September, 2012

New publishing companies are starting that are much leaner than their established competitors


“It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.” — David G. Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, quoted in The New York Times on September 24, 2012.

The magazine business isn’t the book business, but…

For the better part of two decades, many people have seen the potential quandary the digital transition posed to big successful full-service publishing organizations. If distribution no longer requires scale, what does that mean to the companies that not only succeeded by creating distribution at scale, but which also are largely locked in to their high-cost, high-maintenence infrastructures?

This was one of my concerns when I delivered my “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech at BookExpo in 2007. When bookstores go away, I figured, it would become absolutely necessary but would be very hard for publishers working across audiences to adjust to being multi-niche. And it seemed to me that the big organizations built to deal with thousands of dispersed retail outlets at scale would be far too expensive to maintain when the outlets weren’t there. And stepping down the overhead level wouldn’t be easy.

There’s no shortage of understanding of this challenge. All big publishers are looking for new ways to apply scale to gathering names, analyzing data, improving discovery, social marketing, and creating partnerships with others that can provide audience reach.

Several companies have built business strategies around the expectation that traditional publishing organizations are going to have to get smaller and change the way they staff their print value chain. Among the biggest players, Donnelley, Ingram, Perseus, and even Random House fit that description: offering a variety of ways for publishers to offload everything except the functions that are absolutely core to publishing: editorial selection and development, rights management, and marketing.

The companies that offer the print value chain solutions also have digital services, of course, but they have competitors in that space that specialize in providing what demands scale for digital publishing. The competitors tend to start their service offerings further up the workflow than those that started by focusing on scalable distribution. Two new partnerships announced last week suggest the emergence of new commercial models for publishing.

The big eye-catching announcement was that Barry Diller and Scott Rudin, both with Hollywood roots, are putting substantial investment — announced as $10 million, but they could certainly add more when and if they want to — behind a new commercial trade house called Brightline to be led by publishing veteran Frances Coady. Brightline will partner and build its books with The Atavist.

Perhaps less noticed, but pointing in a similar direction, is that agent and entrepreneur Jason Allen Ashlock has set up a new niche publishing imprint to do crime and suspense books, working on the PressBooks platform created by Hugh McGuire.

The publishing ambitions here are quite different, but the point they make about the direction of publishing’s future are very much the same.

Diller and Rudin backing Coady would appear to be poised to compete with major publishers for major books. You don’t put $10 million into play as your initial investment to sign up a bunch of previously self-published or genre fiction authors. And The Atavist’s bookbuilding capability was built with a Hollywood consciousness in mind. They have not only designed what they do so that it rather elegantly accommodates links (allowing them to be made either very obvious or very unobtrusive), The Atavist always envisioned that its own publishing of serious topical non-fiction would have a potential cinematic or TV iteration. Their standard contractual agreement cuts them in on those rights which it was very much in their vision to reserve for themselves and develop.

This is not to imply that Brightline will need in any way to depend on The Atavist’s original commercial vision or contracts; they will certainly have their ideas about both.

Ashlock’s ambitions, at least initially, appear to be more modest. As the proprietor of a young and developing literary agency, he would need to acquire titles that don’t have the kind of advance-against-royalties requirement that Brightline would feel comfortable with. So he’s announced his publishing enterprise, called Rogue Reader, which will do “crime fiction”, apparently only one title per month and also apparently previously little-known or unknown writers.

The message here is that we see a similar answer coming from the opposite ends of the continuum of investment and power of what the genesis of a successful future publisher might look like. Both an ambitious well-funded highly-commercial list headed by a publishing veteran and fledgling authors publishing in a niche under the direction of a young entrepreneur with much less seasoning are being launched on new publishing platforms which have copious capabilities to do digital publishing efficiently. These new publishers can treat the diminishing print-in-store marketplace as a bit of an afterthought because there are more and more sources from which to purchase those capabilities for as long as they are needed.

And since the need for those capabilities is diminishing, and since there are so many companies that own them and can’t suddenly not own them, the chances are that the cost of obtaining those capabilities from somebody else is likely to just keep going down.

We are getting closer to the day when all a publisher really will need to “own” is the ability to acquire and develop good books and ways to reach the core audience for them persuasively and inexpensively. Diller and Rudin, with their Hollywood roots, certainly have access to many of the great story-creators and storytellers. Through connections to lots of people with marketing platforms plus the extensive network of connections through Diller’s IAC collection of web properties, they also have the capabilities to promote them.

