November, 2010

Most dramatic publishing event of 2010? Introducing agency pricing!


Ed Nawotka, the editor of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s online publication “Publishing Perspectives”, is running a series of pieces responding to his question “what was the most dramatic event in publishing in 2010?” Here’s the answer from The Shatzkin Files.

The most dramatic event in publishing in 2010? That’s easy. It was the face-down between five of the six biggest publishers in the US and Amazon over trading terms in the ebook marketplace: the shift from wholesale pricing to agency.

Even in theory, the shift was complicated. Publishers’ established prices went from near-print to about half-print. Margin offered to the channel was reduced from 50% of the established price to 30%. Control of pricing shifted from the retailer, who could charge whatever it wanted in the wholesale scenario, to the publisher who required the same price across all consumer touchpoints under agency.

But in practice it was even more complex than it was in theory. Shift of pricing control meant shift of responsibility at the point of sale and that meant publishers were now responsible for sales taxes, not the retailer. (Oddly enough, and the lack of public discussion of this point is a dog that didn’t bark, it did not result in the publisher, now seller-of-record, being told exactly who the customer is: the name and email address are still only known to the retailer.) Lawyers advised (at least some) publishers that agency required a contractual relationship between the publisher and each point of distribution, resulting in deal-making complexity that leaves some retailers without a full shelf of agency publisher books more than six months after the shift.

And literary agents representing the top authors required a lot of handholding. Ebook royalties are a raw point in negotiations these days between agents and publishers, and the agency model reduced the royalty per copy on all books, at least during their hardcover life. Of course, the publishers’ take per copy also was reduced, a point the publishers no doubt made as they prevailed on the agents to accept a change they believed was necessary to prevent a potential perpetual monopoly on ebook sales by Amazon.

Adding to the drama surrounding the shift to agency was the fact that the biggest of the Big Six trade houses, Random House, sidestepped it. This put them in a position where they a) sell their books for more per unit, b) see their books offered to the consumer for less per unit, c) can tell agents their royalties are higher per unit, d) are not offered in Apple’s iBookstore (but are available on all Apple devices through Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, at least), and e) have earned the enmity of the other publishers in the Big Six.

The Agency 5 see themselves, not without reason, as having sacrificed revenue at a difficult time for the industry’s long run good while Random House takes tactical advantage of the shift (and, in the words of one CEO, are “gloating” about it.)

(My editorial comment: this may all be true, but isn’t it the job of a company’s management to take tactical advantage of changing industry conditions? The overall point to this piece, of course, is that I applaud the move to agency. But it is hard to see exactly why, from Random House’s point of view, you’d voluntarily give up an advantage that makes all your competitors grind their teeth. As some analysis I did looking at royalties shows, the tactical advantages of wholesale are distinctly greater for hardcover and it may even be disadvantageous for paperbacks, but that’s a balance Random House is very capable of calculating.)

The most dramatic single moment of this long-playing dramatic event was last January when Amazon made a brief, and vain, effort to stop the whole agency movement in its tracks by pulling the buy buttons for Macmillan, apparently because they were the first publisher to officially notify Amazon of the forthcoming change. The giant retailer retreated in about 48 hours marking the first time in anybody’s memory that the publishers had forced them to back down.

Although the Nook and iPad devices certainly have something to do with it as well, agency seems to have accomplished its purpose of preventing Amazon from maintaining a stranglehold Kindle share through their deep-pocketed ability to forgo margin for a pricing advantage. The other retailers in the ebook market have their margin protected. With Google Editions still to join the fray, there is reason to believe that there can be a truly broad-based ebook marketplace for the next few years. What the Agency 5 publishers did was politically and logistically difficult and, because it involved reducing unit margins, somewhat counterintuitive. It would appear more than six months later that the tactic has achieved its most desired result.

Control of pricing immediately challenges publishers to get sophisticated, modern, and scientific at how they approach pricing. That would require, in a formulation I first heard from Peter Wiley (Board Chair of John Wiley & Sons), “constant, controlled experimentation.” Surely, that is taking place on a daily basis at Amazon.

So far, of course, the sales agent is controlling all the customer contact. Sooner or later that is likely to become a point of contention between publishers and their “sales agents.” It might be pushing things to expect that dispute to begin with the next round of agency contract negotiations in 2011, but expect that issue to make its way to the table in 2012 or 2013.

16 Comments »

Some pre-Thanksgiving stuffing


A few things worthy of a pre-Thanksgiving comment have passed in front of my eyeballs in the past few days.

