Licensing and Rights

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two big questions going forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon might lose interest in total hegemony over the book business before they achieve it


The industry got the news that Amazon was probably reassessing its own publishing program a couple of weeks ago when it was announced that Laurence Kirshbaum was stepping down as the head of Amazon Publishing and being replaced by a 14-year veteran of the Seattle company, Daphne Durham. Whatever are Durham’s strengths and connections, they don’t include the familiarity with the New York publishing scene and agents that Kirshbaum brought.

While this certainly does not suggest an overall reduction in Amazon’s publishing activity, it does signal a change in tactics. It would appear that the unorganized but united stand by Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores to boycott Amazon-published titles and refuse to give them shelf space made it virtually impossible for Amazon’s publishing enterprise to compete with the big houses for brand name authors. The few that they tried — Penny Marshall and Timothy Ferriss wrote the high-profile titles that were watched — had disappointing results. Whether that was largely because the stores wouldn’t play along or for other reasons (not all books by famous authors or celebrities are equally edited or equally appealing), the overall environment did not leave agents or the authors everybody wants panting for an Amazon publishing deal.

Retreats — apparent or real — by Amazon are rare. (The last one we can recall is when they pulled the buy buttons from Macmillan titles in 2010 to protest agency pricing and very quickly rescinded the action.) But it would be a mistake to think either that Amazon is less interested in publishing than they were before or that the threat they pose to publishers’ relationships with authors is no longer something publishers need to concern themselves with.

In fact, all the recent evidence suggests that Amazon’s market share is still rising. The Bowker numbers reported at the end of July of 2012, trying to measure who got the Borders sales (which were 10% of the total when the retailer went out of business) put Amazon’s total share of the book market at 29%, up from 23% a year earlier. In that same report, it was reported that B&N had gained a point of share, up from 19% to 20%. So Amazon out-benefited B&N from Borders’ collapse by six to one.

Earlier this year, it was reported in Britain that Amazon had a whopping 79% of the burgeoning ebook market. That’s more than they have in the US. It is also apparently the case that Amazon has the lion’s share of the online book sales market in the UK (and, along with their subsidiary company The Book Depository, most of Europe and the English-speaking world).

The share of total sales that goes through their registers is only one measure of Amazon’s disruptive growth. They’re also signing up more and more books directly to their imprints (the genre publishing growth continues unabated and was never heavily dependent on Kirshbaum) and getting more and more books through authors self-publishing. And as they disintermediate publishers by bringing in books directly by either means, they also threaten their competitive retailers in all venues. Although you can be self-published through Amazon and continue to distribute to other channels, they offer financial incentives to discourage that.

In fact, Hugh Howey, the enormously successful self-publisher of “Wool”, told us a year ago that the decision to broaden his distribution base to include Nook and other platforms cost him money. He did it because he thought it was the fan-friendly thing to do but he’d have made more money on his ebook sales if he’d sold fewer units and given up the other formats.

(KDP Select is the program that demands exclusivity. By enrolling, authors get their works in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, increased royalties on sales outside the US, and access to additional promotional tools. You can still have your book on sale in physical, “or in any format other than digital”.)

We see Amazon growing into a large and slightly separate book industry of its own. They don’t use the book business’s standard ebook format, epub; they use their own format, mobi. (The Amazon “flavor” is AZW, and they also have the newer KF8.) They don’t care much whether a book has an industry standard ID, the ISBN number. Amazon assigns its own number, unless the publisher has a 10-digit ISBN they can use, which they call an ASIN. They own a must-optimize author page (Amazon’s author page affects an author’s discoverability on Google; the converse is not true) and a must-use book readers’ social network (GoodReads). They have their own print-on-demand operation making it simple for an author to set up both ebooks and print at the same time.

The “advantage” a publisher has pursuing authors is that they can offer a much broader distribution base as well as their honed skill at marketing and publicity. But there’s a price for that; self-publishing with Amazon brings an author four times the revenue for ebooks and somewhat more for every print copy sold as well. Whether Amazon is a quarter, a third, a half, or more of a book’s sale depends on the book, but authors will be increasingly facing the choice Hugh Howey faced: publish exclusively with Amazon and sell a bit less but make a bit more, or publish to a broader audience through a publisher (or on your own) and make less money. Apparently, many authors are doing 90-day runs of KDP Select to get a boost at Amazon, then switching back to broader distribution

Fortunately for the rest of the publishing business, the shift to ebooks and to online purchasing may have stalled. In the US, Amazon appears to have about 60-70% of the ebook business, and ebooks constitute about 30% of the total business. But the ebook share is much higher for immersive reading, higher still for fiction. For fiction, more than half the sales of many titles can be digital. And the print sales are anywhere from 25% to 35% online. So for fiction, Amazon may already be nearing half the total sales for many titles.

