November, 2012

Peering into the future and seeing more value in the Random Penguin merger


So now in addition to the Random House and Penguin merger that is being reviewed by governments far and wide, we have the news that HarperCollins is exploring a tie-up with Simon & Schuster in a deal that hasn’t been made yet. That leaves Hachette and Macmillan, among the so-called Big Six, still on the outside as the general trade publishing behemoths rearrange themselves for whatever is the next stage of book publishing’s existence.

I am not sure we really need an “explanation” for what is the resumption of a perfectly natural phenomenon. Big publishers have been merging with each other for several decades in a process that suddenly stopped after Bertelsmann acquired Random House (to add to its holding of Bantam Doubleday Dell) in 1998. We didn’t know it at the time, but that concluded a long string of mergers that had recently included Penguin’s acquisition of Putnam-Berkley, but which stretched back to the 1970s when pursuit of the paperback-hardover synergy had driven Viking and Penguin; Doubleday and Dell; and Random House-Ballantine and Fawcett into each other’s arms.

(Perhaps HarperCollins should get credit for the resumption of the era of consolidation. Their acquisition of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, combined with their holding of Zondervan, created a powerful position in one of publishing’s biggest vertical markets shortly before Penguin and Random House announced their plans.)

But consequential events always get an explanation, whether they deserve one or not, and this merger appears to many to be driven by consolidation among the retail intermediaries and the rational concern — amply documented by recent experience — that the retailers would use their leverage to press for more and more margin. This is complicated by the fact that both of the dominant retailers — Amazon in the online world and Barnes & Noble in the brick-and-mortar space — have small publishing operations of their own that are always available to put additional pressure on publishers at the originating end of the value chain.

There is an important asymmetry to take note of here. The retailers publish and are always a threat to acquire manuscripts directly and cut the publishers out but the publishers, particularly the biggest ones, don’t do retail and there is no obvious path for them to enter retailing in any significant way. (That last sentence was written with full cognizance that we await the debut of Bookish, which is an attempt by three of the Big Six to enter retailing in a significant way. Maybe when concrete plans for it are announced there will be some reasons provided to amend that thought.)

In my opinion, the dominant position that Amazon holds in online retailing and that B&N owns in shops are impregnable on their own terms in ways that the positions of each of the big publishers are not.

The threat to Barnes & Noble is that bookstores will become unsustainable: that a retailer trying to exist at scale with books as its primary product offering will, because of ebooks and online purchasing of print, simply become unviable. The threat to Amazon is more nuanced and more distant. One can imagine a world developing where content retailing evolves into niches by subject or tastemaker. But that world is not around the corner (an environment toxic to bookstore chains appears to be much closer) and it would be far easier to imagine how Amazon could adapt to niche online retailing than to see B&N adapting to deliver retail book selections that are only viable at a fraction of their current size.

(I consulted to them a decade ago and suggested that to no interest. They were shutting down their mall stores at the time and the idea seemed totally counterintuitive.  I’ve also written about it.)

I saw recent data (sorry, can’t remember where…) suggesting that something like 38% of the book business is now done online, taking both ebooks and sales of print into account. This seems to be confirmed by a chart built on BookStats data by reporter Laura Owen of PaidContent, if you take “institutional sales” out of the equation and assume that wholesalers sold books to online and store retailers as well as libraries.

Whatever the percentage is, it is almost certainly higher for immersive reading than for illustrated or reference books because immersive works for ebooks and the others mostly don’t. So it would appear that something like 60% of the book business is still a bricks-and-mortar game, with the number being somewhat lower for straight text and higher for illustrated.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the big publishers are still extremely powerful. The 60% sold at retailers is what they’re uniquely skilled at getting and what Amazon is uniquely challenged to penetrate.

But the one thing we know for sure is that the shift to online purchasing — while it has slowed down — will continue to progress for a long time. The increased ubiquity of devices; the always-larger selection from an online merchant; the increase in availability of appealing and useful content that is either too short or too specialized for print; the steadily increasing cost and hassle of shopping by car rather than by computer; the natural results of birth, death, and demography; and the increase in online word-of-mouth and recommendation sources are among the many factors that assure that.