Could any publisher build scaled web marketing capabilities more effectively than IAC? Diller’s team seems to be figuring they can rent everything else besides the core capabilities and be competitive. I think that’s right.

Ashlock doesn’t have their reach, but by sticking to “crime fiction” he thinks he can build a community around what he’ll do that will enable effective and efficient marketing. And as an agent, he’s in a good position to recruit good projects, although he will deal with the conflicts involved in turning somebody who comes to him as a literary agent seeking a publishing deal with another house into his own author. The ethics of this question have been hotly debated. One prior experimenter of this type — agent Scott Waxman who started ebook publisher Diversion Books — seems to have given up agenting in favor of being a fulltime ebook publisher. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Ashlock.

Both Brightline and Rogue Reader will undoubtedly be building out their development. We can expect them both to announce soon how they’ll handle putting books in stores. One would imagine that the business development teams at all the companies with big distribution capabilities are knocking on Brightline’s door. One book a month isn’t necessarily as attractive and publishers won’t want to encourage agents to become competing publishers, but I would imagine Rogue Reader will be able to find more than one company with these capabilities willing to answer their phone calls as well.

Rebecca Smart, the CEO of Osprey, was at our office last week let our friend Hannah Johnson of Publishing Perspectives capture a couple of minutes of video about what she’ll be discussing at Publishers Launch Frankfurt on October 8. It’s a quick example of the out-of-the-box thinking which will be coming from 18 different presentations at our 10:30-6:30 event. 

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Innovators and circumstances: the Frankfurt Publishers Launch show


In some ways, I think this year’s Publishers Launch Frankfurt show kicks off the next era of digital change in global publishing. The US and other English-speaking markets have established clearly that immersive reading — fiction and narrative non-fiction — is easily ported to screens for most people. In the past 18 months, changes in the UK book market have begun to resemble what we saw in the US, including Amazon’s dominance and bookstore shelf space shrinking.

While there are still many unanswered questions about how the English-speaking trade book world will look in a few years, I think the story of the next 12 months could well be more dramatic in non-English markets. The Frankfurt show is our most international; Americans are in the minority as attendees at this event.

We have packed 18 panels and presentations into our one-day Publishers Launch Frankfurt. (I like to keep things moving.) In keeping with the way digital change has taught us to think about the book business, we have two themes that are actually analogs for “content” and “context”.

Providing the “content” will be nine “Innovators”. The presenting innovators are publishing executives who are doing things inside their companies that are hard (or impossible) to find being done anywhere else. Yet.

Creating the “context” are a number of presentations on “Circumstances”. The context of the digital revolution differs by country, by language, and by time. What happened in the United States over the past five years offers clues, but not definitive answers, about what to expect in other countries over the next five years. We are exploring a wide range of circumstances that are defining the environment for publishing around the world in the future.

Both sets of presentations are extremely diverse.

We’re starting off the day with what I think will be one of the most impactful of the “circumstances” descriptions. Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis tracks the strategy of the five big tech companies whose activities are most likely to have an impact on publishing: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. He’ll describe the overarching objectives of each company and examine how book publishing fits into their thinking. The point will be to help publishers see how to take advantage of opportunities that will be created and avoid the pitfalls that will come along with the opportunities.

Jim Hilt, Theresa Horner, and new International Managing Director Patrick Rouvillois of Barnes & Noble will be talking about their company’s recent first move outside the US, launching the NOOK in the UK with local retailer partnerships. The UK will therefore become the first market outside the US to experience an initiative from the one company which, inside the US, has made a meaningful run at Amazon. If they can do it in Britain, then perhaps they can do it elsewhere as well. This is a “circumstance” everybody in the business will be watching.

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo will also speak. Kobo has opened in six major markets in the past year. They’re bringing an independent — but complete with devices, including new ones just announced — ebook retailing presence into many markets. The spread of the digital delivery infrastructure is definitely one of the changing circumstances that all publishers need to stay aware of and these two retailers are an important part of it.