We wouldn’t expect the slowdown of the shift in sales to last. New offerings of ever-cheaper and more-flexible devices, more and more cheap ebooks in the market (discounting the backlist ebooks seems to be publishing’s latest most common marketing trick), and the natural growth in digital interaction as older people exit and younger people with new credit cards replace them, pretty much assure that the online sale will continue to grow in relation to the store sale. As that happens, as the 2012 measurements after the demise of Borders showed, Amazon experiences organic growth.

So, when does Amazon’s share growth stop? And who is left standing when it does? Here we have to enter a realm of pure speculation; there are no data points that can help us figure this out.

To answer these questions, we need to look at the book business in segments.

For narrative text, books that one reads from the first page to the last, we’d expect continuing growth of digital. For genre fiction (including YA), which has the additional characteristic of having audiences that consume many titles a year, we’d expect a lion’s share digital market — 80 percent or more — to be common within a couple of years. For those books, Amazon will continue to just eat away at the publishers’ position. More and more of the genre readers will migrate to them because they’ll have an increasing number of titles on an exclusive basis, more — and more aggressive – price promotion, and probably a variety of subscription opportunities. That should lead inexorably to more and more of the genre authors being willing to publish with them exclusively because they’ll be able to reach an increasingly large percentage of the reader base through digital and Amazon alone.

If I were looking for the first candidates not to be “left standing”, we’d expect to find them in genre publishing. In time, the big publishers will increasingly focus on “big” genre titles, rather than lengthy genre lists.

I also expect more DRM-free trials, particularly in genre fiction, so that publishers and third-parties can sell mobi files to existing Kindle customers. For while genres are where Amazon has their greatest potential strength, it is also true that genres are where publishers have the best chance at building brands and direct customer relationships that matter.

More general fiction and non-fiction will be read mostly in digital form in a short time too, although the hardcovers for those books will continue to exist. But for the big players in general trade, there’s another problem besides Amazon to deal with. That’s the new publishing behemoth: Penguin Random House. I would guess (all we can do) that by three or four years from now, the first choice for most authors will be either PRH or Amazon. PRH will provide the biggest reach; Amazon will often provide the biggest potential revenue. The other general trade houses will fight each other for the authors that don’t want to be part of either behemoth.

For illustrated books and children’s books, the environment will be different. Stores will remain important, but there will be fewer of them (and therefore fewer books of this kind published). The bookstore I’d imagine in several years will have far more illustrated and gift books in it as a percentage of the total title mix than it does now.

What I think will save publishers from disappearing, oddly enough, will be a loss of interest at Amazon in taking more market share. This conclusion comes from a combination of something I learned from people at Google about Google and what is clear from Stone’s book.

Last spring, I visited a Google installation that was not about the book business, but about an online game. The game is a big online experiment in engagement. Googlers showing us around were thinking about the revenue potential of the game, which was not supposed to be their primary concern. They had come to the conclusion that $100 million in annual revenue would be achievable, but they didn’t think they’d be able to go after it. Why? Because nobody in a responsible position at Google would take ownership of something as small as $100 million in revenue.

Brad Stone paints a picture in “The Everything Store” of Amazon as, above all, a highly rational company. Jeff Bezos can be impetuous, but he’s not nuts. He is zealous about the things he cares about because he believes they matter: customer happiness being number one on the list. As the book business becomes a smaller and smaller part of the total Amazon picture and the challenges that matter to the business revolve around delivering your fresh produce in 30 minutes, not 90, it is likely that Amazon will have less and less interest in squeezing just a little bit more margin out of the book business. There will be easier places and easier ways to make money.

Amazon achieved the position it has in the book ecosystem through a combination of brilliance, execution, natural forces, and some good luck but, above all, focus. It had to take some big chances with pricing and margin to get where it has gotten, but that’s not really necessary anymore. Doing some very logical and natural things, like the new Matchbook program and rolling out more subscription and pricing offerings (like their new “Countdown Clock” discounts for new Kindle titles) will keep their share growing and their competitors scrambling. They will also almost certainly be coming after publishers for more margin (as will their equally dominant counterparts on the store side, Barnes & Noble), but it would seem unlikely that they’ll see the need to extend themselves to sign up authors or build out their ability to distribute print to other people’s stores.

