Publishing History

Seven key insights about VMI for books and why it is becoming a current concern


Vendor-managed inventory (VMI) is a supply paradigm for retailers by which the distributor makes the individual stocking decisions rather than having them determined by “orders” from an account. The most significant application of it for books was in the mass-market paperback business in its early days, when most of the books went through the magazine wholesalers to newsstands, drug stores, and other merchants that sold magazines. The way it worked, originally, was that mass-market publishers “allocated” copies to each of several hundred “independent distributors” (also known as I.D. wholesalers), who in turn allocated them to the accounts.

Nobody thought of this as “vendor-managed inventory”. It was actually described as “forced distribution”. And since there was no ongoing restocking component built into the thinking, that was the right way to frame it.

The net result was that copies of a title could appear in tens of thousands of individual locations without a publisher needing to show up at, or even ship to, each and every one.

To make this system functional at the beginning, the books, like magazines, had a predictable monthly cycle through the system. The copies that didn’t sell in their allotted time were destroyed, with covers returned to the publisher for credit.

Over time, the system became inefficient (the details of which are a story for another day, but the long story short is that publishers couldn’t resist the temptation to overload the system with more titles and copies than it could handle) and mass-market publishing evolved into something quite different which today, aside from mostly sticking to standard rack-sized books, works nothing like it did at the beginning.

My father, Leonard Shatzkin, introduced a much more sophisticated version of VMI for bookstores at Doubleday in 1957 called the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. In the Doubleday version, reps left the store with a count of the books on-hand rather than a purchase order. The store had agreed in advance to let Doubleday use that inventory count to calculate sales and determine what should then be shipped in. In 18 months, there were 800 stores on the Plan, Doubleday’s backlist sales had quadrupled and the cost of sales had quartered. VMI was much more efficient and productive — for Doubleday and for the stores — than the “normal” way of stocking was. That “normal” way — the store issues orders and the publisher then ships them — was described as “distribution by negotiation” by my father in his seminal book, “In Cold Type”, and it is still the way most books find their way to most retail shelves.

After my Dad left Doubleday in 1960, successor sales executives — who, frankly, didn’t really understand the power and value of what Dad had left them — allowed the system to atrophy. This started in a time-honored way, with reps appealing that some stores in their territory would rather just write their own backlist orders. Management conferred undue cred on the rep who managed the account and allowed exceptions. The exceptions, over time, became more prevalent than the real VMI and within a decade or so the enormous advantage of having hundreds of stores so efficiently stocked with backlist was gone.

And so, for the most part, VMI was gone from the book business by the mid-1970s. And, since then, there have been substantial improvements in the supply chain. PCs in stores that can manage vast amounts of data; powerful service offerings from the wholesalers (primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor, but others too); information through services like Above the Treeline; and consolidation of the trade business at both ends so that the lion’s share of a store’s supply comes from a handful of major publishers and distributors (compared to my Dad’s day) and lots of the books go to a relatively smaller number of accounts have all combined to make the challenge of efficient inventory management for books at retail at least appear not to need the advantages of VMI the way it did 60 years ago.

And since so many bookstores not only really like to make the book-by-book stocking decisions, or at least to control them through the systems they have invested in and applying the title-specific knowledge they work hard to develop, there has been little motivation for publishers or wholesalers to invest in developing the capability to execute VMI.

Until recently. Now two factors are changing that.

One is that non-bookstore distribution of books is growing. And non-bookstores don’t have the same investments in book-specific inventory management and knowledge, let alone the emotional investments that make them want to decide what the books are, that bookstores do. Sometimes they just simply can’t do it: they don’t have the bandwidth or expertise to buy books.

And the other is that both of the two largest book chains, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, are seeing virtue in transferring some of the stocking decisions to suppliers. B&N, at least, has been actively encouraging publishers to think about VMI for several years. These discussions have reportedly revolved around a concept similar to one the late Borders chain was trying a decade or more ago, finding “category captains” that know a subject well enough to relieve the chain of the need for broad knowledge of all the books that fall under that rubric.

This is compelling. Finding that you are managing business that could be made more efficient with a system to help you while at the same time some of your biggest accounts are asking for services that could benefit from the same automation are far more persuasive goads to pursue an idea than the more abstract notion that you could create a beneficial paradigm shift.

As a result, many publishing sales departments today are beginning to grapple with defining VMI, thinking about how to apply it, and confronting the questions around how it affects staffing, sales call patterns, and commercial terms. This interest is likely to grow. A well-designed VMI system for books (and buying one off-the-shelf that was not specifically designed for books is not a viable solution) will have applications and create opportunities all over the world. Since delivering books globally is an increasingly prevalent framework for business thinking, the case to invest in this capability gets easier to make in many places with each passing day.

VMI is a big subject and there’s a lot to know and think through about it. I’ve had the unusual — probably unique — opportunity to contemplate it with all its nuances for 50 years, thanks to my Dad’s visionary insight into the topic and a father-son relationship that included a lot of shop talk from my very early years. So here’s my starter list of conceptual points that I hope would be helpful to any publisher or retailer thinking about an approach to VMI.

1. Efficient and commercially viable VMI requires managing with rules, not with cases. Some of the current candidates to develop a VMI system have been drawn into it servicing planograms or spinner racks in non-book retailers. These restocking challenges are simpler than stocking a store because the title range is usually predetermined and confined and the restocking quantity is usually just one-for-one replenishment. We have found that even in those simple cases, the temptation to make individual decisions — swapping out titles or increasing or decreasing quantities in certain stores based on rates of movement — is hard to resist and rapidly adds complications that can rapidly overwhelm manual efforts to manage it.

2. VMI is based on data-informed shipments and returns. It must include returns, markdowns, or disposals to clear inventory. Putting books in quickly and efficiently to replace sold books is, indeed, the crux of VMI. But that alone is “necessary but not sufficient”. Most titles do not sell a single copy in most stores to which they are introduced. (This fact will surprise many people, but it is mathematically unavoidable and confirmed through data I have gotten from friends with retail data to query.) And many books will sell for a while and then stop, leaving copies behind. Any inventory management depending on VMI still requires periodic purging of excess inventory. That is, the publisher or distributor determining replenishment must also, from time to time, identify and deal with excess stock.

3. VMI sensibly combines with consignment and vendor-paid freight. The convention that books are invoiced to the account when they are shipped and that the store pays the shipping cost of returns (and frequently on incoming shipments as well) makes sense when the store holds the order book and decides what titles and quantities are coming in. But if the store isn’t deciding the titles and quantities, it obviously shouldn’t be held accountable for freight costs on returns; that would be license for the publisher or distributor to take unwise risks. The same is really true for the carrying cost of the inventory between receipt and sale. If the store’s deciding, it isn’t crazy for that to be their lookout. But if the publisher or distributor is deciding, then the inventory risk should be transferred to them. The simplest way to do that is for the commercial arrangement to shift so that the publisher offers consignment and freight paid both ways. The store should pay promptly — probably weekly — when the books are sold. (Publishers: before you get antsy about what all this means to your margins, read the post to the end.)

Aside from being fairer, commercially more logical, and an attractive proposition that should entice the store rather than a risky one that will discourage participation, this arrangement sets up a much more sensible framework for other discussions that need to take place. With publisher prices marked on all the books, it makes it clear to the retailer that s/he has a clear margin on every sale for the store to capture (or to offer as discounts to customers). And because the publisher is clearly taking all the inventory risk, it also makes it clear that the account must take responsibility for inventory “shrink” (books that disappear from the shelves without going through the cash register.)

Obviously, shrink is entirely the retailer’s problem in a sale-and-return arrangement; whatever they can’t return they will have paid for. But it is also obvious that retailers in consignment arrangements try to elide that responsibility. Publishers can’t allow a situation where the retailer has no incentive to make sure every book leaving the store goes through the sales scan first.

4. Frequent replenishment is a critical component of successful VMI. No system can avoid the reality that predicting book sales on a per-title-per-outlet basis is impossible to do with a high degree of accuracy. The best antidote to this challenge is to ship frequently, which allows lower quantities without lost sales because new copies replace sold copies with little delay. The vendor-paid freight is a real restraint because freight costs go down as shipments rise, but it should be the only limitation on shipment frequency, assuming the sales information is reported electronically on a daily basis as it should be. The publisher or distributor should always be itching to ship as frequently as an order large enough to provide tolerable picking and freight costs can be assembled. The retailer needs to be encouraged, or helped, to enable restocking quickly and as frequently as cost-efficient shipments will allow.

5. If a store has no costs of inventory — either investment or freight — its only cost is the real estate the goods require. GMROII — gross margin return on inventory investment — is the best measurement of profitability for a retailer. With VMI, vendor-paid freight, and consignment, it is infinity. Therefore, profitable margins can be achieved with considerably less than the 40 to 50 percent discounts that have prevailed historically. How that will play out in negotiations is a case-by-case problem, but publishers should really understand GMROII and its implications for retail profitability so they fully comprehend what enormous financial advantages this new way of framing the commercial relationship give the retailer.