As the percentage of a publishers’ sales that are made through retail stores decreases, the cost of covering them increases. This has already become an issue as the big publishers view their overheads and come to the conclusion that they can’t afford to pay ebook royalties greater than 25% of receipts. Surely, some of the cost basis they see driving that necessity are really print-based (creation and distribution), which makes them calculate what’s affordable differently than a more new-fangled publisher that is planning primarily on digital and online distribution.

The publishers who are merging or thinking about merging are not doing so out of immediate desperation. The financial reports we see from trade publishers are not frightening. Top line sales are challenged — there is little or no growth — but margins have been maintained through the seismic marketplace shifts of the past few years and the pace of change is slowing. So it is probably preparing for a world a few years off that drives publishers to merge today. What will that world look like?

The world of publishing we’re going to see five or ten years from now will probably look quite different. Even if store sales only decline 10% a year against the industry total, what is a 60% share today will be about a third after five years have passed and below 20% in ten. Those are sales well worth having, of course, but they’ll be a lot more expensive to get. And if I were predicting rather than just speculating, I’d expect the erosion of retail sales to be a bit faster than that.

My expectation is that freestanding bookstores will be less and less common, and smaller book sections in other retailers (the way they’re in mass merchants today) will proliferate. We already see this in “specialty” retail: stores stock books that fit alongside their other product offerings. But as bookstores get scarcer, it will probably begin to make sense for general book selections — bestsellers, classics, and the cream of popular categories like cooking and current affairs — to be offered by other merchants. Part of the reason that doesn’t happen now is that it is too hard for the retailer not in the book business to do. A representative selection either requires dealing with many publishers or buying from a wholesaler. And the wholesalers are working on tight margins, not allowing them much room to offer expensive services (like inventory management) unless they really cut into the store’s margin.

But you don’t have to have every book — or even every bestseller — to deliver a compelling consumer offering. Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild proved that half a century ago when they competed for the general book club market. They demanded exclusives on the bestsellers, so they tended to split them. And they each had enough to pull a very large audience.

Well, the combination of Random House and Penguin has damn near half the bestsellers too. And Random House, at least, has already developed vendor-management capabilities that they can apply at the store level. So as the bookstores disappear from town after town, a Random Penguin combination (they really ought to call it that!) becomes able to offer any local retailer a selection of books that will look pretty good to the average consumer.

In addition, they’ll find that the combined lists give them a great head start on having enough titles to deliver retailers other vertical selections — cooking, crafts, home improvement — that their VMI skills will also help them serve.

Right now the challenge Amazon is having is that they’re trying to publish with a grip on no more than half the market. That’s great, as far as it goes, because that’s where they have a real margin advantage when they cut the publisher out of the chain. But because there is so much Amazon fear-and-loathing around the rest of the industry, they’re not able to build out beyond their proprietary position. (See the recent frustrations expressed by their author, Tim Ferriss, to appreciate how that’s working out in the market today.)

But if Amazon could reach 75% of the market — that is, if store purchasing declined below 25% of the total, which is in the cards for the next ten years — leverage would be reversed. (I’m eliding the format and proprietary reader device issues around ebooks here, but I’m guessing they’ll mostly go away in the next five or ten years.) Then Amazon wouldn’t want or need distribution to the stores or other online outlets. In fact, chances are they’d see it in their best interests to withhold those titles from other retailers and use them as tools to compel shopping with Amazon.

(This would not be a peculiar selfishness of Amazon if they did it. I remember well the battles my friends at Sterling had when they were first acquired by Barnes & Noble trying to convince their new owners that it was necessary to distribute the books as broadly as possible or they would start finding it impossible to sign new titles. B&N’s instinct was to want what they published available only from their stores, an instinct they acted on with SparkNotes.)

