libraries

Much-trumpeted survey proves the opposite of what the surveyors seem to think it does


Do library eborrowers also buy ebooks?

Well, stop the presses. OverDrive, the leading aggregator providing libaries with ebooks, and Library Journal* have done research that proves that they do. (*My error hereby corrected: American Library Association, not Library Journal.)

The survey results are interpreted as evidence that the big publishers are making a terrible mistake being cautious about making ebooks available for library lending. And it is being reported that way. By one outlet after another, although one made the point that the publishers aren’t listening.

Perhaps the publishers aren’t changing their policies because they actually are listening. In fact, the survey proves that caution makes sense. Here are the followup questions.

“What makes you decide to buy an ebook rather than borrow one? Might it be that you’re buying the ebooks that are not available to you through the library?”

I’d offer two points to ponder.

One: what if the survey had said “we have found no overlap at all! The people who borrow ebooks from libraries never buy an ebook. They only borrow.”

If that were the case, would there be any reason at all not to sell ebooks to libraries? No! There would be no potential for sales cannibalization among that audience if borrowers and buyers did not overlap.

Two: I started reading ebooks on a Palm Pilot in 1999. Between 1999 and 2007, if you’d asked me, I would have had to say I still read print books as well as digital. Why? Because a lot of what I wanted to read wasn’t available in digital. So if I wanted to read it, I had to read the print.

Then in 2007, the Kindle came along and, with some helpful pressure from Amazon, publishers routinely made their most commercial titles available as ebooks. So I wasn’t compelled to read print anymore. And, in fact, I have read only one or two printed books since then. (I remember one clearly but I think there’s another one too.)

What if the book purchasers among the library ebook borrowers have precisely the same motivation? What if they’re buying some ebooks because those aren’t available in the library?

So I’d say “thanks for the information” and for evidence from an unbiased source that publishers are entirely correct to be wary and careful about making ebooks available for library lending.

The New York Times says this morning that Penguin has announced a second set of “experiments” with ebook lending policies. The first one was with distributor 3M; this one is with Baker & Taylor. They have chosen time-limited (1 year) licenses as their gambit. As I told the Charleston audience last week, our client Recorded Books is about to debut an ebooks-for-libraries program that will give publishers the flexibility to control four aspects of the license: in or out of catalog; price; number of loans limit (if any); length of license (if limited). Obviously, the Penguin experiment could be conducted with the RB capability, with the advantage to them that they could vary the terms by title and change them over time (always honoring deals already made, of course.) 

Doing this requires a tool set for libraries to manage their ebook collections, which Recorded Books will provide. Over time, the RB capability should enable enough experimentation to bring far more titles into the library marketplace while allowing publishers to learn what works and adjust to what almost certainly will be a changing environment.

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Does Pew study prove ebooks in libraries are safe for publishers?


I haven’t seen this written elsewhere, but the latest Pew ebook study seems to me to confirm that the publishers are doing the right thing for sales by constricting the availability of many of the most attractive books from library shelves.

That conjecture on my part comes from a data point that some may interpret a different way.

The data point that interested me is that 41% of respondents who at some time borrowed an ebook from a library bought the most recent ebook they read.

To some, this could suggest that publishers’ fears that library patrons will be weaned away from buying ebooks are overblown. Indeed, it is certainly possible that “discovery” at the library of a desirable ebook could lead to the purchase of a title for which the wait would be too long.

It could mean that.

What it seems to me more likely to mean is that the lack of library access to the most commercial titles forces those readers who care more about what they read than what they pay to purchase titles which the library doesn’t have (and which they probably “discovered” somewhere else.)

According to Jeremy Greenfield’s report on the Digital Book World site (wth apologies to them for changing their “e-book” styling to our unhyphenated standard):

“eBook borrowers being buyers is a phenomenon that’s true in the print world as well,” said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association. “We know this anecdotally and this data that shows it is an important finding for us.”

Raphael said that ebook borrowers will discover a book they want to borrow and then see that they have to wait for it to become available and will get impatient and buy it. eBook borrowers also sometimes sample ebooks by borrowing them and then buy them.

What Raphael says is true. But it could also well be that the number purchasing books would drop sharply if all the commercial publishers made their most popular titles available, particularly if they did it without windowing.

