Licensing and Rights

Penguin Random House does its competitors a favor by walking away from subscription


I sometimes feel like I’m the only guy in town (NYC, but I’d include London too) contemplating out loud how Penguin Random House might use its position as by far the biggest commercial trade publisher to make life a bit more difficult for its competitors, which in the first instance means the Following Four: HarperCollins (which is much bigger than the other three), Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan.

What I mean, of course, is that PRH could use its position to either improve its margins in relation to everybody else or to create proprietary distribution. Either way, it would expand its ability to make money on books, fueling further its ability to outbid rivals for attractive properties. That’s why, when I looked at the Amazon agreement with Hachette and Simon & Schuster and the story of those negotiations, I thought first about whether they would tempt PRH to push for a better deal with Amazon than its rivals got.

The two most “obvious” opportunities for them to me, one of which appears to be anything but obvious to the people running PRH, are to build PRH-only general bookstores inside other retailers using VMI (vendor-managed inventory) and to start a PRH-only subscription service. They’ve never commented so I could hear it on my suggestion of the former; they continue to make it abundantly clear that they don’t share my opinion about the latter.

A NY-based executive of PRH told me a year ago that I had the subscription thing all wrong. From PRH’s perspective, it is unwise to offer a service and pricing plan that seems designed to give substantial discounts to your very best customers: those who buy and read many books. This is not a crazy perspective. If PRH sells about half the commercial books, then, on average, they get half the sales from these heavy book readers. Why would they want to help them reduce their book spending?

Last week, Tom Weldon, the CEO of PRH in the UK, issued an emphatic dismissal of the subscription idea. Weldon was speaking with Bookseller editor Philip Jones at the British digital publishing event, Futurebook. And The Bookseller reported it.

Weldon said: “We have two problems with subscription. We are not convinced it is what readers want. ‘Eat everything you can’ isn’t a reader’s mindset. In music or film you might want 10,000 songs or films, but I don’t think you want 10,000 books.”

Weldon also said the company did not “understand the business model”, and who made money. But he acknowledged that subscription could work “in certain markets around the world in emerging economies where access to books and bookshops is extremely limited”.

Nobody has more respect for the intellect and professionalism throughout Penguin Random House than I do, and that certainly includes Tom Weldon, whom I had the opportunity to meet once over a business lunch. But in this case, and assuming (as I do) that Weldon is speaking for his colleagues as well as himself, they seem just about 100 percent wrong. (And, of course, it is obvious that there are people in the home office at Bertelsmann who also don’t agree with him, since they power the German ebook subscription service, Skoobe.)

Weldon is absolutely right that the consumer case for a reading subscription is not as powerful as it is for subscriptions to music or video. Particularly when comparing with music, the point that having access to many thousands of choices all the time is not nearly as valuable for books is totally correct.

But making the leap from that that “it is not what readers want” is a totally unproductive generalization. SOME readers want it, and Oyster, Scribd, and Amazon (as well as 24Symbols, Bookmate, and others) are signing them up. The Oyster and Scribd subscribers will have HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster books to choose from but none from PRH. It won’t take a data scientist to prove that PRH will lose market share among those readers to competitors.

Perhaps Oyster and Scribd will fail. Is PRH essentially predicting that? Is PRH counting on that? Are they assuming that’s what will happen? It would certainly seem from the combination of their non-participation and Weldon’s remarks that they are. (Of course, it is also possible that Harper and S&S also think the subscription services will fail, but they don’t mind getting some revenue for themselves and their authors in the meantime.)

But it is the second objection that is most mystifying. Weldon is saying he doesn’t get the business model, which reinforces the idea that he doesn’t believe in it and expects the big subscription services to fail. But that is not an explanation for why Random House wouldn’t do this themselves. By definition, if a publisher starts a subscription offering for its own books, it is not the same business model as a third party offering it. There is one fewer entity feeding at the same trough. Oyster has to make enough money for themselves and for the publishers and authors whose works they peddle. Random House would only have to make sure their authors were whole, or maybe a little better than whole, and they could keep the rest.

Cutting out the intermediary supply chain, there’s a lot of vig in there for PRH to be able to give consumers a reason to subscribe to a service that provides only PRH books without costing authors a penny.

The joker in the deck, of course, which Oyster and Scribd would only be too glad to point out, is the customer acquisition cost. But even if PRH didn’t want to recruit subscribers for such a service by promoting it on the books themselves — certainly the most efficient and direct way to reach their customers — out of concern for how it would be received by the retailers selling their books, it has all sorts of ways to get the word out about what should be a bargain for many of their readers. Penguin Random House has been building its database for direct customer contact for years. It can reach literally millions of readers virtually free, and in many cases would know the names of their favorite authors which is nice ammo for the subject line of an email to get it opened and read. And it also has millions of page views through author sites, both those PRH controls and those where an author could be recruited to help.

And unlike the other services. PRH wouldn’t have to maintain a whole apparatus to make deals to bring in the content; they’re already doing that! Presuming they could make the right white label deal to manage the subscription service, they wouldn’t really have a “critical mass” issue either. And instead of being on the outside looking in as the extant subscription services sign up readers they could only get access to by putting their books into somebody else’s proprietary platform, they’d be building their own unique distribution that nobody else would have.

And, frankly, a service offering all of Penguin Random House’s books, whether they put in the new ones or not, would deliver a selection at least comparable and perhaps superior to any existing subscription service.

Why they’d simply dismiss this idea is very hard to understand.

Reading tea leaves, I have gotten the impression that PRH is preparing a licensing program to make its content available for use in schools, another very disruptive thing they could do by themselves that could only be effective for their competitors in combination with each other somehow. Maybe my tea leaf reading is wrong; we’ll see if that comes down the pike in the coming months or not. Of course, this kind of subscription licensing is completely different, and they could well believe that the customers do want this and that the business model makes sense.

It has seemed to me for some time that all of the Big Five houses could peddle a subscription service for kids ebooks that would be a reliable generator of cash flow and customer acquisition as well. Many parents would love to be able to let their young kids take the iPad in hand and “buy” books, as long as they weren’t actually spending any money. The big houses all have extensive juvie publishing programs. Each one could offer a subscription service that would keep many kids amused for months. It could be a “totally cool” 6th (or 5th or 8th) birthday present. While it is true that there are others competing for the kids’ market, any of the Big Five could pull something like this together very inexpensively and, over time, build a customer base that would be both proprietary and lucrative.

With the number of ebook subscription services for consumers proliferating, surely the tech to try this out on a smaller scale is getting cheaper and more accessible. In fact, if Weldon is right, and the subscription business model is wrong, then maybe even Oyster or Scribd will want to build a service provision model into their next pivot. And if they succeed, imitators in many ways will follow.

Subscription is here as a tool to sell ebooks that any publisher totally ignores at its peril. And whether it ultimately becomes a significant channel for general trade ebooks or not, it will be tried in many forms and many ebooks will be moved that way in the years to come.

We have a great panel discussion on subscriptions at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. It will be moderated by Ted Hill, who co-authored a BISG study on subscriptions earlier in 2014 that is looking increasingly prescient. Ted will have both Oyster and Scribd on the panel along with two publishers providing them with books, Simon & Schuster and Kensington. Kensington, being a non-agency publisher with no choice in the matter, is also a provider to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. The discussion will be prefaced by a quick presentation from Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper around what Bookscan has learned about the reading patterns in subscription services. This should be a very informative discussion.

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Amazon and Hachette have settled so there will be no big bang change in the publishing business model


It looks like Big Publishing will maintain its grip, which the most zealous of the indie author militia refer to as a “cartel”, on major authors and big books for another several years. What looked from the outside (where we all are if we’re not involved in the negotiations) to have been an attempt by Amazon to largely reset the terms of trade between publishers and the world’s dominant book retailer appears to have been postponed for a few years.

We don’t know — or certainly I don’t know — precisely what Amazon wanted from Hachette in the negotiations that became a public spat last Spring. All we know is that whatever they asked for (or demanded) was sufficiently onerous to make Hachette take an enormous amount of pain to resist it. The standoff held for six months.

The standoff wasn’t pain-free for Amazon either, although it certainly didn’t have nearly an equivalent commercial impact. Amazon could have expected when the dispute started that Hachette authors would pressure their publisher to settle. They could also have expected public attention to focus on Amazon “fighting for lower prices”. Neither of these things happened and, in fact, Amazon was demonized for their tactics by some pretty high-profile writers. And, although it was almost certainly unrelated to the impact of the Hachette fight, Amazon themselves had some tough financial reporting to weather during this period.

In any case, there was no way Amazon could use the same set of tactics they used on Hachette with another publisher at the same time, and it would appear they didn’t try. Simon & Schuster and Amazon came to a deal last month which both sides suggest they’re pleased with. When that deal was announced, it seemed likely to me that anything S&S would accept, Hachette probably would too (and would have at any point). With the announcement yesterday that Hachette and Amazon have now come to terms, and with the wording of the deal announcement being so similar (but not precisely the same) to what was said when the S&S deal was announced, it would appear that surmise has been justified.

Where the announcements diverge is that it was suggested that S&S has ceded Amazon some limited rights to “discount” from the publisher-set pricing but that suggestion was absent from the Hachette announcement. The more limited the discounting allowed, of course, the more the new arrangement constitutes “agency as it was intended to be”. But forbidding discounting is a double-edged sword. It “protects” print-in-bookstores from price competition from ebooks, but it also potentially disadvantages those price-protected books in the ebook market against other ebooks.

(Of course, an agency publisher can lower prices themselves, but if they do it that way, they reduce their share and the retailer’s share proportionately. If they “allow” discounting, the retailer does it entirely out of their part of the sale price.)

I would now expect that Macmillan, which is about the same size as Hachette and Simon & Schuster, will be offered and will accept a similar deal and probably so will HarperCollins, although they are more than twice the size of these others. How each of these houses will view “strict” agency versus “looser” agency is an open question.

