Print-On-Demand

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re getting SaaS-y, going Hollywood, and starting to plan Digital Book World 2013


It is hard to believe that we’re starting to plan the fourth annual Digital Book World conference, which will be held January 16-17, 2013 at the Hilton in New York City. But we are.

The first DBW was held in 2010. Planning for it began the June before when David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media called me to say “we think there can be a better conference than any we’ve been to about digital change in publishing.” They challenged me to come up with an approach and to take on programming the event.

What I hit upon then as a differentiating proposition was to make Digital Book World focus on the business issues created by digital change in trade book publishing. We wouldn’t focus on tech, per se. We wouldn’t focus on how digital change would affect publishers who didn’t rely primarily on bookstores to reach their customers. It has long been my belief that general trade publishers would be the most challenged by the digital transition because their core proposition, their key value-add, was putting books into bookstores.

That’s worked for us very well. Not only have we had three very successful DBWs, I believe we have really helped focus the conversation about the digital transition. When we booked agents to speak at DBW 2010, it was the first time they had been featured at an industry event on digital change. Of course, the agents’ role — and the nature of their organizations — has changed as much as publishers and booksellers have in recent years. We’ve looked at the globalizing impact of the digital transition, how bookstores are coping with it, how publishers’ relationships with libraries are changing, and, repeatedly, how digital change is affecting trade publishers’ organizations, staffing, and workflows.

Then in 2012, Michael Cader and I formed Publishers Launch Conferences because, as big and sprawling and complete as DBW is (and with 30 different breakout sessions plus a ton of plenary programming, 150 or more speakers, and about 2000 attendees, it is definitely the biggest conversation about digital change for trade publishers held anywhere on the planet), we can’t cover everything there and we need interim conversations throughout the year.

As it happens, PLC is letting us focus on subsets of the broader conversation — one might call them “verticals” — that require a deeper dive. Last year we used that capability to deliver “eBooks for Everyone Else”, the primer for ebook publishing without an IT department, in New York and San Francisco and a half-day show dedicated to children’s book publishing in Frankfurt. Both of these ultimately enriched DBW itself; we made “eBEE” a breakout track and did our own full day Pub Launch standalone on children’s book publishing as a co-located event at DBW 2012.

We have two exciting vertical shows lined up for Pub Launch 2013 that will definitely spawn programming for DBW tracks.

“Publishing in the Cloud”, which we’ll stage on July 26 at Baruch on 25th and Lexington in Manhattan, is about SaaS (“Software as a Service”) for publishing. We think SaaS is starting to change publishing practices, workflows, and the IT departments themselves. SaaS will mean a totally different deployment of technology resources for big publishers and enable capabilities that were previously out of reach for smaller publishers.

Although almost all the from-stage presentations at “Cloud” will be by publishers who are using SaaS services, the suppliers will be there too. They’ll meet the delegates at their sponsor tables during breaks and will also participate in “speed-dating” sessions, where the attendees meet sponsors and the speakers in small groups that enable exchanges about the very specific challenges attendees come to the conference to have addressed.

“Publishers Launch Hollywood”, which will take place on October 22 at the Hollywood Renaisssance, will be the first conference event specifically designed to introduce the movie and TV communities to the new opportunities created by digital publishing. Networks, studios, producers, screenwriters, and agents in LA all control properties that would make books that can sell and can now be delivered at a nominal cost. We know of one major studio about to announce a program to sell 300 “classic” scripts as ebooks. NBC, the one major network not already affiliated with a publisher (CBS has S&S, ABC has Hyperion, and Fox has HarperCollins) has started its own ebook publishing operation. These initiatives are the tip of an opportunity iceberg and we plan to bring that message to Hollywood and deliver the information about all the new ways that exist for film and TV properties to generate more fame and more revenue that are now readily available.

Both SaaS and publishing’s Hollywood connection will find their way to the DBW program for next January. They join a list of topics we think are moving up on the agenda for publishers and that we’ll want to cover pretty thoroughly at DBW 2013..

Digital is making the world smaller. That creates opportunity for US publishers to sell more abroad and opportunity for foreign publishers to sell more here. We will feature more on export, more on import, and more conversation with international publishers in general next January. (There’s quite a bit of this on our PLC BEA show, which will take place on June 4.)

Pretty clearly, DRM (digital rights management) is an element in transition in our dymanic ebook world. We’d say that conversation began in earnest at DBW 2012 when Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of ebookseller Anobii, made his plea to eliminate DRM as a way to combat Kindle lock-in. Now Pottermore is selling DRM-free ebooks, getting heretofore inconceivable concessions from Amazon and other ebook retailers as a result, and Macmillan has just announced that their Tor.com division will make the same switch in the next two months. The future of DRM, and, more to the point for us, the impact on piracy and on the overall marketplace, will be front and center at DBW 2013.

Discovery is a topic that has been on our minds for some time, but it is getting increasingly crucial as bookstores decline. Discovery is about metadata, of course, and that’s a subject we’ve covered at DBW before (and will again.) Many social reading and sharing options are being developed. Whether these give publishers and authors the tools they need to propel a book to the level of awareness necessary to get sales and word-of-mouth rolling is something we’ll definitely be trying to learn more about at DBW 2013.

The importance of brand and community is increasingly obvious. I’ve been thinking about a whole conference on verticals (which we’ll probably do as a Publishers Launch event in 2013), but we’ll start that process at DBW 2013. The best example we know of a multi-niche publisher is F+W Media, the owners of DBW. I think 2013 may be their time for a more featured role in the programming. Under the same heading, we take note of name-gathering efforts at several major houses. How names get gathered, how they get segmented and used, and what difference it is making to increase sales and reduce marketing costs will be a prime topic at DBW 2013, particularly now that Pottermore has shown us a whole new way name-gathering efforts might work.

As the traditional paths to market (bookstores) atrophy and sales of books prove more difficult to get, alternate revenue opportunities are going to grow in importance. We know of some. For one thing, international markets are more accessible. There are also new business propositions like Semi-Linear “citia” apps for high-concept non-fiction and Yummly for recipes and food content that offer publishers licensing revenues. And publishers may learn that some of their future dollars will come to them in pennies. Micro-transactions enabled by Copyright Clearance Center (a Publishers Launch global sponsor, but also the purveyors of Rightslink, a capability we think publishers will increasingly find indispensable as a rights marketing tool) and AcademicPub, among others, will likely deserve a real airing by DBW 2013.

We’re also seeing new models developing inside and outside of publishing houses and we’ll be putting examinations of them on the program too. Late last year, Penguin launched Book Country (a portal to help fledgling writers improve their work and get to market) and Sourcebooks is pioneering an “agile” publishing model with futurist David Houle (a hit with our DBW 2012 audience whom we’ll probably bring back in 2013.) Sourcebooks and F+W are also trying subscriptions, a model pioneered by O’Reilly with Safari a decade ago. To the extent that DRM fades, experimentation is further enabled. New models will be an important topic by next January.

