December, 2011

No predictions this year; just questions

This is the time of year for predictions. I’ve done mine in the spirit of the holiday season in years past, going back to the late 1980s when I did a “My Say” for Publishers Weekly. (I wasn’t able to find it — some sharp reader will — but I recall that one of my predictions was that publishers would strive to put out the audio of a title at the same time they released the printed book.)

In recent years, I’ve done the predictions for PW and I’ve done them right here. This year I contributed some thoughts to a nice roundup done by Jeremy Greenfield, the new editorial brain over at the Digital Book World site.

This year, I thought I’d try something different. Rather than predict the future for the industry’s biggest players, I am posing what I think are the biggest questions faced by each category of them. Some of the questions are within their power or responsibility to answer; some depend on outside circumstances; and some may never be answered at all. But any honest futurist (and I try to be one) has to admit that questions outnumber answers. (Note: there is a great Johnny Nash song called “There Are More Questions Than Answers” that’s about 50 years old and is just as correct today as it was then.) So this post focuses on the important questions we’ll be facing throughout the industry in 2012 and beyond.

The biggest publishers:

Can their use of tech at scale — SEO and pricing seem like top candidates — add demonstrable value, cost-effective for them and persuasive to authors?

How fast do sales of print in stores decline? And how efficiently can publishers de-scale to keep overheads under control?

Can they reorganize to take advantage of the opportunities offered to the quick and nimble in a digital world?

Can they extend the “protection” of agency pricing to distribution clients and, if so, can they charge a premium for that capability? (Could this be an unintended benefit to the Big Six of Amazon’s refusal, so far, to allow agency to any except the Big Six?)

What skills and capabilities does a publisher need now that they didn’t need a few years ago, and what’s the best way (acquiring a company, outsourcing, hiring in talent) to bring those talents into the fold?

Publishers bigger than small, but not Big Six:

Can these publishers fight their way out of the box that Amazon and Apple have them in, with Amazon insisting that ebooks be transacted on the wholesale model and Apple insisting on the agency model?

Can Amazon continue to be relied upon to discount from high publisher suggested retail prices (the basis of high wholesale prices for the retailer), or will Amazon sell more frequently at the publisher’s declared price to “encourage” publishers to cut their suggested retail priceas and therefore bring Amazon’s costs, and publishers margins, down?

Smaller publishers:

Can they keep up with the technological and contractual demands of digital publishing change?

Can they find niches that present opportunities they can seize to sell something other than “the book” (whether in print or digital)?

Can they create opportunities by being nimble, opportunistic, and vertical that make them more attractive than larger competitors as partners for knowledgeable agents, authors, and brands?


Can they marshall their considerable resources to sell individual titles so effectively within their network that they make up for what they miss outside their network?

Can they build any noticeable or sustainable advantage in having a repository of desireable content that is not available except through them?

Can they maintain their device and platform dominance as the competition moves far beyond the early adopter online book-reading audience?

Barnes & Noble:

Do books as gifts and objects deliver enough traffic to keep a bookstore chain successful as the sales of novels and biographies go away?

Can they create a profitable international strategy? They haven’t had one yet.

Like the publishers, can they manage down their physical plant and overhead base as the revenue it was built to serve diminishes? (We presume they can’t do it with Nook sales and services alone.)

Independent bookstores:

Will the lift they get from Borders closing and B&N cutting back on shelf space for books buy them time as print book sales in stores shift to ebooks and online purchasing?

Can they make something work with Google ebooks? Or will another solution arise that works to get indies into ebook commerce in a profitable way?

Will emphasizing the books-as-objects market (gifts and otherwise) work as the customers for narrative text find it less and less necessary to visit physical locations?


How do they know that their agent understands the new range of publishing options and directs their business activity accordingly? (It’s as hard to be effective as your own agent as it is to be your own lawyer.)

How do they build their own online platform? (And every author who plans to make a living through writing and hasn’t yet built a platform has to think about having one.)

Will any author turn down a significant advance to self-publish in 2012? (So far, that behavior has been extraordinarily rare, with Tim Ferriss being the only one really close. Barry Eisler intended to, but he took an advance from Amazon instead.)

Will the number of successfully self-published mid-list authors continue to grow? Under what terms and royalty rates do these authors return to traditional publishers?


