New Models

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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The support infrastructure for entities to publish is growing but the most important piece may not yet be provided


I remember a song lyric from the early 70s for which the opening line was: “we don’t need more sailors, we need a captain”. (I can’t find the reference in LyricFind and I don’t remember the name of the band.) That song could be about the new publishing that is arising from the phenomenon of “atomization”, books that could come from just about anybody anywhere (that’s the “we”). They are supported by “unbundling”, the availability of just about every service required (those are the “sailors”) in the complex task of publishing books.

This is what we should call “entity self-publishing”, as opposed to “author self-publishing”. The success of indie authors has gotten a lot of ink lately, partly fueled by the Amazon-Hachette dispute which has brought into bold relief that authors can make a living self-publishing — mostly by exploiting the capabilities of Amazon — without a big organization of their own. But entity self-publishing is ultimately far more threatening to the publishing establishment trying to make a profit because it could, in time, bring a lot more content into the marketplace with a lot more marketing muscle behind it than individual authors will. And sometimes the motivations of those content providers won’t include the need for profit.

(It also can be seen to offer opportunity to the establishment, to the extent that they find it productive to craft their own service-offering on-ramps to be flexible partners for entities.)

Companies abound that offer the core services that support publishing. Big organizations like Ingram and Perseus are mainstream providers and deliver the full suite of capabilities, including putting printed books onto store shelves. (In fact, if you’re big enough, you can get a Big Five publisher to do this for you.) Digital distributors like Vook, INscribe, and ePubDirect can turn a file into ebooks and put them into distribution around the world. Lulu and Blurb will also deliver printed books for you. The subscription services like Scribd and Oyster (not to mention Amazon, Ingram, Overdrive, and the other ebook retailers) will give you distribution. And, both as part of those larger offerings and as stand-alone services like BiblioCrunch, it is increasingly easy for an author (or self-publishing entity) to find editors, cover designers, marketers and web site creators, and just about any other specific skill set that is required to publish a book successfully. In fact, publishers themselves have relied for years on freelancers for many of those functions.

But entities have challenges that individual authors don’t.

An individual author knows what is to be published: what they write. And because most authors are most comfortable in a particular genre, they don’t have to worry much about consistency as they build an audience. They are inherently consistent. (Authors who want to span genres or write outside what they’re best known for have a tougher row to hoe to make themselves commercially successful as self-publishers.)

Of course, they have plenty of challenges outside their writing skill set: editing, cover design, even pricing and marketing. And those challenges are enough to make many authors prefer to have a publisher who will take care of them, even if they would otherwise be willing to give up the marketing and distribution clout of a professional publishing house. There are big per-copy-sold margin advantages to doing it yourself as well as being set free from the constraints and delays that come with working with a larger organization. There are still plenty of “how” questions, but there are very few “what” questions.

But when an entity commits to self-publishing, even one like a newspaper or a magazine that knows how to create the intellectual property, they suddenly need decision-making they’re not equipped to do, and it begins with “what” to publish.

They need a publisher. In the metaphor of the song lyric, they need a “captain”.

The position of “publisher” exists within the magazine and newspaper worlds as well, but it means something subtly different than it does in books. In either case, the publisher governs the whole enterprise, not just the editorial decisions. Because the revenue for magazines and newspapers comes primarily from advertisers, the publisher’s time, bandwidth, and focus are directed there. The publisher certainly has responsibility for things like marketing and distribution, but those tend not to require a great deal of issue-by-issue attention.

But the nature of book publishing is that each book is its own separate marketing challenge as well as an editorial one, and the two are interrelated. If the right book for a market should cost $15, you make a different book than if the right book would be $30, or $8. If the book is ready for publication in September but the right time to bring that book to the market is February, it’s a publisher who decides to hold it back.

And if there are 20 or 30 or 100 books an entity could do, it is a publisher who decides whether to do five a month or five a season, which ones to do first, and which ones should always come out in June.

In a post over a year ago, I cited the example of what publisher Bruce Harris did for Microsoft founder Nathan Myhrvold’s audacious (and successful) $625 cookbook. Myhrvold had the concept and the intellectual property and the business acumen to make key decisions. But it took Bruce, or somebody with his considerable experience and publishing sophistication, to orchestrate the inputs from marketers and publicity experts, coordinate it to the realities of the publishing calendar, and provide the direction to make best use of Ingram’s industrial-strength services.

This kind of expertise is even more important to structure lists within an ongoing publishing program.

Vook has certainly experienced some of that. Their new website announces them as “author-centric” (and they’ll move more and more in that direction), but they have totally cottoned to the idea that entities are a big part of the self-publishing future. They’ve provided critical infrastructure services to enable ebook publishing for The New York Times, Forbes, Thought Catalog, Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report, Frederator Studios, and The Associated Press.

Providing business intelligence has been a crucial part of Vook’s strategy for working with entities. Matt Cavnar of Vook told me:

“We’re tracking data on over 4 million books — print and digital — and we use that information to generate pricing recommendations to maximize revenue for the books our partners publish, to then adjust the books within the marketplaces, and to find specific categories where they will more be likely to rank on bestseller lists. We also coordinate the standard digital marketing and merchandising with the retailers. Thus, we’re acting as the infrastructure and data backend platform for these partners to be as successful as possible — allowing them to focus more on the creative and developmental side of their publishing program.”

But, of course, that data needs to be acted upon by a publisher at the other end. Vook’s client list is heavy with media organizations that can provide some version of that title-by-title, list-by-list decision-maker to make use of Vook’s tools. Because Vook  thinks hard about offering services to authors, Cavnar knows what it is like having focused direction and acknowledges the point.

“That’s right. That coordinated/creative decision maker on the partner side plays the role of the author in a sense.”

The news arrived over the weekend that Blurb, the publishing services company that grew out of an initial print-on-demand offering, had hired veteran publishers Molly Barton and Richard Nash to help them build a network of support services that they will, presumably, operate as a stand-alone business and as an on-ramp to their core business. Blurb has seen this coming for a while and the move made made sense: two publishers with vast experience know how to find and vet all the service offerings for every component of what it takes to publish a book successfully.

But I suspect that for most of the newbies who find editors and cover artists and book marketers in the network Barton and Nash will help Blurb deliver (and, one wonders, how much overlap and qualitative distinction there will be with what BiblioCrunch and a Google search would offer), it would be Barton and Nash themselves, and people like them and Bruce Harris and other veterans with experience with many books and many lists, who would be the most valuable service providers. The most ambitious of the new entrants to book publishing, coming to it to build on knowledge and a reputation established in some other ecosystem (even one that is “media”), would be wise to see that, like all the other tasks, the orchestration of a publishing program is best done by somebody with experience. And the person providing it doesn’t necessarily have to be on staff.

*********

And another, not unrelated thought.

In the world outside book publishing, a lot of content is being generated for “content marketing”. It has been part of my job in programming Digital Book World to understand how the world of content marketing and the world of book publishing connect.

The way a publisher instinctively wants to think about it is “if people are getting paid for content, can I sell some?” Of the three possible interactions with the world of content marketing, that’s likely to be the least productive one. The content marketing world is all about creating precisely the right content for a brand’s marketing needs. It’s not a particularly efficient approach to search the world of existing content for that, then have to license it and live with the licensing restrictions, and almost certainly have to modify it for marketing use. So, with some limited exceptions, scratch that.

