eBooks

The latest marketplace data would seem to say publishers are as strong as ever


This post began being written a couple of weeks ago when I recalled some specific misplaced expectations I had for the self-publishing revolution and started to ponder why things happened the way they did in recent years. It turns out a big part of the answer I was looking for provides clarity that extends far beyond my original question.

For a period of a few years that probably ended two or three years ago, we saw individual authors regularly crashing bestseller lists with self-published works. Some, like Amanda Hocking, parlayed their bootstrap efforts into significant publishing contracts. Others, like Hugh Howey, focused on building their own little enterprise and tried to use the publishing establishment for what it could do that a self-publisher couldn’t. (In what was certainly a very rare arrangement of this kind with a major indie author, Howey made a print-only deal for his bestseller, “Wool”, with Simon & Schuster. And he made foreign territory and language deals and Hollywood deals as well.) And we know that there were, and are, a slew of indie authors who self-publish through Amazon and don’t even bother to buy ISBN numbers to get universal distribution under a single title identifier, effectively keeping them out of bookstores.

All of this was enabled by three big changes to the historical book publishing and distribution ecosystem. One was the rise of ebooks, which simplified the challenge of putting book content into distributable form and getting it into the hands of consumers. The second was the near-perfection of print on demand technology, which enabled even print books to be offered with neither a significant investment in inventory nor the need for a warehouse to store it. And the third was the increased concentration of sales at a single retailer, Amazon. Between print and digital editions, Amazon sells half or more of the units on many titles and, indeed, may be approaching half the retail sales overall for the US industry.

(This is very hard to measure or even get reliable anecdata for. Amazon sells globally. Indeed, one of its great contributions to publishers is pretty seamlessly enabling them to reach export markets through a domestic supplier. But it also means that publishers can tend to see all Amazon sales as “domestic”, even when they’re not. US publishers are often telling us that half their sales are coming from Amazon, but how much of those sales are to offshore accounts is not consciously backed out of the numbers.)

What the rush of indie bestsellers told us a few years ago was that things had changed to the point that a single person with a computer could achieve sales numbers that would please a big corporation going after sales with the tools provided by tons of overhead: careful curation and development, sophisticated production capabilities, teams of marketers and publicists, legions of sales people, and acres of warehouse space. This had not been possible before ebooks. And the market reach of the amateur publisher was extended even further as Amazon’s share of print sales surged as a direct result of retail shelf space declining with Borders’s passing and Barnes & Noble’s shrinkage.

For a period of time that was relatively brief and which now has passed, agents and publishers worried that self-publishing could be appealing to authors they’d want in their ecosystem. The author’s share of the consumer dollar is much higher through self-publishing. And the idea of “control” is very appealing, even if the responsibility that goes with it is real and sometimes onerous.

So, I warned with what felt like prescience, entity self-publishing might present an even greater threat to publishers than independent authors would.

I was thinking about the scale value that publishers brought to producing revenue for books. Historically, that had been about capabilities that only a book publisher would have at its disposal, the tools we referred to earlier. With Ingram then adding a turnkey service called “Spark” to reach the half of the market that was not delivered by Amazon in the US, access to other ebook retailers wherever they are, and enabling print sales around the world, a publisher could “rent” all the infrastructure it would need to reach all the audience there is with two stops: Amazon and Ingram.

The entities that I had my eye on from the book publishers’ perspective were those already in the print content business: newspapers and magazines. They all start out with assets that would seem to lend themselves to creating and promoting books. They have access to vast number of writers, on staff and through work-for-hire arrangements. They have editors on staff as well as the knowledge of how to find and hire more for projects. They have direct online access to a large number of consumers, including the opportunity to know their interests in a very granular way. They have advertisers who could be useful for promoting books or even buying them in bulk.

But despite the fact that there was, indeed, a slew of activity 2-to-4 years ago from a variety of non-book publishing content entities to get into ebooks, there have been no apparent breakthroughs. Nobody has cracked the code. Nobody who is not a book publisher has used the rent-a-scale capabilities to build a sustained book business.

It is not that many haven’t tried, or are still trying. Among those who have been or are still in the game are The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, NBC, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The Boston Globe. They have sometimes worked in conjunction with digital start-ups. For example, the New York Times worked with Vook (now called Pronoun and acquired earlier this year by Macmillan) and Byliner, whose original proposition was “short ebooks”.

There have been a variety of approaches to create the content. Sometimes these publications and websites have recycled their own material or used internal resources. The Boston Globe did an insta-book on Whitey Bulger and some on Boston sports teams, as well as creating a book of photos of Boston that had already run in the paper. (The Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship was commemorated in a book delivered both in print and digital days after they won.) The Star-Tribune used internal staff to execute the mechanics of delivering ebooks. The Boston Globe’s Bulger book, published by Norton in print, showed them that they could do the ebook work themselves.

Obviously, the idea of book programs using magazine brands is not new with the digital age. Decades ago, Hearst, Rodale, and Meredith were all big magazine companies committed to real book programs, which was what it took to support the infrastructure or to form a close relationship with a publisher to provide it. Hearst has had a robust book program for a long time because they once owned the book publishers Morrow and Avon. When they were sold in the mid-1990s, the management saw virtue in maintaining the book program so they teamed up with Sterling Publishing for everything from assists creating the content to all the scaled book publishing functions. The relationship continues to this day, although Hearst also licenses other projects to other publishers. Rodale remains active in both books and magazines, with their own organization doing the books. And Meredith temporarily moved its book program from “independent” to publisher John Wiley. It is now a shadow of its former self.

Even in the simplified age we’re in now, leaning on a publisher with all the pieces in place can be a way to tackle the challenge of having an adequate infrastructure for books. I am currently reading a “Washington Post” ebook on climate change that was published in conjunction with Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher created by literary agent Scott Waxman during the height of the indie publishing ebook fever.

But searching for a surge in this kind of activity generated by the digital revolution consistently takes us back to two and four years ago. In 2012, Random House partnered with the website Politico to deliver four ebooks on the 2012 presidential race. We’re not aware of anything similar taking place this year. The Minnesota Star Tribune was pushing their ebook initiative in 2013. The Boston Globe got into the game in 2011. The Times did a story in 2011 about the phenomenon which covered a Vanity Fair ebook of collected articles about Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation when they were the caught in a scandal. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, loved the whole idea. He loved the idea of publishing articles which had already been fact-checked and copy-edited. “It’s like having a loose-leaf binder and shoving new pages into it.”

The Byliner collaboration with the New York Times was first reported in 2012, and the Times started their initiative with Vook almost simultaneously. At the same time, programs were being announced in the UK by the Guardian and the Financial Times.

All of that inspired the pundit in me to say “watch out”. But there’s been a lot less activity since. It’s worth asking why.

Of course, there are logistical and organizational challenges to just bolting a book publishing program onto an existing content-creating entity. The writers and editors at newspapers and magazines are already fully employed; they’re not looking for additional things to do. And the job specs and incentive arrangements are all about the principal activity. The marketing mechanisms at a periodical publisher are, likewise, fully engaged. So the newspaper or magazine might have more powerful tools for some marketing purposes than a book publisher does, but no book operation inside one of them could get them dedicated to help sell books on anything but the most sporadic and opportunistic basis.

In addition to the fact that the sailors all have existing assignments, a book publishing initiative would also lack a captain. We observed a couple of years ago that one of the great indie publishing successes, a cookbook called “Modernist Cuisine”, carrying a price tag of $625 and published by Microsoft co-founder Nathan Myhrvold, was largely made possible by the leadership of a veteran publisher, Bruce Harris. Yes, Ingram did the “scale” work: printing, warehousing, selling, distributing. And it wouldn’t have been possible without them. But Harris worked out the commercial equations (what should the retail price be, for example) and the marketing campaign that carried it to its success.

There are other veteran publishers like Harris available to be engaged as consultants, but it is also much easier for a single entrepreneur like Myhrvold to make use of one than it would be to have them integrate with an existing organization formed for another purpose.

I asked indie-publishing experts Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson (their weekly “Hot Sheet” newsletter for independent authors is a great resource) for their take on the question I was posing: what happened to all those newspapers and magazine initiatives? Why did it seem that none of them achieved the success I was expecting?

Friedman drew on her experience at Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), which had publishing ambitions based on ebook economies but ultimately abandoned them. She saw the “complications” falling into three buckets.

Clearing rights for projects with multiple authors, which VQR would have been frequently called upon to do, was challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating.

The organizational structure and staffing was far from optimal for a book publishing operation.

The profit potential was too small to make it worth the effort to overcome the other two problems.

But, even accepting all of that,  I’d suggest that the biggest reason this activity was so feverish 2-to-4 years ago and isn’t so much now was revealed first in a vitally important post by hybrid author and helper-of-indies Bob Mayer and then reiterated by the latest report from the Author Earnings website.

