Direct response

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.

No Comments »

Peter McCarthy and I have a new business and publishing has a new digital marketing service


Today Peter McCarthy and I are formally announcing a new business which is a partnership between us: The Logical Marketing Agency. What we’re doing is applying the most modern and sophisticated digital marketing techniques and capabilities to the challenges faced by book publishers and authors — and therefore agents — and, because the same techniques apply — also by brands.

This business has been in gestation for about 18 months, since Pete and I first started working together on other projects. We are building on what he learned during nearly two decades in publishing, first working for The Reader’s Catalog and then The New York Review of Books, followed by six years at Penguin very early in the digital transition, and then six years at Random House. At Random House Pete’s job was, explicitly, to figure out how books would be sold in the future. So for several years he was tasked with experimentation, using the books from publishing’s most extensive and diverse commercial list and the resources of the world’s biggest trade publisher.

As my Idea Logical colleague Jess Johns and I came to realize how much Pete knew about the digital marketing challenge all publishers are aware is important but woefully under-equipped to tackle, we saw the great opportunity in “scaling” him. The Logical Marketing Agency is our vehicle to make Pete’s knowledge available and useful to every publisher or author who wants to make use of it.

Over the past six months or so, we have done initial, relatively small small digital marketing jobs for more than a dozen clients. They have included both major and smaller publishers in the US and the UK, authors, literary agents, and brands that aren’t publishers. By working with this initial group of beta clients, we have learned how to shape our offerings to directly apply what we know to publishers’ and authors’ and agents’ perceived needs and pain points.

First we thought about the two key elements that need optimizing: titles and authors. Titles need easy discoverability; they need to be found in the right places, at the right time, by the people who are likely to be interested in them. This often involves a nuanced understanding of search as it exists in environments like Google, Amazon, Apple, and others but can also encompass other means of enhancing a book’s reach into its likely audience(s). Authors need optimized web presences, so that their credibility and personal networks are grown and enhanced regularly and so that their reputation as authorities on the subjects that matter is confirmed on the Internet.

Of course, the key for titles is the metadata: the long and short descriptions of the book that are accessed by all the retailers and search engines and the BISAC (or, in the UK, BIC) codes that identify the book’s subject matter (and, therefore, its audiences).

Pete’s key insight about title metadata — one that is very hard for most publishers to accept, frankly — is that it can’t be done properly without research. You start by positing what the audiences for a book are or, in the absence of hypotheses, how to figure out what they are. Then you look for them online and find out more about the makeup of those audiences: who those people are, where they hang out online, what they’re interested in and what they believe, and what words and phrases they use when talking about the author or the subject(s) in the book. Then you have to research the search terms that matter, to find out which ones are used most frequently and by whom. It is probably not surprising to learn that the “right” search terms might not be identical in Google and Amazon. And from there, one can keep going, analyzing what Pete calls the “meaningful back end data” that results from good outbound social media marketing. You can learn who it is that is engaging with and what their beliefs are, where they live, and other attributes that can be used to properly position each piece of marketing collateral. And, that’s a process that can keep going for a long time if the vein is rich.

How long does this research take? If you know what you’re doing, it can be done in an hour or two. How many publishers have the know-how and the staff to spend a couple of hours researching before writing descriptions of all their new titles? According to what we’ve found over the past few months, the answer is “not many”. Or “almost none”.

Getting the descriptions and metadata right is what Pete (and the Logical Marketing Agency) calls “foundational”. You must do it or everything else you do afterwards sits on a shaky base.

But there’s another level of knowledge that can be helpful beyond the foundation. What can you do to further promote a title beyond getting its core discoverability right? Well, there are potential paid media opportunities (keywords you might buy or audiences you might target through well-placed banners or other ads). There are other books or other things that have audiences to whom the book would appeal that give keys to other potential promotions. Each of these can lead to further SEO efforts around an author or title web site, new social media tactics to employ and more. You can take what is gleaned in the original research to find new ways to target the audience and that chain, in some cases, can be extended productively many times. The research that turns up those opportunities is something Logical Marketing will also offer, through “comprehensive” title analysis, a deeper drive than “foundational”.

We are doing the same for authors, offering a “foundational” author audit and a “comprehensive” one. But for authors we have found demand for even more research and analysis. Major publishers have bought customized author audits from us for authors they wanted to poach from other houses and for authors of their own they wanted to do a better job for and, often, compare with other authors’ efforts. These are really in-depth reports, 50 to 100 pages in length and filled with data, interpretation, and actionable insights. They often require an execution team to handle implementing the suggestions, though, increasingly we will be offering those services as well. The more complex an author’s online footprint — whether from many books or from many other things in their career — the more work this takes, but the more value there is. A long career and a long list of prior books can bury the messaging to surface and focus on the current book. It is ironic that authors with the biggest online presence can be the most complex to maximize for a particular project.

Recently, we have had two of New York’s biggest literary agencies try us out. One of them was looking for a picture of how one of their biggest authors was doing. The other had specific objectives in mind for their authors and asked us to look at the online footprints of three of them — two very big, one a little less so — to recommend how to achieve those objectives.

There are two additional elements we have only dabbled with so far, but which could become a big part of our business and service suite in the future: backlist and running campaigns.

Getting the most sales out of the backlist requires two things working in tandem. First of all, the backlist metadata has to be optimized. That requires research too, although a bit different research than for a forthcoming title because people have read it and people have talked about it. That gives clues to audience and nomenclature that are much more reliable than what one can discern for a yet-to-appear book. If publishers don’t have the staff time to do by-title research for their new books, imagine how hard it would be for most of them to do it for their whole backlist. It is safe to say that no house is staffed to do this.

The other necessary piece to optimize backlist sales is a tool that will chart the news and social graph — trend analysis — that then can bounce each day’s developments off the backlist metadata to find titles that can benefit from current attention. Of course, that opens up the question of “what attention?” Sometimes a change in metadata will produce a big result, tying the title to current interest. But sometimes more effort will make sense, like a digital media campaign. This has, of course, been tried by certain houses and has sometimes been successful. But it is our belief that this kind of work has not been executed optimally. Paradoxically, often the problem is that it is done too broadly. But it is important work we have some new ideas about how to do it well and at a cost-effective scale and pricing.

And that brings us to the final component of our suite of services, for now. We will run digital marketing campaigns for publishers. We did one of these last Fall for a live event, rather than a book. Since our conversations with publishers and self-publishing authors repeatedly confirm that running campaigns is a real pain point — they know they don’t have the staff for it and they sometimes know they don’t have the skills or experience either — we see that as a big part of our business going forward.

Brands are like authors. They have online presences; they have reputations; they have audiences that have characteristics that, once understood, enable you to reach them better and to find them in other venues. In fact, authors are brands. Publishers know that and we believe that what we do for authors would work for many other brands.

So it is with high expectations and great confidence that we can be helpful that we launch this new business.

One thing we’re going to add shortly is a self-service offering for independent authors. The service organizations we know who do the tech and distribution work for self-publishing authors all say they need marketing. That looks like an opportunity to us. If you want to get ahold of us, you can email us at [email protected] A web site with more about our services has gone up at that address as well.

No Comments »

It is not news to publishers that they have to engage directly with their readers


Since the merger that has created Penguin Random House, there has been precious little speculation (except by me, as far as I can tell) about what this new behemoth in trade book publishing could do to exploit their scale in new and innovative ways.

Their scale advantage is huge. PRH has something in the neighborhood of half the commercial trade books published, bestsellers and below. (You see numbers as low as 25% for this and most of the time estimates put it around 40%.) For several decades, the big US book clubs — Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild — demonstrated that having about half the books was “enough” for very large numbers of people to feel comfortable that their choices of what to read from within that group of titles would be sufficient for most of their needs.

My initial hunches, still totally unrealized, were that PRH would launch a subscription service with just their own books and, through the use of vendor-managed inventory, create exclusive channels of store distribution that wouldn’t be available to any of their competitors. (One senior executive from a competitor to whom I described this scenario said candidly, “we’d make our best books available to them for their proprietary channel if it were the only way for us to get the distribution”.)

One PRH executive kindly explained to me the company’s inherent resistance to the subscription model, which would seem to appeal most to the heaviest readers looking for a bargain. As the largest player in the market, PRH isn’t looking to reduce the spending by the people who are the biggest sources of industry revenue, which a successful subscription offer would inevitably do. (That subscription model, or “Netflix for ebooks”, is complex in ways that are often ignored, but which Joe Esposito spells out very clearly.) Of course, that doesn’t mean the company wouldn’t consider it in an environment where subscription services were taking a big part of the audience (certainly not the case yet, but watch what happens if Scribd or Oyster or Entitle or the new Rooster succeed). It does seem to say that they won’t be pioneers in this field. And there is no sign yet that they’re taking up my idea to use VMI to create their own bookstores, either.

But PRH UK — echoing what was said to me by RH US CEO Markus Dohle some years ago — has now announced it is becoming a consumer-focused publisher. Hannah Telfer, who was made “group director, consumer and digital development” in January, says discoverability depends on “building a direct relationship with consumers”. And she claims “our scale” is a key enabler of doing this “properly”. This is refreshing, since most of the industry thinking about how they would use scale seems to be more about consolidating warehouses than getting smarter about talking to consumers.

One article in The Bookseller details staff changes and initiatives around this goal. (And another expresses some skepticism about whether their plans are adequate to the task. That second piece suggests they need to think about selling direct, a recommendation I have expressed some reservations about.) On the one hand, the first article suggests some really broad, company-wide objectives, including “the potential for Penguin Random House to be a cultural and entertainment powerhouse; a home for all audiences”. At their recent sales conference. CEO Tom Weldon described the opportunity for PRH “to create the blueprint for a publisher brand as a consumer brand and, in doing so, capture the attention of the world for the stories, ideas and writing that matters”. That sounds like one big brand.

