Autobiographical

Everybody in Hollywood Needs an eBook Strategy


As a result of spending my college days at UCLA, I had a handful of contacts in the Hollywood community when I came back East to live in 1969. When I started becoming familiar with New York publishing in the 1970s, I found myself, on occasion, shopping movie or TV tie-in projects. Armed with a script and a release plan, one could make the rounds of editors at the mass-market houses that had been assigned specific responsibility for this kind of acquisition.

At the time I was doing this kind of thing 30 or 35 years ago and more, the book business was growing wary of tie-ins to TV movies. They didn’t have the same promotional life as theatrical releases, even in those days when about one-third of the country was watching any network broadcast. Films that ran in movie theaters were definitely preferred as desirable book properties.

In the decades since then, the link between Hollywood and New York publishing has not exactly been severed, but it certainly hasn’t strengthened. One agent I spoke to told me that interest from Hollywood can definitely help raise the profile of a book project being peddled in New York, but the same agent agreed that the tie-in sale, where a script is novelized to just take advantage of the exposure the title and story will get through the movie, is all but dead.

Another agent, one with strong Hollywood connections through his office, had a slightly different point of view. He says it is still “humbling” to see how much being tied to a movie or TV show (“or even radio”) can “move the needle” on a book sale.

To the extent that the agent who believes in the power of Hollywood exposure to move books is right, the relative reduction in interest by New York publishers only increases the opportunity for Hollywood entities who exploit publishing through ebooks (and judicious and selective use of print) on their own.

(I recall two specific deals from my past relevant to this post. In around 1977 or 1978 I sold the book tie-in rights to a TV movie called “Cotton Candy”, which was produced by Ron Howard. In 1985, I sold the rights to two books to tie into the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie: one was a novelization of the first three films and the other a heavily-illustrated “making of…” book. I’d say the “Cotton Candy” deal today couldn’t possibly happen and “Nightmare”, which went to a major publisher, would be a real long shot.)

New York’s interest in Hollywood-originated content was, of course, centered on big properties. Hollywood’s enthusiasm about getting a book deal was often not very great. It didn’t add a ton of revenue (big publishing money for a big movie was small money to the movie producer) and the “promotion” done by publishers was trivial compared to what the movie studios did for the film.

In fact, there were often rights issues that got in the way. Even if the screenwriter had conceded the tie-in rights to sell the script, the studio might still be required to get clearances on the novelization, which would be a nuisance for a book project that often had annoyingly tight deadlines and not much benefit. If the screenwriter had held the tie-in rights and was the one selling to the publisher, it could become a bureaucratic nightmare to get art and logos from the film, which would be controlled by the studio, to promote the book.

New York’s incentives were often too limited to interest Hollywood. Hollywood’s unpredictability on things as basic as release dates, as well as the diminishing likelihood over time that any particular movie property would enjoy enough theatrical success to give real legs to the tie-in book, made systematic efforts unproductive for publishers. There haven’t been dedicated tie-in editors for decades.

But digital publishing changes many things. The relationship between Hollywood and the book business, because of the changes brought on by ebooks, will almost certainly be one of them.

In the digital age, what it takes to succeed as a publisher are access to commercial properties to publish and an ability to let an audience know an ebook of interest to them is available. Those are the core requirements. Everything else can be put together from services, and they can be put together one project at a time (although most people in Hollywood aren’t really aware of that yet.)

A Big Six CEO told me last week that the two core skills and competencies that publishers require are “editorial”, picking the books and developing them, and “marketing”, letting the interested public know the book is there. This CEO would be happy to outsource just about everything else. Starting where this executive wants to end up — with commercial properties in hand and an ability to tell an audience about them but with no overhead or organization to support — is essentially where Hollywood entities get the chance to begin.

Things have changed in Hollywood too. Digital tools make it cheaper and easier to make a movie, just like it is now cheaper and easier to make a book. But, just like book publishers, producers of Hollywood content find the growth in competition mushrooming. The corrolary to the fact that making movies can be cheaper is that promoting them is that much harder and, much more than decades ago, every revenue stream counts, even pretty small ones.

The change in both industries means that Hollywood has enormous opportunities through the digital publishing world, as soon as they figure it out (which we plan to help them do).

There are some early signs that this is beginning to happen.

The most ambitious project we’ve become aware of so far comes from Warner Brothers Digital Distribution. They’ve announced their Inside the Script series that will issue 300 classic scripts (think “Casablanca”) as ebooks, starting with a release of four titles. Doing an entire program enables them to take a templated approach to creating the ebooks, which will cut their costs of making really good products. Whether classic scripts will sell robustly is an open question, of course. But the cost of the experiment is low in a Hollywood context, and they gain the additional benefit that their classic films get a shot of recognition and reader-adrenalin which can only increase Netflix views and DVD sales.

NBC has established NBC Publishing to begin to exploit this opportunity. Michael Fabiano, the NBC VP who is the General Manager of this operation, says that “In general, text will come from titles already published, direct relationships with authors and, in some cases, from the staff of NBC News. We will also utilize a network of professionals as needed.” They make it clear that NBC will continue to work with established publishers. (Left unsaid, but I’d assume: they’ll work with established publishers for projects that have a big print component or where they can get substantial advances.)

ABC has a venture called ABC Video Books. This is being done in conjunction with the publisher they own, Hyperion. They position the initiative as “a new storytelling experience, enhanced with ABC video.”

Thinking about this has led me to believe that every network, every studio, every producer, every agent, and every screenwriter in Hollywood needs to have a digital publishing strategy. If fledgling novelists with no Hollywood presence can blog and tweet their way to commercial success, and some do, certainly a Hollywood-developed story would have an even better chance. Novelizing a screenplay (which is just one of a number of ways to do a Hollywood tie-in as an ebook) isn’t a trivial job, but it isn’t a massive one either. And publication as an ebook can be done for less than the cost of a few lunches. Even cheap lunches.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of opportunity here. One is for legacy brands: all the stories (like “Casablanca”) that have been made famous over a century of film-making. Publishing scripts or novelizations are the simplest things that can be done. Why not publish all the Seinfeld or All in the Family scripts as ebooks? How would they sell? We don’t know, but the cost to find out is low and the availability of the book constitutes additional promotion, even of a long-established film or TV show.

The other category of opportunity is to build interest in a developing property. This will work better for projects that are about something substantial: a historical event or person or an issue (divorce, alcoholism, etc.) that people would search under looking for reading matter. If you’ve written a screenplay about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and you’re trying to develop interest, you could do worse than publish the script or a novelization as an ebook. People searching their favorite ebook retailer for Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig will find it (and this happens every day) and some will buy it. You can develop fans and a following. You can get revenue.

Of course, you can also get more creative. Characters can “write books” (an approach that has already been tried.)  And successfully.

Discussing these ideas with players in Hollywood today, I have learned that there is a growing awareness of the ease of ebook publication with another motivation as the catalyst. It is apparently easier for the owner of a screenplay to keep ebook rights out of their movie deal if they’ve already published the ebook. There would seem to be very little risk in that strategy. As we’ve seen, movie studios don’t much care about book tie-ins so they’re not likely to walk away from a deal because these rights have already been exploited. And book publishers are increasingly aware of self-published ebooks as a farm system. No book publisher would decline to buy rights to a book becoming a movie because an ebook had already been issued. (The owner would almost certainly have to pull the self-published ebook off sale, but that would be painless if a publishing deal made it worth it. That precise strategy has been executed by indie publishing star Amanda Hocking and her new full-service publisher, St. Martin’s.)

The first step for networks and channels and producers in Hollywood is to learn how to utilize their new revenue and marketing tool: ebooks. We’re going to jumpstart that effort with a Publishers Launch Conference at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel on Monday, October 22 called “FILM/TV-TO-BOOK: How Digital Publishing Creates New Revenue and Marketing Opportunities for Hollywood”. We’ll be co-located withF+W Media’s Story World Conference. We think this could be the start of a long-running conversation.

Publishers Launch Hollywood will emphasize what the Tinseltown players can do on their own, which is the big opportunity presented by digital change. But we’ll also present players from the publishing world: both new entrants from the “ebook first” world and established players. None of them want to do every pr0ject Hollywood should do, but when they want to be involved, they’re still almost always the best path to the biggest market.

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Some things that were true about publishing for decades aren’t true anymore


Back when my father, Leonard Shatzkin, was active with significant publishers — the quarter century following World War II — he observed that very few books actually took in less cash than they required. That is not to say that publishers saw most books as “profitable”. Indeed, they didn’t. They placed an overhead charge of 25% or 30% or more on each book so most looked unprofitable. But that didn’t change the fact that the cash expended to publish just about every book was less than the cash it brought back in.