Mayer built an impressive business for himself by reissuing titles of his that had previously been successfully published and gone out of print. He spells out clearly what has changed since the days of big indie success and the plethora of entity-based publishing initiatives.

The marketplace has been flooded. An industry that used to produce one or two hundred thousand titles a year now produces over a million. Nothing ages out of availability anymore. Even without POD keeping books in print, ebooks and used books make sure that almost nothing ever disappears completely. And Mayer’s sales across a wide range of titles — his and other authors whom he has helped — reflect the mushrooming competition. They’re down sharply, as are the sales of just about everybody he knows.

What Mayer wrote tended to confirm that the breakthrough indie authors happened far more frequently before the market was flooded. Authors who struck it rich in 2010 and 2011 (like Hugh Howey) were lucky to get in before the glut. Recommending that somebody try to do the same thing in 2013 or 2014 was telling them to swim in a pool with water of a completely different temperature.

On the heels of Mayer’s piece, Author Earnings made discoveries that seemed to startle even them. For those who don’t know, AE is a data collection and analysis operation put together by indie author Hugh Howey teamed with the anonymous analyst “Data Guy”. The AE emphasis is on what the author gets, (“a site for authors by authors” is what they call themselves) with less interest in what publishers want to know: how topline ebook revenues are shifting.

According to the industry’s best analyst, Michael Cader, the most recent AE report shows, for the first time since they’ve been tracking it, a reduction in earnings for indie authors and an increase for published authors. (Cader may have a paywall; here’s another report from Publishing Perspectives.) But even more startling is the shift in revenue. Publishers have booked 65% of Kindle revenues and Amazon Publishing has 10%. They put self-published authors at 20%, which is down from 25% previously.

It is not a big surprise that Amazon Publishing is able to grow its own share of Kindle revenue. But the fact that publishers are holding their own, in the aggregate, while indie authors are not, underscores the challenge that non-publisher books are facing. The title output of publishers has remained relatively flat. The title output of indies has surged. So the per title sales of indie books must be collapsing relative to the publishers’ output.

What this is telling us is that, whatever deficiencies there are in the way publishers are organized for publishing today, they clearly are able to marshal their resources more effectively for book after book than indies can. So, not only does the “entity publisher” have the challenge of refocusing an organization designed for something else to sell books, they’re fighting a tidal wave of competition that enters the market because of the low barriers to entry. In fact, if you were at a newspaper or magazine today and thinking about putting your company into the book business, there would be powerful arguments to follow the Hearst formulation of creating a home inside an established book publisher rather than building a low-overhead operation for yourself. But that option has always been available; it didn’t require a digital revolution to deliver it.

A lot has been made of the fact that big publishers are seeing topline revenue erosion across print and digital. But the ability for readers to consume books has, at best, remained flat (there are so many more distractions immediately available these days) and the number to choose from has exploded. That means the per-title sales are plummeting. Per-title sales are what tell us whether publishers or independent authors can make any money. And the math is clear: it is getting harder and harder to do so, but it seems to be getting harder faster for the indies than it is for the established publishers.

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eBook pricing resembles three dimensional chess


The current round of reporting from major publishers contains some danger signs. Their ebook sales are declining (in dollars and even more dramatically in units) in an ebook market that is probably not declining. The “good” news for the publishers is that print sales are pretty much holding their own, or even growing. And profits are being maintained, which is probably the most important metric in their board rooms. But the bad news is that total revenues are down. And print sales have been buoyed by the consumer excitement for adult coloring books (now spreading to adult “activity” books), so the combined results for many author-driven titles don’t necessarily reflect growth and total unit sales of print plus digital for many titles are almost certainly falling behind expectations

In a complicated marketplace with large unknowns around indie authors and indie books, particularly those that are Amazon-only, it is hard to be definitive about what the cause of this is. (Author Earnings does yeoman work trying to put the two overlapping markets in context.) Certainly, barriers to entry have come down and there are many more books in the marketplace competing for readers that don’t come from the companies the publishers think they’re competing against. But the publishers’ “success” in establishing agency pricing — where the price they set is the price the consumer pays — combined with Amazon’s decision to “respect” agency (at first with no choice but subsequently, after contracts were renegotiated, with apparent enthusiasm) and offer no pricing relief from their share of the book’s sales revenue is almost certainly a major component of the emerging problem.

Amazon doesn’t need big publisher books to offer lots of pricing bargains to their Kindle shoppers; they have tens of thousands of indie-published books (many of which are exclusive to them) and a growing number of Amazon-published books, that are offered at prices far below where the big houses price their offerings. That probably explains why Amazon can see its Kindle sales are rising while publishers are universally reporting that their sales for digital texts, including Kindle, are falling. (Digital audio sales are rising for just about everybody, but that is not an analogous market.)

This is putting agency publishers in a very uncomfortable place. It has been an article of faith for the past few years that there is revenue to unlock from ebook sales if only the pricing could be better understood. Just a bit more revenue per unit times all those ebook sales units is a very enticing prospect for publishers. After the agency settlements liberated publishers from the price limitations Apple had originally insisted on, the immediate tendency was for publishers to push ebook prices even higher.

And since ebooks are sold in a less price-competitive market than we had before agency, Amazon can devote its marketing dollars to cutting prices on the print editions. This undercuts the publishers’ intention to support a diverse (and store-based) retail network and, at the same time, often embarrasses them by making the print book price (set by Amazon) lower than the ebook price (which Amazon makes very clear was set by the publisher).

The fact that this is reducing publisher revenue and each title’s unit sales is concerning. But it is also making it much more difficult to establish new authors at the same time because lots of competing indies are still being launched with low price points that encourage readers to sample them.

It is maintained by many people that there has been a reduction in the rate of surprise breakout books over the past few years because of this pricing as well. This perception would be explained by the fact that price attracts readers to try new authors, and so the new rising talent would more frequently come from the lower-priced indies. Higher ebook prices reduce the speed with which a book can catch on in the marketplace. It feels like there is a consensus in the big houses now that it is harder to create the “surprise” breakouts. (This is a very difficult thing to actually measure.) The “Girl on the Train” phenomenon is always unpredictable, but big publishers still could count on it coming along often enough to keep the sales revenue trend line rising. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales. (Although if they cut prices as a promotion, and they market the promotion, apparently higher-priced print will also benefit from the promotion and see a resulting sales lift.) And singling out some of their ebooks for an ebook price reduction strategy could also raise a red flag with an agent. It is easy to understand a temporary price reduction that is promoted; as an overall pricing strategy it could be seen as a bite out of the author’s ebook earnings at the same time their print sale is threatened with the low-price ebook competition. And while an ebook price-reduction strategy would probably make at least Amazon and Apple, very important trading partners, quite happy, it risks angering others, including perhaps Barnes & Noble but certainly including all the indie bookstores.

On the other hand, the current “strategy” has plenty of risk.

An unpleasant underlying reality seems inescapable: revenues for publishers and authors will be going down on a per-unit basis. This can most simply be attributed to the oldest law there is: the law of supply and demand. Digital change means a lot more book titles are available to any consumer to choose from at any time. Demand can’t possibly rise as fast and, in fact, based on competition from other media through devices people carry with them every day, might even fall (if it hasn’t already). So publishers are facing one set of challenges with their high ebook prices; they’ll create another set if they lower them.

But, unfortunately, lower them they almost certainly must. With more data, we may learn that developing new authors absolutely requires it, particularly in fiction.

Here’s a suggestion for a new pricing routine that might be worth trying in the near term recalling a prior practice from quite a while ago.

There was a period earlier in my career, probably ending in the 1980s, when publishers priced new hardcovers like this: $22.95 until October 1, $24.95 thereafter. The books had the price on a corner of the jacket that could be snipped diagonally on October 1, so that only the $24.95 price would show.

Frankly, in this case the pricing device was not primarily intended to entice the consumer to buy the book before the up-pricing deadline. It was really designed to get the store to place a bigger advance order, for which the applicable discount would be based on the promotional price.

Now big advance orders are not nearly as important as they used to be, nor nearly as common. But there is still a huge dependence on consumers taking a risk on an author, particularly in the first moments after a book comes out. Two or three decades ago, this was the “secret” behind publishers moving an author from a star doing “mass-market originals” (low prices) to a hardcover bestselling author.

So what might be worth a try from the big publishers now would be “promotional ebook pricing” on launch. Make the ebook $3.99 until date X, and then raise it to the “normal” level (which for major publishers, when the hardcover is in the marketplace, would be $12.99 and up.) This is a very painful experiment to try because it will compete against the hardcover at launch, when the publisher is trying to pile up sales to make the bestseller list. It will annoy print booksellers as well.