But Penguin Random House is in a different position. Now that it has been demonstrated that Amazon’s most muscular tactics didn’t bring Hachette to heel, why wouldn’t PRH, which is several times the size of Hachette, look for a contract that gives them some real separation from the rest of the pack either in terms of their margins or to get more aggressive with discounting through publishers’ biggest account? Let’s remember that Random House originally outflanked the others tactically in 2010 by sticking with wholesale when everybody else went to agency, putting their ebooks in a price-advantaged position and scoring millions in extra sales as a result.

The overall direction of the book market continues to tilt toward Amazon. Although the dual shifts to ebooks from print and to purchasing of print online rather than in bookstores have slowed down sharply in the past couple of years, the chances are those trends have not yet run their course. It is not a guarantee that those shifts will continue to grow Amazon’s market share but they certainly favor them. It would seem somewhat more likely that Kindle will suffer some competitive erosion as multi-function devices gain more of the ebook share than the online bookstore will, but the chances are that both will continue to grow their share. And, at the same time, the self-published share of the market will continue to grow, mostly to Amazon’s advantage, and so will the impact of other Amazon initiatives including their lending library and subscription service.

The reset ambitions that might have been somewhat premature in 2014 may be achievable in 2018.

But a lot can happen between now and then. Four years is a long time. Four years ago, Random House was still gaming the agency system and Nook was gaining market share by leaps and bounds. Four years before that, there was really no ebook business at all.

Assuming that Macmillan and HarperCollins make a deal similar to what Hachette and S&S have done, the big publishers have little to fear from their biggest trading partner for the next few years. But how they’ll cope with their biggest competitor, particularly if PRH gains either additional margin or greater flexibility around discounting compared to the others, might move to the top of their list of concerns.

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Frankfurt is still vast, but it seems to be getting smaller


I’ve spent more than half-a-year of my life in Frankfurt, one week at a time. My first Fair was 1976 so this would have been my 39th if I attended them all. I think I missed two, so that’s 37. I love it and I get enormous commercial benefit from it. I can’t understand people who are in our business who don’t; it attracts the top executives from just about every publishing company in the world.

But, like just about everything in our business, it is affected by the digital revolution.

It stands to reason that gatherings of publishing people (or any other kind, really) that require travel time and expense should diminish in a world where email and Skype and Google Hangouts are a normal part of everyday life. But the venerable events just keep going on. It was more than five years ago that I wondered how long BEA could last. They have an extreme challenge because BEA’s DNA is that it is for publishers to show their wares to bookstores, and the number of bookstores has dropped precipitously for years. And London Book Fair, despite venue issues over the years which have them moving again next year, seemed from my visit last April still to be going strong.

The concerns I expressed five years ago that BEA might disappear have, so far, proven unfounded. Good show management that has brought in other players ranging from bloggers to meetings of BISG and IDPF, digital publishing’s trade association, have, at the very least, postponed what seemed to me to be inevitable. Of course, they have their own venue change to navigate and it will be a tougher one because they’re leaving NYC for Chicago in 2016. That is going to be extremely disruptive.

Frankfurt is an entirely different beast. It is really two mega-events that stretch over five exhibit days: Wednesday through Sunday. Set-up day is Tuesday, so it is really a week-long commitment. For the global book trade, and specifically for those of us in the English-speaking world that are the dominant players in worldwide publishing, it is a unique opportunity to trade rights face-to-face, on metaphorical steroids. Books published in English can have anywhere from zero to a dozen or more foreign language editions which, cumulatively, can bring in very significant revenues. What Frankfurt has done for us for years is provide an efficient venue for those deals to get made.

For German publishers, however, Frankfurt is also an opportunity to meet the public. For the non-German exhibitors and attendees, this is mostly a nuisance but a minor one because the English-language hall has been as far as is geographically possible in the Messegelende (which is about a dozen Javits- or McCormick Place-sized buildings on a vast campus connected by buses and moving walkways; 5-7 minute walks from one meeting to the next can be minimized by experienced fairgoers’ planning, but are unavoidable) from the hall which houses the Germans. (Art book, sci-tech, and other language publishers are a lot closer.)

Global companies use Frankfurt as an opportunity to hold global meetings. I could see on the meeting signboard at my hotel that Hachette and Quarto had meeting rooms booked for the day before the Fair opened from 9 to 5. These are senior management meetings that bring the heads of various regions into the same room; the rights directors and acquiring editors who will be working hard at the Fair aren’t necessarily part of those conversations. This is built into the travel rhythms of the big global companies. And the CEOs are often not fully occupied at the Fair itself. I don’t know if it is part of Frankfurt’s marketing plan to help facilitate these global meetings, but it should be. It cements the commitment of the biggest companies to that spot on the calendar.

(By the way, the global meetings combined with the long-in-advance planning publishers do for Frankfurt make it particularly challenging to run a successful conference ahead of the Fair. Michael Cader and I had a Publishers Launch event for three years — we didn’t do it this year — and both recruiting speakers and gathering an audience was harder than it has been for any other event we’ve done. People schedule their Frankfurt time tightly, and in advance, so you have to have powerful programming posted well before the event to compel people to plan to take a full day of Frankfurt time to attend.)

But it was really obvious this year that Frankfurt — at least that part of it which is about English-language publishers buying and selling with non-English markets — is shrinking.

I stay at the (now Meridien) ParkHotel, which has the Casablanca Bar off the lobby. It has, for years, been the main hangout for the Brits at Frankfurt and, in years past, you could hardly get through the lobby to your room on Tuesday night, Wednesday night, or Thursday night. This year, the crowd hardly spilled out of the bar at all.

But what was really stark was the empty Halle 8 (this year for the last time, the English-language hall) on Friday. Up until about ten years ago, Frankfurt ran through Monday morning and Sunday was the last “real” day of action. My pal Charlie Nurnberg of Sterling was always the last big US executive there working; he always made deals there on Sunday. The biggest big shots had all gone home, and Charlie made himself accessible to lots of smaller players, who were delighted to sell to (or buy from) Sterling. The important point is that there were people for him to meet that day to do business with. Powerful people went home early, but lots of business was still being done.

People hated staying through Monday so the Fair in one recent year relented and eliminated the Monday, and Sunday became the last day. Pretty rapidly, Sunday became a desolate day. This was so much the case that in the past couple of years I’ve managed to persuade Gwyn Headley of fotoLibra, my British pal with whom I share a stand and then — most years — drive back to London, that we could leave on Saturday afternoon and get back to London on Sunday evening, rather than doing it all 24 hours later.

Doing this requires some arranging. The story is that you get “fined” if you abandon your stand early. (I have seen lots of deserted stands over the years and I haven’t actually met anybody who admitted to having been fined. But I have friends who work for the Frankfurt Book Fair, I have partnered with them on conferences — I know them — and they all insist to me that it is true, so I take it seriously. I never yet left not wanting to have my stand again next year so I figure they can enforce the fine.) To avoid that problem, you hire a local young person to sit at your stand. They can’t do any business for you, of course, but they prevent you from being fined. This year doing that cost me 180 Euros. It’s worth it to get back to London a day earlier.

In the past few years since Monday was eliminated, Saturday became quieter but Friday continued to be kinetic and active. It was well known that the top execs, particularly the British ones, left after Thursday, but top editors and marketers were there in force through Friday. Not this year. Friday was the new Saturday. My Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy and I had a dozen meetings or more each day on Wednesday and Thursday. I had three on Friday. I had none on Saturday. We made a wisely efficient decision having Pete go home on Friday morning. (Frankly, his time is much more valuable than mine.)

You could have rolled a bowling ball down just about any aisle in Halle 8 on Friday and not broken any legs.

This is not really surprising. Global rights trading used to be an annual event, particularly for illustrated book packagers and publishers who had bulky samples and boards that needed to be seen for decisions to get made. Now it is a continuous effort with PDFs easily moved around the world in milliseconds. And that’s on top of the fact that there are fewer and fewer illustrated books and a consequent reduction in illustrated book packagers and publishers.

Next year the English-language publishers move from Halle 8 to Halle 6. On one hand, this takes us closer to the rest of the Fair and we do a lot of business with Europeans who will be more proximate as a result. It moves the English-language publishing world closer to the kids’ books publishing world (and they overlap, of course) and that’s good. But it also takes us from a hall where we’re all on one floor to one with a smaller footprint where we have to navigate three floors. Going up and down escalators only might pad time between meetings by three minutes or five, but when you’re scheduling a sit-down every 30 minutes (as many of us do, at least on Wednesday and Thursday), that can mean reducing the productive time by 15 percent or more.

And while it puts us considerably closer to the tram stop that can take us into the Fair, it also puts the German public which uses that same tram that much closer to us as well. This is going to be particularly disruptive to the b-to-b trade business on Saturday and Sunday.

The Frankfurt Book Fair will remain an indispensable stop for the global publishing community, but it might have a real battle on its hands trying to remain a five-day event. I don’t have 37 more Frankfurts to go, but I think I’ll see more changes in publisher behavior around it before I’m done than I’ve seen since I started attending.

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Big publisher bashing again with fictional facts


The estimable Clay Shirky has written a lengthy piece called “Amazon, Publishers, and Readers” on medium.com saying, essentially, that an Amazon-dominated world would be an improvement over the Big Five “cartel”-dominated world of publishing we have today. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Big Five are not nearly as broad a cartel as Amazon — which reaches way beyond the consumer books they publish — is a monopsony. Amazon touches much more of the book business than the Big Five publishers do. To make his case, Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation to get from his own impression of the current Hachette-Amazon dispute (about which he says “Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact”) to a completely different conclusion.

My complaint with the facts and logic start at the top: with the two paragraphs Shirky uses to set up his argument and establishes the “holier-than” context for his position. He says:

Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.

Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to protect first editions; as long as ebook prices remained high, hardback sales could be protected. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.

Almost every sentence of this is subtly or blatantly wrong.