At the same time, there was clear acknowledgment of the importance of what we call “verticality”, or “audience-centricity”. An “audience segmentation project” was announced. So was cross-imprint attention to specific subjects, with “cookery” and “crime” cited. One tool that it is clear Penguin Random House has and will use is called Bookmarks, described as “the Random House readers’ panel”. New plans call for it to “become a PRH resource, giving all parts of the business access to over 3,500 readers through surveys and focus groups”.

Of course, the more different ways the company wants to use that panel, the more difficult it will be to get meaningful data from it. In fact, it would seem that what is really called for is an ongoing “panelization” process, by which new people are being added all the time to a number of panels that can answer questions about different communities of interest. One panel can’t serve all purposes.

This brings two topics into bold relief that have not historically been part of a book publisher’s thinking or skill sets.

1. It calls for new and nuanced thinking about brands.

2. It calls for a multi-faceted plan for engagement with individual consumers.

Advice directing publishers to think about branding for consumers is plentiful these days. Since I first started thinking and writing about publishing and brands, something disruptive occurred which I wasn’t thinking about at the time: self-publishing. My original notion was that the challenge was establishing brands with clear vertical, audience-centric identities. Probably the best example of doing that successfully in the big US houses has been Macmillan’s establishing of Tor as a brand for science fiction and tor.com as a destination site for science fiction devotees. It is well over two years since I wrote about tor.com having hundreds of thousands of email addresses that they could address with promotions that got very high open rates.

Tor.com gives Macmillan’s science fiction list a clear label of not-self-publishing. But outside Tor, for their general list, Macmillan uses many imprint names. A novel might be published as St. Martin’s, Holt, Farrar Straus, or Thomas Dunne Books (among others), each of which probably has “meaning” to buyers at major accounts, big libraries, and major book reviewers, but which means precious little to the general public. Does the average person know those names better than they know, let’s say, Thomas & Mercer (the new imprint of Amazon) or Mike & Martha Books (a name I just made up)?

(Please note that Macmillan is being used here for illustrative purposes; every major house has the same issues with imprint brands that are really intended as B2B signals, not for the consumer.)

But ultimately, it is important for Macmillan, and for every publisher, to stamp “major publisher” on their books to let the public know “this is from a long-standing and established book publisher” on the assumption, which I would share, that people who don’t know the names would still trust an institution rather than a self-interested individual to “pick” their books.

(Obviously, most people choose their books because of the author, the subject matter, a recommendation from a friend, or even based on some combination of the cover, the description, and the price. How much of the audience would be influenced by knowing that a major publisher was behind the book? We don’t know that, and we don’t know whether that number will grow or shrink based on the always-increasing output of self-published material that has not gone through a publisher’s editing and formatting rigor. And, by the way, doing aggressive branding means the publishers need to pay even more attention to their editing and formatting. Each instance of an inferior branded product hitting the marketplace will weaken the value of the brand.)

So here’s the rule about branding. Each major house should pick one name that is an umbrella. It goes on every book to establish the company as a major source of quality literature, enjoyable reading, and book-packaged information.Trying to target more precisely than that should be the job of the “imprint” brand under the umbrella brand. And that brand should be vertical, identifying subject or audience. That’s Tor in the Macmillan example above. Note that right now Macmillan is not a brand being used by any of the US companies in the Macmillan family.

The plan for engagement with consumers is much more complicated and has many components. One is simply collecting email addresses and permissions to ping people and then utilizing them. Turning almost all the marketing efforts you can into components of an email-gathering machine is a big part of this. This is a game everybody should be playing: all the retailers, all the publishers, and all the authors. We know from recent assignments at our digital marketing business that the smartest literary agents are figuring out how to help their authors do this. We can’t be far from the day when an agent will routinely ask a publisher “how many relevant email names do you have to promote my author’s next book to?”

But email lists, as the PRH UK statements suggest, are just one aspect of consumer engagement. And the statements from PRH also implicitly claim that a much bigger company has advantages in pursuing it. Aside from their ability to analyze existing email addresses among their signups or that they find through other means (hitting their web sites, self-identified in social media) to understand and reach audiences better, large companies can create special interest verticals to pull traffic (driving email signups) and give themselves a range of promotional opportunities. We see Simon & Schuster doing a lot of that kind of work. I’ve become a daily fan of “250 Words”, an email from their new business book web vertical that summarizes the core proposition of a business book every day. Whether that, or other vertical efforts of this type the house is trying, can turn into a remunerative web community or even a good place to get a book launched, is still an open question. But it is the kind of experiment that could produce a launching pad that could really help S&S with business books.

We touched on the notion that creating dynamic panels of consumers to tell you things — things you can ask all the time — is also a real value. We are aware of a niche magazine which routinely uses Twitter to ask its readers for opinions about various things, like what angle to take on a story. They get very fast responses that way. We know that Osprey, the military history publisher, routinely asks its audience for opinions when they are choosing among subjects for development of a book. (And it is relevant to note that Random House UK has hired Osprey’s energetic and visionary CEO, Rebecca Smart, to run their Ebury imprint. That’s another way to employ scale: hire away the best smaller-company executive talent!)

A good approach for a big house that can harvest large numbers of email addresses would be to routinely ask consumers whether they would like to be polled about questions that will guide the house’s publishing and marketing strategies. Doing that would give them fresh names all the time. What Osprey does with their specialist audience could become routine practice to a house with a big enough email list. Consumers could be asked about whether a topic is a good one to sign up before the house makes a commitment. They could also be asked about packaging and pricing. And if that kind of interaction were built into the house’s practice, over time they’d learn when consumer opinions are a good guide to follow and when they’re not (because they won’t always be!)

We are in the earliest days of big publishers changing from near-total dependence on intermediaries to reach their markets to having direct relationships with consumers. For now, most houses are pretty quiet about what they’re doing, partly because they think they’re inventing something and partly because they don’t know how well any of this will work. But relative silence shouldn’t be interpreted as relative inaction or inattention. It isn’t news to the big publishers that they need to talk to audiences directly. Penguin Random House has advantages of size relative to the others in the Big Five, but the rest of them have advantages of size relative to everybody else.

Note to readers: because of glitches and fiddling not worth detailing, the last two posts didn’t go out through our normal email distribution (which makes some people refer to this blog as my “newsletter”!) If you didn’t receive posts entitled “Getting Mark Coker Right This Time…” and “Sometimes One More Calculation…” they are linked here for your convenience.

33 Comments »

Publishers do need to sell direct, but here are five things they should at least be started on first


The “Code Meet Print” blog by Glenn Nano recently reprised a subject I wrote about 18 months ago: the benefits that flow to publishers that sell direct. In that piece, I highlighted the disagreement that seemed to exist at that time between my advocacy of direct selling of ebooks particularly and Random House’s lack of interest in doing so.

In the meantime, I’ve been working with Peter McCarthy, building a digital marketing business. Pete was the lead digital marketing strategist at Random House for six years ending shortly before I published the piece. Nano makes the point that only Random House among the former Big Six does not sell ebooks direct now (although Penguin, the other half of the supermerger, does).

But in the year I’ve been working with Pete, I’ve learned with more nuanced perspective where “owning the transaction” fits in the hierarchy of tools and opportunities for publishers to directly influence consumer behavior. It isn’t at the top. So I have a new-found respect for Random House’s reluctance to forge ahead with retailing (although they clearly have been pursuing a direct-to-consumer strategy for years) and a new-found understanding of many other things publishers can do to help themselves with direct-to-consumer book marketing without necessarily executing the final sale of the ebook.

Any publisher who has been awake for the past several years knows that they need to talk to consumers directly where consumers are and can be engaged. Search engine optimization, Facebook and Twitter (and Instagram and other digital venue) campaigns, and consumer databases were practically non-existent five years ago and are now universally-accepted components of the marketing toolkit.

At first blush, it seems like a no-brainer that if you are talking to the consumer, introducing them to a book and persuading them to buy it, then you ought to at least try to get the full margin on the sale by executing the final transaction (as well as, perhaps, learning even more by observing their behavior as they read). But, of course, there are myriad complications.

Selling ebooks with DRM at all costs money for the license, adds complications for the end consumer, and can’t be executed by anybody except Amazon for delivery to the Kindle.

Setting prices is devilishly difficult. Either you resign yourself to being more expensive than many of the retailers or you compete with them on price. That requires technology and complicates the relationship with the sources of most publishers’ sales. It also means the “additional margin” you’re aiming to capture might not be as much as you hoped.

Being a retailer requires customer service. That’s something publishers have no experience with. And the difficulty of delivering it escalates with DRM and with any kind of dynamic pricing policy.

It is not surprising that the first publishers to sell ebooks direct had both the characteristics of being “vertical”, working with the same audiences repeatedly, and of being willing — for whatever reason — to distribute ebooks without DRM, which makes them easily passed along to others without in any way reducing the access of the original purchaser. These publishers — like Osprey for military books and F+W Media for illustrated books on many discrete subjects and Baen and Tor in the sci-fi genre — were anticipating the opportunity that Nano points out HarperCollins is exploiting with Narnia: using content to attract consumers which would lead inevitably to some desire to purchase. And selling direct also enables those publishers to make special offers around pricing or bundling or loyalty that would be much more cumbersome, if not impossible, to execute in collaboration with the existing retail network.

The need to sell direct seems pretty obvious and pretty compelling and there are now a growing number of service providers who can make it possible for publishers to do this on the web and through apps. (We’ll have a number of them talking about that at Digital Book World.)

