard terms is that we pay 25% royalty on ebooks. But for those books on our backlist which a) have earned out their advance and b) have ambiguity in their original contracts making it unclear what the royalty rate for an ebook should be, we will negotiate a higher royalty in recognition that a contractual element is being negotiated after the value of the copyright has been demonstrated in the marketplace and the risk profile has changed.”

Life is very complicated here. Every deal is different. There are costs and risks for authors and publishers trying to set up these separate ebook deals while a print backlist remains with a legacy publisher. The publisher might sue (although that opens up, for them, the danger that they’d lose, and the consequences of that could be dire.) At the very least, the author annoys the guys with the big checkbooks who are still the custodians of their print sales.

Although it is certainly possible that some authors or estates would want a publisher as talented as Jane Friedman remarketing their backlist, I still believe that if Open Road and others are offering 50%, publishers would find many authors receptive to avoiding the conflict if the publishers were offering 40%. But even if they had to pay 50% to some authors, the publishers would be doing themselves a favor by stating the position articulated above.

Each publisher has to do its own math about how many books of theirs would be affected and what openly paying 60-to-100 percent higher royalties on those books would cost them. Undoubtedly, it would also require them to make concessions to authors they’d roped in for the 25% royalty; certainly many of those have re-openers or most favored nation clauses of some kind in their contracts. That’s the downside. But there is a lot of upside. For one thing, Open Road and Rosetta and Wylie’s new imprint would be seriously weakened; except for Open Road, which has strong cachet with Jane Friedman at the helm, they might just disappear. For another, lots of great titles that could be selling robustly as ebooks if only they were available as ebooks would be producing revenue for the publishers (as well as the authors.) Significant legal costs and liabilities would evaporate. And they’d gain enormously in trust and goodwill with the agents, who are spending far too much time trying to figure out how to go around publishers for the best backlist they control, rather than how to work with them. The conversations I have had make me believe that most agents do not believe that most big publishers are willing to deal on the basis I’m outlining here, (although a lot of them will be calling the publishers tomorrow after they read Binky Urban’s quotes.)

Aside from the reduced per-copy royalties agents and authors are seeing from the Agency pricing, they are also afraid that robust ebook sales at the hardcover price are postponing the issuance of trade paperback editions, on which the 25% Agency royalty does exceed the normal 7% of retail paid on print. That makes them feel like they’re losing again.

It is a paradox that traditional contracts have legacy publishers — the ones who write the large advance checks — paying higher per-copy print royalties than many little publishers pay on hardcovers, even with the various high-discount clawbacks that have been built in over the years. The ebook-first publishers who do print will almost certainly pay lower print royalties than print-first publishers have, if they do hardcovers at all. Publishers will need a foundation of good will, but over time should be able to negotiate lower hardcover royalties in return for higher ebook royalties on new contracts. And that will make sense, because, ultimately, print sales are more expensive for publishers to deliver than ebook sales.

Even if the publishers pushing back manage to win this round with Wylie, and they well might, I don’t think the 25% royalty can hold for very long. As more and more of the business shifts to ebooks, companies without the legacy costs that big publishers have will find it easy to pay higher royalties than that and agents will keep doing the math about how many sales they can afford to lose and still end up ahead in dollars with a higher ebook royalty. As Amazon should have learned in their fight with Macmillan in January, it isn’t smart business to draw a line in the sand marking a position you ultimately can’t defend. I hope every big publisher in town will take that lesson on board, or, even better, that Urban’s remarks tell us that they already have.

In a dialogue with a couple of smart people in my “kitchen cabinet” between writing this piece and posting it, I was asked whether I thought the ebook should have a royalty “greater than the hardcover or less than the paperback.” My response was:

I don’t have an ideology about this. Applying logic alone, I would think a Harlequin or O’Reilly ebook author should get a lower percentage than a Big Six ebook author because the Harlequin and O’Reilly brands add to the online ebook sales power in ways the Big Six publisher brand does not. The same author and the same book wouldn’t sell as well if it were under another imprint. Fully applied, that approach would mean that every deal would be different, which is utterly impractical. I don’t like to advocate things that are impractical.

