March, 2012

What’s the greater fear for publishers? Amazon or piracy?

Pottermore changed the game this morning. Congratulations to Charlie Redmayne, their CEO.

The “aha” moment for me was when somebody on a listserv mentioned they’d bought Kindle editions of the seven Harry Potter books which, it had been announced, were available only from the Pottermore site.

Penny drops. First thought: Hnh? How did that happen?

Then the news came that Amazon was referring people off its site to Pottermore to buy the Kindle editions of Harry Potter ebooks. (It turns out that Barnes & Noble is doing the same.) There they register themselves and then can buy the ebooks.

This is, by far, the biggest concession that has been wrested from Amazon since John Sargent faced them down over the buy buttons on Macmillan print books on that January weekend in 2010 following the Thursday when Sargent flew out to Seattle to tell them Macmillan was going to the agency model.

In January at Digital Book World, in what turned out to be a prescient presentation, Matteo Berlucchi of Anobii (an ebook retailer based in the UK that is partly owned by three major publishers) observed that only by eliminating DRM could he sell to Kindle customers. He pleaded with publishers to do that.

Now Redmayne, who until November was working for HarperCollins, has demonstrated the truth in what Berlucchi said.

Back in about 2007, HarperCollins was instrumental in turning LibreDigital into an ebook delivery platform. At the time, Brian Murray, Harper’s CEO, articulated the vision that the publisher would just serve all the ebooks to customers, with no need to entrust retailers with digital copies. I believe one of the stated motivations was to reduce piracy by reducing the number of points of distribution of files. The idea was shut down pretty quickly because Amazon and other retailers wouldn’t go along. They would have said, and it would have been a reasonable point, that they had to control the service levels to their customers.

Redmayne and Pottermore have now demonstrated that if you will live with the anti-piracy protection of watermarking, rather than insisting on a digital hammerlock through DRM, you can gain extraordinary leverage.

Without DRM, as Berlucchi explained, anybody can sell ebooks that can be read on a Kindle. Once Pottermore decided they could live without DRM, they faced Amazon with a very difficult choice. The ebooks were going to go on Kindle devices whether Amazon wanted them there or not. Either they could ignore them or they could play along. I am sure the “play along” deal includes compensation to Amazon for the sales they refer (as it does B&N and, according to a quote from Redmayne, other distribution relations and affiliations will be enabled going forward.)

In other words, in a refreshing change from recent history, the content owner was able to present Amazon with a “take it or leave it” proposition. They decided to “take it”. They were wise. The game was changing either way.

The $64 million question is how the Big Six executives and strategists are viewing these developments. There is no author in the world with the power of J.K. Rowling to do this; she’s the Beatles. But, how about a big publisher? What would happen if Random House or HarperCollins (or one or more of the other four) told Amazon, “we’re taking off the DRM and we’re going to serve all our ebooks ourselves; you’re welcome to continue to sell our books on a referral basis”?

Could this change the strategy for Bookish going forward?

Obviously, this tactic won’t work if it is done by a publisher without tons of bestsellers and must-have backlist. In fact, it could generate a huge advantage for big publishers, assuming they can pull it off and smaller ones can’t.

I’ve been posing two questions in recent posts. “When does Amazon’s share growth stop?” and “Who’s left standing when it does?”

I put a new one at the top of this post. If publishers can overcome their fear of piracy, they will have, as Matteo Berlucchi proposed and Charlie Redmayne has just demonstrated, an enormous weapon to fight Amazon.

One entity that will definitely be “left standing” is Pottermore. And they’ll have the names of the people that were referred over to them by Amazon.


Extending the life of bookstores is critical, but devilishly difficult

I’ll admit that I would have thought a few years ago that by the time we got to the point when more than a third of unit sales for major houses had gone digital — and perhaps more than half for fiction — that the future shape of the book business would be discernible. But, at least according to what I learned from one Big Six house last week, we have reached that level of ebook uptake and despite that, the business still looks very much as it has. It seems impossible to me that it will stay that way.

Here are a few bits of information that came onto my radar last week.

One Big Six executive told me that ebook sales in their shop had reached the mid-30s as a percentage of units sold. That broke down to about 50% of fiction units and 25% of non-fiction.

