Is the new Amazon acquisition something publishers need to think about or not?

If you’re like me, you know a thing or two about the book business but you didn’t know there was a business called Twitch until you heard the announcement this morning that Amazon had bought it for about $1 billion, apparently outbidding or somehow finessing Google to make the purchase.

Twitch, I have learned, streams video games played by champions and by amateurs, and has a business because people watch other people playing video games in substantial numbers. Since Amazon is so existentially important to anybody in the book business, anything they do is of interest to those of us in the book business. But not everything they do — think selling cloud computing capabilities or running a marketplace for all sorts of non-book goods — has much to do with the book business.

Whether Twitch is something we book people have to understand or fear or gain benefit from is not clear to me yet. (I’ve only known about it for a few hours.) But Amazon’s purchase of it brings forth some points worth considering.

1. In the digital age, new pastimes can spring up and become large very quickly. At the very least, the millions (or billions) of minutes consumers are spending with Twitch are not being spent reading, or watching a movie, or watching the sporting events we used to think were dominant.

2. Amazon is both in the “selling stuff” business and in the “consumer attention” business. This is definitely the latter and might also be the former.

3. One informed observation from James McQuivey about the acquisition was that it showed Amazon wants to control as much content as it can. Twitch is a content-streaming machine, not just a game-hosting site.

4. It has long been the contention of some publishing visionaries like Bob Stein that the digital revolution for books will, in the long run, not just be about the form of delivery and consumption of the same old stuff books have always been (which is pretty much what the ebook revolution has been so far) but that over time what we call a “book” will become something quite different. Stein’s particular interest is in the book as a social construct, where the comments and annotations of many readers can become part of the intellectual property itself for subsequent readers. Stein told me that he sees this as a “game-changer” (pun perhaps intended), suddenly making Amazon a leader in the gaming world. He also sees the “second screen phenomenon” as exemplified by Twitch as extensible to other live events, like concerts and lectures and even television. He has clearly followed gaming for a long time.

Richard Nash expressed a similar idea in a recent speech: that ebooks mean that books are now “reading services”, not “objects”. Does Twitch point the way to that? Are we on the verge of “watching people read” in any substantial numbers? Or, at the very least, looking at the detritus of other people’s reading with interest?

It could be that Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch means exactly the same thing to Penguin Random House, Netflix, and the New York Yankees, just constituting another way people can spend their time which reduces what they have available to spend with older media forms and older brands. But Amazon having acquired it and the massive (and, frankly, unexpected by those of us not in the gaming world) participation it has to consume “media” that are totally outside the historical creators’ domain is another reminder that books in a virtual world particularly have competition that we wouldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago. The Wall Street Journal says Twitch is the 4th largest source of US internet traffic, and the Times says it’s among the 15 most-trafficked sites in the world

And it certainly adds a dimension to an observation I offered 18 months ago: that books are becoming part of other people’s businesses, not just a business on its own. We’re living in an increasingly complicated world.

We haven’t switched off of Feedburner yet (maybe next week) so many of you might not know about the post I just did suggesting a combination that could compete with Amazon for media sales. It’s right here.


Taking book marketing where the book readers are likely to be

Digital marketers who want to sell books are increasingly turning to the virtual places where readers cluster. This includes marketing through the major social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.), using the data mining tools available to target within those networks, as well as marketing in niches and online communities of readers (in some cases publishers are even building vertical communities themselves). Publishers are also increasingly turning to book- and reading-focused social sites to get the word out about their books. These vehicles carry an additional bonus in the digital age: they’re global and give publishers a one-stop opportunity to reach markets beyond their natural national audiences.

Goodreads, recently acquired by Amazon, has built a network of book-oriented conversation. Now with 19 million members, they have been for the past few years trying to show publishers how to use the platform as a marketing tool. This was, of course, their original reason for being. They have overtly built a site around books and conversation about books. Since the book business routinely deals in “comps” — books that are like the book I’m trying to sell you — Goodreads has a firm foundation from which to sell publishers marketing services. They’ve been doing that for some time.

What is not clear is whether that business will be reined in by their new corporate owners in any way. Amazon’s prior history doesn’t demonstrate great interest in marketing that isn’t Amazon-centric. And we know that big publishers are generically nervous about Amazon and not inclined to spend any more promotional money than an already aggressive large account with lots of coop buckets already squeezes out of them.

Whatever the extent to which Goodreads maintains its mission as a marketing vehicle for publishers to reach book audiences regardless of where they shop (and, as of this writing, the B&N link is actually above the Amazon link in their drop-down menu of “online stores”), publishers are bound to be looking for alternatives to work with as well. We think we see two of them emerging, although neither of them started out in life aimed at being a marketer of books available to publishers.

Wattpad is a Canada-based startup that is a reading and writing community. It preceded Penguin’s “Book Country” , started with social reading of public domain titles, and doesn’t have Book Country’s overtly commercial focus, nor its stated emphasis on genre fiction (although, perhaps inevitably, Wattpad’s strongest areas are YA, paranormal, romance, and fantasy), but the sites are similar in that they give aspiring writers the opportunity to have their work commented upon by a community of other aspiring writers. Wattpad has grown to over 10 million users. And it is a very active and engaged community. They publish stats suggesting that that users spend an extraordinary amount of time on their site, something like half-an-hour, twice-a day. And they have attracted such luminaries as Margaret Atwood to post content on the site.

There are already several examples of aspiring authors who have published on Wattpad, built audiences, developed their stories, and gotten a book deal including Beth ReeksAbigail Gibbs, and Brittany Geragotelis. And PW just did a piece on up-and-comer Nikki Kelly.

With its large number of highly-engaged readers and a track record of being successful promoters for undiscovered talent, Wattpad has recently started to call attention to the opportunity for publishers to market to its audience. It is now encouraging publishers to connect with its audience by posting teaser or attention-getting content in advance of the launch of a book. Random House, Scholastic, and Macmillan (for Amanda Hocking) have already taken advantage of this.

A similar opportunity is now also being seen by Scribd. Scribd is a repository of documents. It is often used as a “convenience”: a place to post court decisions or company reports or anything somebody wants to make accessible to a broad audience. In its early days, Scribd was seen as a pirate-enabler, but it has aggressively worked with publishers to make sure unauthorized copyrighted content is taken down. Meanwhile, it has built a vast treasure-trove of documents from 200 countries in 70 languages and is getting 10 million unique visitors a month.

That’s a lot of people looking at a lot of documents, giving Scribd a lot of knowledge about who they are and what else they might like to read.

Our view is that the marketing opportunities through all three of these companies should be understood by publishers. It is early days for all three of them, really, but as marketing entities Wattpad and Scribd are really just getting started. Some things have been “proven” to work at Goodreads, but, really, all three of them are like jungles still being hacked through with superhighway travel still in the forseeable future, but not around the corner.

There’s quite a bit of marketing activity by US-based publishers on Goodreads; it’s beginning to happen on Wattpad and it is a gleam in the eye at Scribd. But they all have big numbers of readers paying attention to their site and they’re all looking for ways to make themselves more valuable. It looks like Wattpad and Scribd are seeing the possibility that marketing for publishers could be a very significant revenue-generator, if not their principal one. (Goodreads started out with that hope.)

Painful aspects of the digital transition — the diminution of bookstore shelf space and the reduction of room for book marketing in the established press — are just beginning to bite in markets outside the English-speaking world. With all three of these communities teeming with non-English-speaking members, they all become tools publishers around the world will need to know about.

And that’s why we have them all speaking at our Publishers Launch Conference at Frankfurt, focused on what meaningful marketing reach they can offer to publishers outside the US. As conference programmers, we look for those win-win situations where what the presenter wants the audience to know is information they will find immediately useful. For our Frankfurt conference audience, which last year had c-level executives from 25 countries, this would appear to be a bull’s-eye.