The exceptions were usually attributable to a large commercial error, most commonly paying too much of an advance to the author or printing far more copies than were needed. But, absent that kind of mistake, just about every book brought back somewhat more revenue than it required to publish it.

This led Len to the conclusion that the best strategy for a publisher was to issue as many titles as the organizational structure would allow. That was a lesson he passed along to the next generation of publishing leadership that came under his influence. And the leading proponent of that business philosophy was Tom McCormack, who worked for Len at Doubleday in the late 1950s, then went on to Harper & Row before he ascended to the presidency of then-tiny St. Martin’s Press in 1969. Tom often credited the insight that publishing more books was the path to commercial success as a key component of the enormous growth he piloted at St. Martin’s over three decades.

(I checked in with Tom, who is long-retired as a publishing executive but a very active playwright, about how many books didn’t claw back the cash expended. He told me that his “non-confirmable recollection” is that the percentage that did at least get their money back ranged from 85% to 92%. He recalls “incredulity” from his counterparts in other houses, whom he believes simply couldn’t “wrap their minds around the meaning of the statistic: revenues minus disbursements.” He went on to tell me that this number “seemed effectively irrelevant to them. They had an overriding and deeply flawed notion of something they called title-profitability. They thought they were analyzing the profitability of a title with their ‘p&l’.”)

Despite the apparent immutability of the fact at the time that most titles brought in incremental margin, many publishers who were losing money would come to the opposite conclusion. They would decide they should cut their lists, pay more attention to the titles they published, and create more profits that way. I remember discussing the futility of that approach in the 1980s with my friend and client, Dick McCullough, who was at that time the head of sales at Wiley. When I observed that the publishing graveyard was littered with the bones of publishers who pursued cutting their lists as the path to profits, Dick said of their efforts to cut “yes, and very successfully too”.

I got another lesson about this reality in the late 1980s when a company I consulted to (Proteus Books) sued its distributor (Cherry Lane Music) for a failure of “due skill and competence” in the sales efforts for Proteus Books. One of Proteus’s expert witnesses was Arthur Stiles, who had been Sales Director at several companies, including Doubleday, Lippincott, and Harper & Row. Stiles confirmed that big and competent publishers routinely put out thousands of copies of titles in advance of publication, with extremely few failures in terms of getting the initial placements. He was testifying in a time that was still like what my father experienced: the industry’s title counts were growing, but so were the the number of bookstores in which they could be placed.

Those days are over. And, coupled with the ebook revolution, the implications of that are profound.

A few things happened to change the environment so that it became no longer true that even big publishers could get all the distribution they needed on every title to assure a positive return of cash.

1. The title output of the industry has grown enormously. In the 1960s, the total output of the industry was in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles a year. Now it is something more than 30 times that number published traditionally, with a multiple of that number being self-published. Each new book is competing against more new titles every two weeks than a book fifty years ago would have competed against in a year!

2. Nothing published ever dies. Fifty years ago, stores were smaller and, while there’s no easy way for me to measure this, I’d guess that the active backlist across publishers was probably no more than 25,000 titles. Superstore growth in the 1980s, the efficiency of Ingram as a national wholesaler, and computer systems that helped stores track their inventory and sales fueled backlist expansion. Even in the early 1990s, the total of truly competitive titles was probably in the low six figures. But then came Amazon’s unlimited shelf space and Ingram’s Lightning Print to deliver one copy at a time, and, even before ebooks, the competitive set of available titles had probably jumped to seven figures.

3. Bookstore shelf space is declining. Nobody who has been reading this blog needs much elaboration on that point.

What that means is that a list-cutting therapy that McCullough and I saw in the 1980s as suicidal and which McCormack explained repeatedly was folly is no longer crazy. (Oh, how I wish my dear departed Dad was around to discuss this with!) And the new conjecture in this blogpost is that the day might come when a publisher with an extensive backlist might decide that the most profitable path would be to hardly publish any new titles at all!

The portfolio of any longstanding publisher today contains a lot of backlist which is pure profitable gold in the ebook era. Contracts often give publishers the rights to a book for the life of copyright if they continue to sell it. (I’ll confess here that there is a caveat to this point coming up in an italicized postscript below.) So a major publisher doing $600 million and up (of which there are six), almost certainly has triple-digit millions of sales in its backlist, which is increasingly shifting to digital. Even the most sober industry observers are seeing revenues exceeding 50% from ebooks in the next two or three years, which would mean that substantially more than half the units of these books are selling electronically.

So, let’s say you’ve got a company doing a billion dollars in annual revenue and barely eeking out a profit or perhaps even losing money. With a strategy of continuing to publish what you own as ebooks, you can see digital backlist revenue of $150 million, decaying by 10% a year, with gross margins giving you $100 million or more in cash flow. Offloading all the print operations for which you own rights to a distributor or competitor will provide incremental revenue as well. (You only need help for the offline print sales. Getting the online sales requires no operational capability.) You’d then need a minimal organization to do some marketing (not a lot), sign up and put out some additional titles that would be chosen for being risk-free (not a lot), and to handle the administration and royalty processing for your thousands of contracts. Five or ten million ought to cover those costs very handily.

Of course, the other thing you could do is sell your rights to that backlist. But I think it would require somebody to overpay in relation to your net discounted cash flow to make that attractive because the costs of keeping it all for yourself would be so minimal.

One hopes that today’s publishers are looking at the simple statistic Len and Tom authored: revenues minus disbursements by title. No doubt today’s biggest publishers are looking carefully at the performance of their copyrights in a way that sorts the new titles from the backlist. But doing so is only useful if they’re apportioning their costs properly across the title base. If they are, what is described in this post will be evident if and when it is true. In the meantime, careful focus on new title acquisitions and accepting that the healthiest way to manage for the future might be to reduce the commitment to new title development will have to replace the clear truths that guided smart publishing strategy for previous generations.

The history and analysis are all valid, but there is one big monkey wrench in this scenario I’ve sketched. There is a provision in the 1978 copyright law that allows authors to reclaim rights to their books after 35 years. Titles published in 1978 become eligible for reversion, called “recapture” apparently, starting in 2013. (With logic that is ironically typical of what Congress does when it touches copyright law, older titles are on a slower track for liberation.) Agents are planning for this; publishers will have to deal with it. I am given to understand that publishers can only retain these books for life of copyright by, in effect, reacquiring them. (Should be lots of fun!)

So, in fact, the backlist attrition might be faster than 10% (but it might not, because ebooks may create more readers for backlist than we had before as well.)

It is also true that many publishers have already been moving in the direction I suggest: pruning their new title counts and being particularly cautious with midlist. Of course, there was a conviction by many that list-pruning was a good strategy even before it actually was a good strategy, but the execution of it has been much more rigorous over the past decade.

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Merchandising ebooks is a problem not really solved yet


I have always been in the process of reading at least one book since I was about 8 years old. When I was a little kid, I’d find them in the house (Dad was in publishing) or at the library in my home village of Croton-on-Hudson or in the school library. Sometimes extraordinary measures delivered a lot of reading material. On the fourth to the last day of second grade, I got the chicken pox and was in bed for a couple of weeks. I had already developed an affinity for a Random House series of children’s books on American history called Landmark Books, which are still available. Dad knew the person at the printer responsible for the Random House account and a box of 40 of them arrived the day after I was diagnosed and was completely read through by the time I was back on my feet.

When I was in junior high school, I found that a big drug store in the retail space at 42nd and Vanderbilt in Grand Central Station had a massive selection of mass-market paperbacks and that became a shopping destination for me for a while.

As an adult, the shopping and discovery moved to bookstores. And although I did occasionally get my ideas of what to read next from book reviews or friends’ recommendations, usually I just shopped. I would go browse American history or biography or sports (baseball always had its own shelves within sports).

It never took me much time to find what I wanted to read next until I started reading ebooks.

In the pre-Kindle ebook era, I was a captive of the Palm Digital store, because I read on a Palm and their commercial approach was to not allow other retailers to sell their format. The choices were limited because the publishers before the arrival of Kindle were reluctant to make the investments required to deliver ebooks to me and the four other people who read them at the time. That changed immediately when Kindle arrived and, because of Kindle and the other major formats that have hit the marketplace since then, the choices are robust. Just about every new book I’d want to read is available for my device of choice (the iPhone) and the digitization of the backlist just carries on going deeper and deeper into publishers’ repositories.

But the merchandising, at least for somebody who shops on the iPhone (it’s a bit better through the ereading devices or PCs), leaves a lot to be desired. My shopping experiences are actually a bit of a random walk. I ask my ebook retailer to show me books by category and, since my categories don’t change much (and haven’t since I was a kid) I tend to see the same books over and over again, far too many of which I have already read (perhaps in somebody else’s format.)