1. Sainsbury’s, one of the big supermarket chains in Britain, has announced that it will open a digital download store before Christmas. They’re starting with movies and music, but plan to expand to ebooks before long.

The working assumption has been that Amazon, Apple, and Google (even though Google Editions hasn’t launched yet) would be the major global players for ebook distribution. Barnes & Noble has taken significant market share in the US, putting them second in sales to Amazon at the moment. There are rumors that B&N is going to start competing globally before long; it would certain make sense for them to do that. (Perhaps B&N’s aggregation of books in Spanish is a step in that direction.) Sony and Kobo are already active all over the world; Copia intends to be and they have just opened for business.

But if Sainsbury’s wants to be in this business, so might mass merchants in every other corner of the globe. We had already had our eyes opened by a French publisher who expressed his fervent hope that local French book retailers would carry English-language ebooks. His reasoning was very simple. Since Amazon, Apple, and Google would be carrying ebooks in French as well as English, the local merchants won’t be competitive unless they carry English as well as French.

There is a tendency in some quarters to declare the ebook wars over and that somebody (usually Amazon or Apple is the one annointed) has “won.” It is important to remember that ebooks have about 10% pentration in the US and less than 1% everywhere else (except, as we’ll see below, China). Many more players will be competing for the ninety-something-percent of the 2015 world’s ebook readers that haven’t tried it yet.

2. A story in China Daily puts the Chinese digital publishing business at $12 billion and at more than half of the Chinese book business. I have some immediate skepticism about these numbers since the US book business (all in: trade plus school plus college plus professional plus anything else you can think of) is only $30 billion and the US ebook business was just estimated by Forrester to be $1 billion. For China’s book business to be 80% or more of ours in total and for China’s digital publishing business to be 12 times ours seems very unlikely, if not impossible. Who knows what errors of methodology or currency conversion could explain these numbers? (I surely don’t.) But half digital is a powerful statement, even if the comparison with the US can’t be right.

The fact that China has moved so fast to digital opens up another line of thought to me: how translation might work in the future. Google Translate doesn’t deliver you a publishable version of anything. But it does deliver an intelligible version that a good writer or editor can turn into something publishable pretty quickly. How long can it be before a combination of Google Translate and a single literate person is delivering a perfectly acceptable translation of anything to anybody who can afford the single literate person?

(Added after publication: you’ll see a comment below pointing out that the statistics in the China Daily article referred to all publishing in China, not just book publishing. That makes the figures make more sense. It also means that much of what appears in the two paragraphs above has been mooted, except that Google Translate plus one good editor can deliver a readable version of anything in any language.)

3. Sarah Weinman, who is one of the more acute analysts of the commercial realities of digital publishing, just wrote a piece wondering whether the iBookstore is actually working. She suggests that iBookstore is trailing both Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook by a considerable amount in sales. She has data from one particular book for which the ebook sales were about 60% Amazon, 26% B&N, and only 6% iBookstore. When I asked a few publishers how those percentages broke down about four months ago, they put Amazon closer to 50% than 60% and put B&N and iBookstore pretty close to each other. The iBookstore, which I call the Walden or B. Dalton mall store of ebooks, has been a head-scratcher for me. They have far fewer titles than their competitors: Amazon, B&N, and Kobo. While they do a nice job of title presentation for the bestsellers, their lack of breadth is evident if you do any kind of subject or genre search. Meanwhile, Amazon’s very tough position (so far) resisting agency for any but the biggest publishers makes it very difficult for smaller publishers to put books in the iBookstore without exposing themselves to the danger of conflicting contracts and a downward spiral of revenue if Amazon decides to discount their books. (I have been told lately by two small entities that they’re going to get agency terms from Amazon; one actually wonders why Amazon would permit that right now since their current strategy seems to be working to keep the iBookstore uncompetitive on title breadth.)

On the other hand, it has been pointed out by others that iBookstore is going to develop a big offshore following. The iPad is making inroads abroad faster than Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore is the only book purchasing experience that comes already loaded on the iPad device.

I would never expect iBookstore to go away, but I do wonder whether it will be a significant force in ebook retailing, ever in the US and, in the long run, anywhere, unless they are willing to back off on requiring agency terms from smaller publishers. Or unless Amazon will back off on requiring wholesale to that same cohort.

