eBooks

When an author should self-publish and how that might change


There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?

The answer is certainly not “never”, and if there is anybody left in a publishing house who thinks it is, they should think a little harder.

For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is. It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing. And it’s great to have an organization turning your present book into more dollars while you as an author focus on generating the next one, and start pocketing the next advance.

Publishers have heretofore really had only one model for working with authors. They acquire the rights, usually paying an advance-against-royalties, and own and control the entire process of publishing. It is generally understood that all efforts to make the book known can show benefits in all the commercial channels it exploits. So publishers have generally insisted on, and authors have generally accepted, controlling all the rights to a book when they pay that advance. The two pretty standard, time-honored exceptions have been cinematic (Hollywood) rights, which are rarely controlled by the publisher, and foreign territory and language rights, which are only sometimes controlled by the publisher.

Since publishers until very recently effectively monopolized the path to market, they could effectively make the rules about what an author could publish. That usually has meant no more than a book a year. It has also usually eliminated anything that isn’t “book-length” or that needed to reach the market very quickly upon completion of the writing. And in a practice that ultimately has had painful consequences for publishers, it meant backlists went out of circulation when a title wasn’t worth printing in bulk.

And these make up a very good starter list of when even an established author might want to consider an alternative to the conventional publishing arrangement. (It goes without saying that a fledgling author with a completed manuscript might choose self-publishing as a way to start their commercial career in preference to canvassing for an agent and then, if that quest is successful, waiting for the agent to find a publishing deal and the publisher to get the book out. Self-publishing could conceivably speed up the whole process of finding a publisher!)

Although most of the Strum and Drang around how digital changes the publisher-author relationship have been about the royalty rate — publishers tend to want contracts that specify a royalty of 25 percent of revenue on ebook sales, various upstarts and digital-first publishers pay 50 percent and an author going directly to the retailers can get even more — that is, for most authors, less of a problem than it might first appear. For authors who don’t earn out advances, it isn’t a real number and the effective royalty is higher than what the contract says. And whatever the difference is in dollars, it doesn’t come without the requirement of work and sometimes costs — like a copy-editor or a cover designer or a marketing advisor — that would otherwise be borne by a publisher.

Where royalty rate is most consequential is for authors with a substantial reverted backlist. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher. Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started. Others have followed in his wake. And although the work required to self-publish and market yourself effectively is not trivial even if some readers know you and some of your work, it is also considerably more likely to result in a useful financial reward than trying to self-publish from a standing start. And certain chores, like editorial development and copy-editing, are eliminated by starting with already-published material.

In these cases, the loss of inventory-in-place at stores is less of a handicap to discovery than it would be for a new book and the additional margin on ebook sales could well leave the author making much more money, even without a promotional print sale.

But, for many authors, the frustration with publishing the conventional way might not be about money at all. Writers often write just because they have something to say, or a story to tell, and they want both to express it and have people read and react to it. That’s where the “shorter than a normal printed book” or “must get this published in weeks, if not days” barriers publishers have always presented become mere annoyances that anybody with a modicum of initiative would simply brush aside.

All of these motivations — monetizing previously dead backlist and getting to the public with material even a successful author would have difficulty getting a publisher to do — are behind the fact that the big literary agencies are staffing themselves to help authors navigate the digital world. In different ways, we have seen this emerge at Writers House, Trident, and Curtis Brown, among others. And another way this can work is demonstrated by the Waxman-Leavell Agency, which has spawned a new ebook publisher called Diversion. Diversion followed a path blazed more than a decade before when agent Richard Curtis started EReads (recently sold to Open Road) and lawyer-agent Arthur Klebanoff founded the still-operating Rosetta Books.

In other words, the gap between pure self-publishing and traditional publisher-author deals grew wide enough that the agents saw the need to fill it.

The strength of the traditional publishers and the traditional deals is directly related to the amount of the market that is served by inventory in stores. When that proportion was “nearly all”, the power allocation was “nearly all” to the traditional publishers. During the period when this was shifting quickly and the online share was rapidly depleting the in-store share — a few years ending a year or two ago — there was what felt like a rush to self-publishing combined with the growth of digital-first publishers, the reigning giant among them being Open Road.

The traditional publishers are starting digital-first imprints now that can do deals with different splits and handle both shorter books and faster publishing than the classic model. The upstarts like Open Road, Rosetta, and Diversion have built lists and businesses on the gap — in business jargon, “the delta” — between the traditional deal and pure self-publishing. The hunch here is that gap is going to get progressively smaller. The big guys will figure out commercial models to do shorter books and get to market faster. They’ll raise royalties (or unearned advances, which amounts to the same thing) to keep proven writers in the fold. Eventually, houses will give their acquisition editors the suite of deal templates they need to keep diminishing the incentive for an author to step away from the house to get something done.

And while there will always be an opportunity for a known author to make a bit more per copy if s/he takes on many of the functions of publishing her/himself, the amount of backlist available to be capitalized on in that way will shrink inexorably over time.

Self-publishing and new-style digital-first publishing can grow more to the extent that the book-in-store share of the market shrinks more. But while that’s happening, the big publishers are also adding to their capabilities: building their databases and understanding of individual consumers (something that all the big houses are doing and which the upstarts seem not to believe is happening, or at least not happening effectively), distributing and marketing with increasing effectiveness in offshore markets, and controlling more and more of the global delivery in all languages of the books in which they invest.

It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals and the more powerful will be any incentives Amazon cares to offer for making the title exclusive to them.

There has always been — and will always be — a great diversity of publishers. But the commercial concentration will continue to be in a small number of big English-language houses for many years to come even if the number of self-publishers appears to continue to grow.

We are really excited at the enthusiastic response we’ve been getting to our new Logical Marketing Agency business. If you have anything to do with marketing books (or brands) online, you’ll want to know about what we’re offering.