One thing I learned from Pete is that — at least for a time and maybe still — Random House, apparently uniquely, was able to gain very granular affiliate-code tracking from Amazon. (This was achieved, apparently, merely by requesting it.) An affiliate code is the mechanism that enables publishers (or any other third-party) to be paid a referral fee on sales executed from traffic they send to Amazon (or any other retailer which compensates affiliates for referrals) for a purchase. Publishers normally have one and only one for each retailer to use across all their referrals, so they get sales reporting and payments from each retailer that are consolidated across all their titles and all the campaigns they run for those titles.

That leaves them flying blind on one of the most important metrics in digital marketing: how their clicks convert. Publishers persuading consumers and sending the traffic as an affiliate to Amazon or B&N (or any other retailer) can only possibly know the total number of clicks that went through them to the retailer and the total number of copies of each book they are credited with selling. Painstaking matching could get them a conversion index for a title, but not broken down by campaign or referral source.

Because Random House didn’t have that blind spot, they were, first of all, aware that their conversion rate on clicks to Amazon was very high, much higher than they would expect to get themselves if they tried to encourage consumers to buy direct. So the capture of more margin per sale would be at the expense of losing many sales. But, in addition, the extra margin can get burned up pretty quickly with the costs of running a direct-sale operation. One that provides solid user experiences, customer service, and other now standard eCommerce practices anywhere near today’s customer expectation is expensive — more so when it isn’t your primary business. eCommerce is a huge distraction, especially when it is executed by the folks who are also your digital marketers! That, or additional head count (which further lowers margins), would constitute a publisher’s choices.

When Nano made the suggestion in his piece that publishers move their “direct sale” up in the hierarchy of what they offer the consumer, above Amazon and other retailers, he wasn’t reckoning that this would result in a predictable rise in “cart abandonment”, which would mean sales lost. Nor did he calculate a substantial increase in operating costs.

That granular knowledge also enabled Random House to measure the success of campaigns by the meaningful metric of “books sold” rather than the proxy of “clickthroughs created”. That data made it evident very quickly that the search terms and calls to action that drove the most clicks weren’t necessarily the ones that drove the most sales. And, in addition, Amazon likes it better, and is more likely to invoke their own marketing capabilities on your behalf, if you’re driving traffic for a book that converts.

And all of this leads me to a list of five things I’ve learned in the past year that are really essential for effective marketing by publishers in the digital age. And I think all of these things are more important than, and independent of, whether the publisher controls the transaction or doesn’t.

1. It is necessary to do research to create effectively-SEOd copy for each and every book. McCarthy works with about 125 listening and analytical tools that allow him to find where targeted audiences are on the web, when they’re there (he can tell you the optimum time to tweet or post) and what words they use, enabling optimized search and attracting the consumers with the right “intent” to learn more about books. At the very least, every book needs an hour or two of structured examination of its audiences employing a dozen or more of these tools. Publishers who have their editors or marketers create the book descriptions and other metadata without doing this research are missing a critical trick. (Full disclosure: the Logical Marketing Agency Pete and I have just launched is now selling the service of doing this work at a per-title price that any publisher can afford, and which we think might be a faster, better, and cheaper solution for many than burning their own staff time figuring it out.)

2. Optimizing an author presence also requires research, and the more famous an author is, the more complicated is the challenge of pointing readers to a particular book. We’ve done three big author-centric jobs in the early days of our agency: one helping a major publisher look at the online presence of a major multi-book author they want to woo away from a major house competitor and the others examining the online presences of celebrity authors with complex backgrounds and prior books as well. Author and celebrity networks contain all sorts of clues to how to expand the author’s base, by segmenting it and by finding other celebrities and brands that have a following with similar profiles.

3. Although this is a touchy subject at the time that we’re still living with the Snowden-NSA revelations, it is also essential for publishers to be building their database of consumers and and tracking their knowable attributes, preferably with companion “permission” to email them, but even without. Several years ago, we were made aware by an agent that the enormous email lists owned by Hay House of readers interested in “mind body spirit” books enabled them to out-market big houses in their vertical. What working with Pete has taught us is that starting only with an email address or a Twitter handle, one can learn a tremendous amount about most individuals. They don’t make much noise about it, but we know at least some big houses have databases of consumers that number in the millions. They know very little about many of them, but are able to learn more all the time. Someday, if not already, publishers will be bumping the attributes of a book they want to buy against their database of people they know they can touch to make acquisition decisions.

4. When publishers are proceeding with fully-optimized book metadata, author online presence, and as many proprietary connections as they can muster to deliver free or earned discovery, they will also find opportunities for paid campaigns that can buy them additional attention. But running these media campaigns properly is yet another new skill set that requires developing experience in people and technology to help them. The “media cost” of Facebook or Google advertising is relatively trivial (compared to what media cost in the pre-digital age), but the management of that spending requires expertise and close attention to optimize the messages and the targeting.

5. The opportunities that a digital marketing environment creates for increasing sales of backlist have, across the industry, hardly been explored. If publishers are failing to do the necessary research to deliver optimal metadata on new titles, most aren’t even thinking about it for their backlist. This is a complicated problem. You can’t spend the hour or two we consider minimal necessary research to position a new title across thousands of titles on a backlist on a regular basis. Both monitoring the outside world, news and the social graph, and keeping metadata optimized for changing circumstances are, as yet, problems without a lot of helpful tools (or start-up initiatives) to assist them with yet. But publishers have lived for years in a world where the biggest barrier to backlist sales was the lack of availability of books in stores. As sales made online now exceed sales in stores for many titles anyway, that’s no longer a barrier and a much more proactive everyday approach to selling backlist is called for. A proprietary direct-selling effort can be of only minimal value there until a publisher creates such a heavily-trafficked store that screen real estate can be an effective tool. So other solutions are called for and it is probably unnecessary to say that McCarthy and I are working on this challenge too.

We’ll be covering a number of these issues at next week’s Digital Book World. In addition to the session on “Building Direct Sales Relationships” — featuring Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Sameer Shariff of Impelsys, Doug Lessing of Firebrand and Marc Boutet of DeMarque, and moderated by Ted Hill — we’ll also have several sessions focused on backlist marketing, marketing to (and building) online reading communities, gathering and using consumer data to inform acquisitions and marketing, and how to make the most of all the various social media channels. 

21 Comments »

7 starter principles for digital book marketing learned from Peter McCarthy


Times are changing in publishing and publishers know it. Almost every publisher recognizes that their value to authors, and therefore their future, is dependent on their ability to deliver effective marketing at scale. In this day and age, that means digital marketing, which also has the characteristic of being “data-driven” marketing. And not only is that a science that is really less than 10 years old, it is changing all the time. Ten years ago many of the most important components of digital marketing for books today — Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads — barely existed or hadn’t been born yet. They certainly didn’t matter.

Publishers can’t address their digital marketing challenge by simply spending more because the choices in digital marketing are endless. They have to be smart about what they do. Which means they have to be smart about something for which there is little established wisdom and no deep experience inside of publishing houses.

For a large part of the past year, I have been learning about digital marketing for books from the man whom I will regard as The Master until the day comes when I meet somebody who knows more. He’s Peter McCarthy. Pete started his career with nearly 3 years at The Reader’s Catalog, New York Review of Books, and the Granta family of publications. Reader’s Catalog formed part of the backbone of Bn.com 1.0. Then Pete spent six years at Penguin in the early digital days helping them build a DAM system and put out ebooks for the first time, followed by six years at Random House pioneering their digital marketing efforts.

Pete has made the point repeatedly that much of what he knows, does, and is teaching me is already well understood in the modern world of branding and marketing. The distinctions among psychographics, demographics, and behavior, and their importance in marketing, were new to me but are familiar stuff to people who sell Pepsi or Toyotas. Pete’s really invented something in publishing by looking for comparable products that aren’t other books, but outside publishing they know all about seeking comps that aren’t precisely the same as their own product. The techniques Pete employs to find audiences in people that are like the known audiences for a book are standard tools in consumer marketing outside publishing.

But that doesn’t mean publishers can just hire big digital agencies to help them. It won’t work. Because while publishing can use techniques that sophisticated marketers are using to sell other products in other places, the truly more complex world of books will be hard for them to cope with. And marketing budgets for a title that are rarely five figures, often three figures, and sometimes less than that don’t fit the best agencies’ idea of “workable”, either.

The big agencies would actually have no clue how to deal with thousands of highly differentiated products at the same time, which have some interconnectedness to them (because they’re all books, so Amazon author pages have to be optimized for all of them, for example) but mostly are unrelated. And not knowing that causes lost value two ways:

1. They don’t have techniques to apply mass optimization across hundreds or thousands of highly differentiated “products”, because the work they do doesn’t require it;

2. They don’t have the capacity big publishers need to run hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of campaigns at one time with realtime “budgets” (or “go, no-go” gauges).

So the big agencies wouldn’t know how to deal with a publishing house. The granularity would frustrate them and they’d freight each ISBN (publishing speak for “SKU”) with too much overhead.

That has left most publishers on their own, with service providers delivering some by-title assistance (you can hire somebody to do an author’s tweeting for them), but with the publishers themselves left to sort out how to make maximum use of a book or author’s digital footprint and social media presence to drive sales. And it is not really surprising that Pete McCarthy, having had the opportunity to meet the marketing challenge across thousands of titles and authors and hundreds of genres, topics, and imprints, would have figured out a lot of things that elude the publishers who aren’t digital marketing sophisticates and the digital marketing experts who rarely, if ever, encounter the granularity and product diversity that characterizes book publishing.

I’ve learned a lot from Pete, but I’ll never catch up to him and I won’t even try. He uses more than 100 different digital tools to help him understand followers in various social platforms and who they are. He is using a marketer’s understanding of each individual’s demographics, psychographics, and behavior (and behavior’s subset, intent), to define the groups of people he sees clustering. That, in turn, helps him find groups of people who are similar to the ones who already like the author or the book.