(The shift is not without its challenges for publishers to manage but what at first appears to be the biggest one — the delay in “recognizing” sales for the balance sheet — is actually much smaller than it might first appear. And that’s also a subject for another day.)

6. Actually, the store also saves the cost of buying, which is very expensive for books. The most important advantage VMI gives a publisher is removing the need for a buyer to get their books onto somebody’s shelves. The publisher with VMI overcomes what has been the insuperable barrier blocking them from many retail establishments: the store can’t bear the expense of the expertise and knowledge required to do the buying. It is harder to sell that advantage to existing book retailers who have invested in systems to enable buyers, even if some buyer time can be saved through the publisher’s or distributor’s efforts and expertise. But a non-book retailer looking for complementary merchandise that might also be a traffic builder will appreciate largely cost-free inventory that adds margin and will see profitability at margins considerably lower than the discounts publishers must provide today.

7. Within reasonable limits, the publisher or distributor should be happy to honor input from the retailer about books they want to carry. It is important to remember that most titles shipped to most stores don’t actually sell one single unit. Giving a store a title they’re requesting should have odds good enough to be worth the risk (although that will be proven true or not for each outlet by data over time). Taking the huge number of necessary decisions off a store’s hands is useful for everybody; it shouldn’t suggest their input is not relevant. Indeed, getting information from stores about price or topical promotions they are running, on books or other merchandise, and incorporating that into the rules around stocking books, will help any book supplier provide a better and more profitable service to its accounts. After all, having a store say “I’d like to sell this title for 20 percent off next week in a major promotion, would you mind sending me more copies?” opens up a conversation every publisher is happy to have.

Of course, in a variety of consulting assignments, we are working on this, including system design. It is staggering to contemplate how much more sophistication it is possible to build into the systems today than it was a decade-and-a-half ago when we last immersed ourselves in this. In the short run, a VMI-management system will provide a competitive edge, primarily because it will open up the opportunity to deliver to retail shelves that will simply not be accessible without it. That will lead to it becoming a requirement. As I’ve said here before, a prediction like that is not worth much without being attached to a time scale. I think we’ll see this cycle play out over the next ten years. That is: by 2025, just about all book distribution to retailers will be through a VMI system.

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No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one


One of the best-attended breakout sessions of Digital Book World 2015 was the discussion called “Should Amazon Be Constrained, and Can they Be?” which shared the very last slot on the two day program. That conversation was moderated by veteran New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta, and included Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, thriller author Barry Eisler, and Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation.

It turns out that the two Barrys, who have pretty much diametrically opposed positions on Amazon (Lynn wants them investigated by the DoJ as a competition-stifling monopoly; Eisler casts them, for the most part, as the heroes of the book business’s digital transition) have a common position on the Big Five publishers. They refer to them as a “cartel”. Eisler is sneeringly dismissive of “New York”, which he refers to the way Republicans of the 1980s referred to “Moscow”, as an obvious pejorative. He appears befuddled by how anybody interested in the well-being of authors and the reading public could take the side of these publishers who maintain high prices for books, contract with authors to pay them smaller percentages of sales than Amazon does (either through Amazon’s own publishing operations or through their self-publishing options), and notoriously reject a very high percentage of the authors who come to them for deals.

Perhaps because the focus was Amazon, perhaps because Eisler was both emphatic and entertaining in his roasting of the publishing establishment, and perhaps because the facts to defend them are not well known, neither moderator Auletta nor panelist Lowrey challenged the big publisher baiting from Eisler with which Lynn mostly agreed.

It was just as well that I wasn’t on the panel. I am not certain that Amazon can or should be constrained, but I am damn sure that the Big Five publishers are not villains, and they are certainly not a cartel. They do seem to be extremely poor defenders of their own virtue but they are doing yeoman work maintaining the value in the old publishing model — for themselves and for authors — while adjusting to changes in their ecosystem that require that they develop strong B2C capabilities while maintaining their traditional B2B model, the death of which has been greatly exaggerated. If I’d been on that stage, the discussion of Amazon would have been diverted when the trashing of the big publishers began.

I took the step of confirming in an email exchange my recollection of the counts in Eisler’s very entertaining, persuasive, and unchallenged indictment of the big publishers.

1. Their basic contract terms are all the same, which it felt at the time he was suggesting demonstrated collusion, but which in our subsequent exchange he clarified he interprets as evidence of “asymmetrical market power and a lack of meaningful competition”;

2. They pay too low royalties on ebooks, which he also attributes to their “asymmetrical power” and “an implicit recognition that publishers come out ahead if they don’t compete on digital royalties”;

3. They only pay royalties twice a year, rather than more frequently or more promptly, which Eisler also attributes to a lack of competition;

4. The term of big publisher contracts is normally “life of copyright”, which Eisler calls “forever terms”, and;

5. They reject a lot of authors. Here Eisler clarifies that this is not an “indictment, just an axiom”. I agree when he applauds self-publishing for creating a better world where “readers have more to choose from”. But we quickly part company again because he characterizes self-publishing as freeing us from a world where “an incestuous cartel” makes “virtually all the decisions about what tiny fraction of books readers will every have a meaningful opportunity to learn of and read”.

In our exchange, Eisler expressed the belief that “the only reason people have been okay with this is that the Big Five are ‘my people'”. So they get a pass which he likens to what conservatives gave George Bush or liberals give Barack Obama. (In another point of disagreement between us, Eisler seems to find very little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. I guess that is some people’s way of saying “nonpartisan”. What it says to me is “not discerning”.) And Eisler finds it “interesting” that the publishing revolution has “people decry” Amazon for “doing, or often only for potentially one day doing, the very things that are the definition of the Big Five.” (I have problems with this too, because none of the big publishers have a dominant market share selling books online and ebooks. In other words, Amazon and the publishers really aren’t comparable. Check back with me if any of the big publishers builds — or buys — a market-leading retailer.)

I’m going to plead “no contest” to the charge that the Big Five are “my people”, which I hope won’t discredit my arguments any more than the fact that Eisler is an Amazon-published author discredits his. But the cartoon picture of publishing in Eisler’s reviled “New York”, where some small group of extremely like-minded people apply their narrow views to effectively restrict what people read is a massive distortion of reality. Let me try to set the record straight about this world so many of my friends inhabit and with which I’ve been interacting for the better part of five decades.

First of all, the Big Five have plenty of competition: from each other, as well as from smaller niche publishers who may but be “big” but certainly aren’t “small”. (That is why the big ones so often buy the smaller ones — they add scale and simultaneously bring heterogeneous talent in-house). They are all quite aware of the authors housed elsewhere among them who might be wooable. In fact, since we have started doing our Logical Marketing work, we have done several jobs which were big author audits commissioned by publishers who wanted to steal the author, not by the one which presently has them signed. Eisler explicitly resisted accusing the publishers of “collusion”, but he does accuse them of “not competing” with each other. That is an accusation that is simply not supported by the facts. Nobody who has spent any time talking to people who work in big houses could possibly get the impression that they don’t compete.

(In fact, a friend of mine just moved from one big house to another. He is explicitly persona non grata at his prior employer. Now, in this case, I think the house that lost him is behaving childishly, but it certainly underscores the fact that they believe they are in intense competition and now this one-time colleague has gone over to “the other side”.)

But the big flaw in Eisler’s logic is the same one that dooms Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” project to irrelevance: the assumption that the per-copy royalty terms and rights splits are the most important element of publishing contracts. In fact, they’re not. Actually, those terms matter in 20 percent or fewer of the agented author contracts with the Big Five. Why? Because the agents get the publishers to pay advances that don’t earn out!

In fact, I have been told by three different big houses what they calculated the percentage of their revenues paid to authors amounted to. We could call that the true royalty rate. The three numbers were 36, 40, and 42 percent. That includes what they paid for sales of paperbacks, all of which carry “stipulated” royalties of well less than 10 percent of the cover price (and therefore below 20 percent of revenue).

Take that on board. Big publishers are paying 40 percent of their revenue to authors! That leaves them 60 percent to pay everything else: overheads, manufacturing, and profits! Compare that to the margin Amazon has even if they pay a 35 percent digital royalty, or compare it to what anybody else has in any other business after paying to acquire the raw material for what they sell. If there were really an “asymmetrical” power equation favoring publishers, you’d think they could acquire the author contracts for a bit less, wouldn’t you?

Not only were the authors’ collective royalty rates much higher than contracts stipulated, the authors got most of that money in advance, eliminating the authors’ risk. The only contracts on which the royalty terms matter are those that do earn out (and, arguably, those that are close). For all the others, most of Eisler’s list of complaints is irrelevant. And, for the record, I have never heard an author complain about that show of confidence, the work that follows in helping him or her reach an audience (which benefits all involved), nor the cash upfront.