Nonetheless, that same executive noted a real slowdown in the rate of ebook growth. This is to be expected as the base of sales grows, of course, but it slowed down faster than this house expected. They had seen a 120% increase in ebook units in 2010 and figured they’d see an 80% growth in 2011; it came in at 60%. In short, the rate of increase was cut in half.

These numbers gave this particular executive reason to believe that print demand was begining to stabilize and that it was reasonable to assume that 50% print units might persist into the future, with commensurate new stability for brick-and-mortar stores. I have since been told that a leading executive at another of the Big Six houses shares the same expectation, or hope. Perhaps they all do.

On the other hand…

Another publisher, substantial but not Big Six, has seen much more explosive growth continuing in ebooks and, for that publisher, unit sales for fiction have already gone to well beyond 50% digital.

A paper by the accountants-consultants at Deloitte in the UK, reported in the Guardian, predicts a decline of 40% in all brick-and-mortar stores over the next five years. That’s because books are not the only item for which sales are migrating from brick stores to online. We’ve already learned that books are among the items most susceptible to online purchasing for a myriad of obvious and well-established reasons. We also know that buying public in the US is at least as receptive to online purchasing as the British.

I’ve written time after time after time about the diminishing retail network for books and its potential impact. I have always seen this as existential for big trade houses, whose distinguishing value proposition for authors remains their ability to put books on retail shelves. (There are other things that matter, but I’d argue that all of them put together don’t equal that.) Publishing printed books is a complex endeavor best done by a large organization that can perform its various functions — warehousing, shipping, billing, commissioning the manufacturing, sales representation, and contact with marketing megaphones — at scale.

A proliferation of online marketing channels with real influence could once again challenge the under-resourced (authors working alone or smaller publishers) or otherwise-preoccupied (Amazon) who are trying to substitute for what the big publishers do. So far, the platforms that matter (to the extent they do…more on that below) have been limited in number, Facebook being the most prominent one. (One sales executive said to me yesterday, “Facebook isn’t a platform. It’s a requirement.”) If Tumblr becomes really important and Pinterest really were the next Facebook and, over time,  online influencers become as dispersed as our 20th century media world was, it opens up opportunity for big organizations to add value that smaller ones can’t.

So even if the Big Six optimists are wrong that their business proposition will be preserved by a slowing switch from print to digital (and, with no more knowledge than they have, my intuition against their intuition, I wouldn’t bet a dime that they’re right), perhaps we’re heading for a world where any author in her right mind would want a publisher to cover all the digital marketing bases, with the help of technology and dedicated staff, rather than trying to do it herself.

Nobody’s predicted that yet that I’m aware of, but let me be the first on the block to acknowledge the possibility.

The future of bookstores and the future of publishers if the bookstores diminish much futher in importance should be one of the most important topics on the minds of all stakeholders in the book business. We’re going to try two different ways to explore it at our next Publishers Launch Conference, taking place at BookExpo on June 4. Both of them involve one of the distinguishing features of our events: delivering insightful data about our industry that is not delivered by other industry conferences.

All of the current industry data reporting, including the recent effort called BookStats put together by the AAP, BISG, and Bowker, are unable to isolate sales and inventory in stores by type of book. To plan future publishing programs (and to sign up books this month and next), publishers need to understand with some level of granularity whether it is true that stores are shifting their buying (and selling) from immersive reading to illustrated books and, if so, which illustrated books. Among the reasons that the industry stats fail to capture this properly is that they don’t look beyond the sales publishers make to wholesalers to find out what happened with the books the wholesalers bought.

But the wholesalers know whether the book they just sold went to a brick store, a library, an online store, or an individual. We’ve been fortunate to get Phil Ollila of the Ingram Content Group to examine his company’s records to give us a more detailed and granular understanding of what is really happening in the retail marketplace. Are bookstores really stocking fewer novels and more illustrated books? Is the proportion of sales made online versus in stores changing at different speeds for straight immersive books and illustrated books? Ingram is mining its data to come up with answers to those questions. Ollila will report some findings at our conference.

We will also have a data-rich and sobering presentation from Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. Hildick-Smith and his team have been surveying book consumers on a quarterly basis for nearly a decade. Their work is high-level and expensive and is normally only available to the big companies that can afford to subscribe. But Hildick-Smith sees a crisis ahead for the industry in his data, and he cares enough about our collective future to want to sound an alarm. He’ll be doing that our June 4 event.

