February, 2012

Two questions that loom over the trade publishing business

A lot of people in publishing would pay a lot of money to get a reliable answer to these two questions:

When will the growth in Amazon’s share of the consumer book business stop?

Who will be left standing when it does?

I won’t attempt to answer those two questions in this post. In fact, the purpose here is to begin to generate agreement that those are, indeed, the way the industry’s existential strategic questions should be framed going forward. In my consulting work, it is often my role to provide “synthesis and articulation.” This post will begin to document the synthesis that led to articulating the questions, which are actually implicit statements, above. The catalyst for these ruminations was the news last week about Amazon’s dust-up with Independent Publishers Group (IPG), a demonstration of its power and willingness to exercise it that recalls an incident almost exactly two years ago when they were unsuccessful at bullying Macmillan (or the other big publishers) into giving up their notion of implementing agency pricing.

Amazon was not the first online bookseller. But they appear to have had several distinctions from all others from the beginning. One is that they always saw bookselling as a springboard to a much larger business. That meant that bookselling was, perhaps primarily, a customer acquisition tool, not an end in itself. A second is that they saw, long before it was accepted general wisdom, that perfecting the “customer experience” online was the core requirement for success. And the combination of those two things, in concert with the ubiquitious availability of capital for promising Internet propositions that characterized the late 1990s, fueled growth powered by aggressive pricing that has had their trading partners and competitors agape for nearly two decades.

Any discussion of Amazon’s success must acknowledge that the other key component, aside from the strategic components of long-term vision, smart use of capitalization, and customer-centricity, has been the quality of their execution. This has been true from the beginning and it is still true today. Some of this is subjective, but it still looks to me like they offer a better print searching-and-buying experience than BN.com and a better overall ebook ecosystem than Nook or Kobo. I read on an iPhone and use all the ebook purchasing systems from time to time, but I use Kindle the most because it is the best. I am close to somebody who prefers to buy from BN.com because (she says; I don’t do this research…) they give money to Democrats and Amazon gives money to Republicans, but she still does her searching at Amazon because it works better before she hops over to BN.com to make her purchase.

[An update on that last point since the original posting of this piece. I was challenged on the “Amazon is red” statement by a couple of people whose opinions I trust, so I asked my favorite Democrat for citations and I got two. You’ll see (if you care and if you look) that both of the analyses that delivered this characterization are squarely within the Bush presidency, so they could constitute a company hedging bets rather than expressing political conviction. On the other hand, B&N was blue throughout the Bush Administration. And the point about the search engines, which was the one germane to this piece, remains true.]

Some of these advantages have become structural; having more customers means more having more customer reviews, more consumer knowledge, more product to sell, and, of course, higher rankings for many searches. There isn’t much their competitors can do about that. But they also keep innovating, most recently announcing an X-Ray feature for Kindle books that does outlining and annotating that could add value for readers of immersive fiction and non-fiction that it will take a while for other ebooks to match.

That’s the good news: good for consumers and good for producers of books that want consumers to buy and appreciate them.

This post is not all about good news.

Amazon’s relentless customer focus doesn’t prevent them from keeping a close eye on threats to their business, whether they come from obvious competitors or whether they are more tacit challenges that spring from trading partners.

This goes back to 1997. Ingram, well aware that Amazon had started its business by simply using Ingram to supply most of the books its customers wanted (Bezos put his business in Seattle because Ingram’s Roseburg, OR warehouse was within a day’s trucking distance), decided they could put many retailers in business the same way. So they announced the formation of I2S2: Ingram Internet Support Services. I2S2 would provide the tools to allow any bookstore to start selling online. Prominent industry thinkers saw I2S2 as the way all booksellers could start to reap the opportunities of the Internet as a sales channel.

Had Amazon not quickly reacted to this threat, they could have gone away so fast that we’d have trouble remembering their name now. But they did. They promptly cut their sale prices so deeply on most of what they sold that the other retailers, focused as they were on their stores, saw no point to expanding into unprofitable web business. Almost as quickly as I2S2 was announced, it was dead.

I2S2 was the first instance of Amazon successfully using price as a weapon but it has been an important part of their arsenal ever since. It has been a powerful one. It works for them commercially because they aren’t just a bookseller; they use book pricing to acquire customers and nurture their loyalty. They lock in that loyalty with their Prime program, by which the customer pays a fixed price annually for benefits that include expedited shipping, thereby making an investment which pays off in direct proportion to how much they buy from Amazon. The more they buy from Amazon, the better deal Prime is for them.

But using price as a weapon has another benefit; it puts the customer on your side. Even when Amazon’s lower prices are subsidized by their being excused from sales tax responsibilities that fund state and local governments and disadvantage local retailers who could be their friends and neighbors, consumers want it and defend it.