Publishers should try to make standard the lowest royalty that they can apply in the marketplace without making enemies of their trading partners. It just isn’t realistic to offer a brand name with a choice of where to go 25% in this day and age. It’s just bullheaded. My sense is that any house that offered a standard 25% to earnout and 35% thereafter would be fine for now, except with the biggest authors with whom they’ll have to negotiate escalators (or change the basis on which the not-intended-to-be-earned-out advance is calculated.) But all solutions here are temporary. The line won’t hold. When ebook sales get to 50% of the total (2014-15), even 50% is not going to cut it.

I don’t have an ideology about this. I think a Harlequin ebook author should get less than a Harper ebook author because the Harlequin brand adds to the sales power: the author wouldn’t sell as well if the same book were in another imprint. Fully applied, that means that every deal would be different, which is utterly impractical.
I think publishers should try to apply the lowest standard royalty that they can get away with based on marketplace reality. It isn’t reality to offer a brand name with a choice of where to go 25% in this day and age. It’s just bloody-minded. My sense is that any house that paid a standard 25% to earnout and 35% thereafter today would be fine, for now, except with the biggest authors with whom they’ll have to negotiate escalators. When ebook sales get to 50% of the total (2014-15), even 50% might not cut it.


Lots going on; no single topic today

I find myself with a lot of pages open on my web browser. Even before Amazon’s announcement yesterday about ebooks passing hardcovers in sales this past quarter, there has been a lot going on.

There had been some suggestions, which I never bought into, that ebook sales were slowing in 2009. (Is this a meme that started with somebody anti-Agency? More on that later…) I look at the IDPF chart as it stands today and it is headlined 2010 Sales  “OFF THE CHART” vs. Previous Quarters and that’s how it looks to me. A major publisher told me yesterday that AAP figures suggest ebook sales are up 210% this year and that house’s numbers are up 225%, so they feel they’re rising with the tide. That’s about what PW said the AAP said with the additional information that hardcover sales were up and paperback sales, trade and mass market, were down.

In fact, Amazon, in the face of the apparently-stiff competition from the Nook and the iPad, says Kindle book sales have tripled in the first half of the year!

Nonetheless, Madeline McIntosh at Random House doesn’t see ebooks causing problems for paperback sales. She’s quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “Our conclusion is that there’s no data to prove any connection—good or bad—between growth in e-books and the growth or decline, in trade paperback sales. … If anything, we may be seeing a positive effect in which the steady pace of e-book sales helps to keep a book in front-of-mind for a growing number of consumers after hardcover momentum slows.”

Kat Meyer, blogging for O’Reilly, got an indie ebookseller to talk on the record about the difficulties they’re having with the transition to Agency. This would seem to undercut the idea (which I agree with) that Agency is good for smaller sellers, because the little guys will get squashed in a price war with big guys. A seminal figure in the online book retailing world who has worked with smaller stores on these challenges for years told me in a phone conversation this week that he completely agrees with me. But the problems Kat lays out for the smaller guys during the transition are real. Let’s hope we don’t lose too many of them while this all gets figured out.

Meanwhile, Knopf made some news with the announcement that they are converting more of their backlist to ebooks. We were wondering what titles they could have missed so far. Random House has never been a laggard at ebook conversion and we’re scratching our heads wondering about a conversion initiative that would be imprint-specific. But this shows that the ebook sales records being broken are occurring without the gun being fully loaded; they’re still making ebullets out of old books.

Joe Wikert wrote a blog about the emerging ebook landscape in which he imagines that the various indies selling Google Editions will, all together, constitute a big Amazon. I don’t think so. I don’t think Google can save indies with what they’re doing. But it is good that they’re trying.

Joe also thinks that Amazon will abandon the Kindle device in favor of the Kindle as a platform. I don’t agree with that either. The device is reportedly still selling like hotcakes with sales rising quickly since a recent price cut, even while the Nook has established itself and iPad has been “competing.” I think there’s room for tablet computers and ereaders, which might be a minority position at the moment. (Being in the minority is perfectly comfortable for me.)