How do they make sure the full range of knowledge about the digital publishing alternatives is within their grasp? (if not in their head…)

Do they know what they need to know to make a “profit-sharing” deal with a publisher?

Can they direct an author’s own online marketing efforts? And, if they do, is some adjustment to the standard practice of a 15% share of the author royalties going to be necessary, or possible?

Illustrated book publishers:

Is “fixed page layout” the answer? Or, more likely, is it the answer for some books and not for others? Which ones?

How do illustrated publishers cope with the plethora of native formats, file requirements, and screen sizes?

Do “illustrated books” delivered on good portable screens achieve the same consumer acceptance that straight text did making the same transition?

Are there new retail channels available to sell illustrated books as bookstores diminish?

Are new models, perhaps built on social or community but also possibly built on non-book commerce, possible to support and extend illustrated book publishing?

The industry:

As the global ebook infrastructure develops, does it show signs of staying diverse or does it tend to consolidate as Kindle?

Does the industry show signs it will trifurcate, with narrative text, adult illustrated, and children’s books becoming three largely different businesses?

With Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Kobo established as significant global ebook outlets, will any of the other players or fledglings — Google, Sony, Blio, Copia, Bookish, Anobii — start selling enough units to be an important contributor to ebook sales?

Will either white-label B2B or publisher-to-consumer sales grow markedly in significance as the time-honored sales, distribution, and monetization models atrophy?

This could well be the last Shatzkin Files post for 2011. It’s been a great year around here. We launched a new business, Publishers Launch Conferences, with our friend Michael Cader. We started the year with a great Digital Book World last January and are concluding this one putting the finishing touches on an even bigger and better one coming next month. An ebook and a print book edition of The Shatzkin Files, Volume One (the first two years, through last February) were published. We have some great new consulting clients about whom we think you’ll hear a lot in 2012. And, despite the reality that you can’t claim 50 years in the business (which I do) and remain a young person (which I’m not), good health and good cheer remain in abundance around here. Our view of publishing’s digital future seems to have been more confirmed than contradicted by the year’s events. So we’ll take a 2012 that largely resembles 2011 very happily if we can get it.

Best of the holiday season to all our readers. And may 2012 be as kind to you as 2011 was to us.


Paying authors more might be the best economics for publishers in the long run

If you imagine the publisher’s business as one that divides most of the consumer’s dollar between two core stakeholders in the supply chain — the retailer and the author — you’d have a pretty accurate picture. The publishers, at least theoretically, decide what the retailer’s “working margin” will be with their discounts and agency agreements. And they decide what the author’s share of the proceeds will be by the advances and royalty rates they offer and agree on through their contracts.

These are the essential, and basically non-substitutable, trading partners for a publisher. They can choose a different printer or publicity firm without changing the character of their business or their economics. But the author relationships are existential and defining and the intermediaries who reach the public and enable the consumer transaction are indispensible.

Plenty has been written, by me and others, about the challenges trade publishers face due to the decline of shelf space for books. But, in some ways, it looks at the moment like those (also including me) who have said that publishers are in big trouble as bookstores decline are mistaken. Sales in stores are declining and sales of print books are declining but total sales, including ebooks, are holding pretty firm and the big publishers are reporting pretty healthy results. So if declining bookstore shelf space, which we have clearly seen over the past few years, doesn’t weaken trade publishers’ commercial performance, what will?

I have written before about asking my friend and sometimes-collaborator Mark Bide a similar question about another segment of publishing. As a John Wiley stockholder, I was worrying 15 years ago about their reliance on journals for their revenues and profits. We thought way back then that journals were likely candidates for disintermediation. After all, the university pays the professor’s salary to write the journal article that the publisher gets for free and then monetizes by charging the same university’s library for a subscription to the journal. Even in the early days of the web, we could see the potential for professors to post their own articles and for peer review to be crowd-sourced, delivering the IP to the academic community faster and saving universities a boatload of dough.

At the time Mark said the thing to watch was whether the publishers stopped getting the submissions. If the professors didn’t need the journals, they’d stop getting the raw material that feeds the whole engine.

So far, it hasn’t happened (and I still own the stock). Despite lots of open source academic publishing, the journals remain important brands in their fields and the professors want the journal publication as a credential. (In books we know that lots of people read the book and have no idea who the publisher was. In journals it is the opposite: more people will know the professor published in the journal than will read the article.) The business has changed and library budgets grow considerably more challenged, but most of the journals, including Wiley’s, remain highly profitable and highly desirable to the authors.