4. PW reported yesterday that HarperCollins is shutting down its ebookstore. While there could be any number of factors at play, one has to assume that sales were not robust. The guess from here is that the problem of not enough traffic from consumers is going to be a generic problem for general trade publishers. You can only get traffic as a horizontal aggregator if you are a complete horizontal aggregator. iBookstore can’t do it with a fraction of the titles that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have and neither can a publisher.

With our good friends at Market Partners International, we’ve just launched a questionnaire on Survey Monkey to learn from agents what ebook deals they’re making with publishers. We’ll balance our inputs by interviewing publishers on the same subject before Connie Sayre of MPI and I deliver what we’ve learned at Digital Book World in January. If you’re an agent and you haven’t received an invitation to participate in this effort, contact Jess Johns at Idea Logical ([email protected]) and she’ll get you included.

6 Comments »

The sales paradigm needs to change


One of the functions of this blog is to predict important changes in the business just a bit before they happen. We think we were a bit ahead of the curve in seeing the ebook acceleration and in seeing the likely pressure on bookstore shelf space. Today it would seem that the next great pressure point in publishing houses is going to be the sales departments. In the next couple of years they will probably change more than they have in the last half-century.

When I first became aware of how the publishing business worked in the 1960s, the field reps (referred to frequently then as “the men”) were the key connection between the publishers and the market. The closest thing there were to national chains in the early 1960s were department store buying groups who seemed to all be clustered in tiny little offices on 42nd Street in the block just west of 5th Avenue. The local department stores — Marshall Fields in Chicago, Rich’s in Atlanta, Halle Brothers in Cleveland, were big and important accounts.

Because the reps were the key to getting books into the hands of readers, everything revolved around passing information and excitement to them and through them. Thus were publishing “seasons” necessary to group the books, organize them into catalogs, and to prepare sales materials (tip sheets, jackets, blads for illustrated books) in an orderly way. This pretty much required that publishing lists be frozen some weeks before the sales conferences which themselves were a couple of months before the first books on the list would ship.

Today the field reps are probably responsible for anywhere from 5-to-15 percent of a house’s sales. The major accounts: Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Ingram for everybody (and the mass merchants like Costco, Target, and Wal-mart for the biggest players) are now at least 70% of the business, often more. These customers are almost always covered by national account staffs, not by field reps.

National account sales almost never work with catalogs or seasons; they work by months. Each national account has its own rules and regulations governing when they need to know about a particular month’s books. Whether sales calls occur monthly or less frequently, the structure of the presentation is around each month’s deliveries, not around seasonal catalogs.

It seems transparent that the shift in sales resources has not kept pace with the shift in sales channels. The ratio of national account business versus field business has gone from what was probably about 50-50 20 years ago to 80-20 now. But field forces haven’t shrunk by anything like that proportion. The fact that 80% of the business is now season- and catalog-free hasn’t changed the procedure in most houses of building marketing around seasons and catalogs.

I checked in with a couple of veteran salespeople to confirm my notion that the structure of publishers’ sales organizations hasn’t changed as much as the structure of the account base. One of them made a couple of important points. He posited that field sales force reductions had been slow to happen because the field reps are highly visible in the industry. Outspoken independent stores, which have a public profile larger than their sales, want to be called on and complain if they’re not. Publishers in the houses who are fighting for attention for their books don’t like to see fewer reps selling more and more titles.

This same sales veteran also underscored that both marketing and publicity are living in a similarly restructured world and haven’t changed as much as they should either. He points out that Amazon coverage really calls for marketing talent and thinking, not sales talent and thinking. Sales, as this person sees it, is often about talking an account into taking a chance on stocking a book. Amazon works by algorithms and you can’t talk them into anything. (Furthermore, it doesn’t really cost you any sales if Amazon is out of stock; they’ll source the book from a wholesaler to satisfy the customer. If you’re not on the bookstore shelf, on the other hand, you aren’t going to make a sale.) So the Amazon coverage needs to be about keywords, marketing programs, and metadata. It isn’t about salesmanship, as it is in an independent account, or about navigating a complex supply chain, as it is at a chain or mass merchant.

Experiments have been tried. Ten years ago, Random House tried putting reps into the field specifically to call on the branches of bookstore chains. That has always seemed like a good idea to me: store managers and clerks affect sales; being faced out affects sales; and there’s a lot of display opportunity that is locally controlled. Only a rep calling on a chain branch can affect those things and good merchandising of the books in the store will mean fewer returns. Different chain managements (and some chains have changed their managements the way some people change their shoes) have different attitudes about those calls. Very few actually see the benefit and encourage it. Some quietly discourage it; some try to forbid it. Whether or not Random House continued that effort, it certainly didn’t become widespread.