Amazon will certainly continue to make it difficult for publishers to use price offers as a way of teasing away some of the direct ebook business. Publishers are finding that increasingly tempting as more and more vendors emerge who can solve the tech challenges for them. But even with publishers taking some ebook share directly, and more of them will, chances are that the ebook business will grow faster than the publishers’ shares and that Amazon’s growth, partly at the expense of other ecosystems, will not stop.

So the good news for publishers is that the business they now have will look less and less appealing compared to other worlds Amazon might conquer. That should save them from having a bulls-eye on their backs, but it will remain a very challenging environment where their biggest customer is the most powerful force in the marketplace and growth outside that customer is harder and harder to achieve. The publishing activities of Amazon will continue to get bigger; the industry of other publishers will continue to get smaller. But we are probably in for a period of slow and steady shifts rather than cataclysms.

As long as Barnes & Noble can stay healthy and the other ebook platforms aren’t crushed by losing titles to Kindle exclusives, that will remain the case. And that means “for quite a while” but not “forever”.

Remember that Brad Stone will be joined onstage by analyst Benedict Evans and publishing sage Joseph J. Esposito for a wide-ranging discussion about Amazon at Digital Book World in January.

Note that I also posted on Amazon yesterday. That piece describes three important pieces of their story that didn’t make it into Stone’s book.

And, if you’re from a start-up or your job at a publisher includes meeting with and evaluating start-ups, we really want your response to our survey, which will inform our dialogue about start-ups at Digital Book World.

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Now HERE is an experiment that looks like it worked and is worthy of replication


The new opportunity to publish a book without printed inventory has been popularized primarily by self-publishing authors and by new fledgling publishing enterprises like Entangled and Byliner following in the footsteps of earlier pioneers like eReads and Ellora’s Cave and, more recently, Open Road. This changes the economics of publishing substantially, taking a very large part of the risk out of it and decreasing a publisher’s dependence on hundreds of stores to individually agree to commit their own capital resources to display printed copies.

There have been some experiments with no-inventory publishing from the major houses, all in genres. Last year, HarperCollins launched HarperTeen Impulse and Random House launched the digital-only imprints Loveswept, Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt. And Harlequin had preceded them early in 2009 with Carina Press. In fact, these digital innovations have already given rise to what I believe is premature concern from some agents that publishers will carry this “no printing” thing too far!

Much of the promised innovation has been around publishing shorter works, works that might not have lent themselves to printed versions anyway, but they also were a way to reach out to self-published authors. Now Italy’s RCS Libri has come up with a really imaginative use of no-inventory publishing — also in a genre — as a way to test not only the appeal of a new author’s work but also the ability of fledgling authors to promote it. The concept appears to have succeeded commercially on its first attempt; it will be interesting to see whether it can be replicated by RCS Libri and by other publishers in other countries.

RCS Libri  set up a new publishing arm called “Rizzoli Lab”, a new imprint dedicated to experiments in digital. For the first effort of Rizzoli Lab, they came up with a really nifty idea. It is a series of books called You Crime, by which RCS Libri is creating a new kind of collaboration they call “co-publishing”, by which they mean that they are combining the efforts of a publisher with the efforts authors provide as self-publishers.

You Crime has four published ebooks from Rizzoli Lab, each with four short crime stories within. Four of the sixteen stories, one in each book, are written by well known Italian crime writers. The other three stories in each book are by fledgling writers, whom the Rizzoli editors found by looking at submissions but then examining the authors’ presences on the Internet. They obviously have huge numbers of people who wish to publish with them. In addition to judging the writing quality of submissions and limiting to one genre (only crime: no romance, no fantasy), they tried to evaluate the authors’ attitude toward digital and their past experience with self-publishing. They refer to what they did as “digital editorial selection”. Since RCS Libri is investing in the entire initiative (and marketing of the series, but not author marketing) they wanted to be sure they had good content to offer to the readers and strong marketing efforts to let them know it was there. Of course, their editors knew how to judge quality content. What was new was the evaluation of the fledgling authors’ digital marketing potential.

According to Marcello Vena, the digital head at RCS Libri under whose leadership this has all happened, the established authors participated in the project at least partly because it provided interim exposure to the public between their major books. Of course, everybody got royalties and the established authors got a bigger share.