And what he sees and documents is the critical role bookstores play in consumer discovery of new books and authors. He demonstrates with data and logic that SEO and social media are totally inadequate substitutes. Hildick-Smith thinks a future without bookstores will be very different than the present. He makes the case that author brands established in the bookstore era will be largely unchallenged when the bookstore ladder gets pulled up and future authors can’t climb it. And he believes that publishers don’t appreciate that all measures, even desperate measures, are called for to preserve the brick store base as long as possible.

When you start trying to figure out how publishers could do that, you appreciate very quickly that you’re tackling a very challenging problem.

Six decades ago, long before there was any bookstore crisis, my father, Leonard Shatzkin, then at Doubleday, recognized that bookstores were the publishers’ lifeblood. He didn’t see the logic in giving bigger discounts to wholesalers than to retailers. After all, wholesalers primarily put their books in warehouses waiting for orders that publishers’ marketing efforts and a book’s inherent appeal create while retailers put them on shelves in front of customers, stimulating demand. His solution, implemented ever-so-briefly, was to eliminate the wholesalers’ discount differential and offer them the same terms as retailers.

Unfortunately, this is a story about which I didn’t capture all the details while Dad was around to give them to me. I know that the wholesalers went ballistic and demanded meetings with Doubleday management (presumably including Dad, who implemented policies like this from the relative safety of the “Research Department”, not from the front lines of the Sales Department.) The policy was reversed and the wholesale discount was restored.

But I can personally attest to the enduring bad feelings this initiative engendered. In 1974, around two decades after the failed experiment, I was working for Dad selling books for Two Continents. As the top sales guy, it was my role to introduce the company to Bookazine, a wholesaler that then occupied a warehouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Bill Epstein was the owner of Bookazine and, when he met me, all of the anger from that Doubleday discount change came to the surface, as if he’d been waiting 20 years to complain about it again.

The day has perhaps come again when publishers will want to consider offering the highest discount incentive for placing a book on a retail store shelf. (The idea exists in the world of commerce: it is called a “retail display allowance”, although the concept would need to be extended to favor all retail display, not just favored positioning.) This would be a devilishly difficult policy to design and implement to avoid alienating the wholesalers the way my Dad did. (There is no way a policy like this would be well-received by Amazon.) But after publishers hear Peter Hildick-Smith at Pub Launch BEA, it is bound to strike some, at least, as an idea well worth considering.


Thinking more about ebooks and libraries and what big publishers should do

The reluctance of most big publishers to make ebooks available through library lending is a topic of widespread attention and concern. The AAP turned a chunk of its annual meeting over to the topic and Dr. Anthony Marx, the President and CEO of the New York Public Library, used his time to volunteer his institution for experimentation to find a model for ebook lending that would work for publishers.

I had occasion to talk to a number of Big Six publishers in the middle of last year about their position on library sales. When they registered their concerns with me, some of what they had to say made a great deal of sense.

What really rang true was the fear that the consumers in an emerging ebook ecosystem would “learn” that getting “free” ebooks from libraries was just as easy as getting ebooks from retailers and paying for them. Given that all this requires is pointing your web browser in a different direction, it looked to many of the publishers like a really poor bet to enable ebook lending by libraries. Sales of ebooks to libraries isn’t a huge market so the upside is limited. And with many ebook retailers struggling to gain traction in an Amazon-dominated marketplace, the consequences of even a small loss in sales could knock players out of the game.

Withholding or limiting sales of ebooks to libraries shares an important characteristic  with agency pricing. In both cases, publishers are implementing policies that they know will result in their revenue being reduced immediately in order to develop what they believe will be a stronger and more diversified distribution network for ebooks in the long run.

It’s worth making a point here. It is reasonable to argue that publishers are wrong on both counts.  These policies are about influencing the future development of the channel and forecasting the impact of various policies over time, so there is not yet any data to prove they’re right or wrong. All we have are guesses based on limited and unprojectable knowledge.

But the publishers are most emphatically not engaging in “short term thinking”. They are sacrificing immediate revenue for what they believe will be a long-term gain. In that way they are like Amazon, which famously will deep-discount or loss-lead today’s sale to build a long-term customer relationship. But Amazon gets credit for long-term thinking; publishers usually don’t.