In fact, Mark identifed the point of vulnerability for trade publishers. If the stores and other intermediaries they rely on go away, they have to find other ways to sell their books. That’s a challenge, no doubt.

But if the authors don’t play along, they have nothing to sell. Making deals with authors is the publishers’ price of admission to the game.

As the central player whose contracts and sales terms manage the distribution of revenues throughout the supply chain, how publishers view the commerce of our business is central to how it operates. This has, historically, been challenging. The activity of publishing is complicated and its economics are complicated.

A couple of months ago, Michael Cader pointed out to me that the big publishers were making a serious tactical error in the way they were accounting for sales under the agency arrangement. (Quick reminder: under agency, the publisher is considered the “seller”, not the retailer. The publisher sets the price which the retailer can’t change and pays the retailer, or sales “agent”, a fixed 30% of the set price paid by the consumer.) Publishers simply imitated their convention from the wholesale terms transactions they’d always done before. They book as revenue the 70% they keep of the sale, not the full price the consumer pays (and which, if they did, would make the 30% paid to the retailer a “cost of sale” like printing or shipping is in the physical world or like DRM costs might be in the digital world).

Cader spelled out two important benefits that would flow to publishers if they made a different choice of how to account these sales. (He says, and I trust him, that GAAP rules don’t require them to employ the methodology they do.)

One is that that their “top line”, their “total revenue” line, would be higher. That’s critical to foster a helpful perception in the investment community, which worries when they see declining revenues. And if publishers insist on sticking to booking only the 70% they get on the ebook sales as the total revenue, they’re locked into declining revenue for years to come as competition drives down ebook prices (probably) and as ebook sales continue to replace hardcover print sales (for sure).

The other perception publishers are manipulating against their interests is within their negotiating community. Both agents (on behalf of authors) and the big accounts publishers sell through look at the publishers’ margins as a percentage of sales to decide if there’s more there for them to get. Reporting ebook sales as they do, publishers are achieving about 75% margin on ebook sales (because they give 25% of the take to the author.) If they took the full price as the revenue, they’d be achieving 52.5% margin on those sales (although, of course, nothing really changes.)

There are fewer knock-on problems for the publishers when the big accounts move to convert this (apparently excess) margin into changed business terms than if they allow agents to change the author deal. Changes forced by Amazon or Barnes & Noble could conceivably affect only them, depending on how the change in terms were framed.  But were an agent to succeed in pushing up the contractual ebook royalty, that change could affect a whole host of other contracts because of most favored nation clauses. That could mean royalties are suddenly due on contracts that under the previously-negotiated royalties hadn’t earned out their advances.

So we acknowledge that the price of raising contractual ebook royalties could be high. But it still might be worth it. As we will see later, more margin given to accounts achieves no incremental gain for the publishers; more margin to authors does.

There’s one more very big reason for publishers to change their accounting in the way Cader’s insight suggests. Right now, every big publisher’s life is being disrupted by state, federal, and international investigations into the legality of agency selling, which is characterized by some as “price fixing”. The defense is that the publisher, not the retailer, is the seller and it isn’t illogical for somebody selling something to charge the same price to every customer no matter how they reach them.

If “I’m really the seller” is the defense, it would be much more persuasive if the accounting supported that paradigm. As it stands, the accounting contradicts it.

The total situation not only argues for publishers to change their accounting, it also argues for them to give a bigger percentage to authors and to do it now! Doing so would deliver them two important benefits. It would reduce the apparently excess margin that their retail trading partners are noticing and coveting. But — of much greater importance —  it would also reduce the differential between what Amazon (and who knows, perhaps B&N in the future) offers an author and what the publisher offers, making it more difficult for Amazon to lure their authors away with higher royalty terms.

In fact, they might even get some sympathy from Barnes & Noble about having less excess margin to trade if they can make it clear that giving more to authors is keeping them out of Amazon’s clutches, which B&N and all other retailers absolutely need them to do.

Part of what prevents publishers from seeing merit in paying more to authors is their high cognizance of another accounting element they track: unearned advances. Unfortunately, either publishers aren’t looking at that category of expense in the right way or they’re eliding important distinctions when they discuss those unearned advances with agents.

