Digital Book World

What we are learning about making digital marketing accessible to a bigger group of publishers


Every conversation I have with a publisher about digital marketing sitting with Peter McCarthy is an education for me and for them. The dialogues are peeling away layers of an endless onion, working through levels of understanding of what it takes to have truly discoverable content, surfaced to the right people in response to the right queries in whatever venue they search today. (But, as we keep learning, the “best practices” at any particular time are likely to change.)

Of course, we’re learning too. The challenge in “scaling” Pete’s knowledge is to get people in our industry, with their uniquely complex stakeholders and requirements, to be able to buy the services they need him to direct without taking a lot of his very precious time. (If you take his time, we can’t be economical, which we’re trying hard to be.) Our approach is to “productize” our offerings but, of course, our clients and potential clients each have very specific needs by their own lights. The challenge we almost always face is not “whether we can” but “how we can” deliver what they want in a way that works for us and for them. And we keep finding new ways to morph each product idea into another and then another to address those needs. The evolution of our thinking and our business probably provides useful clues for anybody trying to tackle the beast that is digital marketing of books in an evolving marketplace.

Although it is not simple to harness Pete’s knowledge, it would be absolutely impossible to replicate it. He’s read (and understands and remembers) every patent Google has ever filed about search. (Don’t try to start gathering that knowledge now; Pete started it in the 1990s.) He works with a huge number of listening and analytical tools. Some have obvious uses such as analytical and “SEO” tools, but some require a more interpretative approach to apply them to create better marketing. They numbered 140 when we last counted, but he seems to discover a new one or two just about every day. So far, I haven’t met anybody else in publishing who claims knowledge of a fraction of that number. Pete’s knowledge of Amazon’s algorithms and behavior similarly outstrips everybody else’s, understandings partly gained through a capability he had at Random House that nobody else we’ve met has ever had: an unlimited number of affiliate codes that allowed him to track conversion across a wide range of A/B tests and other variables.

(It should be noted that the unlimited number of affililate codes came about through serendipity, not any official negotiations or favoritism. It was not a formal “policy” move on either side.)

Knowing how the clicks you send Amazon convert is beyond very important. As an example of what this can reveal, Amazon loves it if you send them clicks that convert. When they see that happening, they help you. They don’t like it if you send clicks that do not convert and when they see that, they (metaphorically) throw sand in your gears or, at least, don’t put the wind in your sales. The many winds they can make blow happen at what for Pete are predictable kick-points. We don’t have an unlimited number of affiliate codes at Logical Marketing, but we do know that if we’re sending clicks that convert we’ll see Amazon buy keywords to get more of the traffic. If they don’t do that, the clicks aren’t converting and we stop sending them. We have other ways as well to see when the winds are blowing.

How many of our clients know that? We haven’t met one yet that did. That means that virtually every publisher is sometimes paying for clicks that are actually harming their sales. And they don’t even know when that’s happening. And I’d add that Pete himself doesn’t believe this is among the most profound insights he has about optimizing Amazon sales.

We do our work across three loci of interest: titles, authors, and brands. Authors are brands, but so are publishers (B2B, B2C, or both), imprints, and series and, in rarer cases, fictional characters. We can do a quick and cursory look at a title or author, or a deeper and more comprehensive one. For authors and brands, we can do a “360 audit”, which delivers a voluminous (80-100 page) deck, rich with data about how the author reaches their core and potential audiences. They tell you everything from how they sort on dozens and dozens of high-value search terms; their engagement in social media; the precise and thorough characteristics of their followers and, if they have them, “subscribers”; advice about how to optimize their owned web presences in terms of content, architecture and technology; and very specific recommendations to improve their discoverability and their sales.

We will also aim our analyses at any specific questions or concerns a client may have. For example, “how might we break this author in the UK market” or “can we reach and convert women into fans” are questions we can address. We answer based on what the data tells us and provide the degree of granularity and technology/publishing knowledge to act.

For a franchise author, or an author on which a publisher will spend substantially promoting their next book, these reports — costly though they may be ($5,000 and up) — are invaluable tools. They even tell you what days and times to tweet and which cities to choose for heavy print laydowns and tour activity. We’ve had several occasions where these reports confirmed hunches based on experience or a house’s analysis but there are almost always nice surprises too. Those are not always fun to hear when they upset previous plans but they will result in more efficient sales reach if they’re acted upon.

But sometimes an author or agent might be after information or analysis that is easier (and cheaper) to deliver because it is very targeted. One agent friend said to me, “I don’t care about the title descriptions. Doing those right is the publisher’s job and they wouldn’t listen to me if I wrote a better one anyway. But I want my authors to be list-gathering machines. Can you show us how to do that?”

A targeted ask of this kind is much simpler than a 360 audit. We save time and effort when we’re looking for very specific actionable data and then confining our report to just that. We analyzed three of that agency’s top authors, with recommendations about how to improve their web sites for email list optimization, each for much less than half of a full 360.

As we’ve noted before, management of author web presences is a weak spot in author-publisher relations. We just did 360 audits for three different imprints of a major house. In two cases, the authors in question controlled their sites and the suggestions for improvement devolved into discussions of how to persuade the close friend or relative of the author who maintained the presence to make changes. (Having the authority of our very well-designed and thorough report would help, of course.)

In the third case, the house controlled the site. It turned out to be very important that they did. One thing we found in the audit was that this well-known author wasn’t appearing for searches of “best thrillers set in London”. We could see that he very likely could, easily and within short order, rank high for that. We saw that with great likelihood; it wasn’t a guess. With a host of books that fit that description and rankings of 4.5 stars on Amazon and Goodreads, all it would take is a properly set-up landing page to make the author rank highly for the term, and the rank would be deserved in the eyes of Google and humans and likely to be self-perpetuating. That search is not only frequently employed, it would bring in likely customers who might well not yet know the author. It is roughly analogous to an evergreen end-cap with face-out display in just the right aisle for a book they will love by an author whom they probably have not read as yet, and one who happens to have plenty of books.

And setting up an optimized landing page is easy to do.

All you need to do is know that the term is important and that the author isn’t sorting for it and probably can. But only using the methodologies developed and employed by Pete would assure you’d find that out.

Google’s recently reported de-emphasis of Google Plus has led to widespread misunderstanding about Google Plus, but more importantly here, about author websites. One agent friend recently asked whether they just weren’t necessary anymore and if authors could just focus on social media. That’s a dangerous misunderstanding. An author’s website along with an author’s Google Plus account enables Google to understand who an author is and what is important about them. Author websites are as important as they ever were, as is an author’s Google Plus profile. (And it isn’t just about Google. An author’s Amazon author page is critical for their success as well.) Any real-estate in the social landscape is rented, not owned and the leases change all the time.

The wisdom of our agent friend about the publisher’s responsibility to write the descriptive copy has also been reflected in the evolution of our thinking. We have been selling SEO-optimized copy as the key deliverable for our “foundational title audit”. The process to get to it involves research to find the right keywords, phrases, and topics to include in the copy and training our own staff in Pete’s techniques to employ those in the copy itself. We’re optimizing for multiple environments, primarily Google and Amazon, which complicates the task, but we’ve been able to train previously uninitiated people to do this effectively and fairly quickly.

But we’ve seen that most publishers don’t believe that anybody else’s copy is as good as what they’d produce in-house. They’d far rather have us give them the keywords and write the copy themselves. That’s easier for us, and we can do it for less money, but then that requires us to train their team on how to use the keywords, phrases, and topics in the copy.

All that has led us to the latest addition to our offerings. When we started exploring this business nearly a year ago and launched it in the Spring, one Very Smart Publisher said “would you please just teach us how to do it ourselves?” I resisted that idea, partly because of the impossible challenge of replicating Pete’s knowledge and how he uses it in a training course of any length. But as time’s gone by, we realized that we did train our own staff. And Pete did a lot of marketer training at Random House. We have come around to the point of view that training people to do some things actually makes them appreciate even more the things we do that we can’t easily train. It also empowers them to innovate in ways we might not see or to provide feedback to us on what we might offer that we’ve yet to identify.

So we’ve now formulated seven specific training programs. We offer three-hour courses (if delivered in-house, or three 1-hour webinars if remote) called “Audience-centric Marketing 101″, “Author Optimization 101″, and “Advanced Optimization” (with the last one only open to those who have taken the first one). And we have four 1-1/2 hour programs as well: “Social Media for Publishers, Agents, and Authors”, “Supercharge Your Author Website”, “12 Tools for Marketing Success”, and “The 30 Chrome Extensions You Need Now”. The “Marketing 101″ course would cover both the keyword research and the instructions on how to place them in the copy.

As a result of Frankfurt, we’re now taking our talents and capabilities to other countries to work in languages other than English. We’re about to start our first assignment for an Italian publisher and we have a big project pending that would take place in German. In both cases, we’re getting help from our clients to make sure that what we find and do in Google Translate and other linguistic processing tools doesn’t have gaps we can’t see and to understand what we have to do to make it totally effective.

The digital marketing business is a global business as is all publishing these days and digital marketing, and the running of a digital marketing agency, is a process, not an event.

At Digital Book World next January 14-15, Pete McCarthy is moderating a panel on “Marketing Skill Sets Required in 2015″ with a star panel consisting of Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, Hannah Harlow of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jeff Dodes of Macmillan, and Rick Joyce of Perseus. There is a host of other marketing programming on the agenda. 

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Export sales is one of the few areas of predictable growth for book publishers


For a client meeting last week, I was shown a chart that came from Bookstats of channel revenue for publishers. Bookstats is the recent (and now no longer) partnership between the AAP and BISG collecting book publisher shipment information. It has four years of data, which were arrayed in a neat bar chart.

Since the chart showed publisher shipments, it was an imprecise gauge of sales. The third largest channel was “jobbers/wholesalers”, and those books went somewhere else (if they got re-sold and not returned), but we don’t know where. Basically all the other channels got those books eventually.

But it is noteworthy that of the eight channels enumerated (one of which is “other”), only two showed increased sales from 2010 to 2013: online retail and export sales.

Indeed, export sales are one of the real growth opportunities for publishers, and particularly English-language publishers, in the future.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to understand. English is the most important second language in most countries that are not English-speaking. And, obviously, ebooks create no-inventory and little-friction distribution opportunities that make it easy for a publisher in New York or London (or Sydney or Toronto) to deliver to a customer separated by any distance or number of oceans.

In addition, the search engines are global so “discovery” can take place anywhere as well which can increase the demand for printed books as well as digital ones, even though the printed books present a more complex delivery challenge.