A short time ago I was shopping for my next read on the iPhone. I started out shopping with Kindle and then Nook and a few minutes on each of their mobile sites didn’t turn up anything that moved me. Then at Google Ebooks I found “Making of the President 1968″ by Theodore White. That was definitely one I wanted to read. I bought it and I’m in the middle of it.

There is no particular guarantee that I’ll find my next book on Google. I haven’t found any clear pattern yet among the four stores I shop regularly (Kobo being the fourth). Obviously, if I know I want to read another James Patterson or John Locke thriller, any of them would deliver it to me quickly and painlessly in response to a search. It is when I am hunting by subject that the search returns seem to be pot luck. I’m probably not making it any easier on the retailers by spreading my shopping around; if any of them actually did have a good engine to take my purchasing and reading profile and make the next great recommendation, I’d be screwing it up by spreading around my data.

All of this underscores how difficult is the challenge being faced by Bookish in the US and aNobii in the UK, two “find what to read next” sites financed by major publishers. And they join a long line of sites that have tried to build recommendations and community conversation around what people are reading: Goodreads, Shelfari, Library Thing, and the new ebook platform, Copia.

It happens that our office is now going through the exercise of placing the book of “The Shatzkin Files” on platforms other than its originator, Kobo. (Kobo’s 60-day exclusive is about up.) When we encountered a limit of seven keywords in loading process for Kindle, I inquired about it. Why limit this, I wondered?

I got a good answer when I asked. It turns out that any author or publisher’s inclination would be to put in lots and lots of keywords. That was my intention. I was going to take every keyword from every post and put it in for the book. But, on reflection, as my friend at Amazon pointed out, that really wouldn’t be helpful to the reader who was searching. The fact that one blog post is about a holocaust survivor doesn’t mean that somebody searching under that topic would want my book, of which more than 99% is about things totally unrelated.

It turns out that Amazon uses algorithms created by full text searching to enhance what they can deliver in response to searches in ways that the publisher and author would not necessarily think about when creating metadata. As an example, he pointed to a book that you’ll discover on Amazon if you search  for “erasure coding”, a term of art that might very well not have been included by any author or publisher inserting keywords but which their more sophisticated methods enable you to use for discovery.

My friend at Amazon didn’t say this, and maybe I’m reading too much into what they do, but it almost seems like the keywords we put in could be superfluous and the capabilities they have through full-text analysis and algorithms actually govern what is discovered. Of course, if the solicitation of keywords from authors and publishers is a placebo, that’s not something I’d expect them to reveal.

I was just looking for “American history” when I found “Making of the President 1968″ on Google (and didn’t find it anyplace else in the time I allotted to look.) So Amazon’s sophisticated capabilities didn’t deliver it to me and now their engine doesn’t know that this was a book I wanted because I bought it someplace else.

But I’m really glad I found this book, which was probably pretty recently made available in ebook form. I was active in that campaign and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where I was Pierre Salinger’s assistant on the first McGovern campaign. (George McGovern declared late to give the Bobby Kennedy supporters who couldn’t abide Gene McCarthy a place to go. I had been one of those; I left the Ambassador Hotel an hour before Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968 because the security was tight and I couldn’t get into the party. Ironic.) The author of the Making of the President books, Theodore White, was a friend of Salinger’s and I met him at the convention. But I’m saving the stories of that campaign for another post on another day.

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Technology, curation, and why the era of big bookstores is coming to an end


I stumbled across a Sarah Weinman post from a few months ago that posits the notion that the chain bookstore (by which it would appear she means the superstores of the past 20 years, not the chain bookstores in malls that grew up in the prior 20 years) perhaps had a natural life cycle which is now coming to an end. She points out that the investment by Wall Street in the concept of massive destination bookstores enabled their creation, but ultimately resulted in great excess: too many stores with too many square feet to fill and too many books in them that don’t sell.

This is a really good and thoughtful post and I think the observation that the availability of capital built the excess which is now partly responsible for dragging down the structure is correct. But it triggered some additional thoughts that make me want to again trace the history (which I believe has called for smaller bookstores for several years) from before the 1990s when Sarah’s post picks it up and to look at bookstore history through the lens of tech development, which I think both enabled the massive bookstores and is now bringing about their demise.

The core challenge of bookselling — in the past, present, and future, online and in stores, for printed books or digital ones — is curation. How does the bookseller help the reader sort through all of the possible reading choices, of which there are, literally, millions, to find the reader’s next purchase?

In a shop, that curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

In the period right after World War II, there was virtually no technology to help booksellers with curation at all. Sales reps would call (or not) and show catalogs of forthcoming books from which the bookseller would order. There were hundreds of publishers any full-line bookstore would have to do business with. But there weren’t very many full-line bookstores then. Departments stores and small regional chains (Burrows Brothers in Cleveland, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago) were the principal accounts.

Frankly, what was stocked in most stores then had a huge randomness component. This was the world my father, Leonard Shazkin, encountered when he became Director of Research at Doubleday in 1954 and, a few years later, created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. By offering the service of tracking the sales in stores, using reps to take physical inventories in the days before computers could track it, Doubleday took the order book out of the bookstore’s hands for the reordering of Doubleday backlist titles. That solved the problem of breaching the first line of curation. And the reps, now freed of the enormously time-consuming task of selling the buyer on backlist reorders title by title, had more time to affect the second and third lines of curation: the display of the books in the stores and the knowledge the store personnel had about Doubleday books. Sales of Doubleday books exploded, approximately quadrupling for the backlist.

In the early 1960s, Len saw the impact of increased selection from the bookstore’s side of the table. He had moved from Doubleday to Crowell-Collier/Macmillan, which owned the Brentano’s chain. He was put in charge. At first, Brentano’s weakest store was its outlet in Short Hills, New Jersey. They doubled the selection of books and, almost instantly, Short Hills became the best-performing store in the chain.

It took until the late 1960s, when shopping centers were springing up across the country, for the first two national book chains, Walden and B. Dalton, to develop and become a serious force in the industry. And in the early 1970s, Ingram and Baker & Taylor became the first national book wholesalers to cover the country with a wide selection of titles. Dalton and Ingram became industry leaders and both were boosted by technology breakthroughs.

Dalton installed smart cash registers that enabled them to key in a number for each book, telling them what had sold. They didn’t use ISBNs, which were in their infancy; Dalton assigned their own SKU (stock-keeping unit) numbers which were stickered onto the books. The system was far from perfect, but it was revolutionary. For the first time, a bookseller and its publisher suppliers knew some real sales data in a timely fashion (Dalton’s numbers were tallied weekly). And the system also enabled Dalton to keep books that were selling in stock through automated means as well.

Ingram was the first wholesaler to employ microfiche technology to tell booksellers what was available right now in their warehouse. The weekly microfiches were, of course, primitive signals of availability compared to today’s instantaneous online capabilities, but this was also a revolutionary breakthrough. It enabled rapid resupply for all stores, including the chains, of the books they sold each day..

In the late 1970s, scanning technology had developed so that the Dalton key-in-the-SKU system could be leapfrogged by Walden using ISBNs at the register, which could often be scanned into the computer record. Also being developed at that time were various methods for automated order processing between publishers and their customers. By the middle of the 1980s, just before the period when Sarah’s narrative begins, bookstores were growing rapidly. The cost of putting the books on the shelves was dropping in relation to sales and the ability to put the right books on the shelves at the right time was enhanced for everybody. Good curation became much cheaper and much easier and, not surprisingly, sales of books grew dramatically.

Paradoxically, the decline of mass-market paperback distribution created new opportunities for the biggest publishers in hardcover. Mass-market grew on the illusory efficiency of forced distribution. For the first two decades after World War II, the rack-sized paperbacks would show up in the pockets at your local drug store or five and dime without a local buyer having to make a selection. That, combined with a much smaller share of margin going to the retailer, paid for the inherent inefficiencies of ham-handed curation. (And, let’s remember, only the covers had to be sent back for “returns”.)

But as paperbacks became more important and more mainstream, the biggest customers of the local wholesalers who racked them wanted better margins and more control. And the sales volumes had built to the point that many of them could now afford a buyer to deal directly with a number of mass market publishers, so the best accounts started shifting to direct. This weakened the original distribution network, but it opened up the opportunity for publishers to put books other than the rack-sized paperbacks into what had been rack-only accounts.

The first probes with larger trade paperbacks were with romance authors like Rosemary Rogers. The mass channels were more comfortable trying an experiment with format and price with authors they already knew.

The first great exploitation of mass distribution for what was really a trade book was by Peter Mayer (the boss) and Bill Shinker (the marketer) at Avon with the book “The People’s Pharmacy” in about 1975. Avon, a paperback house that published a lot of romance titles, had been one of the pioneers putting the larger books into the mass channel.