We’re getting SaaS-y, going Hollywood, and starting to plan Digital Book World 2013

It is hard to believe that we’re starting to plan the fourth annual Digital Book World conference, which will be held January 16-17, 2013 at the Hilton in New York City. But we are.

The first DBW was held in 2010. Planning for it began the June before when David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media called me to say “we think there can be a better conference than any we’ve been to about digital change in publishing.” They challenged me to come up with an approach and to take on programming the event.

What I hit upon then as a differentiating proposition was to make Digital Book World focus on the business issues created by digital change in trade book publishing. We wouldn’t focus on tech, per se. We wouldn’t focus on how digital change would affect publishers who didn’t rely primarily on bookstores to reach their customers. It has long been my belief that general trade publishers would be the most challenged by the digital transition because their core proposition, their key value-add, was putting books into bookstores.

That’s worked for us very well. Not only have we had three very successful DBWs, I believe we have really helped focus the conversation about the digital transition. When we booked agents to speak at DBW 2010, it was the first time they had been featured at an industry event on digital change. Of course, the agents’ role — and the nature of their organizations — has changed as much as publishers and booksellers have in recent years. We’ve looked at the globalizing impact of the digital transition, how bookstores are coping with it, how publishers’ relationships with libraries are changing, and, repeatedly, how digital change is affecting trade publishers’ organizations, staffing, and workflows.

Then in 2012, Michael Cader and I formed Publishers Launch Conferences because, as big and sprawling and complete as DBW is (and with 30 different breakout sessions plus a ton of plenary programming, 150 or more speakers, and about 2000 attendees, it is definitely the biggest conversation about digital change for trade publishers held anywhere on the planet), we can’t cover everything there and we need interim conversations throughout the year.

As it happens, PLC is letting us focus on subsets of the broader conversation — one might call them “verticals” — that require a deeper dive. Last year we used that capability to deliver “eBooks for Everyone Else”, the primer for ebook publishing without an IT department, in New York and San Francisco and a half-day show dedicated to children’s book publishing in Frankfurt. Both of these ultimately enriched DBW itself; we made “eBEE” a breakout track and did our own full day Pub Launch standalone on children’s book publishing as a co-located event at DBW 2012.

We have two exciting vertical shows lined up for Pub Launch 2013 that will definitely spawn programming for DBW tracks.

“Publishing in the Cloud”, which we’ll stage on July 26 at Baruch on 25th and Lexington in Manhattan, is about SaaS (“Software as a Service”) for publishing. We think SaaS is starting to change publishing practices, workflows, and the IT departments themselves. SaaS will mean a totally different deployment of technology resources for big publishers and enable capabilities that were previously out of reach for smaller publishers.

Although almost all the from-stage presentations at “Cloud” will be by publishers who are using SaaS services, the suppliers will be there too. They’ll meet the delegates at their sponsor tables during breaks and will also participate in “speed-dating” sessions, where the attendees meet sponsors and the speakers in small groups that enable exchanges about the very specific challenges attendees come to the conference to have addressed.

“Publishers Launch Hollywood”, which will take place on October 22 at the Hollywood Renaisssance, will be the first conference event specifically designed to introduce the movie and TV communities to the new opportunities created by digital publishing. Networks, studios, producers, screenwriters, and agents in LA all control properties that would make books that can sell and can now be delivered at a nominal cost. We know of one major studio about to announce a program to sell 300 “classic” scripts as ebooks. NBC, the one major network not already affiliated with a publisher (CBS has S&S, ABC has Hyperion, and Fox has HarperCollins) has started its own ebook publishing operation. These initiatives are the tip of an opportunity iceberg and we plan to bring that message to Hollywood and deliver the information about all the new ways that exist for film and TV properties to generate more fame and more revenue that are now readily available.

Both SaaS and publishing’s Hollywood connection will find their way to the DBW program for next January. They join a list of topics we think are moving up on the agenda for publishers and that we’ll want to cover pretty thoroughly at DBW 2013..

Digital is making the world smaller. That creates opportunity for US publishers to sell more abroad and opportunity for foreign publishers to sell more here. We will feature more on export, more on import, and more conversation with international publishers in general next January. (There’s quite a bit of this on our PLC BEA show, which will take place on June 4.)

Pretty clearly, DRM (digital rights management) is an element in transition in our dymanic ebook world. We’d say that conversation began in earnest at DBW 2012 when Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of ebookseller Anobii, made his plea to eliminate DRM as a way to combat Kindle lock-in. Now Pottermore is selling DRM-free ebooks, getting heretofore inconceivable concessions from Amazon and other ebook retailers as a result, and Macmillan has just announced that their division will make the same switch in the next two months. The future of DRM, and, more to the point for us, the impact on piracy and on the overall marketplace, will be front and center at DBW 2013.

Discovery is a topic that has been on our minds for some time, but it is getting increasingly crucial as bookstores decline. Discovery is about metadata, of course, and that’s a subject we’ve covered at DBW before (and will again.) Many social reading and sharing options are being developed. Whether these give publishers and authors the tools they need to propel a book to the level of awareness necessary to get sales and word-of-mouth rolling is something we’ll definitely be trying to learn more about at DBW 2013.

The importance of brand and community is increasingly obvious. I’ve been thinking about a whole conference on verticals (which we’ll probably do as a Publishers Launch event in 2013), but we’ll start that process at DBW 2013. The best example we know of a multi-niche publisher is F+W Media, the owners of DBW. I think 2013 may be their time for a more featured role in the programming. Under the same heading, we take note of name-gathering efforts at several major houses. How names get gathered, how they get segmented and used, and what difference it is making to increase sales and reduce marketing costs will be a prime topic at DBW 2013, particularly now that Pottermore has shown us a whole new way name-gathering efforts might work.

As the traditional paths to market (bookstores) atrophy and sales of books prove more difficult to get, alternate revenue opportunities are going to grow in importance. We know of some. For one thing, international markets are more accessible. There are also new business propositions like Semi-Linear “citia” apps for high-concept non-fiction and Yummly for recipes and food content that offer publishers licensing revenues. And publishers may learn that some of their future dollars will come to them in pennies. Micro-transactions enabled by Copyright Clearance Center (a Publishers Launch global sponsor, but also the purveyors of Rightslink, a capability we think publishers will increasingly find indispensable as a rights marketing tool) and AcademicPub, among others, will likely deserve a real airing by DBW 2013.

We’re also seeing new models developing inside and outside of publishing houses and we’ll be putting examinations of them on the program too. Late last year, Penguin launched Book Country (a portal to help fledgling writers improve their work and get to market) and Sourcebooks is pioneering an “agile” publishing model with futurist David Houle (a hit with our DBW 2012 audience whom we’ll probably bring back in 2013.) Sourcebooks and F+W are also trying subscriptions, a model pioneered by O’Reilly with Safari a decade ago. To the extent that DRM fades, experimentation is further enabled. New models will be an important topic by next January.

We’ll also be gathering data from any source we can and as we have at all DBWs past. Self-publishing is a subject that is bound to get coverage beyond Book Country; I’d love to assemble a panel of self-publishing authors that have turned down major deals (and have really done it themselves instead, not signed with Amazon as their publishers!) And, of course, ebook pricing will be a topic we’ll figure out a way to cover even though most of the retailer and publisher players feel highly constrained talking about it.

The digital transition won’t last forever. Transitions don’t. At some point, the transition is over and we’re into a new world. But if one prediction for eight months from now is safe, I think it would be that we’ll still be in a state of flux next January, with a year away as hard to predict then as it was last January. Digital Book World every January and Publishers Launch Conferences throughout the year still have a lot more value to deliver.

