January, 2013

More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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Buying is a hard thing for bookstores to do effectively, and that becomes an increasingly important reality for publishers


One of the most underappreciated realities of the book business is how hard it is for a retailer to manage an inventory of trade books.

This is an existential problem for a bookstore. A bookstore’s inventory is its biggest investment. The performance of inventory — how many times it “turns” in a year and how successfully the store manages to buy what it needs without wasting investment (tying up cash) and incurring margin-destroying revenueless-costs (return freight, probably added to inbound freight, plus wasted labor shelving, removing, packing, and shipping) — is, by far, the single biggest determinant of whether a store succeeds commercially or fails.

The fact is that a single store, almost regardless of the quality of its systems and its management, has to guess at what will be the right books to order most of the time. All advance order purchases (placed by a store long before the book is published) are based on speculation and guesswork. The publisher through a rep or a catalog states expectations, sometimes based on “comparable” titles (which were, of course, published previously at what might not have been a comparable time!) and sometimes based on the publisher’s hopes, all of which are connected to the publisher’s promotional promises. Usually stores — independents and chains — will be guided by those expectations because any other evidence is non-existent.

After a book is published, of course, there is real sales data to guide stocking decisions. But except for the small percentage of the published books that are widespread bestsellers, stores depend primarily on their own sales data to decide what to reorder or keep as backlist. And the cold hard fact is that, for most stores, for most books, there is not sufficient data to tell anybody anything. A single store will have sales for a week or a month across its titles that show multiple copy sales for a small percentage of the titles they have in stock. The majority of the books they carry will sell zero in a week or a month. And, of those that do sell, the vast majority of those will sell one copy.

What’s a store trying to determine what to order next to make of that?

In the past decade or two, there have been a few tools developed to help the independent. The inventory management system Above the Treeline shares information among its stores so each one can get a picture of what is doing well in the aggregate. Stores can see what Ingram, in many cases the supplier from which they buy more than from any single publisher, is stocking and selling, which also provides clues for them.

But the best tool for more nuanced inventory management, for a long time, has been to have a bookstore chain. If you use it right.

This first became evident when the B. Dalton chain of mall stores hooked up computers to their cash registers in the 1970s. Although there were holes in the system, Dalton was then able — for the most part — to tally what they were selling across what was then about 300 stores (a number plucked from memory here, and this is in the neighborhood of 40 years ago, but I think this is right…) When I first started selling to Dalton in 1974, they had two lists of titles they considered worth tracking: a “hot” list and a “warm” list. On the “hot” list was every title that sold more than six copies in the chain in a week. The “warm” list was every title that sold more than six copies in the chain in a month. That’s one copy for every 50 stores to make these lists. And, of course, most titles didn’t make them. Learning those numbers did more to help me visualize how slowly books move than any other single piece of my education to that point.

In addition to those lists, Dalton introduced an automated backlist replenishment system based on “models”, or an ideal maximum inventory level and a reorder point. So the model for a title might be one copy in some stores, with a reorder when it sold, or it might be three copies with a reorder when sales took it down to one. Automating the reordering of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Grapes of Wrath” enabled valuable buyer time to be freed to figure out what to reorder (or model) from the hot or warm list.

We had a very useful controlled experiment taking place in the 1970s because Dalton had a competitor chain called Waldenbooks, which had more stores and had been around longer but which, for several years, had no comparable computer-assistance for their inventory management. Reordering at Walden was primarily the responsibility of the store managers, and it will be no surprise to learn that some were a lot better at it than others. In the 1970s, it was clear to all publishers that Dalton bought more efficiently (fewer returns) and sold more books, particularly of the backlist.

