November, 2011

The ebook value chain is still sorting itself out, and so are the splits

The division of the consumer’s dollar across the publishing value chain has a history of change. When I came into the business 50 years ago, discounts from publishers to retailers often topped out at 44% and even wholesalers seldom got more than 48% off the retail price on hardcover books. Today discounts into the mid-50s for big retailers and for wholesalers are common.

The top royalty for authors was, as it is now, 15% of the retail price, but there were fewer exceptions allowing the royalty to be cut, contractually or in practice. Today “high discount” clauses, calling for a royalty of something less that 15% of retail (and sometimes a lot less than 15% of retail) will often apply to more than half of the sales the publisher makes. (It is also true that in those days the agent’s standard cut was 10%. The 50% increase they’ve achieved to 15% is the single biggest change in share in the past 50 years.)

Lower royalties subsidize higher discounts and higher discounts have subsidized price cuts to the consumer. Discounting off the publishers’ suggested price by the retailer was rare until the Crown Books chain, which had a meteoric tenure as a major retailer from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, made it a core component of their offering. The Barnes & Noble and Borders chains, which rose to prominence during the Crown decade, used the tactic, although less aggressively than Crown.

All of these numbers: the discount determining what the retailer will pay; the royalty calculated either as a percentage of the stated retail price (usually printed on the book) or of the net paid by the retailer on a high-discount sale; and the ultimate consumer price (whether what the publisher printed or lower if the retailer wants it lower) are based on the price the publisher sets and prints on the book in the first place. The informal internal formulas for setting the price have changed over the years too and, although it is a bit hard to really compare, it would appear that the markup over manufacturing cost has also risen steadily over the past 50 years.

So we had reached a point, somewhat before we had the Internet and, where, on big books at least, the publisher would charge a price higher than they expected the consumer to be charged, give the retailer a discount larger than many retailers would keep as margin, and state a percentage as the per-copy royalty in the main body of the contract that didn’t apply to most of the sales. One could say there was a “virtual” world in trade book publishing’s value chain before the term was applied to our new digital reality.

The core underlying point here — obvious but often ignored — is that the division of revenue across the value chain is never fixed. That’s important to remember as we consider how the ebook chain is shaping up. One hears authors and publishers arguing about what is the “fair” division of the ebook consumer’s dollar (as if “fair” had anything to do with it, which it doesn’t) and we have a very unsettled picture of what the retailer’s share of that dollar will be (even though Apple is doing its best to be definitive about it.)

Right now for ebooks we have two “standards” for the publisher-retailer division of revenue. For agency publishers across all retailers and for all publishers selling to (or perhaps we should, with respect for the agency logic, say “through”) Apple, the retailer share is 30% of the purchasing customer’s payment for the ebook, or the publisher’s “digital retail price”. For non-agency publishers selling to everybody else but Apple, the normal offer is 50% off the publishers “suggested retail price”. The DRP is set within boundaries basically set by Apple, primarily based on the price marked on the print version of the book. The SRP is the publisher’s own creation and has been at or close to the lowest-priced print version. The non-agency publishers who sell to Apple are obliged to have both: their DRP is the price Apple will charge (until and unless they’re undercut) and the SRP is the price that forms the basis of discounts to wholesale customers. I haven’t studied this but I think most publishers set SRPs higher than the break-even point because they want wholesale customers to go agency and would trade less revenue to achieve that, as they did when they switched over in the first place. (The publishers could set the SRP at a point where 50% of it equals 70% of the DRP, so their take is the same either way.) Theoretically, the publisher can count on the wholesale-purchasing retailer to discount the book to match the DRP, reducing their own margin and being competitive with the DRP in the consumer’s eyes.

This pricing strategy depends on the retailer discounting from the SRP to keep the pricing of the ebook from looking ridiculous. Not discounting is a way for the retailer to push the publisher to lower the SRP, which could start a cascade of price-cutting. That discounting has usually started with Amazon; others then follow suit. There are anecdotal claims that Amazon is starting to foil this strategy by letting publishers who set high prices live with the prices they set more often than they once did, but nobody but Amazon knows that for sure.

During the period when Random House stayed out of agency pricing, one thing they said was they thought the 30% agency standard was high and they didn’t want to memorialize a retailer cut that rich. Either other considerations prevailed or Random came to the conclusion that they couldn’t singlehandedly change that standard cut.