What I want from writing this piece are suggestions for what we should cover at DBW. What do you think the burning issues will be in publishing’s digital transition by next January? We’ll be convening the DBW Conference Council at the end of June to discuss this question, but we’d love to be further informed by your thoughts by then. Comments are fine; sending us emails (to [email protected]) is fine; making suggestions to us when you see us at other shows is also fine. But please tell us what you think.


Guessing wrong about the future happens to all of us; here are 2 times it happened to me

One very lucky thing for those of us who are in the habit of predicting the future is that very few people keep score on us. We mostly keep score on ourselves. When I want to remind readers of something I said previously, I link back to it and call it forward it again.

But there is one belief I had and stated repeatedly early in the ebook era that was wildly wrong, hopelessly wrong, and then proven clearly to be wrong. I bring it up now because it belongs in this post identifying a more current error, one which hasn’t been proven yet but about which I’ve learned enough to want to walk back.

When I started reading ebooks in about 1999, there were a couple of dedicated ereaders just becoming available: the Rocket Book and the Softbook. Neither of them interested me or very many other people either. Both failed pretty quickly.

Just about simultaneously, ebooks were first being delivered to hand-held devices. I discovered the magic of putting books on my Palm Pilot, a device I had in my pocket all the time. I had started carrying a personal digital assistant in 1986; that was a Psion Organiser with a 2-, then a 4-line screen, which would not have worked for ebooks. But the Palm, which could carry a chunk not so different in extent from what I see now on my iPhone, worked fine.

The original dedicated devices came and went without much notice from anybody. Meanwhile, I continued to read on my Palm and its successors. The shopping experience at Palm Digital was terrible, the choice of titles was extremely limited, and the ebooks cost just about as much as the print books. But I shifted over, as much as I could, because I was hooked both on the utter convenience of always having books in my pocket and because I genuinely found it preferable to read on something so small and light and have book reading, for the first time, totally manageable with one hand.

When the Sony Reader arrived and didn’t do much, I wasn’t surprised. Sometime before it debuted, I wrote or said somewhere that if you carried a personal digital assistant, nobody should have to explain the value of ebooks to you. And if you didn’t carry a personal digital assistant, they might not actually have any value for you. At that point, most ebooks purchased were read on laptop and desktop computers.

That’s why I was pretty sure the Kindle wouldn’t work. Who wanted another device to carry around just to read books, I figured? What’s the advantage in that?

I neglected to think through that people do things for lots of different reasons. And I really underestimated the degree to which the book-sized page is a requirement for a lot of people, even though it might be a transitional one. Anyhow, I was really, really, really wrong. And even though I switched back from Kindle to iPhone reading the minute the vast selection available through Kindle (and now through Nook, Kobo, Google, and Apple) was available to me on the device I was always carrying, I fully accept that most people are willing to carry something around to do their reading on a regular-sized page. Lesson learned.

It is now clear to me that another concept that was an important part of my future view is in pretty desperate need of reassessment. It also appears to be being proved wrong.

It was evident pretty early that the Net facilitated the formation of communities around interests. Putting that together with my thinking about the distinction between the unit of sale and the unit of appreciation (shortcut to understanding: the former is the album and the latter is the song; the former is the cookbook and the latter is the recipe) made me think that the big online aggregation of content for sale would also ultimately be challenged. If you went to a web community to get advice about how to build a deck or plant a vegetable garden, I figured, you’d just pick up whatever were your content purchases — books or whatever else, physical or virtual — from that same site. You wouldn’t need a separate site to go buy content from.

In other words, I expected one of the ways to monetize a community would be that you could sell it stuff, particularly content.

Although I know that O’Reilly operates in a special marketplace, I saw the success they have had selling directly to their community — both their own publications and their subscription aggregation Safari — as a sign of what we could expect to develop in other verticals.

I don’t think so anymore.

The first rude awakening for me was when OpenSky changed its business model. OpenSky began with the proposition that they would facilitate just about any web site to sell just about anything. As I understood it, if you had a blog about cooking, you could arrange to sell your favorite pots and pans right off your own site. OpenSky would source the product and operate the back end. You’d just have to pick out what you wanted and decide how much margin you could demand.

Well, apparently that business model just didn’t work. They’ve switched OpenSky from a commerce platform for bloggers to a “social network for shopping” with celebrity, expert, and author curators. I’m not much of a shopper, online or offline, so I’m not one to judge how appealing it might be compared to competition. There is some evidence that the new model works and OpenSky feels like they are now taking off. But it isn’t any longer the perfect match for the vision that I had when I first saw it, and it probably didn’t work because my vision was wrong.

By extension, I had been figuring that publishers needed to sell direct as well. Big publishers had good reasons to resist that idea which I understood, but which in themselves make me question the idea. Big trade houses are highly dependent on the goodwill of Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as other retailers, and going into competition with your key channels is risky and problematical. And my vision of the future wasn’t really built around general publishers, anyway.

This month, J.K. Rowling opened her Pottermore site, which is intended to be the exclusive vendor of Harry Potter ebooks. Now, there’s a vertical. It appears you won’t be able to get them at Amazon, B&N, or Google (although Google checkout is “the preferred third party payment platform”); if you want them, you’ll buy them from the Pottermore site (or, as some would point out, get them from a pirate source if that’s easier.) In a ‘d’uh” moment, I read this piece making it clear that this kind of fragmentation didn’t work for musicians and ultimately wouldn’t work for authors. (The book business isn’t the music business, but some lessons do carry over.)

So mark me much less bullish on publishers selling direct than I used to be. It can add value and margin to a vertical site if the costs of running the store can be tightly managed, but it is not likely to produce much in sales very quickly.

In fact, I’m quite sure that fewer Harry Potter ebooks will be sold by the Pottermore strategy than if they were just made available through the standing ebook retail network. The margins might be higher with no retailer to pay, assuming that advantage isn’t completely swallowed up by their own costs of infrastructure (and it probably won’t be.) But not everybody who buys a Harry Potter book from Amazon or B&N (or a Nora Roberts book or a Janet Evanovich book or a James Patterson book) is a devoted fan. Some of them are just choosing their next read and if Roberts or Evanovich or Patterson wasn’t shown to them, they would have bought something else on offer.

There is evidence out there to contravene this post and confirm my original thesis. Our friends at F+W Media, with whom we deliver the annual Digital Book World conference, report success building their retailing business through their communities. A senior executive there tells me they are selling “tens of millions” in content, product, and services through 25 stores attached to the community sites they have developed over the past few years. They achieve an average order value of $40 — not too shabby — and credit a combination of true community focus which builds them large and powerful databases of names, unique curation that includes offering things that aren’t available elsewhere, selling content in multiple forms (book-like, video, webcasts), delivery of “online learning”, and special bundled packages for their success.

F+W is not unique. A smaller company that is their competitor in some spaces, Interweave, also has a community focus and sells direct. Both companies have the content to build a number of different verticals to amortize the cost of a common merchandising and retailing platform.I don’t doubt F+W when they say they’re making it work, and apparently Interweave is too, but that still leaves the question of whether they, like O’Reilly, are sufficiently unusual cases that it would be very hard for other publishers to follow their lead.

I still have my fingers crossed that the Google ebooks program could spawn some unique shopping experiences that will make a difference to the ecosystem in the long run. (This is taking powerful faith at the moment because Google has only barely detectable sales in their first half-year of operation.) By offering the opportunity for curation with personality to be done by a large number of different entities (about 300 bookstores have already started with the program in the US), the Google initiative still offers the possibility of a wide variety of curation choices, or bookstore front ends.