Amazon opened its virtual doors in 1995. Soon after they fended off the I2S2 challenge, they discouraged their first really well-financed competitor. They competed with BN.com (in which Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, bought a half-interest in 1998 to become partners with B&N) by extending their anti-I2S2 strategy and discounting so deeply that the online book channel hardly made any margin for the retailer. From Amazon’s perspective, acquiring customers for a long haul that was going to include selling many other things besides books, this made sense. From Bertelsmann’s, a company that made money selling content, owned book clubs that made money, and with no interest in being a multi-product online retailer, it made none. They sold back their half to Barnes & Noble in 2003.

And B&N faced the complications of not wanting to cannibalize their own store business with cheaper prices online. They also didn’t want to invest in the site and the search engine for it the way Amazon did. By the middle of the last decade, it was pretty clear that Amazon would be the dominant online bookseller for the foreseeable future and that those sales efforts would be subsidized by margins earned on other products.

Until the Kindle debuted in November 2007, however, publishers didn’t need to see Amazon as anything but their principal online channel and, for trade publishers, that was still ancillary to their principal channels to the consumer. Barnes & Noble was still growing its store presence. Borders was not doing as well (and still recovering from the mistake of handing Amazon its online business earlier in the decade), but was still a robust brick-and-mortar bookseller. The online share of total sales was rising, but even the bookstore component of sales was still a growing business. And expectations that ebooks would change any of that were limited to True Believers (like me) who had been predicting a change from paper- to screen-reading that had not yet gained any traction.

I recall in the late 1990s the suggestion was made by some pundits (but definitely not this one) that publishers should combine to compete with Amazon. If they had, they almost certainly would have failed as ignominiously as I2S2 and the Bertelsmann-B&N combination did. Publishers wouldn’t have gone into online bookselling to lose money and it would have taken vision and guts to use books the way Bezos did, as a springboard to create a global online Walmart. The point I want to emphasize is that it was not a failure on the publishers’ part to have “allowed” Amazon to grow their online hegemony. It was not in their power to have changed it. And, in the meantime, Amazon was making all their books available and selling much more than they would have if they had been trying to produce more margin on book sales. (Of course, store sales would have atrophied more slowly if the publishers had managed to keep online prices higher, but it wasn’t the publishers’ or booksellers’ choice to make even if they had full cognizance of what was to come.)

Of course, since 2007, ebook sales have doubled or more every year, print sales are declining, print sales in stores are declining even more rapidly, Borders has gone away and closed hundreds of stores, independents and small chains keep disappearing, and even B&N is drastically reducing the shelf space it devotes to books. eBooks have enabled commercially viable self-publishing in ways never before anticipated, giving authors leverage in their negotiations with publishers they never had before. And agents now have to share the concern of the publishers and retailers that Amazon could disintermediate them as well by providing their publishing and distribution services to authors directly.

Aside from the pricing pressure and the arm-twisting of Macmillan and now IPG, Amazon has shown in other situations that they will use power when they have it. A few years ago, they tried to pressure publishers who wanted to sell print-on-demand titles to do that printing for Amazon with CreateSpace, not with Lightning. Recently they have instituted charging publishers for posting supporting material for books online that a few years ago they would have begged them to make available at all. There are now reports that they are pressuring for more margin and more coop (Amazon has apparently recently “invented” ebook coop).

This kind of pressure is not surprising. Retailers who account for a large percentage of a manufacturer’s business apply it routinely. What is new and unprecedented is that Amazon sales now constitute 30% or more of many large publishers’ business, between print and digital, and that number is rising.

This would all be difficult enough if there weren’t a huge cultural gap between Amazon and the rest of the publishing industry. But there is. More and more, people who have been in publishing for years see Amazon as “in” the book business, but not “of” the book business. That attitude is exacerbated because the answer to the second question above (“who is left standing?”) for many is “perhaps not me.”

In fact, what we know is that Amazon’s share of the trade book business has done nothing but grow since the company began in 1995. And however direct or indirect the connection, we’ve lost a lot of players in the business since then, and we continue to.

(Of course, if Amazon had failed in 1997 and I2S2 had succeeded, we would have had a different online and digital history, but there still would have been a digital change and brick-and-mortar would still have declined over time.)

The cultural gap will be covered in an upcoming post that analyzes the impact of Amazon’s growth in each segment of the publishing value chain. Then we’ll start trying to tackle the questions at the top. I expect to get a lot of help with that from the comment strings of this post and the next one on the big questions. From what I can tell, every player thinking about their own future in a world where Amazon just gets more and more important is looking for some help answering those questions as well.


Libraries and publishers don’t have symmetrical interest in a conversation

Because libraries are, at most 5% of a general trade publisher’s business and far less of the ebook business, and because the market is changing so rapidly and because every retailer except Amazon can be said to be struggling to carve out a sustainable position in the global ebook marketplace, there are many legitimate reasons for the biggest publishers to take a wait-and-see attitude about libraries and ebooks. The fear is of a “shopping and consuming” experience at the libraries which is comparable to what the retailers can offer. That potential is largely mitigated now because most of the big books don’t go to them. But, if they did, publishers fear the market could shift away from retail.