Because all unearned advances are clearly not created equal. All of the biggest authors pile up unearned advances because they are intended to be unearned. When the agent for a megaselling writer sits down with a publisher to negotiate the advance, they are often negotiating around dividing up what they both see (perhaps without explicitly saying so) as the total revenue pie likely from the book. That leads to agreement on the advance against royalties, which divides the revenues at what is effectively much higher per-copy royalties than standard contracts call for.

But then, for reasons of “not establishing precedent” and, perhaps, not kicking in “most favored nation” clauses that could exist in other contracts (all in the publishers’ interest), the actual contract has conventional royalty splits. The book would have to sell a big increment over expectations to “earn out” on conventional royalties. That’s very unlikely because these are deals done with highly established authors where the track record is a good predictor of future performance.

So some of these “unearned” advances were never intended to be earned; they simply measure how much of a premium the publisher was willing to pay to get certain revenues into the fold.

In other words, publishers aren’t trying to manage all unearned advances down, just some of them. And if they don’t make that distinction (and some further nuance to their measurement) when they analyze this, they’re doing themselves a disservice in a number of ways. Right now, one of those ways is that it is persuading them not to pay higher royalties when doing so could well be in their interest, both because it will keep the author away from Amazon and because it leaves less margin on the table for their trading partners to pursue.

Declared royalty rates that are closer to what Amazon can offer are critical for publishers to turn around a PR war for new authors that they have been losing. The focus of a great deal of the author community buzz is around the ebook royalty differential. Disadvantages of self-publishing — the biggest three being the actual financial cost of necessary editing and core marketing (like a cover); the difference in risk between taking those costs versus taking a revenue guarantee in the form of an advance; and the additional marketing and sales a publisher generates (right now largely through the merchandising and additional revenue from print) — are too easy to ignore or elide. The royalty comparison is straightforward and apparently persuasive when it is as stark as it is now.

A 50% ebook royalty from an agency publisher on revenue after agency commissions would match the 35% royalty that Amazon pays when they pay advances and publish. But publishers don’t actually have to reach that number to be offering  a better deal because they offer sales through other channels Amazon currently either doesn’t reach or actually prohibits employing when they pay an advance to publish. It’s just a tough argument to make when they offer half that number.

One more reflection on unearned advances to bend your mind in the other direction, and then we’ll stop. When the publisher sells a copy of a book that has an unearned advance, the cash flow for this month on the book is better, because no payment to the author is triggered. If publishers paid authors higher royalties on ebook sales, they’d have fewer dollars in unearned advances (because books would earn out faster) very quickly. Of course, that’s not “good” for them because it means they have to pay new royalties on those books as they sell. This is just to say reiterate what I said above: publishing economics are complicated. Anytime you hear them oversimplified, like by somebody lumping together all “unearned advances” into a number or a percentage and wielding it like evidence or analysis, have your grains of salt handy.

I make no secret that my view of the world is publisher-centric. I was brought up that way and I’ve spent 50 years learning about the book business with that point of view. And I also make no secret of my high regard for the current leadership of the biggest publishing houses. With all due respect to the executives of my father’s generation and since, the current crop of leaders is the smartest and most thoughtful and innovative group I’ve ever seen in those slots. But (unless I’m missing something, which is, of course, always a possibility…) they all appear to be making the same mistake at the moment. I would sum up the observations from this post with three suggestions for today’s biggest publishers:

1. Change the way you account for ebook sales in the way Michael Cader suggests: call the consumer payment the top line revenue and the payment to the retailer a cost of sale.

2. Recognize that no excess margin will go unpunished. The forces of big author agents and powerful retail channels will assure that. You know there’s a minimum margin you need to survive; in fact there will also be a maximum margin you’ll have any prayer of holding onto.

3. Pay authors more so you can pay retailers less. There will be a direct connection between the two.


Competing with Amazon is not an easy thing to do

Amazon has three pretty powerful things going for them, and two are entirely their own doing.

Number one: Amazon is, by far, the most book-industry-focused company that is actually active in endeavors much larger than the book business. Barnes & Noble and Ingram are just as focused, but they really don’t go beyond the book business. Google and Apple are, like Amazon, leveraging their book activities into other areas and vice-versa, but they have nowhere near the presence in the book business that Amazon does. (Kobo, which is focused on the book business but has just been bought by a much larger Internet retailer, is still a bit of a wild card in this regard.)