Of course, none of these individual Google ebook stores will have the resources of the big retail players to apply technology to their merchandising. But perhaps they can provide selection and positioning that will create its own following. Whether they apply what they know and their own unique intellectual resource base (because every bookstore has one) to highly local subjects or other verticals with global appeal, they have the opportunity to create online stores that at least some people will prefer to shop. Thousands of such entrepreneurs around the globe might produce hundreds — or dozens — of survivors with large enough customer bases to create the kind of diversity in the ebook retail network that would offer publishers the kind of opportunity they need to add value for a long time. And to do it the way they always have, by managing intermediary opportunities, not by selling direct.

This is not to suggest that publishers don’t need to be building direct contact with as many consumers as they can. Just as authors should do. But forget the idea of a huge number of vertical purchase points for ebooks all over the net. I will.

Google also announced an affiliate program for Google ebooks. That will enable any web site to sell their ebooks and get paid, extending a concept that both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have employed successfully for print books. It looks to us like Google pays more. An affiliate can earn 6-10% from Google, 6% from B&N, and 4-8.5% from Amazon.

This isn’t the original OpenSky vision, however, because that was about all kinds of products, not particularly (or even necessarily including) books or ebooks. Of course sourcing could always have been done through Amazon, but there were differences in the merchandising and pricing opportunities in the original OpenSky model.


Who would buy a print publisher? An internet vertical creator!

Nolo Press, the Berkeley-based publisher of books and software on the law for laypeople, announced this week that the company has been acquired by Internet Brands, an internet company that builds verticals. This news should be seen as another one of those things happening for the first time that will almost certainly happen repeatedly in the years to come.

What I’ve been trying to get across aggressively for at least four years, since my “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech at the 2007 BEA, is that the world will move to vertical community organization and that publishers have natural advantages to lead those communities. But “natural advantages” are not the same as “divine right”; publishers can also license their content to or be bought by the community creators. That’s what the Nolo purchase underscores.

Taking a look at the web sites for “Internet Brands” (which I hadn’t done before today but I’ll bet not too many others in publishing had either) shows a very impressive array of content and audience development across a wide range of subjects. In fact, the Internet Brands web site provides a bit of a roadmap for a 20th century publisher trying to make it through the 21st.

IB organizes its universe into eight overall headings: automotive, careers, health, home, licensing, money, shopping, and travel. There is a lot of diversity under each heading: verticals within the verticals.

“Licensing” is a bit of an outlier. That appears just to be an outlet for them to sell proprietary technology and under it they have only two offerings. One is software that obviously comes from their automotive vertical which parses information about cars myriad ways to enable sales and fleet licensing. The other is called vBulletin, forum and user-generated content management software for online community creation. These two software offerings would appear to be at the heart of IB’s own business but, like Amazon, they are making money helping other people make money with the capabilities that they required to make money!

The other seven headings are divided into dozens of niche sites. There are more under “automotive” than I care to count — scores — for every car, it would seem, and for certain sub-interests as well. There are 13 sites under “careers”, including dedicated ones for airline, aviation, health, freelance, and work-at-home moms.

There are 13 sites under “health”, nine under “home” (including sites for crafting, gardening, do-it-yourself, and real estate), nine under “money”, 13 under “shopping” (including several different flavors of bargain and coupon sites), and 24 under “travel”.

Diving deeper into the verticals is more than I’m going to do for this piece, but it would seem likely that certain content nuggets could be employed within more than one of their sites.

Under IB’s “careers” heading is a site called and it is within that niche that Nolo’s legal information for consumers will fall, although one suspects that Nolo can create content that could apply to many of IB’s sites.

Internet Brands started out in the late 1990s as an array of car-focused sites, which explains why that vertical is so thoroughly built out. After they had been in business for several years, they saw the merit in “scaling” their technology outside the automotive niche. Their sites appear to be a hodge-podge — some are clearly directories to help consumers find resources and to help resources find customers. But others seem to present real services to consumers.

One very law-focused blog covering the transaction notes that Nolo is a much classier content aggregation than the ones IB had acquired previously in that niche. They mistake IB’s Expert Hub brand to be law-focused itself; it isn’t. Expert Hub is also verticalized and includes lawyers, dentists, chiropractors, and accountants among the professionals it will help you find.

It appears that IB is an ad-driven play, not primarily focused on creating community value in the ways we think will ultimately be necessary in addition to user-generated content and curation: sales of a variety of goods and services and real opportunities to connect with others who share your interests and challenges. But they also appear already to be profitable and generating healthy search traffic with their focused aggregations of content. Right now the forums IB has appear to be bolted on, rather than core, but perhaps the Nolo purchase signals a new stage in IB’s growth where there will be an even greater focus on content generation.

Unfortunately, some of the further information links on IB’s site (“press releases”, “SEC filings”) were dead, perhaps because investors took the company private in a $640 million deal last September. But I think we publishing types will want to learn more about IB and any other companies like them because they’ll be investing in us, buying us, competing with us, and becoming us in the years to come.


Conceiving issues that will gestate in the next nine months; planning for 2012 Digital Book World

The fact that Publishers Launch Conferences will stage half-a-dozen or more events before our next big multi-day Digital Book World blowout next January doesn’t change the DBW calendar. Now is the time of year when we have to start thinking about what the big issues will be at the turn of the year so we can start planning the program. As we did last year, we’ll be calling a meeting of our Conference Council (the 2012 group is currently in formation) at the end of June to brainstorm the topics and our approach to covering them.

It’s my job to anticipate now where we’ll be in nine months. What aspects of digital change will be most important to us when we convene again at the New York Sheraton and have a couple dozen sessions to explore the issues? This post exposes the current state of my thinking on the subject; I am shamelessly using the opportunity to engage the very smart audience gathered here to help me refine these thoughts and point out what I may have missed. I count 15 discrete subjects here (some of which can certainly be combined) which have made my list so far. (I’ve italicized them so you can count along with me; they don’t all get their own paragraph.)

The biggest subject of all, of course, is “global.” The reality that every publisher anywhere is now able to reach any reader everywhere with no local presence, no inventory barriers, and many of the same intermediaries that deliver content to local customers is an industry-changer that will take a long time to deliver its full effects. Territorial rights allocation is only one of the many long-time conventions of publishing that will be challenged by the reality of global. It looks like the biggest publishers — those with local organizations in many countries — have the biggest challenge to adjust to the new global reality. We see this now as we’re putting together panels for our BEA and London events on the first biggest opportunity of global: the new ease of selling books in any language and of any origin to the biggest ebook market developed so far: ours in the United States.

Perhaps the second biggest subject is one we’ve discussed in this space for a long time: “vertical.” Even the most avowedly “general” of the big “general trade” houses are beginning to recognize the urgency of direct contact with individual customers. Once that becomes an objective, it quickly becomes apparent that audiences cluster around subjects or genres: verticals. We anticipate some dramatic reorganizing of the imprint, publishing, and marketing structures of the major houses as they develop their audience-centricity. There might even be enough development along those lines to warrant conversation about it at DBW 2012.

Two more categories of change will be in the “sales models” and “product models” publishers will employ, neither of which have had anything but the most minor adjustments since the mass-market paperback became a force just after World War II. We’d expect somebody big to try a subscription model, a la O’Reilly’s Safari or what we get with cable TV, for the consumer market sometime soon, maybe before next January. (In fact, a James Patterson Book Club, which is a sort-of new subscription model, was announced just today!) And the new Amazon Singles program for shorter-than-book-length content is accelerating the awareness of publishers and authors that the length requirements for printed books do not extend to digital ones.

All of this will lead inexorably to more “ebook first” imprints, divisions, and initiatives. I’d guess that by January, several (if not all) of the major houses will have “programs” offering content for sale which is too brief to be delivered as a bound book. We first reported on a program of this kind from Harlequin at BISG’s Making Information Pay conference several years ago. It was an outlier then. It’s more of a pioneer now. This week we heard that Hachette has a short fiction program in its Orbit imprint. Last week in London we talked with friends at Pan Macmillan about a short ebook program they created at the end of last year to capitalize on the many Kindles and iPads that were delivered as presents for Christmas. (Of course, we’re putting that on the program for our London conference; the coordination challenges within an established operation to pull off something like this are not trivial.)