But if I’m right about where Random Penguin might go, they could play this same game. As the cost of running book departments increases as a percentage of sales, as they surely will as sales in stores decline, the mass merchants will diminish their presence. If Random Penguin has half the bestsellers, they will be able to use VMI to build secondary locations to keep their print books available. Those locations will be theirs and theirs alone. Maybe they’ll only be making 10% or 15% of the total sales this way, but those sales will be unavailable to other publishers (unless they go through RP at diminished margins.)

The proprietary distribution will give RP an advantaged position signing up the biggest books. In time, they might even have enough of the biggest books to pursue one of the current active fantasies of Amazon and a bunch of entrepreneurs: creating a value proposition for big authors that will enable a subscription library with headline titles. And that would be another proprietary distribution channel that this next generation of scale might make possible.

The resistance of the bookstores to doing anything that helps Amazon will make it difficult for Amazon the publisher to build a general trade list of bestsellers until a much bigger chunk of the market has moved online. Barnes & Noble, which had a chance to become the one dominant trade publisher if they’d played their Sterling card differently, seems not to be interested in that role. So it will be one or two of the incumbents that will be left standing ten years from now managing the most commercial titles in the marketplace. The odds are very good that one of them will be Random Penguin.

I (usually) resist the temptation to make political observations on the blog, because that’s not what people come here for. But I have to make an exception because I think one of the most important points to be made about the results of November 6 has not been made anywhere else. And it is, ultimately, a non-partisan point.

Among the many reasons that President Obama convincingly defeated Governor Romney was the superior execution of the Obama campaign around data and operations. They were simply better analysts and managers and they executed better than the Romney campaign.

So can we please put to rest the notion that “getting rich” or “running a business” is a proxy for “management skill”? The most frequently-offered argument from Romney was “I’m a successful businessman so therefore I can run things better than this guy who is community-organizer-turned-public-official.” Actually, Governor, you couldn’t. You didn’t.

The last presidents we had with business experience were (working backwards) George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren Harding. There is no historical evidence in there that shows that business success correlates with the ability to run the United States government. Or even, as we’ve just been shown, an effective national campaign.

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Much-trumpeted survey proves the opposite of what the surveyors seem to think it does


Do library eborrowers also buy ebooks?

Well, stop the presses. OverDrive, the leading aggregator providing libaries with ebooks, and Library Journal* have done research that proves that they do. (*My error hereby corrected: American Library Association, not Library Journal.)

The survey results are interpreted as evidence that the big publishers are making a terrible mistake being cautious about making ebooks available for library lending. And it is being reported that way. By one outlet after another, although one made the point that the publishers aren’t listening.

Perhaps the publishers aren’t changing their policies because they actually are listening. In fact, the survey proves that caution makes sense. Here are the followup questions.

“What makes you decide to buy an ebook rather than borrow one? Might it be that you’re buying the ebooks that are not available to you through the library?”

I’d offer two points to ponder.

One: what if the survey had said “we have found no overlap at all! The people who borrow ebooks from libraries never buy an ebook. They only borrow.”

If that were the case, would there be any reason at all not to sell ebooks to libraries? No! There would be no potential for sales cannibalization among that audience if borrowers and buyers did not overlap.

Two: I started reading ebooks on a Palm Pilot in 1999. Between 1999 and 2007, if you’d asked me, I would have had to say I still read print books as well as digital. Why? Because a lot of what I wanted to read wasn’t available in digital. So if I wanted to read it, I had to read the print.

Then in 2007, the Kindle came along and, with some helpful pressure from Amazon, publishers routinely made their most commercial titles available as ebooks. So I wasn’t compelled to read print anymore. And, in fact, I have read only one or two printed books since then. (I remember one clearly but I think there’s another one too.)

What if the book purchasers among the library ebook borrowers have precisely the same motivation? What if they’re buying some ebooks because those aren’t available in the library?

So I’d say “thanks for the information” and for evidence from an unbiased source that publishers are entirely correct to be wary and careful about making ebooks available for library lending.