In the 1990s, Dalton was absorbed by Barnes & Noble and Walden by Borders, the two superstore chains that effectively replaced the mall store presence of the previous decades. And, once again, the chains diverged in their inventory management capabilities. B&N invested heavily in what we were, by then, calling their “supply chain”. They built warehouses to serve as the resupply hubs for their stores and instituted systems by which stores got resupply from the distribution center(s) on a daily basis. They set up rigorous systems to manage models and to review each store’s performance annually. Whereas Borders had A, B, C, and D stores to denote a range of sizes and title counts, B&N had those gradings by store sections, enabling them to configure the stores much more granularly to their local demand pattern.

By the time the 21st century arrived, B&N had built a substantial advantage over Borders in its inventory management practices. Close observers of B&N’s financial reports would have seen that inventory efficiency — how much they could get in sales from their inventory investment — improved every year as they added more stores able to feed off the same central supply capability. Their inventory management cost — buyers to talk to all the publishers and the systems and physcial plant to administer all the stocking decisions and, if one were fair, the cost of returns — was consistently declining as a percentage of sales while Borders’s was not. Borders didn’t make comparable investments in plant and systems and their stores became less and less competitive.

This, even more than any failures in digital, is why Barnes & Noble thrived while Borders collapsed in the latter part of the last decade as sales shifted from stores to online.

The inventory management challenge is one that some publishers have tried to help bookstores with for years. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, instituted the Doubleday Merchandising Plan in 1957, by which the reps walked out of stores with physical inventory counts (there were no computerized inventory tracking systems back then) instead of purchase orders. Those were converted at headquarters into orders which the participating stores had agreed to accept. In the past decade, Random House has developed their own VMI (vendor-managed inventory) system (though my knowledge of details is sparse; this is proprietary information which has never been shared in any detail with me) which it has employed to help manage its books at B&N and is now, apparently, also using at Books-A-Million.

Even if a store knew, title by title, exactly what the right inventory level is (and they don’t, and it changes day to day, anyway), keeping the right books in stock is a challenge. The most sensible way for most stores is probably to order from Ingram (and/or other wholesalers) on a daily basis. Buying from publishers not only requires splitting up orders that will then arrive at different times in different packages, it also requires following ordering rules that are different for every supplier. A wholesaler can’t offer as much margin as a publisher, but the consolidation of the business both makes management cheaper and promotes faster stock turn, which almost always will more than compensate for slightly higher purchase prices.

(I have just made two books by my father available as ebooks. Both In Cold Type, his overall examination of the trade book business originally published in 1982, and The Mathematics of Bookselling, originally issued in the 1990s, contain extensive explanations of this fact with all the accompanying algebra.)

Independent bookstores generically resist vendor-managed inventory. Indeed, picking the books (also called curation) is both one of the great pleasures and great services that a bookstore offers its customers. It is understandably loath to delegate any aspect of that very important work to anybody else.

But the cost of buying is a real hurdle to running a successful bookstore or book department. Buying through what my father called “distribution by negotiation” is expensive for the store, expensive for the publisher, and, unfortunately, doesn’t result in the most productive possible decisions. Things can work much better if it is eliminated.

One example of this that I’ve been involved with is West Broadway Book Distribution. WBBD puts books into national chains that aren’t bookstores (JoAnn Stores and Hancock Fabrics have been their customers for years). WBBD makes all the stocking decisions, based on daily sales reporting it gets from the stores. The stocking decisions are highly automation-assisted, so that a couple thousand titles from over 100 publishers are managed in over 1000 stores with an extremely small staff at WBBD and virtually no buyer time required from the stores. And using a systematic approach means rules can be constantly improved. In fact, WBBD has improved the stock turn on the inventory it places virtually every year.

The cost of buying and maintaining the supply chain is going up steadily (as a percentage of sales) at B&N because they’re reducing their book inventory and closing stores. Soon what has been their competitive edge will turn into a competitive drain. Different supply strategies, such as having publishers ship more books directly to the stores, are already being employed and that will continue. But this a de-leveraging of the B&N core advantage. That’s one reason 2013 could be a difficult year for our last remaining truly national bookstore chain even if the sales of books in stores erodes more slowly than it has recently. A sales decline is very painful to an entity with high fixed costs and B&N’s supply chain is a big part of theirs. And if they were to suddenly close a substantial number of stores, climbing down from that infrastructure cost base might suddenly become much more urgent and very difficult.