Part and parcel of verticality is direct audience contact and retention. When we wrote a couple of posts last summer about direct marketing techniques publishers had to make part of their standard operations, we were a bit early to get the true trade publishers’ attention. By next January, every publisher’s consumer emailing list will be a component of its marketing effort. A part of this work, of course, is effective use of social media, a subject publishers keep learning more about and which we’ll certainly try to cover — in our way, which is looking for scale and replicability — in January.

Metadata is a subject that just doesn’t go away. It is disappointing to hear from industry bodies and retailers that many publishers haven’t gotten the core metadata totally under control yet. We covered the basics at Digital Book World 2011; in 2012 I hope we’ll be talking about things like rationalizing the BIC (British) and BISG (US) subject codes, which have developed separately to address each market’s idiosyncrasies but which need to be harmonized to enable the full potential of globalization.

Over the next two years, I’m expecting the most disruptive change to take place in children’s book publishing and illustrated book publishing. When the catalyst for ereading was the Amazon Kindle, as it was starting in late 2007, straight text worked but not much else did. Now that Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook and the iPad are devices of choice for millions of people, illustrated material and rich color can be delivered as well as text. In the children’s book area, there have been a slew of new entrants, probably led by big publishing veteran Rick Richter’s Ruckus Media. The illustrated book business hasn’t really surfaced in a big way yet, but it almost certainly will by next January’s Digital Book World. I’d expect it to be a major topic of conversation since illustrated books are far more complex to “convert” and present the opportunity to enhance in ways that may soon become requirements.

The recent news from O’Reilly that they are using Ingram’s services to be able to deliver printed books without holding stock signals another new topic that will be of widespread interest: building a virtual inventory infrastructure. This topic also came up in a discussion at London Book Fair with Sara Lloyd and James Long of Pan Macmillan, one company we’ve found that is very consciously preparing for a 50% ebook world. Decentralizing their print production to reduce inventory and manufacture closer to the point of delivery is very much on their radar screen. (In fact, the whole question of how publishers have to adjust their organizations and overheads to cope with a 50% or more digital book marketplace is one we’re featuring at our Publishers Launch show in London.)

As I write this, it has been nearly a month since we’ve had a lot of conversation about authors doing their own publishing, but we got very familiar with the names Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and Barry Eisler in recent weeks because they’re doing just that. That trend can do nothing but accelerate between now and next January.

This is requiring agents to reconsider their own business models. We’re at the dawn of an era where agents will be publishers themselves and business advisors, not wholly dependent for their revenue on their ability to get advances and royalties from publishers. The first Digital Book World conference in 2010 was the first digital publishing conference to feature agents prominently in the conversation and we talked then about how business models might change. This January I expect we’ll be able to stage some conversation about how new models are working out for those who have tried them. (One of the agents we’ve put on the program at DBW is Scott Waxman, and his Diversion division doing ebooks has 20 books in the market and 10 more about to hit.)

And the last two subjects that we almost certainly should be discussing at DBW 2012 are the still-critical but diminishing segments of a publisher’s marketplace for printed books: brick-and-mortar retail locations, particularly bookstores and mass-merchants and the place so many people have discovered and acquired their reading material, the public library.

The decline of bookstores has been duly noted in The Shatzkin Files and, of course, the bankruptcy of Borders has everybody’s attention. Less well-publicized has been the decline of book sales in the mass merchants. (Tactics for arresting that slide will be the topic of a presentation by Tara Catogge of Charles Levy at BISG’s Making Information Pay conference, another one we get our hands dirty on, taking place on May 5.) As the brick channel for printed books continues its inevitable decline into insignificance, the state of play and the tactics to adjust to the loss of sales and, perhaps more important, merchandising exposure, will be a topic we’ll discuss again, as we did with independent bookstores and heads of sales departments last January.

And how to deal with libraries in the ebook world is a question vexing many publishers. Two of the Big Six just don’t sell them ebooks at all; one company has tried a number-of-loans limitation. We are intrigued by a solution pioneered by Bloomsbury in the UK — a “shelf” of books the library licenses a year at a time for online reading only. We aren’t covering it in our London show because we think most of the UK market is familiar with it but we’ll be putting it on the agenda for Digital Book World next January.

Next week I’ll give you a preview of the first two Publishers Launch Conferences programs: for international visitors to BEA and the Americans who work with them (on May 25) and, with the Publishers Association, our program for UK publishers (on June 21.)


Can big publishers compete if the coin of the realm is “names”?

In a conversation earlier this week I learned that the big Hollywood talent agencies have come to the recognition that “audience aggregation”, a component of what I have been calling a “vertical” strategy, needs to be incorporated into their thinking going forward. This was signaled very strongly recently when longtime publisher Steve Ross took his fledgling business offering self-publishing advice to authors with him to the Abrams Artists Agency where he set up a new department for them to represent authors rights to publishers.

What does that mean? It means that the celebrities will start increasingly try to “own” their audiences: to gather them in networks, bind them with various content offers like newsletters or other material from the person they “know”, and sell them stuff. The people managing the careers of movie stars are seeing the writing on the wall. The intermediary structure that connected the stars to their public — studios, producers, theatrical distribution — is suffering the pain of all media: declining prices for content because of the increase in supply and consumption habits changing because of more and more quality screens and digital delivery.

Many authors, of course, are trying to do the same thing. They have web pages; they collect the names of those who want to keep in touch with them; and they are, increasingly, selling them stuff. Sometimes the stuff is content (with a way blazed by Joe Konrath and his successful conversion from published author to self-publishing author, so far almost exclusively through Amazon) and now, thanks to Open Sky, they could be selling anything at all.

So the authors and the movie stars are getting ready for the day when they have to bring real live customer contact to the party if they want to be invited. But the big publishers are lagging behind here. Why? One reason is that the big accounts appear to have intimidated them from selling direct to consumers.

This is the kind of thing you don’t know for sure from the outside. Conversations between publishers and their top accounts, like conversations between publishers and the agents for their top authors, are private and closely guarded. But it has been anecdotally reported in the past that Barnes & Noble is not happy if publishers sell to consumers. And I’ve also heard that Amazon has told publishers that if they charge any price lower than the suggested retail in a direct sale, Amazon will consider that lower price to be the basis of their discounts, not the suggested retail.

That threat effectively prevents any publisher from selling direct unless they operate on the agency model and have eliminated price competition in the marketplace. (Of course, under the agency model, all sales are considered sales by the publisher, except, of course, that they don’t have the names or the customer relationship!)

In a business that is built on the leverage of intermediary trading partners who aggregate customers, which trade publishing is, very few are in a position to gratuitously annoy the two most powerful levers they have.

So the publishers have been reluctant to be seen to be selling direct. This concern also applies, for the same reason, to the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Both depend on bookstore business for their survival and it is, perhaps, an enlightened position not to compete with their core customers so neither company sells directly. But it is very constraining. Baker & Taylor really needs a full-line store to sell their BLIO ebook platform, but they can’t do it themselves. And Ingram — our client but we have not discussed this question with them at all — serves publisher clients as a DAD and as an ebook wholesaler who could use a retailing capability; but it is a very longstanding Ingram policy not to compete with their bookseller customers.

That’s the context in which LibreDigital announced their new SkyShelf service last week. SkyShelf is a direct-to-consumer ebook sales capability for the publishers LibreDigital serves as a digital distributor, but it gives them a certain amount of “deniability” or distance from it.

In my opinion, the big publishers must face some very critical questions fraught with customer relationship management challenges.