As most people know who are following the tribulations of libraries trying to stock ebooks, four of the Big Six publishers are not making any ebooks available to libraries at all (except titles already sold in the past.) Random House continues to supply all their titles to libraries as ebooks with only the “one loan at a time per copy purchased” limitation, but they have just raised the prices of those books to libraries substantially. HarperCollins was widely villified a year ago when they introduced a limitation of 26 loans per copy purchased, but this is apparently now more widely being seen as an acceptable limitation. (Random House pricing and the others’ total withdrawal from the market are making 26 loans look good!)

I accept the major premise. If it were just as easy to get ebooks from libraries as it is from retailers, over time more and more customers would migrate to the libraries. But, the more I think about it, the less I accept the notion that total withdrawal from the library market is necessary to create a clear advantage for the retailer as a destination for ebook readers. In fact, it is possible that putting ebooks into libraries, in the right ways, could increase sales at retail. And the only way for publishers to find that out is to do some controlled experimentation in that marketplace. To my knowledge, that’s not taking place.

I have two anecdotes that I think shed some light.

At a conference I organized a few years ago, we heard about a giveaway that publishers Spiegel & Grau did of a Suze Orman book through Oprah. They gave away 1.1 million unprotected PDF downloads in 33 hours on Oprah. The book sales popped immediately on Amazon, of course. But more impressive, and more important, is that the book acheived a return run of several more months on the NY Times Bestseller list. It had fallen off in October. In other words, the substantial number of giveaway copies sparked a rebirth of interest in what had already been a very successful book that appeared to have concluded its run some months before. (Of course, being on Oprah has an effect of its own whether or not there is a giveaway. I think the 1.1 million giveaways helped spur the sales, but, at the very least, they didn’t prevent the Oprah effect from taking place in a big way. The publishers had not expected anything like the commercial result they got.)

And here’s another. About two or three years ago, I was looking around for data that would tell us whether ebook sales were cannibalizing print or adding incremental units. Our friend Rick Joyce at Perseus said “they add incremental units” and he could prove it. I was skeptical, but he convinced me.

What Rick said was that Perseus had converted a number of backlist books that had an established print sales pattern into ebooks. Then they looked at what happened to sales of the overall “basket of titles”. Their print sales went up even though the ebook was selling too. Perseus attributed this to the increased awareness of the books generated by their presence in the ebook marketplace.

But perhaps of even greater significance, the beneficial effect on sales of the ebook publication increased as they went down the long tail. The deeper they went into the backlist, the greater was the lift created by the ebook publication.

It is a stretch to analogize the effect of an ebook being available in a library today with what making an ebook for sale did to print sales two years ago, but it is not a ridiculous hypothesis to test. What if a similar impact resulted from library availability? Might there be some titles you want to window, but others where it would even make sense to sell them to libraries cheaper because of a marketing effect? Could there even be some books that it would be worth giving to some libraries for free?

Both of these examples, being as they are more than two years old (and, in one case, about PDFs, which are a pretty limiting way to get an ebook file), can’t be simply taken as prima facie evidence of what would happen today. People who downloaded the Orman file and found they liked it and wanted to read the whole book would indeed have wanted to purchase a more readable copy. In 2008, that would have meant “print” for the vast majority of people. Perseus did their backlist analysis at a time when they had lots of good backlist not yet available as an ebook and not many consumers read that way. Neither of these things are true anymore. The migration of sales from print to digital is too rapid now for very many titles to maintain their recent print sales rate, let alone increase it on the back of some increased discoverability. (Overall sales might increase, but not print as a stand-alone.)

Nonetheless, these two pieces of anecdata together suggest at least the possibility that the sales the big publishers are losing by withholding from the libraries is a larger number than just the ebooks they’re not selling for loan. They may also be losing other sales that come from discoverability and library-reader-generated word-of-mouth.

It now seems to me that making ebooks available through libraries when the titles are on a downward sales trajectory at retail could generate new life for them, as the Oprah giveaway did for Suze Orman. Yes, this is windowing. If publishers did it on their big ebook titles, they’d be doing exactly what Hollywood is doing with DVDs of major movies, which are also withheld from library distribution until the theatrical and early DVD revenues have been harvested.