More frequent accounting doesn’t matter if you aren’t owed any money. And if the solution to “forever” contracts were that you could buy your way out by paying back what you got in advances that your book didn’t “earn”, how many authors would do that?

But, in fact, agented authors don’t have forever contracts; agents have been negotiating performance clauses for publishers to keep rights for years. And, on top of that, no author in the US can possibly have a “forever” contract because the copyright law of 1978 requires the publisher to revert rights to the copyright holder after 35 years on request. Agents tell me this is has been resulting in additional “advances” for re-upped books for the past couple of years. Note: this is the law. No publisher disputes it. But the “forever contract” argument ignores it.

But, even beyond that, the negative characterization of Big Five New York publishing is terribly unfair.

First of all, the standard terms in big house contracts are almost always more generous than the terms in smaller publisher contracts. Few — if any — of the smaller ones pay a hardcover royalty as high as 15 percent of list. Although higher digital royalties can sometimes be found, usually those are from publishers who have little capacity to deliver print sales, so digital royalties is all you’re going to get. (That might be okay for a romance novel where a big majority of sales could be digital. It would be disaster for the author of just about anything except genre fiction.) And some smaller publishers actually pay less than 25 percent for digital royalties.

So the Big Five terms are generally better and they routinely pay agented authors advances that no other publisher would attempt to match.

But, beyond that, the idea that they are a “cartel” (a characterization enthusiastically seconded by Amazon critic Barry Lynn after it was introduced by Amazon supporter Eisler), is really preposterous. In fact, the Big Five are, to varying degrees, federations of imprints that even compete internally for books, sometimes to the extent that they will bid against each other when an agent conducts an auction. And it would appear from Eisler’s pre-Amazon publishing history that he himself has, in fact, been the beneficiary of bidding competition among major houses.

The internal-to-the-house competition occurs because of the way big publishers are organized. It has been understood for decades that some aspects of a publisher’s operation benefit from scale and size and other functions must remain small. In general, publishers deliver accounting, manufacturing, and sales as centralized functions and editorial acquisition and development, packaging and design, and marketing as localized capabilities housed within the imprints. The power of imprints, which are individual editorial units, varies, but it is generally the case that they have autonomy over their acquisitions and must “compete” internally for the centralized services.

The digital transition is definitely straining that organizational structure. Having the by-title P&L responsibilities distributed makes it more difficult for houses to organize cross-imprint initiatives for everything from direct sales to audience-centric (vertical- or subject-oriented) marketing. Having multiple imprints that all contain “general” lists is probably an anachronism in an age when we want brands (which imprints are) to make sense to consumers. Publishing imprint brands were always B2B, meant more to inform such trading partners as libraries and bookstores and reviewers, not the general public.

But the big houses reap large benefits from the power of their central services. They get rock-bottom prices for printing and lightning-fast service for reprints. They have daily contact with the biggest accounts, which matters for getting reorders onto suddenly-empty shelves or to execute a short-lived price promotion for an ebook. They have teams of people staying abreast of every promotional opportunity at every account or service like BookBub. They are increasingly developing teams and tools to keep their marketing metadata fresh and relevant, to monitor the online world for marketing opportunities, or to build or advise authors on creating effective web presences.

Although authors can certainly be found who felt they were signed and then ignored, most houses sweat all the details: editing the book, packaging it for sale, and following rigorous pre-publication routines to get endorsements. They all have special sales departments that are regularly working catalogs and specialty retailers for the books appropriate to their audiences. Smaller houses don’t have all these capabilities. To suggest to an author with no publishing background that s/he can do all this themselves, even with an unlimited budget to buy outside services, is really setting a novice up for frustration and failure, or at the very least near-certain dissatisfaction.

I asked Eisler about the competition among the big houses that doesn’t seem to enter his calculus. Here’s what he told me:

As for competition among the Big Five, I call it kabuki competition. Competition that results in decades of zero innovation and the same antediluvian lockstep contractual terms is by definition meaningless. It’s managed competition, agreed-upon competition. A lack of industry innovation is like the dog that didn’t bark: the absence is itself evidence, because in the presence of meaningful competitive pressure, industry players innovate. To argue otherwise, you’d have to argue there has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices. I think that would be a hard argument to make.

To put it another way, what the Big Five cooperate on is far more significant than what they compete on. By it’s [sic] nature, competition is more noticeable than cooperation, so a little bit of competition obscures a lot of cooperation.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell me much. I don’t know what the Big Five “cooperate” on. And though the argument that there “has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices” would, indeed, be nonsense, so is the claim that there has been no innovation. A “failure to innovate” doesn’t describe the last five years that I’ve been living through. All the Big Five houses have continuously reorganized, brought in outside-of-publishing digital talent at a high level to up their game, and introduced digital-first operations and contracts, all at the same time that they have had to manage down fixed investments in plant (warehouses) and change manufacturing-and-inventory processes to take advantage of improved digital printing capabilities.

It is now often forgotten that, while it is true that Amazon “made” the ebook market really happen, publishers had for a very long time before Kindle been creating editorially magnificent products and were far ahead of Amazon in seeking to publish in ebook formats, only partly because of better economics. (At the time all costs were additive and the market was tiny.) They published them because readers seemed to want them and big publishers, whatever their bashers might think, feel a responsibility to assure maximum distribution of a writer’s work.

In fact, the big houses all are comprised of competing imprints. Among them they employ hundreds of acquiring editors who are each trying to build their own successful lists (competing with each other). They are shamelessly commercial: a book with the potential to sell only a few thousand copies won’t get their attention. But, beyond that and those things that are far outside prevailing public morals and sensibilities, I can’t see any restrictions on what they’ll publish.

The Big Five houses have negotiated the digital transition that has occurred so far with startling success. The self-publishing business has grown, fueled by investment from Amazon and other big players, but big houses have hardly lost any authors. They are facing down dominant retailers in their two biggest channels — brick bookstores and online — and managing to maintain their margins and profitability. They are all moving on a variety of initiatives to build vertical (audience-centric) capabilities and extend their global marketing and sales reach.

But even if one assumes the “worst” of the big publishers, it is a total canard to say, as Eisler did to me, that “in the absence of meaningful competition, the Big Five has exercised incredible power over what books are published and what people are functionally permitted to read.” In fact, the argument that authors can reach their audiences successfully through self-publishing (which on other days, Eisler and his fellow musketeers Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath make with gusto) explicitly contradicts that contention. But so do Harry Potter, published by Scholastic, and “Fifty Shades of Gray”, picked up by Knopf after a self-published start, to name two sales phenomena of relatively recent times. There are a number of very capable publishers just a bit smaller than the Big Five (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has the Lord of the Rings books, for example) and there are legions of specialty publishers who do books the Big Five would generally not even consider.

Sometimes the Big Five acquire those publishers to add diverse author and publishing talent to their rosters to compete in niche markets. Harpercollins’s acquisitions of Thomas Nelson and Harlequin fit that description. How much a big house can publish is one thing; what they can publish is also a function of the talent onboard and the audience development that has already taken place.

The Big Five are actually specialists of a different sort: they do the books with the biggest commercial potential. I’d argue that having five very large companies all capable of making a book a mammoth commercial success is a pretty big number, not a small one. If those companies were broken into more of their component parts and we had 15 or 25 large-ish publishers rather than five giant ones, it is not at all obvious that author advances or sales would be higher. There would probably be more manufacturing and sales staff per title (and less investment in tech to support either) than there is now, but those salaries would be subtractions from the company’s margins, and would therefore likely increase book prices. That’s not going to produce more value for either authors or readers. So I actually think author advances — which one must always remember is the metric that matters most in determining how well authors are getting paid — would be lower.

During our on-stage conversation at Digital Book World 2015, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, took great pains to express his view that self-publishing capabilities are good for authors and for readers. On the same morning, Judith Curr, who is the President of S&S’s Atria imprint, explained how her house specifically targets successful indie authors to bring them in. Every big house has some respectful variation on those themes. The animus between big publishers and some components of the self-publishing community is really a one-way street. In a prior post of mine about the illogical publisher-bashing, the comment string taught me that the mostly rhetorical and histrionic arguments from the self-publishing side against the big houses constituted an emotional, not a rational, reaction.

A dispassionate examination of the facts and an understanding of how things really work make it clear that big publishers — both goaded and constrained by powerful agents — are very good for authors. That doesn’t mean self-publishing isn’t good for them too but, then, no big publisher I know is saying that it isn’t!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon channels Orwell in its latest blast


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What made the cheap prices possible were several factors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three points worth adding to the excellent account of the Amazon story in The Everything Store


The publication of Brad Stone’s book about Amazon, “The Everything Store”, is the catalyst for a lot of new discussion about the topic most difficult for the book business to discuss. It is pretty much impossible to be in the book business without benefiting from Amazon’s market reach. But it is also pretty standard fare to be worried about what the impact will be on your business as that market reach grows.