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Some things I will be looking to learn more about at London Book Fair


The London Book Fair is an every-second-or-third-year thing for me, going back many decades. From an English-centric perspective, it is like a mini-Frankfurt. All the UK players are there and a lot of US senior executives. But because it is so accessible to the Continent, you can get a taste of how things look to the rest of the world.

In the US, we look to me to be in a period when two dominant giants — Amazon for online bookselling and Penguin Random House for general trade publishing — are consolidating their positions. Amazon’s enormous market share is growing, both for print and ebooks. It is too early to draw the same conclusion about PRH, but my guess is that a year or two from now we’ll have seen them taking share from their biggest competitors just like Amazon is from theirs.

(Dominant giants will be part of a conversation I’ll be taking part in on a stage in London. I’ve been asked to participate in The Great Debate, where this year the proposition is ”It’s all about size. Bigger is always better.” I’m arguing the affirmative with Ken Brooks of McGraw-Hill Education as my teammate. We’re opposed by Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, and Scott Waxman, who is both an experienced literary agent and the entrepreneur behind Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher. It should be fun. And friendly. We’re all nice guys.)

The dominant US brick-and-mortar retailer, Barnes & Noble, appears to be fairly healthy in its traditional business. It is shrinking, but the store operations are still profitable and well run. They appear to have benefited from the demise of its erstwhile competitor, Borders (as have the independents). From across the Pond, one does not get the same impression about UK’s Waterstones chain. However, in the UK, there are forces we don’t have in the US: not just the ubiquitous newsstand-type WHSmith stores, but also two supermarket chains, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which are each ambitiously trying to build a book business and their own ebook channel. One thing I’ll be asking everybody about is the impact these retailers have in the book marketplace, particularly when we get beyond the top sellers. Perhaps if they’re doing well, it would encourage Walmart to get serious about bookselling. Certainly Walmart would like to do anything they can to poke Amazon in the eye.

Without serious competition from new players who are well-funded, like the UK supermarkets, it is hard to see what stands in the way of the global ebook giants: Amazon and Apple and, to a lesser degree, Google and Kobo. Perhaps I can get a sense in London of how Barnes & Noble’s multi-territory expansion for Nook is faring. But, however they do, there is a so-far little-noted effect beginning to become evident that could tilt the global book business to the English-language marketplace, and to the US in particular.

In a recent conversation, an executive at a Big Five company told me of a recent development. His company had licensed a few titles for Russian language rights to a publisher in Moscow. But by which retailers would most of those ebooks be sold? The answer is Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo and Barnes & Noble! And the Russian publisher, really just breaking into the ebook business, has far more limited access to these retailing giants than the US publisher which had licensed them the rights.

So the US publisher, in a suggestion that seemed in everybody’s interests, offered to be the “distributor” of those Russian ebooks to the major accounts. The deal was made and it worked. I said to the executive who explained this to me, “You could be helpful in distributing all their books, not just the ones you licensed them.” “Exactly,” he said.

But then we took the conversation a little further. This house is wondering whether, in an ebook-dominant world, it wouldn’t make more sense for them to publish books themselves in Spanish, Mandarin, and French (the first three languages they are thinking about). After all, the translations are done by freelancers. Anybody can hire them no matter where they are. And if most of the books sold are ebooks, and if the publishers of English, especially those in the US, have multiple daily contacts with the big ebook retailers and others don’t, then what is the point to licensing away those rights?

That approach would mean that publishers in at least some non-English territories would, at best, be able to license the print rights for the local geography they really cover. And it would mean that the biggest publishers with the biggest checkbooks to sign the biggest authors and titles will be able to benefit from an even larger share of the book’s global market while paying the author more than they could earn with a local publisher sharing in the other-language rights.

If this is more than one company’s inspiration right now, I should be able to find evidence of that at the London Book Fair.

The other thing for me to learn, of course, is how digital marketing of books looks from the UK. In our fledgling new business with Peter McCarthy (take a look at his new post) we have already done some title optimization work for two UK-based publishers, one large and one medium-sized. So we’ve learned how to do the work using UK-based Google and Amazon and putting BIC codes rather than BISAC codes into the metadata. We’ll be formally announcing the new business and opening our web site the day before the London Book Fair opens. I expect to find a lot of interest in what we can offer, just as we have in the US. There is no doubt that the London Book Fair presents the best possible opportunity to find out very quickly what our own opportunity is outside the US as the need for sophisticated marketing naturally follows the growth and increasing complexity of the overall digital environment.

One person I will be sad not to see at London Book Fair is my longtime friend Bruce Robertson, a founder of the pioneering packagers The Diagram Group, who died a little over a week ago at the age of 79. Bruce was sui generis: a brilliant man with a unique gift for visualization that was the guiding spirit behind dozens of global bestselling illustrated books. Forty years ago, I had the opportunity to sell three of Diagram’s greatest books, “Rules of the Game”, “The Way to Play”, and “Man’s Body” when Bruce’s publisher at that time, Paddington Press, was distributed in the US by my family’s distribution company, Two Continents. I always enjoyed seeing him and hearing his witty, insightful, and often cutting take on the people and practices in our business. Fortunately, there were many opportunities to see Bruce and his endlessly good-natured wife, Pat, over the years, at industry events or when he was in NY or I was in London. We are all one of a kind, but some of us are more obviously so than the rest of us. Bruce was like nobody else. He’ll be missed by many friends from all over the world.

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Getting Mark Coker right this time and agreeing with him up to a point


On Tuesday, for the first time in the five years I have been writing this blog, I did a post I would like to take back. (But in the interest of the public record, and because there were several comments of value, I’m leaving it up.) This is the post that I should have written the first time.