The opportunity brings along its challenges. One is that rights conventions need to change. Publishers often have their rights to distribute in some parts of the globe limited by contract. But even when rights aren’t an issue, marketing — including both customizing the metadata and the pricing to a very large number of local territories — can be.

This opportunity has grown rather recently at the same time that many publishers have been preoccupied with overcoming obstacles in their home markets. Both the US and UK markets have been roiled by the relatively sudden emergence of a strong ebook market and the concurrent (and related) weakening of the brick-and-mortar infrastructure for print. Publishers have been scurrying to change many of their practices: licensing differently, learning to do SEO well and employing other digital marketing techniques, shifting their internal structures and workflows, and grappling with the opportunities presented by social media. Many have expended effort on apps and enhanced ebooks which were time and money traps in markets that briefly looked promising but then didn’t pan out.

But in a more settled marketplace, which we have now (perhaps temporarily), the opportunities for growing revenue through export sales is going to get increasing attention from all publishers, who will be happy to know that entrepreneurial companies — some new but some quite established and familiar — have been building out the capabilities to help them.

There are three panels at Digital Book World that will really inform publishers that want to work harder to exploit this opportunity.

The mostly obviously relevant one is called “Global Publishing Tactics: understanding distribution, metadata, pricing, and marketing to maximize sales in different markets”. Two of the panelists are Marcus Woodburn of Ingram and Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct — we have other conversations pending — and moderated by Len Vlahos, the executive director of Book Industry Study Group. Marcus and Gareth and the panelist(s) who will join them have experience selling around the world on behalf of many publishers. Their insight and advice will be gold for publishers looking to expand their export sales.

We also have a panel discussion “Global Market Spotlights: reports from markets around the world”. The four markets we’ll discuss are Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Russia. The panel will be moderated by Thomas Minkus of Frankfurt Book Fair. Our panelists — all of whom are local players — will talk about the switch to digital reading and online sales in those markets, but will also give specific insight into the market for English-language books.

Another discussion which is a bit more tangential, but will still be informative for publishers trying to grow ebook exports, is one on “How People Read”. What we’re trying to get at here is to use the knowledge that ebook platform providers have about the granular detail of reading consumption: about devices, how far people go in various kinds of books, whether they read more than one book at a time, and how they respond to pricing changes. All of our panelists — Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, David Burleigh of Overdrive, and Andrew Weinstein of Scribd — are superintending global platforms. Another aspect of what they’ll reveal is how these consumption patterns vary across markets, including how much English is read in various export markets. Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center, which also has an increasing international focus, will moderate.

We could well also learn more about global opportunities from the keynote talk we’ll hear from Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, and Michael Cader and I will certainly be asking Russ Grandinetti of Amazon about how publishers can maximize their export sales through them.

So if export sales is on your current agenda, a visit to DBW on Jan 14-15 also should be. And, in that case, sign up before the end of the day on Monday and save yourself some dough. Early bird pricing ends on Monday night.

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The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out


Once again this morning we wake up to a piece by David Streitfeld in The New York Times about Authors United and their ongoing effort to discredit Amazon. The message coming loud and clear from the legacy publishing establishment is that Amazon doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, the value that agents, publishers, and chain and independent bookstores bring to authors and readers and, by extension, to society as a whole. The challenge they face in this ongoing discussion is that many of those values — multiple (agent, publisher, bookseller) levels of curation, investments in quality editing, giving worthy authors the financing to do the creative work that must take place well before the IP will generate any revenue — are pretty esoteric and hard for most people to relate to. And they apply to a small and possibly diminishing number of writers.

The critical services publishers provide are marketing and distribution and those functions, as we all know, are undergoing change and revision as part of the digital disruption. And because they are rapidly changing, there is even greater-than-usual variability to how well these things are done across publishers and, within publishers, across their imprints and lists. Indeed, many authors at legacy houses are not enamored of their publishing experience, but the ones who are defending the publishers are also defending something of their own.

What is equally loud and clear from Amazon’s own statements and those of their supporters (including many authors who would be less well known and less well off today if Amazon hadn’t built the tools and market share they have over the past several years), is that the legacy industry doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, that commercial publishing was built on an ecosystem which is rapidly being dismantled and will ultimately be irrelevant. And they point out that what is replacing what came before delivers much lower-priced ebooks (print is another matter) to consumers and a substantially larger portion of the revenue to the authors than published contract splits would give them. (The fact is that those splits are irrelevant more than 80 percent of the time for the most commercial books because big agents get big authors advances larger than what they “earn”, but that’s another story.) The authors that work in the new paradigm also gain unprecedented control of their professional lives: publishing when they want to, pricing and changing prices as they want to, and playing with marketing opportunities (bundling print-and-digital, entering subscription services) or not, as they and they alone decide.

The fact that both options are commercially viable today means we might actually now be living in a golden moment for authors. Publishers are certainly aware that a brand-name author has a truly workable self-publishing option (although, frankly, the biggest surprise to me so far is that basically no major author has taken it, which is objective evidence that the execs running the big houses are navigating at least some aspects of the digital transition very well). And Amazon started paying authors 70% when publishers switched to agency and extracted 70% for themselves, a connection that seems not to have been made by much of the publisher-bashing commentariat.

While there is a symmetry to the two sides’ dismay about what is appreciated or understood, there is a massive asymmetry here that is hardly, if ever, mentioned. And that asymmetry makes the motivation of the legacy defenders very clear — they’re fighting for their lives — but actually suggests that the “side” fighting them (to the extent that it consists of indie authors) is at least sometimes simultaneously fighting against their own interests.

Those who feel well served on the legacy establishment side have much to fear from Amazon’s continued growth and success. The clear self-interest of all the publishers, agents, and those authors fortunate enough to be continuously “employed” through book contracts — which includes many, and certainly the most recognizable, of the authors in the Authors United effort — who are fighting for Hachette to “win” (which means maintaining the publisher’s share of the sales that flow through Amazon) in the current dispute is obvious, if perhaps insufficiently emphasized or acknowledged.

Cynicism about whether it is really the greater societal “goods” that get so much emphasis in their appeals that are really motivating these authors or whether they’re just protecting their own gravy train is not unreasonable.

Assuming that the publisher-bashing commentariat, who could also be characterized as the “pro-Amazon” advocates, has a healthy number of authors whose revenue is as largely dependent on Amazon as James Patterson’s is on Hachette, one can see the emotional motivations to fight for the home team could be similar. But the practical side of it is precisely opposite. It is obvious that Amazon getting stronger weakens Hachette’s (or HarperCollins’s or Bloomsbury’s or Cambridge University Press’s) ability to pay advances and publish more books, which directly affects various stakeholders and particularly steadily-working authors. But if Hachette “wins” — or if Amazon’s margins on transactions with publishers are not improved — how does this injure the self-publishing authors who are working successfully that way now? Simple logic says that Amazon will treat them best when the possibilities offered by publishers are the best.

Do they really think that Amazon will offer them more if Hachette is weaker? History and logic would suggest the opposite.

In other words, publisher-published authors definitely lose if Amazon gains strength in relation to them. But Amazon-published or KDP authors (and the publisher-bashing seems to come from both flavors) lose nothing if legacy publishing remains strong. They are, allegedly, fighting for the “good” of those authors who are signing “exploitive” publishing contracts, but their own interests are not served.

This asymmetry plays out in another way in the Lee Child exchange on the Konrath blog. Child says, again and again, that he thinks it makes complete sense for authors to exploit the opportunities in KDP if it looks like the best commercial choice for them. Maybe I’ve missed it (and I admit that I am disinclined to read most of the publisher-bashing posts and I certainly don’t make a habit of reading the bloggers who specialize in them), but the message I keep getting from Konrath, Eisler, and Howey is not “choose the course that is best for you based on the choices you have in front of you” but is more like “never sign one of those exploitive publishing contracts!” (Howey tells me he blogs about that “all the time” and cites this post of his. You can decide for yourself what you think, but it seems to me that he is saying “only sign with a publisher after you’ve built yourself up by self-publishing first”.)

The motivation of the authors who spend a great deal of time and energy bashing big publishers has puzzled me before. Because “price-shoppers” are a core audience for indie ebooks, indies actually got a shot in the arm when the publishers and Apple put in agency pricing, which in its original form prohibited even the retailer from taking a loss to bring branded ebook prices down.

There’s no way for an outsider to compile the data to prove this, but the chances are very good that indie author breakthroughs were easier to achieve during the years when the price gap between the majors and the indies was greatest. But most of the voices now demonizing Hachette (and the rest of what is being called the Big Five “cartel”) also bashed agency pricing. I see the benefit to Amazon in that position, but I don’t see how crippling agency pricing helped indie authors.

It is not only Judge Cote’s decision which has changed things since, but also the growing awareness of publishers about the value of temporary price drops, or “daily deals” and services — most prominently BookBub — to amplify the effect of promotional pricing in the marketplace. But how did ending agency pricing benefit independent authors?

Hugh Howey maintains that he is better off if his books and those from the big branded authors are priced the same. Hugh’s a smart guy so maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it, but that makes no sense to me. Except in the luxury goods market, there is virtually no situation where you gain advantage with a higher price than the alternative pitted against you. The bigger the saving you can offer, the more you’ll sell. In fact, Hugh makes that argument himself when he claims that lower ebook prices will raise industry revenue because it makes the ebooks more affordable. It’s fine to argue that the big publishers are dumb not to lower prices and sell more, but, even if it is true and especially if it is true and they pay attention and obey, how does that do him any good? (The answer from Hugh, by the way, is that we’re all better off if all prices are lower.)

I have been persuaded in Howey’s case that he personally rises above self-interest in his industry commentary. Hugh’s a nice guy, a smart guy, and a socially-conscious guy. He and I have had many candid and mutually respectful exchanges. And I read “Wool” and recruited him to speak at Digital Book World long before he was such a celebrity on the anti-publisher side. I believe him when he says “I’ve made more money than I ever imagined I would; I’m grateful; and one benefit of that is I don’t need to be motivated by money in my decisions.”

Howey is a true believer and a crusader who is sincerely convinced that the standard publisher terms for authors are unfair and need to change. He has occasionally expressed skepticism and concern about some of Amazon’s decisions and behavior, particularly around the complex compensation schemes for Kindle authors with their KOLL (lending library) and Kindle Unlimited (subscription) initiatives which buys him a certain amount of credibility. But I still can’t understand why he’s in KU but not Oyster and Scribd and 24Symbols, a set of decisions that strike me as being in Amazon’s commercial interest but not his own. (One possible explanation is that going into additional distributions creates more “work”, but I don’t take that too seriously. Hugh can afford to hire people to do the work, and he does all kinds of other things, like his AuthorEarnings blog, purely to add to industry knowledge. It would add a lot of useful insight if he were in the subscription services and reported on it.)