The big publishers I have spoken to seem most focused on keeping “friction” in the library ebook experience to approximate the inconvenience of print book borrowing, where you have to go to the library to pick up the book and then to bring it back. In fact, the imperfect interface from OverDrive already provides a good deal of that (except for Kindle loans, which bump over to Amazon and work seamlessly). The absence of any new titles from four of the Big Six may not provide “friction”, but it certainly would drive many readers to a retail channel. (In fact, without some huge change in the way publisher-library relationships operate, there will always be a much larger number of titles available from retailers than from any library.)

What publishers are correct to be worried about is the way the market could change over time. With most book readers still reading print, we don’t really know yet what the marketplace will look like in five or ten years when I’d expect the vast majority will probably read books on screens. That was part of what was behind Harper’s 26 loan limitation. It is also a principle behind Bloomsbury’s “Public Library Online” program (working in the UK for a while now and just being introduced here), by which a “shelf” of books is licensed to libraries one year at a time. (Public Library Online enables multiple users through any flash-enabled browser, but does not support even as basic a user tool as “place-holding”; each time you return to a book you would have to remember where you were.)

In general, time-limiting seems  a much better strategy to me than loan-limiting, although it might not produce the same level of additional sales on bestsellers as loan-limiting.

If any big publisher asked me for an opinion about a library policy (and none has), this is what I’d say today.

1. Start immediately experimenting with “baskets” of titles, because the data on sales trends for a group of titles will be far more reliable than on any single title. If titles are put into groupings of cohorts (fiction in a genre, topical non-fiction, big author brands), you increase your chances of getting data that lends itself to interpretation that enable useful adjustments in tactics.

2. One set of experiments that should be productive would be on titles that have already had their high-volume run. Put 10 or 20 of those titles into library distribution and look at their print and ebook sales results week-by-week for the period before and then after the library release. (And promote the library release to maximize the potential impact.)

3. Look at the “make” books on an upcoming list: those that aren’t by big name authors that are already guaranteed to sell well. Split them in half. Put one half into libraries and withhold the other half. See if you can detect a library effect, positive or negative.

4. License titles for two or three years rather than limiting the number of loans. This will enable the publisher to withdraw them from library circulation in the future if the market shifts. This is a separate question from whether you allow multiple simultaneous loans. That limitation probably needs to remain (although with a loan limit like HarperCollins has applied, I don’t see why it is necessary.)

5. Explore ways for libraries to sell ebooks to patrons who discover titles through them but, for whatever reason, want to purchase them. Referral to existing retailers, with libraries getting the referral revenue, would seem like the cleanest and best way for this to happen. Libraries could sell the ebooks directly, but that approach could exacerbate the concern that library patrons would be “lost” to the retail network.

Publishers’ concerns about the impact of library lending are reasonable. But responding to that concern by simply “freezing” is not helpful to anybody and it may actually be damaging the sales of the books the publishers are trying to protect. I don’t know and the librarians don’t know what the marketplace impact will be of branded ebooks being made available through libraries, but the publishers don’t know either. It is time for all of us to start finding out.

I think big publishers have widely accepted a similarly flawed perspective about the impact of  piracy. It is likely that piracy, like library loans, will have a net cannibalizing effect on some titles and a net promotional effect on others. If you accept the truth of that statement, then you should see that telling which titles are which is the most important starting point to creating policy in either case. How many houses today are consulting their marketing departments when they make their piracy policies? It would seem like a good idea.


If the government makes agency go away

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department has notified the Agency Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) and Apple that it plans to sue them for colluding to raise the price of electronic books. I have no standing to comment on the law here. But if this does mean the end of the agency model, it would seem to be a cause for celebrating at Amazon and a catalyst for some deep contemplation by all the other big players in the book business.

Agency pricing, for those who have not been following the most important development in the growth of the book market, enabled the publishers to enforce a uniform price for each ebook title across all retail outlets. This was Apple’s desired way to do business, and it addressed deep concerns the big publishers had about the effect of Amazon’s loss-leader discounting.

Although the WSJ article and Michael Cader’s follow up in Publishers Lunch make no “agency is dead” declaration and there are quotes from publishers and others indicating that there are a range of possible outcomes, including a version of agency that is modified to allow some discounting, everybody in the industry now has to contemplate what it would mean if the agency model is legally upended.