The twelve fledgling authors were charged with driving traffic, awareness, and sales of the book their work appeared in. Meanwhile, RCS Libri worked with the powerful national newspaper in their corporate family, Corriere della Sera, to promote the You Crime series generically and run its web site.

As it turned out, all four books in the You Crime series sold quite well. They all made the top 50 (among over 4,000 titles) for Rizzoli throughout the entire Italian ebook market (including in the Kindle store). RCS Libri promoted the series as a competition, like X-Factor. The fledgling authors were expected to add their title-promotion efforts to the series branding done by Rizzoli and Corriere della Sera. And now at least some of those writers will have their own full-length novels published by Rizzoli, having been introduced to the reading public through this vehicle.

Vena calls this new form of publishing “co-publishing”, where an established publisher effectively partners with aspiring writers, bringing established writers into the project to help with their content and their brands. He sees the authors and publisher as “co-responsible” for driving readers to the book.

I don’t know whether the competitive X-Factor aspect of this or the “co-publishing” label are the key elements. Of course, they might be. But, regardless of that, the concept of using established writers to entice sampling of new writers is definitely a very cool idea, and doing this in a “digital-first” publishing paradigm, seriously reducing investment risk, makes complete sense.

Obviously, we want to see this work again before we leap to the conclusion that it will work every time, or even regularly, but having four successes out of four and a large number of fledgling writers picked up for full-novel treatment is a powerful statement on behalf of an imaginative experiment. I think we should expect to see this tried again in other markets. And before too long.

Of course, we are putting together a panel including RCS Libri at Digital Book World 2014 to talk about “no inventory publishing”. That’s one of several pieces of programming we will have around “new models”. We’ll also feature leading innovative publishers and suppliers talking about subscriptions, new direct sales channels, agile content publishing models, and new product forms for non-narrative content. Register by November 8 for the best rate. 

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No-inventory publishing changes everything for everybody and nobody will escape making adjustments


A somewhat overwrought article in Wired calling ebooks an “abomination” because they “price people out of reading” provokes thinking about how much the business models for the trade book business are changing. The article’s weakness stems from its focus on the pricing decisions publishers are making in selling print and ebooks to libraries when those changes are taking place in a larger and indivisible context. The industry is finding less and less uniting what it has been for the past 70 years, since the end of World War II and the advent of paperbacks, and what it will be in a future that is already being disruptive but not necessarily clear.

This is reflected on a micro level in a discussion that arose at our Marketing Conference last week from a question asking “what is a book”? That question used to have a physical answer which described an object, not necessarily describing what content it contained. We’re getting away pretty fast from requiring a book to be printed and bound; the words of an author feel no less real or worthy to many of us coming from a screen. Screen delivery is also relieving the need for a book to have any minimum length, which printed books transacted individually require for physical (we want them thick enough to bind with a spine) and commercial (selling and tracking an individual item practically requires a minimum price) reasons.

I think the questioner in this case was also trying to pull us into a disussion of video, audio, interaction, and linking, which I resist for two reasons. One is that, so far, the preponderence of ebooks that have sold any appreciable quantities have not had any of those attributes. They’re just the same words as in the printed books made reflowable for a screen. The second is that my world is the world of book publishing. My belief is that if books were to become something heavily dependent on video and audio, they won’t be made by people who today are book publishers. They’ll be made by movie studios and animation houses and digital game creators. In that case, discussion of them belongs on some other blog.

Restricting one’s thinking to assume that the future of books encompass only digital versions of what has existed as a book for the past several hundred years doesn’t, by itself, make the future clear. The changes in business models and in the configuration of the industry provide plenty of potential variation that, from my perspective, is more useful (and more fun) to think about than trying to redefine the book itself.

One of the things that has characterized books for me is the incredible diversity of markets they reach. Trade publishing has always had remarkably low barriers to entry compared to other media. It has always been easier to publish a book and make it work on some level than to launch a newspaper or a magazine, or make a movie or a TV show or a record. It costs less and the distribution channels have always been relatively democratic and accessible to outsiders. The cash comes back slowly, and profits are often elusive, but you don’t need a fortune to publish a book.