Another potential interaction might be around distributing what is or starts out as marketing content as ebooks. I first made this suggestion to a law firm that had created a white paper on Trademark Law. Why not publish it as an ebook, I said? They said, why bother? I thought, don’t you want to show it to people who search Amazon for “trademark law”?

But when I talked to Joe Pulizzi, the head of the Content Marketing Institute, about ebooks, he said “well, sure, they might make sense in some cases, but there are so many other things that are more important to a marketer.” He’s talking about blogs and Pinterest and YouTube and the wide world of web and apps where content can be made to show up for the people who would be most interested in it exactly when they need it. In other words, “I see your point, but frankly, we usually have much bigger fish to fry.”

And that points to what publishers most have to gain from the business of content marketing. Publishers have tons of content, but they are far from having figured out every best way to use that content for marketing. That’s an adjacent science for us, not one in our experiential wheelhouse. That’s why we have Pulizzi speaking on precisely that subject — using content to build an audience and how to apply all those things that work better than ebooks — from the main stage at Digital Book World. We even gave him a breakout session to follow because there are going to be tons of questions from publishers (and their marketers) who will want to put these capabilities in their arsenal.

Many of the companies mentioned in this post are speaking at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. Blurb and ePubDirect are sponsors who will also be on the program. Speakers from ForbesIngram, OverdriveOysterPenguin Random House, PerseusScribdUS News & World Report, and Vook are on panels. From the main stage, we will hear a presentation from James Robinson, who does web analytics in the newsroom at The New York Times, and Michael Cader and I will have a conversation with Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.

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The implications of the computer moving from the desktop to our hip pocket


Benedict Evans of Andreessen/Horowitz (an indispensible observer of digital change across media, and an analyst who explains Amazon better than any other I know) did a presentation called “Mobile is Eating the World”. It spells out the fact that just about everybody is going to have smartphones with connectivity very soon. One slide (slide 6) in the deck says that by the end of 2017 — a bit over three years away — fewer than 30 percent of the people on the planet will not have them. That means that at least 95 percent of the people known to at least 95 percent of the people reading this post will.

Another slide in the deck (slide 28) says that we are already at a point where during the vast majority of every person’s waking hours, they are engaged in media or communications activity between 40 and 70 percent of the time.

Evans and others are suggesting that these changes will remake our use of web sites and apps and make us much more reliant on “cards”, system- and device-agnostic digital objects that can provide both information and the ability to act on it. We see the beginnings of that now in the book business with Ron Martinez’s Aerbook, which puts “content into the social stream” and Linda Holliday’s Citia, which has pivoted away from card applications aimed at the book business to serving the advertising industry.

I think book publishers would be wise to focus on the marketing and consumption opportunities these shifts enable (or require) rather than letting this tech change entice them down the enhanced ebook rabbit hole yet another time. Mobile device usage replacing PC usage actually favors old-time book-reading, since limited screen real estate is not a handicap. But the processes of discovery and the means of purchase could be radically shifted.

One very thoughtful piece I read (but can’t find) suggested that all this means a sharp reduction in email use, which Evans confirms in a chart (slide 31) showing that 12-15 year olds (in the UK) don’t use it much. They have shifted to instant media and social media like Facebook and Twitter as communication channels. They don’t even talk on the phone. There is a new category of “emphemeral media”; IT does its thing and then the communication disappears. Of course, we don’t really know how to project people’s communication behavior at ages 12-15 to what it will be 20 or 30 years later, and email is still extremely powerful for marketing.

Meanwhile, attempts to improve email continue, including this recently from Google.

There are two big changes that are really mandated by the migration to mobile.

The obvious big change is a reduction in screen real estate on a mobile device compared to a PC. The less obvious one, but the one that threatens email use, is the loss of full-function and full-sized keyboards.

These two big changes haven’t been called out specifically in the presentations I’ve seen about this, including Evans’s.

The screen switch might turn out to be the more minimal disruption. While the growth in mobile is real, so is the ubiquity of screens of many sizes in many places. The tech to allow something brought in on a phone to be “thrown” to another screen is pretty trivial — bluetooth already exists and other new things, like Chromecast enabling mirroring an Internet-enabled device to a TV, keep arriving. It isn’t hard to imagine that larger screens will be available for mobile devices to inform just about anywhere. And while there will always be a natural tendency to prefer viewing on the device you hold in your hand from which you control all your navigation (a big advantage for books), if a larger screen is required, it is increasingly going to be available whenever your need it.

But the keyboard problem might be tricker. Portable and foldable keyboards have already been developed, and they are already used to make tablets into laptops. Whether they will be as widely available or as easily compatible as screens is doubtful. They didn’t catch on for Palm Pilots and we’re still waiting to see how widespread their use will be for the Microsoft Surface.

What mitigates the loss of keyboards is the increased use of vocal dictation to replace typing. Every time I click on my Google app on the iPhone, it invites me to just tell it what I want. Of course, transcribing dictated text introduces new possibilities for error. Even so, hobbled keyboards might not be as crippling to email use by the substantial part of the population that is not now 12-15, but will still be communicating for decades, as the 21st century users’ current habits seem to suggest.

You can, of course, just ask Siri (or Google) out loud what that top-of-the-chart NY Times bestseller is and to take you to a site where you can sample or buy it, and you’ll get there.

There is even more reason to believe web sites will persist even if cards become more ubiquitous. As content creation atomizes (more and more content creators, any of which can be very small), understanding their “authority” will be increasingly important. As of now, Google is the one company we depend on most to tackle that challenge (others who attempt it include Bong, Wolphram Alpha, Duck Duck Go), and web sites are a fabulous tool for Google to understand who somebody is and whether they know whereof they speak or write.

That authority-vetting is likely to be more and more important and perceived by content consumers to be so. (In fact, it is happening now, even though most consumers don’t realize it is happening.) If that’s true, official, useful web sites (or equivalent owned or editable means to consolidate information around a person who seeks an audience — like Wikipedia, Google+, Amazon Author Central, and other authoritative pages) may continue to be important to Google, and therefore to the rest of us.

What is certain is that in the developed world just about everybody will hold a computer in their hand all the time that can get at just about anything on the web or in any app. (This is already largely true, if also underemployed or taken for granted.) We are getting increasingly comfortable operating freed from the constraints of time and place. We can also be freed from ignorance most of the time, if we choose to be.

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Print book retailing economics and ebook retailing economics have almost nothing in common


There has been a lot of conversation lately about the differences between wholesale pricing and agency pricing for ebooks and about what constitutes a “fair” division of revenue between publishers and retailers. Since the economics of bookstores have been generally misunderstood for years, it is not surprising that the understanding of what changes make sense as we switch to digital have also been misunderstood. A better grounding in the print book economic realities might enable a more informed discussion of what makes sense for digital.

Here are a couple of points about book economics that I learned at my Daddy’s knee.

1. The investment in inventory is the single biggest capital requirement for a bookstore.

2. Given that the ability to invest in inventory is limited, the speed at which inventory “turns” (a measurement of how long a retailer has to hold stock before it sells) is a much more powerful determinant of a store’s total gross margin, and therefore its profit, than the margin it earns on each sale (the difference between what it pays for the inventory and what it is sold for).