Number two: Amazon executes. Their hardware and software and platforms and content delivery all work just about perfectly. It seems odd to me that, at this relatively late date in the ebook switchover, Amazon is still the only place I can shop for ebooks and see my choices arrayed by (highly granular) subject with the most recently published books on top. (Note to all competitive retailers: please let me know the minute your shopping experience can offer the same thing!)

Number three: Amazon is the runaway market leader in the only two segments of the book business that are growing — ebooks and the online purchasing of print — and they are cleverly leveraging the leadership position they have to make challenging them even more difficult in the future. Their willingness to take losses on some transactions to grow share, on Kindle devices to lock customers into their ecosystem and on eboooks when they can to emphasize they are the low-cost provider, is supported by the wide array of products, in media and far outside, on which they don’t need to sacrifice margin for competitive advantage.

Amazon’s industry focus is natural, since books is where they started (even though books are now a fraction of their business). Their history gives them the presence and the knowledge to be highly disruptive. They know how to go after authors directly (apparently even more effectively than Barnes & Noble, which has been signing up content on a proprietary basis for well over a decade and actually owns a publishing company). They use price as a weapon to sell books, disadvantage competitive retailers online and in stores, and to lock in customer loyalty for print (with their Prime program) and ebooks (with their proprietary Kindle platform).

Amazon’s execution has been a keystone of their success from the very beginning, from their invention (or at least early use) of a database for “discovery” even larger than their supply capabilities (they wanted the customer to know when a book they wanted was no longer available, so they could choose something else), promise dates for delivery that were almost always met, customer service that aggressively solved every problem, and intuitive navigation and execution that did for online retailing what Apple did with hardware and operating software. And when Amazon decided to do hardware, they might not have made anybody forget Steve Jobs, but they have apparently made his company address the Kindle Fire with a pricing response on their iPad.

But none of this would worry the rest of the publishing ecosystem — publishers, retailers, and agents — if it weren’t for the fact that everything in publishing seems to be flowing downhill toward a future where the vast majority of what people read as books is both found and purchased (and often consumed) online.

Actually, there are two more important components to Amazon’s success: their lack of involvement in the most capital-intensive elements of the legacy book business (press runs and returns as a publisher, brick stores as a retailer) and their brilliance at acquiring companies that might have provided platforms to cause them trouble. There have probably been many of those (and they are very graphically represented here) but I can immediately point to three:

* the acqusition of Mobi ten years ago took the one format that could have united the ebook market, then divided between the Palm and Microsoft formats, out of circulation before some other retailer (specifically: Barnes & Noble) could have served the entire marketplace and perhaps made ebooks accelerate many years before the Kindle;

* the acquisition of Lexcycle which gave them Stanza, an ebook platform that was extremely consumer-friendly and cross-platform, which could have constituted a threat to Kindle’s development when the Amazon format was in its infancy;

* the acquisition of The Book Depository, an global onliner retailer of print that had developed technology and logistics that would have made it a great foundation for competing with Amazon for global book sales, which was done at the very time that three major publishers on each side of the Atlantic were investing in competitive retailing enterprises (Bookish in the US and Anobii in the UK).

The Book Depository acquisition was very well timed, coming as it did just as there are signs that the British public would really prefer to buy its books online, that the French (like the rest of Europe, we’re sure) are beginning to seriously enter the digital book future, and that the Swiss are starting to worry about the decline of their brick book business.

It is natural that any player who has made the bet that brick-and-mortar bookstores have a future would be hostile to Amazon. It is becoming increasingly obvious that technology is enabling Amazon not just to persuade book customers to shop with them, but also to buy from them when they’ve shopped elsewhere.

I am entirely sympathetic with Tim O’Reilly’s admonition that we should “buy where we shop”. Note that Tim made this point almost a decade ago, when the suggestion being made by me (among others) that bookstores were seriously threatened by digital change was dismissed by most people in the industry.

But it being right doesn’t make it so.