Amazon is, at the same time, both the biggest customer for most publishers and many wholesalers and their most potent competitor. They compete with every bookseller for sales, which weakens the brick-and-mortar trade, and thus dilutes the core value proposition that publishers have always offered: putting their authors’ books on bookstore shelves. Weakening the diverse bookstore ecosystem weakens the wholesalers. At the same time, Amazon competes with publishers for authors, both through their publishing programs and through their self-publishing services.

They also compete with the free ebook lending from public libraries and the various ebook subscription services with their Kindle Owners Lending Library, a service offered to their Amazon Prime customers that makes a large number of titles — many published by Amazon or self-published exclusively through Amazon — available for no-additional-payment downloads.

And they are capable of creating propositions that every other retailer would love to match but would find quite difficult to do, such as their recently announced “Matchbook” program which offers a free or very cheap ebook edition to any customer who has bought the print version of that book from Amazon. In fact, many publishers believe in the print-and-digital “bundle” and have made efforts to engineer it for bookstores, but it is hard to do that cost-effectively. It isn’t hard for Amazon.

Candid public conversation about Amazon from other players in the industry is pretty much a non-starter. Every publisher is walking the fine line of trying to make their sales grow through their largest account and, at the same time, somehow growing their sales faster everywhere else.

And that’s just about impossible. For the few years (just concluded) when all ebook sales were growing, publishers were seeing upswings in their business with other digital accounts besides Amazon. But recent evidence suggests that ebooks have hit either a point of serious resistance or a temporary plateau so even that may not be true anymore. It is likely that for many publishers Amazon represents the only significant account that continues to grow.

Last week, Jeremy Greenfield of Digital Book World interviewed me about “why it is so hard to compete with Amazon”. Since this is a topic of such widespread interest but also so hard for so many of the industry leaders to discuss, extending that discussion seemed warranted.

In this post, I want to cite three important aspects of Amazon’s history — important as far as the book business is concerned, although not necessarily to the overall picture Stone successfully conveys of the Bezos vision and the strategy and culture that achieve it — that didn’t make it into Brad Stone’s excellent book. In a subsequent one, I will explore what I think are the two key questions about Amazon that everybody in the book business is quietly asking:

* When does Amazon’s share growth stop?

* Who is left standing when it does?

About those two questions, all we’ll say here is that Stone’s book gave me fresh insight into the possible answers.

Now for those three missing points and why they’re important.

I first raised these questions and wrote about Amazon’s squashing of Ingram Internet Support Services (known as I2S2) about two years ago, but what I think is a very important story didn’t make “The Everything Store”.

As Stone describes clearly, Amazon began its business basically standing on Ingram’s shoulders. They stationed themselves in Seattle, near a big Ingram warehouse in Roseburg, OR. When Amazon started, they were able to take a customer’s order and money; order and receive the book from Ingram and deliver it to the customer, and then sit on the cash for a while before they had to pay Ingram for the book.

Pretty early in the piece, Ingram saw that all retailers could take advantage of this capability of theirs. So they created the I2S2 offering and went out to book retailers to persuade them to use it the same way Amazon did. Of course, at that time Internet retailing of books was a tiny part of the market, but Ingram hoped that the opportunity to offer a cash-flow-positive service to their customers would entice some stores, who were already Ingram customers, to diversify the choices for online customers.

Before I2S2 could get off the ground, Amazon killed it with high-profile discounting to as much as 40% off the cover price, effectively taking the profit out of Internet sales. This move was seen as a tactic to grow the customer base quickly and satisfy the investment community’s desire to see growth in top line and in customer base. That’s accurate. But it also stopped what could have been serious competition in its tracks. Booksellers profiting from their stores had little patience to build online business that was small and would now not even be profitable.

A publishing executive who was at Random House in the late 1990s recalled in a conversation we had last week that Peter Olson, who ran Random House at that time, told him not to worry about Amazon because their share grew by about 1% per year. In fact, that’s probably just reflecting that the consumer tendency to purchase online grew by 1% per year. The executive who told me this story made the accurate point that Olson was proven right about the share growth over many years, with additional surges when events like Borders’ closing took place. (And, of course, he told the story because we both knew that Olson was proven wrong that this 1 percent growth a year was nothing to worry about. “When does it stop…?”)

But imagine if Amazon had not reacted to the existential threat of a multitude of potential competitors by trading their margin for survival!

The I2S2 experience of the late 1990s adds some poignancy to a piece of excellent reporting by Stone about a meeting Amazon had with Ingram early in the century when Amazon’s stock was falling and some industry players were worried about whether they could pay their bills. Stone reports John Ingram making it clear to Amazon that Ingram could not afford an Amazon bankruptcy. Clearly, Ingram’s credit policies had continued to fuel Amazon’s growth in the years that had elapsed when they killed I2S2 with discounting.

The second point that is somewhat more significant than I think Stone portrays it was Amazon’s purchase of the ebook technology Mobipocket in 2005. In those days before there was a real ebook business and an “epub” standard (which Amazon eschews, which is another story not thoroughly enough explored), the two leading reflowable ebook standards were controlled by Palm Digital and Microsoft. Palm’s strategy was to sell the ebooks themselves through sites they owned or controlled. Microsoft was going for the broader play and enabling retailers to sell their format.

But the problem was that the lion’s share of the tiny ebook market read Palm, not Microsoft’s Dot Lit format. So the retailers, one of which was Barnes & Noble, were really hobbled. They could only sell the ebook format nobody wanted. Mobipocket’s format would work with both the Palm reader and the Dot Lit reader, so selling that format would reach most of the hand-held devices then used for ebook reading. If B&N or Borders or anybody else had made a strong push for the ebook customers using Mobi, and capitalizing on the format’s ability to serve the entire ebook market of the time, the effort might have gained a foothold. After Amazon bought Mobipocket, they did nothing with it for three years until they used it as the ebook format for the Kindle. (By that time, Dot Lit was about dead and Palm’s core business in hand-held PDAs was about to be demolished by the iPhone.) Did Amazon buy Mobi to postpone the ebook revolution until they were ready to lead it? It would certainly seem that way.

The other significant item that I think “The Everything Store” underplays is Amazon’s enabling of the used book business online. Although this is a “marketplace” function — Amazon is not the seller of the used editions, independent players are (presumably, although questions have been raised about whether all the marketplace sellers are actually entirely independent) — it was Amazon’s decision to place the used book availability and pricing right on the same page which sells all the editions from the publisher. That means that everybody who searches Amazon for a title is shown the used copies that are available competing with what the publisher offers.

What is the impact of this ubiquitous used book availability competing with new copy sales at the world’s biggest book retailer? Well, actually, nobody really knows. In 2006, Amazon (for some unexplained reason) participated in a study and industry conversation about used book sales. They haven’t done it again between then and now, and since Amazon’s marketplace almost certainly sells the lion’s share of used books, there’s not much point to examining this question without their participation.

We launched a DBW survey today on “start-ups” about which we’ll write more in a future post. But if you are either part of a start-up or in the business development function of a publisher that includes meeting with them, you will find our survey of interest (and we will value your response). You can read more about the survey here or just jump in and start answering questions.

And, of course, Brad Stone, the author of “The Everything Store”, will be one of three great speakers we’ll have talking about Amazon at Digital Book World in January. He’ll be joined by Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis, who has a paradigm for analyzing Amazon as a business that is uniquely insightful, and by Joseph J. Esposito, an industry veteran with a strong background in scholarly publishing who has noticed for years that Amazon is a significant competitor in the institutional market (schools and libraries).

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Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses


One of the things my father, Leonard Shatzkin, taught me when I was first learning about book publishing a half-century ago was that “all publishing houses are started with an editorial inspiration”. What he meant by that is that what motivated somebody to start a book publisher was an idea about what to publish. That might be somebody who just believed in their own taste; it might be something like Bennett Cerf’s idea of a “Modern Library” of compendia organized by author; it might even be Sir Allen Lane’s insight that the public wanted cheaper paperback books. But Dad’s point was that publishing entrepreneurs were motivated by the ideas for books, not by a better idea for production efficiency or marketing or sales innovation.

In fact, those other functions were just requirements to enable somebody to pursue their vision or their passion and their fortune through their judgment about what content or presentation form would gain commercial success.

My father’s seminal insight was that sales coverage really mattered. When he recommended, on the basis of careful analysis of the sales attributable to rep efforts, that Doubleday build a 35-rep force in 1955, publishers normally had fewer than a dozen “men” (as they were, and were called, back then) in the field. The quantum leap in relative sales coverage that Doubleday gained by such a dramatic sales force expansion established them as a power in publishing for decades to come.

Over the first couple of decades of my time in the business — the 1960s and 1970s — the sales department grew in importance and influence. It became clear that the tools for the sales department — primarily the catalog, the book’s jacket, and a summary of sales points and endorsements that might be on a “title information sheet” that the sales reps used — were critical factors in a book’s success.