In simple shorthand, that means that a retail store selling books can improve its profit more easily by more closely matching what it buys to what it sells than it can by squeezing more margin out of its suppliers. It also means that a publisher can do more for a store’s profitability by shipping quickly and allowing smaller orders at workable discounts (which make it easier to match supply to demand) and offering delayed billing than it can by offering extra points of discount (which is what added margin is called in the book business). The additional benefit of employing this understanding is that margin division is a zero-sum game, but increased inventory efficiency is actually synergistic: both the publisher and the retailer benefit from it.

This reality about bookstore economics explains the value to the supply chain of wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. By offering the ability to combine orders across publishers and giving rapid, often next-day, delivery, the wholesalers enable stores to gain much more inventory efficiency at a relatively trivial reduction in margin. (Where the publishers’ “deal” is sometimes better than the wholesalers’ in a meaningful way is that publishers will often allow a longer period before demanding payment. Inventory “investment” only really begins when the books the store received are paid for.)

So, in fact, there is very little similarity between the economics of retailing print and retailing ebooks. The tech infrastructure for selling is not a trivial investment, and DRM — including customer service — is a significant expense that ebook retailers deal with that bookstores do not. The print retailer has to build a customer-friendly location and invest in (presumably knowledgeable) clerks. How those costs of doing business compare is a complicated question that changes over time as the tech gets cheaper and the cost of physical locations — driven by ever-higher real estate values in the attractive neighborhoods where bookstores tend to thrive — goes up.

But the things that change aren’t nearly as important as the things that don’t.

The stock turn of an ebook retailer is infinity. There is zero inventory investment.

Publishers first had to deal with the question of what the bookstore’s margin should be on ebooks back in the late 1990s when Palm Digital and Microsoft created the first reflowable ebook platforms. Prior to that we had PDFs, which delivered — in the current jargon — “fixed page layout” ebooks which didn’t adjust the number of words per screen to the screen size. At that time, the ebook retailers were inclined to sell at publishers’ “list prices” and publishers tended to price ebooks at about the same level as print.

But nobody paid a lot of attention because the sales and revenue were de minimus. Since Palm had the most hand-held digital assistants (Palm Pilots) in circulation back at the turn of the century and because (as we have clearly learned since) portability is one of the big drivers of ereading, Palm’s ebooks were the best-selling format. But Palm decided not to enable widespread distribution of their ebook format; they sold the ebooks themselves through a controlled vendor (originally called Peanut Press and then Palm Digital).

In fact, the mobi format that Kindle uses today was developed at the time as a bridging format, able to be read on both Microsoft and Palm devices. This was before the creation of the epub format used by everybody except Kindle today. When Amazon bought Mobi, it was apparently to prevent any other retailer from building a real ebook business selling to what was then the “entire” ebook market. B&N’s one-time exit from ebooks was because they could sell only to Microsoft and not to Palm devices, which meant they had the smaller piece of what was a very small market. Amazon apparently figured then that they’d enter the market when they were ready, but they wanted to prevent B&N from building a foothold in it before then.

I’d argue that the biggest mistake B&N made in the history of ebook evolution was not buying Mobi before Amazon did.

So it became “established” that ebooks would be sold on a similar basis to print books with discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent off publisher-set retail. It should have been no surprise to anybody that once “real” retailers — not software companies like Microsoft and Palm — took the reins, they’d give away a lot of that margin to go after market share. That’s what real retailers do; it’s in their DNA.

In fact, the first wave of discounting of print in the 1980s by the Crown Bookstores chain followed very quickly behind increases in publishers’ discounts to stores from the low 40s to 46 percent and up. Most people never noticed that; others think there’s no connection. It always seemed to me that the increased publisher discounts and the discounting to consumers were linked.

In the early days of ebooks, the volumes were so low and the tech was still under development, so the significant margin the publishers offered — and the retailers employed — might have been necessary to have any ebook retailing at all. As time passes, the fixed retailing costs get lower and the customer service costs also tend to get lower.

Once a real retailer, Amazon, got into the ebook business, deep discounts off publisher prices had to follow, and they did. The move to agency pricing had purposes beyond the principal one, which was to remove pricing as a weapon from the retail competition arsenal. It also put publishers on a path to set realistic retail prices for consumers and to reduce the notional share given to the sales intermediary from around 50 percent to 30 percent.

There’s reason to believe that even 30 percent is too high, given the plunging cost structure for retail and the economic reality of infinite turn on inventory investment. A senior Random House executive told me during the period they were not in agency (the first year it existed) that part of the reason they stayed out is that the 30 percent figure Apple wanted and the other publishers agreed to seemed “too high”. As it turned out, Random House came in a year later and accepted the 30 percent. They said at the time it was because indie bookstores were attracted to ebook retailing by the assured 30 percent margin and fixed retail prices, and Random House always wants to support independent retailers.

It was always curious to me that the preference of all the other retailers except those who can use the book business as a loss leader — Amazon, for sure, and perhaps Google —  for publisher-set retail prices never made its way into the discussion of the publisher motivation at the time, nor to Judge Cote’s reasoning, nor to the arguments which have taken place about it since.

Ebook pricing today is very confused. Apparently, many of the retailers will accept wholesale terms at a lot less than 50 percent, although this is not widely known and, indeed, isn’t even really confirmable. Discounts of print to bookstores were published, standard terms. That’s not the case with ebooks (because they’re not really sales, they’re licenses, no matter what anybody says, and they are individually negotiated contracts, the terms of which are kept private). Nobody outside Amazon really knows what margin Amazon actually takes from ebook sales; it is certainly true that most of the ebooks are discounted from whatever prices publishers “suggest”. (And sometimes those publisher-set prices may be inflated, particularly if the publisher is selling at a bookstore-like 50 percent discount.) Perhaps they only really take the 30 percent that they get from agency publishers and that they take from individual authors in KDP and that they have said in their arguments with Hachette is the “right” share for a retailer.

We actually still don’t know what the “right” or “fair” margin is for retailers of ebooks. Random House had some idea of that in 2010 when they were holding out and they seemed to think “less than 30 percent”. Comparing ebook retailing economics to print book retailing economics only tells us that physical retailers of print need a lot more to have a viable business. Dad also taught me is that the reason publishers give stores a discount off the publishers’ retail price — which should be the price a publisher would sell the book at if a member of the public came directly to them — is to give stores the margin they need to operate. Because publishers want there to be stores. First purposes may have been forgotten in course of the digital transition.

There is programming relevant to this post at Digital Book World 2015 in addition to the main-stage appearance of Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti main-with Michael Cader and me. We have a great panel discussion on “price promotion” with Josh Schanker of BookBub, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Matt Cavner of Vook. And “Blue Sky in the Ebook World” where a panel of visionaries will talk about what is over the horizon for ebook retailing, rethinking simple ebooks, making complex ebooks, and creating ebooks with soundtracks. Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen Book’s talk about how the profile of what sells in print has changed will enlighten around this topic as well.

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Export sales is one of the few areas of predictable growth for book publishers


For a client meeting last week, I was shown a chart that came from Bookstats of channel revenue for publishers. Bookstats is the recent (and now no longer) partnership between the AAP and BISG collecting book publisher shipment information. It has four years of data, which were arrayed in a neat bar chart.