That fear is not just about a “lost sale”. It is also about a “lost channel” of sales, or a pipe to the consumer that runs entirely through Amazon.

Of course, libraries view this differently because the big books from the big publishers are a lot more than 5% of their patrons’ interest. This is an imbalance that would explain the difference in attitude of the parties, for anybody who cares to accept the reality of it. That is, the atavistic “instinct of self-preservation” leads libraries and publishers to somewhat different conclusions about what the best outcome would be and how quickly the industry should move to it.

Saying this within a list conversation provoked a question from somebody from a library-centric point of view. Was I saying that the principle fear is that Amazon could “own” the lending experience, and that the traditional library channel and whatever sales it might secondarily bring would be lost? Or was I saying something else?

Now, I actually hadn’t thought about that, although the way that the libraries collaborated with OverDrive to structure the deal for Amazon lending, that possibility became far more likely than it had been before.

What I meant was that we already face the possibility that we’re headed for a single retailer for ebooks and print online called Amazon. Every other channel to the consumer, libraries and retailers both (whether they know it or not) are ultimately fighting for their digital lives. Publishers don’t want to do anything that weakens Kobo, Google, Barnes & Noble, or anybody offering a commercial channel to customers. It is perceived (intuitively, without data, although I would actually argue that there are great limitations to the value of data because we’re talking about the consequences as the ecosystem changes over time, not the situation at the moment) that giving ebook consumers ways to get what they want without paying for it weakens the other retailers.

And, wouldn’t you say by Amazon’s behavior encouraging lending through libraries and outside them, that maybe they see that possibility too?

I always expect an entity to act in its own self-interest, particularly when survival could be involved. (And Amazon, trading at 135 times earnings and facing the likelihood that their sales tax advantage in the United States is on the verge of being eliminated, is entitled to think that way too.) I think we should all understand that intelligent people on all sides feel that they are fighting for their survival. That includes Amazon, the publishers, the competing retailers, and the libraries. Our problem is that the interests don’t align and what I think people sometimes have trouble accepting is that it is possible they never will.

The library fan was trying to understand “my argument” and attempted to summarize it. In the summary, the innocent conflation was made that I was suggesting that each library loan could translate to a sale lost and that even if they were divided propotionately, I was suggesting that Amazon’s competition would be hurt more than they would.

But I really wasn’t trying to take sides or endorse any particular position in this dispute at all. I’m personally not sure whether library loans would spur sales or cannibalize them at the moment and, even if I thought I knew that, it would be another big leap to assume that today’s situation would persist into a different future. And I don’t think the publishers who are concerned are thinking about sale-for-sale; what they’re thinking about is the overall eco-system that is developing.

I am glad I am not a big publisher who has to make these decisions. I only decide when I have to and I’m actually deliberating now on behalf of a bunch of books I control, without having made decisions. But whatever I do, I wouldn’t assume that Simon & Schuster should do the same thing. (Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll have to decide about DRM and about library lending across a range of ebook titles for which I inherited rights, and POD files, from my Dad.)

There are a number of paths, from what OverDrive is already doing to the Bloomsbury shelf idea to the 3M “lend a device” idea to Recorded Books’ subscription concept to withholding completely that are all reasonable tactics in the current marketplace. People don’t lose too much by staying out at the moment nor do they risk too much going in (when the technology is still pretty klunky and most of the big books aren’t in anyway.) Random House is taking advantage of the situation very adroitly, and no doubt causing their Big Six competitors to grind their teeth, just as they did when they delayed agency. (They’re continuing to supply libraries without limitation, but they’ve raised the prices on the “library editions” of their ebooks.)

I’m really not inclined to make judgments because there are too many things I don’t know about each company’s situation, where they are balancing agent relationships and, in the case of the three publishers that are investing in Bookish over here and two others investing in Anobii in the UK, plans to develop the channel themselves. But I think most of us agree that the price-per-read major publishers will be able to capture is very likely to go down. (Some optimists would argue that the number of reads will go up, but, of course, that’s of questionable comfort if the number of authored books available also goes up, and it will.) So publishers are highly conscious of that in ways they never had to think about when the price of what they sold was bounded by physical realities.

These aren’t moral decisions, they’re commercial ones (even when they’re being made by not-for-profit entities.) I would expect smaller publishers to take advantage of most of the Big Six not being in the libraries by getting more sales and discovery for themselves (maybe the same way Random House is, at premium prices!) If the sales turn out to outweigh any risks or negative consequences, then the Big Six will come back in and that piece of the market will change again to the detriment of the upstarts. Meanwhile, some authors will have been discovered that wouldn’t have been if the Big Six had been there all along.