Publishers have a valuable proposition to offer authors as long as Amazon is one of a diversified set of paths to the purchasing consumer. In today’s world, where print is still 70% of the sales of even most straight text books and most of the print is still sold in stores, an author who has the opportunity to work with a regular publisher makes real a sacrifice of market exposure to work directly with Amazon. Even if Amazon were to eschew its Kindle-only insistence on ebooks for titles it signs directly through its imprints (and we hear rumors from the deal-making world that they might on a selective basis), Amazon would still have a great challenge getting exposure for one of its titles through brick outlets. (Some research by Laura Hazard Owen documents the difficulty they’ve had with that so far.) And one important thing Amazon hasn’t learned from its experience is how to meter inventory into stores to maximize marketing exposure but keep returns manageable.

But the publishers’ advantage here has a shelf life. For online sales, individual authors are becoming persuaded that Amazon gets them more than the other outlets combined. Barry Eisler has expressed great satisfaction with his Amazon-only sales. Another author, Robert Niles, reports that Amazon far outsells all the other ebook retailers for his self-published work and thinks it is because Amazon promotes the self-published author more effectively.

When you read through this thread from Amazon’s online forum among authors discussing what happens when the retailer picks one of their books for a price promotion, you get a sense of the excitement they generate through the sales they can create with tools which are uniquely at their disposal.

What that probably means is that more and more authors will be available exclusively through Kindle, some because an Amazon imprint signed them and others because they don’t bother to put their books up on other sites for paltry sales. If that happens, Amazon’s natural advantages just grow.

Although Anobii’s founding CEO, Matteo Berlucchi, tells an imaginative and persuasive story about converting the social aspect of books into a commercial proposition (which has been the effort of independent start-up Copia for the past year), I think the challenge for them and for Bookish, the US version of a publisher-sponsored online book retailer, is steep. The problem for them is the same as B&N’s; Amazon brings resources and ammunition to this competition that stem from a much bigger base than the book business alone. They can use books as loss-leaders to sell more movies or computers or groceries. (By the way, this is exactly what brick book retailers coped with competing for bestseller business with mass merchants who could sacrifice margin on books that brought people into their store because they could make it up on other items.)

There is really only one way for publishers to compete with Amazon for authors in the future and that’s to find book customers Amazon doesn’t have, either by working through other retailers or by creating direct publisher-to-customer contact. The percentage of sales which go to Amazon is the single most important barometer of a book publishing company’s future. Of course, every publisher wants to make their Amazon sales grow. Their challenge is to make other sales grow faster.

Of course, the retailers are a critical focus for us at Digital Book World at the Sheraton in New York, January 23-25. We’ll have presentations from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google, Bookish, Anobii, Copia, and from some independent booksellers. We’ll have a panel of players talking about creating new markets, globally and locally. And we’ll have publishers talking about creating communities in genres and in topics, building their capabilities to talk directly to their customers without an intermediary’s help. 


How many Christmases until we see a whole new industry?

John Makinson, the global CEO of Penguin, was quoted in a Reuters article saying that the post-Christmas period in publishing coming up is “tougher to predict” than “any time that I can remember”. Asked what he sees in the immediate future, Makinson replied “dark clouds”.

Makinson’s concerns reflect one we have written about many times in this space: the rise of powerful ebook vendors who are tech behemoths essentially replacing the network of brick bookstores, many of which were free-standing independents. (This is true in the UK, where Makinson is based, as well as in the US, for which he is also responsible. It will also happen everywhere else.) He made a very cogent point when he said that publishing has been driven more by supply than demand. He was quoted as saying “consumer taste doesn’t actually change all that much but what does change is the availability of books in different channels.”

He’s completely correct. Up until 15 years ago (the dawn of Amazon), only books that were on store shelves had much chance at all to sell. The biggest and most successful publishers today are still the ones which ascended because of their power to put books on those shelves. It is not the publishers’ fault or doing that this is changing.

Longtime industry executive and consultant Joe Esposito wrote a post around the Borders bankruptcy that makes this general point: publishers are part of an ecosystem that is changing in ways they can’t control.

The growth in ebook sales is not an unbroken line pointing up. Industry stats suggest that sales may even have slowed a bit in September compared to August. But this is the time of year when we get the next step-increment change in the publishing reader-supply network. Starting in November, 2007, when Amazon put the Kindle on sale for the first time, the Christmas season has been when the huge leaps in device ebook reader distribution take place. That includes a huge ebook sales day on Christmas itself followed by a couple of months when ebook sales reach new peaks.