1. Publishers did not begin selling large numbers of books in digital format in 2007. Amazon started Kindle in late November 2007. Significant sales of ebooks didn’t start to occur until after Christmas and continued to grow rapidly thereafter.

2. Although an uninformed person would be led to infer from reading this that DRM was somehow created for Amazon, in fact DRM was routinely used for ebooks for their entire existence before Kindle. DRM on Kindle continued current practice; DRM was not created for Kindle or at Kindle’s behest.

3. DRM maintains pricing power for content owners as well as hardware vendors. In fact, I’d say it is more for the content owner than for the hardware owner. What it does for the hardware owner, particularly Amazon because they eschew the industry standard Adobe, is lock customers into their ecosystem. Of course, it is that lock-in that Shirky is telling publishers they can overcome by going DRM-free. (This precise antidote to Amazon was offered up by Matteo Berlucchi, then the CEO of Anobii, at a talk we put him on stage to give at Digital Book World in 2012.) In fact, it is not transparent that eliminating DRM would curb Amazon; it might fuel them. How well would the other retailers stand up to Amazon having easy access to their customers? Because that would happen at the same time.

4. Publishers did not believe — let alone “clearly assumed” — they were handing Amazon any sort of consolidated control. Perhaps that was a failure of vision, but it was a justifiable expectation since nobody had succeeded at selling ebooks before Kindle.

5. Amazon’s discounting was entirely at their own expense and was a tactic designed, at least originally, to sell devices and create captive customers. The publishers’ “inflated profits” (if that’s what they were) were not at issue in 2007 or 2008. So Amazon “sided with the customer”, but they also “sided with their own interests”. Some might say that’s not relevant; I think it is. Either way, it should be acknowledged, not elided or ignored.

6. Amazon was partly enabled to give the big discounts to consumers because publishers gave discounts too big to them, foolishly aping the print book business model even though a retailer’s costs drop much more than a publisher’s do with the change to digital. Stock turn is the key profitability metric for retailers. Stock turn on digital books is “infinity”. (I’d note that these are small points in this piece but are really really big points that go ignored in most of the discussions about ebook economics, which are almost always “fails” at understanding the core economics of publishers or retailers.)

7. The reduction in publisher revenue per book sold which resulted from Agency pricing (pejoratively characterized by Shirky as “colluded with Apple” rather than the at-least-equally accurate “using Apple’s established app store business model”) was not due to “Apple’s cut”. “Apple’s cut” was less than “Amazon’s cut” had been under the wholesale model. And, if you doubt that, you should take note that Amazon prefers not to switch to “Apple’s cut” so they don’t allow any but the biggest publishers to sell on the agency model with its lower margin. (Publishers can get 70% of net direct through KDP, but they have to stick to the $2.99-$9.99 price band and are at the mercy of KDP’s terms.)

8. It is misleading to attribute the publishers’ desire to keep “hardbacks” (really, all print) alive as a desire to protect “first editions”. It was primarily a desire to protect the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It should be said that way for accuracy but also to make the motivations of the sides clear. Publishers want to strengthen or maintain bookstores because their ability to reach them is a core competence that keeps them in business. Amazon wants to weaken or eliminate bookstores because it is clearly established that many customers of each bookstore that closes come to them. Another motivation for the publishers was to maintain a diverse ebook ecosystem, which at that time had just added Nook to its ranks and was about to add Apple. It is likely that Amazon’s discounting — thanks to the DoJ’s and court’s actions weakening agency — did as much to weaken Nook as any mistakes made by Barnes & Noble. And let’s not forget that Kobo has also abandoned active marketing in the US ebook market since then as well.

The other piece of Shirky’s screed that is misleading and inaccurate is his history of paperbacks.

Whether you date the beginning of paperbacks in the US to Pocket Books’s founding and Penguin’s establishing itself in the US in 1939 or to the period right after World War II when paperback publishing writ large discovered the magazine distribution system and really took off, there were decades between their arrival on the scene and their consolidation into the larger book business under joint ownership with hardcover houses. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that, to the degree that the ebook disruption is analogous to the paperback disruption, the reaction would be even more extreme on the part of the incumbent establishment dealing with the lightning-quick change that has transpired since ebooks took off in 2008.

And that is quite aside from the fact that the paperback revolution was not 60-to-70 percent controlled by a single account that also controlled a substantial and growing chunk of the rest of the book sales as well. Be that as it may, Shirky is simply factually wrong to say that what happened was that the hardcover houses just bought up the paperback houses and consolidated them into the existing business. The acquisitions took place in both directions. In at least three cases, the paperback house bought the hardcover house (Avon bought Morrow, Penguin bought Viking, and Bantam bought Doubleday) in order to assure themselves a steady supply of good books.

And before the consolidation even began, real troubles had started to develop with the distribution through the magazine ecosystem. Returns were climbing (that is why prices of paperbacks went up) and paperback publishers were finding they needed to sell directly to many accounts, which made them more like the hardcover publishers. And over the couple of decades between the end of World War II and the beginnings of consolidation, almost every “hardcover” house had started doing its own “trade” paperbacks: not rack-sized and sold through the same network that sold hardcover books.

In other words, the analogy is not analogous in many important ways.

It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”.

Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”. It seemed like Shirky himself tried to dismiss that idea near the opening of his piece, when he attacks Steve Coll for writing “about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes”, which Shirky describes as maintaining the current “elites” or seeing Amazon become a “soul-crushing monopoly”. But that is precisely where he ends up. To look at things this way rejects not only what the publishers keep trying to tout as their “added values” (curation and editing, yes, but also marketing, distribution, and rights management) but it also ignores the interests of academic and professional publishing, textbook publishing, bookstores, and a diverse book retailing — and therefore book recommending — ecosystem.

There will be many Hachettes fighting their version of this battle over the next few years. But there will only be one Amazon.

Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.com is joining us for an interview by Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and me at Digital Book World 2015, coming up next January 14-15. 

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Amazon channels Orwell in its latest blast


Anybody who reads Amazon’s latest volley in the Amazon-Hachette war and then David Streitfeld’s takedown of it on the New York Times’s web site will know that Amazon — either deliberately or with striking ignorance — distorted a George Orwell quote to make it appear that he was against low-priced paperbacks when he was actually for them.

This recalls the irrelevant but delicious irony that the one time Amazon exercised its ability to claw back ebooks it had sold was when they discovered that they were selling unauthorized ebooks of Orwell’s “1984”. The right thing to do was exactly what they did: pull back the copyright-violating ebooks and refund the money to the purchasers. This (apparently) one-time event has often been cited as some sort of generic fault with ebooks, as though ebook vendors would make a practice of taking back what they had sold their customers. This was a case where Amazon was villified in some quarters for doing the right thing which simply adds to the irony.

However, the most misleading aspect of the Amazon piece is not the Orwellian treatment of Orwell, but the twisted metaphor in which the low-priced ebook is the low-priced paperback of today’s world. (The analogy was one I wrote about three years ago with, I think somewhat more care for the facts.) Yes, they were both new formats with a lower cost basis that enabled a lower retail price to yield positive margins. And there’s one other striking similarity: they both unleashed a spate of genre fiction to satisfy the demand for the format, largely because the rights to higher-value books were not available for the cheaper format, but also because lower prices attract some readers more than others. But that is where the similarities end.

This argument against Hachette, using authors as proxies and lower-prices-for-consumers as the indisputable public good, once again employs two logical fallacies that are central to their argument that Hachette (and its parent company, invoked to give the appearance of relative equality of size between the combatants, which is still nowhere near the case) is craven and muleheaded and that Amazon is merely engaged in a fight for right.

1. Amazon’s logic is entirely internal to Amazon. It does not attempt to take into account, or even acknowledge, that publishers and their authors are dependent on other channels besides Amazon. And, in fact, the publishers and authors know for sure that the more the sales do concentrate within Amazon, the more their margins will be reduced.

2. The price elasticity statistics they invoke (for the second time in as many public statements), which are also entirely internal to Amazon, are averages. They don’t even offer us a standard deviation so we can get a sense of what share of the measured titles are near the average, let alone a genre- and topic-specific breakdown which would show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that many Hachette books would not achieve the average elasticity rate. See if you can find anybody with an ounce of statistical sophistication who thinks a book by Malcolm Gladwell has the same price elasticity as a romance or sci-fi novel by a relatively unknown author.

The actual history of the paperback in America contains elements of what Amazon claims. It actually begins after World War II, not before (although Penguin began in this country in 1939). During World War II, under the leadership of historian and renaissance man Philip Van Doren Stern, the military made 25 cent paperbacks available to the troops. That introduced the idea to the masses and after the war several mass-market paperback houses started.

They distributed through the magazine distribution network: local wholesalers that “pushed” copies of printed material to newsstands and other intermediaries who took their distribution of copies, displayed them until the next edition of the magazine would come out, and then sent back the covers to get credit for what was not sold. The first paperback books had a similar short shelf life in that distribution environment.

What made the cheap prices possible were several factors:

1. The books themselves were frequently formulaic and short and therefore cheap for the publisher to buy. The universe of titles for the first several years was, aside from classics from the public domain, a different set of titles than those sold by mainline publishers through bookstores.

2. There was no expensive negotiation between publishers and the accounts over an order for each shipment of books. The wholesaler simply decided how many copies each outlet would get and, in the beginning, the wholesaler pretty much distributed what the publisher asked them to. The “check and balance” was that the publisher would get worthless covers back for the unsold books and that was their constraint against oversupplying the system. Over time, that aspect of things broke down and the publisher had to work the wholesalers to get the distributions they wanted.

3. The books themselves were cheaper too: less and cheaper paper and much less expensive binding.

4. The adoption of the magazine system of covers-only for returns created a big saving compared to the trade book practice that required returns of the whole book in saleable condition to get credit.

5. The retailer took a considerably smaller share of the retail price than bookstores got on trade books.

At the same time that the mass-market revolution was beginning, conventional trade publishers also started experimenting with the paperback format. The first extensive foray of this kind was by Doubleday in the early 1950s, when wunderkind Jason Epstein (later the founder of NY Review of Books and still active as one of the founding visionaries behind the Espresso Book Machine) created the Anchor Books line.