It’s a very long multi-player chess game, not the Super Bowl. I tend to watch and scratch my head, not cheer for any particular team.

I noticed in the most recent report about B&N’s results that their sales of print books through dot com is declining. A trusted resource who follows these things more closely than I do says that has been the case for a while. This looks to me to be a real negative for both B&N and the publishers going forward.

The right way to think about how the future is shaping up is not to watch the split between ebooks and print books. That’s misleading. What matters is the split between books purchased in stores and books purchased online. Books purchased online are both print and ebooks.

Intuitively, it would seem certain that print sales through online channels are rising. Certainly some of the former Borders store business went that way, and the trend should be in that direction regardless of any particular store or chain closing. If B&N’s print sales online are down in absolute dollars, then they’re getting really clobbered in share. When the history of Amazon’s growing dominance in the life of the book business is written, their dominance in online print will be an important part of the story.

When Amazon bought The Book Depository, the UK Competition Commission made what feels to me like a massive logical error by looking at the book business as a whole, rather than recognizing that the growing online piece and the shrinking brick-and-mortar piece were really two different businesses. Although BD’s sales were mostly outside of the UK and their share of the UK online print business was miniscule compared to Amazon’s, they were a working platform that could have been a springboard to global competition for somebody; now they’re consolidated into the Amazon world. As I wrote recently, we’re headed to a time where most of our sales will occur online. Growth in Amazon’s share of online print adds to their potential industry dominance just as surely as Kindle growth does.

And it is a post for another day, but we’ve just gotten a clear reminder that Amazon can adjust its trading terms as its position strengthens. I wonder if the voices that celebrate the consolidation of the business under Amazon are taking into account that the same thing could happen to them someday.


By one benchmark at least, we are probably halfway through the (r)evolution

A couple of major (Big Six) publishers have acknowledged that ebook revenues for them have passed 20% of their revenues. Of the 80% that remains print, I think it would be conservative to estimate that 20% of that is sold online. That’s an additional 16 percent of their business. Adding those together tells us that, for at least some very major companies, 36 percent of of their sales are being transacted online. That would leave, on average, about 64% of the sales for print sold through brick-and-mortar retail and other more minor channels. “On average” should not be read as “typical” on a title-by-title basis. It isn’t. For immersive reading, or straight text like novels and biographies, the percentage sold in stores is already almost certainly substantially lower. My hunch, and nobody really keeps these figures (but I think I’ve found a way to get at them, which we’ll try to show at a future Publishers Launch conference) is that it may already be down to 50% print in stores for new titles.

(It adds both confirmation and confusion to note that Bowker’s PubTrack estimated that 30% of the dollars spent on books in 2010 were spent online. But they figured that only 2.2% of the dollars that year were ebooks. My own estimates are based on the picture of things we get from big publishers, who are perhaps more skewed to straight text than the industry as a whole. There are all sorts of explanations that would narrow the apparent differences between what Bowker describes and what I infer from what I know, but they’d require a different piece which, I think, would be less helpful in painting an overall understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going than the one you’re about to read.)

Five years ago, early in 2007, it was a virtual certainty that 80%, and probably much more, of the sales of any trade book that sold a significant number of copies would take place in stores. There were almost no ebook sales. (The Kindle did not make its debut until November 2007; sometimes I feel like I was the only person reading ebooks before the Kindle arrived.)

Five years from now, by the start of 2017, I’d bet that 80% of the sales of any trade book that sells a significant number copies will be transacted online.

And that, even more than the ebook uptake that is a mere component of the store-to-online shift, is the story of our times that matters in trade publishing.

One thing I believe but won’t try to prove (which means “take it on faith”) is that more attention has been paid to the change from print reading to screen reading than to the change from store purchasing to screen purchasing. But the change in purchasing behavior is by far more significant in its affect on the industry than the change in consumption, at least in the medium term.

The shift in the way we consume what is now print may become more important as new presentation forms enabled by digital delivery — making use within the content itself of video, animiaton, links, social connections, and alternative content and navigation paths — are improved and gain commercial traction. (I’d argue that no enhanced or illustrated ebook solution has achieved that so far.)

But being halfway through the change in consumer buying habits in our decade of change has profound implications for all the big players in the publishing value chain. It would appear that publishers in both the US and UK are now accepting that the decline in numbers of bookstores and the shelf space they offer for merchandising is not temporary and not primarily recession-driven. (We heard that said more than once last year and the year before.) It is a fundamental societal shift that is inexorable and which shifts power away from publishers to their trading partners on both sides of them: the authors and the retailers.

In fact, even though the share of the overall business commanded by the brick-and-mortar retailers is declining, even they will, at least in the short term, gain clout with the publishers. The exposure they offer any book they carry will be increasingly appreciated as shelf space diminishes. And for illustrated books, print is really the only proven game in town because there is no digital presentation of such books that has demonstrated enduring viability in the marketplace.