But publishers have to find a way to put new authors into the market without a millstone of pricing that requires a significant commitment by the reader before they know the author.

Of course, that strategy suggests an even more disruptive reality about ebook pricing: it doesn’t have to remain “set” the way print book pricing does. Because of our convention of printing the publisher’s suggested retail price right on the book’s jacket or paperback cover, it is not really practical to change a book’s price except, occasionally (and less often in these low-inflation times) when a book is reprinted. (In higher-inflation times, we did sometimes employ the practice of “stickering” to increase price, but that was clumsy and impossible to conceal.) But with ebooks, prices can change pretty much as often as you like: up, down, and up again.

In fact, that already happens with promotional pricing such as has been pioneered by the email service, BookBub. The BookBub idea — emailing a subscriber list with notice of price promotions on ebooks — has been copied highly successfully by HarperCollins with their proprietary version, BookPerk, and to a lesser extent by other publishers as well. It is becoming established practice to temporarily lower the price of a title to get it ranked higher and then to raise the price and try to capture higher-revenue sales with the hyped “branding” the promotion created. So far, this is done with a clear game plan, such as discounting the first book in a series, or the most recent book in a series when a new title is about to come out.

But uncoupling the ebook pricing completely from print pricing, which seems to be where we will inevitably go, may also mean — it certainly can mean — all ebook pricing becomes dynamic. All of this definitely raises the bar for publisher knowledge of how consumers react to prices in different situations. It has been a widespread article of faith that retailers “understand” this behavior and publishers don’t. To the extent that retailers do understand it, they see it through a different lens; they almost never care about the impact of price changes on the overall sales curve for a single title. Titles are interchangeable for retailers and not for publishers. So while it is true that publishers have a lot to learn, it is probably not true that retailers already know it.

The points I wanted to make in this post were that publishers should contemplate uncoupling ebook pricing from print pricing, learn more about consumer behavior around pricing, and master the skill of managing (strategically and operationally) LOTS of ebook price changes all the time. There is another point herein, made in passing, that is worth deeper consideration on another day. Big publishers are seeing their revenue decline but their profits rise. Does that point to a strategy? For how long can publishers cut costs faster than revenues, particularly per-unit revenues, decline? Maybe for quite a while…

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The “Big Change” era in trade book publishing ended about four years ago


Book publishing is still very much in a time of changing conditions and circumstances. There are a host of unknowables about the next several years that affect the shape of the industry and the strategies of all the players in it. But as publishers, retailers, libraries, and their ecosystem partners prepare for whatever is next, it becomes increasingly evident that — from the perspective of trade publishing at least — we have already lived through the biggest period of transition. It took place from sometime in 2007 through 2012.

At the beginning of 2007, there was no Kindle. By the end of 2011, there was no Borders. And by the end of 2012, five of America’s biggest publishers were defending themselves from the US Department of Justice. The arrival of Kindle and the exit of Borders are the two most earthshaking events in the recent history of book publishing and its ecosystem. The Justice Department suit first distracted and then ultimately strait-jacketed the big publishers so it was both difficult to focus and then difficult to react to further marketplace changes.

Paying close attention to what we then called “electronic publishing” started for me in the early 1990s, with a conference other consulting colleagues and I organized for Publishers Weekly which we called “Electronic Publishing and Rights”. This was before Amazon existed. It was when the big transition taking place was from diskettes to CD-Roms as the means of storage. And it was even before Windows, so the only device on which you could view on a screen anything that looked at all like a book was a Macintosh computer, which had literally a sliver of the market. The most interesting ebook predecessor was the Voyager Expanded Book, and it could only be used on a Mac.

In this speech I gave in 1995, I put my finger on the fact that online would change all this and that publishers shouldn’t spend too much energy on CD-Roms.

The period from then until when it was clear Kindle was establishing itself — the awareness that it was for real slowly dawned on people throughout the year 2008 — was one where the inevitability of some big digital change was generally acknowledged. But dealing with it was the province of specialists operating alongside the “real business” and largely performing experiments, or getting ready for the day when it might matter. There was a slow (and inexorable) shift from store-purchasing to online purchasing. And the online purchasing almost all went to Amazon. But even that wasn’t seen as particularly disruptive. Neither ebooks nor online purchasing called for drastic changes in the way publishers saw their business or deployed their resources.

The first important new device for books in 2007 didn’t start out as one at all. It was the iPhone, first released in June of that year. Although Palm Pilots were the ebook reader of choice for a big chunk of the then-tiny ebook community, they lacked connectivity. The iPhone was not seen as an ereader when it came out — indeed, Apple head Steve Jobs still believed at that point that ebooks were not a market worth pursuing — but they could, and did, rapidly become one when it was demonstrated that there was a market. And they vastly expanded the universe of people routinely paying for downloaded content, in this case music from the iTunes store.

Then Kindle launched in November of 2007. A still unannounced number of Kindles sold out in a few hours and Amazon remained out of stock of them for several months! Because the original Kindle was $399, it was only a “good deal” for the consumer who read many books on which they could save money by buying electronic. What this meant was that Kindle owners bought ebooks in numbers much greater than the relatively small number of devices placed would have suggested. Throughout 2008, the awareness dawned on the industry that ebooks were going to be a significant business.

And that awareness rapidly shook loose a raft of competition. Barnes & Noble saw that they had to compete in this arena and started a crash program to deliver the Nook, which first appeared almost precisely two years after the first Kindle, in November 2009. Months earlier, Amazon had released the app that put Kindle on the iPhone. Meanwhile, Jobs had become persuaded to take ebooks seriously, and, anyway, he had a store selling content downloads to devices like crazy. Now, about to launch his new tablet format, the iPad, he had what looked like the perfect vehicle with which to launch ebooks. The iPad and the iBookstore debuted in April 2010. A month later, Kobo entered the market as a low-priced alternative with their first device. And by the end of the year, Google reorganized and rebranded what had been Google Editions into Google eBooks. The original concept was that they would populate the readers that were using epub, which meant Nook and Kobo at that time.

All of this change within three calendar years — 2008 through 2010 — created a blizzard of strategic decisions for the publishers. Remember, before all this, ebooks were an afterthought. Amazon had applied pressure to get publishers into the Kindle launch in 2007. Before that, no publisher that I can recall made any effort to have ebooks available at the time a book was initially launched. There were workflow and production changes (XML FIRST!) being contemplated that would make doing both print and digital editions a less onerous task, but they were seldom fast-tracked and doing ebooks meant taking on and managing a book-by-book conversion project.

During the period when Amazon was pretty much alone in the game (the pre-Amazon market leaders, Sony and Palm, faded very quickly), they started pricing Kindle titles aggressively, even willing to take losses on each sale to promote device sales and the ecosystem. This alarmed publishers, who were seeing small Kindle sales grow at what were frightening rates and raising the spectre of undermining their hardcovers. It didn’t hurt that the retailers with whom they (still, then, though not now) did most of their business were also alarmed. Nook arrived and Barnes & Noble would never have been as comfortable as Amazon with selling these new products at a loss. But B&N also worried about the impact that cheap ebooks might have on more expensive print book sales. Amazon didn’t.

So when Apple proposed in late 2009 and early 2010 that there could be a new way to sell called “agency” which would put retail pricing power for ebooks into the publishers’ hands, it met a very receptive audience of publishers.

And that, in turn, led to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the big publishers which was instituted in April of 2012.

Coinciding with and enabled by all of this was the huge growth in author-initiated publishing. Amazon had bought CreateSpace, which gave them the ability to offer print-on-demand as well as Kindle ebooks. The combination meant that a huge audience could be reached through them without any help from anybody else. When agency happened (2010), they started to offer indie authors what amounted to agency terms: 70 percent of the selling price for ebooks. This was a multiple of the percentage an author would get through a publisher.

Agency pricing fell right into Amazon’s and the self-published hands. Getting 70 percent on the ebook, the indie author got $2.10 pricing at $2.99 and $2.80 pricing at $3.99, royalties comparable to what they’d get from full-priced print. Many bestselling indie ebooks were priced at $0.99. The very cheap ebooks indie authors would offer juxtaposed against the publisher’s agency up-priced (many at $14.99) and undiscounted branded books created a market opening that allowed the Kindle audience to sample (aside from the free chapter that is standard in ebooks) cheap ebook authors for peanuts. Suddenly, names nobody had heard before were on the map, selling millions of ebooks, and taking mindshare away from the industry’s output. And it also handed the publishers’ authors an alternative path to market that could only have the effect of improving their negotiating position with the publishers.

Meanwhile, Borders sent the most persuasive possible signal that the shift in sales from stores to online, accelerated by the ebook phenomenon, was really damaging. They went out of business in 2011. That took the account that sold upwards of 10 percent of most publishers’ books, and a far greater percentage of the bookstore shelf space for backlist, off the board. Or, viewed another way, publishers went from two national retailers who could place a big order and put books in front of the core book-buying audience to one.