You know we’re all about vertical here at The Shatzkin Files. It looks like some authors from big houses are taking this vertical thing into their own hands. A bunch of gardening authors have created their own garden experts speakers bureau.  It won’t surprise anybody if I predict that this effort will be more successful than the “horizontal” speakers bureaus launched by some of the major houses over the past few years. I checked with the folks at Cool Springs Press, the gardening publisher I featured here a couple of weeks ago, and, of course, they’re involved.

I had written a blogpost recently saying that I thought ebook selling nodes would explode and be all over the web. It looks like Oprah is fueling that idea in a way that I hadn’t entertained: with an app. Why not? Who has a better brand than Oprah for “curation”? Maybe Barnes & Noble. But maybe not.

It also seems that self-publishing is growing in ubiquity and respectability. PW announced the plans of an author who told his agent not to bother selling his rights. If this isn’t the major trade houses’ worse nightmare, it should be! Joe Konrath, who may go down in history as the trailblazer who proved that some authors, at least, can make money without publishers, is reporting his rising Amazon revenues on books the New York houses have turned down, and they’re eye-catching.

And the last thing I note in this pot-pourri is the news from Farrar Straus & Giroux that they’re launching an online literary magazine. On the one hand, this is the kind of niche marketing we’ve been advocating that larger houses pursue. On the other hand, the story suggests this is all about promoting FS&G books, not about building a community of like-minded readers, few of whom would know or care which publisher put out the last book they liked.


Publishing conversation at the ballpark

The very nice people of Tata Consulting Services entertained a group of publishing executives at Yankee Stadium on Friday night in a luxury box behind first base. This was an ideal way to see an historic evening at the ballpark on a very hot night (the box is air conditioned and opening the big window in it actually leaked cold air on the two rows of great seats below) but it also gave rise to some very stimulating conversation with some smart and knowledgable publishers.

Because this was a private evening (and because this is not a muckraking blog; we traffic in insight here, not news), nobody gets identified and no quotes are attributed. But that doesn’t mean that very interesting observations about where publishing is and where it is going have to be kept secret.

There were a variety of publishers and industry leaders in the group. One of the most interesting between-innings conversations picked up from the post on this blog last week about the threat that the rapid uptake of ereading poses to brick-and-mortar stores.

One big publisher observed that he saw clearly that display in bookstores moved the needle on ebook sales. His fear, and a thought we didn’t cover in the post, is that the decline in brick-and-mortar exposure will lead to a decline in the overall sales for many titles. The several of us involved who were in this dialogue agreed that brick-and-mortar simply presented more opportunities to grab impulse sales; you can’t “promote” as many titles in the real estate available on a screen than you can in a well-merchandised physical surrounding. The online advantage is targeting, of course; the store can’t customize its impulse presentations to each individual customer, and that opportunity exists online. But except for the opening screen, we couldn’t think of any online retailer that really takes advantage of that.

Another big publisher  wondered if there might be a plateau point below which the print book erosion won’t go. “Will it level off at 50-50, say, or maybe at 70-30?” It does seem intuitively correct that there’s a hard core of paper book readers that could keep print alive.

But, of course, keeping print alive for any number of people is only half the equation for bookstores. Print can be bought online. In our post on the threat to brick-and-mortar, we posited a 2/3 drop in store sales from current levels will have occurred when we reach 50% ebooks and 50% of the print being sold online. There is a vicious cycle at work here: fewer store purchases lead to fewer stores, which will further fuel online purchasing for those readers who don’t want to give up print. And that still leaves a big problem for the remaining stores.

One publisher had some interesting observations about “ebook first” publishing, a term I think we’re going to hear more and more. To me, “ebook first” means two things. First, it means that the ebook is the primary product being considered as the project is put together. And second it means that the ebook hits the market before the print book. That second point is tactical and practical, not strategic. It takes time to print and bind and ship books, so the presumption is that, when the book development is completed, it is just faster to get the ebook into the marketplace. That wouldn’t be true if you had a “print book first” workflow and had to then do an ebook conversion from your print PDF, but “ebook first”, ending up with an XML document that will deliver all your formats, should eliminate the need to do that.