As the shelf space for books being managed by retailers that accept the high cost of managing book inventory and commit to doing it effectively continues to decline, publishers need to understand that it will be really hard for non-book retailers to replace them.

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Stats are often hard to interpret in our business


Stats are often hard to interpret in our business. The reported data comes, of course, after the fact (you can’t report things before they happen) and is often aggregated in ways that don’t tell us what we really need to know. So I tried an exercise last week of asking a few agents for their impressions of the evolving ebook marketplace. I wanted to get a handle on two things: where we are now in terms of books sold in stores versus books sold other ways and whether the transition from print to digital consumption is slowing down.

The picture I got from nine smart and well-informed agents seems to confirm that:

* sales of ebooks for fiction more often than not top 50% of the total sales, in both the hardcover life and the paperback;

* sales of ebooks for immersive non-fiction are at something like half the percentage of fiction;

* illustrated books do a lot less in their digital editions, which usually struggle to reach 10% of the sale;

* while the marketplace data seems unambiguous, the agents have not formed a consensus that the print-to-ebook switchover is slowing down.

Perhaps we can attribute that to the fact that the data presentation which most shapes the agents’ impressions is provided in royalty reports. This past year, and especially this past season, have not yet been delivered in the data they study most intensively. But it was still useful to check with them, if only to confirm that fiction ebook penetration is double non-fiction and that illustrated books lag far behind.

If 50% of fiction is selling now as ebooks, it is likely that only about 35% of it is selling as print in stores (because 25-30 percent of the print sale is online). Considering that number was more like 90% ten years ago and 80% five years ago, that’s all the explanation anybody needs to understand the reduction of shelf space we’ve seen. Every year when stores are interviewed about traffic and sales, they cite the presence (or absence) of “big books” as a key driver. The “big books” are most often big fiction. This year, the Fifty Shades family of titles may have provided that lift, which may be why stores (other than B&N) are anecdotally reporting a strong Christmas.

But what the industry should be most interested in, which will be reflected in the next round of royalty statements agents see, is that ebook sales growth appears to have damn near stopped. As Michael Cader pointed out on Lunch, Random House UK indicated a 13% increase this year over last, which mirrors Barnes & Noble’s reported rise of 13% in ebook sales in December.

Thirteen percent is a big increase in a stable marketplace.

But if you consider the heavy activity in the device field — the new iPad mini, Kobo devices being sold by independent stores, and B&N turning progressively their stores into NOOK showrooms (and not to mention the always-growing ebook title base, still adding backlist and formerly out-of-print books and small press and self-published books) — the rise in ebook sales seems like no rise at all. So perhaps we really have hit the point of resistance from print readers and a new stability in division of sales across channels.

The consequences of only about a third of fiction being bought in stores — and not all in bookstores — are still to play out. If it is true that independents did better than B&N this past Christmas, could part of the reason (as I speculated in a prior piece) be B&N’s prior success selling their customers NOOKs? Is the indie store customer somewhat less likely to have bought a Kindle or NOOK previously and therefore disproportionately in the marketplace for printed books?

It is quite possible that the disappointing B&N results could be a more accurate indication of the world we’re now living in than the reported success of the indies.

Under the heading of data being ambiguous, note that the reported big rise in sales by independents in 2012 appears to have taken place in the first part of the year so that sales at Christmastime might not have been as much better than B&N’s as first impressions on the data could lead us to believe. (Once again, thanks to Cader for doing some in-depth analysis of the raw data to lead us to see that possibility.)