So the authors’ negotiating position was stronger and so was Barnes & Noble’s.

And all of those events — the devices, the ebook surge, the introduction of the agency business model, and the Department of Justice suing most of the big publishers, a very noticeable rise in successful independent publishing, and the increased leverage of the trading partners with whom publishers negotiate their revenues and their costs — were head and body blows to the titans of the industry. Every one of them threatened the legacy practices and challenged the legacy organizations and resource allocations.

During this period, Random House (the number one publisher) merged with Penguin (the number two publisher) and created a super-publisher that is not far from being as big as the four remaining members of what were called “The Big Six” in 2007. If you are viewing the world from the perspective of HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, or Macmillan, that might have been the biggest development of all.

Compared to the sweeping changes of that era, what has happened since and what is likely to happen in the next couple of years is small beer. There are certainly clear trends that will change things markedly over time.

Amazon continues to grow its share, and they are around 50 percent of the business or more for many publishers these days.

Barnes & Noble is troubled but in no immediate jeopardy and is still, by far, the number one brick-and-mortar account for publishers. But the optimistic view is that their book sales will remain flat in the near future.

Independent bookselling continues to grow, but even with their growth since Borders went down, they are less than 10 percent of the sales for most publishers. It is true that ebook sales for publishers have flattened (we don’t know the overall trend for sure because we don’t really know the indie sales at Amazon, and they’re substantial) and don’t seem likely to grow their share against print anytime soon.

These things seem likely to be as true two years from now as they are now. Nothing felt that way in from 2008-2012.

Digital marketing, including social network presence, is an important frontier. The industry has a successful digital catalog, called Edelweiss, which has obviated the need for printed catalogs, a cost saving many publishers have captured. And another start-up, NetGalley (owned by Firebrand), has organized the reviewer segment of the industry so that publishers can get them digital advance copies of books, which is cheaper and much more efficient for everybody.

Owning and mining email lists is a new skill set that can pay off more each year. Pricing in digital seems to offer great opportunity for improved revenue, if its effects can be better understood. International sales of American-originated books are more accessible than they’ve ever been as the global network created by Ingram creates sales growth opportunities for just about every publisher. That should continue and requires new thinking and processes. Special, or non-traditional, markets increase in importance, abetted by digital marketing. That will continue as well.

Audio, which has been one of the big beneficiaries of digital downloading, will continue to grow too. The problem from the publishers’ perspective is that Audible, owned by Amazon, owns most of that market. So they have a sophisticated and unsentimental trading partner with a lot of leverage controlling a market segment that is probably taking share from print and ebooks.

And with all of this, what will also continue to grow is relentless margin pressure from the publishers’ two biggest accounts: Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

But the challenges of today aren’t about change of the magnitude that was being coped with in the period that ended five years ago. They’re more about improving workflows and processes, learning to use new tools, and integrating new people with new skill sets into the publishing business. And there are a lot of new people with relevant skills up and down the trade publishing organizations now. That wasn’t so much the case when things were changing the fastest, 2007-2012.

It isn’t that there aren’t still many of new things to work on, new opportunities to explore, or long-term decisions to make. But the editor today can sign a book and expect a publishing environment when it comes out in a year or two roughly like the one we have today. The editor in 2010 couldn’t feel that confidence. The marketer can plan something when the book first comes up for consideration and find the plan will still make sense six months later. And while things still very much in flux in sales, a blow comparable to the loss of Borders isn’t on the

Of course, there could always be a black swan about to announce itself.

This post explains why, among other reasons, I will no longer be programming the Digital Book World Conference, as I did for seven years starting with its debut in 2010. At its best, DBW anticipated the changes that were coming in the industry and gave its attendees practical ways to think about and cope with them. Future vision was a key perspective to programming although we always strived to give the audience things they could “take back to the office and use”.

It has been harder and harder over the past couple of years to find the big strategic questions the industry needed answers to. The writing was on the wall last year when most of the publishers I talked to felt confident they understood where books were going; they wanted to hear from other segments of the digital world. That was a sign to me that the educational mission I had in mind for DBW since I started it was no longer in demand.

To their credit, the DBW management, as I understand it, is trying a new vision for the show, more focused on the immediately practical and the hands-on challenges of today. I wish them the best of luck with it.

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The sea change that comes with the latest iteration of the book ecosystem


In the past 10 years (since the mid-2000s), the ebook has arrived and the amount of shelf space for books in physical retail has declined, as book purchasing has continued to move to the Internet. This has put pressure on publishers’ distribution costs, as we discussed in a prior post.

In the 10 years before that (mid-1990s to mid-2000s), online bookselling began at what was, we now know, the very peak of book retailing, when the superstore chains B&N and Borders had built out hundreds of 100,000+-title stores and still owned mall chains Dalton and Walden that had many hundreds of smaller stores. And that was on top of the largest-ever network — many thousands — of independent bookstores, many of which were themselves superstores.

In the 10 years before that (mid-1980s to mid-1990s), Wall Street cash enabled the two big bookstore chains to build out their superstore networks, stocking publishers’ backlists deeply. With so many enormous stores opening, publishers received a bonanza of store-opening orders that went deep into their lists and were relatively lightly returned (until the store-opening process reversed itself 20 years later).

In the 10 years before that (mid-1970s to mid-1980s), the two mall chains (Dalton and Walden) rode the growth of shopping centers to a position of great importance in selling books to the public. They became the drivers of the bestseller lists. In the same decade. Ingram and Baker & Taylor built reliable national wholesaling networks, enabling the chains and a growing number of independents to replenish stock of unsold books quickly, increasing stock turn and profitability for booksellers (and lowering returns to everybody’s benefit).

In the 10 years before that (mid-1960s to mid-1970s), the department stores started to yield their strong position in book sales, victims both of their own structured discipline (open-to-buy rules) about inventory control that reduced their title selection and of the growth of the malls. The malls inadvertently doomed the department store concept (even though department stores were the “anchors” that made malls possible) by enabling specialty retailers of all kinds, including bookstores, to provide a better shopping experience than the department that sold those goods in the department store.

In the 10 years before that (mid-1950s to mid-1960s), an increasingly affluent society saw an ever-expanding number of bookstores while, in that era, mass-market paperbacks became ubiquitous in drug stores and newsstands, vastly increasing the number of places where Americans could find and buy books.

And the 10 years before that, which takes us back to the end of World War II, saw the birth of mass-market paperbacks and the development of modern publishing sales forces in trade houses. This was, in retrospect, the beginning of a half-century of uninterrupted growth for American book publishing. It has not necessarily now come to an end, but the growth of the segment controlled by big publishers may have ended.

What happens now? The online book market is likely more than half of the total book market. That is, books purchased online — print and digital — exceed the number sold in retail stores (obviously all print). Amazon is the single most powerful retailer, and they have also made themselves the first stop for any self-publishing or small-publishing entity that wants to reach readers. Ingram and the bigger publishers offer full-line distribution services to the most ambitious of those and to everybody else who wants to reach the whole book market.

Until the last 10 years, all the developments that affected book publishing tended to grow the availability of books relative to the availability of other media. When mall stores or superstores grew, there was no associated lift for television shows or movies (although recorded music also benefited from the malls). That is no longer the case. For the first time, really, books are competing with everything else you might read or watch or listen to in a way they never did before. Online doesn’t care what is in the file it displays. This is a qualitative difference in the nature of book availability growth compared to everything else that has happened in the lifetimes of anybody in the business.

The fact is that books used to live in a moated ecosystem, independent of what was going on in other media and book readers’ communication streams. Since ubiquitous broadband, that is no longer true. This presents publishers with two challenges they never faced before.

One is to take advantage of the opportunity to promote books to readers by tying them in to other media and events in ways that were never before possible. This is digital marketing promoting discovery. In fact, a greater percentage of the potential audience for any book should know about it within a few months of its publication than ever before, if publishers do their jobs right.

But the other is that publishers need to be alert to changes in book reading habits that are bound to occur because of integrated media. Yes, the publisher can promote the book to somebody watching a related video or reading an email on a related subject. But it is also true that promotion for movies and emails from friends can interrupt a reader in the middle of a chapter if they’re reading online. This is probably changing the way people read books and might even change how they want their books edited and shaped. Publishers who pay attention will see those changes as they occur.

We can interrupt people doing something else now to tell them about a book. But they now, in turn, can easily be interrupted while they’re reading the book. Digital change and media integration cut both ways. It is very early days for this reality. It only really occurs because of the combination of broadband and reading on an Internet-enabled device. That’s a relatively recent and still-growing circumstance. We don’t know where it will lead.