There’s lot of other interesting data in the study. What really caught my eye is that 58% of Americans have a library card. I find that number considerably higher than my intuition would have suggested.

A couple of other data points from the study feel like they support my view that publishers are doing the right thing for their commercial interests. Pew found that 55% of the e-book readers who also had library cards said they preferred to buy their ebooks and 36% said they preferred to borrow them from any source—friends or libraries. But among the ebook borrowers, only 33% say they generally prefer to buy ebooks and 57% say they generally prefer to borrow them. Combined with the point that has gotten a lot of early attention, that most patrons don’t even know that libraries offer ebooks, I see a very strong suggestion that library availability of ebooks will reduce sales more than stimulate them.

None of this is conclusive but I thought my instinctive conjecture was out of step with the spin the study was getting and therefore worth this brief Friday post.

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Thinking more about ebooks and libraries and what big publishers should do


The reluctance of most big publishers to make ebooks available through library lending is a topic of widespread attention and concern. The AAP turned a chunk of its annual meeting over to the topic and Dr. Anthony Marx, the President and CEO of the New York Public Library, used his time to volunteer his institution for experimentation to find a model for ebook lending that would work for publishers.

I had occasion to talk to a number of Big Six publishers in the middle of last year about their position on library sales. When they registered their concerns with me, some of what they had to say made a great deal of sense.

What really rang true was the fear that the consumers in an emerging ebook ecosystem would “learn” that getting “free” ebooks from libraries was just as easy as getting ebooks from retailers and paying for them. Given that all this requires is pointing your web browser in a different direction, it looked to many of the publishers like a really poor bet to enable ebook lending by libraries. Sales of ebooks to libraries isn’t a huge market so the upside is limited. And with many ebook retailers struggling to gain traction in an Amazon-dominated marketplace, the consequences of even a small loss in sales could knock players out of the game.

Withholding or limiting sales of ebooks to libraries shares an important characteristic  with agency pricing. In both cases, publishers are implementing policies that they know will result in their revenue being reduced immediately in order to develop what they believe will be a stronger and more diversified distribution network for ebooks in the long run.

It’s worth making a point here. It is reasonable to argue that publishers are wrong on both counts.  These policies are about influencing the future development of the channel and forecasting the impact of various policies over time, so there is not yet any data to prove they’re right or wrong. All we have are guesses based on limited and unprojectable knowledge.

But the publishers are most emphatically not engaging in “short term thinking”. They are sacrificing immediate revenue for what they believe will be a long-term gain. In that way they are like Amazon, which famously will deep-discount or loss-lead today’s sale to build a long-term customer relationship. But Amazon gets credit for long-term thinking; publishers usually don’t.

As most people know who are following the tribulations of libraries trying to stock ebooks, four of the Big Six publishers are not making any ebooks available to libraries at all (except titles already sold in the past.) Random House continues to supply all their titles to libraries as ebooks with only the “one loan at a time per copy purchased” limitation, but they have just raised the prices of those books to libraries substantially. HarperCollins was widely villified a year ago when they introduced a limitation of 26 loans per copy purchased, but this is apparently now more widely being seen as an acceptable limitation. (Random House pricing and the others’ total withdrawal from the market are making 26 loans look good!)

I accept the major premise. If it were just as easy to get ebooks from libraries as it is from retailers, over time more and more customers would migrate to the libraries. But, the more I think about it, the less I accept the notion that total withdrawal from the library market is necessary to create a clear advantage for the retailer as a destination for ebook readers. In fact, it is possible that putting ebooks into libraries, in the right ways, could increase sales at retail. And the only way for publishers to find that out is to do some controlled experimentation in that marketplace. To my knowledge, that’s not taking place.

I have two anecdotes that I think shed some light.

At a conference I organized a few years ago, we heard about a giveaway that publishers Spiegel & Grau did of a Suze Orman book through Oprah. They gave away 1.1 million unprotected PDF downloads in 33 hours on Oprah. The book sales popped immediately on Amazon, of course. But more impressive, and more important, is that the book acheived a return run of several more months on the NY Times Bestseller list. It had fallen off in October. In other words, the substantial number of giveaway copies sparked a rebirth of interest in what had already been a very successful book that appeared to have concluded its run some months before. (Of course, being on Oprah has an effect of its own whether or not there is a giveaway. I think the 1.1 million giveaways helped spur the sales, but, at the very least, they didn’t prevent the Oprah effect from taking place in a big way. The publishers had not expected anything like the commercial result they got.)

