A coming new obsession: how to handle a smaller print-book business
Here’s a prediction that has almost no chance of being wrong. Every major player in the trade book industry is about to develop a new obsession: how must our business model change when we reach a level of ebook sales that is dynamically disruptive to the print book ecosystem?
This might not be exactly a “tipping point”, since that implies a point at which growth accelerates from some people to most people, or nearly all people. But print publishing will be seriously disrupted long before ebooks are used by “most people.” That’s because print publishing is a “critical mass” business: we need to sell enough to make a sensible print run, to keep the bookstore open, to support the sales organization and the warehouse. Our bestseller lists (with one exception) capture exclusively print sales, our author-publisher contracts and sales terms with accounts are based on the notion that we’re selling a physical object, and the biggest publishers in the land use their scale to perform capital-intensive functions that are, as much as any editorial or marketing expertise, what the authors need them for.
This presents a problem to all the incumbent players. Every powerful company in the print book supply chain: the big publishers, the big retailers (including Amazon!), the wholesalers, and certainly the independent retailers have a huge investment in competencies that revolve around print books. They can design them, jacket them, price them, print them, ship them hither and yon and keep track of each separate ISBN in the package, put them on shelves so customers will find them when they arrive and calculate when to take them off the shelves to send them back. Although there are other skills that these companies have that might port to an all-ebook or ebook-dominant world, none of these do.
Whether the challenges get acute when 20% of the sales of a narrative title are predictably e, or whether the number is 25% or 30%, the day is coming faster and faster. Growth in sales of the simplest kind of ebook — a direct lift of what is published in print — are exceeding the most aggressive predictions. The IDPF just announced that year-over-year ebook sales for August are triple what they were a year ago! Michael Pietsch, Publisher of Little, Brown, reports that 15% of total sales is the level many of their top authors are reaching now.
(Ruminative interlude: it has been my surmise that big authors will have their ebook sales “capped” at a lower level than smaller authors, just because their print books are on sale in so many more places. However, ebook sales are also very sensitive to “brand”; you don’t and can’t “browse” as many titles when you shop electronically, particularly on a device. I know that smaller publishers with less effective total distribution report Amazon sales of 60% and 80% of sales, so their ebook sales proportions are also bound to be much higher. But how the midlist authors of big publishers fare on overall ebook sales relative to the big ones is a question I haven’t asked. I will. Or, I am…)
Meanwhile, ereaders keep improving and proliferating; there have been several announcements of new devices in the past week, including the forthcoming “Nook” from B&N, which will really raise the stakes for Kindle. It will “see” Kindle’s e-ink screen and “raise” one LCD panel for link viewing, plus a 3G connection and Wifi use in B&N stores, all at the same price. B&N has the same power Amazon does to amass a robust list of titles (they have deep contacts with all the publishers) and they have at least as good a skill set for curation and merchandising to make a great shopping experience. And they’re putting their reader front and center in their bookstores (with the free wifi and some special in-store content features) which will expose the concept of the device to many people who don’t shop at Amazon and did not get blasted with a sales pitch every time they bought books.
Barnes & Noble had entertained being the ebook market leader a decade ago, losing interest when the Palm format became the early format frontrunner and wasn’t made available for intermediary distribution (one of the first in a string of futile attempts to install an iTunes device-capture model for book content, and before the iPod, at that.) Then B&N let Amazon get the jump on them in the ebook world with the Kindle; their Nook will be following more than two years later. In the meantime, B&N may have realized what all the big publishers know: that when the customer shifts to ebooks, it threatens all their business models, sunk investments, and longtime marketplace advantages. That, along with the sour experience of trying to lead on ebooks and being frustrated by what was actually a self-destructive policy by Palm, may have fed their apparent disinterest in ebooks until recently.
But it was clear to everybody that the first round of ebook growth shifted power dramatically to Amazon. Publishers have been frustrated and humbled by the Kindle’s rock-bottom, loss-leading pricing of the hottest new titles. And Barnes & Noble had to figure that, recession aside, some of those same-store sales they were missing were from shoppers who stopped coming to them because they had bought a Kindle and were now locked into the Kindle store for their purchasing to use the device.
Incidentally, the sales levels that the IDPF and Michael Pietsch are revealing are for legitimate ebook sales. Nobody knows the size of the pirate ebook market. There are some who guess it is rather small despite the robust number of files available in various hard-to-quell locations on the Internet, but if it includes any significant number of current or recent print-book customers, it only magnifies the impact on the legacy businesses.