Since the chart showed publisher shipments, it was an imprecise gauge of sales. The third largest channel was “jobbers/wholesalers”, and those books went somewhere else (if they got re-sold and not returned), but we don’t know where. Basically all the other channels got those books eventually.

But it is noteworthy that of the eight channels enumerated (one of which is “other”), only two showed increased sales from 2010 to 2013: online retail and export sales.

Indeed, export sales are one of the real growth opportunities for publishers, and particularly English-language publishers, in the future.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to understand. English is the most important second language in most countries that are not English-speaking. And, obviously, ebooks create no-inventory and little-friction distribution opportunities that make it easy for a publisher in New York or London (or Sydney or Toronto) to deliver to a customer separated by any distance or number of oceans.

In addition, the search engines are global so “discovery” can take place anywhere as well which can increase the demand for printed books as well as digital ones, even though the printed books present a more complex delivery challenge.

The opportunity brings along its challenges. One is that rights conventions need to change. Publishers often have their rights to distribute in some parts of the globe limited by contract. But even when rights aren’t an issue, marketing — including both customizing the metadata and the pricing to a very large number of local territories — can be.

This opportunity has grown rather recently at the same time that many publishers have been preoccupied with overcoming obstacles in their home markets. Both the US and UK markets have been roiled by the relatively sudden emergence of a strong ebook market and the concurrent (and related) weakening of the brick-and-mortar infrastructure for print. Publishers have been scurrying to change many of their practices: licensing differently, learning to do SEO well and employing other digital marketing techniques, shifting their internal structures and workflows, and grappling with the opportunities presented by social media. Many have expended effort on apps and enhanced ebooks which were time and money traps in markets that briefly looked promising but then didn’t pan out.

But in a more settled marketplace, which we have now (perhaps temporarily), the opportunities for growing revenue through export sales is going to get increasing attention from all publishers, who will be happy to know that entrepreneurial companies — some new but some quite established and familiar — have been building out the capabilities to help them.

There are three panels at Digital Book World that will really inform publishers that want to work harder to exploit this opportunity.

The mostly obviously relevant one is called “Global Publishing Tactics: understanding distribution, metadata, pricing, and marketing to maximize sales in different markets”. Two of the panelists are Marcus Woodburn of Ingram and Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct — we have other conversations pending — and moderated by Len Vlahos, the executive director of Book Industry Study Group. Marcus and Gareth and the panelist(s) who will join them have experience selling around the world on behalf of many publishers. Their insight and advice will be gold for publishers looking to expand their export sales.

We also have a panel discussion “Global Market Spotlights: reports from markets around the world”. The four markets we’ll discuss are Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Russia. The panel will be moderated by Thomas Minkus of Frankfurt Book Fair. Our panelists — all of whom are local players — will talk about the switch to digital reading and online sales in those markets, but will also give specific insight into the market for English-language books.

Another discussion which is a bit more tangential, but will still be informative for publishers trying to grow ebook exports, is one on “How People Read”. What we’re trying to get at here is to use the knowledge that ebook platform providers have about the granular detail of reading consumption: about devices, how far people go in various kinds of books, whether they read more than one book at a time, and how they respond to pricing changes. All of our panelists — Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, David Burleigh of Overdrive, and Andrew Weinstein of Scribd — are superintending global platforms. Another aspect of what they’ll reveal is how these consumption patterns vary across markets, including how much English is read in various export markets. Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center, which also has an increasing international focus, will moderate.

We could well also learn more about global opportunities from the keynote talk we’ll hear from Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, and Michael Cader and I will certainly be asking Russ Grandinetti of Amazon about how publishers can maximize their export sales through them.

So if export sales is on your current agenda, a visit to DBW on Jan 14-15 also should be. And, in that case, sign up before the end of the day on Monday and save yourself some dough. Early bird pricing ends on Monday night.

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The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out


Once again this morning we wake up to a piece by David Streitfeld in The New York Times about Authors United and their ongoing effort to discredit Amazon. The message coming loud and clear from the legacy publishing establishment is that Amazon doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, the value that agents, publishers, and chain and independent bookstores bring to authors and readers and, by extension, to society as a whole. The challenge they face in this ongoing discussion is that many of those values — multiple (agent, publisher, bookseller) levels of curation, investments in quality editing, giving worthy authors the financing to do the creative work that must take place well before the IP will generate any revenue — are pretty esoteric and hard for most people to relate to. And they apply to a small and possibly diminishing number of writers.

The critical services publishers provide are marketing and distribution and those functions, as we all know, are undergoing change and revision as part of the digital disruption. And because they are rapidly changing, there is even greater-than-usual variability to how well these things are done across publishers and, within publishers, across their imprints and lists. Indeed, many authors at legacy houses are not enamored of their publishing experience, but the ones who are defending the publishers are also defending something of their own.

What is equally loud and clear from Amazon’s own statements and those of their supporters (including many authors who would be less well known and less well off today if Amazon hadn’t built the tools and market share they have over the past several years), is that the legacy industry doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, that commercial publishing was built on an ecosystem which is rapidly being dismantled and will ultimately be irrelevant. And they point out that what is replacing what came before delivers much lower-priced ebooks (print is another matter) to consumers and a substantially larger portion of the revenue to the authors than published contract splits would give them. (The fact is that those splits are irrelevant more than 80 percent of the time for the most commercial books because big agents get big authors advances larger than what they “earn”, but that’s another story.) The authors that work in the new paradigm also gain unprecedented control of their professional lives: publishing when they want to, pricing and changing prices as they want to, and playing with marketing opportunities (bundling print-and-digital, entering subscription services) or not, as they and they alone decide.

The fact that both options are commercially viable today means we might actually now be living in a golden moment for authors. Publishers are certainly aware that a brand-name author has a truly workable self-publishing option (although, frankly, the biggest surprise to me so far is that basically no major author has taken it, which is objective evidence that the execs running the big houses are navigating at least some aspects of the digital transition very well). And Amazon started paying authors 70% when publishers switched to agency and extracted 70% for themselves, a connection that seems not to have been made by much of the publisher-bashing commentariat.

While there is a symmetry to the two sides’ dismay about what is appreciated or understood, there is a massive asymmetry here that is hardly, if ever, mentioned. And that asymmetry makes the motivation of the legacy defenders very clear — they’re fighting for their lives — but actually suggests that the “side” fighting them (to the extent that it consists of indie authors) is at least sometimes simultaneously fighting against their own interests.

Those who feel well served on the legacy establishment side have much to fear from Amazon’s continued growth and success. The clear self-interest of all the publishers, agents, and those authors fortunate enough to be continuously “employed” through book contracts — which includes many, and certainly the most recognizable, of the authors in the Authors United effort — who are fighting for Hachette to “win” (which means maintaining the publisher’s share of the sales that flow through Amazon) in the current dispute is obvious, if perhaps insufficiently emphasized or acknowledged.

Cynicism about whether it is really the greater societal “goods” that get so much emphasis in their appeals that are really motivating these authors or whether they’re just protecting their own gravy train is not unreasonable.