Perhaps the problem has to do with Amazon’s KDP rules, which apparently require “exclusivity” to be in KU. That is almost certainly not a requirement visited on publishers. If that’s what is stopping Howey, it would be nice if he would say so. Could Amazon be preventing its authors from pursuing revenue opportunities? If that’s true, wouldn’t that belong in any discussion of an author’s choices?

Another persistent Amazon advocate is author Barry Eisler, whom I first encountered during a brief moment when he was going to eschew taking advances and being published by somebody in favor of doing it on his own. (In the end, he became an Amazon-signed author.) When I posed the quandary that is the subject of this piece to Eisler, he referred me to this post of his which I don’t believe addresses the question. You can check out the link and decide for yourself.

Trying really hard to understand this and think imaginatively about it, I can only really come up with two “selfish motivations” that make sense. One — and I think this is the one that is claimed — is that the publisher-bashing is designed to improve life for the victimized authors who choose those deals. Indeed, the content of the anti-publisher rants often includes specific suggestions, or demands: raise the digital royalty, make shorter contracts, pay royalties more often, etc. that are, no doubt, author-friendly. But it does seem a bit weird for people committed to demonizing, weakening, and ridiculing the big publishers to be the ones to tell them what they could do to stay competitive. If publishers accepted the suggestions, of course, perhaps Amazon would be pushed to improve author terms too, but that seems a pretty indirect and distant reward to explain all the time and energy some people expend on this. (Or are they promising to sign with the big publishers if they follow these suggestions? I don’t think so!)

Another conceivable legitimate motivation, of course, is ego. These publisher-bashers have managed to “do it” without them, and continuing a high-profile running criticism of the establishment they outdid and outmaneuvered, particularly when you can get a lot of applause, might be alluring. But even that feels weak to me. If self-aggrandizement were what motivated these people, it would be even more impressive if their frame were “this is hard, but I managed to do it” whereas the message feels much more like “anybody can do this and you’re a bit of a dolt if you don’t.”

None of this constitutes enough of an explanation to satisfy me. I am either missing something in plain sight or I’m not in possession of all the facts. Perhaps the “explanation” that the published authors defending Hachette pursue their selfish interests but that the indie authors who bash Hachette and the others do it out of public-spiritedness, even if their own revenue suffers, does it for you even though it doesn’t for me.

Amazon has a strong case to make for itself. They really made online book retailing work through strategic brilliance and excellence of execution, without being first and against industry entities that should have had competitive advantage. They made ebooks into a thriving business for everybody pretty much singlehandedly, also without being first. They’re entitled to feel that the powerful position they’re in is because of the virtue of their model and execution, and they’re entitled to feel that a different publishing industry than the one they came into is the future they have to work towards, whether or not they want to spell out that vision in full and whether or not the incumbents “get it”.

If every argument being made by the publisher bashing commentariat were coming from Amazon, I’d understand the motivation and factor it in, as I do with Authors United or Hachette when they speak.

But I need to understand a rational motivation to put anybody’s advocacy in context. And it seems to me the very best thing for indie authors is for all the existing publishers to retain their capability to hire authors on that model as much as they can for as long as they can. That’s not the best thing for Amazon, but I really think it is the best thing for authors, and as true for those who do-it-themselves as for those who are published.

A senior Amazon executive, in a meeting we had two or three years ago, complimented me on the fact that I “understand entities acting in their own self-interest.” My response then was, and my feeling now is, “I’m mistrustful when they don’t.”

After I wrote this, I found that blogger Chuck Wendig had asked a similar question, with far less editorial speculation than appears here, in what appears to be an undated, but recent, post. He framed it differently than I do and I’m not sure what I read at his attempt at irony (“why are self-publishers trying to save the Big Five?”) was seen that way by his many respondents. My focus is narrower: this fight is being carried by a handful of very persistent and energetic critics, spending time and energy that one would think takes more motivation than is required simply to  “have an opinion” on this subject one way or the other. “What fuels all this energy and vitriol?” is a different question than “which side are you on in the dispute?” 

Early Bird pricing for Digital Book World 2015 is only open until next Monday. There will be lots of programming that will provide context and insight around all things Amazon. Michael Cader and I will have a half-hour wide-ranging discussion with Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti. Judith Curr, the CEO of Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint, will present her view of  the “publisher-or-self-publishing” choice authors face. An expert on the school and college market, Matthew Greenfield of Rethink Education, will include an assessment of Amazon’s role in his review of what publishers need to know to compete for those sales as things change. Jonathan Nowell, the CEO of Nielsen Book, will use his company’s historical data to look at how the mix of what sells in print has changed since ebooks took off. Media veterans and authors Walter Isaacson and Ken Auletta will let us see the book business alongside other media undergoing technological change, which is necessary for any valid understanding of Amazon. We have a panel of publishers talking about selling direct. Oh, and of course, Founder/President Josh Schanker of BookBub will be on a panel on price promotion! There’s a lot more that is relevant, which you’ll find if you scan the entire program.

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Are Amazon exclusives the next big challenge for everybody else in publishing?


Somebody smarter (or more patient about wading through data) than I am could probably figure out how far along this bifurcation is already, but Amazon is doing its very best to build a body of content that is desirable and available from nobody else but them.

This is something you can do when you’re in the neighborhood of 70 percent of ebook sales and already more than half the total sales for many works of fiction, which is where the self-publishing world is strongest. It is not an opportunity that is really available to any other retailer. Apple has given it a try for more complex ebooks for which they provide ebook-building tools and, presumably, offer the most productive distribution environment for complex content. But they’re playing on much less fertile ground and they don’t have anything like the audience share necessary to drive this strategy very far.

It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any other ebook ecosystem could offer benefits that would make it worth skipping Amazon.

Two recent developments call attention to this situation.

David Streitfeld in the New York Times reports that Amazon has held a private by-invitation-only conclave for writers the past four years. I knew about this before because I’m a subscriber to Publishers Lunch and they reported on it about three years ago. (I like to say about my conference business partner Michael Cader, proprietor of Publishers Lunch, that you go to him for the facts and you can come to me for opinions.)

It is a smart and sensible thing for Amazon to do. Amazon has been demonstratively aware of the ability of writers to promote their own books to their audiences but also to promote Kindle Direct Publishing among their peers. Bringing authors in for a private chat to exchange ideas is not only flattering to those invited (a benefit to Amazon in and of itself), it almost certainly also informs them about how to be more successful courting authors in the future. This shouldn’t be viewed pejoratively, although Streitfeld’s piece and a companion blog post seem to position it that way.

The other is Hugh Howey’s very public rumination about whether to go exclusive with Amazon or not, in which Howey wonders out loud whether he should stay exclusive with Amazon beyond a 90-day trial period based on his calculation that his audience (perhaps counterintuitively) goes up while his revenue takes a small hit. I’ve had an off-line exchange with Hugh in which he emphasizes what his post says: he really can’t decide which way to go on this.

(It is worth noting, as Hugh does, that when he makes these decisions, they are only commitments for 90 days at a time. Of course, each time he switches he creates work for himself, either putting up the titles in other venues or taking them down. But he can get the benefits of Amazon exclusivity in 90-day chunks with no commitments beyond the 90 days and go in and out as many times as he likes. Hugh makes what I think is an unhelpful and invalid comparison to the life-of-copyright deals publishers ask for in return for advances against royalties and inventory investments that Amazon and other retailers do not make for self-published authors, but he’s right that it is much easier to make a decision when you only have to live with it for three months.)

His open thought process became the subject of a post by Chris Meadows on Teleread. One thing on Hugh’s mind was whether he needed to help keep alternatives to Amazon viable by contributing his content to their mix. Meadows says “that’s not your problem” and I agree with that. Each writer should be making the publishing decisions that are best for their personal brand and career. The first decision — if a publisher offers them a choice — is whether to take an advance and a deal or whether to self-publish. If they self-publish, they have to decide whether to be exclusively Amazon or go for the widest possible distribution.

The reflexive, intuitive choice is to get the most distribution possible. There are certainly readers who shop exclusively in non-Amazon retail environments. There could even be a growing number of those in light of the recent publicity around the Hachette dispute and the negativity directed at Amazon by Authors United. There are certainly people who make a point to avoid shopping at Amazon or buy from them as little as possible. (I’m even related to some of those people.)

But with Amazon’s enormous market share, their ability to promote both through normal commerce and special exposure like their subscription service Kindle Unlimited, and their willingness to put a thumb on the financial scales (KDP Select authors get higher royalties; they pay bonuses to top sellers and top titles being seen in KU), they can make up for whatever might be lost by eschewing other channels of distribution.

The idea that having content that is not available elsewhere can strengthen a retail offering is not the exclusive province of Amazon. It was a core component of the strategy originally announced by upstart retailer Zola Books.

Amazon has not yet ever suggested that “content only available here” was any important part of their customer-marketing strategy. (Update: I’ve been corrected on this. In fact, they do promote the exclusive content, both in press releases and in their Kindle Unlimited promotion online. They tout “over 500,000 digital titles you won’t find anywhere else”.) The exclusive-or-not conversation has been mostly (should be: largely) confined to their dialogue with authors. In fact, the rest of the publishing world has nudged them in that direction by being resistant to stocking books from Amazon Publishing. If at one time the author recruitment team at Amazon might have hoped to deliver ubiquitous distribution for their books, the path to bookstores was effectively blocked by their brick-and-mortar competitors’ lack of willingness to support their program.

The self-publishing revolution, despite the enthusiasm of its strongest advocates (which definitely include Hugh Howey), has only made small inroads among authors who have the option of a substantial advance from a traditional publisher. For that reason, the pool of authors exclusive to Amazon contains very few that could change a book consumer’s shop-of-choice (except perhaps one time for a particular book they wanted to get).

But if a big earner like Hugh Howey thinks he might be better off accepting Amazon’s standard terms for exclusivity, that’s a dangerous sign for everybody else in the book ecosystem. A traditional publisher still offers brick-and-mortar visibility and revenue that Amazon and any self-publishing effort will not. The transfer of market share from stores to online and from print to digital hasn’t ended. Every point of market share that shifts strengthens Amazon’s proposition for exclusivity and increases the likelihood that a high-visibility author will make the self-publishing leap. The combination of the two — highly branded authors and Amazon exclusivity — is among the most unwelcome inevitabilities the rest of the industry will probably face in the years, if not months, to come.