My father, Leonard Shatzkin, was Director of Research at Doubleday (today they would call it “New Business Development” or “Change Management”) at the time. He often talked about a sales conference at Bear Mountain where Sid Gross, who headed the Doubleday bookstores, railed against the cheap paperbacks on which the stores couldn’t make any money! So, it was true that the established publishing industry and the upstart paperback business had a period of almost two decades of very separate development.

It took until the 1960s — a decade-and-a-half after the paperback revolution started — before the two businesses really started to coalesce into one. And the process of integrating the two businesses really took another decade-and-a-half, finally concluding in the late 1970s when Penguin acquired Viking, Random House acquired Ballantine and Fawcett, and Bantam started to publish hardcover books.

My own first job in trade publishing was in 1962, working on the sales floor of the brand new, just-opened paperback department of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue. Even then, the two businesses operated separately. The floor of the department had chin-high shelves all around with what we’d call “trade paperbacks” today, arranged by topic. They were mostly academic. On a wall were the racks of mass-market paperbacks and they were organized by publisher. If you wanted to find the paperbacks of a famous author whose rights had gone to a mass-market house, you had to know which house published that author to find the book. (That was good; it made work for sales clerks!)

There was a simple reason for that. The two kinds of paperbacks worked with different economics and distribution protocols. The trade paperbacks were bought like hardcovers; everything that was shipped in was because a buyer for Brentano’s had ordered it. The mass-markets were “rack-jobbed” by the publisher. They sent their own reps in to check stock on a weekly basis and they decided what new books went into the racks and what dead stock was pulled. It was to make the work of the publishers efficient that the mass-markets were grouped by publisher.

The highly successful commercial books that became mass-market paperbacks got there because the hardcover publisher, after it had booked most of the revenue it expected to get for the book, then sold mass-market rights to get another bite of the apple.

Little of this bears much resemblance to what is happening today. Little of this is comparable to the challenges trade publishers face keeping alive a multi-channel distribution system and a printed book market that still accounts for most of the sales for most of the books.

But the most striking difference today is that a single retailer controls so much of the commerce that it can, on its own, influence pricing for the entire industry. The mere fact that one single retailer can try that is itself a signal that we have an imbalance in the value chain that is unprecedented in the history of publishing.

One other aspect of this whole discussion which is mystifying (or revealing) is Amazon’s success getting indie authors to cheer them on as they pound the publishers to lower prices. (The new Amazon statement is made in a letter sent to KDP authors.) This is absolutely indisputably against the interests of the self-published authors themselves, who are much better off if the branded books have higher prices and leave the lower price tiers to them. That seemed obvious to me years ago. Yet, Amazon still successfully invokes the indie author militia to support them as they fight higher prices for the indies’ competition! You will undoubtedly see evidence of that in the comment string for this post (if history is any guide).

The tactic of publishing Michael Pietsch’s name and email address with a clear appeal for the indie authors to flood his inbox is an odious tactic, but, in fairness to Amazon, that odious tactic was initiated by the Authors United advertisement headed by Douglas Preston which gave Bezos’s email address. This is something that both sides should refrain from and, in this case, Amazon didn’t start it.

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Amazon’s clarifications always come when I’m on the road


Amazon’s recent brief “clarification” calls for some brief annotation, which is all I can give it while I’m traveling this week. The material below that is not bolded is the complete statement Amazon has just issued. The bolded paragraphs preceded by [MS] are my annotations.

With this update, we’re providing specific information about Amazon’s objectives.

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

[MS] “Unjustifiably high” is an opinion, not a fact. Everyone is welcome to their opinion, but everyone is welcome to not share it as well. Publishers pay money for the right to exploit copyrights and their “opinion” on pricing should be at least as important as anybody else’s. Agency publishers had a lot of experience with higher ebook prices that couldn’t be discounted before the DoJ stepped in and they apparently disagree.

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

[MS] This elasticity measurement considers only sales of ebooks at Amazon. What is the impact on print book sales when the ebook price goes up and ebook sales go down? What is the impact on the bookstore distribution network when ebook prices go up and ebook sales go down? It would be commercially irresponsible of publishers not to consider those effects as well.

The important thing to note here is that at the lower price, total revenue increases 16%. This is good for all the parties involved:

* The customer is paying 33% less.

* The author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. And that 74% increase in copies sold makes it much more likely that the title will make it onto the national bestseller lists. (Any author who’s trying to get on one of the national bestseller lists should insist to their publisher that their e-book be priced at $9.99 or lower.)

* Likewise, the higher total revenue generated at $9.99 is also good for the publisher and the retailer. At $9.99, even though the customer is paying less, the total pie is bigger and there is more to share amongst the parties.

[MS] The publisher also benefits from bestseller list effects and is not likely to ignore them. The total ebook pie is bigger for that title; whether the total pie is bigger depends on a) the impact on print sales for that title and b) the total marketplace impact.

Keep in mind that books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

[MS] It is true that ebooks live in a world where they compete with other media. It is also true that the they live in a world which includes print, also an important component of a publisher’s and an author’s economic world. This analysis is very short on measurements of the impact on print sales of lower ebook prices.

So, at $9.99, the total pie is bigger – how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35% should go to the author, 35% to the publisher and 30% to Amazon. Is 30% reasonable? Yes. In fact, the 30% share of total revenue is what Hachette forced us to take in 2010 when they illegally colluded with their competitors to raise e-book prices. We had no problem with the 30% — we did have a big problem with the price increases.

[MS] It is good to hear that Amazon accepts a 30% share for retailers as reasonable. Will they now extend terms reflecting that to all the non Big-Five publishers who are trapped in “hybrid” terms, giving 50% or more in wholesale discounts to Amazon for ebooks? Of all the points raised by Amazon in this document, this is the most consequential in terms of commercial impact.

Is it Amazon’s position that all e-books should be $9.99 or less? No, we accept that there will be legitimate reasons for a small number of specialized titles to be above $9.99.

[MS] Which titles are those? How about the academic and professional title universe that never operated on trade discounts until Amazon forced them into the trade discount world recently? The economics of those segments of the book industry are being devastated by trying to put them into the trade paradigm where they never belonged and never intended to be. It would be helpful if Amazon addressed with more specificity which titles they mean here and whether the differences in pricing that would apply to those titles might also suggest a difference in terms within the supply chain as well.

One more note on our proposal for how the total revenue should be shared. While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.

We hope this information on our objectives is helpful.

[MS] And I hope the same for these annotations.

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Publishers need to rethink their marketing deployments and tactics in the digital age to take advantage of their backlists


Well-articulated complaints about the way traditional publishing compares to self-publishing have recently been posted by two accomplished authors, one who writes fiction and one who writes non-fiction.

These point to what most publishers really should already know. Some fundamental and time-honored truths about publishing need to be reexamined as we continue the digital transition. And one of the things that really needs to change is the distinction between backlist and frontlist.

There is a real baked-in logic to how publishers see their responsibilities and effort allocation across their list. Books have always been launched like rockets. The publisher commits maximum firepower to getting them off the ground. Most crash to earth. Some go into orbit. The ones that go into orbit have “backlisted” and, like satellites, it takes no power or effort to keep them in orbit for a long time if the initial blast-off gets them there.

In fact, a virtuous characteristic publishers have always recognized about backlist stands in the way of developing the right 21st century approach: backlist books sell without the marketing effort that it takes to introduce a new book. (This has, unfortunately, too often been interpreted in a way that discouraged extra effort that would make them sell better if they were actively marketed.) My Logical Marketing partner, Pete McCarthy, who worked for both Penguin and Random House in his corporate career, points out that titles in the backlist make can make up more than half the profits for a Big Five house in a given year.

But in the digital age, the “guided missile” is a more appropriate metaphor for best practice than the “rocket”. Audiences are discerned and they are targeted. The messages delivered to the target audiences should be as topical and current as today’s news and social graph and as relevant and useful to them as possible. And that means that marketing efforts for all books need to be continuous, or, at the very least, adjusted over time as necessary. It doesn’t make sense anymore to stop the marketing of a book after its first month, whether it has early success or early failure.

Experienced publishers learned over the years that it didn’t matter what promotion you did for a book not fully distributed. If it wasn’t available in stores, promotion and advertising wouldn’t make it sell. Savvy publishers would ignore news breaks or marketing opportunities for books that had gone through their peak bookstore distribution cycle — which can be as short as a few months or even less if a book doesn’t gain initial traction — because chasing them was wasted effort.

None of this is true anymore. Any break can get around quickly, or even “go viral”. And there don’t need to be books in any stores for a break to move print and digital copies. For many categories of books, most copies are already bought online. It’s probably the case for the majority of titles published and it is true for periods of time for just about any title, particularly an older one past its bookstore peak that has a sudden moment of relevance or fame. With hundreds of millions of consumers having online accounts, publishers should have no concerns about them finding and buying the books they feel they want or need at any moment.

The common experience of the two authors who have switched from traditionally published to self-published and written about it is that some marketing effort, including price-fiddling, applied to long-ago backlist can resuscitate a dormant book and that fact, combined with the higher share of revenues self-publishing brings, can make the effort of managing their own publishing business well worth the effort to them. Another component is that both authors want to work on making their books sell.

Of course, this constitutes a loss to the publishers whose initial efforts helped create both the product and the platform that the self-publisher and the self-publishing infrastructure (most prominently Amazon, but there are plenty of players there) then capitalizes on. This squares with our recent observation that there are two (and only two) categories of successful self-publishing authors so far: those who somehow manage to reclaim and republish a backlist and extremely prolific genre fiction writers. (There are other success stories, but they are isolated and relatively rare.)