And here’s another. About two or three years ago, I was looking around for data that would tell us whether ebook sales were cannibalizing print or adding incremental units. Our friend Rick Joyce at Perseus said “they add incremental units” and he could prove it. I was skeptical, but he convinced me.

What Rick said was that Perseus had converted a number of backlist books that had an established print sales pattern into ebooks. Then they looked at what happened to sales of the overall “basket of titles”. Their print sales went up even though the ebook was selling too. Perseus attributed this to the increased awareness of the books generated by their presence in the ebook marketplace.

But perhaps of even greater significance, the beneficial effect on sales of the ebook publication increased as they went down the long tail. The deeper they went into the backlist, the greater was the lift created by the ebook publication.

It is a stretch to analogize the effect of an ebook being available in a library today with what making an ebook for sale did to print sales two years ago, but it is not a ridiculous hypothesis to test. What if a similar impact resulted from library availability? Might there be some titles you want to window, but others where it would even make sense to sell them to libraries cheaper because of a marketing effect? Could there even be some books that it would be worth giving to some libraries for free?

Both of these examples, being as they are more than two years old (and, in one case, about PDFs, which are a pretty limiting way to get an ebook file), can’t be simply taken as prima facie evidence of what would happen today. People who downloaded the Orman file and found they liked it and wanted to read the whole book would indeed have wanted to purchase a more readable copy. In 2008, that would have meant “print” for the vast majority of people. Perseus did their backlist analysis at a time when they had lots of good backlist not yet available as an ebook and not many consumers read that way. Neither of these things are true anymore. The migration of sales from print to digital is too rapid now for very many titles to maintain their recent print sales rate, let alone increase it on the back of some increased discoverability. (Overall sales might increase, but not print as a stand-alone.)

Nonetheless, these two pieces of anecdata together suggest at least the possibility that the sales the big publishers are losing by withholding from the libraries is a larger number than just the ebooks they’re not selling for loan. They may also be losing other sales that come from discoverability and library-reader-generated word-of-mouth.

It now seems to me that making ebooks available through libraries when the titles are on a downward sales trajectory at retail could generate new life for them, as the Oprah giveaway did for Suze Orman. Yes, this is windowing. If publishers did it on their big ebook titles, they’d be doing exactly what Hollywood is doing with DVDs of major movies, which are also withheld from library distribution until the theatrical and early DVD revenues have been harvested.

The big publishers I have spoken to seem most focused on keeping “friction” in the library ebook experience to approximate the inconvenience of print book borrowing, where you have to go to the library to pick up the book and then to bring it back. In fact, the imperfect interface from OverDrive already provides a good deal of that (except for Kindle loans, which bump over to Amazon and work seamlessly). The absence of any new titles from four of the Big Six may not provide “friction”, but it certainly would drive many readers to a retail channel. (In fact, without some huge change in the way publisher-library relationships operate, there will always be a much larger number of titles available from retailers than from any library.)

What publishers are correct to be worried about is the way the market could change over time. With most book readers still reading print, we don’t really know yet what the marketplace will look like in five or ten years when I’d expect the vast majority will probably read books on screens. That was part of what was behind Harper’s 26 loan limitation. It is also a principle behind Bloomsbury’s “Public Library Online” program (working in the UK for a while now and just being introduced here), by which a “shelf” of books is licensed to libraries one year at a time. (Public Library Online enables multiple users through any flash-enabled browser, but does not support even as basic a user tool as “place-holding”; each time you return to a book you would have to remember where you were.)

In general, time-limiting seems  a much better strategy to me than loan-limiting, although it might not produce the same level of additional sales on bestsellers as loan-limiting.

If any big publisher asked me for an opinion about a library policy (and none has), this is what I’d say today.

1. Start immediately experimenting with “baskets” of titles, because the data on sales trends for a group of titles will be far more reliable than on any single title. If titles are put into groupings of cohorts (fiction in a genre, topical non-fiction, big author brands), you increase your chances of getting data that lends itself to interpretation that enable useful adjustments in tactics.