What is already the case is that Amazon is piling up a repository of content that nobody else has. When that hits a tipping point that starts influencing substantial numbers of consumers is another shoe waiting to drop.

Programming at Digital Book World that is highly relevant to this post will be a presentation by Judith Curr, president of the Atria division of S&S, on the math of the author’s decision whether to go with a publisher or publish on their own. Curr’s division works hard to recruit new authors and, in fact, Peter K. Borland, who heads up Atria’s Keywords Press partnership with UTA to publish books from highly successful “digital influencers” (people with big YouTube audiences, for example), is a participant on a panel of “new publishers” who are making their mark. The other participants on that panel — Entangled and Georgia McBride Media — don’t have Big Five roots.

As we were about to post, a rumor hit the Net of a new Amazon program to recruit more self-published authors. The idea is that submissions of manuscript and cover are given a crowd-sourced review; then the highest-ranked are “considered” for a new kind of Amazon publishing contract. This doesn’t seem to have been “officially” announced, but a conversation with an Amazon person is reported and the source, The Digital Reader, is normally reliable. This initiative would be further evidence that Amazon is using its platform to control the distribution of more and more of what authors generate.

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Big publisher bashing again with fictional facts


The estimable Clay Shirky has written a lengthy piece called “Amazon, Publishers, and Readers” on medium.com saying, essentially, that an Amazon-dominated world would be an improvement over the Big Five “cartel”-dominated world of publishing we have today. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Big Five are not nearly as broad a cartel as Amazon — which reaches way beyond the consumer books they publish — is a monopsony. Amazon touches much more of the book business than the Big Five publishers do. To make his case, Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation to get from his own impression of the current Hachette-Amazon dispute (about which he says “Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact”) to a completely different conclusion.

My complaint with the facts and logic start at the top: with the two paragraphs Shirky uses to set up his argument and establishes the “holier-than” context for his position. He says:

Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.

Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to protect first editions; as long as ebook prices remained high, hardback sales could be protected. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.

Almost every sentence of this is subtly or blatantly wrong.

1. Publishers did not begin selling large numbers of books in digital format in 2007. Amazon started Kindle in late November 2007. Significant sales of ebooks didn’t start to occur until after Christmas and continued to grow rapidly thereafter.

2. Although an uninformed person would be led to infer from reading this that DRM was somehow created for Amazon, in fact DRM was routinely used for ebooks for their entire existence before Kindle. DRM on Kindle continued current practice; DRM was not created for Kindle or at Kindle’s behest.

3. DRM maintains pricing power for content owners as well as hardware vendors. In fact, I’d say it is more for the content owner than for the hardware owner. What it does for the hardware owner, particularly Amazon because they eschew the industry standard Adobe, is lock customers into their ecosystem. Of course, it is that lock-in that Shirky is telling publishers they can overcome by going DRM-free. (This precise antidote to Amazon was offered up by Matteo Berlucchi, then the CEO of Anobii, at a talk we put him on stage to give at Digital Book World in 2012.) In fact, it is not transparent that eliminating DRM would curb Amazon; it might fuel them. How well would the other retailers stand up to Amazon having easy access to their customers? Because that would happen at the same time.

4. Publishers did not believe — let alone “clearly assumed” — they were handing Amazon any sort of consolidated control. Perhaps that was a failure of vision, but it was a justifiable expectation since nobody had succeeded at selling ebooks before Kindle.

5. Amazon’s discounting was entirely at their own expense and was a tactic designed, at least originally, to sell devices and create captive customers. The publishers’ “inflated profits” (if that’s what they were) were not at issue in 2007 or 2008. So Amazon “sided with the customer”, but they also “sided with their own interests”. Some might say that’s not relevant; I think it is. Either way, it should be acknowledged, not elided or ignored.

6. Amazon was partly enabled to give the big discounts to consumers because publishers gave discounts too big to them, foolishly aping the print book business model even though a retailer’s costs drop much more than a publisher’s do with the change to digital. Stock turn is the key profitability metric for retailers. Stock turn on digital books is “infinity”. (I’d note that these are small points in this piece but are really really big points that go ignored in most of the discussions about ebook economics, which are almost always “fails” at understanding the core economics of publishers or retailers.)

7. The reduction in publisher revenue per book sold which resulted from Agency pricing (pejoratively characterized by Shirky as “colluded with Apple” rather than the at-least-equally accurate “using Apple’s established app store business model”) was not due to “Apple’s cut”. “Apple’s cut” was less than “Amazon’s cut” had been under the wholesale model. And, if you doubt that, you should take note that Amazon prefers not to switch to “Apple’s cut” so they don’t allow any but the biggest publishers to sell on the agency model with its lower margin. (Publishers can get 70% of net direct through KDP, but they have to stick to the $2.99-$9.99 price band and are at the mercy of KDP’s terms.)

8. It is misleading to attribute the publishers’ desire to keep “hardbacks” (really, all print) alive as a desire to protect “first editions”. It was primarily a desire to protect the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It should be said that way for accuracy but also to make the motivations of the sides clear. Publishers want to strengthen or maintain bookstores because their ability to reach them is a core competence that keeps them in business. Amazon wants to weaken or eliminate bookstores because it is clearly established that many customers of each bookstore that closes come to them. Another motivation for the publishers was to maintain a diverse ebook ecosystem, which at that time had just added Nook to its ranks and was about to add Apple. It is likely that Amazon’s discounting — thanks to the DoJ’s and court’s actions weakening agency — did as much to weaken Nook as any mistakes made by Barnes & Noble. And let’s not forget that Kobo has also abandoned active marketing in the US ebook market since then as well.

The other piece of Shirky’s screed that is misleading and inaccurate is his history of paperbacks.

Whether you date the beginning of paperbacks in the US to Pocket Books’s founding and Penguin’s establishing itself in the US in 1939 or to the period right after World War II when paperback publishing writ large discovered the magazine distribution system and really took off, there were decades between their arrival on the scene and their consolidation into the larger book business under joint ownership with hardcover houses. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that, to the degree that the ebook disruption is analogous to the paperback disruption, the reaction would be even more extreme on the part of the incumbent establishment dealing with the lightning-quick change that has transpired since ebooks took off in 2008.

And that is quite aside from the fact that the paperback revolution was not 60-to-70 percent controlled by a single account that also controlled a substantial and growing chunk of the rest of the book sales as well. Be that as it may, Shirky is simply factually wrong to say that what happened was that the hardcover houses just bought up the paperback houses and consolidated them into the existing business. The acquisitions took place in both directions. In at least three cases, the paperback house bought the hardcover house (Avon bought Morrow, Penguin bought Viking, and Bantam bought Doubleday) in order to assure themselves a steady supply of good books.

And before the consolidation even began, real troubles had started to develop with the distribution through the magazine ecosystem. Returns were climbing (that is why prices of paperbacks went up) and paperback publishers were finding they needed to sell directly to many accounts, which made them more like the hardcover publishers. And over the couple of decades between the end of World War II and the beginnings of consolidation, almost every “hardcover” house had started doing its own “trade” paperbacks: not rack-sized and sold through the same network that sold hardcover books.

In other words, the analogy is not analogous in many important ways.

It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”.

Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”. It seemed like Shirky himself tried to dismiss that idea near the opening of his piece, when he attacks Steve Coll for writing “about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes”, which Shirky describes as maintaining the current “elites” or seeing Amazon become a “soul-crushing monopoly”. But that is precisely where he ends up. To look at things this way rejects not only what the publishers keep trying to tout as their “added values” (curation and editing, yes, but also marketing, distribution, and rights management) but it also ignores the interests of academic and professional publishing, textbook publishing, bookstores, and a diverse book retailing — and therefore book recommending — ecosystem.

There will be many Hachettes fighting their version of this battle over the next few years. But there will only be one Amazon.

Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.com is joining us for an interview by Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and me at Digital Book World 2015, coming up next January 14-15. 

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It is hard for publishers to apply even Harvard B School advice in their struggle with Amazon


Harvard Business Review published an article recently by Benjamin Edelman called “Mastering the Intermediaries” which gives advice to businesses trying to avoid some of the consequences of audience aggregation and control by an intermediary. The article was aimed at restaurants who don’t want their fate controlled by Open Table or travel companies who don’t want to be beholden to Expedia. The advice offered is, of course, scholarly and thoughtful. It seemed worth examining whether it might have any value to publishers suffering the growing consequences of so much of their customer base coming to them through a single online retailer.

The author presents four strategies to help businesses reduce their dependence on powerful platforms.

The first suggestion: exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.

The author cites the fact that American Airlines’ strong coverage of key routes made its presence on the travel website Kayak indispensable to Kayak’s value proposition. As a result, AA negotiated a better deal than Kayak offered others or than others could get.

Despite some suggestions in the late 1990s that publishers set up their own Amazon (which they subsequently half-heartedly tried to do with no success) and a couple of moves to cut Amazon off by minor publishers that were minimally dependent on trade sales, this tactic has never really been possible for publishers on the print side. Amazon began life by acquiring all its product from wholesalers — primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor — before they switched some and ultimately most of its sourcing to publishers to get better margin. But the publishers can’t cut off the wholesalers without seriously damaging their business and their relationships with other accounts, and the wholesalers won’t cut off Amazon. So for printed books, still extremely important and until just a couple of years ago the dominant format, this strategy is not worth much to publishers.

However, the strategy was and is employable for ebooks, which are sold via contractual sufferance from agency publishers, even if the sourcing is (sometimes, not typically by Amazon) through an aggregator. That was the implied threat when Macmillan CEO John Sargent went to Seattle in the now-famous episode in 2010 to tell them that ebooks would only be available on agency terms. Amazon briefly expressed its displeasure by pulling the buy buttons off of Macmillan’s print books. (Publishers can’t cut them off from print availability, but they can cut publishers off from print sales!) In the meantime, Amazon’s share of the big publishers’ ebook sales has settled somewhat north of 60 percent, and those Kindle customers are very hard to access except through Amazon. This is considerably more share than Kayak had when American Airlines threatened their boycott.