Bantam then used the technique for hardcovers, again starting with authors the mass channel already knew like Louis L’Amour and Clive Cussler, before hitting a massive all-channels mass-market home run with “Iacocca” in 1985. (And thanks to Jack Romanos, who was running things there then, for helping me get my recollections straight.)

The increased efficiency of distribution through technology and disintermediation in turn enabled discounting. Crown Books built a chain in the 1980s which mostly sold remainders and bargain books but carried a good selection of current titles with bestsellers deeply discounted. This fueled a further increase in unit sales.

Meanwhile, independent bookstores beginning to use primitive computerized inventory management systems were proving repeatedly what Brentano’s had demonstrated to Len Shatzkin in 1963: a big selection of books attracts a very substantial clientele. So technologically-driven efficiency lent a hand to delivering a more attractive selection (curation) by making it a bigger selection.

And in the late 1980s, these two things — the Crown discounting attraction and the independents large selection attraction — were combined by entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, who created a store called Bookstop that provided both. Bookstop became the prototype “super” bookstore and, before long, Wall Street money was financing Barnes & Noble (which had bought Dalton) and Borders (which had bought Walden) to roll out these bookselling behemoths nationwide.

Which is where Sarah’s post kicks in. But in the context of what came before, I’d add one element she didn’t to the analytical mix. It created a paradigm shift in curation using technology. It’s called Amazon dot com.

While even the largest bookstore had shelf space limiting its title selection, Amazon did not. Through good luck (licensing the Baker & Taylor database which contained a lot of out-of-print titles), good thinking (providing a clear “promise date” for the available books and assisting people’s search efforts by telling them explicitly if a book was not available), and brilliant execution (Amazon’s hallmark from its first moment until the present day), Amazon completely shifted the psychology of book shopping.

Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.

I first saw what is clearly the impact of this through some work I did with Barnes & Noble sales data for university presses about a decade ago. In the recent years before that work, starting in the late 1990s, Barnes & Noble had tried to expand its selection of university press titles. This was applying a time-honored understanding of curation to improve the store selection.

But the results were beyond disappointing. Sales were not rising for the university presses; returns were. What became increasingly clear was that professors, the biggest market for university press books, were a leading edge demographic shifting their buying online. Makes sense, really, considering that they were often finding out about the books they wanted to order through something that had occurred online!

It was at that time — about 2002 or 2003 — that the late Steve Clark, then sales rep for Cambridge University Press and one of the publishers I was working with, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for his company than all other US retailers combined.

This was a big “aha” for me. I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.

And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.

Of course, massive selection is only the first aspect of curation and the other parts are not nearly so well done online. Or, at least, they haven’t been yet. This is a major conundrum for the industry as bookstores fade and it’s the reason three big publishers have financed the startup Bookish. The stores depend on the publishers’ metadata to do this work and the publishers’ depend on the stores’ systems and merchandising creativity. Perhaps partly because the necessary collaboration hasn’t occurred, an effective online equivalent to in-store browsing hasn’t yet been developed.

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I thought I was writing a blog, but it turns out I wrote a book!


An ebook of the first two years of The Shatzkin Files is now available and will be linked for the forseeable future from our left nav bar. This post is the introduction to the ebook, which explains how it came about.

My friend, Joe Esposito, first told me about blogs in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century before just about anybody else I knew had heard of them. I am not sure why it took me many years to start one of my own.

I’ve been training for this gig for a lifetime. My Dad insisted that I learn to touch-type when I started fooling around with a typewriter at the age of 8. (As he said, “either we teach him the right way, or he’ll teach himself the wrong way.”) Three months of twice-weekly lessons got me up to 42 words a minute on a manual typewriter, but trained my fingers to do the right thing so that today on a computer I can do about 3 times that speed. By the time I was 11, I was filing copy on a weekly basis on the Little League games for our local newspaper. I got paid too: 15 cents a column inch. The newspaper job actually continued for the next several years as I moved on to covering high school sports.

In my junior year of college, I started writing a weekly column I called The View from Underneath for the UCLA Daily Bruin. I don’t know how good it was or how many people read it, but it got me a certain amount of notoriety. Because of the column, I networked my way into the Bobby Kennedy presidential campaign and, after his death, a slot as an assistant to Pierre Salinger on the 1968 McGovern effort at the National Democratic Convention. (That was the one in Chicago that featured police against protestors in the streets and which villainized Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daley to that generation of young liberal activist Americans.)

Between the end of The View from Underneath and the commencement of The Shatzkin Files blog, 40 years passed. I did plenty of writing in the meantime: some books (mostly about baseball), a bunch of articles about publishing in trade publications in many countries, and, starting in the mid-1990s, speeches on publishing and digital change delivered at industry forums and then preserved on my website. The posted speeches were a great boon to my professional career, making it possible to build credibility (and “brand”) among people who never attended these live events.

Others I know had blogged daily, or almost daily. Richard Charkin, now Managing Director of Bloomsbury, wrote every day when he was head of Macmillan. My friend Gwyn Headley, Managing Director of the stock agency fotoLibra, told me that when he started blogging, he did so with a list of 365 topics in hand so he’d always have something to choose from on a day he wasn’t feeling creative. Richard gave up his blog when he changed jobs and I don’t think Gwyn kept up the daily habit very long either.

In my case, I blogged six times the first two or three weeks, then five times the next few weeks, and it diminished from there to what is now a one or twice weekly post. It seems like it usually takes me about 1500 words to get in and out, although some posts run a bit longer. I find that I need to review what I’ve written at least three times a few hours apart after I think I’m done to make sure I’m happy with it. Occasionally, a post gets to that point and gets scrapped.

As I think must be normal with these things, the audience for the blog just grew. As of this writing, The Shatzkin Files has about 1700 subscribers who get the blog delivered as an email to their inbox. A number generally ranging from half that to twice that (and occasionally, quite a bit more) reads the posts on the site. The comment strings keep getting longer.

Fortunately, one of my regular readers is Cameron Drew, who, like me, came into the book business through the most honorable possible path: working for his father. I knew David Drew, one of the great book sales reps of my generation, long before I ever met Cameron. Since Cameron has gone to work for Kobo, the global ebook retailer spawned by Canadian retailer Indigo, he and I have seen each other at conferences and trade shows. He told me from the very beginning that he was a loyal Shatzkin Files reader.

Early in 2011, Cameron told me he often found it useful to refer back to previous posts of The Shatzkin Files but that doing so through the website was clunky and difficult. “Your stuff should be collected into an ebook,” he said. “If we did it at Kobo, would you give us a 30-day exclusive?”

I was extremely flattered. “I’ll happily give you 60 days,” I said.

And thus we have this ebook.

If you live in the world of trade book publishing — the publishing that has reached its audience primarily through bookstores for about 100 years — you know we are all in a different world than we were in when I began The Shatzkin Files blog in February, 2009. One of the early posts speculated that it might be  harder for Amazon to hold onto their stranglehold on ebook sales than their hegemony on online print sales. At the time, Kindle was extending its dominance of the ebook marketplace by enabling the Kindle owners to access their ebook content through the iPhone and other devices. And Amazon’s pricing policy of selling below their cost was beginning to scare publishers.

Then, around the first anniversary of the blog, Apple’s iPad and the iBookstore arrived on the scene, offering publishers the opportunity to implement the so-called “agency model,” under which the discounting of ebooks is effectively stopped. I attribute to that tactic, along with the introduction of the iPad, the Nook, Kobo and Google Editions, the stabilization of ebook distribution in a multi-retailer market with evolving global competition. So, two years later, it looks like that early post was right.

We’re going to see a lot more change in trade publishing in the years to come. I expect the next two years to present even greater challenges and more drastic change than the last two years have. Since The Shatzkin Files began, the extremely challenging times we’ve expected for bookstores have become very evident. Over the next two years, the extremely challenging times it has seemed to me must follow for general trade publishers will probably become equally evident.

One thing worth using this introduction to say is that I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.

There are serious initiatives in the big houses to acknowledge the importance of verticalization (mostly in genres), to create direct contact with audiences, and to employ scale in search engine optimization and in locating customer clusters online that it is hoped will enable a new version of the horizontal, big book publisher model to leap the chasm of change. At the same time, the big publishers are figuring out how to step back from the enormous overheads associated with doing business the way they have for the past 100 years. How much change is sufficient, and how fast is fast enough, are questions we’ll only know the answers to with the passage of time.

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Publishers Launch Conferences: a new partnership with Michael Cader


I had already been in the “publishing futurist” game for a few years when my frequent project partner Mark Bide and I put together a day-long conference in March 2000 at the London Book Fair called “Publishing 2010.” (As I look at what I wrote for that conference, I can see some things I got right, some I got wrong, and some look like good predictions for the next few years, but haven’t happened yet.)