But if we maintain a competitive landscape of retailers, there is a way it could come down. What if one retailer (B&N? Kobo? Google?) were to offer publishers a deal where a discounted version of an ebook were offered through them on a temporary exclusive — say, the first 60 days the ebook was out — during which they would help subsidize the discount by taking a smaller percentage themselves during the promotion. Would publishers find it tempting to accept such an arrangement to poke a hole in the 30% standard? I think they might. (They would certanly enjoy the conversation with a competing retailer inquiring about how that happened, in which the publisher could offer a “matching” deal for some other equally appealing book and leave that retailer to think about whether to hold the line on the 30%.)

Another value chain segment the industry is still trying to value and price is the percentage a distributor can charge in the digital world. There’s wide variation here already, as there is in the print world, where the same bundle of services (sales, warehousing, shipping and returns processing, collecting receivables) can cost anywhere from around 20% to around 33% (fully loaded.) In ebook distribution, we see BookBaby willing to set up for a fixed fee (with no percentage deducted), BookMasters and Smashwords and some agent services like Knight charging about 15% of the revenue, and then offers from various publishers, distributors, and literary agents that go as high as 30% of the revenue.

Usually those offers are framed as “we pay 70% of revenue” which, I think, some hope will be confused with the 70% the agency retailer pays of the consumer dollar. Of course, if they are paying 70% of the revenue on a wholesale account buying at 50% off and the account doesn’t discount to the consumer, the distributor is actually paying 35% of the consumer dollar to its client.

The challenge for distributors is to offer services which don’t commoditize. Many authors already manage their own digital publishing affairs and sneer at the idea that a distributor or publisher has anything to offer that is worth even a token payment, let alone a substantial share. Over time, one can imagine information dashboards, metadata enhancement, dynamic pricing, and marketing assistance capabilities that will give ample justification for a distributor’s presence in the value chain for many authors and small publishers. It would be premature to predict how much value can be added and how much margin it could command. Most of these roads aren’t paved yet. What the distributors are offering at the moment is their ability to navigate unpaved roads and constant marketplace change which, despite the skeptics, is service many of us can see the need for.

What gets perhaps the most attention in the industry’s conversation about dividing the digital swag, but which is dependent on the upstream divisions of revenue, is the author’s royalty from the publisher. The majors have held the line for a year or two at 25% royalty, which means 25% of the 70% they get from the retailer, or 17.5% of the consumer’s dollar. That’s a quarter of what the author can get from Amazon or Kobo, and just a bit more than a quarter of what they can get from Barnes & Noble. Aside from publishers’ significant efforts to build marketing capabilities that will grow sales and their ability to charge a retail price often four times higher than an author would on his/her own, the publishers are offering guaranteed payments (advances against royalties) and a print revenue stream to sugar-coat the 25% digital royalty. Still, as the percentage of books sold digitally rises, it is likely to pull up the percentage of the sale authors will get along with it.

Everything happens faster with digital than it did with physical. And so it will be with changes in the revenue distribution along the value chain. My hunch (all hunch, no data) is that in the long run (5 or 10 years?) retailers will find it hard to keep 30% of the consumer’s dollar, publishers will find it nearly impossible to keep 75% of what the retailers pay, and that any author who wants to compete seriously will have a cost structure that will often make a royalty rate taking even as much as half of it away worth considering. Right now putting an ebook into Amazon and having them sell it on autopilot can get a lot more of the total market than will be the case over time as a more fully articulated and global ebook infrastructure builds out.

If I’m right, retailers should want longer contracts than publishers in their agreements; publishers should want longer contracts than authors, or at least longer terms for the stipulated ebook payout percentages; every author or publisher wants as short a contract as they can get with their distributor; and every author giving an ebook exclusive to a retail channel for longer than an introductory period should think twice about what that might cost in years to come.

Michael Cader did an absolutely fabulous reporting job on the distribution alternatives available today for our eBooks for Everyone Else conference in San Francisco. We’re doing an eBEE track at Digital Book World in January, and Michael’s doing a reprise of that presentation, with time for q&a, at a breakout session there. The distribution piece is by far the most complex of the three moving parts (the retail function and the royalty rate being much more straightforward components that don’t vary much in their definition) and a lot of DBW attendees will benefit from Michael’s reporting.


Publishers adding value on the marketing side

Obviously my day job, consulting, informs a lot of what goes into The Shatzkin Files. I guess it is just as obvious that I can’t quote everybody who tells me something or attribute everything I want to write about to a specific company or individual. I don’t make a living writing this blog and I wouldn’t make a living at all if people in the industry couldn’t trust me to keep their confidences.

But once in a while people inside competitive companies tell me things that they want the world of publishing to know about what they’re doing. That’s happened twice this week and, in both cases, publishers were making it very clear that they are doing things that will add real value to authors’ marketing efforts, things that no self-publishing author could do for themselves. Self-publishing authors could be wrong, but a read through the comment string of a recent post here makes it clear that they don’t much believe publishers add value in marketing.