The decline of print bookstores has been taking place for some time in the US, an effect not yet evident in much of the rest of the world. Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group has been studying that, surveying book consumers about their purchasing decisions for a decade. He has data spelling out what the impact on sales and discovery is as bookstore shelf space contracts, which he’ll be reviewing for publishers to consider as they do their own forecasting about how fast bookstores will decline in their own markets. Hildick-Smith also has data about the reading habits of consumers on tablets as opposed to ebook readers which will be of great interest because so much more of ebook uptake outside the English-speaking world will take place on tablets.

We will have panels looking at two sets of emerging markets.

The BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — are watched by economists for emerging trends and we’re going to do the same. All of them are in the earliest stages of ebook uptake, but the beginnings are there in all four markets. We’ll have local representatives from each — publishers and retailers — to fill us in on the prospects and expectations in each of these countries.  The panelists will be Carlo Carrenho (PublishNews) from Brazil, Alexander Gavrilov (Book Institute) from Russia, Ananth Padmanabhan (Penguin) from India, and Lisa Liping Zhang (Cloudary Corporation from China.

We will also have a panel of leading Spanish-language publishing executives, chaired by Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, to discuss how digital change is playing out in the Spanish-language market. Spanish, like English, is the local language for many countries — more than 20 in the case of Spanish — and also has a very large market within the US. Digitization has been slow and there are unique issues having to do with the fact that control of copyrights is often housed in Spain, despite the fact that the biggest markets are in Latin America. Patricia and her panelists (including Arantza Larrauri of Libranda and Santos Palazzi of Planeta) will explore how fast that will change and when we should expect to see ebooks rising beyond the sliver of the market they have captured so far.

Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center is going to do a presentation on changes to copyright law and practice that may not be taking place where you live and publish but which could affect you where you do.

Noah Genner, their CEO, will report on the first fielding of a BookNet Canada survey of Canadian book consumers, the beginnings of a project that is planned to take place over the next couple of years. This may be the first intensive study of digital reading habits outside the United States so we thought it was worthy of a report to our global audience.

And a circumstance on every big company’s mind in publishing is how they will be regarded by the investment community as they navigate the digital transition. Brian Napack is now at Providence Equity Partners. Last year at this time he was President of Macmillan USA. Nobody is in a better position to discuss this topic than Brian and he’ll present on it at our event.

The innovative executives who will be navigating these shifting circumstances constitute the other half of our program. These speakers will be talking about initiatives that are often unique but are always pioneering. Our bet is that they are introducing a lot of practices that will be common in a couple of years.

Two of our innovators work from outside the English-speaking world but part of their story is that they’re not letting that cut them off from the biggest book-buying language.

Helmut Pesch leads the team that provides the internal ebook support for the German publisher Lubbe. But he’s using that position to pioneer. He’s teamed with a TV production entity to deliver a multi-media novel as a serial, launched an ebook first imprint, and is publishing original work in both English and Mandarin Chinese!

Marcello Vena oversees digital initiatives for the Italian holding company RCS Libri, which owns the book publishers Rizzoli, Bompiani and Fabbri Editori. Vena has started two ebook first genre imprints (thrillers for Rizzoli and romance for Fabbri) and is delivering those files DRM-free. He’s created a couple of very successful illustrated ebooks (this in a market where digital has barely cracked 2% of sales) and he also is trying out English-language publishing.

Stephen Page of Faber and Faber in the UK is building publisher- and author-services businesses while he innovates in his own publishing house. As an example of that, Faber has produced delivered two compelling apps for classic poetry: one on T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and one just released on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. And he’s building author communities that include live events and writing courses.

Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer for Perseus and their digital Constellation service, is exploring “social listening” tools, but with a twist. Joyce points out that working with these tools isn’t easy but he also is skeptical of the value which can be derived as they are often used: tracking the impact of social media efforts by a publisher. Joyce and his team are exploring whether the tools can be used to find the right marketing venues and approaches, down to the level of what blog comment streams to join and what nomenclature to use when they’re being worked. He will explain the tricky balance between being terribly specific in your search (like using the book title) which yields far too few opportunities and being so broad that the targeting is ineffective.

Anthony Forbes Watson is Managing Director of Pan Macmillan in the UK, part of the newly reorganized global trade division of Macmillan. Watson’s house is distinctly smaller than the four biggest UK trade houses (Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Penguin) but much larger than any other player. Watson has reorganized his shop to get closer to both the authors and the markets. The evidence so far is that Pan Macmillan is proportionately outselling its competitors in digital; Watson will lay out the ways in which internal structural changes can lead to competitive advantage.