Pete has articulated many principles which make a lot of sense, even to somebody who didn’t know about demographics and psychographics and who has not worked his way through even a handful of “listening” tools, let alone a hundred or more.

1. The digital marketing menu contains nearly an infinite number of items. That results in a tremendous amount of wasted effort spent trying things that a little research would have indicated will never work.

2. The key to making sales is to put the right message in front of the right person at the right time. Research finds the right people; testing finds the right message and the right time.

3. The various tool sets will allow you to profile the “followers” of a book or author in Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn (or by securing an email address) and it will enable you to understand for each of them what kind of following they have. This is critical research to do before you invest effort and time in actual marketing.

4. Another key research element is to carefully pick your nomenclature. Tools can also tell you how common various words and terms are in searches made through Google, Amazon, and other venues. This informs the best choices for metadata tagging, of course, but it could also affect a book’s titling.

Understanding the book and author’s digital connections and the right language to describe the book you’re selling are “foundational” elements; everything flows from them.

5. The whole concept of marketing “budgeting” needs to be rethought. While the trap or danger in digital marketing is its infinite number of possibilities, the opportunity is that the results of efforts are visible and measurable. So everything that is tried should be measured and evaluated, continued it if is working and either altered or terminated if it is not.

This reality collides with the historical practices and commercial realities of publishers, particularly big publishers. Editors, who have to sign up the books and keep agents and authors happy, want to tell agents and authors what their marketing budgets and efforts will be. Whether the book is selling or not, agents and authors don’t want to hear that the marketing spending was cancelled because the efforts weren’t adding value. But a house can’t just add to the budget when something is working and not cancel anything that is not, or they’ll go broke.

6. The whole concept of “time” also needs to be rethought, both “time on the clock” (work people do) and “time on the calendar” — not just how long programs run (as above) but also when they take place in relation to the lifecycle of the book. In the digital era, whether books are well-represented in stores at any moment is not necessarily the key determinant of how well they’ll sell, so pushing a backlist book that might be thinly distributed but which is suddenly timely is perfectly sensible (“the calendar”). And it wasn’t that way five or ten years ago when marketing efforts wouldn’t be extended if books weren’t in the stores. It is also true that the external costs of digital marketing could be very low but a campaign could consume a lot of in-house time (“the clock”) with copy creation, design, and posting.

7. The key to successful digital marketing is to do the research that finds the right messages and targets, test the messages to the targets looking for a defined result, measure the impact, and then adjust the messaging and targeting. Pete calls that “rinse and repeat”. The objective is to find replicable actions that provide results with an ROI that can be continued until the ROI stops.

With Peter McCarthy’s help and in conjunction with Digital Book World, Cader’s and my Publishers Launch Conferences has organized a Modern Book Marketing Conference to lay out the core tenets of digital marketing for publishers. (So we can all learn from Pete McCarthy.) 

After Pete opens the day by introducing his basic approach, we’ll have a panel of top publishing strategists — Rick Joyce of Perseus, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, Matt Litts from the Smithsonian, and Jeff Dodes of St. Martin’s Press – talk about how they apply digital marketing in their companies. Then Murray Izenwasser of Biztegra, a top digital marketing company, will clarify the core principles of using consumer demographic, psychographic, and behavioral data before Susie Sizoler of Penguin covers how publishers can build powerful customer databases and reader insights. Marketers Matt Schwartz of Random House, Rachel Chou of Open Road Integrated Media, and Brad Thomas Parsons of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will  talk about how they promote, including a “lightning round” of commentary about how and when to use the most important venues and tools: Amazon author pages, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and many others.

We will have a round of speed-dating, so attendees can meet with key sponsors and expert speakers in small groups and get their individual questions answered. And we’ll conclude the day with Erica Curtis of Random House on best practices for measuring and analyzing your marketing ROI, and two panels. The first, on “how digital marketing changes budgeting and timing”, will feature case histories from Sourcebooks, Running Press, and at least one other publisher. The second on the new collaboration required among authors and marketers, will feature agent Laura Dail, outside marketer Penny Sansevieri, inside marketer Miriam Parker of Hachette, and an editor still to be selected.

This Marketing Conference is co-located with our Publishing Services Expo, which I described in a previous post, and attendees of the Marketing Conference are welcome to sit in on any part of PSE as well. At the breaks, sponsors and many of the speakers from both events will be available to the audiences for both events.

Full disclosure and a teaser “announcement”: Pete McCarthy and I are forming a digital marketing agency to apply his knowledge on behalf of publishers, authors, and agents. We’ll reveal more details, including our starter assignments, over the next few weeks.

16 Comments »

Two new initiatives to ponder as we end the year


Two announcements made in the last two weeks caught our attention.

One was Simon & Schuster’s deal with Author Solutions, creating a new Archway Editions publishing imprint. This was the third such major deal with a publisher for ASI, following similar arrangements forged with romance publisher Harlequin and Christian publisher Thomas Nelson (now owned by HarperCollins).

The other was Publishers Lunch’s deal with Random House, creating the new online bookstore-lite, Bookateria. This was the second such major deal with a heavily-trafficked website for Random House, following a similar arrangement forged with the political site, Politico.

Of the two, the S&S-ASI connection offers less obvious benefits. ASI has apparently built a remarkably efficient engine to get a book delivered from a manuscript. And every publisher has many times more authors knocking at their door than they could possibly consider publishing. And many of them will never find a publisher so would be good candidates for self-publishing services.

But there are both ethical and practical commercial challenges to converting author aspirants who come looking for a deal to customers willing to buy self-publishing services. ASI seems to have persuaded publishers that the conversion works enough of the time to make the connection between publishers and ASI worth making. Let’s remember that the Harlequin and Nelson deals preceded both the acquisition of ASI by Pearson and the deal announced last week with S&S. Presumably, S&S and Pearson knew something about the results from those prior deals and were proceeding with some evidence that using a known publisher as a front door for self-publishers was an idea that works.

On the other hand, neither Nelson nor Harlequin has trumpeted the results of their ASI deal and authors may notice that the legions of successful self-publishers (John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, and more than a few others) seems bereft of ASI clients.

There are more questions than answers generated by these deals so far. It appears that the publishers really have nothing to do with their new customers aside from bringing them into the tent. (S&S says in the press release that they’ll be watching the sales of Archway books to see what authors it might want to sign for the house. But isn’t that what every big publisher should be doing across the self-publishing landscape right now?) Will the association with self-publishing damage the core publishing brands? Will the publishers feel some ownership of the self-publishers from whom they profit? Will real synergies develop between the publishers and their ASI connections, or will this remain largely a branding trick?

While all of that remains to be seen, if the ASI-publisher connections deliver revenue to publishers with little or no effort on their part, other publishers will be open to doing the same thing. The question is whether they do.

It is not difficult to discern the value delivered by the collaboration between Publishers Lunch and Random House to deliver Bookateria, a search-and-shopping experience with a Publishers Lunch perspective. It gives Lunch an easy way to deliver real convenience and value to its audience and modestly monetize it at the same time. And it further tests and proves the concept Random House first demonstrated with Politico. By delivering the tech around a pretty complete catalog of available books able to be monetized through affiliate relationships, Random House has created a “product” that any web site with substantial traffic can benefit from in the way Lunch now will.

Publishers Lunch, because it is constantly reporting book news, has more opportunities than the average site to link to purchase pages for a book it is mentioning. It regularly refers to various and sundry lists of award winners and top sellers and it makes nothing but great sense for them to make purchase of these books easy (and make a little money at the same time.)

It may be (and I’m not on the inside of any of these deals; aside from our partnership in Publishers Launch Conferences, Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch runs his businesses and I run mine) that Publishers Lunch is taking a more active role in merchandising books than Politico is. That would make sense. Books are PL’s business, and they have to both be thoughtful and appear thoughtful about how they present them. And since this capability is probably at least as much about providing utility to site visitors as it is about increasing revenue, the merchandising would want to reflect the site’s knowledge and point of view.

I have long believed that book and ebook distribution would ultimately follow the web’s innate tendency to verticalize audiences. Why wouldn’t you buy your political books or sports books or knitting books where you learn about them and be guided more by recommendations of “domain experts” than “book experts”?

I had visualized this verticalization working out from a publisher, which would use its content to attract audiences which it would then monetize many ways, including by selling them books and ebooks of its own and from other publishers. To varying degrees, this is what I saw unfolding with Hay House, F+W Media, Osprey, and Harlequin with the most highly-developed Big House example being Tor Books inside of Macmillan.

Some new propositions — notable among them being the still-promised book retailer Zola and the distributed sales “apps” from Impelsys and Ganxy — were built around the understanding that book curation was most effectively done by the experts and communities functioning in any domain and it made sense to deliver a way for them to enable their own ecommerce for the content they suggested or reported on to their audiences.

But it is in a trade publisher’s DNA to work with aggregators and intermediaries (which is what bookstores, mass merchants, libraries, wholesalers, and special sales outlets are). Random House applied the same vision of distributed and vertical curation but decided that they didn’t need to offer the entire ecommerce solution to execute on it.

So Politico and Publishers Lunch — and, one presumes, more to follow — use Random House to provide their catalog and metadata and some level of curation and they all rely on the existing retail network to complete the transactions and do the fulfillment. Random House and their partners (presumably) share affiliate revenues from the retailers, not the “full margin” on the content sales.

This could be viewed as a bit klunky from the customer’s perspective and it definitely will be for some. You wouldn’t be “shopping” and then “checking out” as two discrete and serial experiences. Each “buy” decision would take you to a retailer choice and then deep-link you to the purchase page for that book at the retailer you choose. Anybody who wants to purchase multiple titles would definitely find this less convenient than just shopping on a retailer’s site.