But a publisher in our group at the game who is working with a blog on publishing reported “it ain’t necessarily so.” The final QA steps with an ebook, particularly if there is any complexity at all to the design or layout, can take longer than delivering the print from the PDF. That’s not theory; that’s this publisher’s actual experience. There is nearly 100% certainty that the PDF will print what you want when you deliver it. But the epub file you deliver might not give you what you want through every ebook delivery system and for every display environment without some further tweaking.

One conversation that made me really want to learn more was a discussion of what big publishers do to prepare for the erosion of brick-and-mortar. Executives from two big trade houses agreed with the point we’ve made here that harvesting consumer names is a key. If most of the market is available online and can be reached without deploying a large-scale organization, publishers will need to raise the switching costs for major authors beyond the cash flow shuffle that the author would suffer if they lost their advance. At the game, I heard two major houses agreeing that emailable names that the house owns will be a key author retention tool going forward; one wonders if there is a sophisticated consumer name gathering and managing process taking place in the big houses that is beneath the radar; or, at least, beneath my radar! Of course, getting into the details of “what exactly do you do” would not have been an appropriate question with a curious competitor listening in so it will have to wait for some other time.

Thinking about the Digital Book World Conference program I’m planning for January, though, this seems like a really important topic. And it also seems like one agents ought to know a lot about. Gathering the names of an author’s fans is a place for publishers and agents both to cooperate and to look for a negotiating advantage. It is very tricky ground.

Several of us also had a bit of conversation about Google and Apple as retailers. One of the publishers expressed skepticism about how well Google Editions would sell ebooks. “Google has never sold things successfully,” he said. I pointed out that “never” for Google was not a very long time; the company is barely more than a decade old. But it is true that whether Google sells three times as many ebooks as they expect or one-third as many, it won’t move the needle for them financially. (More than 95% of Google’s revenue is from advertising.) The same is true of Apple, which seems to put only the most minimal effort into merchandising at the iBooks store.

One TCS executive, with a strong background in the telecom industry, was pretty sure the publishers are underestimating the speed with which the online component of their business will grow. He says the coming G4 installations — the next generation of cell phone signal technology — will mean a four-fold increase in bandwidth and speed. The new “free wifi” offer from Starbucks is a leading indicator, he said. Free wifi will be just about everywhere very soon.

I had been thinking that the only significant advantage of an app store app on the iPhone versus a web-based app was that the “true” app would hold content resident in the phone that would require connectivity to be delivered through the web. But that’s a distinction without much of a difference if wifi is ubiquitously available (or if the app itself has to access an online database to be effective.) And delivering a web app steers clear of the whole Apple approval and vetting process and is, at least today, a lot cheaper to develop. The new Google Android app tool kit apparently presents another cheaper alternative to deliver value than delivering through the Apple app framework. TCS has been responsible for a large number of the apps developed for the iPad but, nonetheless, my new friend from TCS agreed with my observation. “When do apps make commercial sense” is another topic we’ll have to explore at Digital Book World.

As a serious fan, I can assure you that my involvement in all these conversations was between pitches and between innings. There was a helluva ballgame going on. The evening began with tributes to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and longtime public address announcer Bob Sheppard, both of whom died in the past week. The Yankees’ new primary rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, took an early 3-0 lead, but the Yanks came back with a couple of home runs in the 6th inning to tie the game. The Rays broke the tie in the 7th but the Yankees answered with another solo homer in the 8th. After the greatest player of the Steinbrenner era, relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, preserved the tie in the top of the 9th, the Yankees won in the bottom half on a 2-out single by Nick Swisher. The TCS box exploded with cheers along with the rest of the Stadium. It was a perfect night at the ballpark.


For big publishers: what scales and what doesn’t?

The last post I did got more attention than anything on the blog in quite some time, but for somewhat different reasons than I intended. My central point about what increasingly common ebook growth predictions would mean for brick-and-mortar sales (that they’d decline sharply over the next five years) was that it diluted the core value proposition of the major publishers. Most of my comment traffic wanted to talk about the fate of bookstores, not the fate of general trade publishers.

Then yesterday, my friend Michael Cairns had on Persona Non Data a post which really delves into the point I was concerned about: what are the competitive advantages of big publishers? As Cairns points out, it is those things that can scale; the aspects of the operation where size presents a big advantage.