Although it was an “innovation” when I included agents in the digital change conversation at Digital Book World in January 2010, Mark and I actually did it for the first time at that conference 11 years ago. One of the agents we recruited for this conference was Michael Carlisle. Just a week before the conference, and the day before I was leaving for the UK, Carlisle called me with bad news. One of his literary clients was the driver of Lady Diana Spencer’s car in the crash that killed her in August of 1997. The driver’s book was coming out, Carlisle represented it. The promotional book tour needed to take place during the week of London Book Fair and Carlisle just had to cancel his trip across the pond.

“But,” he said, “I can give you a replacement. I know you don’t know him, but his name is Michael Cader and I can assure you he’ll do a great job as my substitute.” With no time to find somebody else, or even to vet this fellow Cader, I just said thank you and good luck with the book tour.

The conference was a success. We made a little money, had a very provocative day of conversation, and a few people even told me it was the best such conference they’d ever attended. Cader was, for my money, one of the stars of the show. I hadn’t ever heard anybody say so many things about digital change in publishing that I agreed with but hadn’t really thought of before. It was easy to agree that we should stay in touch.

A month or two later, Michael sent me a prototype for an idea he had and was about to start: a newsletter called Publishers Lunch. It was a great concept: links to stories about publishing from all over the internet with a graf or two of summary, explanation, and comment. I was bound to think this was a great idea because I’d had a similar thought about six or seven years earlier, just before the Web changed all of our lives. I had suggested to my friend (and one of my very favorite people to work with) Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners that the publishing world needed a service. Since a story about publishing could appear in any one of several newspapers or magazines on a New York newsstand on any day, we should hire a kid to read the papers at 3 am and send out a FAX at 6 in the morning telling people what stories they shouldn’t miss!

We didn’t do it. Cader’s version, with the advancements of technology, was an infinitely better iteration of the idea. As it turned out, his ongoing commentary also added more value than we could possibly have added (unless, of course, we had his help, but we didn’t know him then!)

In the decade-plus since that London Book Fair and the start of Lunch, Cader and I have had the opportunity to work together from time to time on conferences and industry events. We’ve shared stages. At the last BEA in Washington a few years ago, I interviewed Michael in a 1-on-1 session. And we have endlessly discussed our views about publishing and digital change.

We are both, in different ways, already making our living delivering “industry education.” For public consumption, Michael delivers each day’s facts with a few words of wise context; my less-frequent Shatzkin Files posts select a context or a paradigm to explain with, usually, some supporting facts. The consulting assignments of my company often involve teaching a tech company about the publishing business or helping an industry service get a better handle on what their client base needs or can accept. We’ve talked about ways to formalize a partnership over the years. Before it disappeared, we talked with the Stanford Publishing Course about delivering a new digital curriculum. We’ve fiddled with live event ideas.

When David Nussbaum, the Chairman of F+W Media, came to me two years ago with his concept for a new conference called Digital Book World and asked me to organize the program, I suggested strongly to him that he figure out how to engage Cader as his marketing arm. David agreed, and for the past two years, Michael and I have happily collaborated on programming and promoting a 2-day event which, in two short years, has grown to the same size as the 5-year old, very successful, and very worthy Tools of Change.

Today, Michael and I have announced a formal partnership called Publishers Launch Conferences to deliver live events — globally and throughout the year — on publishing and digital change. It is an anchor of this business that we will continue to do the 2-day Digital Book World event in January 2012 and for years thereafter. We call Digital Book World a “State of Play” event, covering the landscape of digital change.

DBW is aimed primarily at US trade publishers and the extent of the show — 2 days and 4 parallel programming tracks for half of the time — allows us to cover more than two dozen distinct topics with panels and presentations. Publishers Launch Conferences will, in its first year (ending next January with DBW 3), deliver about seven shorter (1 day or 1/2 day) and more focused events in New York, London, Frankfurt, and San Francisco. Our first day-long conference will be at (and in conjunction with) BookExpo America in May, aimed at international visitors and the Americans who are doing business with them. Our event in London on June 21, being presented in partnership with the UK’s Publishers Association, will address digital change from a UK perspective.

It has already been an education for us to think things through from the point of view of the different audiences we’re delivering for. Our plans for our London show were greatly informed (and modified) by meetings we had three weeks ago (thanks to our partners at the PA) with about 20 different players in UK publishing to discuss what needed to be addressed, how, and by whom.

Some of the Publishers Launch Conferences events will be topic-targeted. We’re planning two niche shows in the Fall: one on juvenile publishing (which both Michael and I see as the segment of the book business facing the most potential intrustion from outside players because of digital change) and one we’re calling internally “ebooks for the rest of us”. That one will focus on the mechanics of ebook publishing — from content conversion to the ultimate sale — for the smaller publishers, agents, and authors who don’t have the IT and marketing resources of the big publishers. A number of small publishers and entreprenurial authors have achieved notable success in the ebook world already. We’ll focus on what it takes to do that so that more small players can follow in their footsteps.

We decided on doing a few things differently than most other conferences. We won’t have a zillion sponsors; we’re limiting sponsor participation in the interests of our audience and in the interests of the sponsors themselves. Our first two Global Sponsors, Copyright Clearance Center and Perseus’s Constellation service, have embraced our unconventional practices. There will be no sponsor pitches from the stage during our programs. There will be no email spam sent to attendees by sponsors after the programs. Even our printed program will be designed to be helpful and worth keeping and we’ll do our best to have it contain the information that our audiences need to take home, reducing their need to take notes during the show. As readers of this blog know, organizing conferences engages me in conversations that often turn into posts.

Part of my value — and Michael Cader’s — comes from talking to people who are smart and well-informed about the topics that all of us in publishing must inevitably wrestle with if we want to stay in publishing during this time of constant and roiling change. Planning these events and recruiting speakers for them as a continuous and year-round process will be a new ongoing feature of my life, and therefore of these posts as well. I hope we’ll see you at some of the shows but, whether you’re there or not, they should result in you should be reading a more informed blogger when you come to The Shatzkin Files.

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Ebooks are making me recall the history of mass-market publishing


The ebook revolution is really beginning to remind me of the mass-market papeback revolution.

The mass paperback was really “invented” by Sir Allan Lane when he created Penguin in Britain before World War II. (Wikipedia credits a German publisher with the first cheap paperbacks a few years earlier, but Lane was certainly the first in English and deserving of some extra credit because the company he started continues in the same business to the present day.) Pocket Books in the US was also born just before the war. During World War II, historian and polymath Philip Van Doren Stern (who wrote, among other things, the New Yorker short story on which the movie classic  “It’s A Wonderful Life” was based) ran a program for the US military by which inexpensive paperbacks were made available to the troops.

After the war ended, mass market publishing really grew. Many houses — Ballantine, Bantam, Signet, Avon — were launched immediately following the war. The key to mass-market publishing was that it achieved distribution through the network of wholesalers that put magazines on newsstands and in local stores (often drugstroes) nationwide. Unlike trade books, which required an agreement between publisher and bookseller to get a copy of any book on a retail shelf, mass markets were “allocated” by the publisher to the wholesaler and in turn pushed out by the wholesaler to the racks they controlled.

The advantage of this distribution technique was that it enabled lots of copies to be pushed out to lots of places with much lower sales and distribution costs. The disadvantage was that it really only worked if books were treated like magazines, with “on sale dates” when they went out and “off sale dates” when they were pulled back and, like magazines, had their guts pulped while only the covers were returned for credit.

The paperbacks were typically priced at 25 cents when hardcover books were $2 or $3. (Compare that 8-to-1 or 12-to-1 pricing ratio to what exists today. It doesn’t.) And mass-markets were available in tens of thousands of locations nationwide, perhaps more than a hundred thousand, when bookstores were few, department stores tended to have only one location, and trade books were typically available in hundreds of locations, or at most a couple of thousand.

The much more widespread availability of these titles combined with their much lower prices created legions of new readers. And, in the beginning, most mass-markets titles tended to fit into “genres”. Westerns were a really big one fifty years ago. Bantam’s perennial bestselling author of westerns, Louis L’Amour, may still be the biggest-selling author in unit sales in (what is now) Random House history. Crime and science fiction lines were also popular as were raunchy books. I’m not sure that romance lines existed in the way they do now (although I’ll bet that among the readers of this blog are people who will tell me that answer); at that time there were lots of magazines peddling romance stories (as there were for other genres.)

If this is ringing some bells for an observer of the ebook transition who didn’t know paperback history, it is entirely intended to. Let’s ring a few more.

The hardcover publishers were very snobby about the paperback houses. Over time it developed that the mass-marketers were able to create enormous additional revenues from books previously published as hardcovers. (This did require the mass-market publishers to keep some titles on sale for longer than a normal cycle, which was not simple, but worth the trouble for books that sold really well.)