Because books inherently require a small number of sales to make money (the breakeven point gets raised by big advances to authors, but, if the author guarantee is low, most books will recover core production costs on the sale of a few thousand copies and, in some cases, less than that), they frequently target what any other industry would consider mini-markets. A publisher that mines a niche can profit on something incredibly esoteric. For example, the chances are that Osprey, a military history publisher, has made money on books about wars you’ve never heard of. But their audience has and, because they know their audience, everybody wins.

The giant general trade publishers have built big and expensive machines that can make a book a mass sensation and put it in front of the public in a big way. Other publishers have pursued other models. HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster might pay big money to an author and build an organization that can maximize marketing impact on pub date. Other companies have specialized in a market like craft books or art books or computer books, not paying the same advances and necessarily having a different emphasis in their distribution and marketing strategies.

But what has united all the business models was the commitment to make and market a book, which meant printing inventory. The minimum investment to publish a book was much less than the minimum investment to publish a magazine or a newspaper or to make a film or a record. But there still was an investment.

And that brings us back to something that made books special for their authors: the prestige conferred by somebody (preferably somebody highly professional with a brand name like some publishers have) making a unique investment in their content. That’s an investment that’s not sold as part of a magazine, or on the back of a star’s name, but in one person’s work: the author’s. When the subject of what a book was came up at our conference, one observation from a publisher of books about public affairs was how much the speaking fees of their authors went up when a book of theirs was published. The mere fact of the book conferred credibility on the author that raised their value in the marketplace, regardless of how the book sold. (Or didn’t.)

This is something inherent to the definition of a “book”. This is, also, likely to change.

The core change in publishing economics that will ultimately change the shape of the commercial industry is that the already-low investment required to publish a book has plummeted even further. As printed books become less important, then the investment required to fund them becomes less important too. Already we have seen many authors — I’ve written about John Locke and hosted Hugh Howey on the Digital Book World stage, but there are scores of others — build a career as an author without any significant print sales. We have seen other authors with long backlists, some who had only achieved modest success for publishers, turning the opportunity for higher margins and direct audience contact into financial bonanzas in digital publishing.

Repeated demonstration of the fact that it is totally possible to achieve fame and fortune as a writer without a publisher does not escape the attention of any author. Many literary agencies, the players closest to the hopes and aspirations of narrative text book authors, have been gearing up to provide digital services, primarily at first for established authors who want to self-publish their backlists. But by doing this they also create leverage for their authors in their negotiations for bigger advances and better terms from publishers, and they stamp themselves as able to continue to serve an author who decides publishers are no longer for him or her.

That means that publishers, who would theoretically always have been interested in maximizing a book’s revenue for the author and themselves, are goaded more than ever to do so. That in turn means every aspect of the business model gets questioned. Are library ebooks cannibalizing the sales of ebooks from stores? Might they? The question has to be asked. Does the fact that ebooks don’t wear out with repeated lending, as printed books do, require some different policy to make a library pony up again for frequently-loaned book? (HarperCollins has introduced such a policy.) Should a library that uses its copy of an ebook to satisfy many readers pay more than an ebook reader who has practical (and contractual) barriers to sharing? (Random House is trying this.) While some authors are asking themselves whether publishers are essential for them anymore, which makes sense, doesn’t it also make sense for publishers to be thinking hard about how the digital revolution might change their relationship with libraries?

In fact, nobody in the value chain in between the author and the reader of a book can be complacent about their position: not the agent or publisher or library, but also, quite obviously, not the bookstore, online or physical. The printer and warehouse operator must expect a shrinking share of the book business. No-inventory publishing, by lowering the barriers to entry for a written book of narrative text nearly to zero, is assuring that an ecosystem built around the reality that book inventory was the industry’s greatest cost will change profoundly.

The assertion that ebooks are making books less affordable to most people is total hogwash. For every book not available to be lent as an ebook by a library, there are probably ten from established publishers that are half the price they were before, to the consumer and to the library. And there are countless others which would not have been published before available directly from authors, which their sales tell us are valued by many readers, that are dirt cheap, priced less than the commercial transaction system for print could even consider. And the books the author of the complaining article wrote about that come with higher prices or some sort of other licensing restrictions as ebooks, are still (at least for now) still available in print at the long-traditional prices and terms.

We’re going to see marketing departments of publishers expand and sales departments contract as book distribution patterns change. We’re going to see more and more commercially viable titles launched with a no- or little-inventory-in-place model, starting with ebooks and print-on-demand availability as a low-risk launch strategy. We’re going to see books launched as serials, growing to a length determined by audience response, not based on a pre-publication plan. We’re going to see booksellers and libraries publishing and publishers building on book audiences to sell other things. And we’re going to see more and more virtual sources of books for consumers: publishers selling direct, of course, but also did you notice that Tesco is now in the game?