The New York Times says this morning that Penguin has announced a second set of “experiments” with ebook lending policies. The first one was with distributor 3M; this one is with Baker & Taylor. They have chosen time-limited (1 year) licenses as their gambit. As I told the Charleston audience last week, our client Recorded Books is about to debut an ebooks-for-libraries program that will give publishers the flexibility to control four aspects of the license: in or out of catalog; price; number of loans limit (if any); length of license (if limited). Obviously, the Penguin experiment could be conducted with the RB capability, with the advantage to them that they could vary the terms by title and change them over time (always honoring deals already made, of course.) 

Doing this requires a tool set for libraries to manage their ebook collections, which Recorded Books will provide. Over time, the RB capability should enable enough experimentation to bring far more titles into the library marketplace while allowing publishers to learn what works and adjust to what almost certainly will be a changing environment.

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I came home from the Charleston Conference with a couple of new thoughts


One great benefit of stepping outside your own world — which for me is the world of general trade publishing — is that you can get a jolt of perspective when you do. It really took only a few minutes of listening to Annette Thomas, the global head of professional and college publishing for Macmillan, at the Charleston Conference to underscore an important point. Thomas was talking about how Macmillan had to solve the problem of linking together content that was delivered in journal articles with that delivered in books, a format distinction she correctly saw made no sense to somebody who just wanted the information regardless of the form in which it was initially delivered.

In professional and academic publishing, it is pretty much a requirement to understand the context of all content. Any observation, discovery, or opinion needs to be connected to the other knowledge and information that relates to it to have validity. Scholarship and professional knowledge all live in a world where the total body of relevant information is the key to understanding the value of any new contribution. (And, indeed, the creators of any new contribution are carefully placing their work in the context of all that came before it.)

This is not true for trade publishing, where — more often than not — each book being read is judged and appreciated for what exists between its own covers.

This brings me to two observations about how publishing is changing and how trade publishers need to think differently that are relevant and have not been said to death (if, in fact, they’ve been said by anybody else at all.)

We often observe that book publishing is many businesses, by which we usually mean that academic or professional or college textbook publishing has little to do with “trade”. But it is also true that trade publishing is many businesses. Even within fiction, the publishing skills and markets for genres like romance and science fiction are quite different than for literary fiction.

But non-fiction is even more diverse. And some of it has a lot to learn from professional publishing.

What the top professional publishers will tell you is that the challenge for them is to deliver content within the workflow. That means that accountants or construction engineers are trying to get particular things done and what they look to publishers to do is to help them accomplish their tasks. That means software. And the content they need should be provided within that workflow so they have the knowledge they’re looking for when they want to apply it.

Well, some consumer publishing also addresses content needs that arise in a workflow. Consumers of gardening books, knitting books, and cookbooks are all using the knowledge they present within a workflow context.

What that means to me is that we’re not far away from these tasks being addressed by workflow tools: apps. Your gardening app, for example, will help define your challenge. It will ask you questions. How big is your front yard? How big is your back yard? How much sun do they get? How much time do you have to spend with this? Do you want flowers, shrubs, or vegetables?

Then the app will tell you, “Mike, it’s March 15, dig a hole.” “Mike it’s April 10, drop a seed in the hole.” “Mike it’s April 28 and we see it hasn’t rained in your neighborhood for a week. Water your garden.” Etcetera.

When that day comes, the publisher with the really terrific gardening book better hope they’ve made a good licensing deal with the owner of the app. Power will have shifted.

(One example of what the future may bring a lot more of are the Audubon Mobile Field Guides, which were done by Green Mountain Digital. These are region-specific species guides that contain reference content, maps, bird calls, etc. and provide real time access to bird sightings. Brendan Cahill of Green Mountain will speak on a “new business models” panel at Digital Book World.)

If I were a publisher of books that address a challenge that is actually handled through a workflow, I’d start now trying to be the licensor, not the licensee.

And that brings me to the second observation.