The fact that we are halfway to a complete reversal of the online-offline sales ratio explains some conflicting behavior see in today’s marketplace. It is still true that brick-and-mortar placement is instrumental to building the reputation of a book or an author. And it is widely accepted that only a publisher employing a real infrastructure and customer network (its own or through effective use of a powerful distributor like Perseus or Ingram) can deliver that placement. At the same time, sales through online channels, particularly of ebooks, has reached a level of real commercial significance and those sales can be delivered with a fraction of the organizational capability that the declining model requires.

So we have authors like J.A. Konrath. He is perfectly content to eschew the bookstore exposure in favor of doing it himself. He keeps much fatter margins on the ebook sales, even though he probably has to charge lower prices for the same book than a publisher would. Konrath has argued for a long time that he is thinking of the future. He may be giving up some sales today, he acknowledges, but he believes he’ll be compensated for his foresight as the sales base moves away from bookstores and he has avoided forever paying 50% or 75% of his ebook royalties in an exchange for bookstore sales that will inexorably diminish.

Of course, he gives up advances against royalties too.

On the other hand, we have the author Amanda Hocking who built herself an online sales machine from scratch but yet happily sold her next four books to a publisher. She got significant advances, will now get bookstore exposure she never had before, and, from her perspective, also laid off many of the non-writing tasks of delivering a book to market. Those were tasks she found onerous; she’d rather write. I think she’s right that it is hard to do it oneself and I think it might get harder.

And then, taking a middle-ground position between these two, we have John Locke and Barry Eisler.

Locke was like Hocking. He started from scratch and built a big sales base online. He also was not getting the bookstore sales and exposure he’d get through a publisher. But Locke doesn’t mind the marketing work and he likes controlling his online presentation and pricing. So he made a “distribution deal” with Simon & Schuster for his print, getting the muscle of a real publishing sales and distribution organization working for him on a fee-for-services basis.

Eisler, who had done several books with major houses, turned down an advance from a publisher (ironically, the publisher was St. Martin’s, the same one who signed Hocking) and initially intended to self-publish. Instead, he took a deal with an Amazon imprint. This cuts the baby in half. He gets an advance. He gets the marketing attention of a big organization with unique capabilities. But he does not get bookstore exposure.

The reason all these different approaches actually make sense is that we are still in a period of transition. Konrath is banking on the fact that my analysis is right. From his perspective, he’s giving up bookstore revenue and marketing now because he doesn’t want to be paying forever for what he gets today. The same is true for Locke. Eisler and Hocking are pursuing more immediate benefits. Eisler is betting that Amazon’s direct marketing to consumers they know will propel him further and faster than going back to bookstores for sales yet again. And Hocking is banking on the fact that the bookstores and the publishers’ ability to place books in them will accelerate the growth of her fan base as well as laying off a lot of work she doesn’t want to do on somebody who is willing to fatten her bank account for the privilege.

The transition has another dynamic which is the growth of Amazon’s power in relation to every other player in the value chain. Going back to the stats at the top of the piece, the publisher who is seeing 36% of total sales and perhaps nearer 50% of immersive reading sales taking place online, is also seeing the percentage of their sales through Amazon grow as well. Amazon has about 60% of the ebook sales in the US and perhaps 90% of the online print sales. That would make Amazon (12% of the 20% sold as ebooks and 16% of the 80% print) about 28% of such a publisher’s volume now.

But using an overall number like that understates the reality of Amazon’s dominance. Their share of the sales of straight text books is almost certainly higher (because they sell most of the ebooks), so that share is almost certainly above 30% now. If things proceed as this piece contemplates for the next five years and nothing drastic has happened to change the shares retailers have of the ebook and online print channels, Amazon is likely to be something more than 50% of a big publisher’s business. All they won’t have is the 20% that is brick-and-mortar print, a sliver of online print, and the chunk of the ebook business that is sold by other vendors. And, as now, the percentage sold online will be higher on straight text.

Going from 80 to 90 percent of book sales being made in stores to that same percentage being made online in a decade’s time certainly justifies anybody’s pronouncement of profound and disruptive change. Having a single account that delivers half of publishers’ business — more on many titles — is unprecedented and perhaps unsustainable.

Although what we’ve seen in the past five years looks to me like it points very clearly to what we can expect in the next five years, it is hard to tell whether these realities are being taken on board by the players from whom power is shifting away. (Nobody is going to call me and say “Mike, our business is melting away!” even if that’s what they’re thinking.) I’m pretty sure it is all well understood, and expected, by the player who is seeing the power move in its direction. But they aren’t calling to tell me that either.

The death of the senior John Sargent last week — he was for a time my father’s boss at Doubleday in the 1950s — gave me reason to recall this piece I wrote in the blog’s very early days on Leonard Shatzkin breaking the color line at Doubleday in the 1950s. I didn’t have very many readers then compared to now. I thought it was worth calling my now-much-larger audience’s attention to it, even though it has nothing to do with today’s post. I think many of you will enjoy it.