On Monday, I was talking to Fritz Foy, the senior VP for Digital Publishing and Strategic Technology at Macmillan. My mission was to recruit speakers from Macmillan for Digital Book World. The conversation turned to the question of “collecting names” for marketing purposes. I had learned previously that Macmillan really has a company-wide effort to do that. That’s something I have advocated. I thought it was so important that I went to the unusual (for me) effort of learning some fundamentals of direct contact management and writing about them on the blog 14 months ago. But Macmillan is the only company I’m aware of that makes email address capture an objective across the company, although we see pockets of name-gathering activity in other majors.

Fritz emphasized that collecting names wasn’t the only priority. Using them, using them well, and tracking what happened when they used them were the keys. (I was reminded, as I was again by the next conversation I’ll describe, of the adage “you can’t improve what you don’t measure”.) To demonstrate, he pulled some October numbers from, which one would assume, based on the relatively longstanding effort, probably constitutes the company’s biggest single pool of email addresses.

And they had a lot of them, enough to have sent over 650,000 emails to their lists in the month of October. That’s impressive. But what’s positively stunning is that more than 30% of those emails got opened (that’s more than 200,000) and more than 20% of those clicked through: took the action that Macmillan asked them to take in the email. That’s in the neighborhood of 40,000 actions.

Now the actions were, for the most part, to get free access to more content. (Only 15% of the mailings were purely “marketing”.) They weren’t selling anything. But what Fritz was demonstrating was the growth of what I call “investment marketing”: marketing that produces a result that makes subsequent marketing efforts cheaper or more productive. These numbers are going to grow, inexorably. Another indication of how solid Macmillan’s lists are is that only 0.1% unsubscribed!

If I were an author (or agent) looking for a sci-fi publisher, it would impress me that Macmillan has lists that get a 30% open rate. It would make me feel they could do things to promote my book that another publisher without those lists couldn’t do. I don’t know what the growth rate is on those lists, but most things (sales, device penetration, self-publishing) in the digital publishing world have been more than doubling each year and these could well be too.

The key point to take on board here is that is a flagship; Macmillan is doing this across their company. They are building other verticals as well. If other publishers aren’t systematically taking names, getting email permissions, and testing what can be done with them, Macmillan will build up marketing capabilities that it will get increasingly expensive to compete against.

There is little doubt that Amazon’s author-recruitment efforts for their imprints include the promise to mail to known buyers in the author’s genre. They almost certainly can send more than 600,000 emails in a month for many books and genres. But can they get a 30% open rate and a 20% clickthrough?

And Amazon, a retailer, can’t get trapped into just pushing the books it signs up when their consumer brand, and their sales, depend on offering full range of selection of available titles across publishers’ lists. That conflict is compounded as they sign up more and more titles as proprietary. (But it will also be ameliorated if the titles they sign are higher profile than they’ve been so far.)

The day may not be far off when agents are going to be asking publishers “how many emails can you send in support of this book on publication day?” If I were in Amazon’s shoes, I’d be pushing that question. It looks like Macmillan is methodically building the ability to provide an answer.

But not everybody with a modern view of marketing agrees with me (and Macmillan) about the importance of name-gathering, which brings us to the second conversation this week.

We got a call from Open Road Integrated Media asking us to come down to their shop and learn a bit about what they’re doing. Open Road is an ebook publishing company founded by former Harper CEO Jane Friedman which has been an annoyance to the big publishers. Jane has been in the business for more than four decades in high positions at major houses (at Random House before Harper). She knows the agents and she knows how the game of signing up content works.

So she moved against the establishment by offering a standard deal of a 50% share of ebook revenues, when the major publishers are holding the line at 25%. (Open Road’s deal includes the ability to recoup one-half the digitization cost before paying what we usually call royalties but which they call “profit share”. ORIM says that comes to less than $500 per title. Open Road pays no advances.) She used her understanding of the ambiguities in legacy publishing contracts to sign up backlists from both living authors and estates, including Willam Styron, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, Alice Walker, and others.

Those have been the headlines about Open Road and that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of their proposition. Without any other knowledge of their economics — their ability to raise money, their burn rate, their sales — I was skeptical about the sustainability of their model, if it rested primarily on paying 50% for what others were paying 25% for and gathering high-quality backlist of titles not nailed down already for ebooks, which is a limited resource.

It turns out they have a lot more going for them than that. But they don’t gather names.