When you read self-published books (and I do: some of the big bestsellers anyway), you become aware by omission of what a publishers would do to improve them. The lack of copy-editing and proofreading is often what is most apparent, but more acute readers also see the deficiencies in development that good editors correct before a book goes to press.

Because major publishers tend to spend a fair amount of money acquiring most of the titles they do and — correctly or not — see it is a major expense (drain on overheads) to publish each and every title, they tend to be careful about making sure each book is really ready for prime time before they print it. That means there is almost always some editorial input from somebody with commercial responsibility (the acquiring editor or somebody who works for the AE) but there is also certainly professional copy-editing and proofreading of every single book. My highly anecdotal view of self-published books is that for them there is no such guarantee.

I have advocated previously that big publishers should see the value of branding their work as “professional”, which I believe argues for minimizing the number of brands they ask consumers to remember. Nuanced brands make sense in a B2B world (for buyers and reviewers) but are likely to just confuse or be ignored by consumers. But as more and more self-published material makes its way to the public and even onto bestseller lists, the reading public (at least those of us who care about grammar, syntax, and punctuation) might be well served by branding that says, in effect, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread by professionals”.

But now I’m seeing that thinking isn’t granular enough. If a publisher adopted that suggestion, they’d be locking themselves into maintaining those high quality standards across everything they do. In the long run, is that the right idea?

I’m beginning to think it isn’t. As we see increasingly that self-published material can reach extremely large audiences, it will probably become important before long for the established publishers to be able to test titles in the marketplace without doing the full editorial job on them. In fact, if Sourcebook’s “agile publishing model” (by which a non-fiction book by my friend and client, futurist David Houle, is being released in ebook chunks for audience feedback before being assembled into a “final” published version that will also be printed) were to gain traction and be used more broadly, it would almost certainly mean that parts of the editing job should be bumped back to the end (or else would have to be done twice).

When the big publishers float through the looking glass and realize that they are really wasting their clout and resources if they don’t crank up to do many more titles than they do now (which they haven’t yet, but I believe they will; and I think Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions is the first sign of recognition of that reality by a major house), they’ll see that not all the books they’ll want to publish in the future can get the same full-on treatment that they give to all the books they publish now. They’ll want to be able to publish an author’s short non-fiction ebook about the topic of their novel — because the author wants them to — without giving it thousands of dollars worth of editorial development its revenue forecasts wouldn’t justify. The solution might be to create secondary brands, or it might be about “badging” each book with the amount of editorial attention it actually got. But one signal of quality might not fit all books.

One remarkable facet of my Charleston trip was something I’m quite sure would never happen to me in New York. I had the same cab driver coming in from the airport on Wednesday and then going back out again on Thursday! I also managed to take off from LaGuardia before the nor’easter hit and come back the following evening after it had come through. I saw a little evidence of what was reported to me was “a blizzard” that I’m not sorry I missed.

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More thoughts on libraries and ebook lending


On Thursday of this week, I’ll be at the Charleston Conference appearing in a conversation organized by Anthony Watkinson that includes me and Peter Brantley. Brantley and Watkinson both have extensive backgrounds in the library and academic worlds, which are the milieux of most attendees at this conference. I don’t. I am being brought in as a representative of the trade publishing community. Watkinson believes that “the changes in the consumer area will break through into academic publishing and librarianship.” I am not so sure of that.

I am imagining that what creates interest, and concern, among all librarians about trade publishing has been the well-publicized tentativeness of trade publishers to serve the public libraries with ebooks in the relaxed and unconcerned manner with which they have historically been happy to sell them printed books. Big publishers have expressed their discomfort with ebook library lending in a variety of ways. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, up to this writing, have declined to make ebooks available to libraries at all. HarperCollins instituted a 26-loan limit for ebooks with libraries a little over a year ago. They received apparently widespread — certainly loud — criticism when they announced the policy, but it seems now to have been accepted. Penguin and Hachette delivered ebooks for lending and then stopped. Now both are putting toes back in the water with experiments. And Random House raised their prices substantially for ebooks delivered to libraries for lending.