Clever moves all around in the B&N and Amazon chess game

Readers who have been following publishing’s digital transition for two years or more will recall the situation in 2010 when five of publishing’s Big Six switched over from selling their ebooks on wholesale terms, by which the retailer sets the price to the consumer, to agency terms, by which the publisher sets a price that prevails across all retailers. Random House stayed out.

That decision seemed to puzzle many observers despite the realities for the publishers. Making the change required actually reducing per-unit revenues to the publisher (and author) while at the same time making each unit more expensive to the consumer, so it was done by what was then called the “Agency Five” at some sacrifice (in their view) for the greater good (in their view) of the industry. Agency protected weaker ebook retailers — Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google as well as independents — from having to compete with the deep-pocketed Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategies. The immediate payoff was the opportunity to sell through Apple’s fledgling iBookstore.

As we explained at the time, Random House’s choice was transparently in their short-term self-interest. It was understandable that their competitive cohort, who saw themselves making a sacrifice on behalf of the industry’s long-term future, were unhappy that the biggest player among them was staying out. But it was a bit hard for me to understand what was so hard for everybody else to understand about why Random House did what they did. (Random House switched over to selling on the agency model in March, 2011.)

Those times are recalled for me by the recent round of indignation and analysis over the jockeying among the retailing competitors over the titles published by Amazon. Everybody is just acting in their own best interest. There really isn’t much mysterious about anybody’s behavior.

We could say the most recent set of events was begun by Amazon’s escalating efforts to capture titles for ebook rendering exclusively on the Kindle platform. They were apparently doing this two ways: by signing up authors directly for their own imprints and by offering self-published authors financial incentives — such as paid participation in their lending library program — for making their ebook a Kindle exclusive.

For the books they signed directly, Amazon recognized that it might not be the most comfortable sales call in the world for any rep to pitch these books to B&N’s buyers. Representing the books of every bookseller’s biggest competitor would be a challenge but it was one that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to attempt. Last year it was announced that HMH had taken the opportunity to license the Amazon-originated titles in paperback. Major publishers had often expressed the view that publishing in print without ebook rights was a non-starter for them. HMH hoped that their efforts wouldn’t be viewed in that light since it is not considered unusual (although I’m not sure how often it has happened) for ebook rights to remain with the hardcover publisher when paperback rights are licensed.

More heat was generated when the Kindle Fire debuted with some graphic novel content delivered exclusively to it. When Barnes & Noble pulled the paper versions of those books off their store shelves, they explained that their policy would be to refuse to stock the print version of something not offered to them for sale “in all formats”.

The message at the time seemed clear. If Amazon wanted to sign up books directly and sell them broadly, they couldn’t maintain a Kindle monopoly on those titles. Undoubtedly, it was becoming clearer and clearer to Amazon that getting broader distribution for printed books was an important element if they wanted to sign up important books. Let’s remember that Larry Kirshbaum had been brought on board in June to sign up big titles. He was the first person to work at Amazon who had the relationships and the experience to tell them what it would take to succeed in those efforts.

But things were dynamic at B&N as well. With Borders gone, they have become the only player at scale able to offer print book merchandising. There is an increasing awareness of how important print display still is to “making” a book. It is very likely that inside B&N there has been increasing appreciation of the power of their position.

There is complementarity here. Amazon had a dominant position with Kindle before the Nook arrived that has been eroding since then due to increased competition. They’re still more than half the ebook sales in the US, but they want to shore up their position. Using their strength to get Kindle exclusives is a sensible way to do that.

At the same time, the leverage Barnes & Noble has from its print store dominance is perhaps at its peak. In their case this isn’t because competition in their channel is likely to erode their share. It is a continuation of the consumer trend of shifting to online buying and ebook reading that will dilute the importance of brick-and-mortar even if B&N’s share remains very high. So they too want to use the leverage of that position to strengthen themselves while they can.

Both Amazon and B&N demonstrate the power of their position by looking for an increased share of the book sales revenue from publishers.

Anyhow, Amazon continued to work on this problem of getting the books they acquired directly from authors into broader store distribution. In January, they expanded the first-look licensing deal they had with HMH and announced the New Harvest imprint there to deliver paperback editions of their books to broader distribution. And, proving they’d been listening to what Barnes & Noble said earlier, they announced that New Harvest books would have ebooks made available in formats that would enable their sale in all ebook channels.

It took Barnes & Noble less than a week to respond. Ignoring Amazon’s willingness to make the new imprint books available as ebooks, they instead focused on the continuing programs Amazon had that kept other titles as Kindle exclusives. B&N announced that they wouldn’t carry any Amazon-originated titles in their stores, although they would make them available online and as ebooks. Of course, that “offer” gave Amazon precisely what they didn’t care about (BN.com online sales) or didn’t really want (Nook availability) and denied them what they were really after (bookstore shelf and display space).