The name recognition of successful books, along with the ability to put words which said “established bestseller” on the cover, could be converted into huge sales given the much lower prices and much wider distribution mass-market could achieve. Over time this led to rapidly rising paperback license payments from paperback publishers to hardcover publishers. These were, by traditional contract, shared 50-50 with the authors. They provided a substantial, if temporary, bonanza for the trade houses in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

But the new marketplace also led to the growth of genre authors whose audiences were established for low-priced paperbacks. It was often difficult for those authors to move “up” to more expensive hardcover publication. Their audiences didn’t want to pay the higher prices, but they also didn’t necessarily shop in the bookstores and book departments where those books were found; they were used to buying their books at newsstands and in drugstores.

When I was first coming into New York from the suburbs as a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a fabulous selection of paperbacks at a drug store that occupied the corner location in the Grand Central building at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. I found a series of baseball biographies there published by Sport Magazine. I remember a book about 1001 things you could get for free by writing away for them. And, of course, the public domain classics were all there. And I got some great trash like “I Sell Love” and a book about airline stewardesses whose title now escapes me but which was great naughty reading for an early teenager.

Then in the summer of 1962, when I was 15, I worked a 2-month stint at the very classy Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue and 47th Street. My assignment was downstairs in the brand new, just-opened, paperback department. The center of the basement contained the “trade” paperbacks, mostly academic, on shelves. Around the outside were the mass-markets in racks. The mass-markets were on racks arranged by publisher, because the publishers’ reps serviced them on a weekly basis.

Scribners Bookstore, across the street, didn’t deign to stock paperbacks for some years thereafter.

My dad, Leonard Shatzkin, told a story about the legendary Jason Epstein’s Anchor line of paperbacks at Doubleday (perhaps the first line of quality, or trade, paperbacks, but almost certainly the first such line to come from a mainstream trade house). Dad’s responsibilities as Director of Research extended to the sales force and he ran the sales conferences. At one such conference when Anchor Books (and Jason) were very young, Dad told me that Sid Gross, the head of merchandise for the company’s Doubleday Book Stores, tore into the whole concept of the cheap paperback. He hated them. From his perspective, it was bad for a book retailer to be selling 25 cent items instead of $3 items! Many other booksellers back then felt the same way.

My father’s reaction, pretty typical for him, was to support the contrarian and revolutionary view. He pushed the reps to make Anchor Books a success and, a few years later when Epstein had moved on to Random House, Dad created the Dolphin Books line of quality paperbacks to complement Anchor, whose title selection was pretty highbrow, with public domain and more popular current titles.

That anti-paperback snobbery was widespread and the separation between trade and mass-market publishing persisted for a long time. For at least a couple of decades, paperback houses didn’t do hardcovers and didn’t try to put their titles directly into bookstores (as bookstores started to carry mass-markets, at first they bought them from the wholesalers who racked them) and the trade publishers didn’t try to access the mass-market distribution system. This changed in the 1970s. First Peter Mayer and Bill Shinker pioneered the use of mass-market techniques for oversized trade paperbacks published by a mass-market house (Avon). Then a few years later, Bantam starting publishing hardcovers with distribution to mass accounts.

In the end, mass-market distribution was dismantled by a number of forces. The best retail accounts started buying direct from publishers rather than through the local wholesalers. The number of titles grew so that the “allocation” methods wouldn’t work anymore; there were too many publishers and too many titles for a diminishing number of pockets to handle, so the more expensive negotation method became required.

Patterns are being replicated now with inexpensive and widely-available ebooks. New authors are being spawned. Genre fiction works best. Books that were previously successful in more expensive formats can find new audiences as their prices come down and they go where new customers are shopping. And traditional publishers are sure that their “quality” protects them from low-brow competition, even while that competition is taking millions of customer dollars and countless hours of customer mindshare off the table.

But here’s how that old story ended. Mostly, the mass-market publishers won. Penguin bought Viking. Bantam bought Doubleday and then Random House. Simon & Schuster survived largely because they merged very early with Pocket Books. What is now Hachette is largely called Little, Brown, which was a hardcover house, but it really developed over the last two decades of the 20th century as Warner Books, a mass-market house. Really, only HarperCollins and Macmillan of the current Big Six are true descendents of the trade publishers that were dominant when mass-market publishing arose.

There are a slew of differences between the transitions; ebook publishing has a title glut to deal with just like mass-market did, but the challenges are not the same when you don’t have printed books to manufacture and ship around and your distribution isn’t limited by shelf space or pockets to display them. And authors couldn’t do it themselves in the mass-market era the way they can today. But there is a very basic lesson I think publishers better take on board from this history.

Much-less-expensive editions, combined with access to audiences for authors that couldn’t get past the gatekeepers in the established houses, can create millions of new readers that weren’t available to the legacy products at the legacy prices.

And that can lead to economic power that can ultimately swallow up large chunks of the legacy publishing establishment.

I posted more than six months ago that I had read my first self-published ebook, a history of the 1962 New York Mets called “A Year in Mudville”. Then I had an exchange in the comments string of my last post with Joe Konrath, who used to be published by NY publishers but is now finding it much more lucrative to do it himself, and a reader named Chris. They urged me to read a self-published ebook bestseller, “Wish List” by John Locke. It was fabulous, sort of a cross between contemporary bestselling author Carl Hiaasen and a relic of the early mass-market days, Jim Thompson: bold, caustic, and funny with characters you like who suddenly do outrageously anti-social things. Locke has apparently come out of nowhere with just his talent to help him and is selling shedloads of ebooks. (He’ll certainly sell another one or two to me!) I am not price-sensitive about my reading and I haven’t ever shopped the 99 cent pile, but Locke is certainly evidence that there is stuff in there that is the equal of anything the big publishers are doing at major multiples of that price point. It will be an interesting challenge to see if any major publisher can deliver enough added value to make a deal with Locke or Amanda Hocking, another writer who has found a huge market without any help from the establishment.

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Ruth Cavin, great editor and world’s nicest person, gone at 92


The title of “nicest person on the planet” is now open. The longtime incumbent, Ruth Cavin — also a veteran book editor who was known to many as the doyenne of mysteries — died early Sunday morning at the age of 92. She was still holding down a full time position as an editor with the Thomas Dunne Books imprint at St. Martin’s at her death.

What is unique about Ruth’s career is that she didn’t become an editor until she was past her 60th birthday and didn’t start her more than two decades at St. Martin’s until she was 70. She was sort of the Grandma Moses of mystery editors.

I had the very good fortune to have known Ruth all my life.

Ruth Brodie grew up in Pittsburgh where she first met my mother, Eleanor Oshry, when they went to kindergarten together. They were active together as schoolchildren in the YPSLs (Young People’s Socialist League, the youth arm of the political party that was led by Norman Thomas) and they both attended college locally at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon).

The story in the family is that when my father, Leonard Shatzkin, went out to Tech in 1938 to get his degree in printing, he had the phone number of two girls in his pocket: my Mom and Ruth. He called Mom first. She said she knew he had both numbers, so she kept him too busy from that point on to have time to call Ruth.

But they all became friends and worked together on the Carnegic Tartan, the school paper, on which Ruth was a columnist, Dad eventually the editor, and Mom the managing editor.

I realize as I write this that I never asked Ruth exactly how she ended up in New York after college. What I do know is that between when the war ended, during which my Dad had been exempted from service because he was working on the Manhattan Project, and when my arrival could be anticipated (which would have been late in 1946), they thought he would be drafted. My parents organized a going-away party for him for which the guests were all married couples except for two single friends: Ruth and a young Business Week writer named Bram Cavin.

The families remained close, personally and professionally. When Dad started the Dolphin Books imprint at Doubleday, he was able to hire Bram as an editor. In the early 1960s, the Cavins with their young children, son Tony and twin daughters Emily and Nora, moved to Pleasantville near where we lived in Croton and we saw them increasingly often. They moved to Cleveland in about 1964 when Bram took a job as an editor with World Publishing and Ruth’s home was my stop the first night I was driving across the country to go to UCLA in 1965.

Ruth was not working full time then but was active in anti-war politics. She was also interested in whatever you were interested in. I remember in the late 60s when bands starting putting out “concept” albums sitting with her for an hour with the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed”, talking about what was “different” about all this, or whether anything really was.

In the early 1970s, my father started The Two Continents Publishing Group, setting up a trade book distributor on what is now the PGW-NBN model before there really any prototypes. Dad hired Ruth as his first employee to do the publicity. She also sold the subsidiary rights. I got the entirely-too-inflated title of Director of Marketing which meant that I got credit for a lot of what Ruth did.