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Things are calmer than they were in the book business, but change is a constant


Among the shifts that have been taking place in publishing houses over the past decade is an increase in the head count dedicated to marketing and a decrease in head count dedicated to sales. This reflects the reduction in the number of bookstore accounts and the transfer of “discovery” from store shelves to digital search.

The reduction in bookstores and the concurrent and related reduction in print books sold in stores also affects how publishers view the economics of the sales departments and the entire support system for print distribution. The big houses still need sales forces and warehouses and sophisticated systems to track inventories and payments and returns but the “throughput” of print from their own publishing programs is declining. For many, that means that distribution clients are increasingly important. They provide the volume to support scaled operations without requiring the publisher to invest in publishing more titles. For at least four of the big five (HarperCollins being an apparent exception), distribution of other publishers’ books, with or without providing the sales force effort, is a critical component of maintaining the volume that keeps unit costs in line.

But that adds risk. Distribution contracts vary in length, but they generally only extend two or three years out. With four major publishers plus Ingram, which has, effectively, five different full distribution options to offer, on the prowl for clients, there is a plethora of choices for any publisher seeking to shed their own fixed-cost distribution or to switch distributors. Indeed, the percentages being charged for distribution services have dropped drastically over the past two decades. The competitive environment is likely to perpetuate that trend.

While the big publishers doing distribution have (so far) tended to insist on fairly large clients, Ingram is using its multiple configurations to try to serve publishers of all sizes and entities that aren’t primarily publishers at all. Today a publisher that is really a literary agency or, before long if not already, a bank, an advertising agency, or a not-for-profit with a mission, can put a book or a list of its own into the book publishing arena with sales and distribution capabilities competitive with the biggest and most experienced publishers. So a revolution that began with Amazon enabling indie authors, starting about ten years ago, to reach a big percentage of the total book market through Kindle and CreateSpace, is being dramatically extended. Going after real bookstore distribution definitely requires incremental investment and marketing savvy, even with the machinery in place to help.

But incremental investment and marketing savvy were always far easier to come by than the machinery has ever been for the small or occasional publisher.

While this levels the playing field in a major way, there are still distinct advantages to size and a B2B publishing brand. The diminishing bookstore shelf space has made the also-diminishing mass merchant (Walmart, Target) shelf space relatively more important. Between the chains — primarily Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million — and independent stores, there are only about 1000 to 1200 points of purchase for books provided by bookstores. There were three to five times that many two decades ago. So the additional thousands of opportunities to put a book in front of the public through the mass merchants are critical, particularly to move bestseller quantities.

But relatively few titles can make the cut for those outlets and the pressure on them to perform quickly is immense. Returns are high. These slots are simply not available to publishers who aren’t recognizable B2B brands with a solid reputation for backing their books effectively. These outlets represent the competitive advantage that remains for the Big Five publishers.

For the past few years, pretty much since the demise of Borders in 2011, the number of bookstores has been going up a bit each year. (It is not clear that the bookstore shelf space has been going up; indie stores seem to be smaller, on average, today than they were two decades ago, or at least there are fewer mammoth ones.) It could well be that, aside from Borders, the indie revival is also fueled by the reduction in shelf space for books at the mass merchants. If so, that is good for smaller publishers and it is good for backlist, both of which are seriously challenged getting in front of the public through mass merchants.

So, while it is definitely true that the dizzying pace of change we saw during the early years of ebooks has subsided, and it is true that the print format has not yielded much share, if any, to ebooks in the past couple of years, it is not time to celebrate a new stability. The marketplace itself is still changing; the online share when you combine print and digital is still growing and the ratio of shelf space available for backlist and slower-sellers is still declining. The smallest publishers are getting better and better market access and the biggest publishers are seeing escalating risk in how they place the books they publish and in the danger they’ll face a sudden decrease in distribution volume that would turn their fixed costs into a burden.

This is a great time in the book business to be very big (among your peer group) or very small and focused. It is a challenging time to be anything else.

A very frequent point of contention when negotiating distribution arrangements is how Amazon will be handled and compensated. Amazon is almost always the single largest account and it is not uncommon for it to represent — on many books and even some publishers — 50 percent or more of the sales. Although sophistication definitely helps in dealing with Amazon, it is also true that Amazon provides incentives to give up the “other half” of the market and just work through them. Any sophisticated businessperson is likely to get more money out of Amazon working it themselves than any distributor can get for them, even before distribution fees. (IF, and this is a big if, you discount the marketing value of books throughout the supply chain which, counterintuitively but frequently, will raise the level of sales at Amazon from what they would have been without books broadly distributed.) In any case, being able to really add value to Amazon sales would be a Holy Grail. Right now, most of the time, distributing publishers really have to make the argument that you can’t effectively split things and that they will add so much value in the rest of the world, and do the work around Amazon, that the overall relationship is worth the trade-off.

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In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?


I first learned and wrote about Hugh Howey about four years ago. At the time, he was one of the first real breakthrough successes as an indie author, making tens of thousands of dollars a month exclusively through Amazon for his self-published futurist novel, “Wool”. As soon as I could track him down, I invited Hugh and his agent, Kristin Nelson, to speak at the next Digital Book World, which they did several months later, in January 2013.

In the years since, Hugh has had a very public profile as a champion of indie publishing and as a critic of big publishers. When I first encountered Howey, he and his agent had already turned down more than one six-figure publishing deal. Nelson ultimately did a print-only deal for “Wool” with Simon & Schuster, a deal consummated before the big publishers made the apparently-universal decision that they would not sign books for which they didn’t get electronic rights.

This week there was a lengthy interview with Howey done by DBW editor Daniel Berkowitz published on the DBW blog. In this piece, Howey reviews many of his complaints against publishers. According to him, their royalty rates are too low and they pay too infrequently and on too much of a delay. Their authors are excluded from Kindle’s subscription revenue at Kindle Unlimited. Their ebook prices to consumers are too high. And, on top of that, they pay too much rent to be in New York City and they pay their big advances to wealthy authors who don’t really need the money, while aspiring authors get token advance payments that aren’t enough to give them time off to write.

Howey’s observations are not particularly welcomed by publishers, but he has a deep interest in indie authors and, by his lights, is always trying to help them by encouraging them to indie-publish through Amazon rather than seeking a traditional deal through an agent. He has organized the AuthorEarnings website and data repository along with Data Guy, the games-business data analyst who has turned his analytical skills to the book business whom we featured at the most recent Digital Book World this past March.

Howey and I have had numerous private conversations over the years. He’s intelligent and sincere in his beliefs and truly devotes his energy to “industry education” motivated by his desire to help other authors. Yet there are holes in his analysis of the industry and where it is going that he doesn’t fill. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much) for his own books as well as his commercial performance, it is easy to understand why he would never consider publishing any other way but as he has, as an indie author who is “all in” with Amazon. But he seems to think what worked well for him would work best for anybody.

In this interview, Howey says that any author would be better off self-publishing his or her first book than going the route of selling it to a publisher. And he actually dismisses the marketing effort required to do that. Howey says the best marketing is publishing your next book. He thinks the best strategy is for authors to write several books a year to gain success. In fact, he says taking time away from writing to do marketing is a bad choice. Expecting most writers, or even many writers, to do several books a year strikes me as a highly dubious proposition.

It is impossible to quarrel with the fact of Howey’s success. But he makes a big mistake assuming that what worked effectively for him makes self-publishing the right path for anybody else, let alone everybody else.

Howey also has an unrealistically limited view of the output of big publishing. If you read this interview (and I would encourage anybody interested in the book business to do so), you see that he thinks almost exclusively about fiction or, as he puts it, “storytelling”. Books come, like his did, out of an author’s imagination and all the author needs is the time to write. Exposure through Amazon does the rest.

He gives publishers credit for putting books into stores (although he would have them eliminate returns, which would cut down sharply on how effectively they accomplished that). But he thinks stores will be of diminishing importance. (We certainly agree on that.) He gives credit for the indie bookstore resurgence to Amazon, which would be true if you credit Amazon with the demise of Borders that wiped out over 400 big bookstores and created new opportunities for indies. But the idea that Amazon is allied with indie bookstores is contradicted by two realities. One is that the indie stores won’t stock Amazon-published books. The other is that Amazon, now in the process of opening its second retail store, may plan dozens, hundreds, or thousands more to come! We really don’t know. Certainly, very few indie bookstores would be applauding that.

Here’s how Howey sums up his advice to authors.

“Too few successful self-pubbed authors talk about the incredible hours and hard work they put in, so it all seems so easy and attainable. The truth is, you’ve got to outwork most other authors out there. You’ve got to think about writing a few novels a year for several years before you even know if you’ve got what it takes. Most authors give up before they give themselves a chance. It’s similar to how publishers give up on authors before they truly have a chance.”