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, wrote a Huffington Post piece in which he asserted that indies are now responsible for 15% of the ebook market in dollars and on their way to 50% by 2020. The initial post of mine misread Mark, and assumed that the 15 percent and 50 percent claim were about units, not dollars. Mark set me straight, but, unfortunately, that other post focused on trying to translate what I thought were unit shares into dollar shares. Sorry…

At first I had thought I agreed with Coker’s overall numbers, because I thought an estimate that indie ebooks were 15 percent of the total units was reasonable, rising to 50 percent in six years. But dollars are another story. (Note: Michael Cader’s independent examination of the numbers determined that indie/self-published ebooks were, at most, 11 percent of the ebook dollars and probably less. Cader’s generous calculations put the unit share percentage at about double that, in the low 20s. I believe his logic and numbers would also support my view that it is something less than that, which would put me near to Coker’s dollar estimate for my units estimate: about 15%.)

If indie ebooks were 15 percent in dollars today, then they would be 30 or 40 percent of units because they are priced so much lower than publishers’ ebooks. Is that possible? I suppose it is. I thought in the middle of last year that in the aggregate indies sold the number of units equivalent to one Big Six publisher, but not anything like 30+% of unit sales (even though Howey’s examination of 50,000 Kindle titles led him to assign 27% of the units sold to indies.)

If they are 30 or 40 percent of units, and nobody I know has read any, does that suggest a cohort of people who really prefer indie ebooks and read them in big numbers? And if indie readers form a “separate” market, is it growing or is it static? In other words, do indie ebooks draw on a particular pool of readers, so that we have two separate competitions going on for eyeballs and ebook sales?

We note a piece this morning at Good EReader that calls for the segregation of the self-published titles at ebook stores, because their sheer number interfere with discoverability for publishers’ books. That’s bound to be an unpopular idea in many quarters, but it is something that could happen if any one retailer offers it as a choice to consumers (which is the way to do it: as a filtering choice, not a hard-wired default). If consumers liked it in one place, the practice could spread.

Regardless of whether there is one competition for readers for all books or separate ones for indies and publishers, wouldn’t we expect the flood of titles to make it harder for everybody to make sales? (This is a point that Peter Turner brought up in the comment string to the prior post.) Chances are, yes. And that could mean even more authors will be forced to go indie because publishers are likely to respond to a shrinking market and more challenging discovery by reducing their outputs.

But it is also true that more challenging discovery means more skill doing it and more tools to reach customers have value. So the ability of established publishers to have “better odds”, to get their books to rise above the “noise” of a large title output, should improve (relatively) over time.

Coker did a great service to all of us putting the ebook sales indies achieve into a larger perspective. And, in doing that, he might even have understated the current case for their importance.

What Coker did was point out that the 15% ebook dollar share for indies was within the estimated 30% of the market that is ebooks, 70% still being print. Doing math with his share number, he concludes that self-published ebooks are taking 4.5% of the dollars in the overall market. I’d put them at somewhere between half and two-thirds of that.

But, in fact, the 70% of the market that remains print contains a lot of titles that have very little, even no, ebook sales at all. These are illustrated books or reference books or even kids’ books that have not worked commercially in a digital version. We don’t know how much of the 70% of books that are print are “readerly” books that are equivalent to the 30% that sell in ebooks, but it isn’t nearly all of them. I think it would be conservative to assume that non-readerly books constitute 25% or more of the 70% of the market that is print, which would divide that portion of the market to be 52.5% books that have commercially viable ebooks (the 30%) and 17.5% books that don’t.

So the 30% ebooks overall is really more than 35% for the books that are real ebook candidates (and probably nearer 100% for most of the indie ebooks which would have limited or no print sales). In other words, the ebook share for the books that can work as ebooks is already a bit bigger than an overall summary would suggest. But, despite that, indie ebooks are somewhere in the low single digits as a percentage of industry revenue.

I think that’s very important to keep in mind. Indie ebooks are not yet commercially important if we think about consumer dollars. (But, of course, as Hugh Howey and Coker point out, the author keeps a lot more of those dollars.)

There are two big questions going forward.

1. How fast will the indie self-publishing ebook market continue to grow at the expense of publishers who do it for profit? (All of the calculations from Coker and Howey about the benefits to indie authors assume they do it themselves, not through some new-fangled indie-first publisher or aggregator. If they do it through anybody else, new or old, the author share will decline. Every participant takes a cut.)

2. For any individual author, how does the decision of whether to do it themselves or sign with a publisher look?

On the first, I think one key question is whether we now have a bifurcated market: one group of people reading the bulk of indie books and another group reading the bulk of published books. There is certainly reason to believe that we do, although this is something that only the retailers really can know for sure.

I believe we do have two markets. Part of that is genre-driven. Many readers who habitually consume romance, thrillers, and sci-fi have found less expensive digital-first and author-published alternatives perfectly satisfying. They read lots of units. So it is likely that a concentrated cohort of readers is responsible for a big chunk of the indie books.

(There is probably a third market because we know there are also bargain shoppers. Though traditionally-published titles are discounted, there are still price bands where the indies largely own the marketplace.)

If that is the case, then indies compete with indies more than they do with publishers. And since we believe that a big part of indie sales growth will be driven by indie title growth, it could be that the sales will have trouble keeping up with the titles. That would mean the path to success for each individual indie author would get harder.

Note that this would not affect a self-published author who had built a name and a brand by being published first, except to the degree that self-publishing gets handled differently by retailers or that discovery metadata is not as professionally produced. In general, the distinction between authors who had publisher help building their brand before going indie and those who created success from a standing start has not been underscored as much as it should be in these discussions.

And that leads us to the second point. As Coker has pointed out in his piece and in the comment section of my previous post, some authors like to have “control” of their process. As print books become less and less important, those authors have more and more inherent reason to be attracted to a self-publishing model.

I believe that those authors who like “control” are already more ubiquitous in the self-publishing world than in the overall population of commercially-capable writers. It stands to reason that they would be early adopters of the digital self-publishing opportunity. My hunch is that most authors want to write, and to let publishers handle their business. They don’t want to do the administration and marketing work necessary to self-publish. And that’s even before they get to the difference between getting paid in advance for a book and having to spend money to put a book out.