I learned long ago in a talk by industry legend Martin Levin that an acquiring publishing company looks primarily at an acquisition target’s revenue, not its cost structure. The cost structure that counts is the acquirer’s own cost structure; the revenues from the target would be ported over, but the costs would mostly be left behind. True marginal costs, like the cost of picking a title off a warehouse shelf, might remain. But the costs of collecting the order, processing the order, and shipping the box out the door with another book in it (not including actual postage) would not rise at all. Nor would the costs of accounting or negotiating the printing contract or (unless there was a step increment that required a warehouse addition) the cost of storage.

So, as Cairns demonstrates in his piece, most of the scaleable overheads and operational costs publishers have are related to print book operations. It is very difficult to scale the parts of the operation publishers can focus on in a digital delivery world, which would be title acquisition, development, and marketing. Those functions require person-power, and if you want to do more of it you have to hire more people. That’s the definition of something that doesn’t scale. And what doesn’t scale is what doesn’t offer advantage to a large player.

The only way we can think of to apply scale to marketing is to market repeatedly to the same audience. That implies “vertical.” Have you read that anywhere before?

A friend from Amazon was in the office this morning making a different point, which, on reflection, is also about scale. Amazon uses algorithms that have been 15 years in the making to set prices for their books. Publishers under the agency model are setting their own prices but without those years of experience, without algorithms, and without adding expertise — or even personpower — to their staffs. Pricing knowledge is also scalable (what you learn pricing the first ten books makes you more effective on the 11th). If publishers believe in the future of the agency model, perhaps pricing expertise would be a tool they could use to persuade authors to stick with them five years from now if brick-and-mortar sales go the way I fear they will (dragging the publishers’ main value proposition down along with them.) But pricing expertise won’t happen by accident; it will have to be developed rigorously and iteratively over time.

In one more post-script, I dug up an old post from back in the early days of the blog when it had far fewer readers than it does now. It tells the story of Ingram’s creation of the microfiche reader and their subsequent growth, which I called the first big supply chain tech disruption. If you like these posts and never read this one, it may be worth the click.


Where will bookstores be five years from now?

Upton Sinclair famously said that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

I keep putting facts about publishing’s commercial realities that I think most of the smart people running things accept together with forecasts for the future that I think most of the smart people running things accept and coming up with a view of where we’ll be sometime pretty soon that I find very few people will accept.

We have definitely passed what Michael Cader has dubbed “peak bookstores” in the US. Shelf space for books is probably dropping faster than the number of stores as book retailers look for other items to keep their customers more satisfied and give those items space previously devoted to books. And shelf space available for publishers who don’t own bookstores is dropping faster than that because Barnes & Noble, the leading provider of bookshelf display space, is aggressively sourcing their own product both to improve their margins and to develop proprietary product not available to their competitors.

The fate of bookstores is an existential question for today’s book publishers (not to mention today’s booksellers!) Although it isn’t often stated this starkly, the core value proposition for the biggest trade book publishers is that they can put books on shelves. All of the rest of what they do (and often do quite well) — selection, editing, development, packaging, and marketing — is fungible. And usually not scaleable.

A big publisher and an agent would add to this list the “banking” function: putting up the money in advance for the author to write the book. But I’d argue that is also fungible (there’s lots of money out there looking for investment opportunities) so the publisher’s opportunity to be that banker is also dependent on the publisher’s ability to put books on retail shelves.

So, whether they know it or not (and, at the highest levels of the biggest publishing houses, they certainly do know it) the competitive advantage of the trade publisher is inextricably dependent on the survival of brick-and-mortar shelf space for books, which is distinct from total sales of books or even total sales of print books. You don’t need an organization of the scale and capabilities of a major publisher to reach customers through online channels. And, in fact, because the biggest trade publishers are horizontal in their subject matter, their size is more of a handicap than an advantage in competing for markets online.

We consume a lot of industry bandwidth considering whether the Nook and Kindle will survive the iPad and other tablets. I’d argue that it doesn’t really matter much to us. What’s important is that more and more people are reading on screens, that those who do reduce their purchases of books on paper (a fact recently documented in the BISG-Bowker study of ebook consumption), and that the digital book business is transacted online with very little potential role for a brick-and-mortar player (notwithstanding a wonderful 4-year old French fantasy video and a burst of naive optimism from an ABA executive at a BEA roundtable.)