This seems like sound advice, but it isn’t how it appeared to work for Howey. He published a novella which was the start of Wool and his Amazon audience asked for more. Three more novellas later, over a period of just a few months, and the four combined became his bestselling novel. Six months after he started, he was making $50,000 a month or more and had an agent selling his film rights. Then his agent started selling his book rights in non-US territories and in other languages. Meanwhile, Howey continued to earn 70 percent of the revenues from his ebooks, in a deal Amazon offered that matched what they paid to agency publishers, the biggest publishers. (Would Amazon be paying authors 70 percent if publishers hadn’t come up with that number for agency? Should big publishers get some of the credit for the very good deal indie authors are getting?)

The logic that Howey offers about how self-publishing stacks up against doing deals with a big house is very persuasive, but there are two pieces of reality that contradict it.

One is that, at this time, four years after Howey did “Wool” and eight years after the launch of Kindle, there are no noteworthy authors who have abandoned their publishing deals for self-publishing. (It appeared briefly that Barry Eisler was the first such author, except that it turned out he signed an Amazon Publishing deal after turning down a Big Six contract; he didn’t go indie. And, frankly, while he’s somewhat successful, he’s not a show-stopper author for any publisher.) In fact, Amazon’s own publishing strategy has apparently switched away from trying to persuade big commercial fiction authors to do that and is focused on the genre fiction that is the core of the self-publishing done through them. Howey has been offering the same analysis for quite a few years now but so far, the publishers have lost hardly anybody they care to keep to self-publishing. And we’re now in a period where the split of books sold online (ebooks and print) to books sold in stores (where publishers are beyond helpful; they’re necessary) appears to have stabilized — at least for the time being — after years of stores losing share.

The other is that Howey’s analysis totally leaves out one of the biggest categories of publishing: big non-fiction like history or biographies or industry analyses that take years of research and dedication to complete. Unlike a lot of fiction, those books not only take time, they require serious help and expense to research. In a imagined future world where all books are self-published, aspiring fiction writers give up very little (small advances) and successful fiction authors have the money to eat while they write the next book they can make even more money on doing it the Howey way (even though none have). But big non-fiction books like Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” (or anything by David McCullough) took years of research to put together. “Dark Money” was undoubtedly financed at a very high level by the Doubleday imprint at Penguin Random House. How books like that will be funded in the future is not covered by Howey’s analysis.

Now, that’s not to say they must be. Economic realities do rule. Howey’s thesis that things are shifting in Amazon’s direction and away from the ecosystem that has sustained big book publishers is correct. He predicts that there will be three big publishers where once there were six and now there are five. I concur with that. As that happens, maybe the big fiction writers will take Howey’s advice.

But that solution is no solution for authors like Jane Mayer or David McCullough. A world without publishers where authors do the writing and the publishing might give us an output of fiction comparable to what we have now. But the biggest and best non-fiction would need another model if publishers weren’t able to take six-figure investment risks to support them. Amazon’s not offering it and neither is Howey. If the future unfolds as Howey imagines it, we’ll never know what books we’re missing.

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A first at this blog: walking back the assumptions that were the basis of the last post


In the few days since the last post here about Big Five publishers and agency pricing, I have been challenged on two specific points by comments sent privately. Both of these comments are right and therefore lead to this corrective post.

One powerful literary agent, who is inevitably informed by publishers about negotiations that affect the selling prices of ebooks (which, in turn, affect the author royalty), tells me that I have the whole motivation thing on agency backwards. It may have started six years ago as a way for publishers to control the prices of ebooks across the supply chain, so something they were “imposing” on Amazon. But that turned around. It became a way for Amazon to guarantee that they would get a full margin on all agency publishers’ ebook sales (because publishers could lower the ebook price, but the stipulated agency percentage would not be affected). So, in the recent negotiations, the big publishers had no choice about sticking with agency. Amazon insisted that they stick with agency.

The grapevine, although not this agent, also says that the original 70-30 split of revenues that agency began with has been revised in the recent contracts so that Amazon gets a wee bit more than 30 percent. I can’t verify that although, in time, agents should be able to see that picture clearly.

I have had no conversations with any friends in big houses during the recent agency negotiations. The sensitivity around those negotiations, given that they started because of the DoJ’s involvement, was very high. But now I’m being told by people in a position to know that four of the five big publishers think agency has been a big mistake. As one observer sees it, it has bled 25% out of digital sales that have been replaced by physical, resulting in an increased share for Amazon of the print portion of publishers’ businesses.

As it was put to me by one observer, agency in 2010 was a strategy; by 2015 it was a surrender.

The other challenge was a pushback against my claim that print book sales overall are rising. The commenter pointed out that more than the entire print book sales increase shown in industry stats can be accounted for by the rise in sales of adult coloring books, a category which has taken a big leap forward in the past 12 months. For one thing, it is impossible to predict with any accuracy whether or for how long those sales will sustain. But, more importantly, the sales of print that do not include adult coloring books, which have no ebook equivalents and are the good fortune of a few selected companies, are still declining.

So crediting “success” at arresting the print book sales decline to the rise in major publisher ebook prices is also a mistake.

It turns out that the real story of “agency pricing today” is that Amazon demonstrated dazzling marketplace power by keeping all the big publishers on agency terms. And all of the changes in the marketplace, including the degree by which the divison sales within Big Five houses between print and digital may have tilted in favor of print, probably work in Amazon’s favor.

This is the first time in seven years of writing this blog that I have walked back the thrust of a whole post. Ironically, the overall point to what I wrote, questioning whether agency pricing is a good thing for publishers, is correct. What I didn’t know is that most of the publishers have already figured that out but are helpless against a customer so powerful that it dictates the terms.

There is still useful insight in the original, particularly around what might or might not be worthy of anti-trust consideration. But the two core premises — that publishers forced Amazon to accept agency and that doing that had made their print sales go up — are definitely questionable.

The only thing worse than making a mistake is not correcting it.

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If Amazon pricing of ebooks is the problem, is agency actually the right solution?


In the past week, I’ve had conversations with leading executives at two of Amazon’s competitors in the ebook space. They had strikingly different takes on whether the agency pricing regime, which is now in place by contract with all five of the biggest trade publishers, helps keep competitive balance in the ebook marketplace or prevents it.

Agency pricing was promulgated by Apple for the opening of the iBookstore in 2010. What it meant was that publishers would set a price that was “enforced” across the retail network. Apple liked this because it meant both that they didn’t have to price-compete with Amazon and because they didn’t have to think about pricing hundreds of thousands of items on a daily basis. (And it fit the model Apple used to sell other media.) Publishers liked it because they feared the erosion of print sales that cheap ebooks might lead to and because it seemed that level prices might reduce what was then Amazon’s stranglehold on the ebook market.

As we know, the Department of Justice interceded because they saw the Apple-publisher agreements as collusive. The DoJ cares most about price; discounting is a good thing unless it is “predatory”. If companies get together to prevent low prices, that’s clearly bad. So the short-term remedy was to enable retailers to discount off agency prices. That pretty immediately stopped the decline in Amazon’s ebook market share, which started to grow again once discounting was reinstated.

Now the big publishers have replaced the original agency agreements with new ones that appear satisfactory to the court because they were obviously separately negotiated. And the new ones seem to allow at least some of them more flexibility to set and enforce higher prices than the numbers in the original Apple-promulgated deals. And all of that has led to a reconfigured marketplace.

The good news for the publishers is that print sales erosion — at least for the moment — seems to have been stopped. (Print sales started to grow even before “new Agency”; when higher prices hit the ebook market, print was immediately assisted.) A variety of industry and company sales statistics seem persuasive on that point. The percentage of revenues coming from ebooks for big publishers has declined and the sales of print have risen. And there is even some anecdotal evidence suggesting that bookstore retail shelf space is increasing again. Even if that is true, it is an open question whether it is sustainable, or whether it is a delayed and temporary marketplace response to the shuttering of 400 giant Borders stores, which occurred in 2011. Bookstores might also be helped by the diminishing book shelf space at mass merchants, a venue where print continues to lose ground.

But there is also some good news for Amazon in how all this has worked out. Their market share on the ebook side is rising. Their margins on the ebook side must have gone up even more, since they’re being “forced” to keep the margin they earn on Big Five ebook sales. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if Amazon’s internal calculations are that they can afford more losses on their Kindle Unlimited subscription program because of the margin they’re earning on the Big Five single-title sales? We can only guess…) And certainly Amazon benefits from the increased sales of print.

In fact, they could be partly responsible for it. All the searches on Amazon for Big Five books show an agency-priced ebook with a highly-discounted print book, often cheaper than the ebook, alongside of it. How much of the print book sales increase is due to the reaction of consumers being presented with that choice?

(Let’s remember how much of a “better deal” it is for the consumer to buy print if the prices are the same or close. The print book can decorate a bookshelf. It can be resold, which the ebook can’t be, or at least can’t be yet.)