Open Road’s head marketer is Rachel Chou, who worked with Jane Friedman at Harper. Jane and Rachel, and former Scholastic CEO Barbara Marcus, who is an advisor to Open Road on children’s and YA acquisitions, made the point that Open Road is a marketing company. That’s what they do. And their bullpen with about a dozen people in cubicles working away is just about exclusively devoted to marketing. Except that, in their eyes, marketing and sales and author relations are all the same thing to them, and they see a workflow built around that perception as a key differentiator.

In fact, they see the consolidation of functions in their shop as a significant competitive advantage. In the ebook world, marketing and sales are so closely related that it is hard to see how to parse them. That’s partly because the promotions by ebook retailers could be the single most important marketing component (a point made emphatically by Diversion Books’ Scott Waxman at our eBooks for Everyone Else shows in New York and San Francisco), but it is also because all marketing efforts at Open Road are aimed at driving sales to the ebook retailers. (Their widgets all have buy buttons for the full range of retailer choices.)

But that’s not where the competitive advantage of their structure comes into play.

Rachel spelled that out. One of the major retailers came to them in the past few weeks with a big sales opportunity. They could place 15 Open Road titles in a major promotion that would sell a lot of books. One catch: they needed the titles cleared for the promotion within 24 hours.

Another catch that is characteristic of the ebook world: this was a price promotion that required clearing the participation of each book with its agent. That’s 15 agents. Rachel and her team of marketers, who have the agents of the Open Road ebooks on their own speed-dials, got the job done and got all 15 books into the promotion.

Moving that fast would be a non-starter in any significant publishing house. Whether the opportunity came in through sales or marketing, neither team would own the agent relationships. I believe in most houses it would be necessary to have the agent calls made by the editor who had signed the book. Certainly, the editor would have to be consulted before anybody from marketing or sales could make such a call. And that round of communication, which would include explaining the promotion opportunity to each of the affected editors, would never be attempted within a 24-hour window. Realistically, 24 days would be a challenge.

Open Road is organized differently than legacy publishers because there is so much they don’t have to do! There is very little in the way of a production department (there is a person who creates their covers and Pablo Defendini, who was a key player building Macmillan’s, is their “interactive producer”.) There is no sales department. There is no inventory management. Everybody works in a room that is dominated by a wall with a 2-month marketing calendar, listing all the events and anniversaries they might promote around. They have 75% or 80% of their company dedicated to marketing, which everybody — including all the big publishers who have expressed an opinion to me — agrees is the prime responsibility of the book publisher in the digital era.

But, even within that, Open Road is organized for efficiency and speed based on the realities of the value chain for ebooks. Their marketers are assigned books which “fit together”, so they are consistently going back to the same blogs and websites for promotion. They can develop relationships. They’re not really a “vertical” publisher (by genre or by topic) but they do have multiple titles from the same author, which helps.

To be fair, the other major publishers are reorganizing themselves constantly into more marketing-focused and less bureaucratic organizations. Just this past week, Simon & Schuster announced organizational changes which effectively shift resources from physical store sales to online marketing (which is admittedly an oversimplification.) The big companies all have great leadership and they’re well aware that they have to change. And I know for sure there are plenty of initiatives I haven’t heard about because the houses feel there’s competitive advantage to keeping them quiet. In fact, Rachel Chou told me about newsletters that are published readers at HarperCollins were getting open rates when she was there a couple of years ago that were even higher than Fritz’s numbers in October!

Open Road’s team would point to other distinctions between them and other publishers. (They not only claim to be different from the legacy print publishers, they don’t recognize any of the other ebook publishers as true competitors either.) They do extensive video interviews with every author (or a descendant in the case of a deceased author) which creates a rich library of video content. It’s a point of pride with ORIM that these are not fodder for video trailers, but give them real editorial material that can be made into solid programming, often combining video from several authors thematically into “mashups”. They distribute that video aggressively and claim they’ve now reached the point where they’re a recognized B2B brand by some digital media and bloggers who come to the Open Road website, unbidden, to pick up video. Of course, all the video is tagged so the Open Road marketers can track its placement, downloads, and any clickthroughs that result to the retailers.

And that leads us to metrics. Open Road is relentless about data and analytics. They make the point that they can test different covers or tag lines on Facebook or in other media and have answers within hours about what works best. The Open Road team believes that the big houses don’t give their marketers the kind of tools ORIM has to measure the impact of campaigns and that their competitors’ corporate structures don’t enable fast changes in the pitch or the artwork based on data.

These may not be sustainable advantages. Tools can be provided. Workflows can be changed to permit faster responses when that’s necessary. The established houses can raise their royalty rates. How fast things will change in the big houses is an open question (and the answer is different for every house), but it is undeniable that the decision-making structures that worked for print books readily accepted time lags that are a real handicap in the evolving ebook world.