Traits just about all of them share (along with the authors of the linked posts above) are marketing and publicity capability and constructive business sense. These are traits publishers should be looking for in their author partners and the fact that they can gain better expression and leverage outside a publishing house is a failing the industry really needs to fix. We have seen indications of some awakening to this in the literary agencies, some of which are actively learning about and teaching their authors how to best leverage their efforts and networks.

Aside from marketing effort that these authors expended long after their publishers’ efforts had ceased, the other variable here seems to be consolidation of effort across publishers’ lists. An author who has had a long career, as these two have, frequently find their backlist spread among several publishers. So only when the author reclaims rights across those publishers is a meaningful author-centric marketing effort even possible. This is a kind of middling-scale application. An author with a few books of his/her own to push can amortize marketing and management efforts — from putting titles up to watching sales to fiddling with prices — across a real list. Scale is supposed to be the advantage that the publisher provides, but it is diffused and ineffective if each of an author’s titles is viewed as a separate SKU and that is particularly likely if the number of SKUs each publisher has is a minority of the author’s total output.

There is a critical strategic question here that the industry has not resolved. Authors really need to control and manage their own personal web presences and decide on how to best leverage those presences — in conjunction with their publisher(s) or not. But managing a personal web presence is knowledge-, cost-, and labor-intensive and there is no great correlation between how well a person can write and how well they can manage their online opportunities. Still, an author can’t really totally entrust that work to any one publisher, because each is only really interested in the books they publish. Agents are aware of this reality and many of them work to help their clients understand the opportunities. But somebody’s got to pay for web sites and maintaining the Facebook account. Whoever does will effectively own the names and attention they can harvest. (At Logical Marketing, we’ve already done work with three of the largest literary agencies in New York, sometimes totally independently and sometimes in conjunction with publishers. And it is only about 100 days since we opened the doors.)

Publishers really need to work out ways to support authors who can contribute to their own marketing. But it is complicated and it can only done between a publisher and an author who acknowledge their own and each other’s interests and responsibilities. Working out how to make these efforts both fair and synergistic — including rules of the road for how email addresses that could really be attributed to either should be shared and used — will be a key characteristic of productive agent-publisher partnerships over the next ten years.

Digital marketing in this business can be defined as identifying and building audiences for books and for authors — two separate endeavors that need to be complementary — by enhancing discovery and understanding and using the social graph. Agents and publishers working together on marketing in a sustained way will increasingly be the key to commercial success. And the minute a publisher recognizes the author as a true marketing partner, the old industry attitude about backlist marketing must yield, because authors have a very long attention span to push their work. (Remember, in many cases it took them years to write!)

My longtime friend Charlie Nurnberg, who spent most of his career at Sterling and was always a champion of backlist, often said “any book is new to somebody who didn’t know about it before”. That’s an aphorism that must become every publisher’s motto. Combined with our ability today to understand audiences categorically, and to understand them better for backlist books (because the evidence of who really constitutes the audience is sprinkled across the Internet), the fact is that it is easier to do intelligent and targeted marketing for a book that is a year old than for one that hasn’t been published yet.

But publishing organizations are not structured to take advantage of that fact. In the past ten years, the ratio of marketing personnel to sales personnel has changed in every house: more marketers and fewer sales people. But there has not been a comparable shift in marketing deployment between new titles and backlist. If publishers want to stop losing their most marketing-savvy multi-book authors to self-publishing, that’s something that urgently needs to change.

Publishers need to apply both big scale and middling scale to address this issue. They need to create and employ new tools, such as an engine that digests the news and social graph on a daily basis to help identify specific backlist titles that could benefit from additional effort right now. To make that investment in tools productive, they need to go into their backlist and create new metadata — short and long descriptions — that reflect the audiences for those books. Doing all of that is a six-figure investment for big publishers, but not a seven-figure one. Though it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to do it, we only know of one trade publisher who possesses the tech to digest today’s reality and systematically bounce it off their backlist. (Of course, there may be others; we don’t pretend that everybody tells us everything they do. But if a publisher “doesn’t know how”, Pete McCarthy and our Logical Marketing team can guide you or do it for you.)

Publishers should have specialist marketers for genres, topics, and multi-book authors. Having staff dedicated to marketing authors will make another unusual step that needs to become common much more likely: acquiring the rights to titles of that author that now belong to other publishers or to the author. As we move into the digital age, selling “one title at a time” — which was pretty much the only way to do it when books were bought in bookstores by consumers and bought by bookstores order by order — becomes decreasingly efficient. Publishers have always built their marketing around their understanding of their distribution channels. Those are changing and the marketing and publishing tactics need to change with them. Working in a collaborative way with an author who may have titles at other houses or self-published is essential. Acquiring the rest of the list of an author in whom a publisher wants to invest building their name should be even better.

There are a variety of additional tactics, some well-recognized already, that are all about marketing across a range of titles. Most publishers already know the value of discounting (or even giving away) the initial title of a compelling series. But to maximize sales, it is also necessary to spell out clearly the sequence of publication of a series so a consumer can easily read them in the order the author intended. It would probably also be helpful to provide a roster of characters with descriptions. All of these can be tools to stimulate additional sales, but they don’t fit comfortably with the “marketing each new title” workflows that publishers are used to.

One new publisher that I’ve seen reflect this thinking is Open Road. Their publishing program has always been about about bringing in authors with backlists. So their publishing calendar is not centered on pub dates of new and upcoming titles; it is about the holidays and occasions that we all celebrate. They think about “Easter” or “Father’s Day” and look for the books on their list that can benefit from the connection. Coding holiday connections into the metadata needs to be a standard part of preparing each new book for the market, but it also requires expending the effort to do it for backlist to be fully effective. (The longtime ebook publisher Rosetta Books is similar to Open Road in many of these respects.)

Of course, the new title publishing activity can’t stop; each new book needs to be properly introduced into the marketplace and, for at least a few more years, sales in the opening week or weeks need to be optimized. But that should become just part of the marketing effort and it should ultimately be the smaller part (if it shouldn’t be that already).

Publishers need to recognize that if authors can sell their backlist more effectively than their publisher(s) did, the publisher was doing something wrong — or failing to do some things right. Authors are right to leave and take matters into their own hands when that happens. Publishers further need to recognize that the authors who can effectively market themselves are the very authors they most want, and that figuring out how to create an environment of collaborative synergy with them is what the successful publisher of ten years from now will have done. More imagination, energy, and resources devoted to the backlist is a very good, and likely a very profitable, place to start.

Industry statistics on backlist and frontlist don’t exist. In fact, the definition of when a book is considered backlist varies across the industry or people work without any standard definition at all. Nonetheless, it is likely that most publishers are already benefiting from digital discovery and shopping increasing their backlist sales. Recent financial reporting from big publishers has been very upbeat, a fact usually attributed to the more favorable margins publishers achieve on ebook sales, which have positive margin attributes around costs of inventory, costs of royalties, and elimination of returns. However, it is almost certain that improved sales of backlist due to the natural effects of “unlimited shelf space” for discovery and fulfillment also play an important role in improving the financial picture for the publishers with the biggest backlists.

Our wildly unreliable Feedburner distribution system hasn’t emailed last week’s post on subscriptions as of when this one is being published.

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Subscriptions are in the news this week


Subscriptions for ebooks are certainly in the news this week. Amazon just announced their Kindle Unlimited offering, taking its place beside Oyster and Scribd as a “one price for all you can eat” Netflix- or Spotify-for-ebooks program. And the Book Industry Study Group has released a lengthy and fact-filled report from Ted Hill and Kate Lara covering subscriptions across publishing segments.

It is hard to quarrel with the report’s contention that “subscriptions are here to stay”. The report makes clear, and documents extensively, that there are a great variety of ways subscriptions can be offered and that tools making it easier to manage them are becoming cheaper, better, and more ubiquitous. The report suggests that subscriptions could occur for as narrow an offering as one author’s works. As technology enables subscription offers to be economically viable with less and less revenue, the tendency for more and more publishers to want to “own” their customers, combined with the tendency for publishers to build up their intellectual property inventory in an audience-centric (vertical) way, either organically or by acquisition, it is easy to see how they could proliferate.

When I have expressed skepticism in the past about the commercial viability — or commercial importance — of subscription services, my intention was (is) to confine my skepticism to broad-based services like KU, Oyster, and Scribd. In other segments, the viability of the model is obvious. Safari has operated successfully for a decade-and-a-half. Journal publishers figured out in the 1990s that selling annual access to the whole catalog of their publications, including backlist, was an opportunity presented by digital delivery because of the value of being able to search across the catalog. The science-fiction publisher Baen has had an apparently successful subscription offering for years. And patron-driven acquisition, which the BISG report calls a form of subscription (loose defining, to be sure), allows a publisher’s whole catalog to be exposed to a library’s patron base with purchase decisions to follow (rather than patrons only being able to see what a library had already bought) just makes sense for everybody.

But the consumer ebook business is a different animal and it is far from obvious (to me) that a model can be constructed that will satisfy all the stakeholders and provide profits for the model owner. But the pieces are certainly in place for us to find out.

It is clear from the catalogs presented by KU, Oyster, and Scribd that the jury on subscriptions is still out because big publishers are still reluctant to participate. No Big Five house has put books into Kindle Unlimited. Only HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster are (as yet) participating with Oyster and Scribd. Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Hachette have — so far — held out. What those houses do in the next few months will tell us a lot about how likely the concept of the broad-based ebook subscription is to succeed in the future.

The BISG report surmises, and I agree, that only PRH could possibly deliver a general subscription offer on their own. I “predicted” some time ago that they would. A top Random House strategist tried to set me straight on that some months ago. This person asked the rhetorical question: “why would we want to turn $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers?” Last week, an even more senior executive, recalling that s/he had read this speculation from me told me directly and assertively, “we aren’t going to do that.” (Random House executive Madeline McIntosh is quoted in the Hill-Lara report issued by BISG saying “Many people who are buying our books today are spending more than they would with a subscription.  If that amount starts to dip, then subscription services will become more interesting to us.”)