Assuming that the publisher-bashing commentariat, who could also be characterized as the “pro-Amazon” advocates, has a healthy number of authors whose revenue is as largely dependent on Amazon as James Patterson’s is on Hachette, one can see the emotional motivations to fight for the home team could be similar. But the practical side of it is precisely opposite. It is obvious that Amazon getting stronger weakens Hachette’s (or HarperCollins’s or Bloomsbury’s or Cambridge University Press’s) ability to pay advances and publish more books, which directly affects various stakeholders and particularly steadily-working authors. But if Hachette “wins” — or if Amazon’s margins on transactions with publishers are not improved — how does this injure the self-publishing authors who are working successfully that way now? Simple logic says that Amazon will treat them best when the possibilities offered by publishers are the best.

Do they really think that Amazon will offer them more if Hachette is weaker? History and logic would suggest the opposite.

In other words, publisher-published authors definitely lose if Amazon gains strength in relation to them. But Amazon-published or KDP authors (and the publisher-bashing seems to come from both flavors) lose nothing if legacy publishing remains strong. They are, allegedly, fighting for the “good” of those authors who are signing “exploitive” publishing contracts, but their own interests are not served.

This asymmetry plays out in another way in the Lee Child exchange on the Konrath blog. Child says, again and again, that he thinks it makes complete sense for authors to exploit the opportunities in KDP if it looks like the best commercial choice for them. Maybe I’ve missed it (and I admit that I am disinclined to read most of the publisher-bashing posts and I certainly don’t make a habit of reading the bloggers who specialize in them), but the message I keep getting from Konrath, Eisler, and Howey is not “choose the course that is best for you based on the choices you have in front of you” but is more like “never sign one of those exploitive publishing contracts!” (Howey tells me he blogs about that “all the time” and cites this post of his. You can decide for yourself what you think, but it seems to me that he is saying “only sign with a publisher after you’ve built yourself up by self-publishing first”.)

The motivation of the authors who spend a great deal of time and energy bashing big publishers has puzzled me before. Because “price-shoppers” are a core audience for indie ebooks, indies actually got a shot in the arm when the publishers and Apple put in agency pricing, which in its original form prohibited even the retailer from taking a loss to bring branded ebook prices down.

There’s no way for an outsider to compile the data to prove this, but the chances are very good that indie author breakthroughs were easier to achieve during the years when the price gap between the majors and the indies was greatest. But most of the voices now demonizing Hachette (and the rest of what is being called the Big Five “cartel”) also bashed agency pricing. I see the benefit to Amazon in that position, but I don’t see how crippling agency pricing helped indie authors.

It is not only Judge Cote’s decision which has changed things since, but also the growing awareness of publishers about the value of temporary price drops, or “daily deals” and services — most prominently BookBub — to amplify the effect of promotional pricing in the marketplace. But how did ending agency pricing benefit independent authors?

Hugh Howey maintains that he is better off if his books and those from the big branded authors are priced the same. Hugh’s a smart guy so maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it, but that makes no sense to me. Except in the luxury goods market, there is virtually no situation where you gain advantage with a higher price than the alternative pitted against you. The bigger the saving you can offer, the more you’ll sell. In fact, Hugh makes that argument himself when he claims that lower ebook prices will raise industry revenue because it makes the ebooks more affordable. It’s fine to argue that the big publishers are dumb not to lower prices and sell more, but, even if it is true and especially if it is true and they pay attention and obey, how does that do him any good? (The answer from Hugh, by the way, is that we’re all better off if all prices are lower.)

I have been persuaded in Howey’s case that he personally rises above self-interest in his industry commentary. Hugh’s a nice guy, a smart guy, and a socially-conscious guy. He and I have had many candid and mutually respectful exchanges. And I read “Wool” and recruited him to speak at Digital Book World long before he was such a celebrity on the anti-publisher side. I believe him when he says “I’ve made more money than I ever imagined I would; I’m grateful; and one benefit of that is I don’t need to be motivated by money in my decisions.”

Howey is a true believer and a crusader who is sincerely convinced that the standard publisher terms for authors are unfair and need to change. He has occasionally expressed skepticism and concern about some of Amazon’s decisions and behavior, particularly around the complex compensation schemes for Kindle authors with their KOLL (lending library) and Kindle Unlimited (subscription) initiatives which buys him a certain amount of credibility. But I still can’t understand why he’s in KU but not Oyster and Scribd and 24Symbols, a set of decisions that strike me as being in Amazon’s commercial interest but not his own. (One possible explanation is that going into additional distributions creates more “work”, but I don’t take that too seriously. Hugh can afford to hire people to do the work, and he does all kinds of other things, like his AuthorEarnings blog, purely to add to industry knowledge. It would add a lot of useful insight if he were in the subscription services and reported on it.)

Perhaps the problem has to do with Amazon’s KDP rules, which apparently require “exclusivity” to be in KU. That is almost certainly not a requirement visited on publishers. If that’s what is stopping Howey, it would be nice if he would say so. Could Amazon be preventing its authors from pursuing revenue opportunities? If that’s true, wouldn’t that belong in any discussion of an author’s choices?

Another persistent Amazon advocate is author Barry Eisler, whom I first encountered during a brief moment when he was going to eschew taking advances and being published by somebody in favor of doing it on his own. (In the end, he became an Amazon-signed author.) When I posed the quandary that is the subject of this piece to Eisler, he referred me to this post of his which I don’t believe addresses the question. You can check out the link and decide for yourself.

Trying really hard to understand this and think imaginatively about it, I can only really come up with two “selfish motivations” that make sense. One — and I think this is the one that is claimed — is that the publisher-bashing is designed to improve life for the victimized authors who choose those deals. Indeed, the content of the anti-publisher rants often includes specific suggestions, or demands: raise the digital royalty, make shorter contracts, pay royalties more often, etc. that are, no doubt, author-friendly. But it does seem a bit weird for people committed to demonizing, weakening, and ridiculing the big publishers to be the ones to tell them what they could do to stay competitive. If publishers accepted the suggestions, of course, perhaps Amazon would be pushed to improve author terms too, but that seems a pretty indirect and distant reward to explain all the time and energy some people expend on this. (Or are they promising to sign with the big publishers if they follow these suggestions? I don’t think so!)

Another conceivable legitimate motivation, of course, is ego. These publisher-bashers have managed to “do it” without them, and continuing a high-profile running criticism of the establishment they outdid and outmaneuvered, particularly when you can get a lot of applause, might be alluring. But even that feels weak to me. If self-aggrandizement were what motivated these people, it would be even more impressive if their frame were “this is hard, but I managed to do it” whereas the message feels much more like “anybody can do this and you’re a bit of a dolt if you don’t.”

None of this constitutes enough of an explanation to satisfy me. I am either missing something in plain sight or I’m not in possession of all the facts. Perhaps the “explanation” that the published authors defending Hachette pursue their selfish interests but that the indie authors who bash Hachette and the others do it out of public-spiritedness, even if their own revenue suffers, does it for you even though it doesn’t for me.

Amazon has a strong case to make for itself. They really made online book retailing work through strategic brilliance and excellence of execution, without being first and against industry entities that should have had competitive advantage. They made ebooks into a thriving business for everybody pretty much singlehandedly, also without being first. They’re entitled to feel that the powerful position they’re in is because of the virtue of their model and execution, and they’re entitled to feel that a different publishing industry than the one they came into is the future they have to work towards, whether or not they want to spell out that vision in full and whether or not the incumbents “get it”.