Her output was prodigious. She wrote all the catalog copy, edited or wrote press releases, flap copy, and rep information for what grew into many dozens of books a year. She called on all the book clubs and all the senior book reviewers. Meanwhile, she had written a couple of books. One was called “Dinners for Beginners”. Another was on inter-urban rail transportation, mostly in the midwest, called “Trolleys.”

And, I must stress, it would be an understatement to say she had a smile on her face every day. Ruth had a smile on her face every minute. Nothing flustered or annoyed her. When you knew her well, you knew she had smiled her way through some pretty significant annoyances. She had a mastectomy in 1941. (She told me about two years ago that she now thinks she didn’t have cancer; that the diagnosis was a mistake.) She had a pacemaker installed in the late 1960s. I’ll bet that very few people who knew her had any idea about either of these things.

When the Shatzkins sold out of Two Continents in 1979, Ruth was 61 but definitely not done working. She was looking for new worlds to conquer. She managed to get a job at Walker and Company, a family-owned independent publisher that did a lot of mysteries. And thus did Ruth become a mystery editor.

Among the people she worked with at Walker were Philip Turner, who went on to work at Random House, Kodansha, and Sterling, and David Sobel, later at Wiley and Holt. I had an exchange with David yesterday in which he said, tongue only partly in cheek, that Ruth taught him everything he knows.

Ruth would teach you without it feeling like teaching. Every conversation was with an equal; every relationship was collegial. Her respect for other people was universal and deep and entirely genuine.

Tom Dunne was the man who “discovered” Ruth (when she was 70) for his imprint but he had support for the idea from then-CEO Tom McCormack. McCormack (another Doubleday alumnus originally recruited by my father) told me that he had a previous good experience with Joan Kahn, a mystery editor who had been retired by Harper at age 65 and then gave St. Martin’s ten great years.

Ruth started five years older and gave them more than 20!

The enormous productivity that my family and I saw in Ruth at Two Continents continued to be her reputation at St. Martin’s. I heard over the years that she routinely acquired, edited, and put into production more books than anybody. Since I pitched a few and sold her a couple over that time, I can tell you that she did all that without stinting on any part of the job from first contact through contract and editing and launch. Working with her was a positive experience for every author I know who did it.

With greater diligence since my Mom died in 2007, I’d see Ruth every few months outside the holiday season. We’d have lunch. She’d come along to see my nephew A.J. Shively in a play. I took her downtown a couple of times to get new hearing aids. I could see her decline. The scoliosis in her spine had her bent over so her back was nearly parallel to the ground. That meant she couldn’t breathe. We’d have to stop 3 times on the one block walk from her office to the restaurant she frequented.

Her memory, which, for names, had been sliding for years, started showing other lapses. I’d always ask her about her job. She always had a determination to keep it; the time she spent in the office with her colleagues was precious to her. A couple of years ago, she told me a bit abashedly that her company had insisted she stop taking the bus down from Grand Central to the office and provided her with a cab and then a car to take her back at the end of the day. (This was at the time that Bram was in a home near the White Plains train station, and Ruth stopped and saw him every evening on the way home.) A year or so ago, she said there was a plan afoot to have her work at home sometimes because the travel to the office was exhausting her. But she loved being with her colleagues. And she revered her boss, Tom Dunne, who really was the one who gave her this magnificent post-retirement-age career.

I had a conversation with St. Martin’s Publisher Sally Richardson (Dunne’s boss) about Ruth at a party for Al Silverman’s book three years ago. Sally was saying that she was working on making sure Ruth got a decent winter coat; she was so frugal and unconcerned with her own comfort that Sally had to, more or less, do it for her.

I told a few people at Macmillan that I wanted to acknowledge them publicly on Ruth’s behalf for the extraordinary sensitivity and generosity they showed her over the last months, perhaps even years, of her life. Although Tom McCormack made the point that they had learned that a “no age limit” policy made sense through their experience decades ago with Joan Kahn, that policy would not have obliged them to give her the extra support and reduced expectations that she must have required in the recent past.

They did that because they loved her, which was an inevitable consequence of knowing her well, so that isn’t extraordinary. But the fact that the company, particularly a company of the size of Macmillan, treated her better than many families would, is both rare and worthy of commendation. From this lifelong friend of Ruth’s, thanks very much.

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How will you win at ebook retailing?


I read all my books on my iPhone and my idiosyncracy is to have different books open in various ebook readers at the same time. This is a drastic change from my lifetime habit of reading one book at a time. I never knew I’d enjoy reading this way because the physical limitations of carrying paper around never encouraged me to consider it.

At the moment, I’m reading “Joe Cronin” by Mark Armour and “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey A. Moore on Google Books; “Washington” by Ron Chernow on the Nook reader (which I see now has lost my place and is forcing me to figure out where the hell I was, which is not a good thing); “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Last Great Pennant Drive” by John Nordell in Kobo; and “The Autobiography of Mark Twain” in Kindle. I have the iBooks reader on the phone but I never shop there because I never saw any particular advantage to the reader and they have distinctly fewer titles to choose from than everybody else.

Now, did you care about the details of that? I’ll bet most of you didn’t, except to the extent that you expect me to make a conceptual point that makes it worth knowing that highly personal detail (which, of course, I will.) My hunch is that most of you would have been just as happy to move on from the first short paragraph above and not require the detail from the second one which, frankly, is not really necessary to make the point. But a few of you are very interested (but please don’t tell me your details; I’m part of the majority.)

Where I buy the books is very haphazard. My order of preference for reading (at the moment; it changes and I use them all) is Kobo, Kindle, Google, Nook. Kobo, Kindle, and Nook have built-in dictionaries; press (not tap) on the word and you get a definition and an opportunity to make a note or link out to Google or Wikipedia. The problem for me is that, on the iPhone, I can’t always make this feature work. My personal experience is that the functionality is most reliable on Kobo, and considerably less so on Kindle and B&N, but whether that experience is representative of what others will find with different iPhones, different fingers, and different titles, I don’t know.

Google doesn’t yet offer this capability or even simple dog-earing of pages (which the others all have), but I’ll bet they will have it before long.

None of the platforms delivers perfect performance in my anecdotal and ad hoc experience (and yours might differ). I have had Kobo “lock up” so I had to reboot my phone to get it working again. I just got a rendering of “Mark Twain” from Nook that was a formating disaster on my iPhone. (I told some people at B&N about it; perhaps it is fixed by now. When I asked the publisher, UC Press, I was told the file worked on the Nook device, but I know it didn’t work in Nook on my iPhone. It reads fine on the iPhone in Kindle.) Kindle is frustrating for me because I strongly favor reading ragged right and, as far as I can tell, Kindle always delivers justified pages with no way to turn justification off. I find Google and Kobo deliver the navigation that feels most intuitive to me and the most control of the reading experience. Nook doesn’t seem to have a way for me to lock in the vertical screen, so you can’t read in bed and have the type conform to your head if you lie on your side.

If I think of a book I want when I’m reading another one, I’m most likely to just buy it in the reader I’m in just because I have it open. Thanks to the combination of agency and 24/7 price monitoring, there is unlikely to be any financial advantage to shopping around. If I know exactly which book I want, there’s also no particular distinction among the four for ease of use or speed of transaction.

There is one dynamic that clearly favors Kindle. I own a Kindle device, one I bought in the first week or two they became available. I read many books on it over the first year or so. I gave it to my wife when Kindle made its vast selection available on the iPhone. Martha reads a lot more books than I do; we read relatively few in common. But when I decided I wanted to read Stieg Larsson, she’d already bought it for Kindle so I read it in the Kindle reader (it’s all one account.) And when I bought the new Ken Follett from Nook, she accessed it in New York while I was reading it in Frankfurt by using the iPad that we share (but which neither of us favor for reading books because it is too heavy.)

All of which leads to the conceptual question which I promised above was coming: what’s a retailer to do to create loyalty and lock-in among customers? And in addressing that question we must also keep this in mind: small groups matter.

We will look back and say that it was a relatively small group of early adopters to Kindle that were the key catalysts to profound and accelerating change in book publishing (change which is still in its infancy.) Amazon was in a unique position to deliver a real value proposition to the people who could benefit most from a lightweight reading-only device. And they captured and, for a while, locked in a relatively small group of very heavy readers, because the more books you read the greater is the relative benefit of Kindle, functionally and financially.

There may well come a day when the (relatively) closed file format of the Kindle becomes a handicap to sales but it is hard to see why it would be now, particularly if Amazon delivers on their recent announcement of a browser-based Kindle reader coming shortly. (I should add that I’ve read reports that Google books work fine in a Kindle device through the Kindle web browser. Since my own Kindle is an original, without wifi and with a very slow connection, I’m not in a position to confirm that.) But, for now, Amazon has many millions of happy device owners for whom buying a book any other way is likely to be more trouble than it could possibly be worth.