In fact, it is likely that Amazon could live without any of the Big Five’s books for a period of time, except for Penguin Random House, which is about the size of the other four big publishers combined. The chances are that PRH’s size will prevent Amazon from treating them the way they are now treating Hachette. And the massive share that Amazon has of both print and ebook sales makes it extremely difficult for Hachette, or any other big house except PRH and possibly HarperCollins, to sustain an ebook boycott (with consequent print book sales reductions) for any significant length of time. In other words, for publishers dealing with Amazon, this horse has left the barn.

Where it has not yet left the barn is with the ebook subscription services, and for them many publishers actually appear to be following the strategy being suggested here. Only two of the big houses have put titles into Scribd and Oyster, and it appears that they got extremely favorable sales and payment terms in order to do so. Indeed, these fledgling subscription offerings must have the big houses’ branded books to have a compelling consumer proposition.

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

The HBS piece cites the complaints that eBay was giving search prominence to suppliers who advertised on the site forcing a reversal of the policy.

Although the search algorithms on powerful platforms are ostensibly geared only to give the customer what they’re most likely to want, it is probably generally understood that these results are jiggered to favor the platform’s interest. It is not surprising that Google has underwritten White Papers from UCLA professor Eugene Volokh and from Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defending that conduct. Volokh argues that the first amendment prevents the government from interfering with search results and Bork says nobody is harmed if Google favors its own interests.

Could we apply that same logic to Amazon? How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

This is the kind of an argument that can arouse the government which, so far, has shown scarcely more interest in Amazon’s dominance of book commerce than they would if they dominated the commerce in soft drinks or lawn fertilizer. Can they be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented? We don’t know, but we do know that Hachette sent lawyers to Washington early in the Obama Administration to call attention to Amazon’s growing marketplace power and their willingness to use it. That apparently had no affect (unless, in some perverse way, it contributed to the government’s interest in pursuing the “collusion” case).

There could certainly be some consumer blowback to the gaming of search results by a platform, perhaps including Amazon. The Harvard article says Google changed algorithms that seemed to be burying Yelp because consumer sentiment, partly measurable in search queries, showed dissatisfaction among the public. But in the absence of an aroused government, it would seem unlikely that this suggestion will do publishers large or small much good.

It is definitely worth noting here that Hachette authors are involved in just such an effort right now over the current Hachette-Amazon dispute. (And Amazon authors, also often called “indie authors”, are pushing back in the other direction.) There is a difference of opinion about how much this is “hurting” Amazon or whether it will push them to a quicker resolution of the dispute; I’m not sure anybody will ever know the answer to that.

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

As the piece explains, when MovieTickets was on the verge of dominating phone and online ticketing, Regal Entertainment and two other large theater chains formed Fandango.

Unfortunately, this is a strategy that simply won’t work as an antidote to Amazon. In fact, trying it, which publishers have, demonstrates a failure to understand the source of Amazon’s power in the marketplace.

Amazon’s strategy is in plain sight and is the title of the best and most recent book about them: Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”. Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin. Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental. This is one of the reasons, perhaps even the principal one, why they operate their book retailing on margins so thin that the incumbent book retailers can’t match them. After all, B&N can’t make up the margin shortfalls created by offering books cheaply by selling that same customer a lawnmower. Nor do they benefit from additional scale provided by selling lawnmowers or cat food or server space.

The fact that Amazon did book retailing in a thorough and sophisticated way as they established their business to become an online Walmart made them different from omni-retailers in the past (going back to departments stores a hundred years ago) who sold some books.

The story has been told on this blog before about Amazon cutting prices more than fifteen years ago to discourage competition coming into the market. Although publishing is a profitable business for them, it is also a strategic component of larger objectives: getting an increasing share of its customers’ purchases across a range of physical products as well as to compete as a streaming content provider across the entire range of digital media.

No enterprise focused primarily on books can compete with that. Amazon takes too many customers off the table before whoever else is competing gets to begin and keeps them for a wide range of reasons. They’ve got the most admirable competitive position conceivable: a first-class operation supported by scale provided by myriad other enterprises, totally wide-ranging and broad knowledge of the details of book retailing, and the financial heft to accept diminished (or even negative) margins from time to time to support strategic objectives.

So, Bookish, the attempt to compete (although that objective was not explicitly stated) forged by three major publishers more than a decade after Ingram’s I2S2 attempt to create a broader base of online retailers, was never a serious threat. (It is now owned by another Regal, Joe Regal, whose Zola Books — an ambitious upstart ebook retailer — bought Bookish, apparently for its recommendation engine, from the publishers.)

This is probably the 20th year in a row, dating from their start in 1995, that Amazon has gained market share for sales of books to consumers. And that’s because consumers are making what for them is the obvious choice for convenience, total selection, and competitive pricing, as well as getting tied into Amazon through their PRIME program. Unless one of the other two tech giants in the bookselling world — Apple or Google — decides to make a dedicated effort to take some of that market share away from Amazon in both print and digital (and neither of them is much interested in print), it is hard to see where a serious competitor can come from.

As of this moment, there is no way for any ebook retailer except Amazon to put DRMed content on a Kindle, which eliminates a big part of the audience from play for any competitive platform.

The fourth suggestion: deal more directly. The article points out that people ordering takeout through online platforms like Foodler and GrubHub have often already chosen their restaurant so that restaurants that deal directly can afford to exit the platform.

As I was working on this post, HarperCollins announced that they have redesigned their website to be consumer-facing which enables them to sell books directly to consumers. They’ve collaborated with their printer-warehouse partner, Donnelley, to handle print book fulfillment and have a white-label version of indie ebook platform Bluefire to deliver ebooks. They promise that authors will be able to use the capability very easily to connect their own web presences and they’re thinking about additional compensation to authors that generate those sales.

This bold move has a hole in it, though, and it is one that publishers so far have no easy way to fill. All the non-Amazon platforms use Adobe DRM, which HarperCollins/Bluefire supports, so they can put your ebook on a Nook or Kobo device with copy-protection. Of course, they have their own “reader”, which can be loaded with ease on most web-capable devices and can apparently also be squeezed onto a Kindle Fire. But, because HarperCollins wants to continue to use DRM protection for the content, they won’t be able to sell directly to users of Kindle devices that are dedicated e-readers.

Although publishers have certainly encouraged that competition to Amazon which exists, their direct efforts have for the most part been limited to cultivating direct interaction with the end user audience to influence awareness and selection. Many smaller publishers are willing to sell direct without DRM and other large publishers sell direct in a more restrained way, but this seems to be the first concerted effort by a major player to drive direct sales.

It will be interesting to watch the pricing interaction between Harper and Amazon and whether Harper can come up with “specials” (bonus content, some connection to the author, bundling) that Amazon or another retailer can’t match. Competing on price is the retailer’s first instinct, but for publishers competing with Amazon on price is a fool’s errand, fraught with the potential for retaliation in many ways (including that “discounts” from publishers, the retailers’ margin, is presumably based on the publisher’s price. What does “publisher’s price” mean if they sell for less?)

But HarperCollins doesn’t need to get a big volume of direct sales for this to be a worthwhile initiative for them. I’d expect it to be copied. Any sales they can get directly increase their power in the marketplace.

There is one other initiative we’re aware of that can perhaps help publishers disintermediate Amazon for direct sales. That’s Aerbook, which widgetizes a book or promotional material for a book so that it can be “displayed” in any environment. Aerbook’s widgets can contain the capabilities for transacting or for referring the transaction to a retailer, Amazon or anybody else. Putting the awareness of the book directly into the social and commercial streams can be a big tool for authors and publishers. But even Aerbook can’t put a DRMed file on a Kindle. They offer a version of “social DRM” — essentially “marking” the ebook in a way that identifies its owner — which can be loaded onto the Kindle. But big publishers and big authors have apparently not yet come to a comfort level with that solution; perhaps the need to get to the Kindle customer directly and the experience Aerbook develops with their method will encourage a more open mind on that question over time.

So, it would seem, the best thinking presented by Harvard Business Review for how producers and service providers can dodge platforms trying to lock in their audiences has precious little that can be usefully applied by publishers to escape the grip of Amazon. Having taken about half the retail book market over the two decades of their existence, they have given themselves a reputation, tools, and momentum that will make it very hard to stop them from eating into the other half substantially in the years to come.

The fact that competing with Amazon is difficult doesn’t stop smart people from trying to figure out how it might be done. A group of publishing thinkers are holding a 2-day brainstorming session at the end of this month to come up with ideas. Two of them, Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon, will be presenting at a session at Digital Book World in January called “Blue Sky in the ebook future”, which will include thoughts on how to improve the narrative ebook itself from Peter Meyers and somebody not yet chosen to speak about complex ebooks.

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The disruption of the disruption is temporary


There’s little doubt that the digital (r)evolution, to the degree it is measured by the shift by consumers from reading on paper to reading on a screen, has plateaued, at least temporarily. The most recent article in PW on the subject spells out that some publishers have even seen their digital sales decline, although always with an explanation. (Houghton Harcourt had strong Hobbit sales the prior year they couldn’t match, just as Random House did with 50 Shades.)

Last week I spent a very pleasant hour reviewing the state of the industry with one of the big company CEOs. This executive seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to take a breath. For several years, s/he reported (no gender hints here; I’m preserving anonymity), there were regular “all hands on deck” conversations about policies that needed to be set. These were very large decisions as rapid shifts in sales took place from the well-understood economics of print to the developing economics of digital: the agency model was put in and then modified by court fiat, new methods of marketing needed to be employed, and the decisions about what to pay for new title acquisitions had to be made within a rapidly-changing revenue context.

I think the notion that the dizzying change we saw take place for several years, starting with the introduction of the Kindle and accelerated by the introduction of iPads and other tablets, is now behind us is probably accurate. Both the CEO I was talking with and PW are right. But that doesn’t mean change is over and it doesn’t mean all of today’s incumbents, many of which among the publishers and indie retailers seem to be riding a rising tide of profitability, can assume stability going forward.

Even though the biggest disruptor of the digital era — the shift of reading from paper to screens — has slowed down to a slow walk (at least temporarily), all of the players in the book business are still dealing with disruptive forces that won’t be as dramatic, but which will continue to be inexorable.

1. Even if the shift away from reading on paper has slowed down, the shift to buying print online probably has not. Since the number of titles continues to grow rapidly and bookstore shelf space has still declined (yes, there are reportedly some thriving independents but Barnes & Noble devotes less and less space to books in each store and closes stores slowly but steadily), the increase in the percentage of books purchased online will continue to rise. That undercuts the power of the big publishers relative to competitors, increases the clout of both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and ratchets up the importance of digital marketing.