But if the retailer were delivering the curation and information that Politico or Publishers Lunch is offering in the area of vertical interest, then the customer would probably do their multiple-title shopping at the retailer anyway. The Random House-powered strategy is more opportunistic than that. It’s more about facilitating impulse purchasing than attracting a shopper.

And when you stop and think about it for just a minute, you realize that conversion is likely to be much higher by offering customers a choice of their favorite retailers than it would be if you were signing them up to a new account with a retailer (web site) they hadn’t purchased from before. This is true even in the case of Publishers Lunch, which has credit card numbers for a large number of its most regular visitors because they’re members of Publishers Marketplace. It would be even more of a barrier to making a purchase at Politico and other non-membership sites.

One veteran publishing marketer told me that conversion on clickthroughs to Amazon were very high in his experience, ranging from 8% to 17%. He really doubted whether any fledgling retailer could achieve anything like that rate of conversion.

That constitutes evidence that the revenue achievable as an affiliate could well be higher than what could be gained executing the sales and keeping “full margin”, which brings along with it full responsibility for maintaining an infrastructure and providing customer service. None of that is necessary working as an affiliate.

There is a superficial similarity to these two initiatives. Both involve a company offering tech at scale to help another company monetize its existing network in ways that it doesn’t now. How effective that monetization really will be is still an open question. But it would appear that the ASI service to publishers entirely depends on that: aside from whatever revenue it can yield, there’s no other real benefit to the publisher and, in fact, it could confuse or cheapen the perception of their core business.

The Random House offer to websites, on the other hand, has all sorts of “soft” value. The partnering web site unambiguously offers a service to its site visitors by enabling rapid purchase of relevant content encountered while pursuing their vertical interest. Selling content and earning revenue is only one way to win; they also benefit from more traffic and more stickiness, the inevitable by-products of improving the value being offered any site’s visitors.

What is also interesting to contemplate about the Random House-powered distributed curation is what its potential impact will be on the retail network. Enabling the content purchaser to choose her retailer would, one assumes, distribute the sales from their site in pretty much the same proportions as the market had already.

On the other hand, it might also make it easier for consumers to switch. It could dilute the advantage Amazon has built through their usually superior (compared to other retailers) curation and presentation. It would make it much easier for a supporter of independent bookstores to make the choice to buy from them. (The choices presented are obviously flexible. Politico offers “Politics and Prose” bookstore, an indie based in Washington that specializes in political books. Bookateria instead offers Indiebound, the ABA’s way of sending you to an independent retailer.)

One more observation. There have been two retailers expected to make their appearance anytime now for the last six months: the big publisher-created Bookish and the previously-mentioned Zola Books. The rumors about both of them say that they are having a really hard time making the metadata we have in our industry work well enough to execute on ecommerce. Obviously, Random House had to overcome that same problem to deliver their proposition (although perhaps the bar was a bit lower since they execute sales as an affiliate rather than transacting themselves). An informational page for Bookateria makes it clear that metadata improvement will be an ongoing work-in-progress.

As the other big publishers look at what Random House is doing and wonder if they should be doing the same, they might want to rethink the digital aphorism that anything, once done, can be replicated in half the time and for half the cost. Even if that’s true, starting now to replicate the Random House capability could take a year or more; this is not something that Random House dreamed up last week. In a year, Random House could pick off a number of very desirable large sites and improve their metadata organization even further. I don’t think any competitor who takes this concept seriously will be able to afford to wait for proven success or failure to start developing if they want to be in this game.

NPR did a great job of choosing four minutes of me to sound wise on All Things Considered as part of a publishing roundup. Or you can read a summary of my bit instead of listening to it. We start with the Random House and Penguin merger and meander a bit from there.

This is the last post for the fourth calendar year of The Shatzkin Files. Our annual rhythm is that our quietest week of the year (this one) is followed rapidly by our most intense: the 7-1/2 days of conference programming in four days on the calendar that comprise Digital Book World  2014 and the two Publishers Launch events that bookend it. 

Happy New Year to all my readers, and especially the many of you who take the time to add to the conversation here in the comment string. Double-especially to those of you who dispense your wisdom in concise doses.

1 Comment »

Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January


Blog posts have been scarcer for the past couple of months because I’ve been so engaged with a major responsibility: putting together what amounts to 7-1/2 days of conference programming that will be presented on four days next month in New York City.

As most readers of this blog probably know, we’re responsible for the programming of the two-day extravaganza that is Digital Book World. DBW 2013 — taking place on January 16 and 17 at the Hilton New York Hotel — will be the fourth iteration of the event, which aims to explore the commercial challenges facing trade publishing in the digital transition. DBW is not about technology per se; it is about the business problems publishers must cope with in an age of technological change.

DBW’s main two days are divided between morning plenary programming — all 1500+ people in one big room — and afternoon breakouts. We’ll have up to five simultaneous breakout sessions in each of three slots each day. So we have what amounts to 4-1/2 days of programming in the breakouts plus one on the main stage.

Because people really do come from all over the world to attend DBW, we were delighted to agree when they asked us at Publishers Launch Conferences (the conference business I own with Michael Cader) to add a show on each side of theirs to build out a week of programming. (The team at DBW itself are also putting together some pre-conference workshops that will run on Tuesday.)

So on Tuesday, January 15, we’ll do our second annual “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” conference at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium (put together with the invaluable assistance of our Conference Chair and close friend, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners). And on Friday, January 18, we’re presenting (in conjunction with the DBW team) a new program called “Authors Launch“, a full day of marketing advice for publisher-published authors. (Self-published authors are welcome and will learn a lot, but the program is framed for authors who are working with publishers, not looking for ways to avoid them.)

Programming the “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” show revealed what we think will be the most important theme in the children’s book space for the next few years: the development of  digital “platforms” that, like subscription offerings (which some, but not all of them, clearly are), will “capture” consumers and make them much less likely to get ebooks and other digital media from outside of it. The list of platform aspirants in this space is long and varied: Storia from Scholastic; RRKidz from Reading Rainbow (the TV show brand); Poptropica from Pearson (which launched Wimpy Kid before it was a book); Magic Town; Disney; Capstone; and Brain Hive. All of them are presenting, as well as NOOK, which, like Amazon Kindle, has announced parental controls on its platform that encourage parents to manage their kids’ reading experience there.

There are other big issues in children’s publishing, particularly the creation of original IP by publishers so they can better exploit the licensing opportunities that follow in the wake of successful kids’ books. We’ll have data presentations from Bowker and from Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex to help our audience understand how kids books are found and selected outside the bookstore in today’s environment.

But we know that the digital discovery and purchase routines will be markedly affected by the platforms as they establish themselves. Publishers are faced with an interesting conundrum. They can’t reach the audiences that are loyal to a platform without going through the platform. But it is the presence of many publishers’ books that strengthens the attraction of the platform and, once it gains critical mass, the value of the content to it (and probably what it will be willing to pay for the content) is reduced. So publishers licensing content to these platforms may be strengthening beasts that will ultimately eat them. I think the roundtable conversation Lorraine and I will lead at the end of the day, which will include publishers Karen Lotz of Candlewick, Barbara Marcus of Random House, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, will have interesting things to say about that paradox.

We’ve developed some “traditions” in the four years we’ve been doing Digital Book World. As we’ve done the past two years, the plenary sessions will open on Tuesday with the “CEOs’ view of the future” panel organized and moderated by David Nussbaum, the CEO of DBW’s owner F+W Media and the man who really dreamed up the idea of this conference. David will be joined this year by Marcus Leaver of Quarto, Karen Lotz of Candlewick, and Gary Gentel of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Michael Cader and I will — as we have every year at DBW — moderate a panel to close the plenaries, “looking back and looking forward” with agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House; Harper’s new Chief Digital Officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, and Osprey CEO Rebecca Smart.

Among the presenters on the main stage who will be unlike what our audiences usually hear at a digital publishing conference will be Teddy Goff, the digital director for the Obama campaign, who will talk about targeting and marketing techniques that might serve us well in the publishing world; Ben Evans of Enders Analysis in London, who will tell us how publishing fits into the strategies of the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) that he tracks regularly*; ex-Macmillan president and now private equity investor Brian Napack, talking with Michael Cader about the investment climate in publishing; and Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing from Carnegie-Mellon, talking about a study he and his colleagues have done on the real commercial impact of piracy.

(We’ve also scheduled a breakout session for Teddy Goff so he can talk more about the Obama campaign for those in attendance who want to learn more of its lessons to apply.)

We’re also delighted to have gotten Robert Oeste, Senior Programmer and Analyst from Johns Hopkins University Press, to deliver his wonderfully insightful, entertaining, and informative presentation on XML, the subject so many of us in publishing need to understand better than we do. And we will after he’s done. (We’re also giving Oeste a break-out slot to talk about metadata which I’ll bet a lot of our audience will choose to attend after they’ve heard him on XML.)

(*Late edit: Ben Evans had to cancel.)

Some authors have had remarkable success without help from publishers in the past year, but few or none more than Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool”, who has just signed a groundbreaking print-only deal for the US with Simon & Schuster. His dystopian futurist novel has sold hundreds of thousands of self-published ebook copies and rights all over the world and to Hollywood. We’ll have a chat with Howey about how he did it and we’ll be joined by his agent, Kristin Nelson, for that dialogue. Kristin will stick around to join a panel of other agents (Jay Mandel of William Morris Endeavor, Steve Axelrod, and Jane Dystel from Dystel & Goderich) to talk about “Straddling the Models”: authors who work with publishers but are also doing some things on their own.