(Digression graf: a much more realistic view of what ebooks and online shopping mean for independent bookstores today is a pessimistic one from the blog of one of the country’s leading independents, Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont. We know Google harbors the hope that they can provide meaningful inclusion for independents in the ebook marketplace. But even if Google’s efforts are successful, they don’t support the independent store, they support the store owner. There is a difference.)

So the race between single-function e-ink and more full-function tablets accelerates the movement from print to digital book consumption; and the move from print to digital book consumption accelerates the shift from store-based purchasing to online purchasing; and the shift to online book purchasing, whether print or digital, accelerates the reduction of brick-and-mortar shelf space.

And the reduction of brick-and-mortar shelf space increasingly challenges the core proposition of all of today’s largest book publishers.

A panel of publishing CEOs in June suggested a consensus view that 40 to 50 percent of book sales five years from now will be ebooks. Last week, another leading publishing executive, Gina Centrello of Random House, made the same prediction. I think, if anything, these predictions are conservative, but if we accept them as made, the implications are profound.

Half of sales being digital means that half is transacted online. That begs the next question, which is how much of the other half is online and how much is brick-and-mortar? The answer to that depends on two variables: the purchasing preferences of consumers and the ability of retailers to keep stores open in the face of declining sales. The two variables are connected: the further away from you is the closest decent store, the more likely you are to increase your purchasing online. And the more you purchase online, the more likely the store nearest to you is to close.

It is a conservative guess that 20% of print book sales today are made online and that ebooks are about 5-to-8% of total sales. That means that consensus estimates are that the ebook share will grow from 5-to-10 times over the next five years. That’s not unreasonable since ebook sales have more than doubled annually in recent years and 10 times would be somewhere between 2-1/2 and just over 3 doublings in five years. (Centrello said they went from 3% to 10% in the past year and, without knowing precisely what dates are meant by “the past year”, we can certainly expect more of an iPad effect in whatever is the “next” year.”)

That kind of ebook sales growth suggests an increasingly digitally-ept and digitally-comfortable reading public. That makes them more likely to buy print online too. So what’s a conservative estimate of the online share of print in five years. It can’t go up 5-to-10 times and leave any sales at brick-and-mortar at all. So let’s say (I’d say very conservatively), that print sales in 2015 are half online and that enough shelf space has survived to deliver half of print sales through brick-and-mortar. (I have to say as I write this that I have trouble believing it, but most people would have even more trouble believing me if I went with my gut on this!)

That math leaves print sales through stores at 25% of the total book sales. Today, if the stores’ share is 80% of print and we assume print is 90% of total book sales (using Centrello’s 10% number as a baseline in an attempt to be more conservative for this particular calculation), then we’re talking about a brick-and-mortar decline from 72% of the market today to 25% in 5 years! That’s a loss of about two-thirds from today’s sales levels! And that’s across all stores: chain bookstores, independent bookstores, and mass merchants.

I am not hearing anything in the statements of publishing or bookstore executives to suggest that anybody’s preparing for change that drastic. And I don’t see anything in the trend lines that suggest that we can avoid it.

Tell the truth. If I had headlined this piece, “Industry executives predictions mean sales of books through brick-and-mortar will decline by 65% over the next five years”, wouldn’t you have started out reading it assuming I was nuts?

I did a post three months ago called Why Are You For Killing Bookstores? which was on a similar topic, focusing on the see-saw relationship between ebook growth and bookstore survival. (When one goes up, the other goes down.) It was one of the most commented-upon posts in 17 months I’ve been writing the blog. I think that was a result of what could be a corrollary to Sinclair’s maxim which would go something like this: “it is very hard to get somebody to understand something when understanding it would highlight the conflict between two propositions that appeal to them.”


White labeled specialty stores, not ebook superstores, are the future

One of the recurring characteristics of “change” is that the first iteration of something new looks a lot like what it is replacing. So it has been with ebooks and ebook retailing. The ebooks themselves have, for the most part, been the same as the print books except rendered on a screen instead of on paper. And when we say “the same”, we mean right down to duplicating meaningless blank pages and the legend often found in print books that tells you how many printings the book has had. (This still happens frequently; I’ve just experienced it on The Big Short which I’m now reading in B&N’s reader.)