Pretty quickly, both Daily Finance and Time Business found fault with Barnes & Noble’s move. It was seen as boneheaded for a retailer in the declining brick-and-mortar space to decline to stock some books that might sell. It was even suggested by some that this was an “opening” for Barnes & Noble’s terrestrial competitors to carry attractive Amazon titles, with the implication that this could help them steal customers from B&N.

But Barnes & Noble’s competitors actually saw things the same way that B&N did. The independent store and publisher, Melville House, was quickly supportive. A few days later, the Canadian chain Indigo (which occupies the same dominant position there that B&N does in the US) and the second-ranked US chain, Books-A-Million, announced that their policies would mirror B&N’s.

The day that B&N announced they wouldn’t carry the Amazon books, a reporter called me for comment. This reporter clearly expected me to castigate B&N for shortsightedness. I think he was surprised when I told him I thought the policy made complete strategic sense for them.

The bottom line here is that as Amazon’s power to sign up books away from the major publishers grows, the retailers who depend on publishers for a flow of commercial product suffer along with the publishers. B&N saw — and Indigo and Melville House and Books-a-Million saw — that Amazon wanted bookstore distribution to enable them to sign up more titles directly. Even though those titles would be made available to them, they see themselves as strengthening their enemy when they stock those books.

B&N’s decision seems to me like the right move for them. Most very regular bookstore customers aren’t really surprised if any particular store doesn’t have any particular book. Indeed, the impossibility of stocking everything anybody might ask for in a store is part of the reason that online bookselling is such a useful service. In this day and age, most people who want a particular book don’t go to a bookstore to buy it; they just order it online. They go to bookstores to browse and shop and choose from what is within the store. So, yes, there may be some disappointed customers if B&N doesn’t have a high-profile Amazon title, but I don’t think that disappointment will be widespread.

On the other hand, authors and agents who might have considered an Amazon publishing deal will have to think twice if they know very few bookstores will carry it. Amazon can do some remarkable things to sell books to their mammoth online customer base and that won’t change. But there is both a practical and a vanity aspect to getting store display that will still be seen as indispensible by many authors and agents who otherwise might have taken the leap to sign with the newest big checkbook in town.

Amazon still has the biggest forces, and time, on its side. eBook reading will continue to grow and Kindle will remain the most powerful platform as it does. More and more print buying will shift from stores to online and nobody has mounted meaningful competition to Amazon in the online print channel. The Amazon online experience for search and selection and delivery remains — in this consumer’s opinion — far and away the best. Their reach beyond books to so many other product lines gives them further advantages in many ways, including fueling their Amazon Prime program, which is an unmatched tool to encourage customer loyalty. The shelf space for books at B&N will almost certainly continue to decline and the leverage that comes along with it will do the same.

This tactical decision will not change the overall course of history. Neither did Random House’s decision to postpone moving to agency for a year after everybody else did. But, just like Random House’s decision, everything Amazon and Barnes & Noble (and the retailers that followed them) have done is actually perfectly sensible when viewed from the perspective of their own self-interest. There are a lot of smart people engaged in a pitched battle here. Outside observers would be well-advised to keep that in mind as they evaluate the moves they make.


Another lesson from the digital trail: the Italians are shy about speaking in public

I spoke last Thursday at the 2nd annual IfBookThen conference in Milan staged by the Italian ebook retailer Bookrepublic. On Friday, I teamed up with the UK literary agent David Miller and Penguin US’s Molly Barton, formerly an editor but now the company’s Global Digital Director at a “workshop” session staged by the same organizers. Molly is also the empresario of the new author services site from Penguin for genre fiction called Book Country.

We got a bit of a cultural education. The Thursday conference was attended by about 300 delegates from across Italian publishing. Judging by appearances, this seemed to be a pretty senior crowd; there were very few people there in their 20s. That makes sense. The same thing is true at Digital Book World and Tools of Change and for the Publishers Launch events Michael Cader and I deliver. These conferences cost a fair amount and require a lot of time away from the office (a full day for IBT and for most PLC events, two or three days for DBW and TOC.) Junior staff can’t afford the money and can’t get the time.

But there was one distinct difference between the Italian audience and the audiences I’ve seen at those other events or at others I recall speaking at in Canada, Brazil, the UK, and Denmark. The Italian audience hardly asked any questions! I got one on Thursday. Most of the speakers that day got none. I found this baffling.