We will have several panels addressing the challenges of discovery and discoverability from different angles. One called “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap” teams Patrick Brown of Goodreads with three publishing marketers — Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, and Rachel Chou of Open Road — and is chaired by Peter Hildick-Smith. That will focus on what publishers can do with metadata and digital marketing to make it more likely their titles will get “found”. Barbara Genco of Library Journal will share data on library patron behaviors and then helm a panel discussion with Baker & Taylor, 3M, Darien Public Library, and Random House exploring the role of libraries in driving book discovery and sales. Another session called “Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable” introduces three new propositions from Matt MacInnis of Inkling, Linda Holliday of Citia, and Patricia Payton of Bowker, along with SEO expert Gary Price of INFODocket. Publishing veteran Neal Goff (who is also the proud father of Obama’s digital director) will moderate that one. MacInnis, Holliday, and Payton offer services that will help publishers improve the search for their books. Price will talk knowledgeably about how the search engines will react to these stimuli.

We’re covering new business model experimentation (with Evan Ratliff of The Atavist, Brendan Cahill of Nature Share, Todd McGarity of Hachette, and Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks) where publishers discuss ways to generate revenue that are not the old-fashioned ones. We’ll underscore the point that we’re about changes caused by technology rather than being about technology with our “Changing Retail Marketplace” panel, featuring publishers and wholesalers talking about the growth of special sales (through retailers that aren’t bookstores and other non-retail channels).

The future for illustrated books will be discussed by a panel with a big stake in how it goes: John Donatich of Yale University Press, Michael Jacobs of Abrams, Marcus Leaver of Quarto, and JP Leventhal of Black Dog & Leventhal. Two publishers who have invested in Hollywood — Brendan Dineen of Macmillan and Pete Harris of Penguin — will talk about the synergies between publishing and the movies with consultant Swanna McNair of Creative Conduit.

We will have major US publishers and Ingram talking about exports: developments in the export market for books — print and digital. And we’ll have some non-US publishers joining Tina Pohlman of Open Road and Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble talking about imports: non-US publishers using the digital transition to get a foothold in the US market.

One session I think has been needed but never done before is called “Clearing the Path” and it is about eliminating the obstacles to global ebook sales. That one will start with a presentation by Nathan Maharaj and Ashleigh Gardner of Kobo where they will enumerate all the contractual and procedural reasons why ebooks are just not available for sale in markets they could reach. And then Kobo will join a panel conversation with Joe Mangan of Perseus and agent Brian Defiore to talk about why those barriers exist and what might be done in the future to remove them.

Oh, yes, there’s much much more: audience-centric (what I call “vertical”) publishing; the changing role of editors; the evolving author-publisher relationship; and a conversation about the “gamification” of children’s books. David Houle, the futurist and Sourcebook author who wowed the DBW 2012 audience, will return with his Sourcebooks editor, Stephanie Bowen, to discuss their version of “agile” publishing: getting audience feedback to chunks before publishing a whole book.

We will also do some stuff that is more purely “tech”. We have a panel on “Evolving Standards and Formats” discussing the costs and benefits of EPUB3 adoption, which will be moderated by Bill McCoy of IDPF. Our frequent collaborator Ted Hill will lead a discussion about “The New Publishing IT Department”. Bill Kasdorf of Apex will moderate a discussion about “Cross-Platform Challenges and Opportunities” which is about delivering content to new channels.

But purely tech is the exception at Digital Book World, not the rule.

And purely tech won’t show up at all at Authors Launch on Friday, January 18, the day after Digital Book World.

Authors Launch is what we think is the first all-day marketing seminar aimed squarely at authors with a publisher, not authors trying to work without one. It is pretty universally taken as a given that authors can do more than they ever have before to promote themselves and their books and that publishers should expect and encourage them to do that. But, beyond that, there is very little consensus. What should the publisher do and what should the author do? That question is going to be addressed, in many different ways, throughout the day.

The Authors Launch program covers developing an author brand, author involvement and support for their book’s launch, basic information about keyword search and SEO, use of metrics and analysis, a primer on media training, when and how to hire a publicist or other help, and a special session on making the best use of Goodreads. We’ll cover “audience-centric” marketing, teaching authors to think about their “vertical” — their market — and understand it.

The faculty for Authors Launch includes the most talented marketers and publicists helping authors today: Dan Blank, co-authors MJ Rose and Randy Susan Meyers, journalist Porter Anderson, David Wilk, Meryl Moss, Lucinda Blumenfeld, agent Jason Allen Ashlock, and former Random House digital marketer Pete McCarthy.

We have assembled a group of publishers and an agent to discuss how an author should select the best places to invest their time from the staggering array of choices. (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etcetera.) That panel will include agent Jennifer Weltz of The Naggar Agency as well as Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Kate Stark of Penguin. Matt Schwartz, VP, Director of Digital Marketing and Strategy for the Random House Publishing Group, will conduct the session on metrics.

A feature of both our Kids show on Tuesday and the Author show on Friday are opportunities for the audience to interact with the presenters in smaller groups so each person can get his or her own questions answered. At Kids we’ll do that at lunchtime, seating many of our presenters at tables with a sign carrying their name so our attendees can sit with them and engage. At Authors Launch, we’ll be conducting rounds of workshops, crafted so that the authors can get help in their own vertical (genre fiction, literary fiction, topical non-fiction, juvies, and so forth), and on the topics of greatest need for them.

We are sure the week of January 15-18 will prove to be an energizing and stimulating one for all of us living in the book publishing world. We hope you’ll join us.

Digital Book World Week | January 15-18, 2013

Children’s Publishing Goes Digital | Tuesday, January 15, McGraw-Hill Auditorium
DBW Pre-Conference Workshops | Tuesday, January 15, Hilton New York Hotel
Digital Book World Conference + Expo | January 16-17, Hilton New York Hotel
Authors Launch | Friday, January 18, Hilton New York Hotel

2 Comments »

I came home from the Charleston Conference with a couple of new thoughts


One great benefit of stepping outside your own world — which for me is the world of general trade publishing — is that you can get a jolt of perspective when you do. It really took only a few minutes of listening to Annette Thomas, the global head of professional and college publishing for Macmillan, at the Charleston Conference to underscore an important point. Thomas was talking about how Macmillan had to solve the problem of linking together content that was delivered in journal articles with that delivered in books, a format distinction she correctly saw made no sense to somebody who just wanted the information regardless of the form in which it was initially delivered.

In professional and academic publishing, it is pretty much a requirement to understand the context of all content. Any observation, discovery, or opinion needs to be connected to the other knowledge and information that relates to it to have validity. Scholarship and professional knowledge all live in a world where the total body of relevant information is the key to understanding the value of any new contribution. (And, indeed, the creators of any new contribution are carefully placing their work in the context of all that came before it.)

This is not true for trade publishing, where — more often than not — each book being read is judged and appreciated for what exists between its own covers.

This brings me to two observations about how publishing is changing and how trade publishers need to think differently that are relevant and have not been said to death (if, in fact, they’ve been said by anybody else at all.)

We often observe that book publishing is many businesses, by which we usually mean that academic or professional or college textbook publishing has little to do with “trade”. But it is also true that trade publishing is many businesses. Even within fiction, the publishing skills and markets for genres like romance and science fiction are quite different than for literary fiction.

But non-fiction is even more diverse. And some of it has a lot to learn from professional publishing.

What the top professional publishers will tell you is that the challenge for them is to deliver content within the workflow. That means that accountants or construction engineers are trying to get particular things done and what they look to publishers to do is to help them accomplish their tasks. That means software. And the content they need should be provided within that workflow so they have the knowledge they’re looking for when they want to apply it.

Well, some consumer publishing also addresses content needs that arise in a workflow. Consumers of gardening books, knitting books, and cookbooks are all using the knowledge they present within a workflow context.

What that means to me is that we’re not far away from these tasks being addressed by workflow tools: apps. Your gardening app, for example, will help define your challenge. It will ask you questions. How big is your front yard? How big is your back yard? How much sun do they get? How much time do you have to spend with this? Do you want flowers, shrubs, or vegetables?

Then the app will tell you, “Mike, it’s March 15, dig a hole.” “Mike it’s April 10, drop a seed in the hole.” “Mike it’s April 28 and we see it hasn’t rained in your neighborhood for a week. Water your garden.” Etcetera.

When that day comes, the publisher with the really terrific gardening book better hope they’ve made a good licensing deal with the owner of the app. Power will have shifted.

(One example of what the future may bring a lot more of are the Audubon Mobile Field Guides, which were done by Green Mountain Digital. These are region-specific species guides that contain reference content, maps, bird calls, etc. and provide real time access to bird sightings. Brendan Cahill of Green Mountain will speak on a “new business models” panel at Digital Book World.)

If I were a publisher of books that address a challenge that is actually handled through a workflow, I’d start now trying to be the licensor, not the licensee.

And that brings me to the second observation.

When you read self-published books (and I do: some of the big bestsellers anyway), you become aware by omission of what a publishers would do to improve them. The lack of copy-editing and proofreading is often what is most apparent, but more acute readers also see the deficiencies in development that good editors correct before a book goes to press.

Because major publishers tend to spend a fair amount of money acquiring most of the titles they do and — correctly or not — see it is a major expense (drain on overheads) to publish each and every title, they tend to be careful about making sure each book is really ready for prime time before they print it. That means there is almost always some editorial input from somebody with commercial responsibility (the acquiring editor or somebody who works for the AE) but there is also certainly professional copy-editing and proofreading of every single book. My highly anecdotal view of self-published books is that for them there is no such guarantee.

I have advocated previously that big publishers should see the value of branding their work as “professional”, which I believe argues for minimizing the number of brands they ask consumers to remember. Nuanced brands make sense in a B2B world (for buyers and reviewers) but are likely to just confuse or be ignored by consumers. But as more and more self-published material makes its way to the public and even onto bestseller lists, the reading public (at least those of us who care about grammar, syntax, and punctuation) might be well served by branding that says, in effect, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread by professionals”.