These people are straight shooters. I believe them when they describe their current intentions. But what if Scribd and Oyster and KU build big subscriber bases? And what if those subscriber bases tend to buy fewer books outside the subscription offering? It is in a publisher’s DNA to push books into any channel that will take them. They have resisted the subscription offers so far because they don’t want to empower an aggregating intermediary the way Amazon is now empowered (which is why KU has the hardest time pulling big publisher books into its aggregation) to beat them down on terms. This is good forward thinking if staying out stops the subscription services from reaching viability. But what if it doesn’t? How long can publishers refuse to participate in revenue opportunities for their books and authors?

The offers (as we understand them) by Scribd and Oyster, and in other ways by Amazon, have been very generous. Scribd and Oyster are apparently paying 80% of the cover price (to the big agency publishers; others don’t get that deal) once a book is deemed “bought”, which requires a threshold amount of the book — often suggested to be 10% for the Big Houses, which is where Amazon put the bar for Kindle Direct Publishing authors within Kindle Unlimited — has been perused by the subscriber. (Not everybody gets that deal either.) 

Amazon presumes the right to include books in Kindle Unlimited from its wholesale trading partners (everybody but the Big Five), but it considers the ebook “sold” when it is cracked, a far more generous interpretation of when a book has been consumed. (Nor is that deal for everybody. For authors and pubs participating in KU via KDP Select, the threshold for a “sale” is 10% like Oyster. Then they are compensated from the “KDP Select Global Fund”.) The introduction of KU and the various terms around it have been met by initial grumbling in Amazon’s indie author community, according to both Publishers Lunch and Hugh Howey.

Agents will be seeing what the subscription revenues mean to their clients. It will be harder for them to get a handle on whether those subscription services are cannibalizing regular per-copy sales, but they will have ample information from which to form opinions about that as well.

Part of what holds back the big publishers from participation in subscriptions is a fear that agents share. Today Scribd and Oyster offer 80 percent of cover price, and Amazon pays the minute an ebook is opened, because that’s what they have to do to get books in their service. And the books in the service are what bring in the subscribers.

But if one of these services has a million members three years from now, each individual book won’t be quite as important anymore. Just as Amazon can get along without maximizing their sales of Hachette books today, the subscription owners will see a different, and lower, value for each book and each publisher then. Amazon gambles today that the customers of theirs who don’t find the Hachette book they’re looking for will often just buy something else rather than go shop somewhere else. Their own subscription lock-in, PRIME, shifts the odds in their favor there.

Amazon will be in this game to stay. Offering Kindle Unlimited is relatively painless for them. They have the books and they have the audience; it is just another way to keep their customers loyal. The big questions for the industry are whether Oyster and Scribd succeed in taking a substantial number of single-purchase customers out of the market and, if they can, whether they have a sustainable model with the prices they charge customers and the way they compensate publishers.

If what they have works for them, then all publishers will eventually have to play. That will mean that HarperCollins and S&S will be joined by Hachette and Macmillan. And despite what their executives tell me today, I’d bet a steak dinner that Penguin Random House will see more opportunity and less risk in creating their own service than in joining one of the existing ones. In fact, a Penguin Random House “backlist only” subscription offer today would constitute the most robust commercial assortment in the marketplace if it existed.

It has seemed to me for a long time, and I said in a public forum over a year ago, that all the Big Five (and others) should immediately create a subscription service for kids’ books. Parents want their kids to be able to “shop” without actually delegating to them the decisions to spend money; many would love a service of this kind, even if it were publisher-specific. As the support services Hill and Lara describe get cheaper and better and better known, perhaps that will start to happen.

We will cover subscriptions at Digital Book World with a panel chaired by Ted Hill. Scribd and Oyster have already agreed to participate.

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Much as I like Hugh Howey, I disagree with just about all of this recent post of his


I need to say couple of things at the outset here. The first is that I really like and admire Hugh Howey and the fact that I disagree with almost every paragraph of this post of his shouldn’t suggest that I don’t. That’s not snark or irony; it is sincere. I think it is both noble and natural for people to defend the entities and circumstances that make possible their commercial success and it is just human nature that those who have benefited from a paradigm reflexively want to defend it. I only wish that Hugh would exhibit the same respect for that tendency when it is exhibited by authors who have done well with publishers.

The other is that I don’t see the “Amazon versus the publishing establishment” battle as a moral choice, just a tug of war between competing business interests. (There are societal questions at stake, which some might see as moral choices, but the companies involved are doing what is best for them and then arguing afterwards that it is also better for society.) When I wrote what I intended to be a balanced piece about the Amazon-Hachette battle, it brought out the troops from the indie author militia in the comment string to call me to task and accuse me of many things, including being a defender of the people who pay me (although my overall revenues from Big Five publishers is actually pretty paltry with not one active consulting client among them for well over two years). I expect this post will do the same, which I find an unpleasant prospect. On the other hand, I’m sorta stubborn about saying the things I believe nobody else is saying…

I am not trying to “make a case” here for anybody: not for the publishers and obviously not for Amazon. All I am trying to accomplish is to call out what I see as the almost certainly unintended bias in the arguments as Hugh frames them. I continue to believe that self-publishing is a useful tool that most authors should employ at one time or another but that, still almost all of the time, an author who is offered a publishing deal from a major house willing to pay an aggressive advance is better off to take it than go it alone. (If you’re not offered a substantial advance, the calculus shifts, but there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing that is not described in much detail in this post, even though Hugh Howey knows much better than I do how much work it is!) And I think that generalized advice to authors to eschew publishers in a world where print still matters and stores still matter remains, as of today, unwise. That may well change in the future, but it hasn’t changed yet.

In this post, everything preceded by [HH] was written and posted by Hugh Howey. Everything preceded by [MS] is my response. I have left nothing out from Hugh’s original post.

[HH] A few weeks ago, I speculated that Hachette might be fighting Amazon for the power to price e-books where they saw fit, or what is known as Agency pricing. That speculation was confirmed this week in a slide from Hachette’s presentation to investors:

HachetteLivre-Investor-Slide

So, no more need to speculate over what this kerfuffle is about. Hachette is strong-arming Amazon and harming its authors because they want to dictate price to a retailer, something not done practically anywhere else in the goods market. It’s something US publishers don’t even do to brick and mortar booksellers. It’s just something they want to be able to do to Amazon.

[MS] Uh, yes. It is something they want to do in the market for ebooks that they don’t need to do for print. And it is something they want to do to the entity that controls 60% of their ebook sales, which no print bookseller does. And you’d be forgiven if you got the impression from this that Hachette only wanted to control the price Amazon sells at, not the price everybody sells at, keeping it the same across retailers. It does matter how you frame things…

[HH] The biggest problem with Hachette’s strategy is that Hachette knows absolutely nothing about retail pricing. That’s not their job. It’s not their area of expertise. They don’t sell enough product direct to consumers to understand what price will maximize their earnings. Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple have that data, not Hachette.

[MS] But what Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple know is not how to maximize Hachette’s or Hachette’s authors’ “earnings”, however they get divided between author and publisher. What they know is how to maximize their earnings and, mainly, their market share. And only Amazon and B&N have any picture of how the interaction between ebook prices and print sales works, which deeply affects an author’s and publisher’s earnings. None of the other ebook retailers have a clue about that, and Amazon doesn’t know how bookstore sales are affected (and it would be their objective to have them affected negatively, wouldn’t it?)

[HH] Beyond their ignorance of pricing strategy, Hachette also has a strong bias toward print books. Their existing relationships with major brick and mortar retailers gets in the way of their e-book pricing. This has been confirmed by my own publishers, who have admitted privately that they would like to experiment with digital pricing but don’t want to upset print book retailers. This puts their pricing strategy at odds with their investors’ needs, their authors’ needs, even their own profitability. In sum, they are making irrational decisions with their pricing philosophy. Hachette is making the same mistake that many publishers make, which is to think that harming Amazon somehow helps themselves.

[MS] Publishers are trying to keep a print book physical distribution infrastructure alive. That’s not irrational. It is rational. And it is the crux of the difference in objectives between a publisher’s strategy and Amazon’s strategy. The more bookstores fade, the better it is for Amazon and the worse it is for publishers. This is a problem you could have read about on this blog a long time ago.

[HH] The same presentation by Hachette to investors stressed the importance of DRM and the need to fight piracy. The presentation had very little to say about authors, which would be like an oil company giving a report to prospective investors and not discussing how its current wells are performing, the proven reserves it has on-hand, and what they are doing to discover new sources of oil. You know . . . the product they make their money from. Little is also said in the presentation about readers, possibly because Hachette doesn’t know who their readers are. Again, this is a presentation to investors by a company that doesn’t know its customers. Because they have too long relied on and been beholden to middleman distributors.

[MS] I’d substitute “leveraged” for “relied on and been beholden to” in the sentence that concludes that paragraph. Up until very recently, there was no efficient means or mechanism for publishers to sell directly to readers. Their “customers” were bookstores, and they understood them very well. And all the big publishers I know are investing in learning more about who are their readers. This graf begins with the complaint that authors aren’t acknowledged by publishers and ends with the complaint that publishers don’t know their readers. And the cherry on top is a biased characterization of the value and role of brick and mortar retailers. I guess the oil company reference is just to associate bad people with each other, but it otherwise seems gratuitous. The important and relevant point is that we’re still waiting for the first major author to say “no” to a publisher. It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

[HH] DRM, piracy, and high e-book prices are not what a publisher should be fighting for and bragging to its investors about. Many consumers aren’t even aware that Amazon isn’t the source of their e-book DRM. Publishers (and self-published authors) opt in or opt out of DRM as they see fit. Those of us who think about the paying customer first and foremost opt out, and we are rewarded with their repeat business and their advocacy. Those of us who don’t fret over piracy invest our time where it can actually achieve something. Publishers need to adopt these same policies with all haste. More importantly, they need to stop ripping off their authors and their customers when it comes to digital pricing.