So, six for six, the major publishers have struggled publicly to establish a policy for ebook availability in libraries.

The concern, as I’m sure my conversation-mate Peter Brantley will point out, extends to what rights libraries have when they obtain ebooks. I’ve expressed my belief before that all ebook transactions are actually use-licenses for a transfer of computer code, not “sales” in the sense that we buy physical books. When Random House declared the opposite in the last fortnight — that they believed they sold their ebooks to libraries — it only took Brantley a wee bit of investigation to find that Random House’s definition of “sale” didn’t line up with his.

Of course, his doesn’t line up with mine. I believe (he’ll correct me on stage in Charleston, if not in the comments section here, if I’m wrong) Brantley accepts the one-file-transferred, one-loan-at-a-time limitation that has been part of the standard terms for libraries since OverDrive pioneered this distribution over a decade ago. That control enabled ebook practices to imitate print practices (except for the “books wear out” part, which Harper was addressing with its cap on loans). Without it, one ebook file transfer would be all that a library — or worse, a library system — would need of any ebook to satisfy any level of demand. The acceptance on all sides of that limitation says clearly to me, without resort to any other information or logic, that there is an agreement — a license — that the library recipient of an ebook file accepts in order to obtain it.

People who spend a lot of time with libraries and library patrons are quite certain that the patrons who borrow books and ebooks often also buy books and ebooks. (Library Journal offers patron data that supports that idea.) Although library services are many-faceted and not primarily designed to serve as marketing arms for publishers, the libraries themselves see the ways in which they aid discovery by their patrons.

And they also see the patrons that couldn’t afford to buy the books or ebooks they borrow and therefore wouldn’t and couldn’t read them if they weren’t available in the library. Since these patrons become part of a book’s word-of-mouth network by virtue of being able to read it, it looks like this behavior by publishers is not only anti-poor and anti-public, but also counter to the interests of the author and the publisher itself. (In fact, most publishers acknowledge the importance of libraries to the viability and marketing of the midlist although that, until very recently, was adequately addressed with print alone.)

And, the libraries point out, the one-book, one-loan limitation means that all the hot books have long waiting lists anyway, so many patrons just cut to the chase and buy the ebook rather than wait. (In fact, schemes by which the libraries themselves can sell the ebook are beginning to develop as well.)

The view from the publishers’ perspective (and, it is important to add, from the perspective of the agents of many highly-compensated authors, who have enormous influence over publishers’ thinking) is quite different. Libraries, which can be the core market for many books published by academic and professional publishers, are more likely to be around 10 percent or less of an adult trade book’s sale. So the risk-reward calculation starts with a sharp limitation on what is the expected “reward”.

The risks are harder to quantify because they are much more complicated than just trying to figure out how many of the loans of an ebook licensed to a library cost the publisher a sale of that ebook through retail channels.

The big publishers are acutely aware that the ecosystem of bookstores they’ve depended on for a century is giving way to something new, which appears to be a mix of retail ebook platforms, community book information sites like GoodReads, author-based marketing, and, of course, publisher efforts to reach potential book buyers through community- and list-building, SEO, and collaboration with other websites.

Consumers will, of necessity, be changing their shopping habits as they migrate from reading print books to reading ebooks. Right now, as ex-Random House marketer Peter McCarthy points out, the key decision is which retailing platform they use. If you buy a Kindle, NOOK, Apple, or Kobo device, you’d be inclined to buy from their platform. It would definitely be easiest and on a Kindle, Nook, or Kobo device, it is really the only practical choice.

But on an Apple device or a tablet computer (or a laptop or desktop, for that matter, although fewer and fewer people will read ebooks on them), the consumer is actually free to use any of the ecosytem apps and, if they want to, choose by price. McCarthy makes the case that doing that on a title-by-title basis will become increasingly unusual. He’s probably right.

But we’re nowhere near the final stage of ebook development. It is going to get easier and it is going to become more widespread. Ultimately what concerns publishers is a vast reservoir of ebook content available on one website (your local library’s, or even a not-so-local library’s) for free while the merchants are trying to make you pay. That’s why such programs as KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) have not gained favor with big publishers.