Rebecca Smart is the Chief Executive Officer of Osprey, a global publisher whose first vertical audience was military history. Since then, Osprey has executed acquisitions to put them into other verticals: science fiction, mind body spirit, food, and health. Her company is global and focused on audiences and she is building a multi-vertical publisher that will work with very diverse set of customers with a consistent approach and central services when possible.

Ken Michaels is the COO of Hachette Book Group USA. He’s also a big believer in SaaS: software as a service and he’s been rethinking and rebuilding Hachette’s internal technology structure in light of that belief. Hachette has also created some solutions themselves — among them, a capability to track metadata and ranks of books at ebook retailers and a tool for sharing content on Facebook — that they are making available as SaaS services themselves.

Charlie Redmayne is the CEO of Pottermore. He believes they’re building the digital publisher of the future and that a key element of that is to go where the audiences are: every device or channel that commands eyeballs is in his sights. Of course, Pottermore was built on the back of one writer’s amazing fictional brand and world. Redmayne believes what they’ve built might be applicable to other worlds from other authors. And that part of his presentation might get a lot of publishers and agents in the audience thinking what they have that might apply.

Dominique Raccah is the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks. Dominique is an indefatigable experimenter. She’s developed a poetry vertical. She’s experimented with “agile book creation” which invites the author’s audience to participate in creating the book. Dominique does more experiments before breakfast than most publishers do in a year. I put her on this program “on faith” because she told me she’s got 2-1/2 experiments to discuss that support her conviction that publishers have to completely rethink their businesses. (Today on a listserv she mentioned that she has “five startups” taking place internally!) Maybe I’ll find out exactly what she’s going to talk about at the conference before we get there, but I haven’t found out yet. But I’ve never been disappointed by Dominique and she says she’s more excited about what she’ll discuss at Publishers Launch Frankfurt than she has ever been about anything she’s done before. I am confident that we’ll be glad to hear what she has to say and all the other innovators will feel they are in very good company.

As we usually do at Publishers Launch events, Michael Cader and I will be opening the show with stage-setting remarks and doing a quick wrap-up at the end as well as popping up during the day whenever we think we can be helpful.

We got Peter Hildick-Smith, Rick Joyce, and Marcello Vena to do a webinar with us previewing what they’re doing at the event. Check it out! And our friends at the Frankfurt Book Fair did a little session with me talking about the conference as well. Take a look.

 

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Rethinking what’s happening with ebook prices


Could I have gotten the DoJ impact on ebook pricing completely wrong? Could the elimination of the Apple-mandated pricing bands actually be such a good thing for publishers that loosening the restraints on discounting won’t actually disrupt the marketplace?

The early evidence seems to point that way although we need to emphasize the word “early”.

What Cader was the first to write publicly (and which he told me in conversation before he posted it, but obviously it didn’t sink in) was that the publishers’ ability to raise ebook prices and ignore those bands offered a powerful antidote to the retailers’ ability to offer discounts.

The first reports when HarperCollins titles showed up on Amazon and other ebook retailers with discounts didn’t focus on the fact that the base price before the discounts had gone up on many of their titles.

Cader did the work required for sound analysis: grabbing Harper list prices from their site (showing that they had “re-banded” their prices higher, so that discounting up to 30% wouldn’t change consumer prices much from what they’d been) and doing price checks at a number of accounts.

The price checks contradicted my initial speculation about pricing in another way. I thought Apple would be challenged to keep up here; in fact, they were sometimes the low-price leader, undercutting (at the moment Cader took his soundings) Amazon on several titles.

So, with your usually-trusty sentinel now awakened to the reasonably obvious (I’m embarrassed to say; this is a circumstance that frequently provokes me to point out that it is not uncommon for smart people to do dumb things) strategy that the publishers would just set the agency prices higher, here’s what to keep in mind going forward.

1. We will for the forseeable have a trifurcated ebook supply chain. Assuming Hachette and S&S employ Harper’s strategy of setting prices higher so that the retailer discounting just brings them down to about where agency had originally set them, we will have a) three agency lite (again, hat tip to Cader for that description) publishers with higher retail prices being discounted; b) three “true” agency publishers with lower retail prices that, for a while at least, no retailer can tinker with; and c) everybody else, mostly selling “wholesale” at even higher listed prices but providing 2/3 more margin to the stores to use for discounting.