We’ll also be gathering data from any source we can and as we have at all DBWs past. Self-publishing is a subject that is bound to get coverage beyond Book Country; I’d love to assemble a panel of self-publishing authors that have turned down major deals (and have really done it themselves instead, not signed with Amazon as their publishers!) And, of course, ebook pricing will be a topic we’ll figure out a way to cover even though most of the retailer and publisher players feel highly constrained talking about it.

The digital transition won’t last forever. Transitions don’t. At some point, the transition is over and we’re into a new world. But if one prediction for eight months from now is safe, I think it would be that we’ll still be in a state of flux next January, with a year away as hard to predict then as it was last January. Digital Book World every January and Publishers Launch Conferences throughout the year still have a lot more value to deliver.

What I want from writing this piece are suggestions for what we should cover at DBW. What do you think the burning issues will be in publishing’s digital transition by next January? We’ll be convening the DBW Conference Council at the end of June to discuss this question, but we’d love to be further informed by your thoughts by then. Comments are fine; sending us emails (to [email protected]) is fine; making suggestions to us when you see us at other shows is also fine. But please tell us what you think.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Frankfurt reminder: the world is getting smaller


At the conclusion of another Frankfurt Book Fair — my thirty-somethingth — here is something I actually knew before but have taken on board in a whole new way: there is an enormous gap between the US and everyplace else in the Western world (at least) in consumer ebook takeup and acceptance.

Here is what I think: it can’t stay that way forever.

Here is what I deduce: the rest of the world is in for what will be, for many, a vertigo-inducing ride while they catch up.

It seems pretty obvious why the US is so far ahead: 300 million people in a single developed economy with a single currency and a single language. Those same factors also largely explain why the US is also so far ahead in Internet print book purchasing. (There is another big cause at play there: the service infrastructure provided by our national wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, without which it would have taken a multiple of the initial investment to get Amazon.com off the ground 15 years ago.)

One thing leads to another. Because Amazon had, by the end of 2007 when it introduced the Kindle, built a loyal customer base of tens of millions of book buyers, they had the pillars in place to roll out an ereading device. That really required two things nobody else in any other country has even today: a big enough customer base to reach a critical mass of consumers without any assistance or partnerships and enough leverage with the publishers to get them to put their books into the ecosystem that supported their device.

One thing leads to another. Amazon’s Kindle, with a much larger selection of titles and a smoother path from file server to device than had previously been offered by other ereading platforms (which were, before Kindle, the Sony Reader device for some and reading on PCs or handhelds such as Palm Pilots for others, with me in the handhelds group), gained pretty rapid uptake. That led Barnes & Noble, which also had leverage with the publishers to get titles into their store and access to and brand credibility with millions of book readers, to follow on with their Kindle-like device, the Nook, almost exactly two years after the Kindle. As most of us know, the iPad followed the Nook shortly thereafter, coming onto the US market in April 2010.

All of this has resulted in getting the US to the point as of Frankfurt 2010 where a US publisher launching a book of straight text can expect ebook sales to be a mid-teens percentage of the book’s total sale, with occasional reports that are even more dramatic (such as the anecdote that the first wave of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” was one-third ebooks!)

One thing leads to another. As has been written on this blog many times, all these Internet-based sales put enormous pressure on brick-and-mortar stores. We see shelf space diminishing and there are those among us who believe that over the next ten years it could pretty much disappear.

The Kindle hasn’t had nearly as dramatic an impact abroad as it has in the US for a host of reasons. Amazon doesn’t have the same audience share. They don’t have the same huge number of titles available as they do in the US. And they haven’t had two other big and influential companies (B&N and Apple) pushing the device-reading experience into the public consciousness. It seems Nook and iPad’s arrival have only served as catalysts for Amazon to sell even more Kindles and for the ebook uptake in the whole US market to accelerate further.

So we find ourselves today with this massive gap between the penetration of ebooks in the American market and the penetration in any other country’s market outside of Asia (I didn’t talk to any Asian publishers at the Fair, and I don’t know the situation there.) Certainly (assumption alert: a priori argument not based on any data) this is a situation that cannot last forever. In five or ten or fifteen years the percentage of book sales that are digital and the percentage of print book sales that are transacted online will be pretty much the same in all developed countries.

If that assumption is right, then other countries — starting with the English-speaking ones and then moving on from there — are going to experience the changes we’ve felt in America in a much more compressed period of time.

There are legal and institutional barriers to change which have already been “effective.” The world’s largest natural moat has protected the Australian book market, keeping print book prices high and the retail book trade healthy. It was evident from conversations I had with some Australian booksellers at last May’s BookExpo that they are feeling the winds of change beginning to blow a gale, fanned by the arrival of Kobo ebooks in the market. (Kobo is a sleeper from the US perspective: a small almost-an-afterthought ebook platform in our country but painstakingly building a presence around the globe and some impressive OEM relationships everywhere, including in the US.) Ingram’s POD setup in Australia will surely introduce a lot more titles into the print marketplace. That’s important because POD drives consumers to online purchasing by offering more titles than any bookstore could ever stock.

All of this is frightening to any sentient Australian bookseller.

Retail price maintenance, territorial and language rights restrictions, and variable rules about applying VAT (sales tax to us Americans) to books seriously complicate the development of the ebook marketplaces in Europe.

But the biggest complication of all, in the short run, will be the paucity of titles available in the epub format in languages other than English. Epub enables reflowing of text, which is essential to deliver a reader-friendly ebook experience to a multiplicity of screen sizes. We have hundreds of thousands of titles in epub in English; no other Western language is close. This is a subject that first surfaced for me in Brazil when I was there in August.

One thing leads to another. The epub gap spawns another serious issue for the European book trade as it catches up with the US. Most educated people in most European countries are comfortable reading English. A publisher in tiny Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) told me that one-sixth of the books sold through the largest chain of bookstores and the largest online bookseller are already in English. Somebody else told me that 25% of the books sold in Denmark are in English. In Holland, I was told, there has been recent legislation requiring “windowing” of English ebooks on titles that have a Dutch edition, holding back the English edition until the Dutch edition has had a minimum time of availability.

The biggest adjustments even for the players in the US book trade are still ahead of them. As far as I can tell, big publishers have not really taken on board that bookstores are pretty much going away in the next ten years and, one thing leading to another, taking the big publishers’ major value proposition with them. There is almost no visible acknowledgment of the shift from IP to eyeballs that I believe is coming. But the change we’ve had and the change we’re facing in the US publishing world is dwarfed by what will be seen and felt by our friends and trading partners in Europe and elsewhere in the next decade.