This is inevitably accompanied by bad news from the brick book trade. Last year’s first quarter included the bankruptcy filing of Borders. Stores fight hard to keep their doors open through the Christmas season but, with each passing year, if they’re not selling ebook reading devices, they find disappintment more often than salvation.

One bookstore owner I know has been doing a great job; the store held its own despite the overall slide in print. The bookseller told me that this year, through October, sales at the store were down 5%. Not bad. They were down 2% year-on-year last year. They were down 1% year-on-year in 2009. And they had a record year for sales in 2008.

There’s a pattern there. The percentage reduction is doubling each year. When I said, “so you’ll be down 10% next year and 20% the year after that, right?” Bookseller said, “probably.”

Almost no brick store can stand a sales loss of 20% and remain viable. Maybe one could make up the 20% by selling something else in addition to books. But maybe branching out into other lines of merchandise will cost more than it will generate.

Maybe they won’t be able to hold even that 5% reduction through Christmas. And maybe the 20% we see as two years away is even closer.

Anecdotal reports abound that stores that are near where there formerly was a Borders are seeing a lift in sales. One sales executive I know speculated that B&N would pick up half the Borders business. Since Borders sales were a high double-digit percentage of B&N’s sales, that should provide quite a lift. But because B&N’s store sales now include Nook devices, we aren’t able to analyze very readily from their announced results what the trend of their actual book sales in the stores (or online) is. According to Michael Cader’s report of their just-announced results, B&N tells us that “physical book sales declined”.

As the digital sales of straight text books — which are estimated by some to be 75% of bookstore sales — routinely climb past 30% of the total units, there’s just less and less print business to go around. Ebook sales seem to have doubled again in 2011 from what they were in 2010. There are high expectations this Christmas for ebook reader sales, newly fueled by color tablet-like devices from Kindle, Nook, and Kobo (all on sale at consumer electronics outlets as well as at bookstores and online). That suggests (to me) that 40% or 50% ebook sales shares might be common by early 2012.

Borders was somewhere around 10% of the print book business when they disappeared. More than 10% of the business will have shifted away from brick stores to ebooks and online sales in the year following their bankruptcy announcement.

So the lift from picking up Borders business is unlikely to replace what brick stores are losing to more customers switching to ebooks and online buying of print. And that squares with what B&N just told us about their most recent reporting.

We are seeing sales staff reorganizations all over town and in the UK as well. Fewer stores and less volume through them mandate smaller field sales organizations. One former high-ranking sales executive I know who is now a thriving consultant was telling me yesterday that finding an executive sales position in publishing today is a nearly impossible task.

If the ranks of sales reps and sales management are being thinned, how about the elaborate systems we have built to support them?

How much longer will we be publishing in “seasons”, which was a paradigm really built to serve a far-flung rep network that needed to gather to learn about new titles? It now seems like an anachronism, particularly when the biggest accounts buy from monthly lists. How much longer can that last? Sales conferences have been scaled back dramatically from what they were a decade or two ago. How long before they’re virtually defunct?

At least printing paper catalogs, which is a largely wasted expense these days has been retired by several companies. A bookseller I asked said Harper dispensed with paper catalogs already and she expects Random House and Macmillan to do so in 2012. I’ll bet the comment section of this post will attract others to say they have done so or are about to do so as well.

The old publishing sales-and-distribution ecosystem is disappearing but the new one is not built out yet. Publishers are, to greater and lesser degrees, converting to digital workflows, developing their metadata chops, collecting names, building vertical communities by genre and topic, collecting and analyzing ebook pricing data, building new models to work with authors and even self-publishers, and they’re still signing the books they want with royalty rates for ebooks of 25% of revenue.

These efforts have been financed by the margins being earned on sales of print and sales of digital that publishers were able to acquire because of their power to distribute print. In Esposito’s words, this cash provides “venture capital for the new all-digital businesses that all publishers are contemplating”. These annual step-increments of digital growth and brick store decline have so far been tolerable to most of the big players we’ve known for decades. (Borders was an exception, but we know Borders was not done in by digital change alone.)

The pace of the digital switchover is quickening. That will reduce the cash available to invest in building a new ecosystem at the same time the urgency of coming up with new answers is rising. It’s enough to make a sober executive, even at a very large, successful, smart, and innovative company, admit to serious concern for the industry’s future.