There was only very rarely a “marketing” department back then. There was a “publicity” function, aimed primarily at getting book reviews. There was often a “sales promotion” function, which prepared materials for sales reps, like catalogs. There might be an art department, which did the jackets. And there was probably an “advertising manager”, responsible for the very limited advertising budget spent by the house. Management of coop advertising, the ads usually placed locally by retail accounts that were partly supported by the publishers, was another function managed differently in different houses.

But the idea that all of this, and more, might be pulled together as something called “marketing” — which, depending on one’s point of view, was either also in charge of sales or alternatively, viewed as a function that existed in support of sales — didn’t really arise until the 1980s. Before that, the power of the editors was tempered a bit by the opinions and needs of the sales department, but marketing was a support function, not a driver.

In the past decade, things have really changed.

While it is probably still true that picking the “right books” is the single most critical set of decisions influencing the success of publishers, it is increasingly true that a house’s ability to get those books depends on their ability to market them. As the distribution network for print shrinks, the ebook distribution network tends to rely on pull at least as much as on push. The retailers of ebooks want every book they can get in their store — there is no “cost” of inventory like there is with physical — so the initiative to connect between publisher and retailer comes from both directions now. That means the large sales force as a differentiator in distribution clout is not nearly as powerful as it was. Being able to market books better is what a house increasingly finds itself compelled to claim it can do.

In the past, the large sales force and the core elements that they worked with — catalog, jacket, and consolidated and summarized title information — were how a house delivered sales to an author. Today the distinctions among houses on that basis are relatively trivial. But new techniques — managing the opportunities through social networks, using Google and other online ads, keeping books and authors optimized for search through the right metadata, expanding audiences through the analysis of the psychographics, demographics, and behavior of known fans and connections — are still evolving.

Not only are they not all “learned” yet, the environment in which digital marketing operates is still changing daily. What worked two years ago might not work now. What works now might not work a year from now. Facebook hardly mattered five years ago; Twitter hardly mattered two years ago. Pinterest matters for some books now but not for most. Publishers using their own proprietary databases of consumer names with ever-increasing knowledge of how to influence each individual in them are still rare but that will probably become a universal requirement.

So marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.

Fifty years ago, editors just picked the books and the sales department had to sell them. Thirty years ago, editors picked the books, but checked in with the sales departments about what they thought about them first. Ten years from now, marketing departments (or the marketing “function”) will be telling editors that the audiences the house can touch need or want a book on this subject or filling that need. Osprey and some other vertical publishers are already anticipating this notion by making editorial decisions in consultation with their online audiences.

Publishing houses went from being editorially-driven in my father’s prime to sales-driven in mine. Those that didn’t make that transition, expanding their sales forces and learning to reach more accounts with their books than their competitors, fell by the wayside. The new transition is to being marketing-driven. Those that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age.

A very smart and purposeful young woman named Iris Blasi, then a recently-minted Princeton graduate, worked for me for a few years a decade ago. She left because she wanted to be an editor and she had a couple of stops doing that, briefly at Random House and then working for a friend named Philip Turner in an editorial division at Sterling. From there Iris developed digital marketing chops working for Hilsinger-Mendelson and Open Road. She’s just taken a job at Pegasus Books, a small publisher in Manhattan, heading up marketing but doubling as an acquiring editor. I think many publishers will come to see the benefits of marketing-led acquisition in the years to come. Congratulations to Pegasus and Iris for breaking ground where I think many will follow.

Many of the topics touched on in the post will be covered at the Marketing Conference on September 26, a co-production of Publishers Launch Conferences and Digital Book World, with the help and guidance of former Penguin and Random House digital marketer Peter McCarthy. We’ve got two bang-up panels to close with — one on the new requirement of collaboration between editorial and marketing within a house and then in turn between the house and the author, and the other on how digital marketing changes how we must view and manage staff time allocations, timing, and budgeting. These panels will frame conversations that will continue in this industry for a very long time to come as the transition this post sketches out becomes tangible.

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Vendor-managed inventory: why it is more important than ever


The idea of vendor-managed inventory has never become particularly popular in the book business, despite a few experiments over the years where it was implemented with great success. (And despite the fact that I was pushing for it back in 1997 and 1998.) But as the book business overall declines, with the print book business leading the slide and that portion of the print book business which takes place in retail stores falling off at an alarming rate, it is time for the industry to think about it again.

In fact, VMI for the book business began with the ID wholesalers and mass-market paperbacks right after World War II. The IDs — the initials stood for “independent distributors” — managed the distribution of magazines and newspapers at newsstands and other accounts within their geographical territory. The retailers had no interest in deciding how many copies of LIFE they got in relation to Ladies Home Journal; the ID made that determination. And since only the torn off covers were necessary for confirmation of a “return”, the “bulk” cost of distribution was in putting the copies in, not taking back the overage. And because newspapers and magazines had a disciplined frequency, it was obvious that you had to clear out yesterday’s, or last week’s, or last month’s to make room for the next issue.

When the first mass-market paperback publishers started their activity right after World War II, providing books for, among others, returning servicemen who had access to special servicemen’s editions of paperbacks (in a program created by the polymath Philip Van Doren Stern, a Civil War historian and friend of my father’s) they helped the jobbers along by having monthly lists. They also were comfortable with a book only having a one-month shelf life and having the stripped covers serve as evidence the book hadn’t been sold.

For quite some time, the initial allocations to the ID wholesalers (the local rack jobbers were called “Independent Distributors”) were really determined by the paperback publishers. Eventually, that freedom to put books into distribution choked the system, but there were a lot of other causes of the bloat. By the 1960s, many bookstores were carrying paperbacks and many other big outlets were served “direct” by the publishers, leaving the IDs with the least productive accounts. But VMI, even without any system and very little in the way of restraints on the publishers, was responsible for the explosive growth of mass-market paperbacks in the two decades following World War II.

In the late 1950s, Leonard Shatzkin, my father, introduced The Doubleday Merchandising Plan, which was VMI for bookstores on Doubleday books. For stores that agreed to the plan, reps reported the store’s inventory back to headquarters of Doubleday books rather than sending an order. Then a team posted the inventories, calculated the sales, and followed rules to generate an order of books to the store. Sales mushroomed, particularly of the backlist, and returns and cost of sales plummeted. Doubleday was launched into the top tier of publishing companies.

In a much more modest way, a distributor that my father owned called Two Continents introduced a VMI plan in the 1970s. Even with a very thin list and no cachet, we (I was the Marketing Director) were able to get 500 stores on the Plan in a year. We achieved similarly dramatic results, but from a much more modest base.

Two Continents was undone by the loss of some distribution clients. The Doubleday plan was undermined by reps who convinced headquarters years after my father left that their stores would be more comfortable if they wrote the Plan orders rather than letting them be calculated at headquarters. And the rise of computerized record-keeping systems for inventory and national wholesalers who could replenish stock quickly improved inventory performance, and store profitability, without VMI. Although our client West Broadway Book Distribution has successfully operated VMI in specialty retail for more than a decade, and Random House has worked some version of VMI at Barnes & Noble for the past several years, the technique has hardly been considered by the book trade for a long time.

It is time for that to change. What can foster the change is a recognition about VMI that is readily apparent in West Broadway’s implementations in non-bookstores, but would not have been so obvious to the bookstores using Doubleday’s or Two Continents’ services.

From the publisher’s perspective, the requirement that there be a title-by-title, book-by-book buying function in the store in order for the store to stock books purely and simply reduces the number of stores that can stock books. The removal of that barrier was the key achievement of the ID wholesalers racking paperbacks after World War II. Suddenly there were thousands of points of sale that didn’t require a buyer.

From the store’s perspective, buying — and managing the supply chain to support the buying decisions — is expensive. VERY expensive. Books are hard to buy. New ones are coming all the time; the number of publishers from which they come (and who are the primary sources of information about the books, even if you could “source” them from wholesalers at a slight margin sacrifice for operational simplicity) is huge; the shelf life of any particular title is undeterminable; and the sales in any one outlet are very hard to read.

Consider this data provided by a friend who owns a pretty substantial bookstore.

Looking at the store’s records for a month, 65% of the units sold were singles: one copy of a title. Only 35% were of books that sold 2 or more. (I didn’t ask the question, but that would suggest that 80-90 percent of the titles that sold any copies sold only one.)

Then, the following month, once again 65% of the units sold were singles. But only 20-30 percent of them were the same books as had sold as singles the prior month. Upwards of 70% of them were different titles. And upwards of 70% of the ones that sold one the prior month didn’t sell at all.

To further underscore how slowly book inventory moves, another report they do shows that more than 80% of the titles in the store do not sell a single copy in any particular month. So it is no surprise that an analysis of books from a major publisher that promotes heavily showed that more than half the new titles they receive from that publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the store, which would include the promotion around publication date!