But it is also true that the deals we see today are not necessarily forever. Publishers have held the line on 25% of their revenue as the author ebook share (apparently with some limited exceptions and, of course, situations for big authors where unearned advances effectively deliver higher royalty rates on everything). If they have to raise royalty rates to keep authors, they probably will. E-only publishers and digital-first imprints at traditional houses are already establishing new standards. Amazon just reduced the author take through their Audible subsidiary. Will the day come when they decide to take a bigger share of indie author ebook sales? Why not?

Authors will have a shifting set of commercial propositions to consider, along with their personal preferences for “control” or “help”. And that’s before we get to other things not reflected in any comparison of what they earn from a self-published ebook versus a publisher’s ebook: print revenue, unearned advances, and having somebody else doing a lot of work on your behalf.

So while I largely agree with Coker’s 10 trends that will lead to enormous growth in the number of indie-published ebooks we will see, I think a grain of salt is needed about how economically significant they will be either for the industry at large or for the vast majority of individual authors following that path even though they are bound to grow quickly. It turns out that the previous post started out with a misunderstanding that led me (and therefore my readers) on a wild goose chase but, in the end, the headline message was right. Even over the next few years, the changes we’ll see around how authors get their work to their readers are more about evolution than revolution.

As it happens, The Great Debate at the London Book Fair is about whether big publishers or small publishers will “win” over time. Ken Brooks of McGraw Hill Education and I have the “big” side; Stephen Page of Faber and Scott Waxman, who is both a literary agent and owner of an ebook publishing house called Diversion, tout the “small”. Michael Healy of CCC moderates. If you’ll be at LBF, check this out.

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Sometimes one more calculation can make what looked first like revolution resemble what it really is: evolution


Author’s warning: this post is largely wrong! The following post was written based on a fundamental misunderstanding, assuming that Mark Coker’s post was talking about ebook sales in units when he was talking about dollars. 

So while there are some insights that may have value, the post is mostly wrong.
 
I am leaving it up because I have to admit to my errors (this is the first time in five years I have had to do this), and because there were some useful comments. (And who knows? We may get more.) I will write another post (and here it is!) reflecting on Mark’s in the next couple of days, this time giving observations based on a correct interpretation of what he says in his.

Mark Coker, the creator and owner of Smashwords, very likely the biggest service-provider (after Amazon) for ebook creation and distribution for the self-publishing community, wrote an article on Huffington Post today with the headline prediction that independent publishing could be responsible for 50 percent of ebook sales in 2020.

While Coker does engage in some red meat slinging that will please the indie author and publisher cohort that is his bread and butter (painting a Manichean view of heroic indies on one side who believe their growth is inevitable and the blinkered establishment on the other side that considers the indie view “delusional”), his methodology is sound and his predictions are pretty reasonable.

But, unfortunately, Coker’s analysis stops one calculation short of painting a meaningful picture. And that calculation is the one that counts. Literally.

Coker figures that the current share in 2013 of ebook sales garnered by indies is 15 percent. He posits that print is 70 percent, so the indie ebook share gives them about 4.5 percent of the total market. That’s correct, if you are talking about units sold. And that’s where he stopped, but shouldn’t have.

Because indie ebooks generally are priced between $0.99 and $2.99 (although some have pushed that to $3.99 lately), and publishers’ ebooks are generally priced from $7.99 to $14.99, what Coker calculates omits an important reality. We’d have to guess what the multiple should be to translate unit share into dollar share, with publishers’ books listed anywhere from three to ten times, or even more, over where indie ebooks are priced. I’ll guess that a multiple of three times is a conservative estimate, taking into account that publishers’ prices are often discounted by retailers. (And I hope Coker would agree with me which I think is possible because on the numbers he stated, I agree with him!)

If 3x is the right multiple (and it is a lot less than the 5 to 1 ratio Hugh Howey found at Amazon for traditional publisher dollars over indie dollars), then indie ebooks really amount to around one-and-a-half percent of the book market by consumer spend. More than six years into the ebook revolution (if dated from Kindle, which is where I’d begin), that’s not a number that would justify the strutting of the indie ebook advocates and the slamming (and frequently predicted demise) of the publishers.

Of course, Howey and others have insisted that calculating consumer spend is getting the question the wrong way around from the authors’ perspective. What matters, they would say, is what share of author earnings fall to independent authors. And it is, indeed, likely that the well less than 2 percent share of consumer dollars would be a poor proxy for author earnings because sometimes (but not nearly always) authors make more money on a lower-priced ebook than they would have from a publisher’s sale of a higher-priced ebook (or a print book.)

The problem is that we have no way to make that comparison. We can’t actually calculate published authors’ earnings from sales and contractual percentages because we know that published authors get a lot of money in unearned advances. And we don’t know what indie authors earn either; it isn’t the frequently-bandied 70 percent of the consumer dollar all the time. (In fact, it isn’t 70 percent all the time even on Amazon.) With the price differential and many indie ebooks selling at 99 cents with the author getting about 35 cents of that, my hunch is that published authors actually average more cents per unit sold than the self-published do. At the same time, published authors are getting their take calculated on the price from which the retailer discounted, a higher price than the selling price. That means their royalty on the selling price is higher than even knowing the contractual terms would lead you to guess. And that is before you even get to accounting for unearned advances. So even getting 4.5 percent of the units would probably give them no more than 2 or 3 percent of the royalty dollars. And almost certainly that 2 or 3 percent is divided among far more authors than the 98 percent that goes to the published.