We’re going to see a lot of change as players of all sizes, in all parts of the publishing value chain, adjust to the “weightlessness” of a business shedding and shifting its biggest capital requirement: inventory cost. Picking on one tactic or another by one player or another, particularly from the perspective of preserving legacy behavior, is not likely to be very illuminating or helpful. The ability to put a book into the marketplace in a way that can reach more than half its audience with no inventory investment, making it possible to sell books and rights globally and only later, if it is warranted, put a bigger bet down on the book — combined with the increasing number of entities that have knowledge that could inform content and direct contact with a real market — is going to be transformative. Everybody in the chain but the author and the reader are fighting for their lives.

Smart publishers recognize that they have to completely rethink their business models and propositions in a no-inventory publishing world. Authors and agents are doing the same thing. So are many bookstores and libraries. The players in the publishing ecosystem who don’t rethink their business practices in fundamental ways will probably be relieved of the burden of thinking about them at all before long.

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Finding the right digital services is today’s challenge for publishers


The era of digital change in publishing has given rise to a slew of service propositions to help publishers with their new infrastructure needs. This is both essential and also nothing new. It has always been necessary for publishers to execute on core needs by getting help at scale. There was a time when publishers owned their own printing presses or were started by printers. When my father was hired by Doubleday in 1951, his first job there involved oversight of printing facilities they had in Garden City, Long Island. I don’t know when they stopped owning presses, but they certainly did so into the 1970s.

Smaller publishers have leaned heavily on larger publishers or service companies for distribution for several decades. Even before that (and still today), independent commissioned sales reps were available to help publishers too small to have “house reps” get orders from bookstores scattered far and wide across the landscape.

In the era of digital change, there have risen a whole new crop of services. But unlike typesetting, printing, and sales representation, which were services to deliver processes that were relatively stable and well-understood by the publishers who were buying them, even what is needed to accommodate digital change is a constantly-shifting landscape.

And just like the smaller publishers were the ones who needed distribution deals and commissioned reps, it is the publishers below the Big Five level that can gain the biggest benefits from the various service providers solving the problems posed by the digital transition.

Publishing services, aside from marketing, fall into three buckets:

* Digital Asset Distribution: services that “warehouse” a publisher’s digital IP, push it out to customers or intermediaries, and account for the transactions that occur;

* Editorial/Production: services that help publishers and agents organize new digital workflows that make smart use of XML-coding for identification and production, put into electronic form what might now only exist in print, and store and manage “digital assets” so they can be recombined and reused as needed;

* Rights and Royalties: services that help publishers keep clear what rights they own and where they’re licensed, make sure the licensees account properly and pay on time, and provide the necessary data to inform the contractually-interested author of this activity. And digital is making permissions activity explode with publishers having more and more tiny transactions to keep track, both bringing things in and licensing things out.

There is the potential for overlap. Since the “DAD” (provider of digital asset distribution services) is putting IP into a database, some publishers have attempted to use the DAD database as a DAM (digital asset management) system, which we’re suggesting is a core element of the editorial/production function. The DAD might be shipping off a file to complete a rights transaction which could be tracked separately from a “sale”; we see sales as part of what a DAD does and rights as something separate. In an ideal world, which few companies are in yet, these talk to each other seamlessly.

As always in our industry, the lines between functions depend a bit on which publishing company you’re talking about.

Digital Asset Distribution

By this point, most publishers small and large have had to solve the challenge of finding a digital asset distributor. But even somebody who has been distributed for some time will be finding new questions arising constantly.

How does a DAM for your assets work with a DAD pushing out products?
Can you “do it yourself” instead of paying for services? What risks would that entail?
How does your DAD help maximize sales through metadata? Do you need to change metadata for a title over time?
How do you manage metadata across channels?
What metadata do you need for the supply chain, and what metadata makes your products more discoverable and desirable to the marketplace?
How do you future-proof your processes and technology?
How do you make sure you reach international markets?
How hard is it to switch DAD vendors?
What are the challenges to making bulk or individual sales direct?
How can you be sure that you’re getting the broadest possible distribution and reaching new sales channels?
How can you be sure that you’ll be able to manage new digital formats and product types as they arise?