And at the same time that we’re seeing an increase in ebook sales of about 13%, PW reports that BookScan US numbers show print unit sales having declined by 9%. What is interesting there, though, is that deeper PW reporting about BookScan says that non-fiction declined by 13% while fiction fell only by 11% in unit sales. Since we think we know that ebook penetration for fiction is much greater than for non-fiction, perhaps the reported decline in non-fiction units reflects lower sales of illustrated books, not because they’re being cannibalized by ebooks, but because of the store traffic decline B&N reported.And that’s exactly what I’d be worrying about if I were an illustrated book publisher. Their business isn’t transitioning to digital as fast as novels, but it is possible their sales were more interdependent on novels and their power to bring traffic into the bookstores that sell the illustrated books than they might ever have thought.

The data reported by PW also says that mass-market paperbacks have suffered by far the biggest decline among the book formats. The ebook sales by independents (self-published) are apparently underreported. Could the very cheapest ebooks, which are largely the indies, be cutting into the sales of the cheapest print books. It would stand to reason, wouldn’t it?

Both our sold-out (really and truly, we will have to turn people away if they show up trying to buy a ticket at the door) Children’s Books Go Digital conference on this Tuesday (Jan 15) and Digital Book World on Wednesday and Thursday (Jan 16 and 17) feature as much worthy original data presentation and analysis as we could find.

On Tuesday, we have Carl Kulo and Kristin McLean presenting data from Bowker’s survey of the kids book market, Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex with fresh information about children’s book discovery, and both our case study of middle-grade marketing from Simon & Schuster and a presentation from Random House about driving word of mouth with a YA audience will undoubtedly deliver some objective information that will help other publishers make sound marketing decisions.

We have always featured original data presentations at Digital Book World. This year is no exception. We will kick off the event with Forrester’s snapshot based on interviewing executives; we’ll feature academic research from Carnegie-Mellon on the true impact of piracy; and Dan Lubart and Jeremy Greenfield will deliver a report based on close study of ebook bestseller data. That’s just on the first morning. We also will have insights from a survey F+W Media did to which more than¬†five thousand authors responded; data about discovery in the general trade marketplace from Hildick-Smith; and a report from Bowker about book buyers and BISG about ebook buyers, based on regular surveying that has taken place over the past couple of years. Children’s Books Go Digital is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Digital Book World.¬†

I’m really proud of what we’ve put together for both events and I hope to see you there. If you can’t make it because of geographical separation, though, DBW is making live streaming available this year for the plenary sessions and some of the breakouts. If the plane won’t get you to New York on time, you should check that out.

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B&N results are disappointing, and one wonders if prior success with NOOK might deserve part of the blame


Barnes & Noble announced some holiday sales results this morning and they were universally disappointing.

Overall sales are down. Same-store and online sales (the year-to-year comparables) are down 8.2%, while total sales are down 10.9% (because they have closed more stores than they’ve opened.)

NOOK sales were down 12.6% for the holiday period. Digital content sales were up 13.1%, but that’s alarming too. The company has sold a lot of devices since last Christmas (I don’t know, but one would expect the number of NOOK devices in the market has gone up by more than 13.1% in the past year) and last year they reported (according to Publishers Lunch) that NOOK business rose 43% during the holidays.

But what was most attention-grabbing (to me) was that the core sales decline was attributed to “lower bookstore traffic”.

Since the results were announced this morning, I had a conversation with a journalist who pointed out that the indies (anecdotally) seem to be reporting a very good Christmas. Why would the indies be up and B&N be down, this person wondered?

Thinking about that yields one piece of anecdata, one bit of conjecture (offered in yesterday’s forecast post), and one newly recalled (and somewhat frightening) insight.

The anecdata is that a Big Six CEO told me a couple of months ago that a very major book being published by that house (certainly one of the ten most anticipated releases of 2012) was not primarily promoted at B&N because they couldn’t get the bandwidth and cooperation on the B&N side to put something together. So the book was instead primarily launched through Walmart.