To Amazon, it would mean they would be free to set prices on all books again, including the most high-profile and attractive ones that come from the big trade houses. That is an opportunity they are likely to seize with loss-leader discounting of the biggest marquee titles.

To Barnes & Noble, it would mean they have to devote cash resources to ebook discounting that they might have preferred to dedicate to further development of the Nook platform, maintaining the most robust possible brick-and-mortar presence, and improving the user experience at Unconfirmed stories abound that B&N is about to announce an international expansion. Whether that will produce cash flow immediately or require it for a while is not yet known. For B&N’s sake, it would always better if it were the former, but if they’re about to fight discounting wars, it might be critical.

To Kobo, it would mean that they also will need to devote cash resources to subsidizing price cuts to match Amazon. With their new ownership by Rakuten, they should have the capital they need to fight this battle. They must be glad that deal got done before agency was upended.

To Google, it would mean that the bookstore service piece of their ebook business will suddenly be highly challenged. Many independent stores might be pushed out of the ebook game completely; it certainly would be extremely difficult for them to support competition with Amazon’s prices. To Google itself, with their new Google Play configuration, it means they will have to both spend more margin and more management energy to be a serious competitor in the retail marketplace. There’s no clear evidence that they have the interest at the top to do that, although they certainly would have the resources.

To Apple, it would mean that their entire iBookstore model is in question. They apparently didn’t want to take on all the normal responsibilities of a merchant, which would include setting prices. Now they may have to.

To all the big publishers, including Random House (the one of the Big Six not being sued, because they stayed out of agency for the first year and therefore were not considered part of the “collusion”) it would mean that they will have to painfully reverse the re-pricing and systems adjustments they went through to implement agency in the first place.

Smaller publishers and distributors might be beneficiaries if agency is eliminated, but they might not. The agency model is a great advantage for those publishers who are able to fully implement it. But that is only six publishers — the Big Six — because Amazon has simply refused to let anybody else sell to them that way. That creates problems for the smaller publishers but an even more threatening one for distributors. All but the Big Six, if they want to sell to both Amazon and Apple, must operate a “hybrid” model, selling Apple on agency terms and Amazon on wholesale terms. The two are inherently in conflict. What is ultimately a threat to the distributors is that distributees that desire agency terms, and many would. might seek distribution deals from one of the Big Six. (It might be coincidental, but it is worth noting that IPG, the company having a fight with Amazon at the moment over terms, is a distributor.)

Of course, we don’t know how the Big Publishers will respond if they’re forced off agency. It’s long been my opinion that the 50% discount for ebooks is unworkable. It leads to ridiculous and unrealistic retail prices. (Publishers operating on the hybrid model have to have two retail prices: one on which to base the wholesale discount and another at Apple operating agency-style. It’s crazy.) Would the big publishers, if they couldn’t do agency, keep the 30% discount and their current prices? Would they go back to the 50% discount and jack the suggested retail prices back up? If they did the former and nothing else changed, the smaller publishers could be at a much greater disadvantage than they are now.

Over time, the biggest losers here will be the authors. The independent authors will feel the pain first. Agency pricing creates a zone of pricing they can occupy without much competition from branded merchandise. When the known authors are only available at $9.99 and up, the fledgling at $0.99-$2.99 looks very attractive and worth a try. Ending agency will have the “desired” effect of bringing all ebook prices down. As the big book prices are reduced, the ability of the unknowns to use price as a discovery tool will diminish as well. In the short run, it will be the independent authors who will pay the biggest price of all.

But, in the long run, all authors will just get less. They will join the legion of suppliers beholden to a retailer whose mission is to deliver the lowest possible price to the consumer.

Seth Godin has recently made the argument that this is simply inevitable. Perhaps it is. The laws of supply and demand would support that contention. But from my personal perspective, I don’t like seeing the government hasten the process along.

But what about the reader? The reader gets lower prices, cheaper reading. What the reader won’t see is that s/he’s not getting what s/he won’t pay for. Some of the best books won’t get written and the biggest casualties will be in the area of highly-researched non-fiction, like major biographies, in my opinion. Twenty years ago they used to say that a conservative was a liberal who’s been mugged. I’m not about to become a conservative, but I sure see how easy it is for the government not to understand how their decisions might affect the dynamics of a business. Or, in this case, a culture.