The heart of Coker’s piece is a checklist of reasons why the indie ebook share will increase. Most of those make a lot of sense. And his ultimate conclusion and prognostication, which is that ebook unit sales will be 50 percent indie by 2020, is not crazy. Maybe it will be 40 percent. Maybe 50 percent will come in 2023. But surely over the next few years the indie share of the total is likely to get bigger and the publisher share is likely to get smaller, even though publishers and other big players will increasingly be providing services to indies and alternative ways for them to work with established publishers on something other than the advance-against-royalties basis that has been the industry standard for many years.

But even then, we’re probably looking at something that is more like evolution than revolution. If indie authors have 50 percent of the ebook units by 2020, they’ll probably have half of 50 to 60 percent of the total market, assuming that print sales slip from 70 percent today to 40–to-50 percent in six years. If indies sold half of what might be a 60 percent ebook share of the market, they’d have 30 percent of the unit sales. But the pricing differential will still exist. (If it goes away, then indie sales won’t grow so fast.)

That means that, even by 2020, and even accepting indie champion Coker’s calculations, indie ebook sales will be around 10 percent of the dollar volume of the book business. And their share of total author revenue will be more impressive, perhaps in the teens, but still divided among far more authors than the much bigger number going to the published.

These calculations are not intended to disparage the indie writing and publishing community (most of whom get significant help from very big companies, starting with Amazon, to make them possible). It is intended to provide a reality check. The industry is still run by the establishment, and it will be for the foreseeable future. There are expanding opportunities for independent action and it is the right course for many authors, but the idea that we’re about to see some total reversal of fortune can be, and often is, wildly overstated.

As it happens, The Great Debate at the London Book Fair is about whether big publishers or small publishers will “win” over time. Ken Brooks of McGraw Hill Education and I have the “big” side; Stephen Page of Faber and Scott Waxman, who is both a literary agent and owner of an ebook publishing house called Diversion, tout the “small”. Michael Healy of CCC moderates. If you’ll be at LBF, check this out.

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Declarations and forecasts of Great Change in the book business need specificity to be useful and often do not provide it


A recent post here that incited a long comment string and another on FutureBook that was quite unrelated from the estimable Brian O’Leary have helped me formulate some thinking which I hope can be helpful in evaluating any “Great Change” post that arises about publishing. And they do, indeed, arise often.

O’Leary’s post builds on a theme he is persistent about pursuing, which is that communication, which in his writing seems to conflate with publishing, is moving to a linked-and-continuous conversation rather than a set-content-package (like a book or a magazine). The post suggests that the “books”, such as they are, will emerge from the conversations.

This recalls for me a comment I heard a few years ago from the father of digital publishing, David Worlock. David told me, “surely, in time, the number of books created within the network must exceed the number of books created outside the network”. By “network”, David meant “Internet”.

I don’t know how long “in time” was intended to be in David’s mind, but I figured “decades”. And in that time frame, I agree.

The other long-ago wisdom I keep recalling as I read predictions about our digital reading future is what was always said by Mark Bide when we began our “Publishing in the 21st Century” conferences for VISTA (now Publishing Technology) in the 1990s. Mark always reminded the audience that “book publishing is many different businesses” so that everybody would keep in mind that what we said about trade might not apply to sci-tech and what we said about books for lawyers and accountants doesn’t apply to publishers of college textbooks. What brought everybody together was the form of the “book”, which was already then a weak unifying principle for what were really many very different businesses.

This is now more true than it was when Mark used to say it 15 or 20 years ago. In trade, which is the part of book publishing I know best, we are seeing that the business of publishing genre fiction is different from kids books, which is different from serious non-fiction, which is different from illustrated how-to, which is different from serious fiction. Travel books and computer how-to have suffered serious erosion, and some of us would expect to see cookbooks do the same, if they haven’t already. I base that notion on my belief that cookbooks, like travel and computer how-to, are books where “the unit of appreciation doesn’t equal the unit of sale”. O’Leary put it differently but makes a similar point:

The use of bundled media as the dominant form of shared content is ending. This trend has already affected newspaper, magazine and some types of book publishing. As readers look to customize their own content consumption, it will continue.

This makes me confess that I confidently and erroneously predicted in the 1990s to a close friend deeply involved with newspapers that they’d be “dead in five years”. I saw what Brian is talking about: that the bundled media idea meets its match when people can bundle their own. And I was directionally correct about the trouble the newspaper business was heading toward. But The New York Times is still dropped off at my door each morning (although I have often read a lot of it in bed on my iPhone before I cross the apartment to pick up the paper version) and most American cities still have a daily paper, even though many of them have bitten the dust in this century.

The extended discussion in the comment string of the prior post had to do with to what extent publishers serve authors, and to what extent authors are better off eschewing publishers and working on their own. Unless and until publishers turn digital marketing at scale into a clearly compelling proposition, their power to serve authors effectively diminishes with each closing bookstore. The less bookstore- (or brick-and-mortar retailer-) dependent any book is, the less additional benefit in sales and exposure can be delivered by a publisher (although a cash advance and somebody to handle all the business aspects of putting a book out will still be both helpful and persuasive to many authors). Bookstore shelf space, and printed books, seem to be suffering slower erosion over the past year or two than they did in the several years before that. Michael Cader has made a convincing case that we actually know that for a fact. But, even if we accept the fact, whatever erosion continues will affect different books and authors to different degrees.

As I was reading Brian’s post, which advocates delivering information with plentiful links that would allow reader-controlled exploration of the topic at hand, I thought about the book I am reading right now. That is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent “The Bully Pulpit”. It’s complex and the web is loaded with material (about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and a cast of characters who were the muckraking journalists of the time) that could provide additional facts, depth, and color. But the valuable deliverable here is that Goodwin has sorted through all of that and more and delivered a masterful telling of a complex holistic story. That’s what I’m buying and enjoying. “Enhancements” would almost certainly undercut its core value to me as a reader. Links would just be distractions that would make me lose the thread of the coherent story.

