Publishing History

The “Big Change” era in trade book publishing ended about four years ago


Book publishing is still very much in a time of changing conditions and circumstances. There are a host of unknowables about the next several years that affect the shape of the industry and the strategies of all the players in it. But as publishers, retailers, libraries, and their ecosystem partners prepare for whatever is next, it becomes increasingly evident that — from the perspective of trade publishing at least — we have already lived through the biggest period of transition. It took place from sometime in 2007 through 2012.

At the beginning of 2007, there was no Kindle. By the end of 2011, there was no Borders. And by the end of 2012, five of America’s biggest publishers were defending themselves from the US Department of Justice. The arrival of Kindle and the exit of Borders are the two most earthshaking events in the recent history of book publishing and its ecosystem. The Justice Department suit first distracted and then ultimately strait-jacketed the big publishers so it was both difficult to focus and then difficult to react to further marketplace changes.

Paying close attention to what we then called “electronic publishing” started for me in the early 1990s, with a conference other consulting colleagues and I organized for Publishers Weekly which we called “Electronic Publishing and Rights”. This was before Amazon existed. It was when the big transition taking place was from diskettes to CD-Roms as the means of storage. And it was even before Windows, so the only device on which you could view on a screen anything that looked at all like a book was a Macintosh computer, which had literally a sliver of the market. The most interesting ebook predecessor was the Voyager Expanded Book, and it could only be used on a Mac.

In this speech I gave in 1995, I put my finger on the fact that online would change all this and that publishers shouldn’t spend too much energy on CD-Roms.

The period from then until when it was clear Kindle was establishing itself — the awareness that it was for real slowly dawned on people throughout the year 2008 — was one where the inevitability of some big digital change was generally acknowledged. But dealing with it was the province of specialists operating alongside the “real business” and largely performing experiments, or getting ready for the day when it might matter. There was a slow (and inexorable) shift from store-purchasing to online purchasing. And the online purchasing almost all went to Amazon. But even that wasn’t seen as particularly disruptive. Neither ebooks nor online purchasing called for drastic changes in the way publishers saw their business or deployed their resources.

The first important new device for books in 2007 didn’t start out as one at all. It was the iPhone, first released in June of that year. Although Palm Pilots were the ebook reader of choice for a big chunk of the then-tiny ebook community, they lacked connectivity. The iPhone was not seen as an ereader when it came out — indeed, Apple head Steve Jobs still believed at that point that ebooks were not a market worth pursuing — but they could, and did, rapidly become one when it was demonstrated that there was a market. And they vastly expanded the universe of people routinely paying for downloaded content, in this case music from the iTunes store.

Then Kindle launched in November of 2007. A still unannounced number of Kindles sold out in a few hours and Amazon remained out of stock of them for several months! Because the original Kindle was $399, it was only a “good deal” for the consumer who read many books on which they could save money by buying electronic. What this meant was that Kindle owners bought ebooks in numbers much greater than the relatively small number of devices placed would have suggested. Throughout 2008, the awareness dawned on the industry that ebooks were going to be a significant business.

And that awareness rapidly shook loose a raft of competition. Barnes & Noble saw that they had to compete in this arena and started a crash program to deliver the Nook, which first appeared almost precisely two years after the first Kindle, in November 2009. Months earlier, Amazon had released the app that put Kindle on the iPhone. Meanwhile, Jobs had become persuaded to take ebooks seriously, and, anyway, he had a store selling content downloads to devices like crazy. Now, about to launch his new tablet format, the iPad, he had what looked like the perfect vehicle with which to launch ebooks. The iPad and the iBookstore debuted in April 2010. A month later, Kobo entered the market as a low-priced alternative with their first device. And by the end of the year, Google reorganized and rebranded what had been Google Editions into Google eBooks. The original concept was that they would populate the readers that were using epub, which meant Nook and Kobo at that time.