Jane Friedman and her team claim that there is a marketing plan for every book for every quarter! (They admit there’s some ganging there; a bunch of different books might be part of the same Mother’s Day effort.) Whether that is scaleable and replicable when they are ten times their current size (approximately 1400 titles) is another question. But it is certainly a point of differentiation today.

Open Road doesn’t sell direct, only through intermediaries. And they eschew name and email address capture of end users, preferring to rely on the combination of the viral distribution of content and their always-developing relationships with bloggers and websites.

Both Macmillan and Open Road are doing things that no big trade house could have imagined five years ago. Macmillan is applying scale; Open Road is applying the speed and flexibility enabled by a smaller organization. But both of them are employing what I’d call “investment marketing”: doing things on behalf of their books that build their capabilities to do more on behalf of subsequent books. I think that’s the key for publishers who want to give authors and agents convincing reasons to publish with them in the future.

We’ll do a panel on “investment marketing” at Digital Book World in January. Of course, Open Road and Macmillan will be on it. So will F+W Media, a vertical publisher (investment marketing is much more natural for vertial publishers) and we expect to add one more Big Six house which is doing interesting things in this regard.


Searching for the formula to deliver illustrated books as ebooks

I want to make clear at the outset that this post is not about “enhanced ebooks”, making something multiple-media out of a book that started as straight text. That’s a “want to do” problem that I’ve always been skeptical about and which I believe many, if not most, publishers are abandoning as “not commercially viable at this time”. Today’s ruminations are about moving illustrated books from print to digital, which many of today’s book publishers will find a “must solve” problem as the channels to reach consumers effectively with illustrated books — the bookstores — are diminished in number and power by digital change.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble are trading boasts about whose iPad-lite is better than the other guy’s. Kobo’s Vox is joining the party with Kobo now owned by Rakuten, a massive Japanese company that gives the former upstart the means to really compete with all the other players. We can be pretty sure that tablets that can deliver color-illustrated book pages will be in many hands very soon. (That’s in addition to the tens of millions of iPads and many millions of Nook Color devices that have been sold already.)

This is presenting publishers with illustrated books on their list with what seems like an enormous opportunity. But it also presents some equally enormous challenges.

It has been estimated by many that 25% of the print books sold are illustrated books. (I last saw this number in a slide from Michael Tamblyn of Kobo at our eBooks for Everyone Else conference in San Francisco on November 2d.) I am not sure what that means. Trade books only?

And even if I did know what it means, I wouldn’t know enough. Books that are primarily pretty pictures, which don’t require much integration of the pictures and text (the minority of the 25%, one would assume) are a considerably simpler proposition to port to digital than a book with pictures and captions that have to stay with them or text that needs to be on the same page with a picture or a chart.

A lot of work is being done to create new standards called HTML5 and Epub3 that will permit more faithful rendering of a publisher’s intentions through a web browser or an ebook than our current capabilities do. But there are two very big flies in the ointment that persist regardless of the technology.

One: illustrated books are considerably more complex and expensive to deliver to digital devices than straight text books. (Even if HTML5 and Epub3 accomplish everything their creators want and they’re fed by XML-workflows, converting the backlists will cost a multiple on a per-title basis of what straight text costs. And I suspect we’re many years away from relieving publishers of the need to make the decisions necessary to execute multiple versions of each book, new or backlist, as will be made clear further on in this post.)

Two: we really don’t know whether consumers with tablets or tablet-lites will choose to consume illustrated books on those devices. (I’d say we do know that people will happily read straight text on devices; what seems to be true in my experience these days is that most of the people who say they “prefer printed books” have not tried an ereader yet.)

So while many publishers are largely seeing eroding print sales for straight text more than compensated for by ebook sales, there is no guarantee that the same will be true of illustrated books.

The retailers selling the tablets and the publishers of illustrated books are excited about the possibilities. The development of HTML5 and its close cousin, Epub 3, promise to enable features and capabilities that heretofore were only available in apps to be delivered as ebooks. That’s a big deal because the app marketplace has two huge shortcomings: it doesn’t enable book discovery very well and it is loaded with very inexpensive products. Many publishers have come to the conclusion that selling apps isn’t a commercially-viable strategy going forward. They’d much rather have their IP on sale in an ebookstore.

To be fair, others (like Callaway Digital Media) think apps work just fine commercially (although I’d add that Callaway does children’s content primarily, and that’s different…) and there are more and more tools being delivered to make app-building cheaper and more economical than it was before. But I still agree with the doubters.