Some of what this post is about had already been anticipated as we prepared the program for the Digital Book World conference taking place January 25-26. We had already planned a panel on how territorial and language rights trading will be affected as ebook uptake spreads. Now I think I’ve found somebody who can lay out the European landscape as US publishers and agents should be thinking about it. I’m working with her to prepare what I think will be a significant addition to our program covering a topic that is, as it should be, increasingly important to American rightsholders.

Another topic for another day is that the world is getting smaller and publishers in every country will need to understand what’s going on in their foreign markets better. We’ll be delivering just one compressed seminar and a panel or two at Digital Book World because that’s what bandwidth we think conference attendees this January will be comfortable investing in the topic, relative to a lot of other things that need to be discussed. By a year from January, I think understanding how the ebook markets work in countries around the world will be a top-of-mind concern for every publisher and agent in America.

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Three fledglings that really should fly


Sometimes you hear of an idea or a new business that seems so right-on-the-money that you wish you had invested in it and figure it is just a matter of time before it grows into something very powerful and important.

Here are three of those — all of which should be of interest to publishers  and which everybody who is interested in the content on this blog should know about — that are unrelated and similar only in one way. If they execute and deliver on their promise, which in the last of these three cases is really beyond question, they should have very bright futures.

One is a new business that was dreamed up without publishing as we know it in mind at all. It’s called Open Sky, and it enables any web site to sell any thing. Open Sky aggregates wholesale pricing arrangements from suppliers of anything at all and enables any website (or blog) to sell the goods at a profit. And they provide the web site with whatever technology or functionality they need plus a social commerce platform to enable harvesting and use of customer information.

So from the manufacturer’s perspective, they are the front end to a lot of distributed eyeballs and resellers. From the website or blogger’s perspective, they provide both the commercial relationship and the web tools necessary to “stock” and sell items relevant to the site’s audience. They’re brokering business arrangements that are useful on both ends and enabling sales that would simply not exist if they did not exist.

Former book editor and agent Mary Ann Naples saw the potential for Open Sky with clients of hers who were book authors and bloggers. Imagine being a blogger who writes about cooking and wants to tout and sell her favorite pots and pans. Mary Ann represented people like that and she’s been taking Open Sky into the book business.

From the perspective of a guy who has been telling publishers to use their content as bait to attract and aggregate eyeballs because they’re bound to have remunerative value, Open Sky provides an answer to the question I face the most when I lay out my thinking. (“Great, Mike, but how am I going to make money?”)

The second is a publishing business you’ve probably heard of (or should have) called Flat World Knowledge. Flat World creates college textbooks, doing the creation more-or less the old-fashioned way, although somewhat faster and cheaper than the big players. What’s different about Flat World is their commercial model. All their content is available free on the web in HTML, but you can buy it (printed or digitally-delivered) if you need to possess it or mark it up.

Wrapped into the Flat World model is the capability for professors to add other material, theirs or somebody else’s, to the Flat World text. That material becomes part of the offering to the student and soon Flat World will add the optional capability to make the material available to professors in other schools to offer to their students (with a royalty, of course). Flat World has had books in the marketplace for about 18 months; they’ve learned enough to know about how much the free HTML exposure drives profitable sales. And “how much” is apparently “enough.”

In a world where the price-and-margin pressure on the textbook model just gets increasingly difficult for publishers and students, Flat World’s new approach looks very likely to succeed. It is worth noting that Macmillan is now delivering the professor customization part of the Flat World model, but it is extremely difficult for an established publisher with a legacy cost structure to compete with their free-on-the-web commercial model. This will becoming a growing threat to the established players in the college textbook space.

The third initiative comes from two giants in the trade world: Macmillan and Ingram. (I always tell you when this is the case: Ingram is, at the moment, our client.) They have just signed a deal by which Ingram’s print-on-demand, warehouse space, and shipping capability becomes an extension of Macmillan’s own operation. Books can be seamlessly shifted from a pressrun model to POD (and back). Macmillan is alleviating warehouse space pressure, keeping books generating revenue past when they would otherwise have been out of print, and anticipating the inevitable future reduction of infrastructure that will be mandated by the shift from print to digital.

In a recent blogosphere conversation sparked by Evan Schnittman’s observation that the impact of the ebook shift could be an expansion of the market, Eoin Purcell wrote about the commercial impact of readers shifting from ebooks to print. Purcell fears that publishers might be forced to give up the print book revenues if printings were eroded too much by ebook uptake. What he sees is that as press runs go down, printing costs go up, and if that forces book prices up, it will exacerbate the decline of print and could diminish it to the extent that it just isn’t worth doing.

Certainly that’s a challenge publishers face, and they know it. The Sales Director of a Big Six house with a lot of bestsellers, anticipating that his ebook sales could pass 20% of the total for most of his books as soon as next year, said “I hope we’ll be smart enought to manage down our printings and distributions.” Hitching Ingram’s capabilities to the publisher in the way Macmillan just did helps ameliorate that problem and a myriad of others. It’s a way for publishers to reduce overheads and increase operational capabilities at the same time. I’d be surprised if we don’t see many, if not most, other publishers going for this solution in the months to come.

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Planning the next publishing model: a new take on “no returns”


Although there are some very good minds working on the next publishing model — Jane Friedman with Open Road and Richard Nash with Cursor being the first two that leap to mind — I have developed a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to them or to others planning to avail themselves of the new opportunities which are bound to be arising.

What I think both Jane and Richard have spotted is that “scale” is diminishing in its ability to provide a publisher with competitive advantage. Certainly, it is still true that the surest-fire big successes still require substantial advances to authors and aggressive laydowns of inventory that do require scale. If you want to publish Patterson or Evanovich or any author with a proven track record of bestsellers, guaranteed to move hundreds of thousands of copies, you have to take a cash risk for advance and inventory commensurate with their guaranteed minimum sales level and you have to go after the entire market, which takes money and organization, to recoup that investment.

But that covers no more than one percent of, let’s say, 100,000 titles a year published by established publishers and an even tinier percentage of the total number of new books if one includes those issued through self-publishing operations. (I am staying away from real numbers here because I haven’t done the analysis needed to discern them. The million-plus number of new ISBNs reported by Bowker contains hundreds of thousands of titles that are neither new nor self-published, but which are reissues of out-of-copyright books set up by companies that use technology to process the files into a print-ready state.)

Nash is explicitly expecting the collapse of the overall trade publishing model. Friedman has never expressed that expectation, but she’s exploiting the combination of old contracts that are ambiguous about ebook rights and the big trade houses’ reluctance to go beyond a 25% of net receipts royalty on ebook sales to make high-profile ebook captures. Her company professes to be “marketing-focused” and she has hired two of trade publishing’s most expert digital marketers, Rachel Chou from HarperCollins and Pablo Defendini from Tor. She has a partner, Jeffrey Sharp, with a filmmaking background. So there appears to be a clear emphasis on ebooks, new publishing forms, and digital marketing, not on “scale.”