Nonetheless, what Brian is saying might be true for me if I were reading a book explaining some aspect of economics or technology. And it might be true for a history scholar who was reading “The Bully Pulpit”.

So generalizations about the book business, whether they come from a self-published author or an industry expert like O’Leary, really require us to do a little parsing to make them useful. We’d be steering toward a more constructive conversation if we posed three questions every time somebody posits a Great Change we will see in the book business.

1. Which books, exactly, should we expect to be affected by this particular Great Change? This is necessary to specify now that most people would agree that “books” has become a pretty worthless generalization.

2. How soon can we expect a meaningful change in the perceived utility, and therefore the demand, for the affected books? That is, are we talking about a change that is already happening and evident and having a commercial impact (travel books are suffering and have been for years) or one we expect to see in the future (readers abandoning longer form books for shorter content choices) for which we might have only the scantiest evidence is affecting commercial reality today?

3. How likely is it that whatever the Great Change is going to be that publishers are well-positioned to affect or control or accommodate it? Brian suggested, and I wholeheartedly agree, the answer is “often not”. That being the case, the prediction of the Great Change should not necessarily be accompanied by the prescription that the publisher should change behavior to address it, although it seems to me they almost always are.

That last point is a very important one. Publishers, like all businesses, succeed on the strength of their expertise and their commercial network. Many would agree that the function of children’s books and craft how-to books could be better served if they utilized elements that are possible digitally — animation, video, interactivity, audio — and that would improve the utility of a digital version over a printed book. But does that mean that today’s book publishers can “own” that future business, if both the creative requirements and the marketing and distribution are well outside their prior experience?

Could a publisher of travel books have created Trip Advisor? Does the publisher-created Cookstr do the job of digital assistance for a cook better than allrecipes.com or cookbooks.com or betterrecipes.com? It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking to see that a publisher’s skill sets are not the best match for building an interactive internet business where content is a component of the strategy but everything else about it is different from publishing books.

Over time, I expect the book business is going to get smaller, whether the number of books consumed goes down or not. Among the reasons for that is that, over time, the intrusion of self-publishing entities will be even more disruptive than self-publishing authors have been. Another reason is that wome information dissemination that has taken place in books will move away from books. It might also be true that the overall public appetite for reading longer forms will diminish, although any publisher with digital distribution can address that by changing the mix of what they publish.

Whether “book publishing” or “book retailing” shrinks, disappears, or changes form depends on how widespread across the various silos of interest and utility we call “books” today are the many disruptions that will affect those verticals in different ways and at different speeds. And generalizing about what these changes mean, let alone delivering advice that isn’t informed and bounded by an understanding of how any particular book or author or publishing program fits into the time and scale of any particular change, is as likely to be wrong and harmful as it is to be correct and illuminating.

So remember Bide’s decades-old admonition that the book business is not one business. It is the one generalization about books and commerce that has been true for well over a century and will continue to be true as long as books — printed or conceptual — continue to be something worth discussing.

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Enter Curriculet, one of the new ventures signaling the opportunities for publishers in the Common Core


The new Common Core standards, which are essentially descriptions of things kids should have learned and know by various ages and grades, are now being adopted and adjusted to by elementary and secondary schools across the country. Common Core, besides providing the standards, encourages the practice of educating kids using content not created expressly for an educational purpose. In other words, teach kids with regular books, newspapers, magazines, videos; not just with books and educational materials prepared by textbook publishers.

So Common Core is a new reality that would tend to encourage greater use of books from trade publishers in school settings.

The other new reality producing change in the school market for publishers is ubiquity approaching universality of devices for digital reading. More and more kids of all ages and economic backgrounds have smartphones, tablets, and game devices that can be used to read ebooks.

Changing commercial environments create digital opportunities and they’re being seen in this arena. Our clients at Copyright Clearance Center are working diligently to get content made available to be found within the Smarter Balanced multi-state assessment (one of two multi-state, high-stakes assessments funded through Race to the Top grants from the US Department of Education), which enables the inclusion of that content in assessments that could lead to years of discovery by teachers and adoption by schools. (The assessment tool requires the student — for example — to read a poem or a passage. In order to use that assessment, the poem or passage would have to be licensed.) Another initiative we have become aware of is Biblionasium, which is a new community trying to bring together students, teachers, and parents around kids reading.

(Biblionasium helped us make a great discovery. They published recommended reading from each of their three constituencies. We noticed that only one title was in the top three recommendations for all three groups: students, teachers, and parents. The book is called “Wonder” and it is extraordinary. It seems to be written for pre-teens, but I couldn’t put it down. The world will be a better place if every kid reads this book whenever their skill level permits. It has a simple stated moral: “be kinder than necessary”. And it delivers it very persuasively.)

Amazon took a stab at a school marketplace play two years ago, trying to make it easy to enable teachers to load ebooks on Kindles across a class and then “taking them off” when the class was over.

That’s a nod toward a solution, but it falls far short. Teachers need tools and capabilities in and around the content and in and around its consumption that even go beyond what a parent needs to monitor a kid. And, regardless of what the platform can do, there’s still a pricing problem. Although publishers would like to get full ebook prices for every single copy placed on each new student’s device, that can’t work for schools. Buying books is cash-demanding enough, but at least the books can be reused by class after class, semester after semester, until each copy wears out.

Enter Curriculet, whose co-founder, Jason Singer, visited our office last week.

Singer has been a teacher and KIPP charter school administrator. He has designed the Curriculet platform for leading a class through reading a book (or anything else) that gives students additional information and help right in line with their reading. Curriculet also gives teachers both the ability to add direction (quizzes, videos) and to monitor what their kids are doing. The enhancements a teacher adds to text are the “curriculets”; there can be one or many for any book or piece of content.