The conjecture in the last post was that the independents were more focused on selling printed books than B&N was. Indies are selling Kobo readers, but I’ll bet not one of them is devoting the prime sales space and portion of the paid staff to them that B&N does to the NOOKs. They’re focused on selling books, not devices, so they’re merchandising them better.

And the insight is that B&N has converted much of its store traffic to an online customer base because of their success at selling NOOKs. Those people may not be coming back, except virtually. These results may be the evidence of that.

B&N demonstrated with last week’s sale of NOOK equity to Pearson that what they have is of value to other companies. But that’s not particularly encouraging to the publishers and authors who are counting on them to sustain a bookselling presence.

B&N has a tough row to hoe building an international NOOK business without the store base they used to do it here. If the core US business declines faster than expected, that’s no help.

We always knew that the “old” Barnes & Noble was a fantastic US-based brick-and-mortar bookseller and that the “new” Barnes & Noble would be a global company based on devices and content. It always seemed tricky to get from one to the other and the challenge doesn’t appear to be getting any easier.

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What to watch for in 2013


Although “digital change in publishing” has a year that lags the calendar year and this year won’t “end” until we have a read on how post-Christmas ebook sales were affected by the new devices consumers got for Christmas, the dropping of the ball in Times Square is the signal most of us respond to when timing our look ahead.

The signals about what to expect when the “digital year” ends are mixed, but not wildly encouraging. There are anecdotal reports of strong sales by US indies selling Kobo devices and Amazon has bragged about their Kindle Fire sales. On the other hand, B&N does not seem to be meeting its targets on the digital side and we’re learning that we don’t get the ebook sales surge from replacement devices that we get when a consumer first switches over from print. Most of the devices being sold now are replacements. And we’re also seeing tablet sales surging past ereaders. Prior analysis has told us that people spend more time reading books on ereaders than they do on tablets.

But quite aside from precisely where Digital Year 2012 ended up, there are five trends I think will be increasingly noticeable and important in trade publishing that are worth keeping an eye on in 2013.

1. Overall migration of sales from print to digital will continue to slow down.

We have already seen this clearly in data that has been reported throughout 2012. After ebook share growth that was in triple digit percentages for four years (2008-2011), this year we saw that switchover slow down considerably to substantially less than a 50% increase over last year.

Although the slowdown was pretty sudden, it shouldn’t really have been that surprising. Since the ebook era began in earnest with the arrival of Kindle in November, 2007 (5 years and a few weeks ago), it has been clear that heavy readers were early adopters. Both price and convenience were drivers that made the reader of a book a week much more interested in the new way of purchasing and consuming than the reader of a few books a year.

There appear to be those out there who believe this is a temporary lull and that the ebook switchover will shortly accelerate again. I really don’t think so. Although I don’t think the various surveys of reading habits have captured this, my hunch is that there are relatively few heavy readers left to make the change and those are, demonstrably, extremely resistant.

It is entirely possible that the death of Borders and changes at B&N reduced the amount of shelf space for books by as much as 50% in the two years that ended with 2011, a year ago. (That emphatically does not mean that print sales declined by that amount, or even that print sold in stores did.) That adjustment of shelf space to the reality of the purchasing shift consumers had made was a sudden over-correction, with the result that the remaining booksellers got a bit of wind at their backs. The data is hard to interpret, but it is possible that the indies benefited from that more than B&N did, perhaps as a result of B&N’s more intense focus on its NOOK business compared to the indies, who (despite the lift they got from selling Kobo devices this past Fall) are more focused on print.

This does not mean the digital switchover has ended. My gut (I don’t think there’s a great empirical substitute available here) tells me that store sales for books will continue to lose ground to online (print and digital) at a rate of 5-to-10 percent a year for some years to come. But that’s a much more manageable situation than the one bookstore owners had been dealing with for the several years leading up to 2012.