This raises the question of why any publisher would stick with wholesale terms — which requires setting a totally unrealistic retail price — unless they faced players in the supply chain that wouldn’t agree to sell their ebooks without getting 50% of the listed price. Eliminating the MFN (uniform prices across ebook retailers) makes the principal distinction between agency and wholesale that agency ebooks carry are assigned a sensible and defensible retail price by the publisher and wholesale-model books aren’t. (And this is still true with the price increases, although a little less true.)

2. The discounts that were shown on the Harper books (also researched by Cader) tended to be 5%, 10%, 20%, 25%, or 30% off the publisher price, or else the trusty old $9.99. This is simple, probably human-set, pricing. It also doesn’t begin to test the upper limits of what retailers can do in discounting. They’re allowed to discount a particular publisher’s ebooks up to the total margin they earn across the list. So for a 30% agency publisher, all the books being sold at positive margin (anything from less than 30% off to full price) contribute to their ability to discount below cost on other books, if they want to.

3. The settling publishers have some significant advantages over their competitors. They’re not restricted by the Apple-mandated price bands. Because they raised prices, they’re getting more per unit sold and because the retailers are taking less margin, they’re not being made less competitive to the customers.

4. Random House, which gained enormously in the year following Agency implementation by staying at wholesale — keeping their unit revenues higher and their retail prices lower than other big players — now finds itself on the other end of that stick. They, along with continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin, now see the settling publishers have taken over that position of competitive advantage. (Of course, all of these publishers can reconsider their pricing and terms strategies whenever their current contracts with retailers conclude.)

5. I had speculated that Apple would find it hard to compete. The first returns say I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced yet. Managing the discounting on just the newly-liberated Harper titles could be done by hand; it’s not that many titles. And Amazon hasn’t pushed aggressively on this. (Pushing aggressively would mean discounting many titles more than 30%.) I still believe they will (although others, notably Chris Meadows at The Digital Reader, thinks they won’t.) If Amazon pushes the envelope on discounting, then it will take bots and algorithms to keep up.

6. A couple of years ago, an Amazon executive told me that they deep-discounted 4% of the titles which amounted to 25% of the sales. I’d assume that the discounting the retailers would want to be doing now would extend across a similar title band. What we’re now seeing is a surrender of, usually, a third or two-thirds of their margin on that group of titles. Giving up two-thirds of margin on 25% of sales would only constitute a sacrifice of 16.7% of total margin. If that’s where it stops, then the net immediate impact of the DoJ suit would be a rise in revenues for publishers, a not-disruptive reduction in margin for retailers, and something pretty close to price neutrality for consumers.

Note that if a retailer chose to accept negative 20% margin on that same 25% of the sales of any particular publisher’s (selling at about 50% below the publisher’s listed retail price), they’d still be in compliance with the settlement’s mandate to not give away more margin on a publisher’s list than they earned. (This is a slightly dodgy comparison because much more than 25% of the Big Six lists would fall into the 25% of the total that Amazon previously deep-discounted.)

It would take that kind of discounting to be disruptive. I think it is important to remember that the smaller reason publishers were concerned about Amazon’s deep-discounting was the impact they had on shifting sales from print to digital. The larger reason was the fear that the discounting would give them such a huge market share that they’d be able to dictate terms. If the levels of discounting that occur don’t contribute significantly either to creating economic hardship for the other players or growing Amazon’s share, it won’t be of much concern to publishers.

7. Every publisher except the remaining pure agency players are actually counting on the stores to discount their ebooks. The wholesale-priced ones were always set at levels that would look ridiculous to most consumers and now the agency lite players are similarly relying on the retailers making a margin sacrifice to keep their pricing competitive.

I still don’t think it will stay this way. I will admit in advance that I will be utterly amazed if Amazon lets Apple, or anybody else, steal their spot as the perceived low-cost provider. But in the earliest moments of this new ebook era we’re not seeing the discounting that I expected. And we’re not getting the result that was presumably what the DoJ sought: lower prices for consumers.

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Hats off to Amazon


When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.

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Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, BN.com has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.

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Full-service publishers are rethinking what they can offer


At lunch a few months ago, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, expressed dissatisfaction with the term “legacy” to describe the publishers who had been successful since before the digital revolution began. For one thing, he felt that sounded too much like “the past”. “We need to come up with a different term,” was his assessment and he suggested that perhaps “full-service” was more apt.