If every argument being made by the publisher bashing commentariat were coming from Amazon, I’d understand the motivation and factor it in, as I do with Authors United or Hachette when they speak.

But I need to understand a rational motivation to put anybody’s advocacy in context. And it seems to me the very best thing for indie authors is for all the existing publishers to retain their capability to hire authors on that model as much as they can for as long as they can. That’s not the best thing for Amazon, but I really think it is the best thing for authors, and as true for those who do-it-themselves as for those who are published.

A senior Amazon executive, in a meeting we had two or three years ago, complimented me on the fact that I “understand entities acting in their own self-interest.” My response then was, and my feeling now is, “I’m mistrustful when they don’t.”

After I wrote this, I found that blogger Chuck Wendig had asked a similar question, with far less editorial speculation than appears here, in what appears to be an undated, but recent, post. He framed it differently than I do and I’m not sure what I read at his attempt at irony (“why are self-publishers trying to save the Big Five?”) was seen that way by his many respondents. My focus is narrower: this fight is being carried by a handful of very persistent and energetic critics, spending time and energy that one would think takes more motivation than is required simply to  “have an opinion” on this subject one way or the other. “What fuels all this energy and vitriol?” is a different question than “which side are you on in the dispute?” 

Early Bird pricing for Digital Book World 2015 is only open until next Monday. There will be lots of programming that will provide context and insight around all things Amazon. Michael Cader and I will have a half-hour wide-ranging discussion with Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti. Judith Curr, the CEO of Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint, will present her view of  the “publisher-or-self-publishing” choice authors face. An expert on the school and college market, Matthew Greenfield of Rethink Education, will include an assessment of Amazon’s role in his review of what publishers need to know to compete for those sales as things change. Jonathan Nowell, the CEO of Nielsen Book, will use his company’s historical data to look at how the mix of what sells in print has changed since ebooks took off. Media veterans and authors Walter Isaacson and Ken Auletta will let us see the book business alongside other media undergoing technological change, which is necessary for any valid understanding of Amazon. We have a panel of publishers talking about selling direct. Oh, and of course, Founder/President Josh Schanker of BookBub will be on a panel on price promotion! There’s a lot more that is relevant, which you’ll find if you scan the entire program.

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Are Amazon exclusives the next big challenge for everybody else in publishing?


Somebody smarter (or more patient about wading through data) than I am could probably figure out how far along this bifurcation is already, but Amazon is doing its very best to build a body of content that is desirable and available from nobody else but them.

This is something you can do when you’re in the neighborhood of 70 percent of ebook sales and already more than half the total sales for many works of fiction, which is where the self-publishing world is strongest. It is not an opportunity that is really available to any other retailer. Apple has given it a try for more complex ebooks for which they provide ebook-building tools and, presumably, offer the most productive distribution environment for complex content. But they’re playing on much less fertile ground and they don’t have anything like the audience share necessary to drive this strategy very far.

It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any other ebook ecosystem could offer benefits that would make it worth skipping Amazon.

Two recent developments call attention to this situation.

David Streitfeld in the New York Times reports that Amazon has held a private by-invitation-only conclave for writers the past four years. I knew about this before because I’m a subscriber to Publishers Lunch and they reported on it about three years ago. (I like to say about my conference business partner Michael Cader, proprietor of Publishers Lunch, that you go to him for the facts and you can come to me for opinions.)

It is a smart and sensible thing for Amazon to do. Amazon has been demonstratively aware of the ability of writers to promote their own books to their audiences but also to promote Kindle Direct Publishing among their peers. Bringing authors in for a private chat to exchange ideas is not only flattering to those invited (a benefit to Amazon in and of itself), it almost certainly also informs them about how to be more successful courting authors in the future. This shouldn’t be viewed pejoratively, although Streitfeld’s piece and a companion blog post seem to position it that way.

The other is Hugh Howey’s very public rumination about whether to go exclusive with Amazon or not, in which Howey wonders out loud whether he should stay exclusive with Amazon beyond a 90-day trial period based on his calculation that his audience (perhaps counterintuitively) goes up while his revenue takes a small hit. I’ve had an off-line exchange with Hugh in which he emphasizes what his post says: he really can’t decide which way to go on this.

(It is worth noting, as Hugh does, that when he makes these decisions, they are only commitments for 90 days at a time. Of course, each time he switches he creates work for himself, either putting up the titles in other venues or taking them down. But he can get the benefits of Amazon exclusivity in 90-day chunks with no commitments beyond the 90 days and go in and out as many times as he likes. Hugh makes what I think is an unhelpful and invalid comparison to the life-of-copyright deals publishers ask for in return for advances against royalties and inventory investments that Amazon and other retailers do not make for self-published authors, but he’s right that it is much easier to make a decision when you only have to live with it for three months.)

His open thought process became the subject of a post by Chris Meadows on Teleread. One thing on Hugh’s mind was whether he needed to help keep alternatives to Amazon viable by contributing his content to their mix. Meadows says “that’s not your problem” and I agree with that. Each writer should be making the publishing decisions that are best for their personal brand and career. The first decision — if a publisher offers them a choice — is whether to take an advance and a deal or whether to self-publish. If they self-publish, they have to decide whether to be exclusively Amazon or go for the widest possible distribution.

The reflexive, intuitive choice is to get the most distribution possible. There are certainly readers who shop exclusively in non-Amazon retail environments. There could even be a growing number of those in light of the recent publicity around the Hachette dispute and the negativity directed at Amazon by Authors United. There are certainly people who make a point to avoid shopping at Amazon or buy from them as little as possible. (I’m even related to some of those people.)

But with Amazon’s enormous market share, their ability to promote both through normal commerce and special exposure like their subscription service Kindle Unlimited, and their willingness to put a thumb on the financial scales (KDP Select authors get higher royalties; they pay bonuses to top sellers and top titles being seen in KU), they can make up for whatever might be lost by eschewing other channels of distribution.

The idea that having content that is not available elsewhere can strengthen a retail offering is not the exclusive province of Amazon. It was a core component of the strategy originally announced by upstart retailer Zola Books.

Amazon has not yet ever suggested that “content only available here” was any important part of their customer-marketing strategy. (Update: I’ve been corrected on this. In fact, they do promote the exclusive content, both in press releases and in their Kindle Unlimited promotion online. They tout “over 500,000 digital titles you won’t find anywhere else”.) The exclusive-or-not conversation has been mostly (should be: largely) confined to their dialogue with authors. In fact, the rest of the publishing world has nudged them in that direction by being resistant to stocking books from Amazon Publishing. If at one time the author recruitment team at Amazon might have hoped to deliver ubiquitous distribution for their books, the path to bookstores was effectively blocked by their brick-and-mortar competitors’ lack of willingness to support their program.

The self-publishing revolution, despite the enthusiasm of its strongest advocates (which definitely include Hugh Howey), has only made small inroads among authors who have the option of a substantial advance from a traditional publisher. For that reason, the pool of authors exclusive to Amazon contains very few that could change a book consumer’s shop-of-choice (except perhaps one time for a particular book they wanted to get).