But as independent bookstores continue to diminish in size and number, publishers need to come up with other things for reps to do to keep them in the field. Calling on chain stores would be one productive thing. Calling on local newspapers to push books or calling on special market (non-bookstore) accounts would be two others. We know of one major publisher that was trying things like that three or four years ago but it apparently didn’t work for them. That same publisher fired a bunch of reps a couple of years ago and shifted a lot of sales coverage to telemarketers.

Catalogs are slowly moving to electronic. Harper started the movement with their own initiative a couple of years ago; now Edelweiss from Above the Treeline is providing an industry solution. But seasonal list planning is still the predominant go-to-market mechanism in our industry.

I just don’t believe the status quo can hold a lot longer. Selling by seasons in the digital age is nutty. Preparing printed catalogs that are out of date before the ink on them dries in the digital age is nutty. And making the entire publishing house’s marketing staff work around sales conferences and list preparation when most of its customers don’t buy that way is beyond nutty. There needs to be a complete re-think of how publishers put books into the marketplace. The divisions of responsibility among national account reps, field reps, telesales reps, marketers, and publicists need to be rethought.

With a new step-increment drop in print book sales almost certain following what we all expect to be an ereader Christmas (and our new biggest sales day: December 25), I think we can expect some very hard thinking around this subject at many publishing houses in the first six months of 2011.

I belatedly realized that this was a very important topic that hadn’t been covered at Digital Book World. It is now. We have a great panel: Rich Freese of National Book Network, Alison Lazarus of Macmillan, and Michael Selleck of Simon & Schuster will discuss the changing role of the publishers’ sales department on a panel moderated by David Wilk, a veteran of trade book sales and distribution. I consider this a prime example of what I’ve tried to make DBW’s distinguishing proposition: discussion of business challenges caused by technology even if the topic itself isn’t primarily about technology.

8 Comments »

Don’t drown walking across the river


An aphorism that I picked up years ago that crosses my mind frequently in my professional life is that “a six-foot tall man drowns walking across a river that’s an average of three feet deep.”

The point is that aggregates and averages might mask important truths.

I thought of this when I read the news from the Forrester study of ebook take-up announced earlier this week. NB: Forrester is in partnership with my colleagues at Digital Book World and will present data — although not on this ebook study, but on another project — at the DBW conference in January. I haven’t been involved in those discussions and, like most of the readers of this blog, only know about the ebook study what I read in the releases and commentary.

Kat Meyer on O’Reilly Radar expressed her doubts about the Forrester data, and data just announced by Bain Consultants in France. Kat’s concerns go to methodology. Although I don’t know if we’re in a position to evaluate the methodology because I’m not aware that much has been revealed about it, I’d say her point is well-taken but it isn’t what really concerns me.

(My own first take on the headline numbers is 1) $1 billion in ebook sales now? If this trade only  – and there are some indications enumerated below that it might not be — then it is out of $15 billion which seems reasonable. If the number includes non-trade, which is $30 billion, then it is shocking for being low, not high.  2) Forecasting growth to $3 billion by 2015 from either base seems very conservative and the reduction in the growth rate over the next five years over what it has been the last two years is the story. I don’t think I’ve seen any accounts of the report that have characterized it that way. Being alone with this analysis makes me wonder whether I am missing something and don’t know enough to comment yet. That’s why this paragraph is in parentheses. It makes me feel better.)

The Forrester presentation of an industry study is one of several rooted in serious research that we’re planning for the conference. Last year we had reports from Verso Media about book readers, tracking their switch from print to electronic. Guy Gonzalez and his Digital Book World team have taken over that study and will update it for us with Verso. We also had a presentation last year from Bowker and BISG, who were just starting their study of ebook readers. They have done four fieldings since and will also be able to give us an update.

In both these cases, as long as the methodology of the studies has remained consistent, we’ll get important trending information, whether or not the precise percentages reported for various behaviors are accurate or not.

We got an opportunity to do another study when the team at iModerate, which has an online “chat” methodology to personalize research, volunteered to demonstrate what they do for our audience. We got to choose the topic and we decided to study the ereading habits on portable multi-function devices (smartphones and tablets). We chose that topic for two reasons: it is a new and rapidly-growing group of ebook readers and the color touchscreens and connectivity of the devices makes enhanced ebooks that might be hobbled on the Kindle or first-generation Nook fully accessible.