I find I keep coming back to “full service” as an accurate description of the publisher’s relationship to an author. That’s what the long-established publishers have evolved to be.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that publishing organizations were deliberately created as service organizations for authors. They weren’t. In fact, as we shall see, the service component of a publisher’s DNA was developed in service to other publishers.

My Dad, Leonard Shatzkin, pointed out to me 40 years ago that all trade book publishing companies were started with an “editorial inspiration”: an idea of what they would publish. Sometimes that was a highly personal selection dictated by an individual’s taste, such as by so many of the great company and imprint names: Scribners, Knopf, Farrar and Straus and Giroux, for examples. Random House was begun on the idea of the Modern Library series; Simon & Schuster was started to do crossword puzzle books.

That is: people had the idea that they knew what books would sell and built a company around finding them, developing them, and bringing them to market.

And the development and delivery to the market required building up a repertoire of capabilities that comprised a full-service offering.

The publisher would find a manuscript or the idea for one and then provide everything that was necessary — albeit largely by engaging and coordinating the activities of other contractors or companies — to make the manuscript or idea commercially productive for the author and themselves.

The list of these services describes the publishing value chain. It includes:

select the project (and assume a financial risk, sometimes relieving the author of any);

guide its editorial development (although the work is mostly done by the contracted author or packager);

execute the delivery of the content into transactable and consumable forms (which used to mean “printed books” but now also means as ebooks, apps, or web-viewable content);

put it into the world in a way that it will be found and bought (which used to mean “put it in a catalog widely distributed to opinion-makers or buyers” but now largely means “manage metadata”);

publicize and market it;

build awareness and demand among the people at libraries and bookstores and other distribution channels who can buy it;

process the orders;

manufacture and warehouse the actual books or files or other packaged product;

deliver;

collect;

and, along the way, sell rights to exploit the intellectual property in other forms and markets, including other languages.

It has long been customary for publishers to unbundle the components of their service offering. The most common form of unbundling is through “distribution deals” by which one publisher takes on some of the most scaleable activities on behalf of other smaller ones. It has reached the point where almost every publisher is either a distributor or a distributee. Many are depending on a third party, quite often a competing publisher, for warehousing, shipping, and billing and perhaps sales or even manufacturing. All the big ones and many others, along with a few companies dedicated to distribution, are providing that batch of services. It is not unheard of for one publisher to do both: offering distribution services to a smaller competitor while they are in turn actually being distributed by somebody larger than they.

An assumption which influenced the way things developed was that the key to competitive advantage for a publisher was in the selection and editorial development of books and in their marketing and publicity, which emerged organically from their editorial efforts. All the other functions were necessary, but were not where many editorially-conceived businesses wanted to put their attention or monopolize their own capabilities.

About 15 years ago, working on VISTA’s “Publishing in the 21st Century” program, I learned the concept of “parity functions” in an enterprise. They were defined as things which can’t give you much competitive advantage by doing them well but which can destroy your business if you screw them up. This led to the conclusion that these things were often best laid off on somebody else who specialized in them, leaving the publisher greater ability to focus on the things which truly and meaningfully differentiated them from competitors.

Another driving force here was the way that bigger and smaller publishers look at costs and scale. If you’re very big, it is attractive to handle parity functions as fixed costs: to own your own warehouse, have a salaried sales force, and to invest in having state-of-the-art systems that do exactly what you want them to do. If you’re smaller, you often can’t afford to own these things anyhow and, on a smaller base, fluctuations in sales could suddenly render those fixed costs much too high for commercial success.

It is therefore more attractive to smaller entities to have these costs become variable costs, a percentage of sales or activity, that go up when sales go up but, most importantly, that also go down if sales go down. And the larger entity, by pumping more volume through their fixed-cost capabilities, subsidizes its own overheads and improves the profitability and stability of its business.

One of the things that is challenging the big publishers — the full-service publishers — today is that the unbundling of their, ahem, legacy full-service offering has accelerated. You need scale to cover the buyers and bill and ship to thousands of independent accounts. If you’re mainly focused on the top accounts — which today means Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor for most general trade publishers — you might feel you can do it as well or better yourself with one dedicated person of your own.