These data points demonstrate another compelling reason for VMI. When a store sells none of 80% of its titles in a month, and of the ones they do sell 80% of those sell one unit, they clearly need information about what is going on in other stores to know which ones to keep or reorder and which ones to return. Above the Treeline is an inventory service which provides its stores with broader sales data to address that issue, but the information is not as granular or as susceptible to analysis as what a publisher or aggregator could do with VMI.

Partly because of the high cost of buying and a supporting supply chain that a book outlet requires, publishers will see shelf space for books drop faster than retail demand. (The closure of Borders, which wiped out a big portion of the shelf space, is part of what is behind the recent good sales reports from many independents.) At the same time, retailers of all things will be under increased pressure to find more sales as the Internet — often, but not always, Amazon — keeps eating into their market.

This all adds up to VMI to me. We’ll see over the next couple of years whether industry players come to the same conclusion.

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Atomization: publishing as a function rather than an industry


The announcement of what amounts to the first book publishing program spawned by Google demonstrates a paradigm we’re seeing repeatedly. It suggests a sweeping change in publishing from how we’ve known it. The bottom line is that most people employed publishing books perhaps as soon as 10 years from now won’t be working for publishing companies.

The trade publishing business over the past twenty years has been transitioning from what it was for a century. The Internet, which so many of us said two decades ago “changes everything” is ultimately responsible. Amazon.com has been the primary catalyst, with print on demand technology (especially Ingram’s Lightning Source) and ebooks (mostly Amazon, but others too) as supporting players. With so many more books to choose from and really available than there ever were before, the function of gatekeepers, which trade publishers and booksellers clearly and proudly were, becomes an anachronism.

The big question — at least for me — is what is trade publishing transitioning to? What does the trade publishing world look like when it doesn’t primarily reach readers through bookstores anymore, a day which one could say has already come in the past five years.

Overall trade sales today outside of special outlets, catalogs, and what remain of book clubs divide into three big chunks: one is printed books sold in stores, one is printed books sold online, and one is ebooks. The latter two are sold without stores, and far more than half of that is sold by Amazon. And that is the way it is most helpful to think about sales because it is only print-in-stores that requires (or benefits from) a big publishing organization.

What the latest Bowker information has to say, lumping ebooks into “online commerce”, is that 44% of sales are online, 32% through physical retail, and the remainder through book clubs and warehouse clubs (physical retail to me!) and “all other channels”. But they also report that 30% of sales are ebooks, which would mean that they’re only calling 14% of the remaining 70% online. There are a lot of ways to count these things, and the resulting calculation of 20% of print sales being online feels very low to me.

It all depends on what kind of book we’re talking about, of course. I visualize the market breaking into thirds among the three chunks. Certainly, one-third ebooks is an understatement for fiction.

However we view the current division of sales, the trade book business was built in a completely different environment. Indeed, the central proposition that all publishers offered all authors is ” we put books on shelves.” The companion reality was “you can’t do this by yourself”.

As recently as 2007, before Kindle, there were no ebook sales and upwards of 85% of print was sold in stores.

The requirements to deliver on the promise “to put books on shelves” included the capital to invest and specialized knowledge to turn a manuscript into inventory, a physical plant to manage the warehousing and shipping of those books, and a network of relationships with the owners of the shelves (in the bookstores) to get the right to put your books on those shelves. These were the minimum requirements to be a publisher. If you had them, you could move on to being smart about selecting books (in the case of non-fiction, almost always before they were were completely written), being skilled at developing them, being capable of packaging them attractively, and being managers of another network — of reviewers and broadcast conversation producers and, more recently, bloggers and social megaphones — to bring word of them to the public.

All of this together gave a publisher the capability to pay authors advances against what amounts, for all but the very biggest authors, to a minority share of the revenue the book generated. But, in fact, the central proposition has lost its power. Only a quarter to a half of the sales now — far less for fiction and far more for illustrated books — require a publisher to “put books on shelves”. And that number is going down. For the balance, no inventory investment is actually necessary. Nor is a physical plant or a vast network of sales relationships.

And, without that requirement, the barriers to entry to becoming a “book publisher” have collapsed, particularly if you’re willing to start with ebooks and think of print as an ancillary opportunity. Google is becoming one. Amazon became one a long time ago. NBC has become one. The Toronto Star and The New York Times have become ebook publishers. And, of course, so have many tens of thousands of individual authors, a few of whom are achieving startling success.

Soon — in the next 5 or 10 years — every university (perhaps most departments within a university), every law firm and accounting firm and consulting firm, certainly every content creator in other media, as well as most manufacturers and retailers will become book publishers too.

Why not? Without the requirement of an organization to reach the public through bookstores and without the requirements of capital or knowledge to create printed books, any organization that is routinely reaching people interested in a common topic — whether or not they are creating content around that topic now, but especially if they do — will find it constructive to publish, and well within their reach and means to do so.

That is: publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. Think about it this way. If you had told every museum and law firm in 1995 that they needed a web page, many would have wondered “what for?” If you had told them in 2005 that they needed a Facebook presence or in 2008 that they needed a Twitter stream, they would have wondered why. We’ve reached the moment when they all need a publishing strategy, and that will be as obvious to all these entities in a year or two as web pages, Facebook pages, and Twitter streams look now.

This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years.

Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.

Publishing is not immune to the laws of supply and demand and the price of books is tumbling. Most self-published fiction is crap, but a small percentage of a very large number of self-published novels constitutes a significant range of good cheap choices for fiction readers, particularly in genres. That “diamonds in the dirt” effect has been becoming more and more evident with the passage of time. Recently, the Digital Book World bestseller list (compiled by ioByte’s Dan Lubart in conjunction with our friends at DBW) had a self-published book in the top slot for the first time. It won’t be the last time.

Publishers still have plenty of capabilities that are enticing to authors. There are still stores with shelves on which to put books. And big publishers can build on that increased presence very impressively; it is hard to believe that “Fifty Shades of Grey” would have sold the tens of millions of copies that it has as a self-published book. Random House made a quantum difference.

But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into that. The publishers’ power to use that capability to command a share of the “easy” (no inventory investment or sales force required) money from ebooks, which was a sine qua non for them until very recently, is evaporating.

When Hugh Howey was in the early stages of what has turned into his eye-popping success with the novel WOOL, publishers would only offer him a deal to publish print if he also gave them ebook rights. Howey and his agent, Kristin Nelson, found those offers easy to resist, since he was making so much money on ebooks and publishers would have wanted a healthy share of it. A few months later, Simon & Schuster (wisely, in my opinion) agreed to give Howey a print-only deal for US rights.

How far away can it be for the NBC News book on a national election or the Whole Foods book on cooking the organic way or the Home Depot book on how to build a shelf or the Boston Celtics’ own book on the history of their team to get the same treatment? (Or, of course, the “brand” can handle the whole job themselves, using services offered by many — most prominently Ingram, Perseus, and Random House — to handle the decreasing percentage of the business that is “books in stores.”)

Of course, there is, or at least there can be, a lot more to publishing than just making good content available and making the people you know already aware that it is there. (Although, increasingly, that will be seen as “enough”, along with ancillary benefits, to make it worth the effort to many entities.) There are rights to be sold. There are ways to market to “known book buyers” that are increasingly going to be the property of entities that have developed lists and techniques at scale.

So there will continue to be a trade book business and it is likely that the machinery of the biggest book publishing organization (or two) will be required for a very long time to maximize the biggest commercial potential, like “Fifty Shades of Grey”. But, without a robust “book trade”, from which trade publishing gets its name, there cannot be commercially robust trade publishing, at least not as we have known it.

I reflect on a pithy bit of wisdom offered to me in conversation a few years ago by David Worlock, who might be thought of as one of the originators of digital publishing, and who, in any case, is a wise observer of the publishing scene and by a few years my senior. Well before we thought of any self-published bestsellers — this must have been about 2005 — David said, to me, “surely, in time, the number of books created within the network must exceed the number of books created outside the network.”

The “network”, of course, was the Internet. He was envisioning direct-to-ebook publishing and automated blogs-to-books publishing as well as a lot of customization. He was right.

And the atomization I think may be the overarching trend of the next decade or two fits right in.

Once the concept of the atomization and dispersal of the publishing function becomes understood, you see it everywhere. Aside from the Google-spawned publishing program — which is built around their massive multi-player game activity, but there are many other applications once they get used to this idea — we had a library announce a new digital press last week.

We’d already been putting together a panel of new entrants to book  publishing for our Publishers Launch BEA conference on May 29. Of course, the atomization we talk about here is enabled by the scale being provided by others, including service providers. And the major houses are trying their hardest to build marketing at scale. Ken Michaels, the President and COO of Hachette, and David Nussbaum, the Chair of F+W Media, are our first two confirmed speakers about that. We’ll have a panel of literary agents talking about how they’re tackling the need for scale to help clients with an increasingly broad range of choices for publishing.

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Buying is a hard thing for bookstores to do effectively, and that becomes an increasingly important reality for publishers


One of the most underappreciated realities of the book business is how hard it is for a retailer to manage an inventory of trade books.