We will also debut work Bowker has done on the children’s book market supported by several publishers and organized with the Association of Booksellers for Children.

The headlines from the Forrester reporting were that ebook sales are approaching $1 billion and they expect that number to triple in five years. Also eye-catching was the fact that, three years into the Kindle era and more than six months after the iPad introduction, more ebooks are read on full-function personal computers than any other way. I say that was eye-catching; it goes to the heart of my concern about the data. It’s about the six-foot tall man.

It is my strong hunch that the content that is read on PCs is qualitatively different than what is read on portable and mobile devices. I am fully aware of the dangers of generalizing from one’s own experience, but I have never met a person who reads trade books on a PC. I know people who read on Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, and iPads. I am aware from having talked to people in the romance ebook business that people in offices reputedly read romances on their office machines (at lunch, of course).

But my intuition tells me that big chunks of that PC reading is professional and informational, not recreational and that this is where PDF sales are most likely. If 30+% of ebook readers consume content on regular computers, I’ll bet the percentages for O’Reilly’s Safari (whether reading a chunk of an ebook from that service is counted here is a good methodology question, but my intuition about interpreting the device data tells me it must be) are much higher.

So ebook reading is the river that’s an average of three feet deep. But it is only a foot or two deep near the shore (where the trade ebooks are read) and it is 15 feet deep in the middle (where the professional ebooks are read.) And the important point is that publishers who do one or the other are not usefully enlightened by data that puts those two distinctly different markets and environments together as if they were one.

This is not to suggest that nothing can be learned from Forrester’s research nor that any other study has a firm grip on this granularity. I asked a data-driven colleague who’s done a bunch of work in this area whether he shared my hunch about who’s reading those PDFs on PCs. He went into his files and ultimately agreed that the market parsing I was looking for was not evident in the extensive research he had done.

Obviously, there are people who know this. Amazon and B&N and Kobo know what devices the books they sell are read on. O’Reilly knows what devices the books they sell and the ones used in their Safari library are read on. When I interviewed the publisher of Ellora’s Cave at Digital Book World last year, she was quite conscious of the fact that many of her books were still sold as PDFs, implying a computer reader. The fact that this data has not been made ubiquitously available and parsed suggests that it is seen as having proprietary value by the people who possess it.

Trying to understand a strand of the market that might be distinct was behind our thinking when we decided to have iModerate focus on portable multi-function devices. We figured that those readers might use and value enriched ebook features more than Kindle or Nook readers and we also see them as the market segment of ebook readers likely to grow fastest. So understanding that market segment in some more detail might help publishers lead the target a bit on product development.

We have written many times before that the book business is not one business. The professional ebooks read on a laptop by a programmer in the middle of an assignment don’t tell you much about what format you should publish a romance novel in. The big change in the ebook world that hasn’t really happened yet but will in the next couple of years is greater adaptation and consumption of illustrated books in digital form. Anything heavily illustrated now pretty much has to be delivered as PDF to a laptop; that won’t be true anymore at the outer edge of the current forecast window, which is 2015.

On the day I’m writing this, new ebook sales data was announced and Cader analyzed it in a post that is behind his paywall. He calculated that ebook sales comprise 9.5% of adult trade sales but only 1.7% of children’s. That’s really charting the river bottom in a useful way.

So we’d say give us data, let us try to understand its limitations and gain insight from it at the same time, and let’s remember that the world of digital change in publishing is simultaneously dynamic and diverse and that no single body of data is likely to give us the answers to what we should do next or what we should expect in the years to come.

It is precisely because data needs to be interpreted that we set the Verso-DBW, BISG-Bowker, and iModerate sessions at Digital Book World back-to-back-to-back and will follow their presentations with a panel discussion meant to shine some light on what we can conclude from what they say.

12 Comments »

Why offshore ebook customers are so often frustrated


People of a certain age — mine — probably first encountered the world of rights as a content consumer with pop music in the 1960s. British albums, which came in sleeves that were flimsier cardboard than American album sleeves, routinely had 15 songs. American albums had 12. And the British would put songs out as singles that didn’t make their way into albums more often than Americans did.

So we teenage afficionados of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of which there were many in my time, learned pretty quickly that there wasn’t a one-to-one relationship between the music available to the Brits and what was available to us. Their Rubber Soul and Help albums had more songs than our Rubber Soul and Help albums. Beatles for Sale was a British album which never came out over here. We had Something New pulling together songs that they had released as singles or on other albums.