A month ago I wrote that I expected 50% of the market for narrative books (words, not pictures; simple design, nothing complex like a cookbook) to be delivered through online purchases by the end of 2012. That was based on an expectation that 25% of the sales of those books would be ebooks.

Since then, I’ve decided that prediction is too conservative. Now I think narrative books might pass that benchmark six months or a year sooner than that. Hachette’s most recent financial results attributed 8% of US book revenue to electronic in the first quarter of this year. In a speech delivered last week in Australia, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster gave the same number — eight percent — as her company’s current share of revenue attributable to digital. Eight percent of revenue is something more than 8% of units (because ebooks are cheaper), and the number would be higher on their narrative books (because the 8% is across a list that includes a lot of books not available as ebooks.) If they were at 12% of units on narrative books in the first quarter of this year, they could be at 25% of units on narrative books by the first quarter of next year, which would be about two years ahead of what I was expecting just a month ago.

And what is true of both Hachette and Simon & Schuster must be a pretty reasonable approximation of what we’d see at any of the other Big Six companies.

The portion of the market that buys online doesn’t require pre-printed inventory. Setting up with Lightning and Amazon and perhaps Baker & Taylor would enable all online purchasers to get their print copies on demand. Today I am offering what I think is the solution for distributing  inventory more broadly into brick-and-mortar stores without a publisher risk. If Nash or Friedman have thought of this already, they haven’t announced it.

The brick-and-mortar world has three main components: chains, mass merchants, and independents. Here’s a deal structure that I think can be appealing to the big customers and, which, with a bit of tweaking,  can work to the benefit of the smaller ones as well.

When publishers sell to the trade channel, they collect approximately half of the retail price of the book for each one sold. They bill their channel partner that full amount when the books are shipped to the store, and credit their channel partner that full amount (with some relatively minor exceptions) when returns come back. Of that half they collect from the channel, about 20% (10% of retail) is the publisher’s cost of printing the book, 20-30% (10-15% of retail on hardcovers; actually less on paperbacks) is the author’s royalty, and the balance (about 50-60% of the money received) covers the publisher’s cost of doing business, including paying for books printed and not sold, and profit.

In a print-on-demand scenario, the manufacturing cost doubles (or more), so 20 or 30 points of the 50 or 60 remaining to the publisher are chewed up. Some contracts allow the publisher to get back some of the author royalty in that scenario, but absent that the publisher’s margin is definitely reduced so that they only “clear” 20 to 30 percent of the cash received. On the other hand, they shed the costs of unsold inventory (which can be substantial), they lose the requirement to capitalize inventory, and they can diminish or eliminate all sorts of operational costs for warehousing and inventory management. Sellers of print-on-demand services, including Lightning, have been laying out this reality to publishers for years.

In the present scenario, the channel partners — retailers or wholesalers —  are at cash risk for the return freight (and sometimes the inbound freight). And they have the full cost of the book tied up until they sell it or return it.

Here’s the new solution for a no-returns, no-inventory-risk-for-publishers world.

Publishers say: we are doing an initial press run which you can be part of. There will be no inventory maintained at the publisher. If the channel demands a subsequent run and will support it, we’ll do it. But otherwise, everything beyond the press run is available only from the wholesalers providing POD services.

The press run offer to channel partners works like this: you pay the cost of printing and delivering the book. And that payment is firm. You buy that inventory at its cost and you own it; no returns. That’s going to be about 10% of the established retail price.

But the payment above that, the rest of the purchase price by the channel, is paid on sale (or, to use the term of art, “pay on scan.”) To provide some incentive for the retailer to support a book with inventory and push up that first (and often only) press run, and then later to give them the margin for markdowns, I’d suggest that the second payment diminishes over time. The total “cost” to the retailer should be 55% of the retail price for the first 60 days after inventory is delivered, dropping to 50% for the next 60 days, and 40% thereafter. That would leave the publisher 30% of the retail price in margin on the slowest-selling books, of which the author, under the best contracts that exist today, would get half. The publisher would get half, but would have no inventory cost (that was paid up front) and no returns processing.

This formula should work fine for Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and the mass merchants, who can buy 1000 or 2000 copies of a book they want to carry and get that press run price. Serving the independents is more difficult.

We stipulated at the top that all books are set up for print-on-demand at Amazon and Ingram; perhaps at Baker & Taylor too. If those books are ultimately sold to the wholesaler on normal discounts (about 50%), the relatively higher POD cost would chew up most of the publishers’ margin. We’re positing that POD could be 25% of retail (rather than about 10% for press run), which would leave only 25% for royalty and publisher’s margin. By today’s standard contracts, that might only leave 10% for publisher’s margin. There are two possible ways to claw back margin and both of them could work.

One is to negotiate lower author royalties for sales made through print-on-demand. Let’s remember I’m formulating how a new publisher ought to operate; they don’t have any legacy contracts yet. And, I might add, both Open Road and Cursor have aspects of their model that are more advantageous to authors than today’s standard. That’s how Open Road is getting those ebooks, paying 50% instead of 25%. And Cursor offers a short-term deal that nobody else does. So, on balance, the author might see herself as better off even though the royalty on some trade sales would be reduced.

Another possibility is that Ingram or Baker & Taylor (and you only need one to say yes to more or less oblige the other) can be persuaded to accept a lower discount on these POD books. For one thing, they make a bit of margin on the POD. For another, these books will not be available at all direct from the publisher (which has moved to a no-inventory model), so the wholesaler can offer a lower discount to their customers as well and still be “competitive.” And the wholesaler has no inventory risk or carrying cost either and no cost of sending returns back to the publisher. A slightly reduced margin structure still ought to work out profitably for them.

Of course, many devils are in the details. Publishers would need retailers working this way to report sales to the publisher on a daily basis and pay promptly, perhaps weekly (after all, the retailer is only paying after they’ve collected the customer’s money.) There is “shrink”, books stolen or which otherwise disappear without going through the cash register. That cost is entirely borne by the retailer today and the publisher will need some check and balance to assure that it doesn’t become a payment dodge under this arrangement.

But as the publishers move to a world where inventory risk can be substantially reduced, it just makes good sense to look for a way for the brick-and-mortar sales channel to gain some benefit from that idea as well. Working this way can enable a 21st century publisher to cut operations costs dramatically and even, perhaps, improve their cash flow.

When I first recognized that we’re in sight of the day when half the sales can be achieved without inventory, it looked like an obvious game-changer for publishing. Now I’m seeing the way to change the other half of the game as well.