Only Barnes & Noble can even attempt to meaningfully compete with Amazon in this environment. The price-sensitive book consumer needs to see both the ebook and the print book to make a wise purchasing decision. They won’t see that at Kobo, Google, or Apple’s iBookstore.

So competing with Amazon on price is confined to B&N on print and confined to non-agency titles — which means only a sliver of the bestseller list — for everybody else. So, is everybody happy? Publishers are selling more print, which they wanted. There’s growth in the indie store base, which publishers also wanted. But Amazon continues to grow market share in relation to Barnes & Noble and now threatens to open bookstores to compete with B&N and the indies. And that is most definitely not what publishers wanted.

Is there any way to achieve both robust competition for Amazon and also to protect print books from being cannibalized by much cheaper ebooks?

The conversations I had this past week with two of the competitors to Amazon surfaced diametrically opposite opinions about whether agency was helpful or not in that regard.

One ebook executive suggested that the Big Five publishers should stick to the agency pricing margin but should do it on wholesale pricing terms. That person encouraged me to think through this proposition: what if those ebooks were sold to the accounts at 70 percent of the publisher’s price (or even a bit more), but without any restrictions on discounting?

The other believes that price-competing with Amazon is a game that is impossible to win and that there is clear evidence from the experience in the UK market, where several ebook players tried to undercut Amazon on price, that it is not an effective strategy.

The advocate for the wholesale model, which would allow discounting by retailers up to whatever the authorities decide is “predatory” (and that definition is anything but clear), believes that Amazon is being given a free ride. Of their competitors, it would seem that only Google and Apple would have the deep pockets to fight Amazon by sacrificing margin, but either of them certainly could and it would certainly be, at the very least, a big nuisance to Amazon if they did.

This raises again the question of what discounting would be permissible before the discounting would be labeled “predatory”. There is no definitive answer. Some believe that retailers are not permitted to discount below their own cost (although, even then, it is not clear whether that means on a per-title basis or across all their ebook purchases and sales or some other basis). By that interpretation, if an ebook were listed at $15.99 and sold at a wholesale price of $11.19 (70 percent), there could be a legal risk that pricing below that point could be considered “predatory”. In fact, ebook pricing flexibility is such that publishers could make that same ebook $18.99 for the first month ($13.29 wholesale), when the print is fighting for bestseller status.

(It should be noted here that Amazon sold Kindle ebooks at well below cost in the days before they had competition, as a carrot to get customers to buy Kindle e-readers, which were originally priced at $400. By doing so, they made the reader-and-content equation attractive to the people who bought the most books. The DoJ and Judge Cote said that Amazon’s pricing at that time was not predatory, but the Supreme Court could, at least theoretically, change that understanding. And, in fact, Amazon has continued to behave as though the $9.99 price point is the “right” ceiling for ebooks, even as the device-and-content equation has changed with considerably lower Kindle device prices and a plethora of multi-function devices having changed the market.)

Big 5 players going to wholesale could change the ebook marketplace in two ways. One is that it would unleash Google and Apple — both of which have plenty of cash — to discount aggressively to compete with Amazon. At the very least, that would diminish Amazon’s margin as they compete on price and it might also reduce their unit sales. It could also lead to the smaller publishers now selling wholesale to attempt to reduce their discounts. And that could lead to Amazon using its market power to resist a reduction in margin. That could be construed as an abuse of marketplace power, which is another test for anti-trust.

An anti-trust lawyer explained it to me this way. The analysis is more nuanced than just looking at whether prices are lowered. Generally, the antitrust enforcers do look favorably on practices that result in lower prices.

That being said, the goal of antitrust is broader: it is to protect the competitive process. It can get complicated in two-sided or multi-sided markets where prices might be low on one side of the market, but the platform uses its power on the other side of the market to harm competition. In the case of Amazon, one side of the market faces the consumer and the other faces the publisher.

It’s particularly problematic if the conduct locks in participants, raises barriers to entry, or results in the platform extracting more than its fair share on the other side of the market.

By that measure, perhaps the most problematic aspect of Amazon’s commercial terms could be the requirement for exclusivity to be part of the Kindle Unlimited subscription program. That keeps titles away from competitors.

But going to wholesale is not viewed as a solution by all of Amazon’s competitors. One of them thinks having agency in the marketplace is a big boon to competition. That executive saw the UK market as a “test bed”, because over the last three years a number of companies have tried deep discounting to buy share. It was tried pre-agency and during the post DoJ “agency lite” period. From this executive’s perspective, the results of those efforts make discounting looks like a pretty futile competitive strategy.

Unlike the “wholesale” advocate who thought the agency publishers were helping Amazon by preventing price competition from the other deep-pocketed players, this executive presented a completely different analysis. By their lights, market share comes from two sources.

Access to cost-effective customer acquisition sources. Amazon and B&N have their own existing customer bases. Kobo has retail partners. Apple and Google have pre-loaded apps and registered customers for iTunes and Android. So everybody has a pool of customers to draw on. (We pegged this as an advantage Scribd had over Oyster when those two companies started selling ebook subscriptions.)

Then the trick is to retain customers and capitalize on lifetime value.

What this executive believes is that price-cutting as a way to recruit customers is a fool’s errand. The customers who come aboard for a cheap deal will abandon you just as fast for somebody else’s cheap deal. They don’t stick. On the other hand, offering pricing advantages based on customer loyalty is a better bet. This player thinks that having agency in the market makes it easier to hold onto customers once a platform has acquired them. As evidence, that person pointed to the loss of market share by Nook that occurred once the DoJ restored discounting under agency.

It has seemed to me from the very beginning that making ebook discounts mirror print book discounts was a major strategic mistake by publishers. The two products are not comparable from the standpoint of the store’s economics. Stores don’t have to buy ebooks in advance. There is no “shrinkage”; they don’t get lost or stolen. They don’t have to be handled. Rent doesn’t have to be paid on the space they occupy before they’re sold. With such a different commercial reality, aggressive discounting by retailers should have been a predicted outcome when they were given so much more margin than they needed to operate.

So the division of the customer’s dollar instituted by agency is more appropriate to ebook realities and probably takes things back to where they should have started.

The wholesale versus agency question is more complicated. But it does certainly seem like the time would be right for one of the Big Five publishers to break ranks, as Random House did when agency was originally instituted, in their own selfish interest. They’d achieve what Random House did then (before the Penguin merger): collecting the same or a higher price from the retailers and seeing them peddled to the public at a lower price. (Of course, nobody is doing this anytime soon. The current round of agency contracts which went into effect over the past two years still have some years to run.)

The same executive who analyzed the marketplace for me offered another observation that really matters. Less than half of the reading public has made the switch from reading print to reading digitally. There are a lot more future converts left in the pool. There is a lot of ebook growth left for retailers whether they’re attracting their competitors’ customers or not.

And so it would seem that the stability we now see in the ebook market is a temporary thing.

Thanks to Teleread for the Q&A with me they just posted.

And Digital Book World is just around the corner. I hope we’ll see you there.

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Now Kings of ebook subscription, what will impede the ebook share growth for Amazon?


With the news this morning that Scribd has thrown in the towel on unlimited ebook subscriptions, Amazon is the last player standing with an “all-you-can-eat” ebook subscription offer for a general audience. The juxtaposition of the publishers’ insistence on being paid full price for ebooks being lent once and the late Oyster’s and the now thrice-hobbled Scribd’s (they did a reduction of their romance offering last summer and then cut back on audiobooks to stem prior waves of over-consumption) pursuit of customers with an unlimited-use offer was always doomed. The only hope for the subscription services was that they would grow so fast that publishers wouldn’t be able to live without their eyeballs and would relent on the sale price.

That didn’t happen.

When Digital Reader reported the Scribd news this morning (the first place I learned of it, although I learned a lot more when I saw the Pub Lunch account an hour or two later), they also linked back to a story I’d missed in October explaining that Amazon was fiddling with what they put in their own unlimited sub offer, Kindle Unlimited.

Because Amazon couldn’t get cooperation from agency publishers (which, at a prohibitive and ultimately suicidal price, Oyster and Scribd did), they exploited their ability to deliver ebooks from the non-agency publishers to the max. Or, they did that at first. What Nate Hoffelder of Digital Reader uncovered last Fall was that Amazon was selectively removing those titles as they saw fit, which lowered their costs. (The information that led to this discovery was originally posted as a comment by Kensington’s CEO Steve Zacharius on this blog.)

A lot, if not most, of what Kindle Unlimited “lends” are ebooks compensated for by a “pool” of cash Amazon puts in each month. The size of that pool is solely determined by them and the per-page compensation for those books has inched downwards. Nonetheless, in the aggregate it amounts to a lot of money that is available only to ebook “publishers” (usually indie authors) who give Amazon an exclusive ebook license for the title. The publisher can sell print and audio elewhere, but if they want to share in the KU pool their ebook has to be Kindle only.