Speaking as an educator, Singer told me something in our meeting that startled me. Apparently, among 5th grade kids, 75 percent do a chunk of pleasure reading at least twice a week. By 12th grade, that number has dropped to 20 percent. So we lose two-thirds of the kids who are pleasure readers over the course of their junior high and high school educations. This is not only a great failure of our educational system, it is a big loss to publishers. They have an enormous collective interest in collaborating with schools in every way they can to make their books available in an environment where kids will be encouraged to read and enjoy them.

But, again, we come back to the challenges of book prices and school budgets. Singer told us a story about a teacher who wanted to teach “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. But buying 150 copies of the printed book was a non-starter. Schools can’t afford to make that investment except in books that they are absolutely confident will be taught year after year. So the same books continue to be taught. Each year they replace some fraction of the copies of “Scarlet Letter” or “Huckleberry Finn” that have worn out, but they never have to replace them all. And they know each new teacher will be comfortable teaching those books. So they continue and, as Singer explained, that’s why today’s kids read many of the same books in school that their parents and grandparents read.

So far, the digital book business for schools has only really been penetrable by companies with enough content of their own to make a license make sense, namely Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Because Penguin Random House is about half the trade market, they could conceivably do the same as ebook use matures. But just about everybody else depends on aggregators to deliver a selection of books large enough to make it make sense for a school district (let alone a classroom) to purchase a license. Consensus around trading terms for ebooks in schools has been slow to develop because of the fear publishers have that the digital copies in such a community setting (loaded with smart kids who might be aspiring — or extremely capable — hackers) could be dangerous to the future sales of that title in digital form.

But at the same time that Curriculet is offering a big advantage to the teachers with the capabilities of its platform, it also offers great comfort to the publishers whose ebooks it wants to use. Part of publishers’ motivation in charging standard (or even higher) prices to schools than to individuals is the (misplaced or not) fear of rampant piracy. Aside from the danger of them being hacked and broadly distributed, they could end up on a kid’s device for lifetime use even if they aren’t spread around.

None of these problems arise with the Curriculet platform. The book lives there; it isn’t taken off it. The student can read it as long as Curriculet allows them to read it; beyond that, they can’t. So publishers can be a bit more adventurous about what they allow into the platform and about the pricing models they explore. The good news for them is that teachers will be convening on Curriculet to share data and teaching insights; there’s a good chance they’ll be telling each other about books and sharing the teaching materials they’ve developed around the books (so they can find things the way I found “Wonder”). That means publishers will find being on Curriculet provides marketing impetus for a book. The better news is that the resulting discovery will turn into sales, not pass-alongs, because access to the content is controlled through the platform.

It’s a long way from a reality because Curriculet, now in beta, will only really hit the market later this spring. But this is a helpful development for schools and for publishers and it, or something like it, is promising for the future of publishers’ revenues from the school market.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same. If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business. Verticalization may work, as it has seemed to for Allromanceebooks but just being “indie-curated” wasn’t enough for Books on Board, a pretty longtime player that expired last year. (So far, Diesel, a comparable indie, is hanging in there.)

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

Apple opened their ebook store because they thought they had a suitable device for book consumption (the iPad), but they also had experience with selling content before (iTunes). They also see potential for iPads in the school and university markets, so they have developed technology to enable more complex books — the kind that haven’t been successful commercially yet — to be developed for their platform. Establishing their devices and the iOS ecosystem in the education market would be a big win for them.

Google recognized over a decade ago that books, being repositories of information that contained the best response to many searches, were a world they wanted to be in. With their growing position in devices — the Nexus 7 phone and Chromebook computers — and as the developers of the Android ecosystem that competes with iOS in the app market, there are many ways that being in the ebook business complements other endeavors, including, perhaps, competing with Apple and iOS in the schools.

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

Of course, ebooks definitely complement Barnes & Noble’s core business. You have a pretty obvious deficiency if you run a bookstore and don’t sell ebooks, so everybody manages to do it somehow or other. Among the mistakes Borders is accused of having made before they disappeared was turning their ebook business over to Kobo. Doubts about the future of Waterstones in the UK include whether it was wise to turn their ebook business over to Amazon. If Barnes & Noble didn’t have Nook, they’d have to make a deal with whoever did have Nook, or with somebody else.

I’m sure Apple or Kobo or Google would be just delighted to have their ebooks integrated into Barnes & Noble’s suite of offerings, and probably Amazon would too, although they would almost certainly never be asked. All of them have shown interest in affiliating with indie stores, with Google having gone in and out, Kobo now trying hard with them, and, even Amazon, which can’t penetrate indies effectively with their own published books now offering them an affiliate program to sell Kindle ebooks called Amazon Source. But surely all of them would jump at the chance to expand their distribution to Barnes & Noble customers.

It is likely that B&N believes that the Nook business can only be truly successful if they keep investing in improved devices and create a global presence. That may be true, but it also might be that Nook can be a useful adjunct to their store business without continually adding devices or creating a presence outside the US where there are no B&N stores. More and more people are comfortable reading on multi-function devices through apps. Maybe B&N could profitably hold on to a core Nook audience by emphasizing synergies with the stores more (bundling print and ebooks, like Amazon does with its Matchbook initiative and as has been tried on a smaller scale by some publishers, would be one such way) and not worrying so much about making Nook competitive with the other ebook retailers as a stand-alone business.

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.) Kobo has made it a pillar of their strategy to find brick-and-mortar partners all over the world.

On a global basis outside the English-language world, the ebook business is still in its infancy. But it is hard to see how any player without a strong English-language presence could develop the scale to compete with those who have it. Every nation and language will have local bookstore players who have “first claim” on the book-readers in their locality. Some might harbor ambitions to also own their local ebook business, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks cannibalize bookstore shelf space. But the cost in cash and time of doing it, combined with the competitive advantage of having English-language books in the offering no matter what language your target market reads, will make a build-it-yourself strategy increasingly unattractive. So it would seem that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo are positioned to grow organically and partner ubiquitously. And it will require some seriously disruptive event, like Walmart buying Barnes & Noble, to break the hold that quartet will have on the global ebook market over the next decade.