And having walked through this door of perception, I close with a message for all the no-returns advocates out there among publishers. You want to eliminate returns to reduce your risk. That’s reasonable. But your risk is really the cost of printing the books; it wouldn’t be royalty on books not sold and it shouldn’t be profit on books not sold. So shouldn’t any no-returns policy also relieve the store of those elements of the risk as well?

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Losing the secondary business can kill you


Before the Internet deconstructed the publishing value chain and enabled new models, both publishers and booksellers benefited from a lot of what I’d call “secondary business”. Secondary business was not what they were set up or primarily intending to do, but which they easily could accommodate to earn easy margin that supported their primary operations.

Publishers controlled an apparatus that could make bound books out of manuscripts and put them on bookstore shelves for patrons to buy. These were not trivial capabilities and they were much in demand. Although  the principal business model for a commercial publisher was to select what to publish, develop it editorially in collaboration with the author, and then take the risk of printing inventory and distributing it in hopes that it would sell, sometimes opportunities arose that were less risky ways to employ their skills.

I had my first experience with this kind of publishing in the late 1970s when my friend Caroline Latham was the writer-for-hire and then publishing consultant to a wealthy man named Jack Eisner. Eisner was a Warsaw Ghetto survivor with an exciting and moving story of his experiences on the run from the Nazis during World War II. After the war, he built a very successful import-export business so that by three decades after the war he had the time and resources to deliver his story to the broadest possible audience.

Caroline co-wrote his book, The Survivor. Eisner hired Abby Mann (the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Judgment at Nurenberg) to write the screenplay for the movie, and the play was written by Susan Nanus. Jack financed the production of the play on Broadway, where it had an extremely brief run.

Caroline engaged me to help her make the book deal. We were working with William Morrow, a fine and venerable publisher. They paid Eisner no advance. Eisner agreed to put up a substantial sum (I think it was $75,000) for advertising and promotion of the book. Morrow made all the decisions about printing and distribution. With a deal like that, they couldn’t lose. And they didn’t, although the book didn’t sell very well in relation to the investment made in it by Eisner. It is worth noting that there is a paperback edition of the book, renamedThe Survivor of The Holocaust, still available from Kensington.

The more common author of this kind for publishers would have written a business book that “paid off” for the author in ways other than trade store sales. Sometimes it just enhanced their reputation and improved their primary business. Some business book authors move large numbers of copies of their books themselves. In bygone days, “selling” your book to a trade publisher (for little or no advance) with contractually-stipulated author buy-backs was a deal that worked for both sides. I remember a very significant trade publisher telling me over a decade ago that “author sales” constituted one of their largest distribution channels.

Working with an established publisher has a couple of distinct advantages: the imprimateur of a brand name is one and their ability to move copies through commercial channels is another. But it also comes with definite drawbacks for the commercially-minded author. The profit on books the author moves is shared with the publisher. And the time schedules for trade publishing are traditionally glacial; virtually every author’s first disappointment is how long it takes from the time their book is completed until the time a publisher puts it out.

One stark example of an author who does better self-publishing than he could do with a trade house is Michael Durkin. Michael is a sales trainer and motivational speaker who sells his own self-published book, bundled together with audio CDs that are simply recordings of his speeches. The package of the book with about six of the CDs sells for $100 and he sells about 25,000 of these a year, mostly through the 100 or more speaking engagements he usually does, plus a few from his own web site. Durkin is so averse to sharing his margin that he doesn’t even try to sell his material through Amazon! Durkin also points out that his book is a fabulous prospecting tool; he uses it regularly as a door-opener. It gets people to hire him for the speaking engagements that fuel his product sales which, if you figure that his cost of goods leaves him with a margin of more than $80 per package sold, is producing a solid seven-figure profit for him annually.

Durkin agrees that 20 years ago he almost certainly would have worked through a publisher with a buy-back arrangement which would have meant a significant hit to his margin. And it would have constituted a very nice subsidy for a publisher.

Bookstores also have lost what is collectively a vast amount of secondary income to the Internet. My father briefly fought a battle in the 1950s to stop the practice of giving wholesalers more discount than bookstores got. Len wanted to force library supply to go through retailers so that library purchases were subsidizing the retail bookstore network, not warehouses that simply extended the publishers’ supply chain. It was a great insight (although both libraries and wholesalers, deeply cognizant of the value-added services wholesalers perform today for libraries, would argue persuasively against it today as, apparently, they did then.)

What often distinguished a successful independent store was its ability to do “back door” trade: serving local businesses, schools, and community groups. If a local reading group needed 10 copies of a book, they’d buy it from their local bookshop. Bulk business, and there is lots of it in every community in America, was most conveniently transacted through a local merchant. Now it is most conveniently transacted through the Internet. When a “back door” book business succeeds (like Jack Covert’s 800CEO-Read business based in Milwaukee and originally spawned by the independent Schwartz Bookstores), it is because it develops a far-flung following (served largely through the Net) rather than a local one.

It only works now if it is built on a vertical principle so it can appeal to a global audience. Being local doesn’t provide enough of a competitive edge for a local purchaser who is looking for wide selection, the ability to buy in bulk, the ability to ship to different recipients, and the ability to handle all that business online.

It is almost impossible to prove this with data, particularly retrospectively, but my intuitive hunch is that competitive independent stores in the 1980s and 1990s outdid their chain competition largely because of their ability to develop and serve secondary business — business above and beyond what is delivered by the traffic that comes in  the front door, shops the displays, and walks out with the goods. If that were true, it would explain why independents seemed to be hit harder than the chains in the first decade and more of the Amazon-led online bookselling revolution.

But all publishers and all brick-and-mortar book retailers earned critical margin in bygone days from sources that have alternatives they didn’t have then, even though neither the publishers nor the booksellers would have identified this business as critical to their survival. That’s another manifestation of the permanent alterations occurring to the ecosystem that spawned and enabled the existence of a general publishing business.

BookExpo America is this week. I’m really sorry I’m missing the Self-Publishing Day on Monday. That’s clearly a movement that is rapidly growing in importance; one we’ll have to “cover” a bit at Digital Book World next January. It’s an increasingly potent commercial force that all elements of the trade community — authors, agents, publishers, wholesalers, and retailers – will want to understand. I can’t make it because I’ve got meetings elsewhere in the city all day Monday. I am planning to be on the floor all three days the exhibits are open. I know many big houses are off the floor in meeting rooms this year; I’ll be paying attention to  how that changes the feel of the show.