The disruptive news that I had missed last October is that a handful of smaller publishers — not just indie authors — are now seeing it as financially beneficial to be Kindle-only for ebooks.

This next bit is reporting what is still a rumor. But I have just been told by somebody who would know that Barnes & Noble will be withdrawing Nook from the UK market. That news is unrelated to the subscription business, but it is additional good news for Amazon.

For anybody concerned about a diverse ebook marketplace, these are ominous developments. With both the biggest ecosystem and the deepest pockets, Amazon can afford to continue to reward ebook copyright owners with increased compensation for exclusivity. As their share grows, it will be increasingly tempting for ebook publishers, be they indie authors or something a bit larger, to take the higher rewards for cutting out the other ebook vendors. And so Kindle progressively builds a better catalog than any of its ebook competitors. Which leads to more market share.

Etcetera. Or, in the modern parlance, “rinse and repeat”.

With Kindle Unlimited now the only “unlimited” ebook subscription play left (although Scribd can still claim a better selection of titles, at least for a while longer), presumably its market share will also continue to grow. As that happens, even big publishers may start to see financial benefits in putting some titles from their backlist into it. (Who knows? Authors, working on a percentage of the ebook revenues, might start insisting on it!) If and when that starts, the challenge for iBooks, Nook, Kobo, and Google to maintain a competitive ebook title offering will escalate.

Presumably, there is some percentage of the ebook market that Kindle could control that would lead to anti-trust concerns. Their share has been growing almost inexorably since the Department of Justice and Judge Cote put their thumbs on the scale a few years ago to punish the publishers and Apple for what they saw as price-fixing.

We will look for enlightenment on this subject from anti-trust attorney Jonathan Kanter at Digital Book World. Is there any percentage of the ebook market that if one entity controlled it would constitute a prima facie monopoly that calls for government action? Or even of the total book market, including print?

Even before we get to whether they plan 100 or 400 bookstores beyond the one they’ve got and the one more they are apparently planning, it is hard to see what will impede the growth of Amazon’s ebook market share. Inexorable growth by Amazon? That’s a topic we’ve been thinking about for years.

I was kicking this post around with Pete McCarthy before publishing it. I’m really struck by a point he made to me. Pete points out that buying and owning units of content has become anachronistic behavior for music and video. Kids today don’t stuff their own iTunes repository. They eventually move from streaming YouTube to subscribing to Spotify. (And that’s why Apple started Apple Music.) Nobody buys videos anymore; we just subscribe to Netflix or take temporary custody of content through an “on demand” service.

So book publishers are probably fighting a rearguard action trying to perpetuate the “own-this-content” model, particularly at relatively higher prices than they could command last year or five years ago.

Of course, that’s what Scribd and Oyster were thinking about when they built their repositories and committed themselves to invest to build a user base. Oyster ran out of time. Scribd has had to trim their sails. Subscriptions seemed like a natural business for Google, but they haven’t gotten into it. (Although they hired much of the Oyster staff, so perhaps that’s a chapter not yet written.)

But Amazon continues with Kindle Unlimited, able to shift their economics without disrupting their business. And, if Pete McCarthy’s insight about the direction of consumer behavior must inevitably extend to books — and renting access to a repository becomes the dominant model replacing owning-your-content — that’s another way they’re better positioned than anybody else to dominate the last mile of book distribution in the years to come. Publishers should always be aware that it’s a risky business to have a business model that contradicts the trends in consumer behavior.

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Agents who come to Digital Book World will learn a lot they can immediately apply


The mission of the Digital Book World conference is industry education around digital change. There is a plethora of programming for this year’s event that will serve that purpose particularly well for literary agents. Of all the people in the industry, it would seem to me that agents would get the fastest and surest “return on investment” for the time and expense of attending DBW.

At the top of the “definitely not to be missed” list for agents are two items: the main stage presentation and breakout Q&A by Data Guy, the stats guru of Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” website, and the panel discussion called “Finding Common Ground: How publishers and authors — regardless of what path they’re taking — are working together”.

Really necessary knowledge will also be delivered by Michael Cader, immediately preceeding Data Guy’s appearance, when he reviews the sources of industry data and clarifies what can realistically be discerned from them and what can’t. One more set of information no informed agent can be without will come from Rand Fishkin, the founder, former CEO, and Wizard of Moz, who knows more about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and explains it better than anybody on the planet. Understanding SEO today is as important for everybody in our business as understanding “advance sale” or “coop advertising” was in years past.

And, speaking of “coop advertising”, DBW will also feature an appearance by Fred Argir, the new Chief Digital Officer at Barnes & Noble. In a conversation with me, he will be laying out some insights from the biggest bookstore chain on new ways they might collaborate on marketing with publishers in the future.

The Author Earnings website scrapes and interprets Amazon data, breaking down Amazon bestsellers by publisher type: Big Five, indie authors, and others. Then AE goes further, trying to calculate what share of the revenue went to authors. Recent enhancements to AE’s data collection have improved the precision of their sales and income estimates. They’re showing steady market share gains by indie authors with their lower-priced books, particularly since in their new contracts the publishers have “succeeded” in preventing discounting from their agency prices.

Any agent trying to advise an author curious about or tempted by self-publishing really must know what Data Guy is up to. This will be DG’s first public presentation. His breakout Q&A will be moderated by Michael Cader, so the most knowledgeable industry perspective will be present as DG delivers his compelling alternative view of our sales universe.

The “Common Ground” panel explores the new reality that author efforts constitute a critical component of all book marketing today. Jane Friedman, the leading indie author Sherpa in our business, will moderate a panel of two agents and two editors with extensive experience working with authors who have published both indie and through houses. Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich and Julie Trelstad of Writers House are the agents; Johanna Castillo of Atria (S&S) and Jaime Levine of Diversion Books are the publishers. These five people will draw on recent experience with dozens of authors to help us understand the current state-of-the-art for author and publisher collaboration around marketing.

The challenge of “discovery” or helping readers find their “next book” has been moving up the industry agenda since Digital Book World started in 2010. Rand Fishkin of Moz will be focusing on “choosing the right web marketing channels for your book”. Agents who might previously have pushed for an ad in New York Times Book Review or a 5-city author tour need to understand what is the most effective use of support dollars today. Fishkin’s talk is also expected to provoke a lot of questions so he, like Data Guy, will have a breakout session that will allow attendees to get him to address their personal cases.

There are two other whole categories of information agents need to know about that are big components of our DBW program.

The four additional sessions on marketing could also be considered “can’t miss” for the agent keeping up with the digitally-affected ecosystem: one on ebook pricing; one on tracking “the book buyer’s journey” from discovery to purchase; a third on inbound and content marketing; and a fourth on email marketing. Since authors are critical players on the content marketing front and many also possess substantial email lists , it’s obvious that any agent would benefit from these!

(And on the day before DBW officially opens, when we have a full slate of other programming including our Publishers Launch Kids conference, we have four “Mostly Marketing Masterclasses” — on SEO, audience research, managing paid digital media, and sales data analysis — which are a separate ticket but also worth considering for any agent that wants to do a deep dive into modern book marketing.)

The other big category is understanding the larger ecosystem in which publishing exists, mostly shaped by the biggest tech companies. For the past 20 years, publishing has been increasingly dependent on and has given up a great deal of control to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Those “Four Horsemen” are the ongoing focus of NYU Stern School of Business Professor Scott Galloway, who will describe them and their strategies in a Main Stage talk. Two speakers with a skeptical view of tech’s impact on publishing economics are Jon Taplin of USC’s Annenberg School and anti-trust attorney Jonathan Kanter. Taplin will lay out his theory about how Silicon Valley has steadily devalued content in favor of tech and what the content industry can do to fight back. And Kanter will explore the near-term possibilities for anti-trust activity that could loosen the grip those companies, each bigger than the whole book industry, have on our ecosystem. In the same vein, Jessica Saenger of Germany’s Boersenverein will update us about anti-monopoly activity taking place in Europe that could affect those companies and, since every US company and author gets real revenue from Europe, is important to all of us.

There’s tons more: the company transformation talks (eight of them); author Virginia Heffernan on how the Internet is changing culture as well as how we buy and consume content; a session on sales reporting and analytics chaired by Hachette’s former CMO, Evan Schnittman. And what is actually a core topic for them, every agent needs to hear the panel discussing potential changes to copyright law being chaired by Roy Kaufman of Copyright Clearance Center.

It seems pretty certain that the agent who attends Digital Book World will be better prepared to do the jobs of advising authors about marketing and business, as well as negotiating their deals, than the agent who doesn’t.

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