On the one hand, publishers — all publishers — must start forming direct relationships with end users. They have no choice. Authors are doing it. The retailers are doing it. The Hollywood stars and politicians and ballplayers they want to write books for them are doing it. Part of what the publisher wants to get paid for is marketing. When the most important marketing asset for any book is the number of likely-interested people who can be emailed about its publication, publishers without any names to offer will have a harder time selling their value.

Publishers who do have names on file — from Digital Book World owners F+W Media to Hay House to Harlequin and including others that grow in number every day — are already benefiting. They’re selling more copies expending less marketing money and they’ve got something important to offer authors looking for a publisher.

But it is hard to collect names and build a relationship with an audience if you don’t sell things to them. That’s one place that big publishers are really stuck at the moment. That’s why LibreDigital built SkyShelf to help them out. At the same time they put their competitor Ingram in a ticklish spot because it is hard for them to offer a similar service for the same reason that publishers need the help!

At the same time, the big retailers are pushing their way up the value chain into the publishers’ territory. Amazon has had self-publishing capability that is aimed at authors for a long time. Barnes & Noble invested in iUniverse, one of the first self-publishing start-ups (now part of Author Solutions), over a decade ago. Now B&N has delivered a suite of services called “PubIt” to compete with Amazon’s offering for authors.

Amazon has such a large share of the online print and ebook businesses that, with the publisher disintermediated and the author able to take a much larger share, they can credibly make the argument that a branded author — or one that otherwise does her own promotion and marketing — can make as much money through them alone as through a publisher serving the entire market.

It is more difficult and expensive for Barnes & Noble to leverage their store shelves for self-published authors but, to the extent they can, it will be a very attractive lure. I’d be very surprised if they’re not thinking about how to do that. Borders did a deal with self-publisher Lulu a couple of years and a couple of management changes ago. How long will it be before they revitalize that arrangement and add more competition for the authors’ attention?

The names of people potentially interested in a book who can be contacted for free will be the most important coin of the publishing realm in a short time; in some cases, it is already. There are publishers who are emailing to millions of names every month right now, but none of them are the biggest publishers. If gathering names is not a major priority at any publishing house, it surely should be. It’s mission-critical; it’s about survival. Seen in that light, it must certainly be worth some tough negotiating with major accounts if that’s what publishers have to do to make it happen.

This post was provoked by new information, about what the Hollywood agents are doing and about the launch of SkyShelf. But we’ve been pounding this drum of direct contact for some time. We did a pair of posts (here and here) with the help of direct response expert Neal Goff a few weeks ago trying to push publishers in this same direction. Those posts were about how. This one is about why.


A Frankfurt reminder: the world is getting smaller

At the conclusion of another Frankfurt Book Fair — my thirty-somethingth — here is something I actually knew before but have taken on board in a whole new way: there is an enormous gap between the US and everyplace else in the Western world (at least) in consumer ebook takeup and acceptance.

Here is what I think: it can’t stay that way forever.

Here is what I deduce: the rest of the world is in for what will be, for many, a vertigo-inducing ride while they catch up.

It seems pretty obvious why the US is so far ahead: 300 million people in a single developed economy with a single currency and a single language. Those same factors also largely explain why the US is also so far ahead in Internet print book purchasing. (There is another big cause at play there: the service infrastructure provided by our national wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, without which it would have taken a multiple of the initial investment to get off the ground 15 years ago.)

One thing leads to another. Because Amazon had, by the end of 2007 when it introduced the Kindle, built a loyal customer base of tens of millions of book buyers, they had the pillars in place to roll out an ereading device. That really required two things nobody else in any other country has even today: a big enough customer base to reach a critical mass of consumers without any assistance or partnerships and enough leverage with the publishers to get them to put their books into the ecosystem that supported their device.

One thing leads to another. Amazon’s Kindle, with a much larger selection of titles and a smoother path from file server to device than had previously been offered by other ereading platforms (which were, before Kindle, the Sony Reader device for some and reading on PCs or handhelds such as Palm Pilots for others, with me in the handhelds group), gained pretty rapid uptake. That led Barnes & Noble, which also had leverage with the publishers to get titles into their store and access to and brand credibility with millions of book readers, to follow on with their Kindle-like device, the Nook, almost exactly two years after the Kindle. As most of us know, the iPad followed the Nook shortly thereafter, coming onto the US market in April 2010.

All of this has resulted in getting the US to the point as of Frankfurt 2010 where a US publisher launching a book of straight text can expect ebook sales to be a mid-teens percentage of the book’s total sale, with occasional reports that are even more dramatic (such as the anecdote that the first wave of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” was one-third ebooks!)

One thing leads to another. As has been written on this blog many times, all these Internet-based sales put enormous pressure on brick-and-mortar stores. We see shelf space diminishing and there are those among us who believe that over the next ten years it could pretty much disappear.

The Kindle hasn’t had nearly as dramatic an impact abroad as it has in the US for a host of reasons. Amazon doesn’t have the same audience share. They don’t have the same huge number of titles available as they do in the US. And they haven’t had two other big and influential companies (B&N and Apple) pushing the device-reading experience into the public consciousness. It seems Nook and iPad’s arrival have only served as catalysts for Amazon to sell even more Kindles and for the ebook uptake in the whole US market to accelerate further.

So we find ourselves today with this massive gap between the penetration of ebooks in the American market and the penetration in any other country’s market outside of Asia (I didn’t talk to any Asian publishers at the Fair, and I don’t know the situation there.) Certainly (assumption alert: a priori argument not based on any data) this is a situation that cannot last forever. In five or ten or fifteen years the percentage of book sales that are digital and the percentage of print book sales that are transacted online will be pretty much the same in all developed countries.

If that assumption is right, then other countries — starting with the English-speaking ones and then moving on from there — are going to experience the changes we’ve felt in America in a much more compressed period of time.

There are legal and institutional barriers to change which have already been “effective.” The world’s largest natural moat has protected the Australian book market, keeping print book prices high and the retail book trade healthy. It was evident from conversations I had with some Australian booksellers at last May’s BookExpo that they are feeling the winds of change beginning to blow a gale, fanned by the arrival of Kobo ebooks in the market. (Kobo is a sleeper from the US perspective: a small almost-an-afterthought ebook platform in our country but painstakingly building a presence around the globe and some impressive OEM relationships everywhere, including in the US.) Ingram’s POD setup in Australia will surely introduce a lot more titles into the print marketplace. That’s important because POD drives consumers to online purchasing by offering more titles than any bookstore could ever stock.

All of this is frightening to any sentient Australian bookseller.

Retail price maintenance, territorial and language rights restrictions, and variable rules about applying VAT (sales tax to us Americans) to books seriously complicate the development of the ebook marketplaces in Europe.

But the biggest complication of all, in the short run, will be the paucity of titles available in the epub format in languages other than English. Epub enables reflowing of text, which is essential to deliver a reader-friendly ebook experience to a multiplicity of screen sizes. We have hundreds of thousands of titles in epub in English; no other Western language is close. This is a subject that first surfaced for me in Brazil when I was there in August.

One thing leads to another. The epub gap spawns another serious issue for the European book trade as it catches up with the US. Most educated people in most European countries are comfortable reading English. A publisher in tiny Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) told me that one-sixth of the books sold through the largest chain of bookstores and the largest online bookseller are already in English. Somebody else told me that 25% of the books sold in Denmark are in English. In Holland, I was told, there has been recent legislation requiring “windowing” of English ebooks on titles that have a Dutch edition, holding back the English edition until the Dutch edition has had a minimum time of availability.