I can already tell I’m glad to have Cader’s BEA LunchtoGo app; I don’t believe I’ve had such a simple stand number look-up device. (It has lots of other data and functionality as well, but that’s mainly what I’ll use it for.) I’ve got an iPhone now but I have had a handheld organizer since 1986. I remember a few years ago Frankfurt offered data of this kind for the Palm Pilot which you secured by having it “beamed” from one of the kiosks they set up around the Book Fair for the purpose. The process was klunky and, as I remember, so was the tool. I don’t think the experiment made it into a second year. But Lunch’s tool is much cooler, and it shows how a web site can work just like an app (as long as you’re connected; the data’s in the cloud, not in your hard drive) and dodge the restrictions of the Apple environment.

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A benchmark event occurred today


A shoe dropped today.

Author J. A. Konrath, who has been self-publishing on Kindle and reporting about it for quite some time, just contracted to have the latest in his series of novels featuring female cop Jack Daniels published by the new Amazon Encore imprint. Encore was originally announced as Amazon’s way to pick up and feature already self-published books. They apparently bent the guidelines a bit to include Konrath’s yet-unpublished book, Shaken. Amazon will publish the Kindle edition at $2.99 in October and release a paperback at $14.95 next February.

Although Konrath is a media- and tech-savvy author who has published with major New York houses (the Jack Daniels series was previously published by Hyperion), he is not a regular NY Times Bestseller brand. Not only is he not a multi-million dollar advance recipient, he makes it clear that the novel he just signed with Encore was rejected by the New York publishing houses. So Amazon had a low bar to jump to secure him for its Encore line.

Nonetheless, this is a significant jolt to conventional publishing economics. Sales of Konrath’s $2.99 ebook will deliver him about $2.10 a copy (Konrath says $2.04; not sure where the other six cents is going…), as much or more as he would make on a $14.95 paperback from a trade publisher, and significantly more than he’d make on a $9.99 ebook distributed under “Agency” terms and current major publisher royalty conventions. And, however one feels about the degree to which pricing is a barrier to ebook sales, one must assume that the $2.99 price will result in a lot more ebook sales than a $9.99 price would. Many times the sales!

We’ve been imagining a split market for ebooks: “branded” ones from conventional publishers being sold in the $10-$15 range and “commodity” ones from lesser-known sources (authors and publishers) at $1.99 and $2.99. Over time, we figured that improved curation of the cheaper ones, plus promotional pricing by the branded ones, would drag the overall pricing down. That’s been behind our concern that maintaining anything close to the current pricing for print will be almost impossible to do over time.

I think “over time” just became more compressed as a result of Konrath’s move.

Here are a few things to think about and watch as we go.

1. Konrath made it clear that his deal with Amazon is under a strict NDA. We’ve gotten used to reading about his financial results and, indeed, Amazon loses a major benefit of their relationship with him if they don’t allow him to talk about how much money he’s making.

2. We got a comment on another blogpost from a reader complaining about not being able to get books on Nook that were available on Kindle. Without any detail as to what books the reader was talking about, it was impossible to diagnose the reason. I could only assure the reader (who wondered if the retailer was declining to stock some titles) that Barnes & Noble certainly wanted everything possible available on Nook. Although Amazon intends to try to sell the print book through non-Amazon channels (an effort Konrath frankly admits he doesn’t place great stock in), it would be a bit of a surprise if they made the ebook available through any non-Kindle channels.

3. Giving up non-Kindle channels today for an ebook isn’t necessarily giving up a lot, particularly with Kindle clients available to be used on other devices. Publishers have been hoping that iBooks and the Agency model would result in a more diverse ebook ecosystem, reducing their dependence on Kindle to reach the ebook audience. What happens if more authors, and bigger authors, follow Konrath’s lead. Could Kindle end up being the only ebook outlet for enough important titles to seriously impede attempts to compete with it?

4. In explaining his decision to sign with Encore, Konrath credits Amazon with being able to “send an email to every person who bought” a previous book of his through their website.  This underscores the importance of email list organization at publishing houses, and the opportunity almost totally missed by publishers to entice book purchasers to register their interest in an author. (Yes, some publishers make a half-hearted effort in that direction, but where are the experiments — like Thomas Nelson’s — to give all the bookstore purchasers something of value if they’ll check in with the publisher after they’ve bought the book from a retailer?)

5. It will be fascinating to see how the rest of the retail trade — bricks-and-mortar — reacts to buying a book which delivers profit to Amazon on each and every copy sold. Sterling was a client of mine when Barnes & Noble bought them. Borders stopped stocking their books almost immediately. Only long-standing relationships with independent retailers saved their distribution through that channel, but there was definitely negative feedback from indies about supporting their perceived enemy. A retailer’s first loyalty is usually — and should be — its audience. By the time Shaken comes out in print, it is likely to have sold tens of thousands of copies as a Kindle ebook and, especially because of its unique role as a groundbreaking publishing model, is going to be known and anticipated by the audience of print book customers who haven’t made the switch to digital reading.  Will Amazon sell print to their competitors successfully? Will they offer return privileges? Will they offer competitive discounts? Will they use wholesalers? This will be fun to watch.

Konrath’s deal with Amazon was negotiated by his agent (which, according to Publishers Marketplace’s “Who Represents” database is Jane Dystel, but this was last updated in 2006.) We know that Amazon has reached out to agents lately. Many authors will be asking their agents to investigate this alternate avenue to the marketplace on their future books. Signing up new books for what publishers would consider reasonable advances just got harder. So did maintaining a 25% royalty rate for ebooks.

I met Joe Konrath once, in January 2007 at Google’s Unbound conference, which I emceed and at which he spoke. So I’ve been aware of his ongoing narrative, making pretty serious bucks selling books of his he controlled (out of print or never published) through Kindle. I have been surprised recently at who did not know about him, including a close friend who herself is a successful mystery writer and all of the agents at a pretty large NYC shop thinking hard about their digital future. His days of relative obscurity are over; Konrath has carved out a permanent place for himself in the annals of publishing history with this move.

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What will be the big digital issues in January 2011?


I have found a way to describe the difference between the Digital Book World conference we organize for F+W Media and the O’Reilly conference Tools of Change which I believe is accurate and is certainly not intended to be a pejorative description of  Tools of Change. I go to TOC and I find it very valuable, but different from what we’re trying to do.

Tools of Change explores developments in technology that have impact or can have impact on publishing (in general) and helps publishers (of all kinds) understand how to apply them. Digital Book World explores business challenges to trade publishing (defined as book publishers who work primarily through the retail network, or “the trade”) generated by digital change and helps publishers address them. So if I were organizing Tools of Change, I’d want to scan the horizon for technologies that could have an impact and ask “how?” Because I’m organizing Digital Book World, I’m looking at trade publishing’s commercial environment and operations for the impact of technology and asking “what should we do?”

The next Digital Book World Conference is set for January 25-26, 2011. That obliges us to ask: what will the hot digital change questions be eight months from now? What should we be planning to discuss then that will be immediate and relevant to the attendees we’re targeting: the editorial, marketing, sales, and digital strategy people in trade book publishing houses?