Getting ready for Digital Book World, we had a conversation in the past couple of weeks with a publisher that does illustrated books almost exclusively. He volunteered what we believe: nobody knows if the customer will buy these yet. And then he pointed to his enormous pain point: screen sizes.

The currently-touted solution for illustrated books on devices is “fixed page layout.” You don’t “reflow” the text, which is the technique used for straight text. Reflowing changes the number of words on the page to suit the screen size and type size. That means you are changing the amount of content that appears on the screen. If you did that for illustrated books, pictures and captions wouldn’t stay together and things you planned to be on the same page might very well not be. So you deliver a “fixed page” to the device, just like you do to a printer.

The dominant color tablet device has been the iPad, which has a 10-inch screen (this is a diagonal measurement). But the new tablet-lites have seven-inch screens. This cuts the viewing area by about 50%. There is really no way to present a “page” that combines text and pictures that works on both screen sizes. If you go from 10-inch to seven, the type will be too small to read. If you go from 7-inch to ten, the white space surrounding the page will be ridiculous, or the type will be ludicrously large.

And I haven’t mentioned the fact that the iPhone has a 3-1/2 inch screen. Imagine the fixed page for a 10-inch iPad on that!

Although tools exist that make it relatively quick and easy for a designer to see the page on the right screen size and move things around a bit, that doesn’t really solve the problem. An illustrated book publisher would really have to design and lay out each book at least twice (for the 10-inch and 7-inch screens) and possibly three times (to get the iPhone screen too.) Then those would be three different files, so you couldn’t actually move across your devices and have them auto-synch the way Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple enable you to do now for straight text.

Would you get the files for all three sizes when you made the purchase?

There is a way to create the book for different sized screens with the same number of pages, which would be to use more area for the page than will fit on the screen vertically, and then scroll down to get more. Scrollmotion introduced this technique when they were making simple ebooks as a way to make ebook pages match printed book pages. But even employing that technique wouldn’t really save the illustrated book publisher any work. You’d still have to redesign each page for the particular device, and, anyway, I’m one reader who found I didn’t like ebooks that make you both scroll and turn.

One prominent ebook executive I know told me that there have been about 1000 illustrated ebooks available until a month or two ago but that the conversion houses in India have recently been working overtime to deliver more for the plethora of new tablet and tablet-lite devices hitting the market . Now they’re cranking out approximately 1000 illustrated ebooks a week so that by the end of the year, we might have 10,000 illustrated ebooks to choose from on many of the platforms.

That’s still paltry, compared to a million or more straight text ebooks, but the sudden leap in illustrated ebook titles available and screens to read them on must, one assumes, generate a real sales increase. Maybe we’ll start finding out what works and what doesn’t. This same executive, working for one of the major ecosystems, is trying to help publishers set their priorities for what books to convert. (Much of the conversion expense right now is being borne by the device-maker-retailers, so they get to call some shots.) But meaningful data points are so scarce that they offer very little guidance.

As bookstore shelf space disappears, the urgency of solving this problem grows. The sales of illustrated books have reportedly been going up in the bookstores, which is good news for as long as it lasts. It makes complete sense that retailers would emphasize the things that seeing and touching make you more likely to buy. But I’d be concerned that even the sales of illustrated books will suffer as more and more of the straight text consumers find what they want without visiting a bookstore. And a closed bookstore doesn’t sell any illustrated books at all.

I learned something interesting lately from a travel book publisher with a robust web presence that might be a useful clue. I was told that photo albums are a big new moneymaker for them. People who are traveling to Paris love the opportunity to look through a series of photos of Paris. Each photo is a new screen with new ads on it. That is creating some really easy additional revenue for this publisher’s web sites.

I think that a “500 photographs” series of ebooks could also do very well, particularly with the digital ability to present them in sequences determined by metadata. If 500 Paris pictures were properly tagged, I could see “Eiffel Tower”, “churches”, “19th century architecture”, and “Champs Elysee” pictures grouped together by clicking on a menu.

And that kind of a book, with no associated text necessary (“captions” could be on a jump screen), could be designed once for all size devices.

Of course, whether it would have a commercially-viable print counterpart is yet another question.

I have concerns that converting how-to books to digital success is going to be a very frustrating experience. The ebook will not deliver the printed material well, unless the same care is exercised optimizing the content to each different digital screen as is put into designing a book. And there will be so much more the ebook could do with video and audio and animation and interactivity that would make sense for most subjects that “converting” a book will just leave too much opportunity behind.