2. One set of experiments that should be productive would be on titles that have already had their high-volume run. Put 10 or 20 of those titles into library distribution and look at their print and ebook sales results week-by-week for the period before and then after the library release. (And promote the library release to maximize the potential impact.)

3. Look at the “make” books on an upcoming list: those that aren’t by big name authors that are already guaranteed to sell well. Split them in half. Put one half into libraries and withhold the other half. See if you can detect a library effect, positive or negative.

4. License titles for two or three years rather than limiting the number of loans. This will enable the publisher to withdraw them from library circulation in the future if the market shifts. This is a separate question from whether you allow multiple simultaneous loans. That limitation probably needs to remain (although with a loan limit like HarperCollins has applied, I don’t see why it is necessary.)

5. Explore ways for libraries to sell ebooks to patrons who discover titles through them but, for whatever reason, want to purchase them. Referral to existing retailers, with libraries getting the referral revenue, would seem like the cleanest and best way for this to happen. Libraries could sell the ebooks directly, but that approach could exacerbate the concern that library patrons would be “lost” to the retail network.

Publishers’ concerns about the impact of library lending are reasonable. But responding to that concern by simply “freezing” is not helpful to anybody and it may actually be damaging the sales of the books the publishers are trying to protect. I don’t know and the librarians don’t know what the marketplace impact will be of branded ebooks being made available through libraries, but the publishers don’t know either. It is time for all of us to start finding out.

I think big publishers have widely accepted a similarly flawed perspective about the impact of  piracy. It is likely that piracy, like library loans, will have a net cannibalizing effect on some titles and a net promotional effect on others. If you accept the truth of that statement, then you should see that telling which titles are which is the most important starting point to creating policy in either case. How many houses today are consulting their marketing departments when they make their piracy policies? It would seem like a good idea.

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Libraries and publishers don’t have symmetrical interest in a conversation


Because libraries are, at most 5% of a general trade publisher’s business and far less of the ebook business, and because the market is changing so rapidly and because every retailer except Amazon can be said to be struggling to carve out a sustainable position in the global ebook marketplace, there are many legitimate reasons for the biggest publishers to take a wait-and-see attitude about libraries and ebooks. The fear is of a “shopping and consuming” experience at the libraries which is comparable to what the retailers can offer. That potential is largely mitigated now because most of the big books don’t go to them. But, if they did, publishers fear the market could shift away from retail.

That fear is not just about a “lost sale”. It is also about a “lost channel” of sales, or a pipe to the consumer that runs entirely through Amazon.

Of course, libraries view this differently because the big books from the big publishers are a lot more than 5% of their patrons’ interest. This is an imbalance that would explain the difference in attitude of the parties, for anybody who cares to accept the reality of it. That is, the atavistic “instinct of self-preservation” leads libraries and publishers to somewhat different conclusions about what the best outcome would be and how quickly the industry should move to it.

Saying this within a list conversation provoked a question from somebody from a library-centric point of view. Was I saying that the principle fear is that Amazon could “own” the lending experience, and that the traditional library channel and whatever sales it might secondarily bring would be lost? Or was I saying something else?

Now, I actually hadn’t thought about that, although the way that the libraries collaborated with OverDrive to structure the deal for Amazon lending, that possibility became far more likely than it had been before.

What I meant was that we already face the possibility that we’re headed for a single retailer for ebooks and print online called Amazon. Every other channel to the consumer, libraries and retailers both (whether they know it or not) are ultimately fighting for their digital lives. Publishers don’t want to do anything that weakens Kobo, Google, Barnes & Noble, or anybody offering a commercial channel to customers. It is perceived (intuitively, without data, although I would actually argue that there are great limitations to the value of data because we’re talking about the consequences as the ecosystem changes over time, not the situation at the moment) that giving ebook consumers ways to get what they want without paying for it weakens the other retailers.

And, wouldn’t you say by Amazon’s behavior encouraging lending through libraries and outside them, that maybe they see that possibility too?