2. The margins for big publishers have appeared to improve in the past few years, probably because they retain a bigger share of their revenue from ebooks than they did for print books. Part of that is because the waste of books printed and not sold (and sometimes picked, packed, shipped, and processed as a return) has been drastically reduced. And some overheads, like warehouse space, have been reduced. But another part of is that author royalty of 25% of revenue is better for publishers than the list-based royalties they pay on print. However, the improved margins will be hard to retain. Amazon and Barnes & Noble hold high cards in their negotiations with publishers since they are dominant paths to the online and store-shopping markets, respectively. And even if the contractual 25 percent royalty is slow to change, the big authors will almost certainly be demanding (and getting) advances based on the total margin expectation, not the 25 percent. And the price of ebooks is going to continue to be driven down, also not a good thing for the publishing establishment.

3. Publishing will continue to favor scale. The Big Five houses will monopolize the big authors and the bestseller lists, as they have, and the lion’s share of authors who are predictably headed for the list will be signed with one of them. But this is not a battle among equals: Penguin Random House is as big as the other four combined. As each author becomes a “free agent” on the expiration of current contracts, PRH will be in a position to use its (already) deeper pockets and its (expected, by me) superior distribution capability to take authors away from the other four. This is a battle in which it is hard to see what weapons the other four have. One of their CEOs pins hopes on authors being more inclined to be number one or two with another house than number 20 with PRH. Another told me their belief is that PRH doesn’t want to wipe everybody else out. Certainly, agents will do what they can to maintain a competitive environment, but more money speaks very loudly and PRH is going to have the ability to offer it more frequently than anybody else. I believe we will start to see “takeovers” that occur one author at a time.

4. The verticalization of publishing will continue to separate the straight text books from all the rest. The Random House part of PRH had largely removed itself from the illustrated books sphere before the merger. One has to guess at the reasons for this, but it would seem logical that the failure of illustrated books to work commercially as ebooks was a factor. It is not clearly apparent whether the other big trade houses are doing the same. At the same time, we see two publishers who do primarily illustrated books — F+W Media and Quarto Publishing — growing and acquiring. What is interesting is that they appear to be pursuing diametrically opposite strategies. F+W is emphasizing community development and, in effect, using its print base as a platform to build a digital business. Quarto is emphasizing expanding its ability to distribute illustrated print books globally. Just as PRH will apply its scale to create competitive advantage against other publishers pursuing books primarily meant to be read, F+W and Quarto will have scale that will make it increasingly difficult for illustrated book publishers to compete with them in the areas where they publish. Since neither of them focuses on art and museum publishing, that also leaves room for Abrams to grow in that area. (It is quite possible that the strategies of both F+W and Quarto will “work”, setting up a mega-merger some years down the line.)

5. We have seen a sea change in author options. Most of the big houses have ridden that out very well. Although many authors in a position to do so reclaimed digital rights to their backlist and self-published those titles, authors by and large have not deserted major houses (and big advances) for alternative publishing means, even when Amazon hired a big publishing CEO to manage their checkbook. But we’re now on the verge of another revolution: entity self-publishing. That means newspapers and magazines and brands of all sorts will be using the infrastructure created for indie authors to make content available for sale. This could be more disruptive to publishers than the indie authors have been. Like indie authors, self-publishing brands will be inclined to drive down retail prices in the marketplace. And they’ll have marketing dollars behind them. As they grow their own little cottage publishing operations, they’ll also be a threat to “steal” a big author from time to time, especially when the print-in-store share drops to a small fraction of the total market, which it will.

6. Being a retailer in this space isn’t going to be a bed of roses either. Amazon already has the right answer: they have always used book retailing as a customer acquisition tool and they have a slew of other ways to boost the lifetime value of any customer they get. But they also have been the beneficiaries of an extremely patient investment community, and it is hard to tell how much it might crimp their style if their stock valuation became more “normal”. (I am not going so far as to say this is happening now, although the share price has taken a tumble in the week or so since their last report.) As readers progress away from dedicated devices for reading, it gets easier for the other major retailers to steal Kindle customers. (It also gets easier for Kindle to steal theirs.) Who knows how disruptive he can be, but Kieron Smith, who created the only previous serious global threat to Amazon as a print retailer (called The Book Depository, which Amazon then bought), is at it again with BestLittleBookshop.com. Barnes & Noble just has to manage decline. It will be no surprise if they have to abandon the digital publishing business (Nook) to save the investment for their stores. And they have to invent something they haven’t yet to give the stores something to become besides “smaller”. But the two of them will cushion whatever difficulties they have in the near term by taking more and more of the consumer’s dollar from the publishers and it will be very hard for the publishers to prevent that from happening.

7. There are definitely some expanding opportunities for publishers. Schools and colleges will be growth markets for trade books, once the roads to the customers for them are paved. They aren’t yet. Both publishers and 3rd party aggregators are building “platforms” that combine the content with teaching and assessment tools. Deals will develop, over time, for trade publishers to license their content through these platforms. Another opportunity for publishers in our world arises because the big global ebook retailers are English-language and North America based. The big publishers here have a natural advantage selling to them, which could suck revenue away from publishers all over the world — both by publishers here taking over distribution for publishers elsewhere and by the more direct route of English-language publishers starting to do their own other-language editions.

In the US, we already have one dominant brick-and-mortar retailer and one dominant online retailer. We may be on our way to one dominant global English-language publisher of books to be read with a competition between two others for dominance of books to be looked at. There will be no shortage of diversity of publishing “voices”, but many of them will be doing it as a function supporting another business, not as a stand-alone commercial proposition. Publishers and others are building vertical communities of interest of all sorts, with many of those likely to become part of the “book publishing” infrastructure of the future, as creators, as publishers, and as retailers. None of this will happen overnight but there is almost certainly more disruption of the 20th century publishing business facing us over the next decade.

As of this posting, there are still a few days left for readers of The Shatzkin Files to help us shape the program for Digital Book World 2015. Go to our survey and fill it out and your opinion will be included in our thinking as we map out the program for next January.

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The book world keeps changing, so Digital Book World has to change too


This post invites you to help us shape the agenda for Digital Book World 2015.

It was five years ago this summer that David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media took me out to lunch and said they thought the book business could have a more useful digital conference — one, in their words, that would give you things you could go back to the office and use — than the existing set of conclaves, led by Tools of Change, then provided. And they flattered me and provoked my imagination by saying “we think you’re the guy to program it”.

At the time, I was in a partnership with O’Reilly Media, the owners of Tools of Change, working on an initiative called “StartWithXML”. We had a conference in London coming up as part of our team effort that was only a few weeks away. I wasn’t looking for a way to compete with them.

But, when I thought about it, I realized that by changing the focus of our conference from “technology and publishing” (which was theirs) to “the business challenges created by technology for trade publishers”, we would be able to do something quite different than they had. Agents would be included, and, this being long before the agents were hiring people with digital publishing expertise to help their authors, they weren’t invited to be part of Tools of Change. I knew their voices were important when you talked about how the business of publishing would be affected by digital. And real challenges around resource deployment and marketing, which weren’t strictly-speaking about technology but which were top of mind for trade publishers, would make our agenda when we framed it this way as well.

They named the new conference Digital Book World.

This recommendation really just followed my own advice. I had been observing that book publishers needed to become more “vertical”, by which I meant “audience-specific”, in their thinking. Tools of Change was horizontal; it was about all publishing and technology. We’d focus Digital Book World on a particular segment of publishers and therefore be able to make it more meaningful for them.

Now we are planning our sixth Digital Book World conference for January, 2015. A lot has changed. Tools of Change shut down in 2013. Perhaps partially aided by the disappearance of its biggest competitor, Digital Book World has continued to grow, with more than 25 percent growth in 2014 over the year before.

But a big part of the distinction that guided us as we built DBW, the emphasis on trade publishing, is eroding in importance as the trade itself — which means the bookstores and libraries and the wholesalers that serve them — become less robust paths to the consumer. The challenges for an industry beginning to move from physical goods in stores to virtual goods online are different as the new paradigm becomes the dominant paradigm.

Except for self-published genre fiction (and perhaps even for publisher-issued genre fiction too), that paradigm shift hasn’t really happened yet, but the day when it will is in sight. At some future Digital Book World — not 2015, but maybe 2016 and almost certainly before 2020 — we will be looking at a “trade” book industry which does most of its business online, not through brick-and-mortar stores.

(In fact, the world has changed so much that one thing on my list to discuss is a DBW 2015 panel that would reconsider the whole StartwithXML premise. When we were thinking about this in 2009, we figured the biggest payoff from going through what could be a painful workflow change was that you’d be able to make ebooks of complex books much more efficiently. That’s probably still true, but the ebooks for complex books also haven’t sold very well and their future is a bit cloudy. Knowing that, how important was that change to make, really? We’ll ask some publishers who have gone through it and, depending on what reports we get, perhaps put it on the program for discussion in January.)

All of this not only means that what we have called trade publishers may be renamed, they will also find themselves with new channels to consumers and a new set of competitors. The prospective new landscape will get a great deal of attention from us next January and we are beginning to interact with players that wouldn’t really have belonged at DBW in 2010 or 2011 but who might be smack in the middle of our business by 2017 or 2018.

Who are they? They are educational publishers, both K-12 and college. They are newspapers, magazines, and advertising agencies. And they are digital-first publishers, coming out of web sites and other content creators and brands, who see the opportunity to reach audiences efficiently through a book business that no longer requires a big investment in printed inventory and an organization reaching thousands of small sales outlets for meaningful participation. And they are start-ups and technology companies too.

We are going to start this year by looking for the Venn diagram “overlap” between these new audiences and the trade publishing audience we’ve served for half a decade.

For newspapers, magazines, and advertising agencies, that means we’ll be looking for the players who have already found opportunity in the book publishing ecosystem. Although for all of them ebooks are really a highly complementary opportunity, it looks like newspapers have made that discovery more rapidly than the others. Newspapers and magazines, particularly, have content and consumer-facing brands that create a natural fit for ebook creation and marketing. For advertising, the stretch is a little greater and, frankly, we’ll be looking for pioneers that see the opportunity to promote their clients’ wares using ebook discovery and word-of-mouth as tools. It is inevitable that they will but finding the early visionaries will be the first challenge.

There is a new component of the advertising business called “content marketing” which also, ultimately, seems like a fit for the ebook business. What it means today is that a digital ad agency creates content which promotes a client or product; content which is meant to be found online and delivered for free.