This is good news for big publishers. Their model is still built around putting print on shelves and managing a marketplace that works around a publication date focus and the synchronized consumer behavior that store merchandising really stimulates. It is good news for B&N too, if they can take advantage of it.

2. “Other-than-immersive” books will continue to lag in digital transition.

The commercial realities of ebooks and print are very different for immersive reading than they are for reference books, illustrated books, and picture books for kids. This difference is unfavorable for other-than-immersive books both in their creation and their sales appeal.

For immersive reading — books that are all text where you basically start on the first page and read through to the last — the “adjustment” to ebooks is both technically simple and uncomplicated for the consumer. Make it “reflowable” and it works. And the additional “labor” to make the two different versions (print and digital) is minimal.

But for books that aren’t consumed that way (reference) or which have important content that isn’t mere words, a single digital version might not work effectively (think of the difference in screen sizes and what that could do to a picture and caption or a chart). And compromises we make for a printed book — using six still pictures instead of a video or a flat chart instead of an animated one — can be downright disappointing in a digital context.

There are ongoing efforts to make creating good complex ebooks cheaper and easier, the most recent one coming from Inkling. Apple offers tools to do this, but then you can only sell the output through Apple. Vook was on this trail, although their most recent pivot seems to be away from reliance on illustrated books. The ebook pioneers at Open Road Digital Media have been making deals with illustrated book publishers — Abrams and Black Dog & Leventhal among them — and appear committed to solving this problem

But it seems to me that it might not be readily solvable. The inherent issue is that precisely the same intellectual output in both formats, which works fine for immersive reading, almost never does for complex books. So the core realities that have cushioned the digital transition for publishers of novels and biographies — that the cost of delivering to the digital customer is really very low and the appeal of the content is undiminished in digital form compared to print — don’t apply for illustrated books for adults or kids.

Will the how-to or art book in digital form ultimately be as close to its print version as has been the case for novels? Or will the how-to or art digital products in the future come from book publishers at all? Will there be any real synergy there? I don’t think we know that yet. As pressure grows in the retail marketplace, it gets increasingly urgent for illustrated book publishers to find out.

3. Mergers and consolidation among publishers are likely to become more common, after a long period when they haven’t been.

I have been a bit surprised about how little imagination has been evident from the kommentariat about the pending merger of Penguin and Random House. It seems like it is being viewed primarily for its cost-cutting potential (and that will be real), but I think it could actually be transformative.

I see two very big immediate wins for the combined company. They’ll be able to launch a credible general subscription, book-club-type offer using their own books exclusively (print and digital, although the big opportunity is digital). And they’ll be able to serve no-book-buyer retail accounts with a commercially-appealing selection of books working with a publisher’s full margin, not the thinner revenue available to a third party aggregator.

This is the two biggest of the Big Six joining forces. The other combination that is believed to be under discussion, putting together HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, would be something like half the size of Penguin Random House and it wouldn’t have an equivalent reservoir and flow of highly commercial titles.

While Macmillan, according to the year-end letter from its CEO, John Sargent, remains determinedly independent, it is hard to see Hachette staying outside the merger tent as a stand-alone if Harper and S&S were to execute on the current rumor. The three of them together would present a competitive challenge to PRH and would have similar opportunities to open up new and proprietary distribution channels.

The merger activity will not be confined to the big general players. Both F+W Media (our partners in Digital Book World) and Osprey are building out the “vertical” model: providing centralized services to enable development of “audience-centric” publishing efforts for many and diverse communities. F+W has more than 20 vertical communities, most recently having acquired Interweave. Osprey, starting from a base in military history, has added science fiction (Angry Robot) and mind-body-spirit (Duncan Baird) to their list by acquisition.

The key in both cases is being able to add revenue channels to an acquisition as well as the time-honored objective of cutting costs through a combination. In different ways, all of the mergers we’re talking about here accomplish that.