But now I’m seeing that thinking isn’t granular enough. If a publisher adopted that suggestion, they’d be locking themselves into maintaining those high quality standards across everything they do. In the long run, is that the right idea?

I’m beginning to think it isn’t. As we see increasingly that self-published material can reach extremely large audiences, it will probably become important before long for the established publishers to be able to test titles in the marketplace without doing the full editorial job on them. In fact, if Sourcebook’s “agile publishing model” (by which a non-fiction book by my friend and client, futurist David Houle, is being released in ebook chunks for audience feedback before being assembled into a “final” published version that will also be printed) were to gain traction and be used more broadly, it would almost certainly mean that parts of the editing job should be bumped back to the end (or else would have to be done twice).

When the big publishers float through the looking glass and realize that they are really wasting their clout and resources if they don’t crank up to do many more titles than they do now (which they haven’t yet, but I believe they will; and I think Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions is the first sign of recognition of that reality by a major house), they’ll see that not all the books they’ll want to publish in the future can get the same full-on treatment that they give to all the books they publish now. They’ll want to be able to publish an author’s short non-fiction ebook about the topic of their novel — because the author wants them to — without giving it thousands of dollars worth of editorial development its revenue forecasts wouldn’t justify. The solution might be to create secondary brands, or it might be about “badging” each book with the amount of editorial attention it actually got. But one signal of quality might not fit all books.

One remarkable facet of my Charleston trip was something I’m quite sure would never happen to me in New York. I had the same cab driver coming in from the airport on Wednesday and then going back out again on Thursday! I also managed to take off from LaGuardia before the nor’easter hit and come back the following evening after it had come through. I saw a little evidence of what was reported to me was “a blizzard” that I’m not sorry I missed.

36 Comments »

The ebook marketplace is about to change…a lot


Now that the DoJ’s response to the public comments has made it overwhelmingly likely that the settlement it negotiated with Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster will be accepted by the Court, it is time to contemplate the changes we’ll see in the ebook marketplace in the next couple of months.

The settlement requires the three affected publishers to inform retailers working under agency agreements that they can be released from them. Ten days is alloted from the time of the Court’s acceptance for that to take place. Then the retailers have 30 days to terminate their agreement and then the publishers have 30 days from receiving that notice to actually end it.

So the process could be almost instantaneous, if the publishers served notice immediately, the retailers responded immediately, and the publishers reacted to the response immediately. Or it could take as long as 70 days from the Court judgment, if everybody used the entire time alloted by the judgment.

Assuming that Amazon acts with competence and alacrity in its own interests (and I’d expect nothing less), the entire process could take no more than 40-45 days with them. (Each retailer can be on its own clock.) That should liberate Amazon from most pricing constraints on the three settling defendants’ books by the middle of September.

There’s a bit of confusion in the settlement language here. In the same paragraph, IV-B, that lays out the 10-day, 30-day, and 30-day requirements as described above, it also says that 30 days after “entry of the Final Judgment” (the starting gun for everything), the Settling Defendants take “each step” required to terminate or not renew or extend the agreement. Or maybe the language makes sense to a lawyer but I’m just confused. It seems like they’re asking for results before the first 30-day period would have expired.

The settlement, which ostensibly does not eliminate agency agreements (although it clearly eviscerates them), requires that any new agreements not allow publishers to dictate final sale prices by the retailers, except to cap them (in an unwieldly way we’ll consider below in more detail) and also disallows any “most favored nation” (MFN) clauses protecting any retailer from the impact of other retailers’ pricing decisions. These restrictions are specified to last for two years for each retailer, starting from the date the old agreement’s price-controlling clauses are mooted, whether by the agreement being terminated or by the publisher notifying the retailer, in writing, that the offending clauses will not be enforced.

It is back to the drawing board for new agreements. Ostensibly they can be “agency” agreements by which the publisher sets a price and pays a commission for sales based on that price. But since agency agreements were actually attractive because they achieved what is now deemed illegal price parity across the marketplace, these publishers must be rethinking the efficacy of the model. I would be.

So new contracts will be needed between the three settling publishers and all the retailers. And they’ll need to be crafted, negotiated, and signed within a maximum 70-day window.

Anybody responsible for this who remembers what a combination marathon-and-sprint these negotiations were in 2010 won’t be planning any 2-week vacations over the next few months.

There is one big fat joker in the settlement. The publishers are allowed to negotiate agreements limiting the retailers from discounting from the publishers’ (now) suggested prices. The settlement allows the publisher to prohibit discounts on their books which in the aggregate over one year exceed the margin the retailer has earned on those books.

In principle, that isn’t complicated. Retailer A sells ebooks with a retail value of $1 million in a year and would earn $300,000 in commissions. They have to charge customers at least $700,000 for those ebooks, or they’d be in violation of a contract that the settlement allows the publishers to negotiate.

In practice, monitoring and enforcing that might be a nightmare. It requires either reporting or tracking of ebook sales and the prices at which they’re transacted which is far more robust than what has been required or done so far. But even with perfect data, it’s still extremely difficult to assure compliance, particularly if a retailer is inclined to “spend” its whole allotment of discount margin. The wording of the settlement would seem to require allowing discounting that exceeded the margin earned over the course of the year, as long as the cumulative discounts were under the stipulated cap at the end.

What that also means is that retailers can’t work with price-matching bots alone. It isn’t sufficient for Retailer A to monitor Retailer B’s pricing and automate meeting or beating it because Retailers A and B aren’t selling the same quantities of each publisher’s other books and therefore don’t have the same “budget” for discounting. This is a game of three-dimensional tic-tac-toe. The retailers have to watch each other and, at the same time, watch how their discounting to consumers stacks up against the allowances they are earning through above-cost sales for each of the three settling publishers.

And the publishers need to watch the sales of each of the retailers, presuming they are provided with data they don’t now get to allow it, to make sure each one is staying under its cap.

We can’t make too many assumptions here. The settlement rules allow a publisher to negotiate a discounting cap based on total margin, but they don’t require a retailer to agree to it. And there is no acceptable punishment specified for a retailer breaking the cap, so that will have to be worked out in the negotiations about to take place (if they haven’t already started).

One thing the DoJ was completely right about is that the whole agency idea breaks down if it isn’t applied across most of the Big Six. Random House demonstrated that for the first year of agency when they stayed out and reaped an immediate double bonanza. By sticking with their wholesale pricing model (by which the retailer gets 50% off a wildly unrealistic ebook price that would be almost impossible to sell very many copies at), they got more money for each copy sold than they would have under agency (by which the retailer only gets 30% but of a much lower, realistic, selling price). And, at the same time, Random House ebooks benefited from the aggressive discounting (led by Amazon but matched by other ebook retailers) at which their high-profile titles, alone among the Big Six competitive set, were offered to the consumer.

In fact, it was made clear by Apple to the publishers when they were recruited for the iBookstore that the store would only open if at least four of them signed on. Apple was probably thinking that without having a critical mass of top-flight titles, their store would have no appeal and not be worth operating. What publishers may have been thinking about is that if were a lot of Big Six titles being discounted because they weren’t covered by agency rules, the ones that weren’t would be at a tremendous competitive disadvantage.

It seems that the necessity for concerted action to make agency work is a core element of DoJ’s thinking that collusion was required to implement it. But the specific allegations of collusion (the Picholine meeting that took place long before anybody was thinking about agency or an Apple bookstore and the various instances where publishers are alleged to have told each other whether they were in or out of the program) seem very weak, particularly when you acknowledge that they all knew “four or no store”.

Something that one comes away with from reading the settlement language is that we might see some very different terms in the replacement contracts. DoJ’s suspicions were aroused by the great similarity among the agency contracts and they seem to be asking that they not look so similar when they are renegotiated.

This could drive any number of changes. Publishers could return to a wholesale model. Publishers could try to change the agency commission, now uniformly fixed at 30%. It even seems like publishers are being told that the commissions don’t have to be uniform across retailers (although negotiating different terms would seem to violate the spirit of the Robinson-Patman Law that a previous generation of publishers grew up believing required them to give the same terms to all like sellers. There is a R-P exception for contractual relationships, however.)

In fact, there is language in the settlement agreement which seems aimed at stopping publishers from even revealing the details of these agreement in case one of their competitors could find out. (One might assume an agent with clients at more than one house would be able to figure out the commercial terms from their royalty statements. Actually, one would assume that a responsible agent wouldn’t be waiting for a royalty statement to find out.)

So the settling publishers have to negotiate new deals. The other agency publishers (Macmillan and Penguin who are fighting the legal battle and didn’t settle and Random House, enjoying one more big delayed benefit from having stayed out initially which is that the collusion argument certainly can’t be stretched to cover them) will have to rethink their pricing as they see what happens in the changed marketplace.

It is a safe prediction that one of the stories of Christmas 2012 will be the extent to which the agency publishers dropped prices from what they were permitted to charge to meet competition, driven by Amazon.

Remember that the permissible discounting constraint is an annual number. There are any number of strategies Amazon could pursue (and I wouldn’t presume to be smarter than they’ll be about choosing the right one), but if they chose to press their opportunity to the max this Christmas, they could cut prices to the bone – way below “cost” — and figure to make up the margin in the 9 months that will remain the first year of the contract.

Whatever they do, the agency publishers will have to respond in their pricing too.

It’s an equally safe prediction that a consequence of that will be that fledgling authors living at the lower price points will lose market share. That will not be obvious and nobody will actually notice.

Of course, B&N and Kobo also have to figure out a pricing strategy and a means to execute it.

Apple has to completely rethink what it will do as a retailer because publisher price-setting has been severely crippled and they never seemed to want to do it themselves.