This is an existential problem for a bookstore. A bookstore’s inventory is its biggest investment. The performance of inventory — how many times it “turns” in a year and how successfully the store manages to buy what it needs without wasting investment (tying up cash) and incurring margin-destroying revenueless-costs (return freight, probably added to inbound freight, plus wasted labor shelving, removing, packing, and shipping) — is, by far, the single biggest determinant of whether a store succeeds commercially or fails.

The fact is that a single store, almost regardless of the quality of its systems and its management, has to guess at what will be the right books to order most of the time. All advance order purchases (placed by a store long before the book is published) are based on speculation and guesswork. The publisher through a rep or a catalog states expectations, sometimes based on “comparable” titles (which were, of course, published previously at what might not have been a comparable time!) and sometimes based on the publisher’s hopes, all of which are connected to the publisher’s promotional promises. Usually stores — independents and chains — will be guided by those expectations because any other evidence is non-existent.

After a book is published, of course, there is real sales data to guide stocking decisions. But except for the small percentage of the published books that are widespread bestsellers, stores depend primarily on their own sales data to decide what to reorder or keep as backlist. And the cold hard fact is that, for most stores, for most books, there is not sufficient data to tell anybody anything. A single store will have sales for a week or a month across its titles that show multiple copy sales for a small percentage of the titles they have in stock. The majority of the books they carry will sell zero in a week or a month. And, of those that do sell, the vast majority of those will sell one copy.

What’s a store trying to determine what to order next to make of that?

In the past decade or two, there have been a few tools developed to help the independent. The inventory management system Above the Treeline shares information among its stores so each one can get a picture of what is doing well in the aggregate. Stores can see what Ingram, in many cases the supplier from which they buy more than from any single publisher, is stocking and selling, which also provides clues for them.

But the best tool for more nuanced inventory management, for a long time, has been to have a bookstore chain. If you use it right.

This first became evident when the B. Dalton chain of mall stores hooked up computers to their cash registers in the 1970s. Although there were holes in the system, Dalton was then able — for the most part — to tally what they were selling across what was then about 300 stores (a number plucked from memory here, and this is in the neighborhood of 40 years ago, but I think this is right…) When I first started selling to Dalton in 1974, they had two lists of titles they considered worth tracking: a “hot” list and a “warm” list. On the “hot” list was every title that sold more than six copies in the chain in a week. The “warm” list was every title that sold more than six copies in the chain in a month. That’s one copy for every 50 stores to make these lists. And, of course, most titles didn’t make them. Learning those numbers did more to help me visualize how slowly books move than any other single piece of my education to that point.

In addition to those lists, Dalton introduced an automated backlist replenishment system based on “models”, or an ideal maximum inventory level and a reorder point. So the model for a title might be one copy in some stores, with a reorder when it sold, or it might be three copies with a reorder when sales took it down to one. Automating the reordering of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Grapes of Wrath” enabled valuable buyer time to be freed to figure out what to reorder (or model) from the hot or warm list.

We had a very useful controlled experiment taking place in the 1970s because Dalton had a competitor chain called Waldenbooks, which had more stores and had been around longer but which, for several years, had no comparable computer-assistance for their inventory management. Reordering at Walden was primarily the responsibility of the store managers, and it will be no surprise to learn that some were a lot better at it than others. In the 1970s, it was clear to all publishers that Dalton bought more efficiently (fewer returns) and sold more books, particularly of the backlist.

In the 1990s, Dalton was absorbed by Barnes & Noble and Walden by Borders, the two superstore chains that effectively replaced the mall store presence of the previous decades. And, once again, the chains diverged in their inventory management capabilities. B&N invested heavily in what we were, by then, calling their “supply chain”. They built warehouses to serve as the resupply hubs for their stores and instituted systems by which stores got resupply from the distribution center(s) on a daily basis. They set up rigorous systems to manage models and to review each store’s performance annually. Whereas Borders had A, B, C, and D stores to denote a range of sizes and title counts, B&N had those gradings by store sections, enabling them to configure the stores much more granularly to their local demand pattern.

By the time the 21st century arrived, B&N had built a substantial advantage over Borders in its inventory management practices. Close observers of B&N’s financial reports would have seen that inventory efficiency — how much they could get in sales from their inventory investment — improved every year as they added more stores able to feed off the same central supply capability. Their inventory management cost — buyers to talk to all the publishers and the systems and physcial plant to administer all the stocking decisions and, if one were fair, the cost of returns — was consistently declining as a percentage of sales while Borders’s was not. Borders didn’t make comparable investments in plant and systems and their stores became less and less competitive.

This, even more than any failures in digital, is why Barnes & Noble thrived while Borders collapsed in the latter part of the last decade as sales shifted from stores to online.

The inventory management challenge is one that some publishers have tried to help bookstores with for years. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, instituted the Doubleday Merchandising Plan in 1957, by which the reps walked out of stores with physical inventory counts (there were no computerized inventory tracking systems back then) instead of purchase orders. Those were converted at headquarters into orders which the participating stores had agreed to accept. In the past decade, Random House has developed their own VMI (vendor-managed inventory) system (though my knowledge of details is sparse; this is proprietary information which has never been shared in any detail with me) which it has employed to help manage its books at B&N and is now, apparently, also using at Books-A-Million.

Even if a store knew, title by title, exactly what the right inventory level is (and they don’t, and it changes day to day, anyway), keeping the right books in stock is a challenge. The most sensible way for most stores is probably to order from Ingram (and/or other wholesalers) on a daily basis. Buying from publishers not only requires splitting up orders that will then arrive at different times in different packages, it also requires following ordering rules that are different for every supplier. A wholesaler can’t offer as much margin as a publisher, but the consolidation of the business both makes management cheaper and promotes faster stock turn, which almost always will more than compensate for slightly higher purchase prices.

(I have just made two books by my father available as ebooks. Both In Cold Type, his overall examination of the trade book business originally published in 1982, and The Mathematics of Bookselling, originally issued in the 1990s, contain extensive explanations of this fact with all the accompanying algebra.)

Independent bookstores generically resist vendor-managed inventory. Indeed, picking the books (also called curation) is both one of the great pleasures and great services that a bookstore offers its customers. It is understandably loath to delegate any aspect of that very important work to anybody else.

But the cost of buying is a real hurdle to running a successful bookstore or book department. Buying through what my father called “distribution by negotiation” is expensive for the store, expensive for the publisher, and, unfortunately, doesn’t result in the most productive possible decisions. Things can work much better if it is eliminated.

One example of this that I’ve been involved with is West Broadway Book Distribution. WBBD puts books into national chains that aren’t bookstores (JoAnn Stores and Hancock Fabrics have been their customers for years). WBBD makes all the stocking decisions, based on daily sales reporting it gets from the stores. The stocking decisions are highly automation-assisted, so that a couple thousand titles from over 100 publishers are managed in over 1000 stores with an extremely small staff at WBBD and virtually no buyer time required from the stores. And using a systematic approach means rules can be constantly improved. In fact, WBBD has improved the stock turn on the inventory it places virtually every year.

The cost of buying and maintaining the supply chain is going up steadily (as a percentage of sales) at B&N because they’re reducing their book inventory and closing stores. Soon what has been their competitive edge will turn into a competitive drain. Different supply strategies, such as having publishers ship more books directly to the stores, are already being employed and that will continue. But this a de-leveraging of the B&N core advantage. That’s one reason 2013 could be a difficult year for our last remaining truly national bookstore chain even if the sales of books in stores erodes more slowly than it has recently. A sales decline is very painful to an entity with high fixed costs and B&N’s supply chain is a big part of theirs. And if they were to suddenly close a substantial number of stores, climbing down from that infrastructure cost base might suddenly become much more urgent and very difficult.

As the shelf space for books being managed by retailers that accept the high cost of managing book inventory and commit to doing it effectively continues to decline, publishers need to understand that it will be really hard for non-book retailers to replace them.

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Peering into the future and seeing more value in the Random Penguin merger


So now in addition to the Random House and Penguin merger that is being reviewed by governments far and wide, we have the news that HarperCollins is exploring a tie-up with Simon & Schuster in a deal that hasn’t been made yet. That leaves Hachette and Macmillan, among the so-called Big Six, still on the outside as the general trade publishing behemoths rearrange themselves for whatever is the next stage of book publishing’s existence.

I am not sure we really need an “explanation” for what is the resumption of a perfectly natural phenomenon. Big publishers have been merging with each other for several decades in a process that suddenly stopped after Bertelsmann acquired Random House (to add to its holding of Bantam Doubleday Dell) in 1998. We didn’t know it at the time, but that concluded a long string of mergers that had recently included Penguin’s acquisition of Putnam-Berkley, but which stretched back to the 1970s when pursuit of the paperback-hardover synergy had driven Viking and Penguin; Doubleday and Dell; and Random House-Ballantine and Fawcett into each other’s arms.