[MS] Recent data suggests pretty strongly that taking down pirate copies increases sales. But the efficacy of DRM is a good debatable point and it shouldn’t be in a paragraph that concludes with a gratuitous slam at big publisher pricing and royalties, which have nothing to do with DRM.

[HH] We know publishers are ripping off artists and readers when it comes to e-books. Harpercollins released this slide one year ago this month:

Harper-NewsCorp-Profitability

As author Michael Sullivan broke down in this damning blog post, it shows publishers making $7.87 on a $14.99 e-book while the author only gets $2.62. For a hardback that costs twice as much at $27.99, the publisher makes $5.67 to the author’s $4.20. What used to be a fair split is now aggressive and indefensible as publishers make more money on a cheaper product while the author makes far less. Publishers are ripping off readers and writers as they shift to digital, and they are getting away with it. They are even winning the PR campaign against Amazon, a company that has fought for lower prices for its customers and higher pay for its authors.

[MS] I agree that ebook royalties should be higher. But, in fact, only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty. The others negotiated an advance that effectively paid them far more than that. And guaranteed it before the book hit the marketplace. Publishers are making a massive PR error not raising the “standard” royalty since they effectively pay much more than that now, but the authors signing contracts with them know the truth.

[HH] Let me repeat: Publishers are waging a war here for higher prices and lower royalties. $14.99 is their ideal price for an e-book that costs nothing to print, warehouse, or ship. That’s twice what mass market paperbacks used to cost, which is what they are replacing. Reminds you of how cheaper-to-produce CDs suddenly cost twice as much as cassettes simply because they were new, doesn’t it?

[MS] Now, who’s not paying attention to authors? Right, it cost nothing to print, warehouse, or ship an ebook. But it cost something to create. And for many, if not most, publisher-published books, the publisher gave the author a substantial payment before publication. Focusing on the price without considering the value is the grossest form of “ignoring the author”. And the $14.99 price is more like the equivalent of the hardback; most publishers I know charge much less for the ebook when it is being published against a printed version that’s a paperback. And, in fact, they often charge less than $14.99 when the print edition available is a hardcover!

[HH] Publishers are also colluding with one another to offer lockstep digital e-book royalties of 25%, which is indefensible. Their every actions, when it comes to DRM, to pricing, to selling direct, to offering abusive services like Author Solutions, screams to anyone with ears that they don’t care about the writers and they don’t care about the readers. It doesn’t matter what they say, it matters what they do. And what they do is charge as much as they can get away with and take as much of the split as they possibly can. And they work with their competitors and against their retail partners to pull it off.

[MS] Publishers live in a competitive marketplace in general but nowhere more than when it comes to signing authors. The 25% hasn’t moved, but every book that is signed based on a competitive situation (one agent told me that’s at least 2/3 of them; one big publisher believes they compete for 95% of what they sign) is getting an advance that is calculated on a much higher percentage than the “standard”. So they “care” about the writers. If “caring about readers” is only demonstrated by low prices, then I’d say “Hugh has a point.” The problem is that the point is in direct conflict with “caring about the writers”, whose revenue is directly related to what readers pay (with only one exception: unearned advances paid by publishers).

[HH] Their own authors defend them, partly because they don’t spend any time investigating or understanding the business in which they are engaged. One Hachette author — a good friend of mine — said something to me the other day that made me realize they don’t understand how their books are ordered by retailers or delivered by the publisher. I suppose it’s okay to write books and not worry about the rest of the business, but this same author and friend had much to say about the Amazon/Hachette dispute, but without the basic understanding of how the relationship between those two companies works. Part of the blame for not knowing falls to publishers, who keep authors at bay and away from the business aspects of publishing. It was one of my primary complaints in that old blog post. Publishers need to embrace authors as business partners, and any author who hopes to make a career at this needs to be at least a little curious about how the industry works.

[MS] This slam at Howey’s fellow authors is both uncharacteristic of him and beneath him. The Hachette authors are doing precisely the same thing Howey is doing: defending their biggest source of revenue. What’s so surprising about that? And let’s not get too worked up about what people do and don’t understand. This piece demonstrates very little understanding of the economics of brick-and-mortar and the overall effort to sustain it as long as possible.

[HH] So we can see in their own slides that publishers do not have the best interests of their artists and consumers at heart. What about Amazon? Here we have a company that forsakes profits in order to pass along the savings to: A) Readers in the form of lower prices and to: B) Authors in the form of higher pay. That’s what we know today based on their actions. Of course, some interpret Amazon’s behavior as: “Once they are big enough, Amazon will gouge customers and take advantage of authors.” If you press on numbers, you might hear that Amazon will raise e-book prices to $12.99 one day and pay authors a miserly 25% of gross. Both of which are better than what publishers offer right now.

[MS] The pricing and split speculation is a pure straw horse. We know that what Amazon does today that pleases Howey also serves their larger strategic interests: growing market share and building the installed base of Kindle users. It’s nice when interests align. But what happens when they align tells you nothing about what will happen when they don’t. The recent changes that reduced author splits from Amazon-owned Audible shouldn’t be ignored in a paragraph like this one. (Emphasis here: I don’t think Amazon was wrong or immoral to have done this, but I think those making the argument that worrying about terms changing in the future is silly should at least acknowledge what has already happened!)

[HH] This bears repeating: The very worst that Amazon might do, in some hypothetical future, according to their fiercest critics, is still better than what publishers brag to their investors about doing today.

[MS] And this bears repeating. It’s a straw horse. The argument is attributed to these unidentified “fiercest critics” because it a straw horse. Pure speculation. Who knows what is the “the very worst that Amazon might do”?

[HH] Instead of operating under the hope that publishers will improve their business practices in the future and that Amazon will reverse course and start harming writers and readers once they gain more market share, why aren’t we condemning publishers for being the problem right now while celebrating Amazon for all they are doing to expand reading habits and to provide for artists? Why?

[MS] Simple answer. Because many authors are still being very well paid and well served by publishers. That’s why.

[HH] I think two reasons: The first is that we equate publishers to bookstores and Amazon to the loss of bookstores, and we all love bookstores. This is fallacious reasoning, though. Online shopping has impacted all of retail. These changes were inevitable, and they are the result of consumer choice. How those changes played out could have been publishers colluding with a distributor to price digital works higher than their paper counterparts. That would have been bad. Amazon leading those changes with their pricing philosophy has been good.

[MS] Much of this is true. Online shopping is inevitable; the pressure on brick-and-mortar is inevitable. And we all love bookstores, even though they don’t “map” into the future very well. But it is really disingenuous to just forget that Amazon benefits by brick stores going down faster and has discounted print books as aggressively as possible as well, which has contributed to the brick-and-mortar stores decline. I’m not demonizing Amazon over this; everybody has to run their own business and they run theirs very well. But let’s not pretend that altruism is all that is working here, or that changing circumstances couldn’t change Amazon’s pricing philosophy.

[HH] The second reason for the anti-Amazon bias is that some see Amazon as the giant and little old publishers as the underdog. That’s also wrong. The publishing and bookselling arm of Amazon is likely smaller than the combined earnings of the Big 5 publishers. Amazon makes a pittance on every e-book sold, while the Big 5 make out like bandits. Also, to say that these wings of Amazon’s operations are owned by a larger entity is to ignore that the same is true for the major publishing houses. If anything, Amazon is the clear upstart and underdog here. They are new to the market, rapidly innovating, blacklisted by brick and mortar retailers, setting up shop away from the established players, and ganged up on in an illegal manner.

[MS] No question Amazon gets “ganged up on”. We have two book businesses now: Amazon and everybody else. Everybody else includes publishers and retailers and wholesalers and agents and established authors. Amazon’s decision to “make a pittance” on certain products, including some ebooks, is tactical, not altruistic. I have to admit that characterizing Amazon as an “underdog” does activate the “gag reflex”. If this doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, I’m not sure what would. Let’s be clear and real: Amazon and Hachette are both leveraging their respective negotiating positions as best they can. It’s called business. (And,, from where I sit, it looks Amazon is in the stronger position, not Hachette. I’m not sure by what measurement Amazon could be considered the underdog here; I haven’t read any other analysis that makes that claim.)

[HH] I’ll go one step further and state something both outrageous and obvious: If the Big 5 had gotten together twenty years ago and DREAMED UP an ideal business partnership, one that would increase their distribution, provide excellent customer service to their readers, improve the livelihood of their authors, keep their backlists viable and books from going out of print, reduce their 50% return rate from bookstores to 4%, provide next-day and even same-day delivery, all while only costing them 30% instead of the 45% they lose to bookstores, they couldn’t have done better than what Amazon did for them.

[MS] Lots of truth in this paragraph, up to a point. Publishers (and authors) have benefited for years from Amazon’s willingness to sell books for almost no margin and by the shift from the less-efficient sales in stores to the more-efficient sales online. I spelled out clearly in my Amazon-Hachette post that Amazon has been the most profitable print account for most trade publishers for a long time. And I am happy to give them the full credit they deserve for making the commitment necessary to make the ebook business happen. That doesn’t change the reality that as their market share grows, we can see a concentration that changes what has been a good thing into a threat. For everybody else in the book business: those who are aware of it and those who are not.

[HH] Soak that in. Publishers should have engineered Amazon from the ground-up. A company that invests in distribution networks for their products rather than pocketing profits. And instead of celebrating all the hundreds of benefits, like pre-orders and customer reviews and the savings on print runs and returns that Amazon’s algorithms provide, they are trying to figure out how to put their best resource out of business. It boggles the mind. Like those authors who fear Amazon might take royalties away tomorrow, so are happy to give up those royalties today, publishers are siding with companies that are hurting them today out of fear of their greatest ally getting even more market share tomorrow. And readers and writers are the victims of this illogical behavior.