And I have to think again about whether my conviction that publishers need to sell direct to the end consumer stands up in a world where Amazon is free to turn its pricing guns on any competitor and make them look like extortionists no matter what price they charge consumers for their ebooks.

44 Comments »

Explaining my skepticism about the likelihood of success for a general subscription model for ebooks


In a prior post, I observed that the apparently-successful subscription offerings for books were in niches. And I said I believed that a more general subscription model wouldn’t work for ebooks the way it has seemed to work for music (Spotify), movies and TV shows (Netflix), and audiobooks (Audible).

By that I meant two things. First of all, it will be impossible for any aggregator to secure the rights to anything like enough of the most appealing titles to deliver an offering comparable to what’s succeeded in other media. But even if they did, that kind of offering wouldn’t deliver nearly as much value to the book reader as general subscription offerings do in other media.

The latter point is based on intuitive speculation. The former is based on an informed view of the commercial realities.

Let’s briefly reiterate the case about consumer appeal. The number of songs, movies, and even audiobooks a subscriber might use in a month (the normal billing period for any subscription, so a relevant unit of measurement) dwarfs the number of books most people would read or refer to. And the heaviest readers — people who read several books a month — are often in genres (romance, science fiction) that already have subscription offerings. They don’t need a more general one.

So the price a subscription offering can command for general ebooks is almost certainly lower in relation to an individual book purchase than the price that can be charged in other media in relation to purchase. That was reflected in the thinking of the fledgling company that got me started writing these posts. They wanted to go to market with a subscription price of about $5 a month, which is less than Spotify, Netflix, or Audible!

(I may disagree with them about the overall viability of the subscription idea, but at least they recognize the necessity of a truly bargain price point.)

But it will be very hard for them, or anybody else, to put together a title base sufficiently appealing for that offering to work commercially.

Big books that consumers know about and want drive them to the points of acquisition for the title. When bookstores talk about how sales are going, they almost always cite the particular books that are driving traffic to their stores (or bemoan the fact that there haven’t been enough of them). That’s why booksellers heavily discounted Harry Potter titles the day they came out and why Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild promoted the availability of the biggest bestsellers they had rights for in their advertising.

Everybody in trade publishing understands this effect. Publishers “overpay” for big books because they know the control of them provides critical leverage dealing with bookstores and wholesalers. BOMC and Literary Guild would bid up the prices for rights to predictable bestsellers beyond what the books would “earn” in royalties on book club sales to gain the value those books had bringing members into the Clubs.

When consumers tie themselves into a subscription service, the power equation shifts for those people. Some of the power of the titles that brought in the consumer is transferred to the owner of the subscription service. If there is enough of value to keep the consumer from looking elsewhere for more content, that can provide great leverage.

It creates enough leverage that Audible can flip the 70-30 model and pay publishers 30% of the attributable revenue for digital downloads of their audiobooks. Since they are the content providers for both iTunes (Apple) and Amazon (their parent company), they have an effective monopoly on audiobooks sold that way. Any publisher that doesn’t want to agree to that split for the subscription business, and I know of at least one very big one that doesn’t, effectively has to live without most of the digital download market for their audio titles.

There have been expressions of dissatisfaction with the payment formula by which Spotify compensates the owners of the songs in their service. But how could there not be? With a combination of free and very low-cost offerings, Spotify is delivering music for far less cost to the consumer than purchasing a collection would require. (There is, theoretically, compensation on the back end because the subscription fee has to continue to be paid to maintain access, whereas older consumers — like me — get a lot of “free” listening to the music we purchased years ago.)

But less cost to consumers means less revenue to be divided by creators. And book authors can’t expect to collect on “repeat reads” the way music creators can collect on “repeat plays”.

So, from an author’s perspective, putting content into a general subscription service threatens to build up the leverage for a market channel that will almost certainly find it less necessary in the future to pay high prices for incremental content.

Simon Lipskar at Writers House, which represents a significant number of major bestselling writers, sees subscriptions as an inherently bad deal for successful writers. In our conversation about this, he echoed my thinking by saying, “Subscriptions by definition transfer the brand value of the author to the brand of the subscription service.”

Users of subscription services, he explained, are attracted to the services by the presence of authors they want to read. But once they are members and paying a monthly fee, their dollars are earmarked for the service rather than to the acquisition of individual discrete books by individual authors.

From Lipskar’s perspective, which is the author’s perspective, “these services act as a very expensive distribution model, inserting themselves between the publishers who license books from authors and the readers who read them, often taking a much bigger piece of the pie than traditional retailers.”

(This point by Lipskar makes me recall my Dad’s — Leonard Shatzkin’s — disdain 50 years ago for the “other” methods of selling consumer books — book clubs and direct mail — because they did, indeed, require more of the consumer’s dollar to execute than selling through stores did. Dad liked “efficient” and he’d argue until the cows came home that bookstores, including returns, were a remarkably efficient mechanism for distributing consumer books. This, of course, was long before the Internet. He started saying it before there were bookstore chains or national wholesalers.)

Lipskar can imagine a subscription service more along the lines of the traditional Book-of-the-Month-Club, in which readers are aided in their discovery of titles by a curatorial/editorial process that helps to select quality titles and, even more important from a commercial perspective, in which the reader’s monthly fee just funds a discount on a discrete monthly purchase.

Lipskar says that for a subscription service to be embraced by authors and publishers, the economics would have to favor authors and their publishers to a much greater extent than the models currently on the market. On that note, the one thing he said he simply could not imagine would be good for authors (or publishers) on any level would be the “all you can eat” model like Spotify, which he believes has spawned a broad feeling within the music business to be a very effective means of transferring the financial value of music from the creators to Spotify.

All the big publishers know that continuing to sign up the authors is what provides the oxygen that keeps them alive. The biggest threat from Amazon is not that they’ll extract another point or three of margin — although that is definitely a continuing concern — but that they’ll reach a point where their market share is large enough to enable them to start signing up really desirable authors on a regular basis and pull them from the rest of the distribution ecosystem. (It is worth noting that Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple have as much at stake in that regard as the major publishers do.)

Because of that, major publishers will never do anything that would distress the major agents. It doesn’t really matter whether a close reading of a contract would give a publisher the “right” to put an author’s work into a subscription service. If the publisher believes the author’s agent would react adversely to them doing that, they’ll be very disinclined to do it.  And some agents might well react adversely to their doing that for any book, not just one under contract to that agent, because agents for big authors who think the way I’m describing don’t want to see subscription services enabled at all!

So that’s why I believe that fledgling subscription services have practically zero chance to get major publishers to commit major books to their pool of available titles.

Of course, there is one entity that might make subscription for general books work and that’s Amazon. They are actually already trying to pull this off even though their efforts have apparently been unanimously rebuffed by the biggest publishers.

The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is offered to “subscribers” to Amazon Prime, the retailer’s overall package of “loyalty” benefits offering that start with free shipping. KOLL allows a loan of an unlimited length, so it is, in effect, a cat’s paw for an ebook subscription program.

Amazon is only now able to offer a robust selection in that program because of a combination of its willingness to spend and the ebook contracts it has with most publishers aside from the Big Six, as well as a very large pool of self-published titles in Kindle Direct Publishing KOLL has not — so far — noticeably damaged the ability of the publishers to sell their “branded author” ebooks successfully. The ebooks from successful authors are still benefiting from a “power law” distribution of sales (things tend to move that way in the Internet world) that favors the biggest SKUs.

Amazon has marketplace clout that dwarfs that of any fledgling with a great idea and they went to great lengths to build up a robust title repository for the KOLL debut. Still, when they launched in November 2011 they only had 5,157 titles which they said included “over 100 current and former New York Times Best Sellers”. It wasn’t an impressive selection.

But the wholesale purchasing terms under which Amazon acquires the ebooks of all publishers except the Big Six apparently enable Amazon to lend any title it wants to, as long as it purchases a copy to lend each time it does so. And it is in the ether that Amazon offered publishers a lot of money to put titles into this program. They have an impressive list of publishers whose work they are offering — including Scholastic, Norton, Bloomsbury, Grove/Atlantic, Workman/Algonquin, F+W Media, Lonely Planet, Rosetta Books as well as their own publishing imprints — but there’s no way to know how many of them went for the deals being offered or which ones are included simply because Amazon is buying a copy of any ebook from them each time a customer wants to borrow one.

And while agency pricing rules are definitely a barrier that makes it more difficult for a Big Six publisher to participate, there seemed to be no burst of creativity on any publisher’s part to figure out a way around it.

So Amazon is, in effect, conducting an experiment testing my theory that a general subscription offering won’t be a powerful magnet. For now, the test is to see how many of the Prime customers find it possible to live largely or entirely within the selection of titles that KOLL offers them, and particularly whether they are weaning those customers away from the higher-profile offerings of the Big Six. Perhaps we’ll see Amazon extend the reach of KOLL sometime by offering a Kindle feature package that is cheaper than what Prime has to be to offer free shipping. I’d sort of expect that. Wouldn’t you?

Will Amazon have an argument to make in a year or two, to publishers or to authors, saying that there is a substantial pool of desirable readers they that they can only reach by participating in KOLL?

They might.

But can anybody else but Amazon put together the combination of the audience and title base they have, piggybacking as they are on Prime and willing as they are to buy an ebook just to lend it once to demonstrate that they can?

I doubt it.

It was been called to my attention by Pam Boiros of Books24x7 that in my prior piece I gave Safari Books Online credit for pioneering the subscription model and the payment by metered usage and that actually credit for both should go to Books24x7. Safari came along a few short years after Books24x7 had started the model which they operate today across a wide range of verticals, serving a mostly institutional customer base. I thank Pam for refreshing my memory, which was the source of the information. Safari is still a great service and the closest thing to a trade subscription model outside the single-publisher efforts, but they followed a path that was originally cut by Books24x7.

4 Comments »