It’s damn near 50 years later, but rights are still getting in my way in a different medium: sports. Even though the technology would make it very easy to make it available, I couldn’t watch the football games the Giants played while I was in Europe for Frankfurt. There would be money in this, of course. I’d pay and so would lots of others. But the deals haven’t been struck. Undoubtedly larger deals (some NFL games are televised in Europe and I’m sure those rights acquirers are happier if I can’t pull in the game I want on my computer) get in the way of this smaller one.

In the past several months, readers of this blog from around the world have commented on the unavailability of ebook titles in their territories even though publishers would have the right to sell them. As near as we can tell, this problem often tracks back to big publishers that have gone to agency pricing. (That’s where the publisher sets the price to the end consumer and becomes the seller-of-record rather than the retailer intermediary being the seller.) It would appear that many (if not all) agency publishers have withheld their titles in territories outside the United States, even if they would have the rights to sell in those territories.

That particular cause of the problem of unavailability is probably temporary. In fact, some publishers are just now announcing the availability of agency books in Australia. The agency model was a complicated challenge taken up in great haste by the US publishers to meet the hard deadline imposed by iPad’s introduction into the market and Apple’s iBookstore opening to serve it. Non-US consumers weren’t the only ones to suffer. It is now more than six months since agency began, and one large domestic independent ebook retailer, Diesel Ebooks, just blogged about how few retailers had, six months out, been able to secure the titles from all five of those publishers. The publishers are finding that the need to do lawyered-up deals with each particular point of transaction for their books is no trivial barrier to distribution. But it isn’t a permanent one; the deals get made eventually.

Here’s another complication I learned about this week. Amazon.co.uk, the British arm, sells only in the UK. It is Amazon.com, the US site, that sells globally. So if the rights to, let’s say Switzerland, are owned by the UK publisher, that publisher would have to have the ebook available through the US branch of Amazon or it wouldn’t be available to the Amazon customer in Switzerland!

This piece of information comes to me because of a discussion last week on the Brantley list triggered by the launch of a website by agent Jane Litte attempting to track lost sales. The site simply asks readers who wanted to buy a book (print or digital) and either couldn’t or didn’t why they didn’t.

One publisher on the list immediately looked up the complaints against his house, which the web site makes very easy to do. Among the first books he saw was one where his company had US rights only. The complaint was from a person who couldn’t get the book in a territory controlled by the UK publisher. Yet the US publisher was listed as the “culprit” failing to make the book available.

A long series of comments failed to get to the bottom of the problem. For one thing, we didn’t know whether the unavailability complaint applied to print or digital (which resulted in an improvement to the site that will enable the complainant to make that clear in the future.) But then we also don’t know how hard or efficiently the complainant looked for the book.

In other words, the site does the job of aggregating complaints about book unavailability, but does not adequately curate them. And it turns out that not all the “lost book sales” were due to unavailability; some were simply due to the consumer wanting a lower price. That is, perhaps, useful information but it is of an entirely different sort.

(Quite aside from the point to this post, every publisher should be harvesting and analyzing data from Jane’s site as, I’m sure, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and The Book Depository will! If you accept the responsibility seriously for being in touch with the people who read your books or are interested in them, you will want all the data points you can get and if this site gets a lot of traffic, it will provide unique data. “Harvesting and analyzing” does not mean “over-reacting”, by the way.)

It is clear — from this site’s data but even more from the complaints in comments on this blog and Cader’s reporting on Publishers Lunch — that ebook availability is frequently being blocked by rights controls. It has seemed to many of us that having a single global publisher would make that problem go away.

But that solution offers little comfort since global publishers are or were (at least temporarily) blocking sales from happening in territories where they actually have rights, because they hadn’t worked out all the logistics of agency selling in all territories yet.

The failure of availability of ebooks due to territorial restrictions is, to many, confirmation that the time-developed system of rights allocation, compounded by DRM in the digital world, is simply broken. This is another point of conflict between people whose highest value is ubiquitous availability of content (some without regard to the content consumer’s ability or willingness to pay) and those who value even more the right of the content creator or owner to maximize the revenue from that content’s use.

Just about the first rule any agent or publisher engaged in rights dealing learns is “acquire rights broadly, license rights narrowly.” Any agent who is a competent professional holds back any rights they can in any deal they make. And most agents trying to maximize an author’s English-language revenue starts with the assumption that they accomplish that by making separate deals in New York and London. Those deals are still primarily about print books. Ebook rights and various other territories, like Europe, are still pawns in the bigger game.