At lunch, I was standing at a round “rest your plate of food” station with four local attendees. They all spoke English well. (Simultaneous translation in both directions was available for anybody who needed it.) I said, “you in the audience need to talk more! Where are the questions?” One woman theorized that the problem was that Italians were just too polite; they were reluctant to call attention to themselves by asking questions. (Milan is in the industrial North of Italy. Most of the time I’ve spent in Italy has been in the South — Rome and Capri — and I certainly wouldn’t have characterized the wonderful culture down there as overly polite. Maybe the North is very different.) I agreed that questions are sometimes used as a platform to make a speech and that wasn’t welcome when it happened. But, still…

The event on Friday being billed as a “workshop” had a smaller, and not quite so senior, audience. There were perhaps 80 people. The focus was the changes in the relationship between publishers and agents. Molly explained Book Country, what Penguin had in mind when they launched it, and how it was an acknowledgment of the change in circumstances and choices for authors. David had been provided a list of questions solicited from attendees in advance. My job was to provide “context”, a sense of the environment in which these publisher-and-agent negotiations were taking place.

We brainstormed with the organizers how to encourage more participation. An alternate explanation for the reticence we’d experienced came from an Italian agent, who thought that people weren’t asking questions because their bosses were in the room. Well, it’s another theory…

I followed a suggestion, starting my talk at the workshop by asking the audience to self-identify a bit. I asked editors, agents, those who worked with straight text, those who worked with illustrated books serially to raise their hands. I made the point that I was giving people practice at putting their hands up; we were all hoping that they’d continue to do so throughout the show. I actually got a few questions. So did Molly.

But David had a different technique that, coincidentally or not, appeared more effective. He waved a box of fine British chocolate-covered mints in front of the crowd and promised a wrapped piece of candy to each person who asked a question. (When I asked David a question myself from the seat alongside him on the dais, he even gave a piece of candy to me!) Whether it was to get the chocolates or because David’s presentation and expertise evoked more active interest than Molly’s or mine, or because participation begets participation, he had a successfully interactive two hours with the audience. It was impressive.

The one question I did get the first day actually led to a provocative exchange that I think opened some eyes in the audience. I was asked how big I expected the Italian ebook business to get and how fast. I asked what percentage of Italian book sales were ebooks now. I was told “2%.” I asked what it had been a year ago. I was told “about 0.7%.” If those numbers were right (they could well not be, but I’ll bet they’re right on the growth rate), the percentage tripled.

“Is there any reason you’d expect it to slow down in 2012 or 2013?” I asked the audience. The consensus was “no.” I pointed out that one more tripling would take them to 6% and another after that would be 18%, which is not far from what the US number is now. (If you believe the starting percentage was low, then add one more year to get to 18%.)

The next day, David Miller talked about an author he represents whose percentage of ebook sales had gone from 1% to 11% in one year! I made the point to the audience that this might be the single most important fact they’d have learned in two days to illustrate the rate at which things can change.

Last year at the same IBT event, there seemed to be very widespread skepticism that Italy had much to worry about from ebooks. Then Amazon introduced the Kindle this past December, about 60 days ago. Suddenly, the skeptics are in hibernation.

Apparently the same thing has happened in Brazil since I went there to speak 18 months ago and found a lot of resistance to the idea that ebooks would spread or that bookstores would suffer. The Brazilians I’ve talked to since, and the non-Brazilians who are planning expansion of book and ebook sales to new markets, all see that a robust growth of the ebook market in Brazil is around the corner.

It always seemed understandable to me why ebook takeup, and its companion disruptor, online transactions for print, first got traction in the US. You can’t beat a market of 300 million people with one language, one currency, and one set of commercial regulations as a place to launch a new delivery mechanism for media. We see the dampening effect in Europe of high taxes (VAT) on ebooks and the relatively small language silos that exist side by side. We see the challenges to online ordering of print as well as to ebooks in less affluent parts of some countries, including Italy and Brazil, presented by the lack of capital for investment in infrastructure. Many people can’t afford readers for ebooks. Many can’t conveniently get to the Internet to order hard goods and, even if they can, the ubiquitous parcel delivery infrastructure our Internet merchants depend on doesn’t exist the way we’re used to it. And many people don’t have credit cards. All these factors slow things down.

The hard goods delivery bottleneck is difficult to address, but the readers are getting cheaper and the mobile phone has proven to be an effective banking-and-credit mechanism where none had existed before. I find it hard to believe that highly differential rates of screen reading to overall reading between countries is a permanent condition. Cell phones are proliferating everywhere. Printing and distributing books is, ultimately, a lot more expensive than delivering them to a cell phone. Readers are getting much cheaper; the Kindle costs about 80% less than it was when it was introduced four-plus years ago.

I think in time we’ll all end up in pretty much the same place in our ratio of ebooks to printed ones for straight text reading. If that’s going to be the case in a few years, then the places that haven’t been experiencing rapid change so far are in for a roller-coaster ride in the years to come that will make what we’ve lived through in the US and UK seem very tame by comparison.

I suspect that at IfBookThen 2013, the audience will feel moved to ask a lot of questions and whatever cultural barriers there were this year will be overcome by the urgency of adjusting to an environment which signals that cultural barriers are made to be broken.