There are a multitude of questions facing the industry about the expanding ebook market: how (some, including some highly credible voices, would say “whether”) to use digital rights management (DRM), how to price ebooks, what enhancements or updating can make commercial sense and how to manage them in the marketplace, when they should be made available, and, most important of all in the long run, what the “deal” is for the consumer (and then, based on that, for the author) who is actually licensing something rather than taking possession of something. But the questions about the declining print side are just as acute.
The brick-and-mortar bookstores, led by Barnes & Noble, are going to have to figure out how to keep their stores enticing with might be a smaller selection of print books. Nothing can grow the market for print books in the years to come, but keeping the number of points of purchase as high as possible and the traffic as high as possible are in the industry’s interests. It will require some real creativity to figure out what other activities or product offerings are compatible to keep people coming and how to drive traffic with online activity.
Amazon is not unaffected by this shift, either. Their big early lead in the ebook world was really built on the back of their superior print-book supply chain. From the very beginning, when they put out a database that had out-of-print books in it and then gave the customer a reliable delivery date for what they could sell, they created an unmatched print book shopping experience, provided a) you knew pretty much what you wanted and b) you didn’t have to have it right this minute. Their logistical capabilities are nonpareil but don’t do them nearly as much good with an electronic customer as a physical one. Their grasp on the ebook market really depends on the Kindle remaining a favored device and I think you could get good odds if you wanted to bet on that. Making hardware is not a core competency for them.
As the print business declines, Amazon continues to win if real print book demand falls more slowly than brick-and-mortar availability. But their hammerlock on the ebook market will probably not last; there will be too many better devices and they have to make a concessionary shift to selling the epub format before they can even begin to compete for those customers. They’ll do it someday, and probably soon, but they loosen the grip they have on the Kindle owners the day they do.
Publishers have an interest in continuing to support bookstore survival because the display they get there is great promotion and because being seen by a browser who put themselves at a bookstore section is still a great way to be discovered and bought. And there will still be, for some time, books which are not narrative reading which are simply better in print than in any electronic rendition. Publishers still sell a lot of these books (many of them juveniles) and bookstores, or some appropriate retail setting, are essential to them.
But publishers are going to have to rethink their operations. Sales staffs will probably contract; warehouse space will become redundant; investments in IT systems for the print operation will have to be more rigorously controlled. Publishers will likely combine, of course; the big houses now all gladly take competing publishers into their back office operations to help support them. But downward shifts in scale are not only inevitable, they will probably happen in more dramatic lurches than we’ve known in the past.
Wholesalers and distributors will both win and lose in this shift, but the shape of their business will certainly change. On the one hand, they, like everybody else, will lose sales that they have today because accounts go under and publishers they distribute cease operating. On the other hand, they are in the business of converting fixed operating costs to variable ones, and the number of customers for that proposition will grow as the apparent costs of operations (as a percentage of sales) get out of control at many companies.
Agents and the top 500 authors (an arbitrary number) are most likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of these changes in the short term. Because they themselves are powerful, searchable brands, they could actually sell ebooks themselves off their own websites, keep all the money, and make considerably more than their contracts would give them for ebook sales today even with sales of a quarter or less than the publisher and retailer get for them. (And the sales might not be that low.) I have talked to big publishers about the threat that top authors might just make their ebook deals first (you can cover the market in 4 or 5 stops and branded authors would have their own websites to sell from as well) and offer publishers print-only. Without exception, the big publishers tell me “no way we do the deal on that basis.” But if what is contended in this post is true — that keeping the print business viable is going to depend on amassing volume for it any way you can — they might not actually feel that way when presented with the problem. I think they will be getting the opportunity to make the choice.
I’ve posted on variations of this thought before. I had already decided it needed to be the topic of a keynote panel at Digital Book World. I’ve recruited Ken Brooks, Michael Cader, Larry Kirshbaum, and Evan Schnittman to join me on stage there to discuss it. Continually rebalancing the business between print and electronic, and maintaining the scale to run still-vital print operations, will be a topic of interest for just about all of us in the months and years to come.
Apologies for the paucity of posts lately. I’ve had a lot of work, been traveling, and had a bout of food poisoning. The food poisoning’s about gone, but the work and travel schedule remain robust for the rest of the month. I should become a more reliable correspondent again in a couple of weeks.