A potential disruptive development which this piece ignores is the possibility that ebooks become largely a subscription business over the next decade. I have two overarching thoughts on that.

One is that the book-by-book purchasing habit is sufficiently ingrained that it will not be changed drastically around ebooks in the next ten years. I have no idea what percentage of the ebook market is now subscription, but I think it is safe to say “far less than 1%”. So my instinct is that it would take wild success for it to get to as much as 10% in the next ten years.

The other thing to remember is that any ebook retailer can always develop a subscription offering. Amazon effectively started already that with Kindle Owners Lending Library. You can be sure that if Oyster or 24Symbols starts gathering a substantial share of the market, all of the Big Four as we see them here will find a way to compete for that segment. (It is considerably harder to go the other way around; it is much less likely that Oyster or 24Symbols will open regular stores.)

So whether subscription grows faster or not, the giants of ebook retailing will remain the same.

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Book publishing may not remain a stand-alone industry and book retailing will demonstrate that first


You are missing some good fun if you don’t know those AT&T commercials where the grown-up sits around a table with a bunch of really little kids and asks them questions like “what’s better: faster or slower?” There always seems to be an obvious “correct” answer. Those kids could answer some important questions about ebook retailing in the future like these:

“What’s better? Selling just ebooks or selling ebooks and print books?”

“What’s better? Selling in just one country or in all countries?”

“What’s better? Selling just books or selling books and lots of other things too?”

“What’s better? Having one way to get revenue, like selling books with or without other stuff, or having lots of ways to get revenue so that books are only a part of the opportunity?”

And the answers to those simple questions, so obvious that a 5-year old would get them right, explain a lot about the evolving ebook marketplace and, ultimately, about the entire world of book publishing.

Book retailing on the Internet, let alone an offer that is ebooks only, hardly cuts it as a stand-alone business anymore. The three companies most likely to be in the game and selling ebooks ten years from now are Amazon, Apple, and Google. The ebook business will not be material to any of them — it is only really close to material for Amazon now — which is why we can be sure they will see no need to abandon it. It is a strategic component of a larger ecosystem, not dependent on the margin or profit it itself produces. And the rest of their substantial businesses assure they’ll still be around as a company to run that ebook business.

Kobo is owned by Rakuten, a large Japanese online retailer. They started a global  expansion in 2005, buying up ecommerce companies in different key markets, including Buy.com in the US. They also have invested in Pinterest. I don’t know what it is, but I have to believe that deep in Rakuten’s strategic consciousness there is a larger reason for them to have Kobo, probably based in the opportunities inherent in having a consumer’s email address and credit card information and knowledge of what s/he reads. So they also have a base bigger than the ebook business.

Barnes & Noble demonstrates the principle that books alone and one market alone just aren’t enough. They were able to use their US store presence to jump-start the Nook, but after they grabbed the low-hanging fruit among their store customers for digital reading, they quickly ran out of steam. Without a global presence and without a strong online store (BN.com has been deficient, and an albatross, for years), they just don’t have the ballast to be competitive. And that’s a shame, because B&N is the player that could make the most powerful consumer offer in the book space. They have online and offline, print and digital, but it really hurts them that the execution of offline print isn’t up to competing with Amazon and the overall coordination that would maximize the power of all these capabilities is not in evidence.

This is a totally conceptual theory being posited here, not one with any data to support it. And it is not based on the value of the consumer proposition, although it does seem to me that the “right answers” to the questions in the lead can be formulated strictly from the consumer perspective. The thinking is that book retailing, and particularly ebook retailing, is doomed to being a low-margin business. As such, it is much easier to sustain and support if there is benefit to be gained that goes beyond the margin that can be captured from those sales.

This has really been Amazon’s secret sauce from the beginning. The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.

Google and Apple are similarly situated in that way and profits (or losses) from ebook retailing don’t even rise to the level of a rounding error for them. Their ebook retailing operations exist in service to larger initiatives: search and Nexus 7 and the whole Google Play content offering in Google’s case; making devices more useful and complementing the iTunes and apps offerings in Apple’s. Their ecosystems are much larger than their ebook businesses and they benefit just from the ebook business being there.

And they’re global. As is Kobo, and Rakuten presumably has an ecosystem play in mind, although it isn’t evident yet.

This is a paradigm that leaves Barnes & Noble out in the cold. Their business, on which they must make money, is selling books. They are trying to diversify their merchandise selection a bit in their stores, but that’s a strategy that is both difficult to execute and has nowhere near the upside that Amazon, Google, and Apple have with their other businesses. This is an unfair fight where B&N is dependent on margins from their ebook (and book) sales while their competitors, if perhaps not totally content to break even on that business, aren’t materially affected if they do, or even if they lose a bit of money on that aspect of their business.

All of this is good for publishers, who benefit from having lots of retailers.

But publishers are bound to face the same problem due to atomization. As the share of the book market — print or digital — reached by online retailers grows (and it is perhaps past 50 percent for fiction already), it makes it easier and easier to put book content into the marketplace and have it reach a substantial percentage of its potential audience. Ambitious self-publishing authors have been reaping the benefits of this reality in growing numbers for the past several years; now entities ranging from newspapers and magazines to ad agencies and colleges and manufacturers are discovering the same opportunity.

In other words, publishing — like book retailing — is likely to become a subsidiary function pursued in strategic support of larger goals. Unlike in retailing, this will not be consolidated among a few players, but as widely scattered as the subjects about which books are produced. But the core challenge for the legacy publishing establishment, that they will increasingly face competition that doesn’t need the profits from that activity as much as they do, will be the same. Book publishing as a stand-alone industry with most of its significant players earning all their profits within it is in the process of morphing into something quite different, starting with the retailers.

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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. 

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