But if a big earner like Hugh Howey thinks he might be better off accepting Amazon’s standard terms for exclusivity, that’s a dangerous sign for everybody else in the book ecosystem. A traditional publisher still offers brick-and-mortar visibility and revenue that Amazon and any self-publishing effort will not. The transfer of market share from stores to online and from print to digital hasn’t ended. Every point of market share that shifts strengthens Amazon’s proposition for exclusivity and increases the likelihood that a high-visibility author will make the self-publishing leap. The combination of the two — highly branded authors and Amazon exclusivity — is among the most unwelcome inevitabilities the rest of the industry will probably face in the years, if not months, to come.

What is already the case is that Amazon is piling up a repository of content that nobody else has. When that hits a tipping point that starts influencing substantial numbers of consumers is another shoe waiting to drop.

Programming at Digital Book World that is highly relevant to this post will be a presentation by Judith Curr, president of the Atria division of S&S, on the math of the author’s decision whether to go with a publisher or publish on their own. Curr’s division works hard to recruit new authors and, in fact, Peter K. Borland, who heads up Atria’s Keywords Press partnership with UTA to publish books from highly successful “digital influencers” (people with big YouTube audiences, for example), is a participant on a panel of “new publishers” who are making their mark. The other participants on that panel — Entangled and Georgia McBride Media — don’t have Big Five roots.

As we were about to post, a rumor hit the Net of a new Amazon program to recruit more self-published authors. The idea is that submissions of manuscript and cover are given a crowd-sourced review; then the highest-ranked are “considered” for a new kind of Amazon publishing contract. This doesn’t seem to have been “officially” announced, but a conversation with an Amazon person is reported and the source, The Digital Reader, is normally reliable. This initiative would be further evidence that Amazon is using its platform to control the distribution of more and more of what authors generate.

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What makes books different…


Before the digital age, retailers that tried to sell across media were pretty rare. Barnes & Noble added music CDs to their product mix when the era of records and cassettes had long passed. Record stores rarely sold books and, if they did, tended to sell books related to an interest in music. For those stores, it wasn’t so much about combining media as it was about offering a defined audience content related to their interest, like Home Depot selling home repair books. For the most part in pre-Internet times, books, music, and video each had its own retail network.

But when media became largely digital in the first decade of the 21st century, the digital companies that decided to establish consumer retail tried to erase the distinction that had grown up dividing reading (books) from listening (music) from watching (movies and TV). The three principal digital giants in the media retailing space — Amazon, Apple, and Google — all sell all these media in their “pure” form and maintain a separate market for “apps” as well that might contain any or all of the legacy media.

The retailing efforts for all of them are divided along legacy media lines, acknowledging the reality that people are usually shopping specifically for a book or music or a cinematic experience. Most are probably not, as some seem to imagine, choosing which they’ll do based on what’s available at what price across the media. (This is a popular meme at the moment: books “competing” with other media because they are consumed on the same devices. Of course, only a minority of books are consumed on devices, unlike the other media. Even though this cross-media competition might be intuitive logic to some people, it has scarcely been “proven” and, while it might be true to a limited extent, it doesn’t look like a big part of the marketing problem to me.)

It seems from here that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have a distinct advantage over all their other competitors in the ebook space because, with books — unlike movies and TV and music — the audience toggles between print and digital. And this might not change anytime soon. The stats are scattered and not definitive, but a recent survey in Australia found that ninety-five percent of Australians under 30 preferred paperbacks to ebooks! Other data seem to indicate that most ebook readers also read print. To the extent that is true, a book shopper — or searcher — would want to be searching the universe of book titles, print and digital, to make a selection.

It should be more widely understood that the physical book will not go the way of the Dodo nearly as fast as the shrink-wrapped version has for music or TV/film. It hasn’t and it won’t. There are very good, understandable, and really undeniable reasons for this, even though it seems like many smart people expect all the media to go all-digital in much the same way.

Making the case that “books are different” requires me to unlearn what I was brought up to believe. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, used to ridicule the idea that “books are different”, which was too often (he thought) invoked to explain why “modern” (in the 1950s and 1960s) business practices like planning and forecasting and measuring couldn’t be applied to books like they were to so many other businesses after World War II. In fact, Dad shied away from hiring people with book business experience, “because they would have learned the wrong things”.

But in the digital age, and as compared to other media, books are definitely different and success in books, whether print or digital, is dependent on understanding that.

First of all, the book — unlike its hard good counterparts the CD (or record or cassette) and DVD (or videotape) — has functionality that the ebook version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write margin notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate around back and forth through the text much more readily than with an ebook. There are no comparable capabilities that come with a CD or DVD.

Second, the book has — or can have — aesthetic qualities that the ebook will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.

But third, and most important, is the distinction about the content itself. When you are watching a movie or TV show or listening to music through any device, the originating source makes only the most nuanced difference to your consumption experience. Yes, there are audiophiles who really prefer vinyl records to CDs and there probably are also those who will insist that the iTunes-file-version is not as good as the CDs. And everybody who has watched a streamed video has experienced times when the transmission was not optimal. There are almost certainly music and movie afficionados who will insist on a hard goods version to avoid those inferiorities.

But the differences between printed books and digital books are much more profound and they are not nuanced. In fact, there are categories of books that satisfy audiences very well in digital form and there are whole other categories of books that don’t sell at all well in digital. That is because while the difference between classical music and rock or the difference between a comedy and a thriller isn’t reflected in any difference between a streamed or hard-goods version, the difference between a novel and a travel guide or a book of knitting instruction is enormous when moving from a physical to digital format.

For one thing, the book — static words or images on a flat surface, whether printed or on a screen — is often a presentation compromise based on the limitations of “static”. The producer of a record doesn’t think “how would I present this content differently if it is going to be distributed as a file rather than a CD?” But the knitting stitch that is shown in eight captioned still pictures in a printed book could just as well be a video in an ebook. And it probably should be.

In fact, this might be the use case for which a consumer would make a media-specific decision. If you know what knitting stitch you need to learn, searching YouTube for a video might make more sense than trying to find instructions in a book!

Losing the 1-to-1 relationship between the printed version and the digital version adds expense and a whole set of creative decisions that are not faced by the music and movie/TV equivalents. And they are also not a concern for the publisher of a novel or a biography. But these are big concerns for everybody in the book business who doesn’t sell straight-text immersive reading. The point is that screen size and quality are not — and never were — the only barriers in the way of other books making the digital leap.

So even though fiction reading has largely moved to digital (maybe even more than half), most of the consumer book business, by far, is still print. Even eye-catching headlines like the one from July when the web site AuthorEarnings (organized and run by indie author Hugh Howey, who is a man with a strong point of view about all this) said “one in three ebooks” sold by Amazon is self-published, might not be as powerful at a second glance.

Although Howey weeds out the ebooks that were given away free, the share of the consumer revenue earned by those indie ebooks would be a much smaller fraction than their unit sales. The new ebooks from big houses, which is a big percentage of the ebook sales they make (and that AuthorEarnings report in July said the Big Five still had an even bigger share of units than the indies), are routinely priced anywhere from 3 to 10 times what indie ebooks normally sell for. So that “share” if expressed as a “share of revenue” might be more like five or ten percent. It really couldn’t be more than 15%.