To help us figure that out, we’re in the process of recruiting the DBW 2011 Conference Council. That group of about 30 people — CEOs, digital strategists, and marketers from publishing houses large and small, agents, retailers, and independent industry thought leaders — will help us define the panels and choose the speakers that can enlighten and inspire. I’ll introduce you to that group in a future post; the team is in formation at the moment.

Today’s blog is to recruit the readers of The Shatzkin Files to help too. I hope you will.

Here are 15 topics, or speculations, we’ve identified to start building an agenda for discussion next January. Do you have any thoughts on any of these to refine our thinking? Some of these are ideas looking for examples: do you know particular people or companies doing things suggested here (or not suggested here) we should be highlighting? And, most important, what are we missing?

1. What’s going to be in an ebook? We’re definitely moving past the stage where the ebook is a “straight lift” from the print: half-titles, blank pages, and all. As ebook sales are rising, publishers are paying more attention to presentation and quality control. And there have been a few experiments with “enhanced ebooks” that contain added content and features, some of which are presenting books as “apps” to increase the functionality that can be offered. Where will we be drawing the line between “standard” new ebook features — dictionaries and linked notes, for example — and enhancements that might be worth extra money? And what enhancements will we see working in the sense that consumers see them to be worth paying for?

2. What will ebook sales channels look like eight months from now? In addition to the main ones we have today — Kindle, iBooks and the App Store, Nook and B&N, Sony, Ingram Digital and Content Reserve — will we be seeing substantial sales through Google and the Android marketplace, B&T’s Blio, and Copia as well? Will the mobile phone service providers be creating retail outlets that matter too? Will the retailers newly in the ereader game — Walmart and Costco and Best Buy — also be motivated to create a branded outlet of their own to sell ebooks?

3. To what extent will publishers view single-title marketing as a practical endeavor? We’ve maintained that title-by-title marketing is the Achilles heel of general trade publishing and that the steady erosion of book-format-oriented marketing opportunities (book review pages in newspapers, radio and TV talk shows) and verticalization call for different marketing strategies. Where will publishers’ thinking be next January on the challenge of launching each new title into the marketplace?

4. How much progress will publishers be making on establishing direct-to-customer contact? What has characterized trade publishing is its dependence on intermediaries to reach the market. And what has made trade publishing possible is the leverage provided by those intermediaries, allowing publishers to reach millions of readers through mere thousands of touch points. But all publishers today acknowledge that the intermediary structure is breaking down and direct contact with end users is necessary. How is that working out? We may need two panels to answer that question: one of niche publishers that will find it pretty natural to do and one of general trade publishers who will undoubtedly find it very hard and complicated.

5. How important is the mobile phone market? How fast is it growing? What kind of books work best on it? And what do publishers have to do differently to please that market than what they do for larger-screen PCs, tablets, and ereaders?

6. How are publishers tackling the shrinking marketplace for printed books? Are they shedding warehouse space or considering consolidation with other players? Are they renegotiating printing contracts, reconsidering what constitutes a “minimum run” or acceptable print book margins? Are they developing new short-run and POD models to complement their prior pressrun models? Are they launching any new books with a no-pressrun strategy?

7. How much progress are publishers making toward changing their workflow, so that we have “ebook first” editorial processes? Since the beginning of ebooks over a decade ago, the standard technique has been to make them after the print book has been completed, and for the editor and author to focus their efforts on making the best possible print product. There is an increasingly widespread belief that this is backwards, and more complex ebooks help make a compelling argument for reversing the order of things. How far will we have moved in that direction by next January?

8. Does the growth of ebook sales change the thinking of publishers and agents about the efficacy of dividing up the territories for single languages? Do publishers start to see a growth in offshore sales facilitated by ebooks? Anecdotal reporting by O’Reilly, which owns global rights in all its titles, suggests that they’re seeing big sales growth in digital from markets that are hard-to-reach with print.

9. Do non-US publishers start to establish more of a sales presence in the US exclusively through virtual means? We’ve been suggesting on this blog that the growth of online sales — print books and digital books — will soon enable reaching a majority of the US sales potential without inventory, which means without the need for a warehouse or a distributor. That should lead to greater penetration of our market by offshore publishers, in all languages. Will we see enough signs of this by January 2011 to build a discussion around it?

10. How does the future look for the brick-and-mortar bookstore marketplace? On this blog (and elsewhere), concerns have been expressed about the impact on bookstores of the increasing shift to online purchasing for both print and ebooks. Christmas 2010 is being viewed in the consumer electronics industry as the “ebook Christmas”. When we’ve had a chance to digest the sales numbers of new devices and we combine that with what we know about the impact devices have on a consumer’s print book purchases, how do we see the future of bookstores when next January rolls around?

11. Is “profitable self-publishing” an idea gaining credibility or is it a pipedream? In 2009, author J.A. Konrath made a bit of a splash when he blogged about the substantial revenues he was earning putting his short stories and out-of-print backlist on Kindle without a publisher. Will there be more stories like this by January? Will this look like a viable option for established authors?

12. What’s the best approach to ebook distribution for small and mid-sized publishers? Will the original DADs (digital asset distributors) like Ingram Digital and LibreDigital provide the full service suite and sales effort that smaller publishers need? Or will the publishers-as-distributors model — notably including O’Reilly, who went into the business last February, as well as trade publishers and trade distributors like Perseus and NBN and Ingram Publisher Services, be the better option? How much is effective ebook distribution dependent on technical competence and how much of it requires sales competence?

13. After many years of discussion, are we yet beginning to see some new revenue models with any impact, like subscriptions (Disney has tried it now, in addition to O’Reilly’s Safari), selling books by the slice, or new models to compensate for library lending? We know that publishers need metadata-labeled fragments of their books for marketing purposes, but, for trade publishers, is there yet any indication that there’s a real payoff for that kind of tagging in sales revenue?

14. How much of the print backlist is still locked up by rights issues and what impact can different royalty offers have in clearing it up?Jane Friedman’s Open Road has had some success signing up established backlist for higher ebook royalties than the majors want to pay. Is the reservoir of candidates for this treatment substantial? How are agents and big publishers going to resolve these issues?

15. Is the notion of publishers building vertical presences on the web, so often expressed and promoted on this blog, gaining any significant traction in the real world? How are Poetry Speaks and Oxford Bibliographies Online and the forthcoming Pixiq from Sterling doing at establishing a new publishing model? What other examples are emerging or will emerge of publishers using delivering vertical solutions to create new business models?

At the Digital Book World conference, we want to be strategic and we want to be practical. And we want to be focused on the real-world problems digital change is forcing trade publishers to face. Have we left out any of yours?