So, how else does the retailer lock the customers in? Google has tried to sell the value of being the manager of your “locker” where all your books will be available to you all the time, on any device, etc. The idea seems to borrow from the iTunes concept, but this is another example which reminds us that “books ain’t music.” It matters to have all your music in one place. I will never have any reason to need “Washington” and “Joe Cronin” in the same reader but I could listen to a song from 1958 and a song from 1992 consecutively anytime.

So the keys to iTunes were a) enabling you to rip your CDs easily, for which the database of linked metadata was actually the critical feature and b) enabling you to buy any other music you wanted as downloads into the same hosting system. I may be a bit extreme in the disorganization of my reading habits, but I think very few people would require anything like the aggregating capabilities of iTunes for their reading material.

So, how else? Copia (our client for most of the past year, which will be on my iPhone as soon as their iPhone app is available) has a proposition that addresses this, which is to deliver a social network application in conjunction with the reader. If I were on Copia and had all the books I am talking about in their application, you would have been able to see the detail I presented in the second paragraph without my having to say so.

And that takes us to the second point: that small groups matter. Because, clearly, there are people who do care about what others are reading and who want to annotate what they read for others to see. And if I did care about sharing my reading experiences, I would want all my books in Copia. That’s lock-in. And, who knows, maybe I’ll find that sharing information with other baseball history nuts will be worthwhile. (Although I wonder if I’m the only person who finds the subtle underlining in Amazon that will tell you when moused over that “87 people highlighted this passage” both pointless and distracting.)

Locking in a small group is likely to be what Kobo has in mind with the new social reading capabilities they just introduced. They are available right now only in the iPad version of the app, but they “track” your reading for you, give you badges for finishing a book, and easily enable you to broadcast to the world where you are in your latest doorstop. The people who find this compelling, and there are some, will now have a reason to use Kobo and nothing but Kobo, just like the people who own Kindles have a reason to use nothing but Amazon and Copia hopes to gather socially-minded readers who would get less value anywhere else.

I expect that the core capabilities will even out over time. Google will add outbound links to dictionaries and reference sources. All of the platforms will improve the responsiveness of their iPhone app to my stubby fingers. If Kobo’s social statistics prove a draw to consumers, the others will add something similar.

One thing I have found that is really cool about reading on the iPhone is the ability to do a screen grab as a photo, which then allows me to send the photo as an email. There’s a fabulous graph in Robert Reich’s new book “Aftershock” which makes plain as day the fact that the one thing that tanks the American economy is the top 1% of the people getting too much of the national income. I loved being able to grab that chart as a photo and send it around to friends. I think one iPhone screen of content has to be small enough to be legitimate “fair use”. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.)

But what matters most to me is the merchandising and shopping experience, which Kobo has the best so far but not by enough to matter a lot of the time. (And, as I pointed out above, if you know which particular book you want before you shop, they’re all the same and really hard to improve on.) There are many ways the shopping experience can be improved by all of them, but I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post.

So most of the horses are out of the starting gate and Amazon has clearly taken the early lead. But anybody who thinks the race for retailing ebooks is over should contemplate this: we don’t even know yet what distinguishing feature set will win, let alone who’s going to have it in the long run.

I realize this analysis is incomplete. It doesn’t account for stand-alone readers like Liza Daly’s IBIS Reader nor does it account for independent ebook retailers such as the pioneering Diesel Ebooks. It doesn’t cover Sony, which might still have a larger chunk of the market than Kobo (although, if they do, I predict it won’t be for long). Back in the days before Kindle, when I read my ebooks in Palm format on Palm and other PDAs, I shopped at Diesel. I don’t write off anybody’s chances at such an early point in the development of the ereading infrastructure, but I think my iPhone and this post capture the sources that offer the biggest selection of content that would interest me. And I’m reasonably certain that I’m reporting here on the players that serve up the overwhelming majority of the ebooks read in the US, well over 90% and probably closer to 95%.

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Digging up a 15-year old speech, and a lesson in preservation


One thing I’ve heard often and dismissed is that we need print to preserve intellectual property. I figure that digital files are less destructible than paper and that, with any care at all, it should be possible to create more reliable preservation of bits than of atoms.

I still think that. However…

A month ago I was helping my sister clean out some of the old files of my father’s (now gone over eight years, but it takes a while to get around to this stuff.) Among his papers, I found the hard copy of a speech I had delivered at a VISTA Conference (VISTA is now a company called Publishing Technology) in November of 1995. As I started to read it, I realized I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I checked and it wasn’t on my web site. I checked further and it wasn’t in my hard drive.

So if Dad hadn’t saved this printed copy, I wouldn’t have had it to show you. I’m glad he did. Ironically, the speech was titled “How Quickly Things Change”.

The speech is too long (I’ve learned a thing or two about brevity in the past 15 years), for which I apologize. It is on the site without edits or corrections or updates (both because I’m honest and because I’m lazy). But I think many people of my generation and close to it will enjoy the refresher course about what the world of digital change looked like to book publishers in November of 1995. And the many people now thoroughly engaged in the issues that concern this blog and our industry who were still in school or in short pants at the time might be amazed at how little we knew at what was, at least for trade, the dawn of the digital publishing era.

At the time I made this speech, the obsession of most book publishers was to take advantage of the seemingly-vast amounts of data that could be packed on a CD-Rom. Several major publishers had formed “new media” divisions or departments to start creating what were, in effect, enhanced ebooks or apps out of their intellectual content. The industry was only on the verge of consciousness about how important connectivity was. In the speech’s opening sentences, I say “last year at this time, very few of us had heard of the World Wide Web” and I myself had been online since before the 1992 election. But “online” then meant, for most people, being connected within the walled gardens of America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserve.

I was happy to be reminded that I got a number of things pretty damn right at that early stage.

1. When most people in publishing didn’t believe it, I said that getting online was much more important than making fancy new products on CD-Roms.

2. I suggested resisting the trend to “new media divisions” because online communication was the key going forward and the move to exploit it should not be siloed.

3. I identified cell phones as (arguably) the fifth big new technology adoption of the past 20 years (the previous four being the VCR, the audio CD, the fax machine, and the personal computer.) But it is a time-capsule moment to recognize that the cell phone wasn’t ubiquitous yet.

4. I saw that professional publishing would shortly become mostly electronic, particularly directories.

5. I didn’t name it Wikipedia, but I did envision an encyclopedia online that is “dynamic, interactive, and perpetually being updated by organizing on-line tools to solve an age-old need.”

6. I said that we’d reach “universal connectivity”, defined as the point when just about everybody above the poverty line would be online, by the year 2000. At the time 16.6% of adults had internet access and only 10% had used the internet in the last month. By the way, those numbers constitute a reasonable approximation of where ebook uptake is today.

7. I said newspapers would be crushed first, magazines second, and that we’d be glad we’re in the book business as internet use grew.

8. At the time of the speech, there were 100,000 active domains and under a million home pages. In what I remember was an audience-gasp moment, I said that the small merchant on the corner would also have a presence on the Web. As I put it, Time Warner and MCI would be “joined, literally, by the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the local real estate agent.”

9. At a time when “several hundred” American publishers had web sites (“plus 38 British, 31 Canadian, and a handful of Australian”), I cautioned publishers against thinking that having web sites would substitute for having booksellers. Some people thought they might.

10. I said there should be a web page for every book, although I was somewhat over-ambitious in how I saw it developing organically and being part of the development and early marketing process.

11. When publishers were thinking of digital products almost exclusively as CD-Roms, which were “enhanced ebooks”, I saw the value of just delivering the text file to be read on a screen. (Of course, I thought we’d deliver them on diskettes, and I was wildy wrong about that!)

12. I concluded with a summary of all the ways online could be involved in our business, from agent submissions to marketing to make the case again that “new media divisions” were not the answer for publishers as they entered the digital age.

Of course, there’s a lot I didn’t see coming. No mention of iPods and iTunes and disaggregating the album into songs. (But I did see the impact of disaggregation on newspapers.) No mention of piracy or DRM. And although it had existed for a few months at that point, no mention of Amazon. (I did say that “it will be some time” before we’d be selling substantial numbers of books online, which turned out to be true. Amazon was still two or three years away from having a significant sales impact for most publishers.)

My job in these VISTA conferences was to deliver a message which was “way out there.” I was supposed to throw caution to the wind, to be the guy who could say things that most people wouldn’t say even if they believed it. In some ways, the greatest utility of the speech today is to show people where “way out there” was 15 years ago, in November of 1995.

So a belated thanks to my wonderful Dad for saving a hard copy of this speech. But I’m not changing my mind about the fact that usually, digital files will be more enduring than paper.

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