All of this change within three calendar years — 2008 through 2010 — created a blizzard of strategic decisions for the publishers. Remember, before all this, ebooks were an afterthought. Amazon had applied pressure to get publishers into the Kindle launch in 2007. Before that, no publisher that I can recall made any effort to have ebooks available at the time a book was initially launched. There were workflow and production changes (XML FIRST!) being contemplated that would make doing both print and digital editions a less onerous task, but they were seldom fast-tracked and doing ebooks meant taking on and managing a book-by-book conversion project.

During the period when Amazon was pretty much alone in the game (the pre-Amazon market leaders, Sony and Palm, faded very quickly), they started pricing Kindle titles aggressively, even willing to take losses on each sale to promote device sales and the ecosystem. This alarmed publishers, who were seeing small Kindle sales grow at what were frightening rates and raising the spectre of undermining their hardcovers. It didn’t hurt that the retailers with whom they (still, then, though not now) did most of their business were also alarmed. Nook arrived and Barnes & Noble would never have been as comfortable as Amazon with selling these new products at a loss. But B&N also worried about the impact that cheap ebooks might have on more expensive print book sales. Amazon didn’t.

So when Apple proposed in late 2009 and early 2010 that there could be a new way to sell called “agency” which would put retail pricing power for ebooks into the publishers’ hands, it met a very receptive audience of publishers.

And that, in turn, led to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the big publishers which was instituted in April of 2012.

Coinciding with and enabled by all of this was the huge growth in author-initiated publishing. Amazon had bought CreateSpace, which gave them the ability to offer print-on-demand as well as Kindle ebooks. The combination meant that a huge audience could be reached through them without any help from anybody else. When agency happened (2010), they started to offer indie authors what amounted to agency terms: 70 percent of the selling price for ebooks. This was a multiple of the percentage an author would get through a publisher.

Agency pricing fell right into Amazon’s and the self-published hands. Getting 70 percent on the ebook, the indie author got $2.10 pricing at $2.99 and $2.80 pricing at $3.99, royalties comparable to what they’d get from full-priced print. Many bestselling indie ebooks were priced at $0.99. The very cheap ebooks indie authors would offer juxtaposed against the publisher’s agency up-priced (many at $14.99) and undiscounted branded books created a market opening that allowed the Kindle audience to sample (aside from the free chapter that is standard in ebooks) cheap ebook authors for peanuts. Suddenly, names nobody had heard before were on the map, selling millions of ebooks, and taking mindshare away from the industry’s output. And it also handed the publishers’ authors an alternative path to market that could only have the effect of improving their negotiating position with the publishers.

Meanwhile, Borders sent the most persuasive possible signal that the shift in sales from stores to online, accelerated by the ebook phenomenon, was really damaging. They went out of business in 2011. That took the account that sold upwards of 10 percent of most publishers’ books, and a far greater percentage of the bookstore shelf space for backlist, off the board. Or, viewed another way, publishers went from two national retailers who could place a big order and put books in front of the core book-buying audience to one.

So the authors’ negotiating position was stronger and so was Barnes & Noble’s.

And all of those events — the devices, the ebook surge, the introduction of the agency business model, and the Department of Justice suing most of the big publishers, a very noticeable rise in successful independent publishing, and the increased leverage of the trading partners with whom publishers negotiate their revenues and their costs — were head and body blows to the titans of the industry. Every one of them threatened the legacy practices and challenged the legacy organizations and resource allocations.

During this period, Random House (the number one publisher) merged with Penguin (the number two publisher) and created a super-publisher that is not far from being as big as the four remaining members of what were called “The Big Six” in 2007. If you are viewing the world from the perspective of HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, or Macmillan, that might have been the biggest development of all.

Compared to the sweeping changes of that era, what has happened since and what is likely to happen in the next couple of years is small beer. There are certainly clear trends that will change things markedly over time.

Amazon continues to grow its share, and they are around 50 percent of the business or more for many publishers these days.

Barnes & Noble is troubled but in no immediate jeopardy and is still, by far, the number one brick-and-mortar account for publishers. But the optimistic view is that their book sales will remain flat in the near future.

Independent bookselling continues to grow, but even with their growth since Borders went down, they are less than 10 percent of the sales for most publishers. It is true that ebook sales for publishers have flattened (we don’t know the overall trend for sure because we don’t really know the indie sales at Amazon, and they’re substantial) and don’t seem likely to grow their share against print anytime soon.