I have finished this but not posted it yet and am already thinking of things I left out. A substantial publisher I spoke to last week learned from having his trip to the London Book Fair cancelled that he doesn’t need to go there anymore. This company has already given up its BEA floor space in favor of a meeting room. And this CEO himself is no longer going to go to Frankfurt and can see the day not far off when his company will no longer take space there either. Are trade shows  an anachronism in the age of digital communication? I have a feeling you readers and the Conference Council will think of a lot more.

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Ruminations on returns


I contributed to a long-standing industry argument I usually try to avoid when I speculated that ebook growth could lead to a situation which threatened the returnability model for book inventory shipped to retailers and wholesalers. I should have been more emphatic that what I was actually suggesting was that the model of using speculatively-printed inventory to sell books was threatened, and that returnability, which is a subset of that model, would go along with it.

Coincidentally, Ken Auletta wrote a New Yorker piece at the same time in which he demonstrated that lots of smart people, he among them, don’t actually understand the economic impact of returns, let alone the promotional impact of the practice of using books as posters and display props, which is responsible for most of them.

Misunderstanding the economic implications of returns, failing to grasp how it is most useful to think about and analyze them, and various misinterpretations of them are very common up and down the ranks in publishing, in big companies and small.

I recall in the early 1980s I had a small publisher client that was distributed by a larger one. I used to go into the big publisher’s office every couple of weeks and leaf through the sales rep orders, trying to figure out which reps were best selling my client’s books effectively and which ones perhaps needed to get a refresher course on the sales handles.

The sales director in this shop, who ran sales departments for several large publishers in his career and who was both a nice guy and thought of as a “numbers man”, kept tabs on the returns percentage from the two national chains: at that time, Walden and Dalton. He calculated those percentages meticulously at the end of each month, based on that month’s shipments out and returns processed.

Well, you could count on the fact, every year, that returns percentages for both chains were astronomical in February, when few new big books shipped and every excess of optimism going into Christmas was punished. And you could also be sure that both chains had low returns in November and December, when retailers are much too busy building up stock for holiday sales to send anything back.

In other words, the calculation produced a result that was, literally, useless. It simply confirmed the obvious. I bring up this straw horse because it demonstrates an important fact that is just as true when analyzing returns for an account for any period of time, even a year.

The returns in any period of time are at least partly driven by purchases made in a previous period of time. So if sales in a prior period were high, the returns percentage in a subsequent period of lower sales will also be high, and that’s regardless of the appeal of the books being shipped in either period.

So as sales fluctuate, as they inevitably do, publishers will find that all weak sales years have apparently high returns and strong sales years have low returns. This isn’t cause and effect; it is more like a tautology: the inevitable consequence of the fact that returns are based on the sales made three months ago, six months ago, and sometimes a year ago, not on the sales being made right now.

One way a publisher might try to analyze their way around the timing problem is to look at returns by title which, if the calculation were done when an edition’s life was completed (perhaps on the hardcover after it has been remaindered deep into the paperback’s life), would seem to be a valid number to analyze on a stable base: the shipment of one particular book.

But even calculating things that way is not very useful as an analytical device. Returns come from the inventory in the pipeline when the book declines or dies. If the book has already sold for years in that edition, the base for the returns calculation (all books shipped) includes those from many printings long past. The copies in the pipeline at that point might only be 10% or 5% of the total the book has shipped in its lifetime, so the returns will, of course, come in under those percentages.

A publisher trying to manage inventory efficiency needs to be concerned with the books in her own warehouse and the books currently in the supply chain and subject to return. Those sold long ago are not part of that inventory. Taking 100,000 copies back on a book that sold a million or two million and calculating the returns percentage won’t produce any flashing caution lights, whereas taking back 25,000 of 35,000 pushed out on a new “make” book will produce a lot more internal scrutiny and hand-wringing in most houses. But a tighter focus on how to to manage the inventory actually in the supply chain in the face of declining sales would be much productive than an “analysis” that produces nothing but a historical observation. A publishing company can realistically make a lot more progress and save a lot more money figuring out how to reduce the 100,000 than the 25,000.

One factor that affects returns percentages and is not often considered by a publisher is the frequency with which an account orders. I’ve never had the opportunity to do the analysis, but I’d bet there is a very strong inverse relationship between the frequency with which an account orders a publisher’s books (whether direct or from wholesalers) and returns percentage. There are two interrelated reasons for this.

The obvious one is that the store that reorders is signaling that they’ve sold books, meaning that what is available to be returned as a total of what they’ve ordered is less, the effect we’ve noted above. But the other is that an account that orders less frequently is raising returns as a percentage in one of two other ways (depending on the book): they’re either over-ordering to prevent going out of stock or they’re failing to reorder when they are out and losing sales, which means that whatever is returned (of other titles, in this case) is calculated against a smaller sales base than should have been the case.

And all of this is very important to take on board right now because publishers are likely to be entering a sustained period of declining brick-and-mortar sales (which is the part of the inventory pipeline most likely to generate returns), caused in part by declining brick-and-mortar shelf space. That means that advance sales on new titles are going to be lower than before and the number of backlist titles being stocked is going to steadily decline at the same time. And that adds up to a higher returns percentage on a declining sales base.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if stores close or cut back their shelf space, they’ll be sending books back that will increase returns rates. But it will not be simple to separate out how the current strategies for inventory placement are working and to avoid having the “noise” of returns made because of contraction cloud those judgments.

The “good news” is that the old measurements (total returns in a year against total shipments out in a year) will deliver an exaggerated picture of how much current new title sales are declining (although they will be delivering a true picture of a very sad fiscal reality.) The bad news is that we’re going to start hearing about companies whose overall returns percentages have gone from the 20s to the 30s and then higher.

I wrote in the piece that I referred at the top that it looks like sales registered online — whether print or electronic — will be half the sales of new narrative text books published by 2012. When that number gets to 90%, there won’t be much of a premium on a publisher’s ability to understand, and thus to be able to manage, their returns with sensitivity and sound analysis. But between now we will be living through several years when it will be one of the critical skill sets for all publishers fighting to survive sea changes in the business.

For a few years earlier in the decade, we had a thriving little business called “Supply Chain Tracker” in which we took the sales and inventory data provided by major accounts and delivered publishers reports in Excel to help with analysis. We created what we believe were some critical metrics to watch: percentage of stock on hand sold, week by week in each account; percentage of each book’s stock in an account’s Distribution Center (if they had one); total inventory in the retail pipelines we could see and what percentage was selling through in a week (by title), and then the same for wholesale and distribution centers. Most of a publisher’s supply chain inventory is really visible today, if a publisher takes the time and care to look. Just glancing at each spreadsheet an account delivers for how things are going on top sellers was never sufficient; the price to be paid for such inattention in the future will only escalate.

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