Digital change has forced many book publishers to rethink the mix of their lists. The most obvious aspect of that is the need for increased vertical-, topic- or audience-consciousness. In the days when bookstores did most of the selling, all publishers could reach audiences in stores by being displayed in the right section (or sections). In fact, stores figured that out pretty well whether publishers guided them or not. What constituted a sophisticated capability for the very general part of a general trade list (almost exclusively for non-fiction) was recognizing any multi-section shelving opportunities and having the persuasive power with a store to get it. Of course, computers and the exigencies of managing stock in far-flung outlets made that very challenging — if not impossible — to do with bookstore chains.
But all publishers now to varying degrees are trying to execute digital marketing. Even for SEO alone, an understanding of the audience is essential. (Most publishers don’t accept this yet, but my Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy says you have to do a couple of hours of audience research to properly position just about every title!) But to really reduce per-title marketing costs, publishers have to “gather” audiences (through web sites or apps or by collecting email addresses) that can be addressed to sell book after book. That requires that the books be selected to allow for repeated marketing to the same groups of people.
Yet another prism through which to view a publisher’s list is breaking down which titles work as ebooks and which ones don’t. Many publishers are looking at illustrated books differently because they haven’t worked well as ebooks. That’s increasingly critical because the print marketplace is shrinking as ebooks replace print for a lot of immersive reading.
Publishers are justifiably nervous about this transition. As the market becomes more and more ebook-centric, protecting revenue is a growing concern. Top line prices and publishers’ net revenue per copy sold have come down already and will continue to. A powerful player we all know has a growing market share and seems increasingly inclined to demand a bigger cut. Publishers and agents have been worried that subscription services could siphon off parts of the market and further erode margins.
Their resistance has been so strong that the two biggest entrants in that channel, Scribd and Oyster, are apparently paying heftier-than-retail percentages to secure the rights to include major publisher books in their offering, which makes some people (including me) question the sustainability of their model.
While I think general publishers’ tentativeness about subscription services is sensible, I don’t think it is equally sensible across their lists. Publishers need another prism to sort this one out. They need to think about their “chunkable” books — the ones that are least likely to be read from start-to-finish and most likely to be useful in bits and pieces — separately from their immersive narratives.
It is the immersive narratives whose economics are threatened by subscription. And it is the chunkable books, which include most of the illustrated books they publish but also include many others in self-help, business, and reference, which don’t work as ebooks in the individual sale model. Because the Scribd and Oyster subscription compensation is only triggered by a minimum (but publicly unspecified) amount of the book to be read, they aren’t likely to be remunerative in that context either.
But there is actually a way for all publishers to deliver digital revenues for the chunkable content they own which has very little stand-alone ebook market. (I really never thought it would; it made me think about “the unit of appreciation and the unit of sale”.) And the fact that so few of them — none of the big ones — have employed it so far makes me think that they are neither making this distinction around their own content nor looking at subscription in the nuanced way they should.
The opportunity to which we refer here is the granddaddy of digital book subscription services, Safari. They are quite different than Oyster and Scribd. First of all, they are primarily B2B, not B2C. They are too expensive a service to be for pleasure or consumer use; they are intended to be a professional tool. Therefore, most of their subscribers access their content under an annual per-seat software license bought by a big company or government entity.
The second thing that makes Safari different is that they don’t expect full book consumption to occur very often, if at all. Most of the technical and professional books in the repository are extracted and read topically. The attraction of the service is not so much that you can read any book you want, but that you can get a variety of presentations about how to understand something or solve a particular problem.
And Safari’s business model is different from Scribd and Oyster too. The way they do it — paying from a monthly revenue pool on a pro-rata basis divided among the content consumed in that month — appears at first glance to be less attractive to trade publishers than the high purchase price Scribd and Oyster pay when the (unknown) theshold of use has been passed. But for chunkable books, which are very unlikely to be consumed in their entirety and would often, if not usually, serve a purpose to a consumer without triggering the purchase threshold, it should actually be seen as a better model for the publisher.
The subject arises because Andrew Savikas, the CEO of Safari, recognizes that the million of users he has at companies like Bank of America, Boeing, and Oracle (for example) are people as well as professionals. So while they need the technical content that motivated those companies to subscribe them to the service, they also have health, career, diet, and investment interests that it would be a great convenience for them to be able to satisfy within the service. This raises some obvious questions for Safari (“how would Boeing feel about this?” was the first one that occurred to me) but we need not be concerned about them. Savikas runs Safari, and he is convinced that he wants this kind of non-technical content to make his service more attractive and lucrative. He said his data shows much of the consumption of this kind of content happens “off-hours” and is seen as an employee benefit.
This presents publishers with a pretty sizable opportunity that is perhaps being lost in the generalizations about subscriptions and preserving revenue and what works in digital form. Since most big publishers have cookbooks, business and personal finance titles, reference books, and illustrated how-tos on their backlists that are starved for digital revenue, whether they’re likely to sign more of them as the industry changes is irrelevant. These backlist books could be producing cash for the authors and publishers right now through Safari and any “risk” involved is not apparent to me. Frequently the revenue would be significant. At the same time, Safari would be providing “discovery” opportunities for those books with very large audiences: millions of well-employed people, many of whom don’t shop in bookstores — online or physical — very often.
And the books that are discovered on Safari can be readily purchased. Safari invites publishers to give them a URL of their choice for a purchase link. (They offer as evidence that they move books in the long tail that the most-purchased book on their site right now was published ten years ago.)
I don’t quarrel with skepticism about the subscription business model for the immersive reading that constitutes most of a general trade publisher’s list. But holding back the chunkable books from Safari is depriving those books of revenue and exposure to audiences with intent in a way that will almost certainly not cannibalize other sales. Big trade houses will be doing fewer of those books in the future, but that’s no reason not to generate the most exposure and revenue they can for the ones they have.
The last three posts, the most recent one on what I thought was missing from the Amazon-Hachette coverage, one on subscriptions and the first one I did about Amazon-Hachette, were not sent out by the Feedburner service that delivers email versions of the posts to subscribers. I suspect this one won’t be either. Until we move to a new distribution capability, I’ll continue to link to the undistributed posts with each new one, as I’ve done here.