4. Platforms for children’s books will become increasingly powerful gatekeepers.

Publishers discovered the power of platforms when Kindle showed them that they, not the publishers, controlled the customers and they, not the publishers, controlled the pricing. It took less than a year for Kindle to “own” enough customers that it would have been very difficult for any publisher to live without their sales, even without the leverage Amazon had as a significant customer for print.

Now we suddenly have a plethora of platforms that want to convince parents and teachers that they are where kids should be doing their reading. This is coming from the retailers: Amazon has a subscription offering for kids’ content and both Kindle and NOOK have parental control features. It is coming from the people who have been in this market all along: Storia from Scholastic and Reading Rainbow’s RRKidz. It is coming from outside enterpreneurs: Story Town and Ruckus.

And, before long, I think we’ll see branded digital subscription offers from the biggest publishers. (Why not?)

This suggests that a lot of shopping and purchasing decisions for young reading are going to take place outside of any environment that one could say now exists. And that’s going to be true pretty soon.

There are a lot of moving parts here. Sometimes the content has to be adjusted in some way for he platform, or can be enhanced for it. Sometimes the platform can facilitate a sale of stuff that is pretty much as it already was. Some of the platforms work on subscription models and others on discrete product sales models. But publishers (and agents) are going to be thinking about what those deals ought to look like. For now, platform owners are eager to engage the content so they have something to capture an audience with. When the audience is captured, the power shifts to the platform owner for anything but the most highly visible and branded content.

This will be an interesting arena. (And one that will be discussed at length at our conference, “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” on January 15.)

5. Marketing for publishers will be a constant exercise in learning and reinvention, and increasingly difficult to separate from editorial.

I spent a post recently trying to describe an “audience-driven” rather than “title-driven” or, worse, “title-on-pub-date-driven” approach to marketing. When you get down to actually trying to use the biggest new tools publishers have in the digital world — the top two coming to my mind are using email permissions and social media for dirt-cheap communication and lots of data sources with more and more tools for analyzing big data — you very rapidly realize that it is very limiting to think about using them on a per-title basis.

Rick Joyce of Perseus presented some ground-breaking thinking at our Frankfurt event about using social listening data tools for publishing marketing; he learned that the tools were most effectively applied across categories rather than for titles. (Part of the reasoning here was that using the tools is time-consuming and therefore expensive; part of it is that you just get more actionable information categorically than you do title-by-title because you’re crunching more data.)

So when publishers start to conform their publishing and marketing to what the new tools can do best (we’re still in the stage where we’re mostly trying to make the tools do what we did before), it will mean an explosion in the number of marketing decisions that have to be made (because the age of the book will not be a central factor in the decision to include it in a marketing opportunity.) This is accompanied by the big increase in decisions required to respond to the near-instantaneous feedback marketing digital initiatives deliver.

All of this will continue to be very challenging to the structure and workflow practices in large companies.

I think the clearest indication that marketing is reaching its proper 21st century position in publishing will be its increasing importance in driving title selection. As publishers become more audience-centric, it is the people who are communicating with the audience (the marketers, but also the editors, and the line between them will get fuzzier, not that it hasn’t sometimes previously been blurred) who will see what’s needed that isn’t in the market yet. In a way, that’s always happened. But in another year or three, it will be a formal expectation in some structures, and will have a defined workflow.

One obvious trend I’m not discussing here is “globalization”. In fact, one analyst sees exploiting global opportunities as one of the big wins of the Penguin Random House merger. With all the retailers publishers know well (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google) expanding into new countries every month, there will be no shortage of reminders that publishers should clear rights and price books in all territories for which they possibly can. But the problem starts further upstream than that, with the licensing practices of agents, who still often maximize advances-against-royalties by selling books market by market. There is a long gestation time on deals, so even if the dealmaking changes, it will take a while for that to be reflected in more ebooks on sale in more places. That’s why I am not expecting globalization to have a major commercial impact in 2013 and it is also why I see it as a more distant opportunity for the new PRH business than the ones I suggested in this piece.

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