The biggest adjustments even for the players in the US book trade are still ahead of them. As far as I can tell, big publishers have not really taken on board that bookstores are pretty much going away in the next ten years and, one thing leading to another, taking the big publishers’ major value proposition with them. There is almost no visible acknowledgment of the shift from IP to eyeballs that I believe is coming. But the change we’ve had and the change we’re facing in the US publishing world is dwarfed by what will be seen and felt by our friends and trading partners in Europe and elsewhere in the next decade.

Some of what this post is about had already been anticipated as we prepared the program for the Digital Book World conference taking place January 25-26. We had already planned a panel on how territorial and language rights trading will be affected as ebook uptake spreads. Now I think I’ve found somebody who can lay out the European landscape as US publishers and agents should be thinking about it. I’m working with her to prepare what I think will be a significant addition to our program covering a topic that is, as it should be, increasingly important to American rightsholders.

Another topic for another day is that the world is getting smaller and publishers in every country will need to understand what’s going on in their foreign markets better. We’ll be delivering just one compressed seminar and a panel or two at Digital Book World because that’s what bandwidth we think conference attendees this January will be comfortable investing in the topic, relative to a lot of other things that need to be discussed. By a year from January, I think understanding how the ebook markets work in countries around the world will be a top-of-mind concern for every publisher and agent in America.


Three fledglings that really should fly

Sometimes you hear of an idea or a new business that seems so right-on-the-money that you wish you had invested in it and figure it is just a matter of time before it grows into something very powerful and important.

Here are three of those — all of which should be of interest to publishers  and which everybody who is interested in the content on this blog should know about — that are unrelated and similar only in one way. If they execute and deliver on their promise, which in the last of these three cases is really beyond question, they should have very bright futures.

One is a new business that was dreamed up without publishing as we know it in mind at all. It’s called Open Sky, and it enables any web site to sell any thing. Open Sky aggregates wholesale pricing arrangements from suppliers of anything at all and enables any website (or blog) to sell the goods at a profit. And they provide the web site with whatever technology or functionality they need plus a social commerce platform to enable harvesting and use of customer information.

So from the manufacturer’s perspective, they are the front end to a lot of distributed eyeballs and resellers. From the website or blogger’s perspective, they provide both the commercial relationship and the web tools necessary to “stock” and sell items relevant to the site’s audience. They’re brokering business arrangements that are useful on both ends and enabling sales that would simply not exist if they did not exist.

Former book editor and agent Mary Ann Naples saw the potential for Open Sky with clients of hers who were book authors and bloggers. Imagine being a blogger who writes about cooking and wants to tout and sell her favorite pots and pans. Mary Ann represented people like that and she’s been taking Open Sky into the book business.

From the perspective of a guy who has been telling publishers to use their content as bait to attract and aggregate eyeballs because they’re bound to have remunerative value, Open Sky provides an answer to the question I face the most when I lay out my thinking. (“Great, Mike, but how am I going to make money?”)

The second is a publishing business you’ve probably heard of (or should have) called Flat World Knowledge. Flat World creates college textbooks, doing the creation more-or less the old-fashioned way, although somewhat faster and cheaper than the big players. What’s different about Flat World is their commercial model. All their content is available free on the web in HTML, but you can buy it (printed or digitally-delivered) if you need to possess it or mark it up.

Wrapped into the Flat World model is the capability for professors to add other material, theirs or somebody else’s, to the Flat World text. That material becomes part of the offering to the student and soon Flat World will add the optional capability to make the material available to professors in other schools to offer to their students (with a royalty, of course). Flat World has had books in the marketplace for about 18 months; they’ve learned enough to know about how much the free HTML exposure drives profitable sales. And “how much” is apparently “enough.”

In a world where the price-and-margin pressure on the textbook model just gets increasingly difficult for publishers and students, Flat World’s new approach looks very likely to succeed. It is worth noting that Macmillan is now delivering the professor customization part of the Flat World model, but it is extremely difficult for an established publisher with a legacy cost structure to compete with their free-on-the-web commercial model. This will becoming a growing threat to the established players in the college textbook space.

The third initiative comes from two giants in the trade world: Macmillan and Ingram. (I always tell you when this is the case: Ingram is, at the moment, our client.) They have just signed a deal by which Ingram’s print-on-demand, warehouse space, and shipping capability becomes an extension of Macmillan’s own operation. Books can be seamlessly shifted from a pressrun model to POD (and back). Macmillan is alleviating warehouse space pressure, keeping books generating revenue past when they would otherwise have been out of print, and anticipating the inevitable future reduction of infrastructure that will be mandated by the shift from print to digital.

In a recent blogosphere conversation sparked by Evan Schnittman’s observation that the impact of the ebook shift could be an expansion of the market, Eoin Purcell wrote about the commercial impact of readers shifting from ebooks to print. Purcell fears that publishers might be forced to give up the print book revenues if printings were eroded too much by ebook uptake. What he sees is that as press runs go down, printing costs go up, and if that forces book prices up, it will exacerbate the decline of print and could diminish it to the extent that it just isn’t worth doing.

Certainly that’s a challenge publishers face, and they know it. The Sales Director of a Big Six house with a lot of bestsellers, anticipating that his ebook sales could pass 20% of the total for most of his books as soon as next year, said “I hope we’ll be smart enought to manage down our printings and distributions.” Hitching Ingram’s capabilities to the publisher in the way Macmillan just did helps ameliorate that problem and a myriad of others. It’s a way for publishers to reduce overheads and increase operational capabilities at the same time. I’d be surprised if we don’t see many, if not most, other publishers going for this solution in the months to come.


Publishers, brands, and the change to b2c

I’ve been in the book business for a long time, more than 48 years since my first job on the sales floor of Brentano’s bookstore. For over 37 years it has been my fulltime occupation. My father started his career in books just before I was born, so I have been meeting publishing people more or less since I was in the cradle. And it isn’t that big a business. So, over the years, I’ve gotten to know many people in the industry.

But I hadn’t met Markus Dohle, the relatively new CEO of Random House, until we had lunch last month. He proved to be a very sharp, informal, and relaxed companion, very open with his opinions and observations and very straightforward. And since his prior experience was outside trade publishing (the reason I’d never previously met him), he brings a completely fresh personal perspective to the business.

One thing Markus said really struck me because I agree with it so wholeheartedly and because I hadn’t ever heard it said so explicitly by any of his counterparts. “We have to change from being a b2b company to b2c over the coming years,” he said. He expanded on this when I asked him whether I could attribute the quote for this piece. (I don’t want to disappoint my readers, but I make a living as a consultant, not a blogger, and my career would be crippled if I couldn’t have a conversation with an executive without a looming fear that whatever s/he said would end up in print. If some readers wonder why the sources of some comments remain anonymous, that’s your answer.)

Markus replied that he was fine being quoted because he was “convinced that publishers have to become more reader oriented in a marketing and trend finding/setting way rather than in a direct to consumer selling way.” I welcome the clarification and believe it is right in its emphasis on marketing over sales even though I think that sales, inevitably, becomes part of what a publisher has to do too. And direct contact with and tracking of individual consumers both seem absolutely essential.

(The politics of this are worth a digression to spell out. For several more years at least, big trade publishers will continue to depend primarily on a retail network to reach readers. Despite the fact that all the big retailers, in their way, compete with publishers to control content at its source, they are universally resentful if publishers compete with them to serve consumers. On the other hand, it is increasingly apparent that the retail network is reducing its size and scope and, unless publishers develop alternate channels to consumers, they’ll be reduced in size and scope as well.)

Although Markus was the first CEO whom I ever heard say explicitly that the shift to b2c was in any way a priority, there is evidence in other houses that the importance of direct consumer contact is on the radar. A senior digital officer at another large house is directing a wide-scale effort to organize their consumer contact names — which he found, as he would have in every other house — to be scattered, unorganized, and largely unusable. Pulling names together is one of a number of “first steps” the big publishers must take to act on Markus’s insight.