The expected changes in the book business favor Amazon’s share growth

This post is the second that is contemplating two big questions facing the publishing industry:

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

Who will be left standing when it does?

Amazon applies pressure and generates angst among publishers from two directions. As they grow to be 30% or more of many publishers’ business, they are in a position to push to improve their margins at publishers’ expense. And they do, indeed, push.

At the same time, they are both offering authors attractive opportunities to self-publish and wielding a checkbook to build their own publishing program. Both threaten to constrict publishers’ access to the ultimate source of all their revenue, the output of authors looking for a path to readers. And even when Amazon doesn’t sign a book they go after, they could well be pushing up the price a publisher has to pay to get it.

This pincer maneuver is really unprecedented in its power, even though elements of it have existed before.

Joint ownership of publishing and book retailing is definitely not new; it has been a part of the industry for my entire 50 years in it. My first book publishing job was on the sales floor of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue in 1962. My dad was a publisher. He was a vice-president of a company then called Crowell-Collier, which bought the first Macmillan in the early 1960s, eventually changed the corporate name to Macmillan, and was then purchased by Simon & Schuster in 1994. None of these entities have anything to do with the company now called Macmillan, which took its name from the British company the owning Holtzbrinck family had also acquired.

Anyhow, when Crowell-Collier bought Brentano’s, Leonard Shatzkin became the responsible corporate executive. He had gone to Crowell-Collier from Doubleday, which also owned bookstores. Across the street from Brentano’s was the Scribner Bookstore, owned by Charles Scribner’s Sons. They were the publishers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among others. (Scribners exists today as an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)

And, of course, it has only been about 10 years since book retailing giant Barnes & Noble expanded its proprietary publishing program by purchasing independent niche publisher Sterling. That doesn’t appear to have worked out particularly well for them; they are apparently having trouble selling Sterling today, even at a fraction of the price they paid for it.

And, in fact, Amazon’s publishing efforts haven’t been particularly disruptive to publishers so far. Their big “gets” to date are Tim Ferriss and Deepak Chopra, two big authors who are unusual because their pattern has been to write for different publishers rather than having a lengthy run at one particular house. The very biggest names, which would be fiction authors, have not yet been enticed to make the jump, although Jackie Collins created a stir last week with some self-publishing plans that don’t have entirely to do with Amazon. It has been nearly a year since Amazon signed former Time Warner Books head Larry Kirshbaum to lead their attempt to woo big trade authors. That was very concerning to the big houses but, so far, the sky has definitely not fallen.

Whether we will really see profound changes that justify the questions that head this series of pieces or whether this turns out to be a totally baseless bout of nervousness by the established players depends on what happens in the overall marketplace in the next few years.

The percentage of a publisher’s business that Amazon represents is largely channel-dependent. If ebook sales go up overall, then Amazon’s share will probably go up. If purchasing shifts from brick stores to online, then Amazon’s share will certainly go up. If print sales in brick stores hold their ground, then Amazon’s sales won’t rise.

I think you’d have to look hard to find a credible voice making the case that print sales in stores will hold their ground. To the extent there is a debate, it revolves around how fast those sales will decline.

AAP says we’ve seen double-digit declines of print sales in 2011 over what they were in 2010. They say print revenue was down 17.5% in adult hardcover and 15.6% in adult paperback.

Forrester’s survey of publishing executives finds few expecting such a big decline in the coming year, but then, few expected such a steep decline last year. Forrester’s own prediction is for sudden drops. I would agree that sales will tend to decline in “step-increments”, as players exit the game. Borders may be responsible for a lot of the loss we saw in 2011. There wouldn’t seem to be any shelf space loss that great on the immediate horizon, but we do see B&N reducing both the number of stores and the percentage of shelf space within them devoted to books and there are many predicting that books might lose their appeal to the mass merchants as well. They are fully capable of substituting other merchandise for books and making that switch very quickly whenever they decide it should happen.

My own expectation is that over the next five years we’ll see the share of sales that are ebooks more than double. (This should be seen as a startlingly conservative prediction, since that number has doubled annually for the past five years!) That would put ebook unit sales at about 65% for commercial immersive reading. (I’m grossing up the 20% of revenue number the big houses are reporting because ebooks produce less revenue than print hardcovers and because many titles in the print revenue base aren’t in the ebook revenue base.)