I am one who believes that digital change will lead us to a world where there is one global publisher for most books depending on a network of alliances to execute some aspects of marketing and to maximize distribution everywhere. But I also think our wait for that change to be widespread is going to be a long one; it is many years away. In the meantime, consumers of books will find — as music consumers did in the 60s and sports fans still do today — that what appear to be nonsensical barriers block them from purchasing and consuming content that technology could easily deliver to them and for which they’d be happy to pay a fair price.

But the barriers placed by rights to digital distribution are far less onerous than the barriers placed by practical realities have been to physical distribution. And they’ll come down faster. The agents who carve up the rights to maximize the author’s financial return (and their own) will be thinking about the implications of consumers blocked from purchasing them and one wouldn’t be surprised to see future deals require publishers to make ebooks available in all the territories for which they demand ebook rights. They will have author clients bugging them to do that. Unfortunately, nobody playing football for the New York Giants cares whether I can watch them in Frankfurt or not.

On another topic, but my favorite topic, I have come across this post by Andrew Davies, the MD of a tech company called Idio in the UK. I had the pleasure of meeting Andrew for an hour’s chat in London last month. But I call your attention to his post because it states the case I’ve been trying to make for years – that publishers need to get into community leadership while they can because the business of selling content must inevitably decline — incredibly succinctly and eloquently. I don’t know enough about Idio’s technology to recommend it, but I can sure recommend this piece as an example of clear and cogent thinking about the future today’s publishers face.

22 Comments »

Will juvie publishing remain a book business as tablets take over?


This post will discuss a realization I had even before this morning’s news about the developing e-products scene. I’ve always been a skeptic about enhanced ebooks, based on seeing my hunch that they wouldn’t work come true 15 years ago with CD-Roms. But it is increasingly obvious that CD-Rom type thinking will work very well for kids’ books. In fact, I’m beginning to think that enhanced ebook or app-type delivery could overwhelm books as a container-of-choice in a pretty short time. Single digit years.

The reasons that I’m skeptical about enhanced (or enriched, a recent term I’ve heard that might be better) ebooks is because most adult books are written as narrative reading experiences not intended to be interrupted and now being read by people who value the immersive experience. (Not all. But most of the kind we think of as bestsellers or literature.) My guess is that it is going to be hard to shift many of the hours of consumption now devoted to immersive reading to something quite different. And I see that as a qualitatively different challenge than moving immersive reading itself from one delivery mechanism (paper) to another (screens.)

The reason that kids’ material didn’t survive the CD-Rom period 15 years ago was the complexity of the delivery mechanism. You had to be at a computer, which usually meant a desktop computer. You had to load the CD-Rom, which on most computers (because few then were Macs) required additional navigation before they would play. These products just weren’t really accessible to kids, even if the programming they contained was designed for them.

But those reservations just don’t hold for kids’ “books” (if that’s what you call them) migrated to the iPad, a smartphone or, now, the NOOKcolor (which, I think, is how its owners would like us to spell it.)

The degree to which you can immerse yourself in a book is directly proportional to the fluency with which you read. That means that the younger you are, the more likely you are to accept the interrupted reading experience .

And as the devices get cheaper and more ubiquitous, parents and kids will learn fast how entertaining, instructive, and accessible interactive experiences can be.

I started writing this post over the weekend because we knew about several entrepreneurial ventures that were focused on developing kids’ material in this way. Then this morning’s Publishers Lunch told us the story of the developments at Callaway, which only underscore that some serious money is betting on this direction.

In short, I have come to the point of view that the juvie book business is going to migrate to enhanced digital products much faster than adult narrative text and that, as a result, the origination and publishing for the various kids’ book marketplaces will be increasingly the province of new companies and less and less the business of book publishers.

The Callaway Digital Arts story as Publishers Lunch reported it today is stunning. Not only did they secure $6 million in financing led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’s iFund, they have won a $30 million “Ready to Learn” grant from the Department of Education. With this wind at their backs, Callaway says they plan to be producing 150 apps a year by two years from now. They’re being seen by Apple as a “strategic partner” helping the iPad to “transform education.”

While the Callaway start-up is the most dramatic, they’re hardly alone in focusing on the market for enhanced kids’ content built on books .