And ebook retailing has also imitated print book retailing in that the emphasis has been on the assembling the largest possible aggregation of book title choices in one place. This is a paradigm that makes intuitive sense in the physical world; once I’ve driven to my local superstore, I don’t want to find the mysteries are here but the cookbooks are in a store down the block.

It has been a long-established “fact” (although I question if it is still true, as we’ll explain later) that the larger is the selection of books available in a single location, the more powerful is the magnet to attract customers. My father found this out when he was in charge of the Brentano’s chain in the 1960s. Their Short Hills, New Jersey store was the worse-performing store in the chain until they doubled its title selection. And then, like magic, it became the best-performing store in the chain.

Amazon dot com reproved the point when they went into business in the mid-1990s. Although they were not the first online bookstore, they were the first to really attempt to carry everything. In fact, they went beyond carrying everything by providing a database (obtained from Baker & Taylor, in which there is another story) that not only showed just about all the books in print but also books that were no longer in print! Conventional publishing and retailing theory at the time would have said it was a bad move to return suggestions in search results that were books not available for sale. But, of course, it built their competitive advantage. They rapidly became the best place to search because of the completeness of their database and, actually, confirming to a customer that “what you want is a book that was indeed published but is not now readily available” made it easier to sell the customer a substitute. Whereas the the store (online or off) that didn’t have the unavailable book but didn’t also provide that information found it harder to close the alternate sale.

The point about the importance of selection was proven again by Amazon when they launched the Kindle in November, 2007 and lit the fire for what is still a spreading conflagration of ebook reading. Before Kindle, there were perhaps 100,000 ebook titles available as PDFs that could be read on a full-function computer, but not nearly as many in formats that could work on smaller devices (Palm, Mobi, Dotlit). Amazon launched Kindle with about 150,000 titles and used their market power to get big publishers to put more and more of the newest, hottest books into their format closer and closer to publication date.

There were other features of the Kindle (the ability to load books wirelessly and instantly without going through an intermediary device; its easy-to-read e-ink; its built in dictionary; Amazon’s deep relationship with very large numbers of online book buyers; and, of course, eye-catching prices relative to the print edition prices of the hottest new books) that fueled its near instantaneous success, but the robust title selection was a critical element.

So to that point — one could say to this point — the largest possible selection in one place has been as important to the success of an ebook retailer (obviously: online) as it was historically to a print book retailer with a physical store.

Early in the decade, it occurred to me that the magnetic power of the large selection in one physical store had sharply diminished. When Dad doubled the inventory of the Short Hills Brentano’s, he delivered a selection that the consumer couldn’t match for many miles around. When Barnes & Noble and Borders got Wall Street money to replicate the Bookstop model of 100,000+ title superstores in the early 1990s, they were enabling consumers to find conveniently books which had previously been obtainable only with great effort. But the limitless shelf space of online bookselling undercut that advantage and by the early part of this decade, it seemed to me that the consumer was finding the unlimited availability of titles online which could be delivered in a day or two so powerful that the large selection in a store that might be available immediately had really diminished appeal.

But there’s another thread of bookselling history on- and offline that I believe will soon become the dominant paradigm for ebook retailing. And, of course (just so you are reminded what blog you’re reading), it fits into the concept of “verticality”.

Publishers have known for a long time that good deals can be made and large sales can be registered through what we call “specialty retailers”. (The label for these sales in a publishing house, and others such as sales to catalogers or premium sales, is “Special Sales.”) The store that sells the tools and materials to refinish your floors can sell you a book to explain how to do it. The store that sells computers and paper and ink can also effectively sell resume or how-to computer books. The garden supply store can sell books on how to make your roses bloom.

Amazon and other online merchants (and not just of books) have long operated “affiliate” programs by which a web site can earn a commission on sales made at the primary merchant by referring a customer. This generally works by having the affiliate site promote a particular book title; when the site visitor clicks on the link, s/he is delivered to Amazon or BN.com’s page for that title. If the customer buys, the referring site gets a commission. These revenues don’t often amount to big money for the referring sites (although they sometimes do), but it is believed (but as with All Things Amazon, we don’t have the critical data to confirm) that, cumulatively, referrals from perhaps millions of affiliates deliver significant volume and customers to Amazon (and others.)