There are two ways that book publishing could — and almost certainly will — be part of this new component, although neither seems to have happened with any regularity yet. One is that the agency-created content could be delivered as an ebook, not just as discoverable web content. This has probably not been the first instinct of the agencies for two reasons. One is that they figure that nobody would “buy” what they’re willing to give away for free. The other is that there’s a bit of a learning curve about how to process content into an ebook and put it into distribution. (Frankly, if you’re willing to live with the ebook being made available only through Kindle — which gets you much more than half the market — the learning “curve” is just about a straight line. Amazon makes it pretty damn simple.)

My niece, Kailey Moran, writes a blog about cars for women for a marketing company called Reynolds and Reynolds. It seems to me like a short step for her to put together an ebook for the same audience on the same subject. Her company isn’t doing that yet. I’m betting that within the next couple of years, they will.

There will also be new interactions occurring between college textbook and school publishers and their counterparts in trade. The educational publishers are moving from being primarily creators and distributors of “textbooks” to becoming creators and managers of “learning platforms”. These not only attempt to contain the syllabus and pedagogy that was in the textbooks, they also provide teachers with monitoring and assessment capabilities. And they will also be the environment in which the required and supplementary reading — often of trade-published books — will take place.

That will increasingly put the educational publishers in the role of aggregators for their institutional customers. This is likely to be a difficult and contentious area for the next several years because trade publishers will have to be satisfied with a new business model. They have historically sold printed books either to institutions (the normal way things happen with public schools) or to the student end-users (the normal way things happen in private schools and colleges). In the latter case, they often are able to make a sale for every user. Doing so is an artifact of the physical world and will get increasingly difficult to do, but trade publishers are understandably reluctant to move quickly to models that pay them less for each use, even if they already sell one printed book for multiple users (over time, because the books don’t wear out) in school situations now.

So the school and college publishers and trade publishers are going to have to talk and I think interaction at Digital Book World could jump-start some conversations.

We are guided in our programming at DBW by our Conference Council, a group of leading industry thinkers — some independent but most of them executives within the industry — who meet with us to discuss the program and then provide suggestions on an ongoing basis for speakers and topics. To prepare for the meeting we schedule to discuss the agenda, we offer our Council the opportunity to offer their opinions about each of the sub-topics we’ve identified under the major headings. (It’s a 2-hour meeting with 30 people or so; we can’t discuss everything and I need the guidance to put things in priority order for time allocation.) This year, for the first time, we are seeking that same input from readers of The Shatzkin Files.

We will be looking to create good programming under seven major themes:

Publishing in a global economy
The changing publishing ecosystem (roles and relationships)
Data-driven publishing
Rethinking marketing
Developing business models
Technology and living on the cutting edge
Education and book publishing are developing a new relationship

If you want to help us decide what are the most important sub-topics under these headings, you can see how we break them down and register your opinion about them on our survey monkey poll. When our Conference Council meets, we will make them aware of the results of this voting, as well as the separate tally we’re keeping of the vote by the Conference Council itself.

And an extra robust thank-you for anybody who can suggest a sub-topic that should have made the list and didn’t.

We don’t really understand the ways of Feedburner, our current (but soon to be past) distributor of the email version of this blog, but it didn’t distribute my last post about when an author should self-publish. So if you’re getting this one by email and didn’t get the last one, we’re trying to make it easy for you to read it now by clicking this link. We will soon be moving over to Mail Chimp so these problems will be in the rear view mirror.

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Comparing self-publishing to being published is tricky and most of the data you need to do it right is not available


I have a certain pride of discovery in super-successful indie author Hugh Howey. It was nearly two years ago that I learned about him on a trip to LA to organize a conference that didn’t happen. The Hollywood grapevine told me about his novel-of-assembled-novellas, Wool, which was a sudden major self-publishing bestseller and that he had a movie deal. I got in touch with him and his agent, Kristin Nelson, and learned that he was making $50,000 a month in royalties, and had a host of foreign deals as well as the movie deal. Meanwhile, the publishing establishment couldn’t come up with an offer that would sensibly entice him to give up his indie revenues. I read his book and loved it and then had many interesting exchanges with Hugh and Kristin, which resulted in them appearing on the Digital Book World program in 2013, 13 months ago.

He’s a terrific guy who has achieved a phenomenal success and maximized it in a very clever way. But I think he’s a much better author and self-promoter than he is a business analyst.

At the beginning of the year, Howey offered his advice for publishers which reminded me of an old saw of my Dad’s, which was “when I was a kid, everybody wished their father owned a candy store.” Hugh’s advice for publishers is to eliminate things that annoy him (non-compete clauses, length-of-copyright licenses, New York City offices) and to lower prices, give away ebooks with hardcover purchases, and pay authors monthly.

Now, none of these things is necessarily a bad idea, and some of them will almost certainly come to pass, at least for some authors in some contracts. And I remember when Wiley moved from 3rd Avenue to Hoboken that they figured they got a competitive advantage of permanently lower rent at very little sacrifice of efficiency. But none of them are things a publisher would do just for the hell of it; they’d have to see a competitive advantage or a competitive necessity. The piece he wrote advising the publishers (which he addressed to HarperCollins but which he meant to be generic) didn’t even attempt to prove that these changes were either commercially advantageous or necessary.

But giving this advice to HarperCollins or any other big publisher is not dangerous to anybody’s health. Unfortunately, Hugh’s latest business inspiration — a call to arms suggesting to independent authors that they should just eschew traditional publishing or demand it pay them like indie publishing — is potentially much more toxic to consume. (The agenda here is unclear. Is Hugh most interested in getting more authors self-publishing or in organizing authors to demand better terms from publishers? It’s hard to tell, but there is an agenda, it would seem.)

The long story short is that Howey analyzed a bunch of Amazon rank data (apparently a single day’s worth, 1/28-29/2014, which has so many obvious problems associated with it that all by itself it raises questions about what of value can be gleaned) and from that extrapolated some breathtaking (and breathless) conclusions that go way beyond what the data could possibly tell anybody. The analysis purports to compare how authors do self-publishing versus how they’d do with a publisher and comes to the conclusions that they make more per copy on average self-publishing and maybe even sell more and make better books to boot. (For much more and better analysis of the data biases, I’d check Dana Beth Weinberg’s post on this subject. Her objections and my objections have very little overlap.)

My problem with the whole exercise is that there is a long list of relevant facts not included in the data and therefore ignored in the subsequent analysis:

1. Author revenue from print sales.
2. Getting an advance before publication versus having costs before publication.
3. Unearned advances and their impact on author earnings.
4. Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring.
5. Current indie successes where the author name or even the book itself was “made” by traditional publishers.
6. Rights deals.
7. How well Amazon data “maps” to what happens elsewhere. Is it really projectable?
8. The apparent reality: flow of authors is self- to traditionally-published, not the other way around.
9. Publishers can raise royalty rates (or lower prices) when it becomes compelling to do so.

Each of these could be a big or small part of the story, but every one is relevant.

1. Author revenue from print sales. Authors not only make a lot of money on print sales, but print in stores (as opposed to printed copies available through Amazon) is also a marketing element. This all still matters. In a comment on Howey’s site, one author estimates her Amazon sales as anywhere from 10% to 30% of her total sales. Obviously, for some other authors it is a lot more than that, maybe north of 70% of their sales. Which kind of author are you? And if you’re the kind selling mostly on Amazon, is that an inherent characteristic of your appeal or a deficiency in your non-Amazon distribution?

2. Getting an advance before publication versus having costs before publication. Although Howey cites one author who turned down an advance to self-publish, those stories appear to be few and far between. I was really struck by one such author announcing nearly two years ago that he was doing this, but, in the end, that author took a publishing deal — not a self-publishing deal — from Amazon. And the size of the advance is also a consideration that Howey’s analysis doesn’t touch on. It can’t, because that data — however relevant — isn’t available. (But then, can you draw valid conclusions without it?)

 3. Unearned advances and their impact on author earnings. Unearned advances are a substantial part of author compensation. I know of one Big Five house that calculates that they pay more than 40% of their revenue to authors and another which says that number is in the high 30s. That’s not all digital, some of that is print with manufacturing and warehousing and shipping costs associated with the revenue. How can you compare how authors are compensated if you don’t calculate the benefits to authors, meaning the resulting higher percentage of the revenue they’ve taken, of unearned advances? That relevant data is also not available.

4. Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring. Frankly, the biggest omission to me is the eliding of the costs — in time and money — of doing the work the house does for an author. Howey mentions that editors and cover designers can be hired. That’s true, and good and competent ones too. But is a good writer necessarily a wise chooser of an editor or of a cover design? How much does it cost if you don’t get the right one the first time? (We know publishers aren’t perfect at these jobs either, but they’re bound to be better most of the time than somebody who hasn’t ever done it before.) And is that how you want to spend your time? Authoring is a job but doing the work of self-publishing is also a job. And it entails real risk. Advising a writer to self-publish without considering these things is like telling somebody who’s a good cook that they might as well just open a restaurant.

5. Current indie successes where the author name or even the book itself was “made” by traditional publishers. Another factor any author self-publishing has to consider is the likelihood of success, which is much greater if the books are backlist (have some fame in the marketplace) or even if just the author has been previously published. Successes like Howey’s, from a total standing start with no prior writing track record, are quite different from others who have reclaimed their backlists and used them as a platform to build a self-publishing career. Now, that data could be obtained. Wouldn’t you like to know how many of the “indie authors” at various income levels were cashing in on what was originally publisher-sponsored IP and how many started from scratch? (It’s more challenging, of course, to assemble the data by the author rather than by the book.) But I sure think it would be necessary to understand before drawing conclusions about who should self-publish.

6. Rights deals. Howey himself has benefited from having a stellar agent who has made foreign and movie rights deals for him across the globe. (She even made a print-only deal for Wool with S&S.) Yes, you can (if you’re lucky) do this like Howey did: finding an agent to represent his self-published material. But that’s another thing to find and manage that comes with the deal (and the advance check you get to cash) if you do a deal with a traditional publisher (although, admittedly, you would probably have had to find the agent in the first place, and self-publishing could be a way to do that.) Nonetheless, you get more rights-selling firepower on your side if you’re with a publisher.