But there are other “first steps” that are just as important as rationalizing the contact database for consumers. Two of them are related. One is being committing to owning specific groups (or, in the current parlance: communities) of interest. This is what I refer to as “verticalization” and I have written and spoken about it exhaustively. But the commitment to verticalization, in order to be captured and turned into real equity going forward, must be expressed in branding.

The names of publishing houses and the imprints they create are their brands today. (Authors are brands for consumer marketing purposes, but publishers don’t own those brands: the authors do.) What publishers own really do work in a b2b context. Bookstore buyers, book review editors, and collection developers at libraries can discern meaning from company names and imprints. They work the way brands are supposed to work: as shortcuts to establish expectations. Brand tells an informed buyer to expect high-quality writing in a Knopf book and high-quality reproductions in an Abrams book. Brands will also signal them, before they see a finished package, whether a book is likely to feel overpriced or underpriced, and whether the publisher’s claims for promotion and media are likely to be fulfilled.

But most of these brands mean nothing to consumers. And mere knowledge of a brand doesn’t necessarily tell you what to expect if you buy it. Nor would knowledge necessarily provide you with a motivation to get “closer” to it.

The one consumer brand in publishing that means the most and provides the most equity to its owner is Harlequin. Consumers recognize it and have understandings about quality and price based on it. But because they also know that the Harlequin name means the “romance” genre, and because many romance readers buy and consume dozens, even hundreds, of titles in the genre every year, they have logical reasons to visit Harlequin’s web site repeatedly and to request and open email reminders of new publications from them.

In fact, Harlequin’s brand is so clear and so powerful that they can get people to subscribe to their books. When you think about alternative revenue sources, that might be the Holy Grail. It will certainly help publishers stay on the right track if they focus on creating brands and clusters of books around them that could conceivably deliver customers for a subscription proposition.

The Penguin brand is perhaps equally well-known, but it isn’t nearly as well defined. Penguin Classics certainly have a collective meaning, but many books are published under the Penguin imprint that aren’t classics. And while it is likely that sometimes the purchasing choice between one edition of Robinson Crusoe or Hamlet and another might be influenced by familiarity with the imprint, it is not clear that the “quality” signal is important there (because, after all, the words were set down long before Penguin or its competitors existed) as it is for a new romance novel. And it certainly would be harder for Penguin to attract regular web traffic with its brand or to make sales through an email list of brand adherents.

A brand that is in between these two is “Dummies.” It definitely creates a meaningful shortcut for a consumer; they recognize it and it tells them “this book explains the basics on the subject in a way that requires you to bring almost no knowledge to it for it to be useful.” But because Dummies covers many subjects under the sun, it would be difficult to make use of it for audience-gathering or direct marketing the way Harlequin is employed.

You wouldn’t “subscribe” to new offerings, sight unseen, from either Penguin or Dummies. That means that, in at least one very important way, those brands aren’t as useful as Harlequin. Why? They’re too broad. General Motors wouldn’t ever have sold nearly as many cars if they called all the cars “GMs” to create a megabrand and had lost the distinction between Chevrolet and Cadillac. Trying to create “one big brand” if it captures unrelated content or unrelated audiences could be “one big mistake.”

My own theory is that publishers have to completely re-think their imprints in light of the need to move from b2b to b2c. Imprints at big houses are almost always silos with no discernible b2c meaning. In fact, the names of smaller houses, because smaller houses tend to focus on subject areas, can more readily have meaning to consumers.

In fact, Random House just faced a branding question of exactly this nature and got it right. They had acquired a smaller, subject-dedicated company, Watson Guptill, a couple of years ago and had some overlap between what WG published and what Random House already did within their Clarkson Potter imprint. RH executives engineered a solution by which they preserved the venerable Watson Guptill name for “hardworking” instructional books on art and photography —  WG’s strongest historical categories — and made made Potter Crafts a subimprint of WG. They invested in building the crafts list to triple the previous output of WG. The two thirds to three quarters of the WG list that is not crafts will still be WG imprint books. By making Potter Crafts, which they owned before, a part of Watson Guptill (joining Amphoto, the well-known photo line, and WG’s other subimprints), they might get the best of all branding worlds.

And it is further worth noting that tripling down on title output to become a serious player in a niche is probably a move very few Big Six companies would be making these days, but it is necessary to think that way if you’re serious about making substantial b2c marketing efforts. Building a subscription business would almost certainly imply a growth in title output in any vertical.

Random House’s clarity on how publishers should structure brands to have content-specific meaning is still unusual. (There are other examples: Hachette’s invention of “Springboard”, a brand to do books for baby boomers, is a nod in the same direction.) Publishing Perspectives, the thoughtful online publication operated by the Frankfurt Book Fair, offered a piece on the subject six months ago that was locked into what is still publishing’s more normal b2b way of thinking. The catalyst for the post you are now reading, actually, was their editor Ed Nowatka’s piece with the provocative headline asking “Does a Publisher’s Brand Equity Translate to the Digital Age?” which (with all due respect, of which I have plenty, to Ed) I thought really didn’t address the question. But at least he asked it. I don’t recall ever reading a single piece on the subject of this one: how do what have always been b2b publishers create b2c brands?

In fact, Random House just faced a branding question of exactly this nature and got it exactly right. They had acquired a smaller, subject-dedicated company, Watson Guptill, a couple of years ago and had some overlap between what WG published and what Random House already did within their Clarkson Potter imprint. RH executives engineered a solution by which they preserved the venerable Watson Guptill name for “hardworking” instructional books on art and photography —  WG’s strongest historical categories — and made made Potter Crafts a subimprint of WG. They invested in building the crafts list to triple the previous output of WG. The two thirds to three quarters of the WG list that is not crafts will be WG imprint books. By making Potter Crafts, which they owned before, a part of Watson Guptill (joining Amphoto, the well-known photo line, and WG’s other subimprints), they are making an attempt to get the best of all branding worlds.
Random House’s clarity on how publishers should structure brands to have content-specific meaning is still unusual. (There are other examples: Hachette’s invention of “Springboard”, a brand to do books for baby boomers, is a nod in the same direction.) Publishing Perspectives, the thoughtful online publication operated by the Frankfurt Book Fair, offered a piece on the subject six months ago that was locked into what is still publishing’s more normal b2b way of thinking. The catalyst for the post you are now reading, actually, was their editor Ed Nowatka’s piece with the provocative headline asking “Does a Publisher’s Brand Equity Translate to the Digital Age?” which (with all due respect, of which I have plenty, to Ed) I thought really didn’t address the question.

This is a subject that has been on my mind for a long time. I wrote a post 18 months ago about an imprint started at another house that I considered to be, similarly, the product of the same b2b thinking that characterizes the Publishing Perspectives piece. And about a year ago, I stressed the importance for publishers of building b2c brands going forward.

I believe Markus’s insight is the necessary first step that others haven’t yet taken and, whether or not it started with Markus, the awareness of the need for consumer focus certainly helped Random House make sensible decisions to exploit the brand equity in the WG name they had acquired. Once publishers accept that being consumer-focused is essential to their long-term survival, it follows logically (although not automatically or instantaneously) that they need to think about discrete audiences on more than a book-by-book basis; that they need to gather those audiences on web sites and in mailing lists; that they need to publish books that satisfy them repeatedly, not occasionally; and that all these efforts will make more sense if each separate audience has a brand facing them with real meaning. We’re seeing that from the big publishers right now in genres; they are trying to build science fiction and romance communities and branding them. Random House built a vertical in travel earlier in the decade, developing business models out of a critical mass of content that went beyond simply selling books. That, and the efforts at Random and other big houses to build communities around genres, is a start. But a lot more development of this kind is going to be needed to replace the marketing clout being lost as the old channels to consumers wither in the months and years to come.