Of the remaining 35% allocated to print, I’d expect half of the sales, at least, to be online. If those numbers are right, then 17.5% of immersive book sales would be in brick stores.

If Amazon remains about 60% of ebook sales and 90% of print books sold online, that would put their share of immersive reading sales at about 50%. And were a book available in Kindle that people knew about and wanted to read and not available in other formats, Amazon could pick up a lot of the ebook sales they would otherwise miss. (Remember, anybody using a Nook or Kobo app as opposed to a Nook or Kobo device could just switch to the Kindle app to read that particular book.) All that is really hard for them to capture is the 17.5% allocated here for print sold in stores. And even the loss of that share wouldn’t be total, since, for any really big book, in-store buyers would buy online if they had to. So they’d be in a position to reach well more than 70%, perhaps even more than 80%, of the market for all books that are principally text. (And those are the books that lead the industry.)

Imagine what that will do for Kirshbaum’s ability to go get big authors. Today an author considering an Amazon publishing deal must figure that half or more of the market is unreachable through that arrangement. No matter how much money Amazon is willing to pay, no matter how much they increase the ebook royalty over the publishers’ offers (which they have ample margin to do), it is a pretty tough sell to get an author to write off more than half the marketplace, particularly the half most visible to the public.

In other words, overall trends are moving things increasingly in Amazon’s direction. Even if nothing changes in the deals offered or resources available to the competitors for author attention in the next five years, Amazon’s position will have grown considerably more powerful. And, in fact, Amazon’s share of publisher sales just about assures that any changes in deals and resources in the meantime will favor Amazon as well.

Of course, there is more to successful publishing than just signing up a book and managing an online audience. Editing and presentation count. A marketing plan that goes beyond just reaching online bookstore customers counts. Rights sales count. And pricing to maximize a particular title’s revenue, not a bookseller’s overall share and customer loyalty, also counts. None of these are things that Amazon’s experience naturally leads them to do. All of them require investment and development of infrastructure and team skills. Will Amazon invest in and perform these functions?

And the more books a publisher does, the more challenging it becomes to manage all these things. Title growth might also challenge Amazon’s marketing resources, such as they are. There are only so many slots on the home page for a category of books to use to feature your own titles. (And there’s a risk of alienating your customers if they think your featuring and recommendations are just shilling for your own books.) There are only so many emails you can send pushing your own books before you lose people’s attention (and perhaps their permission). The special sales and vertical marketing functions that will be increasingly important for publishers are not natural fits at Amazon. Will they do these things?

Of course, we need to remember that while Amazon signs up titles directly, they pressure competitive retailers as well as publishers. There are two approaches Amazon can take in that circumstance and one can imagine them choosing which approach to apply by title.

Either they are a supplier of titles to the rest of the trade, which gives them a different kind of power. Or they withhold what they’ve got from the rest of the trade, which means the Amazon title selection is advantaged over the competition.

You have to excuse publishers if it makes them nervous to think about living in a world where the company through which they get 50% of their sales is also competing with them to sign up titles directly. This is a situation where it is accurate to say that any other player in the ecosystem who is not at least mildly panicked probably doesn’t fully understand what’s going on.

The challenges faced by Amazon as they try to grow as a publisher are not trivial, but neither is the strength they bring to address them. The world five years from now where Amazon is stronger because they can reach 80% of the market rather than somewhat less than 50% is also one where the big players with whom they’re competing for authors are also weaker. In fact, if the number following “Big” isn’t smaller than “6” by then, I’ll be one very surprised prognosticator.

It’s taken me two posts (here’s the first one) to lay out what I see as the dynamic forces tilting the trade book business toward Amazon. I have at least three more components of this story to consider: how these changes look from each spot in the value chain (author, agent, large and small publisher, retailer, reader); a discussion of the “cultural gap”, which can be traced as much to different objectives as to the lack of shared history, between Amazon and the legacy book business; and a discussion of the Amazon antidotes: what other players in the industry can do, within the constraints of the law and practicality, to slow down or reverse the Amazon share growth before it changes the nature of the industry, and its cast of characters, beyond recognition.