But publishers have to try. With millions of devices in consumer hands, some illustrated ebooks are going to sell impressive numbers. We saw what happened with “The Elements” when the iPad came out (even if comparable success hasn’t seemed to happen for any other content-based app product since).

Creating a truly interactive book-type digital experience has been the objective of countless thousands of high-quality person-hours for two decades, since even before the CD-Rom era. Nobody has cracked the code yet, by which I mean nobody has come up with a formula which will repeatedly satisfy consumers so that a publisher can approach the marketplace for digital content with something approximating the confidence that it does with straight text books. As an industry, we’re about to throw a lot more time and money at the problem. Maybe we’ll find an answer. Or maybe there isn’t one.


True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare

Getting ready for our eBooks for Everyone Else conferences, I discovered an author named Bob Mayer who impressed me with his self-publishing zeal and apparent success. Bob has written lots of military fiction, science fiction, even a romance novel, and some non-fiction: dozens of books over the years for major publishers. Most of it was mass-market, most of it reverted relatively easily and Bob systematically secured those rights reversions for years.

He caught my attention with the bare bones of his story. He started putting his work up as ebooks in January, when he sold a few hundred books. By July he had more than 40 titles available and was selling a total of over 100,000 units a month. I had long wanted to put an author before my conference audiences who had achieved self-publishing success to talk about how s/he’d done it.

Joe Konrath and, more recently, John Locke had politely turned me down. I booked a 1-on-1 conversation with Barry Eisler at our Publishers Launch Conference at BEA right after he announced his decision to turn down a 6-figure advance to self-publish. Alas (for this objective of mine), the morning of the event Barry signed a contract with Amazon to do his next book with them. Although he has self-published some short fiction. Eisler’s story became that he is an Amazon-published author, not a self-published author. That’s a good story and we had a good session on-stage that the conference audience benefited from, but it was not a a self-publishing report from an author who truly did it on his or her own.

(Eisler’s wife, the literary agent Laura Rennert, reported at eBEE in San Francisco that Amazon is succeeding very well with Eisler’s current book, The Detachment — which I read and enjoyed — and that his substantial advance has already been earned out.)

So I was pleased to learn with a phone call that, not only was Mayer an enagaging talker, but that he was willing to make the journey from his home in Seattle to San Francisco to discuss his success with a conference audience.

But what became clear when I had a further conversation with Mayer the day before our conference, buttressed by what was said by many other participants at the event, is that the Hocking-Konrath-Locke story — an author managing all the pieces of their publishing program and and achieving a totally private success — is a Dodo bird. Unless we consolidate down to an only-Amazon ebook world, which, despite Amazon’s best efforts, doesn’t seem likely anytime soon but would undoubtedly create a whole new rule book if it ever arrived, the work and expertise required for successful publishing will lead inexorably to one of two results.

Either an author will get help to publish their own material — a distributor like Constellation or Ingram or a publisher — or they’ll find what they built to serve themselves would be better and less-expensively maintained with the work of additional authors to go along with their own. There’s enough work and expertise involved in what had first seemed to many such a simple process that it requires building a bit of a machine to do it. And once a machine is built, it is just wasteful to leave it idling between the works generated by any one writer.

This point was made by Mayer when he told me that he is now recruiting other authors to publish. He started out by finding a partner to handle the technology component and mechanics of his efforts. In his already-substantial experience in less than a year, he has learned that proper editing is essential, as are eye-catching covers, as is the right metadata. He told me and our audience that a single complaint from a reader to Amazon about a typo in one’s book can result in the ebook being taken down for a required correction. He has learned, as others have, that maximizing revenue requires changing and re-changing your prices, which is more work.

Bob says he has even fixed plot errors that were pointed out by Kindle readers.

(Another view of this aggressiveness to satisfy customers was offered to me by a Big Six executive a few months ago when he related the story of a book published by his house that had been taken down. There the “culprit” was vernacular language that was interpreted by a reader as poorly copy-edited grammar. There was nothing wrong with the ebook, but one reader thinking there was resulted in a takedown that cost everybody sales for several days until the ebook could be put back up!)

Bob says books can disappear from major retail sites for no apparent reason as well. He says that anybody who believes that ebook publishing is like “sending the book to a printer, after which you can forget about working on it” is mistaken.

And he believes that any author whose work is good and wants to take a self-publishing route would be wise to cede a percentage of sales to him, or somebody else, who has learned what he has and equipped themselves to prepare books properly for sale and manage them after they’re launched.

This is establishing ever so much more clearly that publishers are right when they say there’s a role for them in an ebook world. Amazon itself makes that clear by the difference in the deals it offers self-published authors and authors it signs for its imprints. Although authors will continue to self-publish, the debate that matters in the future is what the basket of services will be that authors require and what will be the right price for them. The lines are drawn for that discussion and the opinions are really all over the lot.