I always expect an entity to act in its own self-interest, particularly when survival could be involved. (And Amazon, trading at 135 times earnings and facing the likelihood that their sales tax advantage in the United States is on the verge of being eliminated, is entitled to think that way too.) I think we should all understand that intelligent people on all sides feel that they are fighting for their survival. That includes Amazon, the publishers, the competing retailers, and the libraries. Our problem is that the interests don’t align and what I think people sometimes have trouble accepting is that it is possible they never will.

The library fan was trying to understand “my argument” and attempted to summarize it. In the summary, the innocent conflation was made that I was suggesting that each library loan could translate to a sale lost and that even if they were divided propotionately, I was suggesting that Amazon’s competition would be hurt more than they would.

But I really wasn’t trying to take sides or endorse any particular position in this dispute at all. I’m personally not sure whether library loans would spur sales or cannibalize them at the moment and, even if I thought I knew that, it would be another big leap to assume that today’s situation would persist into a different future. And I don’t think the publishers who are concerned are thinking about sale-for-sale; what they’re thinking about is the overall eco-system that is developing.

I am glad I am not a big publisher who has to make these decisions. I only decide when I have to and I’m actually deliberating now on behalf of a bunch of books I control, without having made decisions. But whatever I do, I wouldn’t assume that Simon & Schuster should do the same thing. (Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll have to decide about DRM and about library lending across a range of ebook titles for which I inherited rights, and POD files, from my Dad.)

There are a number of paths, from what OverDrive is already doing to the Bloomsbury shelf idea to the 3M “lend a device” idea to Recorded Books’ subscription concept to withholding completely that are all reasonable tactics in the current marketplace. People don’t lose too much by staying out at the moment nor do they risk too much going in (when the technology is still pretty klunky and most of the big books aren’t in anyway.) Random House is taking advantage of the situation very adroitly, and no doubt causing their Big Six competitors to grind their teeth, just as they did when they delayed agency. (They’re continuing to supply libraries without limitation, but they’ve raised the prices on the “library editions” of their ebooks.)

I’m really not inclined to make judgments because there are too many things I don’t know about each company’s situation, where they are balancing agent relationships and, in the case of the three publishers that are investing in Bookish over here and two others investing in Anobii in the UK, plans to develop the channel themselves. But I think most of us agree that the price-per-read major publishers will be able to capture is very likely to go down. (Some optimists would argue that the number of reads will go up, but, of course, that’s of questionable comfort if the number of authored books available also goes up, and it will.) So publishers are highly conscious of that in ways they never had to think about when the price of what they sold was bounded by physical realities.

These aren’t moral decisions, they’re commercial ones (even when they’re being made by not-for-profit entities.) I would expect smaller publishers to take advantage of most of the Big Six not being in the libraries by getting more sales and discovery for themselves (maybe the same way Random House is, at premium prices!) If the sales turn out to outweigh any risks or negative consequences, then the Big Six will come back in and that piece of the market will change again to the detriment of the upstarts. Meanwhile, some authors will have been discovered that wouldn’t have been if the Big Six had been there all along.

It’s a very long multi-player chess game, not the Super Bowl. I tend to watch and scratch my head, not cheer for any particular team.

I noticed in the most recent report about B&N’s results that their sales of print books through dot com is declining. A trusted resource who follows these things more closely than I do says that has been the case for a while. This looks to me to be a real negative for both B&N and the publishers going forward.

The right way to think about how the future is shaping up is not to watch the split between ebooks and print books. That’s misleading. What matters is the split between books purchased in stores and books purchased online. Books purchased online are both print and ebooks.

Intuitively, it would seem certain that print sales through online channels are rising. Certainly some of the former Borders store business went that way, and the trend should be in that direction regardless of any particular store or chain closing. If B&N’s print sales online are down in absolute dollars, then they’re getting really clobbered in share. When the history of Amazon’s growing dominance in the life of the book business is written, their dominance in online print will be an important part of the story.

When Amazon bought The Book Depository, the UK Competition Commission made what feels to me like a massive logical error by looking at the book business as a whole, rather than recognizing that the growing online piece and the shrinking brick-and-mortar piece were really two different businesses. Although BD’s sales were mostly outside of the UK and their share of the UK online print business was miniscule compared to Amazon’s, they were a working platform that could have been a springboard to global competition for somebody; now they’re consolidated into the Amazon world. As I wrote recently, we’re headed to a time where most of our sales will occur online. Growth in Amazon’s share of online print adds to their potential industry dominance just as surely as Kindle growth does.