And if you’re willing to confine your selling universe to sales that can be made online — print or digital — you can eliminate the need for a huge swath of the full-service offering. Obviously, you give up a lot of potential sales with that strategy. But the percentage of the market that can be reached that way, combined with the redivision of revenue enabled by cutting the publisher out of the chain, has made this a commercially viable option for some authors and a path to discovery for others.

So the consolidation of business in a smaller number of critical accounts as well as the shifting of business increasingly to online sales channels has been a challenge for some time that larger publishers and distributors like Perseus and Ingram have been dealing with.

But now the need for services and the potential for unbundling is moving further up the value chain. The first instances of this have been seen through the stream of publishing efforts coming directly from authors and content-driven businesses like newspapers, magazines, and websites.

To the extent that the new service requirements are for editorial development help and marketing, it gets complicated for the full-service publishers to deal with. The objective of organization design for large publishers for years has been to consolidate the functions that were amenable to scale and to “keep small” the more creative functions. So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.

That means they are not designed to be scaleable and they’re not amenable to getting work from the outside. It’s much less of an imposition for somebody in a corporate business development role to ask a sales rep to pitch a book that had origins outside the house than it is to assign one to an editor in an imprint. The former is routine and the latter is extremely complicated.

But what does this mean? Should publishers have editorial services for rent? Should they try to scale and use technology to handle editiorial functions — certainly proofreading and copy-editing but ultimately, perhaps, developmental editing — as a commodity to assure themselves a competitive advantage on cost base the way they do now for distribution? Should publishers try to scale digital marketing? Should they have teams that can map out and execute publishing programs for major brands?

The way Murray sees it, a major publisher applies a synthesis of market intelligence and skills that can only be delivered by publishing at scale. He believes that monitoring across markets and marketing channels along with sophisticated and integrated analysis of how they interact provide an unmatchable set of services.

The scale challenge for trade publishers to collaborate with what I’m envisioning will be an exploding number of potential partners is to find ways to deliver the value of the synthesized pool of knowledge and experience efficiently to smaller units of creativity and marketing.

There is plenty of evidence that publishers are thinking along these lines. The most obvious recent event suggesting it is Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions. Penguin had shown prior interest in the author services market by creating Book Country, a community and commercial assistance site for genre fiction authors. Penguin suddenly has real scale in the self-publishing market. They have tools nobody else has now to explore where services for the masses provide efficiencies for the professional and how the expertise of the professionals can add value to the long tail.

There are initiatives that stretch the previous constraints of the publisher’s value chain that I know about in other big companies, and undoubtedly a good deal more that I don’t know about. Random House has a bookstore curation capability that they’ve coupled with editorial development in a deal with Politico that could be a prototype. Hachette has developed some software tools for sales and marketing that they’re making available as SaaS to the industry. Macmillan has a division that is developing educational platforms that might become global paths to locked-in student readers. Scholastic has a new platform for kids reading called Storia that involves teachers and parents that they’d hope to make an industry standard. Penguin has a full-time operative in Hollywood forging connections with projects that can spawn licensing deals. Random House has both film and television production initiatives.

These developments are very encouraging. One of the reasons that Amazon has been so successful in our business is that our business is not the only thing they do. One of the elements of genius they have applied ubiquitously is that every capability they build for themselves has additional value if it can be delivered unbundled as well. Publishers were comfortable with that idea for the relatively low-value things that they do long before they ever heard of Amazon. It is a good time to think along the same lines for functions which formerly seemed closer to the core.

Speaking of which, many of publishing’s most creative executives will be speaking as “Publishing Innovators” at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on Monday, October 8, 10:30-6:30, on the grounds of the Book Fair. 

We did a free webinar with a taste of the Frankfurt conference last week and it’s archived and available and worth a listen. Michael Cader and I were joined by Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Marcello Vena of RCS Libri.

Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, Helmut Pesch of Lubbe,  Rebecca Smart of Osprey, Anthony Forbes Watson of Pan Macmillan, Ken Michaels of Hachette, Stephen Page of Faber, and Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (as well as Joyce and Vena) will all be talking about initiatives in their shops that you won’t find (yet) going on much elsewhere. And that’s just part of the program. There is a ton of other useful information — about developments in the Spanish language, the BRIC countries, the strategies of tech giants and how they affect publishing, and much more — that will make this the most useful single jam-packed day of digital change information you’ll have ever experienced. We hope to see you there.

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