By one benchmark at least, we are probably halfway through the (r)evolution
A couple of major (Big Six) publishers have acknowledged that ebook revenues for them have passed 20% of their revenues. Of the 80% that remains print, I think it would be conservative to estimate that 20% of that is sold online. That’s an additional 16 percent of their business. Adding those together tells us that, for at least some very major companies, 36 percent of of their sales are being transacted online. That would leave, on average, about 64% of the sales for print sold through brick-and-mortar retail and other more minor channels. “On average” should not be read as “typical” on a title-by-title basis. It isn’t. For immersive reading, or straight text like novels and biographies, the percentage sold in stores is already almost certainly substantially lower. My hunch, and nobody really keeps these figures (but I think I’ve found a way to get at them, which we’ll try to show at a future Publishers Launch conference) is that it may already be down to 50% print in stores for new titles.
(It adds both confirmation and confusion to note that Bowker’s PubTrack estimated that 30% of the dollars spent on books in 2010 were spent online. But they figured that only 2.2% of the dollars that year were ebooks. My own estimates are based on the picture of things we get from big publishers, who are perhaps more skewed to straight text than the industry as a whole. There are all sorts of explanations that would narrow the apparent differences between what Bowker describes and what I infer from what I know, but they’d require a different piece which, I think, would be less helpful in painting an overall understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going than the one you’re about to read.)
Five years ago, early in 2007, it was a virtual certainty that 80%, and probably much more, of the sales of any trade book that sold a significant number of copies would take place in stores. There were almost no ebook sales. (The Kindle did not make its debut until November 2007; sometimes I feel like I was the only person reading ebooks before the Kindle arrived.)
Five years from now, by the start of 2017, I’d bet that 80% of the sales of any trade book that sells a significant number copies will be transacted online.
And that, even more than the ebook uptake that is a mere component of the store-to-online shift, is the story of our times that matters in trade publishing.
One thing I believe but won’t try to prove (which means “take it on faith”) is that more attention has been paid to the change from print reading to screen reading than to the change from store purchasing to screen purchasing. But the change in purchasing behavior is by far more significant in its affect on the industry than the change in consumption, at least in the medium term.
The shift in the way we consume what is now print may become more important as new presentation forms enabled by digital delivery — making use within the content itself of video, animiaton, links, social connections, and alternative content and navigation paths — are improved and gain commercial traction. (I’d argue that no enhanced or illustrated ebook solution has achieved that so far.)
But being halfway through the change in consumer buying habits in our decade of change has profound implications for all the big players in the publishing value chain. It would appear that publishers in both the US and UK are now accepting that the decline in numbers of bookstores and the shelf space they offer for merchandising is not temporary and not primarily recession-driven. (We heard that said more than once last year and the year before.) It is a fundamental societal shift that is inexorable and which shifts power away from publishers to their trading partners on both sides of them: the authors and the retailers.
In fact, even though the share of the overall business commanded by the brick-and-mortar retailers is declining, even they will, at least in the short term, gain clout with the publishers. The exposure they offer any book they carry will be increasingly appreciated as shelf space diminishes. And for illustrated books, print is really the only proven game in town because there is no digital presentation of such books that has demonstrated enduring viability in the marketplace.
The fact that we are halfway to a complete reversal of the online-offline sales ratio explains some conflicting behavior see in today’s marketplace. It is still true that brick-and-mortar placement is instrumental to building the reputation of a book or an author. And it is widely accepted that only a publisher employing a real infrastructure and customer network (its own or through effective use of a powerful distributor like Perseus or Ingram) can deliver that placement. At the same time, sales through online channels, particularly of ebooks, has reached a level of real commercial significance and those sales can be delivered with a fraction of the organizational capability that the declining model requires.
So we have authors like J.A. Konrath. He is perfectly content to eschew the bookstore exposure in favor of doing it himself. He keeps much fatter margins on the ebook sales, even though he probably has to charge lower prices for the same book than a publisher would. Konrath has argued for a long time that he is thinking of the future. He may be giving up some sales today, he acknowledges, but he believes he’ll be compensated for his foresight as the sales base moves away from bookstores and he has avoided forever paying 50% or 75% of his ebook royalties in an exchange for bookstore sales that will inexorably diminish.