7. How well Amazon data “maps” to what happens elsewhere. Is it really projectable? A massive flaw in the analysis is the biased nature of the data. Amazon’s sales profile is not the same as the market as a whole. (One day of data isn’t a projectable sample either.) One agent pointed out to me that they are weak at selling mass-market fiction, for example, and that their ebook sales tend to the fresh and new, so they don’t get a bump when a mass-market paperback comes out. But we can be pretty sure that Amazon sells ebooks more successfully than the market as a whole, because Kindle has the biggest installed base and Amazon has the most book customers. This bias of sample is compounded by the focus on genre fiction. No matter how big a percentage of those niches is served by Amazon, it is important to remember that it is where they are relatively strongest in relation to the big publishers. If we were comparing literary fiction or biographies — both of which have lots of worthy authors too — the chances are the cost of an Amazon-only distribution strategy, or an ebook-only distribution strategy, would be far higher. And the chances of success would be far lower.

8. The apparent reality: flow of authors is self- to traditionally-published, not the other way around. But I think part of the motivation for this piece was frustration in the indie author community at the fact that many of the best ones get signed up by traditional houses, who view indie publishing as a farm system, and very few established authors will actually turn down an advance to go indie. They’ll reclaim their backlist and self-publish it, or do a short ebook on a subject that is timely and can’t wait for print or be made longer. But there has been very little evidence that I am aware of that publishers are having wholesale difficulties getting authors to come aboard with them on a traditional deal.

9. Publishers can raise royalty rates (or lower prices) when it becomes compelling to do so. Which brings us to the final point that I think is relevant and ignored. As Howey and others have pointed out, the early days of ebook publishing appear to have been good for publisher margins. They can afford to give authors more. (In fact, I encouraged them to do that before their accounts come after them for the extra margin in a post nearly three years old.) But they’re not going to give it out of some spirit of generosity or because Hugh Howey (or Mike Shatzkin) thinks it would be a good idea. They’ll give it when it is a competitive necessity to do so.

So my advice about Hugh Howey’s advice is simple. Totally ignore it if you’re not a genre fiction author; there’s precious little evidence or thinking in it that applies to you. And if you are a genre author, be very clear about the extra work and extra risk you take on in order to get some extra margin. Both will be required for sure whether the extra margin materializes or not.

Self-publishing is definitely an incredible boon to commercial writers and they should all understand how it works. Increasingly, literary agencies see it as their job to provide that knowledge.. It is almost certainly a good idea to self-publish for many writers who have reclaimed a backlist that has consumer equity. It is a perfectly sensible way to launch a career, either before going after the commercial establishment or as a part of the strategy to engage with them. (Editors in the big houses are well aware of the self-publishing successes; it’s a new farm system.) If an author has access to markets, it can be a better way to get short or very timely material to them faster. But to say it has its advantages and applications is a far cry from saying that it is a preferable path for a large number of authors who could get publishing deals.

I can’t “prove” this so I won’t try, but it bears further emphasis that it still looks like the number of authors who start as self-published and then get “discovered” by the establishment and switch over is still larger than the number of authors who say “keep your stinking advance” and turn down a deal to do the publishing themselves. None of the parties involved is stupid — not the traditionally-published authors, nor the self-published authors, nor the hybrids — not even the publishers. And they might not be evil, either. As for self-interested debaters, they exist on all sides.

PS: I HATE long comments. If you disagree with me and want to use my space to make your case, please be concise. (And frankly, although I also prefer you to be concise if you agree with me, I’m made less cranky when I get long-winded support.)

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The future of bookstores is the key to understanding the future of publishing


One of the subjects we have been probing for a long time is the inevitable impact that increased purchasing of books online would have on the shelf space at retail and what that would mean to trade publishers. (You’ll see that this speech that is well more than a decade old also says publishers are going to have get audience-centric, or vertical, as well.)

Of course, there has already been one shock to the system — one “Black Swan” event — which was the closing of Borders stores in 2011. That suddenly took about 400 very large bookstores out of the supply chain. Since then, the anecdata about independents — which includes encouraging, but unaudited, financial information from the BEA and a lot of rah-rah from thriving indies (a fire we threw a log on with a great break-out session at DBW last week) — has been very upbeat (although Bowker data seems to suggest Amazon gained more from Borders’s passing than anybody else did). And while B&N has continued to show some sales slippage, its more drastic setbacks have been in the Nook business, not selling print in stores.

One distracting fact for analysts considering this question has been the apparent slowdown in the growth of ebook sales, suggesting that there are persistent print readers who just won’t make the switch. The encouraging fact is distracting because it is incomplete as far as predicting the future of shelf space at retail, which is the existential question for the publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores (and, therefore, by extension, for legacy authors too). We need to know about changes in the division of those sales between online and offline to really have a complete picture. If ebook takeup slows down but the online buying shift doesn’t, the bookstores are still going to feel pain.

This point about the key index being online sales versus offline sales rather than printed book sales versus digital book sales is a key one that we’ve been hammering for years. It was nice to see Joe Esposito emphasize it in a recent post of his addressing some of my favorite questions about Amazon.

We had a panel of four successful independent booksellers at DBW. One of them, Sarah McNally of McNally-Jackson, has recently been quoted as saying she worries about the future of her Soho bookstore when her lease is up. (Rents rise quickly in that part of the city.) Meanwhile, she’s taking steps to move beyond books to retailing design-heavy but perhaps-more-enduring retail goods like art and furniture. (And, in that way, McNally-Jackson takes a page out of Amazon’s book, not limiting themselves to being a bookstore brand.)

A friend of mine who is a longtime independent sales rep says that even the successful indies are finding it necessary to sell books and other things — cards, gifts, chotchkes — to survive. The mega-bookstore with 75,000 or 100,000 titles or more was a magnet for customers in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It isn’t so much anymore because the multi-million title bookstore is available through anybody’s computer. This is a fact that makes the number of successful stores a weak indicator of the distribution potential available to publishers. If replacement stores carry half the inventory of the ones that go out, we can have a lot of indie retail success stories but still a shrinking ecosystem into which publishers distribute their books.

In general, the proprietors of successful indie bookshops and their trade organization, the American Booksellers Association, paint the times as hospitable to independent bookselling. They dismiss the skepticism of people like me that believe that the current surge of apparent good fortune is due to a window of time (now) when Borders’s closing removed shelf space faster than Amazon and ebooks had removed demand for books in retail stores.

It has been an unspoken article of faith that bookstores would not go the way of stores selling recorded music or renting and selling video, both of which are segments that have just about entirely disappeared. The physical book has uses and virtues that a CD, a vinyl record, a DVD, or a videotape don’t, not the least of which is that a physical book is its own “player”. But it also provides a qualitatively different reading experience, whereas the other “physical” formats don’t change the consumption mode at all. Of course, that only helps bookstores if the sales stay offline. People ordering books online are overwhelmingly likely to order them from Amazon. In other words, it is dangerous to use the book’s ability to endure as a proxy for the bookstores’ ability to sustain themselves. The two are not inextricably connected.

But the fate of almost all trade publishers is inextricably connected to the fate of bookstores. There are only two exceptions. Penguin Random House is one, because they are large enough to create bookstores on their own with just their books. The other is publishers who are vertical with audiences that open up the possibility of retail outlets other than bookstores. Children’s books and crafts books are obvious possibilities for that; there aren’t a ton of others.

The feeling I had at Digital Book World is that most people in the trade have either dismissed or are wilfully ignoring the possibility that there could be such serious further erosion of the trade over the next few years that it would threaten the core practices of the industry. With more than half the sales of many kinds of books — fiction in the trade area, of course, but also lots of specialized and professional and academic topics — already online, many seem to feel whatever “adjustment” is necessary has already been made. They got support for optimism at Digital Book World. Stock-picking guru Jim Cramer touted Barnes & Noble’s future (because they’re the last bookstore chain standing) and, from the main stage, the idea was floated that Wal-mart might buy and operate B&N as part of an overall anti-Amazon strategy.

All that is possible, and I have no data to refute the notion that we’ve reached some sort new era of bookstore stability, just a stubborn feeling in my gut that over the next few years it will turn out not to be true. I don’t mean to ignore the positive signs we’ve seen over the past year or so. And the overall decline in physical retail versus online purchasing affects all retail, not just books, so it is possible — some might say likely — that the rent squeeze will ease. It isn’t just bookstore shelf space that seems to be in oversupply compared to demand; that’s broadly true of retail. So your gut may differ and would have some logic to support a contrary point of view.

But my hunch (and this is not a “prediction” as in “this will happen; take it to the bank”) is that shelf space for print in Barnes & Noble and dedicated bookstores could well shrink by 50 percent over the next five years. What CEO or CFO of a trade publishing house would consider it prudent not to consider that possiblity in their own planning?

Obviously, less shelf space and more online purchasing change each publisher’s practices in many ways. They will want to deploy more resources for digital marketing and less for sales coverage. They will want to own less warehouse space and less inventory, changing the overall economics of their business. As we’ve been saying for years, they’ll find it sensible to become more vertically consistent: acquiring titles that appeal consistently to the same audience. Each house’s own database of consumers will become an increasingly important component of their equity: an asset that provides operational value today and balance sheet value if they become acquired.

But, most of all, publishers are going to have to think about how they maintain their appeal to authors if putting printed books in stores becomes a less important component of the overall equation. It is still true that putting books in stores is necessary to get anywhere close to total penetration of a book’s potential audience. Ignoring the in-store market obviously costs sales in stores but it also costs awareness that reduces sales online. (After all, stores are very aware of the “showrooming” effect: customers who cruise their shelves with smartphones in hand, ordering from Amazon as they go!)

But that’s today when the online-offline division may be near 50-50 overall and is 75-25 for certain niches. If those numbers become 75-25 and 90-10 over the next five years, the bookstore market really won’t matter that much to most authors anymore. Whether through self-publishing or through some fledgling publisher that doesn’t have today’s big publisher capabilities but also doesn’t have their cost structure, authors will feel that the big organizations are less necessary than they are now to help them realize their potential.

Higher ebook royalty rates, more frequent payments, and shorter contract terms are all very unattractive ways from the publishers’ perspective to address that issue. So far the marketplace hasn’t forced publishers to offer them. If bookstores can hold their own, the need to move to them may not be compelling for a long time. But if they don’t, most legacy publishers will have very few other levers to continue to attract authors to their ranks.

We are already seeing big publishers quietly moving away from publishing books that haven’t demonstrated their ability to sell as ebooks: illustrated books, travel books, reference books. That implies an expectation that the online component — particularly the ebook segment of it — has already changed the marketplace or certainly will soon. Adjustment of the standard terms with authors is a shoe that hasn’t dropped, but if the marketplace continues to change, it might become very hard to keep things as they’ve been.

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