This is as far as “special sales” have gone in the ebook world. But the guess from here is that this is about to change and that the change we’ll see in the next few years will obliterate the notion that “all subjects in one place” is a significant marketing advantage, online or in a store. Many book sales, and particularly ebook sales, will move to “contextual” resellers. Your accountant’s web site will sell you the book(s) that help you understand a new tax law or how to ready your business for sale. Your favorite sports web site will sell you the new biography of Alex Rodriguez. And your favorite “Literary Review” newsletter and website will take care of your needs to acquire fiction directly and without your having to shop the vaster stacks of an online superstore.

That is: curated ebook offerings (a click away from the ability to buy lots more content beyond the curated selection) will be featured on every web site with any significant traffic. Delivering purchaseable content — books right now, but ulimately magazines, shorter articles, and relevant audio- and video-content as well — will become a standard expectation of any site (or web community) that aspires to a true mutual embrace with its site visitors. “What I’ve read lately and liked, and why” is a legitimate offering to anticipate from every blogger or commentator with a following.

Last week, Barnes & Noble held its regular call to announce financial results and future expectations. In that call, B&N expressed the expectation that the ebook world would ultimately settle down to about five players and that they’d be one of them. With that perspective, they saw for themselves a reasonable proportion — say 20% — of the ebook market.

My first reaction to that was “what are they thinking? There won’t be five online booksellers; there will be five million.” A day or two later I had a conversation with one of my personal tech gurus who saw it the way B&N’s statement suggested they did  (“it will consolidate, just like the music business did…”) He also asked a lot of practical questions. On what devices will these ebooks be read? How will all these individual sites deal with the format issues, the DRM issues, the customer service? In other words, “great vision, Mike, but how can it possibly work?”

I think it will work like affiliate sites worked, but in a more sophisticated way. A strong central operator providing scale facilitates the commercial offering of the niche player. The harbinger of the future is the deal announced last week between F+W Media and Ingram Digital. Ingram is setting up all F+W specialist web sites (and they have them for many different vertical interest groups) with the ability to sell both ebooks and print of all publishers to their site traffic. (Although we have working relationships with both companies, we weren’t involved in that deal and don’t know any of the details.)

I believe that the Ingram-F+W deal is the start of something new and big. Both companies are going to find ways to improve on whatever is the starting point. F+W is going to have to learn how to merchandise what Ingram can give them into a unique shopping and content consumption experience for the consumer. And Ingram is going to have to learn how to deliver what they can offer to F+W in a way that enables F+W  to curate and enhance the selection to deliver something uniquely customized to its own community.

If that view of the future is right, the competition among the players who can provide the ebook selection and transaction services Ingram does — those in the game already like Amazon, B&N, iBooks, and Kobo and those saying they’re about to come in like Google, B&T’s Blio, and Copia — is going to take place in a whole new arena. B&N has announced deals like this, where they “power” somebody else’s bookstore. Kobo hasn’t yet, but I’d expect them to; it just seems to me like an opportunity they’d see. This is a bit odd; it puts “wholesaler” Ingram in competition with retailers to create the next round of niche retailers. Ingram obviously has the built-in capability to offer print and electronic book delivery but, of course, B&N has the internal resources to do that too, and  B&T can do it too. There are anomalies to rationalize about margin, but, in the end, customer acquisition through this strategy will be far cheaper than it is most other ways, even if a fixed margin from the publisher is shared with the niche player.

This business hasn’t really begun to happen yet; we’re just seeing the outlines of it. Initially, the competition appears to be about how each retailer delivers its vast set of content choices to the online consumer in a consolidated way. (And usually it has been the same for Ingram. Most of their business has come from large “sell everything” ebook stores.) But over time it will evolve into a competition for niche resellers. Winning is always about delivering the best consumer experience but the challenge will be to deliver the best consumer experience to somebody else’s consumers. White label is the key to the ebook (and book) retailing future.