And it is a post for another day, but we’ve just gotten a clear reminder that Amazon can adjust its trading terms as its position strengthens. I wonder if the voices that celebrate the consolidation of the business under Amazon are taking into account that the same thing could happen to them someday.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It will be hard to find a public library 15 years from now


I spoke last week to a group in Montreal convened by the English-language Publishers of Quebec and the Quebec Writers Association in a small auditorium at the Atwater Library. The Atwater Library is a private library with very limited government funding which is more than 100 years old. (The Globe and Mail article that quoted me says it dates from 1828.) It occupies a nostalgia-provoking building on a downtown corner across from a small park and a long slapshot away from the site of the no-longer-present Montreal Forum, where the Canadiens played for many years (and where I was fortunate enough to see a game once in 1958.)

The topic of the talk was whatever I wanted it to be so I riffed on what I think are the two big themes of digital change in publishing: vertical and global. Readers of this blog have seen material on both. Vertical refers to subject-specificity, or, if you prefer, audience-specificity. I posit that publishing across subjects — as all the biggest consumer publishers do — is made possible by bookstores, who sort the books onto shelves that make sense to customers.

An important component of the “vertical” argument is the inevitable decline of bookstores. What leads to that is the inexorable movement of customers from shopping in stores to shopping online, combined with the “critical mass” requirement for a bookstore. Some people say a bookstore will close if it loses 10% of its business; I usually say 15%. Obviously, it varies with the store. Just as obviously, a store doesn’t need to lose all its business, or even half of it, before it would be economically unviable and forced to close.

As stores close, shopping in them becomes less convenient. As the remaining stores cut back on the shelf space they can devote to books, they become less attractive. All this drives more and more people to buy print online or to switch to ebooks.

Since the single most critical skill set for consumer publishers for the past 100 years has been being able to put books on bookstore shelves, this is a frightening development for any trade publisher paying attention.

The global trend is more encouraging for people in publishing today and it is particularly more cheerful for publishers in small countries who deliver content in big languages. That means Canadian publishers in both English and French should benefit enormously as the ebook infrastructure builds out and puts them closer to customers all over the world.

Partly because we were in a library and partly because somebody asked, I also ruminated about the future of libraries. The Toronto Globe & Mail reported it this way:

And libraries? “Libraries make no sense in the future,” Shatzkin said on stage in a library that dates back to 1828. Anyone with Internet access already has access to far more books than were in that library, he pointed out. “There is no need for a building.” There will be an ongoing need for librarians, however; their skills will continue to be in demand, as will those of editors.

This quote, which was really off-hand, is clearly annoying a lot of people. So I thought it would be worth devoting a post to the subject of the future of libraries.

First of all, the key word is “future.” I find myself making the point repeatedly that the infrastructure for printed book creation and distribution has had mostly organic change for about 100 years now. It’s a well-developed capability. Publishers know how to make printed books well and efficiently; they know how to find and serve the customers for them. They know how to print them at scale and, over the last dozen years or so, 1-at-a-time. The special requirements that libraries have to prepare books for shelving are met seamlessly by Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

The print book infrastructure is like a network of roads, sidewalks, and superhighways. Everything gets where it wants to go by well-established paths.

Ebooks live in a different world. There are no superhighways and, for many books and many markets, there isn’t even a beaten path yet. We’re still hacking our way through the jungle. So, for the most part, the world we’ll live in when there is a fully-built ebook infrastructure only exists in our imagination today.

The world I was describing in the quoted and paraphrased section of my talk is imaginary. It is expected (at least by me), but it isn’t here yet and I wasn’t trying to suggest that it is.

In a fully ebooked world, which I expect we’ll be living in 10 or 15 years from now, print books won’t be extinct, but they’ll be either exotic or very purpose-driven. They won’t be common or an ordinary way to deliver content, the way they are today.