It really isn’t hard to imagine that in a pretty short time, libraries and KOLL (and some fledglings like the recently-announced “maybe we’re the Spotify of ebooks, or maybe we’re not” Oyster subscription service or Spain-based 24 Symbols) have robust selections available for free (libraries), as part of a broader offering (KOLL), or for very cheap (Oyster’s and 24 Symbols’ aspiration). If that happened, how many customers could be drawn away from the ebook retailer sites and effectively removed from the market for title-by-title purchasing of new books?

How many? Well, we don’t know how many. That’s precisely the concern.

Another thing we really don’t know is what is the future of public libraries. As the relative utility of a building full of printed books declines, libraries correctly point out that they serve many other functions. One that is often cited today, but which I think will be more dated than the printed books aggregation ten years from now, is that libraries provide hardware and Internet access for people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. As devices and bandwidth get cheaper, and the social and commercial benefit of having everybody connected grow and become universally acknowledged and appreciated, that deficiency is likely to be cured by other means.

What is an ongoing need that is not likely to go away is the need for librarianship. The more sources of information there are and the more sophisticated people become about demanding the right information for any task or need, the more that professional help navigating the choices has value. But how will that help be delivered? Online, I reckon, not in a building that you go to and seek out the help. I don’t know the business model yet, but I do know that communities are going to be sorely tempted in the years to come to devote the cash they now spend on public libraries with books and computers in them to providing wider access to more materials through the Internet and providing the information experts, the librarians, outside the confines of a building full of the materials. The materials — with a variety of access and payment models — will be virtual and the librarian will help you get what you need at the price you want to pay for access.

And all of that sounds, and seems, a lot like what booksellers do today (except a lot more complicated).

Which brings us back to publishers and their concerns. Right now, the biggest publishers’ biggest worry is that they will end up in a world where Amazon is the only path to a majority of their potential customers. (Right now, for trade publishers, that number is probably more like 20-30 percent.) That’s why three of the biggest publishers (one being Penguin, so ultimately, this could involve Random House as well) are continuing to struggle to launch Bookish, a strategy that looks increasingly dubious to me. It is why they were so eager to help Apple launch the iBookstore and why they root from the sidelines for NOOK and Kobo and Google to be successful competitors.

Anything that takes business away from the ebook retailing network might be depriving one of Amazon’s competitors of the oxygen they need to compete. (That’s one of the reasons Bookish is looking like a bad idea.) But, more important, with the Internet now making it pretty easy to deliver a selection of reading material larger than anybody will ever plow through at rock-bottom prices, having libraries offer and promote free ebook availability could foster habits that will cost authors and publishers customers in the future.

Of course, all of this is speculative. The library community’s belief that making ebooks available through them will stimulate sales of those books is speculative. But so is the fear of the commercial authors and publishers that libraries in the digital age will have a significantly different impact on reading and purchasing habits than they did for print.

When the problem is lack of information, one of the best antidotes is to enable flexibility and experimentation. That’s why I’m very pleased to be working with Recorded Books on a new ebooks-for-libraries program that will give publishers enormous flexibility in how they structure the license for each book: with granular, title-by-title control of availability, price, a number of loan limit, or a time limit. This requires RB to also give libraries the information and dashboards necessary to manage their ebook collections in ways their print book collections never required. The flexibility will mean that publishers can experiment with a variety of models. The multiplicity of models will be a nuisance for libraries — although RB can do a lot to mitigate it — but it will make a lot more ebook titles available by giving each publisher the ability to control the risks as they see fit. Recorded Books expects to put the program in beta early in 2013 and roll it out by Q3.

It is my hope and belief that the various models offered and the libraries’ reaction to them (agreeing to the licenses or not) will lead to some consensus-forming around particular formulas for these deals. Of course, everything is temporary because everything is changing. And that will continue to be true for quite some time.

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