Many houses got started with digital distribution without feeling an immediate need for changing their entire editorial and production workflow. After all, everybody had print workflows in place and probably started making and selling ebooks when they were a small fraction of their total sales, not the big chunk they are now, so changing the print workflow wouldn’t have seemed sensible when they started. But, increasingly, publishers are seeing the value in reconfiguring their whole editorial process, which in turn creates a new set of challenges. It has been about five years since we did our “StartWithXML” conferences and white papers with O’Reilly, but many houses are just getting familiar with XML: a markup language that, if used right, can make outputting both print and digital products faster and cheaper.

Editorial/Production

The service providers for editorial and production have gotten increasingly sophisticated along with the publishers, but even the more experienced publishers face difficult questions as they choose suppliers for these services.

With “born digital” content, how can you be sure to get good XML?
With “born digital” content, what’s the best way to get a print PDF?
What’s the best way to work when you’re starting with the print version?
How do the roles of editor and managing editor change in a digital workflow?
How can you get more mileage out of your investment?
Repurposing? Selling smaller chunks? Combining chunks to create new products?
Can you get more value out of your backlist?
What’s best outsourced? What’s best kept in house?
How can complex, illustrated, and reference content be digitized efficiently and effectively?
How can publishers be sure content works across platforms and devices?
What can trade pubs learn from textbook publishers about digital products?
How do you build the tagging you need into the workflow?
How far should you go with snazzy enhancements like interactivity and multimedia?
What are best practices for storing and managing assets for new format/product creation, reuse, and recombination?

Rights and Royalties

Publishers manage, produce, and distribute an increasingly complex range of products, challenging traditional contracts, permissions, rights licensing, and royalty practices. The management of rights and royalties with a digital database is not something that needed to wait for digital products to begin, and in some places the shift from paper in file cabinets to rights information accessible in the computer was done years ago. But, in most places it was not. And even in the places where it was, the shift in what rights are traded and under what circumstances has been driven by the changing digital marketplace and was often not anticipated, even by publishers far-sighted enough to database their contracts many years ago.

So the rights managers in publishing houses and the literary agents that sell publishers rights have their own questions.

How do you accommodate future rights usages in contracts and metadata?
How do you deal with legacy contracts?
What’s the best way to create a working rights database of legacy rights?
How granular do you get—just title rights, or rights for components (chapters, images)?
What’s the best way to database rights going forward?
What’s best practice for consistency of language in contracts around rights?
What’s the best way to maximize revenue from RROs worldwide?
How do you deal with an explosion of permission requests?
How do you deal with the mushrooming number of permissions you’ve secured to take content in?
How does staffing and training for rights change in a 21st century rights workflow?
What do you do when you don’t have digital rights to things (like images) in books you want to publish digitally?

As complex as all the challenges under each of these three headings are, they all still qualify as “parity” functions. A parity function is something you can’t gain much competitive advantage from doing better than the next guy, but which can really hurt your business if you fail at it. The wisdom about parity functions is that they are almost always best delegated to a specialist that will focus on doing them in a world-class way.

The right answers to these questions are almost never universal. They depend on all sorts of circumstances local to the publishing operation seeking them.

So the challenge for book publishing operators is to understand the particular needs of their operation — different if you do more illustrated books; different if you sell more rights than the average publisher; different if you re-use and repackage material regularly — and to find the supplier combinations that cover their requirements efficiently.

With our partners at Digital Book World, Cader’s and my Publishers Launch Conferences has organized a Publishing Services Expo to take place on September 26 in NYC to address all these challenges. PSE will be three mini-conferences, one on each of the three areas discussed in this piece. We’ll have presentations from experts at publishing houses who are managing these functions addressing all the issues. Then we’ll have speed-dating: an opportunity for attendees to meet sponsoring service providers and the experts in 15-minute roundtable conversations where each attendee can get his or her own particular questions answered. Tickets to PSE are cheap so it will be worth it even if you only need help with one or two of the three service areas we’ll cover.

Our session captains: Ted Hill of THA Consulting for Digital Asset Distribution, Bill Kasdorf of Apex for Editorial/Production, and Ashley Mabbitt of Wiley for Rights and Royalties, are among the most knowledgeable operators in our industry. They will summarize the issues, moderate the publishers in conversation, and will be available themselves during the speed-dating sessions to answer questions. If any of the questions in this post are meaningful to you, circle the date, September 26, and come to PSE and get them answered. Register here. (It’s the second option.)

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