Of course, he gives up advances against royalties too.
On the other hand, we have the author Amanda Hocking who built herself an online sales machine from scratch but yet happily sold her next four books to a publisher. She got significant advances, will now get bookstore exposure she never had before, and, from her perspective, also laid off many of the non-writing tasks of delivering a book to market. Those were tasks she found onerous; she’d rather write. I think she’s right that it is hard to do it oneself and I think it might get harder.
And then, taking a middle-ground position between these two, we have John Locke and Barry Eisler.
Locke was like Hocking. He started from scratch and built a big sales base online. He also was not getting the bookstore sales and exposure he’d get through a publisher. But Locke doesn’t mind the marketing work and he likes controlling his online presentation and pricing. So he made a “distribution deal” with Simon & Schuster for his print, getting the muscle of a real publishing sales and distribution organization working for him on a fee-for-services basis.
Eisler, who had done several books with major houses, turned down an advance from a publisher (ironically, the publisher was St. Martin’s, the same one who signed Hocking) and initially intended to self-publish. Instead, he took a deal with an Amazon imprint. This cuts the baby in half. He gets an advance. He gets the marketing attention of a big organization with unique capabilities. But he does not get bookstore exposure.
The reason all these different approaches actually make sense is that we are still in a period of transition. Konrath is banking on the fact that my analysis is right. From his perspective, he’s giving up bookstore revenue and marketing now because he doesn’t want to be paying forever for what he gets today. The same is true for Locke. Eisler and Hocking are pursuing more immediate benefits. Eisler is betting that Amazon’s direct marketing to consumers they know will propel him further and faster than going back to bookstores for sales yet again. And Hocking is banking on the fact that the bookstores and the publishers’ ability to place books in them will accelerate the growth of her fan base as well as laying off a lot of work she doesn’t want to do on somebody who is willing to fatten her bank account for the privilege.
The transition has another dynamic which is the growth of Amazon’s power in relation to every other player in the value chain. Going back to the stats at the top of the piece, the publisher who is seeing 36% of total sales and perhaps nearer 50% of immersive reading sales taking place online, is also seeing the percentage of their sales through Amazon grow as well. Amazon has about 60% of the ebook sales in the US and perhaps 90% of the online print sales. That would make Amazon (12% of the 20% sold as ebooks and 16% of the 80% print) about 28% of such a publisher’s volume now.
But using an overall number like that understates the reality of Amazon’s dominance. Their share of the sales of straight text books is almost certainly higher (because they sell most of the ebooks), so that share is almost certainly above 30% now. If things proceed as this piece contemplates for the next five years and nothing drastic has happened to change the shares retailers have of the ebook and online print channels, Amazon is likely to be something more than 50% of a big publisher’s business. All they won’t have is the 20% that is brick-and-mortar print, a sliver of online print, and the chunk of the ebook business that is sold by other vendors. And, as now, the percentage sold online will be higher on straight text.
Going from 80 to 90 percent of book sales being made in stores to that same percentage being made online in a decade’s time certainly justifies anybody’s pronouncement of profound and disruptive change. Having a single account that delivers half of publishers’ business — more on many titles — is unprecedented and perhaps unsustainable.
Although what we’ve seen in the past five years looks to me like it points very clearly to what we can expect in the next five years, it is hard to tell whether these realities are being taken on board by the players from whom power is shifting away. (Nobody is going to call me and say “Mike, our business is melting away!” even if that’s what they’re thinking.) I’m pretty sure it is all well understood, and expected, by the player who is seeing the power move in its direction. But they aren’t calling to tell me that either.
The death of the senior John Sargent last week — he was for a time my father’s boss at Doubleday in the 1950s — gave me reason to recall this piece I wrote in the blog’s very early days on Leonard Shatzkin breaking the color line at Doubleday in the 1950s. I didn’t have very many readers then compared to now. I thought it was worth calling my now-much-larger audience’s attention to it, even though it has nothing to do with today’s post. I think many of you will enjoy it.