(Perhaps HarperCollins should get credit for the resumption of the era of consolidation. Their acquisition of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, combined with their holding of Zondervan, created a powerful position in one of publishing’s biggest vertical markets shortly before Penguin and Random House announced their plans.)

But consequential events always get an explanation, whether they deserve one or not, and this merger appears to many to be driven by consolidation among the retail intermediaries and the rational concern — amply documented by recent experience — that the retailers would use their leverage to press for more and more margin. This is complicated by the fact that both of the dominant retailers — Amazon in the online world and Barnes & Noble in the brick-and-mortar space — have small publishing operations of their own that are always available to put additional pressure on publishers at the originating end of the value chain.

There is an important asymmetry to take note of here. The retailers publish and are always a threat to acquire manuscripts directly and cut the publishers out but the publishers, particularly the biggest ones, don’t do retail and there is no obvious path for them to enter retailing in any significant way. (That last sentence was written with full cognizance that we await the debut of Bookish, which is an attempt by three of the Big Six to enter retailing in a significant way. Maybe when concrete plans for it are announced there will be some reasons provided to amend that thought.)

In my opinion, the dominant position that Amazon holds in online retailing and that B&N owns in shops are impregnable on their own terms in ways that the positions of each of the big publishers are not.

The threat to Barnes & Noble is that bookstores will become unsustainable: that a retailer trying to exist at scale with books as its primary product offering will, because of ebooks and online purchasing of print, simply become unviable. The threat to Amazon is more nuanced and more distant. One can imagine a world developing where content retailing evolves into niches by subject or tastemaker. But that world is not around the corner (an environment toxic to bookstore chains appears to be much closer) and it would be far easier to imagine how Amazon could adapt to niche online retailing than to see B&N adapting to deliver retail book selections that are only viable at a fraction of their current size.

(I consulted to them a decade ago and suggested that to no interest. They were shutting down their mall stores at the time and the idea seemed totally counterintuitive.  I’ve also written about it.)

I saw recent data (sorry, can’t remember where…) suggesting that something like 38% of the book business is now done online, taking both ebooks and sales of print into account. This seems to be confirmed by a chart built on BookStats data by reporter Laura Owen of PaidContent, if you take “institutional sales” out of the equation and assume that wholesalers sold books to online and store retailers as well as libraries.

Whatever the percentage is, it is almost certainly higher for immersive reading than for illustrated or reference books because immersive works for ebooks and the others mostly don’t. So it would appear that something like 60% of the book business is still a bricks-and-mortar game, with the number being somewhat lower for straight text and higher for illustrated.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the big publishers are still extremely powerful. The 60% sold at retailers is what they’re uniquely skilled at getting and what Amazon is uniquely challenged to penetrate.

But the one thing we know for sure is that the shift to online purchasing — while it has slowed down — will continue to progress for a long time. The increased ubiquity of devices; the always-larger selection from an online merchant; the increase in availability of appealing and useful content that is either too short or too specialized for print; the steadily increasing cost and hassle of shopping by car rather than by computer; the natural results of birth, death, and demography; and the increase in online word-of-mouth and recommendation sources are among the many factors that assure that.

As the percentage of a publishers’ sales that are made through retail stores decreases, the cost of covering them increases. This has already become an issue as the big publishers view their overheads and come to the conclusion that they can’t afford to pay ebook royalties greater than 25% of receipts. Surely, some of the cost basis they see driving that necessity are really print-based (creation and distribution), which makes them calculate what’s affordable differently than a more new-fangled publisher that is planning primarily on digital and online distribution.

The publishers who are merging or thinking about merging are not doing so out of immediate desperation. The financial reports we see from trade publishers are not frightening. Top line sales are challenged — there is little or no growth — but margins have been maintained through the seismic marketplace shifts of the past few years and the pace of change is slowing. So it is probably preparing for a world a few years off that drives publishers to merge today. What will that world look like?

The world of publishing we’re going to see five or ten years from now will probably look quite different. Even if store sales only decline 10% a year against the industry total, what is a 60% share today will be about a third after five years have passed and below 20% in ten. Those are sales well worth having, of course, but they’ll be a lot more expensive to get. And if I were predicting rather than just speculating, I’d expect the erosion of retail sales to be a bit faster than that.

My expectation is that freestanding bookstores will be less and less common, and smaller book sections in other retailers (the way they’re in mass merchants today) will proliferate. We already see this in “specialty” retail: stores stock books that fit alongside their other product offerings. But as bookstores get scarcer, it will probably begin to make sense for general book selections — bestsellers, classics, and the cream of popular categories like cooking and current affairs — to be offered by other merchants. Part of the reason that doesn’t happen now is that it is too hard for the retailer not in the book business to do. A representative selection either requires dealing with many publishers or buying from a wholesaler. And the wholesalers are working on tight margins, not allowing them much room to offer expensive services (like inventory management) unless they really cut into the store’s margin.

But you don’t have to have every book — or even every bestseller — to deliver a compelling consumer offering. Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild proved that half a century ago when they competed for the general book club market. They demanded exclusives on the bestsellers, so they tended to split them. And they each had enough to pull a very large audience.

Well, the combination of Random House and Penguin has damn near half the bestsellers too. And Random House, at least, has already developed vendor-management capabilities that they can apply at the store level. So as the bookstores disappear from town after town, a Random Penguin combination (they really ought to call it that!) becomes able to offer any local retailer a selection of books that will look pretty good to the average consumer.

In addition, they’ll find that the combined lists give them a great head start on having enough titles to deliver retailers other vertical selections — cooking, crafts, home improvement — that their VMI skills will also help them serve.

Right now the challenge Amazon is having is that they’re trying to publish with a grip on no more than half the market. That’s great, as far as it goes, because that’s where they have a real margin advantage when they cut the publisher out of the chain. But because there is so much Amazon fear-and-loathing around the rest of the industry, they’re not able to build out beyond their proprietary position. (See the recent frustrations expressed by their author, Tim Ferriss, to appreciate how that’s working out in the market today.)

But if Amazon could reach 75% of the market — that is, if store purchasing declined below 25% of the total, which is in the cards for the next ten years — leverage would be reversed. (I’m eliding the format and proprietary reader device issues around ebooks here, but I’m guessing they’ll mostly go away in the next five or ten years.) Then Amazon wouldn’t want or need distribution to the stores or other online outlets. In fact, chances are they’d see it in their best interests to withhold those titles from other retailers and use them as tools to compel shopping with Amazon.

(This would not be a peculiar selfishness of Amazon if they did it. I remember well the battles my friends at Sterling had when they were first acquired by Barnes & Noble trying to convince their new owners that it was necessary to distribute the books as broadly as possible or they would start finding it impossible to sign new titles. B&N’s instinct was to want what they published available only from their stores, an instinct they acted on with SparkNotes.)

But if I’m right about where Random Penguin might go, they could play this same game. As the cost of running book departments increases as a percentage of sales, as they surely will as sales in stores decline, the mass merchants will diminish their presence. If Random Penguin has half the bestsellers, they will be able to use VMI to build secondary locations to keep their print books available. Those locations will be theirs and theirs alone. Maybe they’ll only be making 10% or 15% of the total sales this way, but those sales will be unavailable to other publishers (unless they go through RP at diminished margins.)

The proprietary distribution will give RP an advantaged position signing up the biggest books. In time, they might even have enough of the biggest books to pursue one of the current active fantasies of Amazon and a bunch of entrepreneurs: creating a value proposition for big authors that will enable a subscription library with headline titles. And that would be another proprietary distribution channel that this next generation of scale might make possible.

The resistance of the bookstores to doing anything that helps Amazon will make it difficult for Amazon the publisher to build a general trade list of bestsellers until a much bigger chunk of the market has moved online. Barnes & Noble, which had a chance to become the one dominant trade publisher if they’d played their Sterling card differently, seems not to be interested in that role. So it will be one or two of the incumbents that will be left standing ten years from now managing the most commercial titles in the marketplace. The odds are very good that one of them will be Random Penguin.

I (usually) resist the temptation to make political observations on the blog, because that’s not what people come here for. But I have to make an exception because I think one of the most important points to be made about the results of November 6 has not been made anywhere else. And it is, ultimately, a non-partisan point.

Among the many reasons that President Obama convincingly defeated Governor Romney was the superior execution of the Obama campaign around data and operations. They were simply better analysts and managers and they executed better than the Romney campaign.

So can we please put to rest the notion that “getting rich” or “running a business” is a proxy for “management skill”? The most frequently-offered argument from Romney was “I’m a successful businessman so therefore I can run things better than this guy who is community-organizer-turned-public-official.” Actually, Governor, you couldn’t. You didn’t.

The last presidents we had with business experience were (working backwards) George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren Harding. There is no historical evidence in there that shows that business success correlates with the ability to run the United States government. Or even, as we’ve just been shown, an effective national campaign.

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