[MS] The unreality in the suggestion that publishers are trying to put Amazon out of business is mindboggling. I have cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believe Hugh Howey believes what he says. On the other hand, I can’t believe he believes that! Any publisher that thought this was possible would be deluded. The idea that it is some sort of deliberate strategy to put Amazon out of business is as far from the world we actually live in as the world of Hugh’s novels is.

[HH] What is the solution? As a writer, the solution is to retain ownership of your rights. This has never been more important than it is today. E-book royalty rates are going to move to 50% of net. I know from some insiders that this is already happening for top-name authors and hot new acquisitions. Selling your manuscript now for half of what it will be worth in the very near future is a bad move. It takes years for books to come to market with a traditional publisher. If that is your publishing goal, exercise a bit more patience. Hold on to that manuscript (or self-publish it) while you write the next. Let the market come to you.

[MS] This advice ignores the fact that a large number of authors got an advance that already pre-paid them for the royalties they could conceivably have earned by doing their own self-publishing when the publishers’ sales died. (Those “insiders” referred to are almost certainly talking about how the ebook component is calculated for advances paid to big authors, not a change in the contractual percentage.) Howey is conflating agreeing to a “half of what it should be” digital royalty with “selling your manuscript for half of what it will be worth” in the future. They’re not the same thing. I guess it’s just part of the campaign to find that first big author who turns down a publishing deal to do it themselves instead. To read this post, you’d never know we haven’t had one yet! (I thought we had one three years ago, but the one author who really threatened to do it changed his mind and signed a publishing deal with Amazon instead.)

[HH] The other option is to embrace a smaller press that has more flexibility. Online print book sales and e-book adoption have helped level the playing field for small publishers. They are becoming more viable every single day. These are the true Davids. They now have the tools and ability to see their works sell to a wide audience and win awards. I put them as the second best option behind self-publishing, and I include Amazon’s imprints in this category. They offer higher royalty rates and terms similar to small presses, though some have grumbled lately that Amazon’s imprints are becoming more and more like the Big 5, so watch what you sign.

[MS] I’m always happy to see smaller presses succeed, but they have a hard time competing against the Big Five, mainly because of Amazon. They are forced (by Amazon) to sell their ebooks on “wholesale” terms, which means giving much more of the retail price they set to the supply chain. This leaves them two choices. They can set a reasonable retail price (like an Agency price) and get nearly 30% less revenue than an Agency publisher. Or they can set an artificially high price and hope the retailer will discount from it. So even if they give the author a higher percentage of ebook sales, the net might not be higher. It is hard to succeed in today’s environment as a small press, not easy.

[HH] For readers, keep doing what you’re doing. Self-publishing and small presses are booming because you care about great stories, not where they come from. You are the disruptive force in this industry, and I say that with every ounce of love I can muster. Keep disrupting by doing what you do best: Read. Write reviews. Share your enthusiasm. Infect others. Spread the joy of this greatest of pastimes. And we will trust that those who cater to your needs and to the needs of the artists you admire will be the ones who come out on top. All others will need to change their ways or perish. If they do the former, let’s cheer for them. If they persist in the latter, let’s not be sad to see them go.

[MS] I am not happy to see anybody go. The desire to make villains out of the industry establishment is the most unattractive trait of what should be a hero class: intrepid authors who forge ahead without institutional support to make success happen. There is no doubt that Amazon has made that opportunity possible for most of them and it is easy to understand why anybody who has profited from the infrastructure Amazon created would celebrate it and want to see it grow. But author success has been achieved in a wide variety of ways and the way Hugh Howey has done it is still very much the exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions from unusual cases. And I think it is an iron rule of nature that it is dangerous to generalize from one’s own personal experience.

I see from a subsequent post of Hugh’s that he will be in Toronto this week at Book Summit, as will I. I hope we’ll have a chance to have a Diet Coke and talk about this while we’re up there. My Logical Marketing Agency partner Pete McCarthy and I are kicking off the show on Tuesday morning. I always love visiting Toronto.

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Not all books and not all subscription services are created equal


Digital change has forced many book publishers to rethink the mix of their lists. The most obvious aspect of that is the need for increased vertical-, topic- or audience-consciousness. In the days when bookstores did most of the selling, all publishers could reach audiences in stores by being displayed in the right section (or sections). In fact, stores figured that out pretty well whether publishers guided them or not. What constituted a sophisticated capability for the very general part of a general trade list (almost exclusively for non-fiction) was recognizing any multi-section shelving opportunities and having the persuasive power with a store to get it. Of course, computers and the exigencies of managing stock in far-flung outlets made that very challenging — if not impossible — to do with bookstore chains.

But all publishers now to varying degrees are trying to execute digital marketing. Even for SEO alone, an understanding of the audience is essential. (Most publishers don’t accept this yet, but my Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy says you have to do a couple of hours of audience research to properly position just about every title!) But to really reduce per-title marketing costs, publishers have to “gather” audiences (through web sites or apps or by collecting email addresses) that can be addressed to sell book after book. That requires that the books be selected to allow for repeated marketing to the same groups of people.

Yet another prism through which to view a publisher’s list is breaking down which titles work as ebooks and which ones don’t. Many publishers are looking at illustrated books differently because they haven’t worked well as ebooks. That’s increasingly critical because the print marketplace is shrinking as ebooks replace print for a lot of immersive reading.

Publishers are justifiably nervous about this transition. As the market becomes more and more ebook-centric, protecting revenue is a growing concern. Top line prices and publishers’ net revenue per copy sold have come down already and will continue to. A powerful player we all know has a growing market share and seems increasingly inclined to demand a bigger cut. Publishers and agents have been worried that subscription services could siphon off parts of the market and further erode margins.

Their resistance has been so strong that the two biggest entrants in that channel, Scribd and Oyster, are apparently paying heftier-than-retail percentages to secure the rights to include major publisher books in their offering, which makes some people (including me) question the sustainability of their model.

While I think general publishers’ tentativeness about subscription services is sensible, I don’t think it is equally sensible across their lists. Publishers need another prism to sort this one out. They need to think about their “chunkable” books — the ones that are least likely to be read from start-to-finish and most likely to be useful in bits and pieces — separately from their immersive narratives.

It is the immersive narratives whose economics are threatened by subscription. And it is the chunkable books, which include most of the illustrated books they publish but also include many others in self-help, business, and reference, which don’t work as ebooks in the individual sale model. Because the Scribd and Oyster subscription compensation is only triggered by a minimum (but publicly unspecified) amount of the book to be read, they aren’t likely to be remunerative in that context either.

But there is actually a way for all publishers to deliver digital revenues for the chunkable content they own which has very little stand-alone ebook market. (I really never thought it would; it made me think about “the unit of appreciation and the unit of sale”.) And the fact that so few of them — none of the big ones — have employed it so far makes me think that they are neither making this distinction around their own content nor looking at subscription in the nuanced way they should.

The opportunity to which we refer here is the granddaddy of digital book subscription services, Safari. They are quite different than Oyster and Scribd. First of all, they are primarily B2B, not B2C. They are too expensive a service to be for pleasure or consumer use; they are intended to be a professional tool. Therefore, most of their subscribers access their content under an annual per-seat software license bought by a big company or government entity.

The second thing that makes Safari different is that they don’t expect full book consumption to occur very often, if at all. Most of the technical and professional books in the repository are extracted and read topically. The attraction of the service is not so much that you can read any book you want, but that you can get a variety of presentations about how to understand something or solve a particular problem.

And Safari’s business model is different from Scribd and Oyster too. The way they do it — paying from a monthly revenue pool on a pro-rata basis divided among the content consumed in that month — appears at first glance to be less attractive to trade publishers than the high purchase price Scribd and Oyster pay when the (unknown) theshold of use has been passed. But for chunkable books, which are very unlikely to be consumed in their entirety and would often, if not usually, serve a purpose to a consumer without triggering the purchase threshold, it should actually be seen as a better model for the publisher.

The subject arises because Andrew Savikas, the CEO of Safari, recognizes that the million of users he has at companies like Bank of America, Boeing, and Oracle (for example) are people as well as professionals. So while they need the technical content that motivated those companies to subscribe them to the service, they also have health, career, diet, and investment interests that it would be a great convenience for them to be able to satisfy within the service. This raises some obvious questions for Safari (“how would Boeing feel about this?” was the first one that occurred to me) but we need not be concerned about them. Savikas runs Safari, and he is convinced that he wants this kind of non-technical content to make his service more attractive and lucrative. He said his data shows much of the consumption of this kind of content happens “off-hours” and is seen as an employee benefit.

This presents publishers with a pretty sizable opportunity that is perhaps being lost in the generalizations about subscriptions and preserving revenue and what works in digital form. Since most big publishers have cookbooks, business and personal finance titles, reference books, and illustrated how-tos on their backlists that are starved for digital revenue, whether they’re likely to sign more of them as the industry changes is irrelevant. These backlist books could be producing cash for the authors and publishers right now through Safari and any “risk” involved is not apparent to me. Frequently the revenue would be significant. At the same time, Safari would be providing “discovery” opportunities for those books with very large audiences: millions of well-employed people, many of whom don’t shop in bookstores — online or physical — very often.

And the books that are discovered on Safari can be readily purchased. Safari invites publishers to give them a URL of their choice for a purchase link. (They offer as evidence that they move books in the long tail that the most-purchased book on their site right now was published ten years ago.)

I don’t quarrel with skepticism about the subscription business model for the immersive reading that constitutes most of a general trade publisher’s list. But holding back the chunkable books from Safari is depriving those books of revenue and exposure to audiences with intent in a way that will almost certainly not cannibalize other sales. Big trade houses will be doing fewer of those books in the future, but that’s no reason not to generate the most exposure and revenue they can for the ones they have.

The last three posts, the most recent one on what I thought was missing from the Amazon-Hachette coverage, one on subscriptions and the first one I did about Amazon-Hachette, were not sent out by the Feedburner service that delivers email versions of the posts to subscribers. I suspect this one won’t be either. Until we move to a new distribution capability, I’ll continue to link to the undistributed posts with each new one, as I’ve done here.

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