(In fairness to Howey, he tries to make the point that indie authors earn more from lower revenue because their cut is so much bigger and he makes the argument that they are actually earning more royalties than the big guys. He also tells me that he calls some S-corp and LLC publishers “uncategorized”, even though they are almost certainly indies, in his own attempt to be even-handed. In fairness to the industry, I will point out that his accounting doesn’t take unearned advances into consideration, and since most sales of big house ebooks are of authors who don’t earn out, that lack of information really moots the whole analysis about what authors earn. Another big shortcoming of the comparison is that most published authors are getting a much more substantial print sale than most indie authors.)

But indie authors on Amazon are the industry high-water mark of indie share and ebook share. They are almost entirely books without press runs or sales forces, so they are almost entirely absent from store shelves. And they are also entirely narrative writing.

The facts, apparently, are that even heavy ebook readers still buy and consume print. There is not a lot of clear data about whether “hybrid readers” make their print-versus-digital choice categorically or some other way. There is some anecdata suggesting that some people read print when it is convenient (when they’re home) and digital when it is not. There are a number of bundling offers to sell both (offered by publishers and one called “Matchbook” from Amazon), which certainly seems to say that publishers believe there’s a market of people who would read the same book both ways at the same time!

What that all would seem to say is that the retailer selling ebooks only is seriously disadvantaged from getting searches for books from the majority of readers.

Do we have any independent evidence that selling to the digerati only — selling ebooks only — might limit one’s ability to sell ebooks? I think we do. It would appear that B&N has sold roughly the same number of Nooks as Apple has iPads. (This equivalence will probably not last since Nook sales seem to be in sharp decline.) That is somewhat startling in and of itself, since Apple is perhaps the leading seller of consumer electronics and B&N was entirely new to that game. Nook also seems to have — at least for a while — sold more ebooks than Apple. (This “fact” may also be in the rear view mirror with the apparent collapse of Nook device sales.) I will be so bold as to suggest that this is not because Nook has superior merchandising to the iBookstore. More likely it is because the B&N customer is a heavier reader than the Apple customer and prefers to do his or her book shopping — and even his or her book device shopping — with a bookseller.

[Correction to the above paragraph made on 11 Sept. I misheard and therefore misreported something that was caught by a reader in the comments below, but I should also correct here.  Apple has sold ~200M iPads but are only roughly 12% of the ebook market whereas B&N has sold only about 1/20th the number of Nooks and are about 18% of the ebook market. That fact makes little sense to anyone in Silicon Valley but speaks to how book audiences really behave. We all know a very high % of Nook owners are active store buyers.]

There is one more huge distinction between books and the other media and it is around the motivation of the consumer. While sometimes TV or movies might be consumed for some educational purpose, most of the time the motivation is simply “entertainment”, as it is with music. While analysis of prior video or music consumed and enjoyed might provide clues to what should be next, figuring out what book should be next is a much more complex challenge.

And the clues don’t just come from prior books consumed and enjoyed. Books are bought because people are learning how to cook or do woodworking, or because they are traveling to a distant place and want to learn a new language or about distant local customs, or because they are going to buy a new house or have suddenly been awakened to the need to save for retirement. You can’t really suggest the next book to buy to many consumers without knowing much more about them than knowing their recent reading habits would tell you.

But not only do (most of) the ebook-only retailers not know whether you’re moving or traveling, they don’t even know what you searched for when you were looking for print. And, even if they did know, operating in an ebook-only environment would make many of the best suggestions for appropriate books to address everyday needs off limits, because many of those books either don’t exist in digital form or aren’t as good as a YouTube video to satisfy the consumer’s requirements.

Indeed, it is the sheer “granularity” of the book business — so many books, so many types of books, so many (indeed, innumerable) audiences for books — that makes it so different from the other media.

Of course, there is one company — Google — that is not only in the content business and the search business but which also handles “granularity” better than any company on earth, down to the level of the attributes and interests of each individual. Google not only would know if you were moving or traveling, they would be in a great position to sell targeted ads to publishers with books that would help consumers with those or a million other information needs. (They also know about all your searches on YouTube!) But because Google’s retailing ambitions are bounded by digital, they are walking past the opportunity to be the state-of-the-art book recommendation engine. They’re applying pretty much the same marketing and distribution strategy across digital media at Google Play. They aren’t seeing that book customers are both print and digital. They aren’t seeing that books are, indeed, different.

When the day comes that they do, this idea will look better to them that it might have at first glance.

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Is the new Amazon acquisition something publishers need to think about or not?


If you’re like me, you know a thing or two about the book business but you didn’t know there was a business called Twitch until you heard the announcement this morning that Amazon had bought it for about $1 billion, apparently outbidding or somehow finessing Google to make the purchase.

Twitch, I have learned, streams video games played by champions and by amateurs, and has a business because people watch other people playing video games in substantial numbers. Since Amazon is so existentially important to anybody in the book business, anything they do is of interest to those of us in the book business. But not everything they do — think selling cloud computing capabilities or running a marketplace for all sorts of non-book goods — has much to do with the book business.

Whether Twitch is something we book people have to understand or fear or gain benefit from is not clear to me yet. (I’ve only known about it for a few hours.) But Amazon’s purchase of it brings forth some points worth considering.

1. In the digital age, new pastimes can spring up and become large very quickly. At the very least, the millions (or billions) of minutes consumers are spending with Twitch are not being spent reading, or watching a movie, or watching the sporting events we used to think were dominant.

2. Amazon is both in the “selling stuff” business and in the “consumer attention” business. This is definitely the latter and might also be the former.

3. One informed observation from James McQuivey about the acquisition was that it showed Amazon wants to control as much content as it can. Twitch is a content-streaming machine, not just a game-hosting site.

4. It has long been the contention of some publishing visionaries like Bob Stein that the digital revolution for books will, in the long run, not just be about the form of delivery and consumption of the same old stuff books have always been (which is pretty much what the ebook revolution has been so far) but that over time what we call a “book” will become something quite different. Stein’s particular interest is in the book as a social construct, where the comments and annotations of many readers can become part of the intellectual property itself for subsequent readers. Stein told me that he sees this as a “game-changer” (pun perhaps intended), suddenly making Amazon a leader in the gaming world. He also sees the “second screen phenomenon” as exemplified by Twitch as extensible to other live events, like concerts and lectures and even television. He has clearly followed gaming for a long time.

Richard Nash expressed a similar idea in a recent speech: that ebooks mean that books are now “reading services”, not “objects”. Does Twitch point the way to that? Are we on the verge of “watching people read” in any substantial numbers? Or, at the very least, looking at the detritus of other people’s reading with interest?

It could be that Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch means exactly the same thing to Penguin Random House, Netflix, and the New York Yankees, just constituting another way people can spend their time which reduces what they have available to spend with older media forms and older brands. But Amazon having acquired it and the massive (and, frankly, unexpected by those of us not in the gaming world) participation it has to consume “media” that are totally outside the historical creators’ domain is another reminder that books in a virtual world particularly have competition that we wouldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago. The Wall Street Journal says Twitch is the 4th largest source of US internet traffic, and the Times says it’s among the 15 most-trafficked sites in the world

And it certainly adds a dimension to an observation I offered 18 months ago: that books are becoming part of other people’s businesses, not just a business on its own. We’re living in an increasingly complicated world.

We haven’t switched off of Feedburner yet (maybe next week) so many of you might not know about the post I just did suggesting a combination that could compete with Amazon for media sales. It’s right here.

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