I also expect a world where all of us will have access to, or personal ownership of, many screens. Through those screens, we’ll also have access to a variety of content that is suggested by what the Internet can deliver us today. My hunch is that, by then, our “basic Internet” (think “basic cable”) subscription will include access to more books than exist in most libraries today, with shedloads of others available for usually nominal and occasionally substantial additional fees. We may have to choose a screen (or two) to carry with us when we leave our house in the morning (or not — there will be screens to borrow at Starbucks and the hotel lobby and the waiting room at your dentist), but we’ll have access to content for it (or them) wherever we are and at any time. Since the same screen will deliver us our tools for personal productivity (the blog post I’m working on, the shopping list for the cheese store on the way home), probably connect us to our money, and, of course, contain our calendar and directions to the party we’re supposed to go to this evening, carrying additional “stuff” — whether a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a notepad — will be a long-discarded anachronism.

The core purpose — the founding purpose — of a library, around which other things have grown, is to deliver access to printed words. Even the smallest local library almost certainly had more content housed within it than any individual had in their home and, in most cases, far more content than would be available at any local store. It was the books in the library that initially defined the library and attracted a core of patrons to it. When all of us have access to more books on our screens than are in the library, what’s the point to the library?

At least, that’s what I was thinking.

The very thoughtful Gary Price, who is a library and information professional who has spent far more time considering libraries this or any other week than I have in my lifetime, posted his ruminations on this subject, triggered by the paragraph in the Globe and Mail but going way beyond them. Gary raises some good points worthy of response (about which he has posted additional thoughts since I saw and wrote about them.)

He wonders what kind of libraries I’m talking about. Simple answer: consumer libraries. Libraries that serve a professional constituency — academic or otherwise — are outside the scope of these predictions.

Gary observes that statistics show that libraries are being used more than ever. I don’t doubt that but it doesn’t undercut my belief about where things will be in 10 or 15 years. Newspapers had record years for profits in the mid-1990s.

Gary observes that many people use the library for more than books, specifically citing their mission in providing technology education and to provide Internet access, and making the point that not everybody has access to the computer and the Internet at home. In my opinion, all these objections will be almost entirely mooted in the next 10 or 15 years.

(A parenthetical point. In the US, at least, the poor will almost certainly always be with us. People will be left behind by change; our country routinely permits that. I’m a liberal Democrat; that’s not an aspect of America that makes me happy. Libraries will vanish faster than the need for them does. I predict what I believe will happen, not what I want to happen.)

He points out that there are special collections, archives, and other materials found in library buildings and that they, as well as some books, might not be digitized anytime soon. Perhaps true, although a lot less true in 10 or 15 years. But what percentage of today’s libraries would that kind of material keep open? Particularly if we’re talking about libraries for consumers? A small percentage, I’d warrant.

As others have, Gary points to the community events that take place in a library as a counter to my argument. I don’t think it is. I didn’t say community centers would cease to exist. There are many community centers that aren’t libraries. The fact that it is convenient and sensible for a town to use its local library building for other purposes doesn’t mean they need to keep the library to serve those other purposes. In fact, there will be lots of empty former retail storefronts to use as community centers all over America in 10 or 15 years.

One of the people at the Atwater in Montreal told me that they are reducing their shelf space for books (like a lot of bookstores, I might add.) If we get to the day when the store is still called Barnes & Noble and it has one shelf of books and is otherwise full of stationery, plush toys, and reading gadgets, is it still a bookstore? If the Atwater converts itself over time into a commmunity center with one room that has some books in it, will it still be a library?

I don’t think so. Others may disagree, but I would call that a semantic argument, not a substantive one.

Gary’s last point, which has nothing to do with anything I said, is to ponder what happens to the books and other materials in a library if the library shuts down. He hopes they don’t end up in a dumpster. I take no position on that (if they have value at the time, they won’t), but I would point out that many libraries today, unlike the situation a few years ago, won’t take your contribution of books when you clean your shelves at home. They have no place to put them and many, like Atwater, have less space for books, not more. I know libraries try to hold used book sales to make money, but I imagine we’re going to find that libraries will be causing books to be destroyed in the future, from necessity.

I did make the point in Montreal, which the Globe and Mail picked up and Gary applauded, that librarianship will be needed by people long after buildings full of books are not. That’s going to require an entirely new business model that hasn’t been invented yet. Consider that part of the paved infrastructure that we’ll have in a decade or so, but can only exist in our imaginations at the moment.

How about writing a whole post about libraries and not mentioning the HarperCollins limitation on ebook lending? Maybe another day…

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