There are ebook publishers — the granddaddies eReads and Rosetta, Scott Waxman’s Diversion Books, and the giant in the space: Open Road — who are saying the “right” ebook division between author and publisher is 50-50. (We should make clear that this is the division of the revenue obtained from the retailer or “sales agent”, which would normally be 65-70% of the selling price or 50% of a publishers suggested list which could be discounted, depending on what kind of sales arrangement is in place.) Smashwords, an entirely automated service, and BookMasters, a service provider, provide distribution for 15% of the take. Two agents speaking on our panel in San Francisco, Deidre Knight and Laura Rennert, are capping their agency’s take at 15% of the revenue as well, as they walk the ethical line that is perceived by some to require that they make no more money self-publishing an author than they would selling the rights to a publisher.

Then there are many other service offerings with prices that fall in between 15% and 50%.

Amazon’s rules offer some insight on this. If you work with them through their KDP service, you get 70% (if you set your price within their accepted bands). But, as Mayer and others at our conference made clear, through KDP you can’t even purchase any special merchandising or promotion. But if you are published by Amazon’s imprints, the take is cut in half and the author gets 35% of retail, but you get lots of promotion by positioning. (Deals are private, and the details of Eisler’s deal have not been revealed, but the presumption would be that he earned out his rumored six-figure advance from Amazon at the 35% rate.) Thirty-five percent matches what a 50-50 publisher could deliver if they had an agency-like deal with the retailer.

Amazon agreements also come with the requirement that you participate in their other programs, including library lending in cooperation with OverDrive and, presumably, the new subscription program they have just announed. (It appears they chose not to include all KDP titles in the subscription program; there are only 5,000 titles announced for that initiative and since we know that Smashwords has nearly 100,000 titles, it is likely that KDP has more than that. On the other hand, late reporting by Publishers Lunch on Thursday spells out that Amazon will simply “buy” copies of any non-agency titles it wants to lend. That means they make one purchase for each loan, so it is expensive for them, but it demonstrates again that only publishers with agency arrangements have control of their distribution and how their books might be used to strengthen any one distributor’s ecosystem.)

The comparisons get complicated, but, if a conventional publisher is providing the full range of services that our speakers said is needed to maximize sales: good covers, changing covers, dynamic pricing, constantly improved metadata, monitoring to catch glitch take-downs, as well as developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, the author wouldn’t be doing badly at all to get 35% of the consumer’s dollar for an ebook. Throw in real print book distribution and sales and the royalties and marketing from that, plus a publisher’s core marketing effort (being part of a “legitimate” list gets attention from reviewers, bloggers, library collection development, and other places that matter), and, perhaps, some dedicated marketing as well, and it can be a relatively profitable exercise for an author to be with a publisher for even less than that.

When agency publishers pay 25% royalties, they are giving the author 17.5% of the paying customer’s dollar. Everybody will draw their own lines, deal by deal, but that doesn’t strike me as totally crazy as long as print sales remain more than half the total and the publisher is paying an advance that carries with it some risk that the actual royalty paid will be higher than what the contract stipulates.

That’s a moving target, of course, I personally don’t expect print sales to remain at half the total very much longer. But if major publishers were paying 50% royalty on a 70% agency sale, they’d be matching the 35% Amazon pays the authors it publishes. Amazon can do much more to promote on Amazon (which panelists at eBEE said is what really moves the needle); but publishers make noise in a lot of other places Amazon (yet) doesn’t. Presumably Open Road and Diversion and eReads and other 50-50 ebook publishers can’t match the agency terms with Amazon (they can get 70% through KDP, but that comes with pricing restraints and required agreement to those other deals we discussed earlier), so only the Big Six, who can apply agency across all accounts, can offer a comparable deal with a manageable percentage payout.

Amazon is demonstrating what they see as the value of securing the loyalty of digital book consumers for its ecosystem by their willingness to pay full wholesale price for an ebook that will then get lent once, as well as their penchant for pricing for sale well below their cost. The evidence that agency pricing is the only wall between a multi-channel ebook business and a single-retailer monopoly continues to grow. But as long as print in stores matters, and it will for a while longer, the Big Six have a legitimate commercial argument to defend ebook royalties between 25 and 50 percent. After that, everybody except Amazon will be hoping that that the Nook, Kobo, Google, and Sony market share is enough to keep it essential to an author to cover them all. And that means of discovery and merchandising will emerge that are a meaningful alternative to what is provided by the world’s biggest virtual retailer.