Oceanhouse Media is building what seems like a comparable business a completely different way. Rather than going to investors for capital, Oceanhouse managed to self-capitalize by building a network of developers willing to work for a piece of the projects they are developing. They’ve got deals with Hay House (that’s not for kids, primarily), their neighbors in San Diego. And they’ve secured rights to Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears. In a conversation with them, it sounded like they’d be delivering new products at the rate Callaway projects even sooner than two years from now.

Trilogy Studios has partners who have run game studios at Electronic Arts, Fox Interactive and Vivendi Universal Games and recently launched their most successful children’s product to date, a casual MMO (that’s a “Massive Multiplayer Online” game) based on a very successful animated feature film. They’ve expanded their portfolio to include interactive storybooks and social games and hired publishing veteran Marc Jaffe (recently of Rodale) to secure rights to some of the most recognizable entertainment and publishing brands for further digital development.

Rick Richter, recently the head of children’s publishing at Simon & Schuster, has his own new entrant in the field called Ruckus Media Group. They’re doing Apple and Android apps, have acquired rights to the Rabbit Ears Library (children’s classics read by celebrities) and are signing authors for original content.

Smashing Ideas is a website, game, and app studio that has been in business for 14 years. They’ve worked with youth-focused brands like Hasbro, Nickelodeon, and Disney for many years. Now they have a deal to develop projects with Random House and they’re also going to town on public domain books with apps out or coming soon for War of the Worlds, The Jungle Book, and The Wizard of Oz. This shouldn’t be a big surprise because Ben Roberts, who now leads their ebook division, helped create Alice for the iPad.

All of this investment and all of this development must be seeing the same thing I’m seeing. Kids are going to be a big market for this kind of product. Straight narrative reading can be immersive to the extent that the act of reading itself is easy and effortless. You can’t lose yourself in the story if you’re looking up words or frequently re-reading sentences to get the meaning.

That means it is a lot harder for a younger person to get immersed in just words on paper. That’s why kids’ books offer so much more than that: pictures, of course, but also pop-ups and various other entertaining three-dimensional devices, to the extent they can be delivered in something which is fundamentally bound paper.

You could say kids have been getting “enhanced books” forever!

The new devices have much better capabilities than CD-Roms did to engage in ways other than with words — ways which those of us who love immersive reading might find distracting or annoying but which kids love. Intuitive touchscreen navigation, a relatively recent development, makes it even easier to engage and interact with an active mind that hasn’t yet learned enough language to work comfortably with written cues.

I don’t live in a child-centric atmosphere, but I’ve been aware for the past couple of years that parents who thought their kids were too young for the connectivity expense of an iPhone would buy them an iPod Touch, which does what an iPhone does except make and receive calls (and, therefore, has no monthly connection fee associated with it.) A friend of mine who is pretty determinedly “old media” was recently asking me what I thought about a Touch for his 7-year old, who wanted to keep up with his friends by having one. These kids aren’t using Google for their homework; they’re playing games that are the leading edge of the new kids’ book business.

The iPad drew these new players into the explicit business of making enhanced ebooks of kids’ books. The NOOKcolor only adds fuel to the fire.

And because the NOOKcolor is half the price or less of an iPad, parents will be more relaxed about having their kids playing with it.

There is anecdotal testimony that kids can become more interested in a paper book after they’ve been exposed to the character and story through an enhanced ebook or app. We’re finding that out because the enhanced ebooks being made today are starting out from books that already exist. This is a totally sensible way into the business. Why add to the creative challenge by starting from scratch when there is a wealth of established brands and characters to license? And as the first great success in this enhanced kids genre, Alice for the iPad, demonstrated and Smashing Ideas has picked up, even the requirement of licensing can be sidestepped by using a public domain text as its basis.

The guess from here is that publishers — or whoever owns the rights — will have a nice business for a while licensing books and characters to enhanced ebook developers called “digital studios” who will make very successful products. In time — and not too much time — those studios will become the originators of the new characters and franchises and the book will become the “subsidiary right.” How soon? Not long. Three to five years?

Any publisher that wants to be serving the kids’ market in the middle of this decade better buy one of those studios, or start one.

This idea jumped into my head about a month ago; it had to get past my prejudice against annoying interruptions which is how I view most enhanced ebooks meant for grown-ups. So of course, we started to put together a panel on the subject for the Digital Book World Conference immediately. That got me talking to a lot of these companies. We haven’t made the final call on which three or four will be discussing what they’re up to at the show on January 25-26, but it will certainly be a conversation about juvie publishing’s near-term future.

20 Comments »