These things seem likely to be as true two years from now as they are now. Nothing felt that way in from 2008-2012.

Digital marketing, including social network presence, is an important frontier. The industry has a successful digital catalog, called Edelweiss, which has obviated the need for printed catalogs, a cost saving many publishers have captured. And another start-up, NetGalley (owned by Firebrand), has organized the reviewer segment of the industry so that publishers can get them digital advance copies of books, which is cheaper and much more efficient for everybody.

Owning and mining email lists is a new skill set that can pay off more each year. Pricing in digital seems to offer great opportunity for improved revenue, if its effects can be better understood. International sales of American-originated books are more accessible than they’ve ever been as the global network created by Ingram creates sales growth opportunities for just about every publisher. That should continue and requires new thinking and processes. Special, or non-traditional, markets increase in importance, abetted by digital marketing. That will continue as well.

Audio, which has been one of the big beneficiaries of digital downloading, will continue to grow too. The problem from the publishers’ perspective is that Audible, owned by Amazon, owns most of that market. So they have a sophisticated and unsentimental trading partner with a lot of leverage controlling a market segment that is probably taking share from print and ebooks.

And with all of this, what will also continue to grow is relentless margin pressure from the publishers’ two biggest accounts: Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

But the challenges of today aren’t about change of the magnitude that was being coped with in the period that ended five years ago. They’re more about improving workflows and processes, learning to use new tools, and integrating new people with new skill sets into the publishing business. And there are a lot of new people with relevant skills up and down the trade publishing organizations now. That wasn’t so much the case when things were changing the fastest, 2007-2012.

It isn’t that there aren’t still many of new things to work on, new opportunities to explore, or long-term decisions to make. But the editor today can sign a book and expect a publishing environment when it comes out in a year or two roughly like the one we have today. The editor in 2010 couldn’t feel that confidence. The marketer can plan something when the book first comes up for consideration and find the plan will still make sense six months later. And while things still very much in flux in sales, a blow comparable to the loss of Borders isn’t on the

Of course, there could always be a black swan about to announce itself.

This post explains why, among other reasons, I will no longer be programming the Digital Book World Conference, as I did for seven years starting with its debut in 2010. At its best, DBW anticipated the changes that were coming in the industry and gave its attendees practical ways to think about and cope with them. Future vision was a key perspective to programming although we always strived to give the audience things they could “take back to the office and use”.

It has been harder and harder over the past couple of years to find the big strategic questions the industry needed answers to. The writing was on the wall last year when most of the publishers I talked to felt confident they understood where books were going; they wanted to hear from other segments of the digital world. That was a sign to me that the educational mission I had in mind for DBW since I started it was no longer in demand.

To their credit, the DBW management, as I understand it, is trying a new vision for the show, more focused on the immediately practical and the hands-on challenges of today. I wish them the best of luck with it.

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The sea change that comes with the latest iteration of the book ecosystem


In the past 10 years (since the mid-2000s), the ebook has arrived and the amount of shelf space for books in physical retail has declined, as book purchasing has continued to move to the Internet. This has put pressure on publishers’ distribution costs, as we discussed in a prior post.

In the 10 years before that (mid-1990s to mid-2000s), online bookselling began at what was, we now know, the very peak of book retailing, when the superstore chains B&N and Borders had built out hundreds of 100,000+-title stores and still owned mall chains Dalton and Walden that had many hundreds of smaller stores. And that was on top of the largest-ever network — many thousands — of independent bookstores, many of which were themselves superstores.

In the 10 years before that (mid-1980s to mid-1990s), Wall Street cash enabled the two big bookstore chains to build out their superstore networks, stocking publishers’ backlists deeply. With so many enormous stores opening, publishers received a bonanza of store-opening orders that went deep into their lists and were relatively lightly returned (until the store-opening process reversed itself 20 years later).

In the 10 years before that (mid-1970s to mid-1980s), the two mall chains (Dalton and Walden) rode the growth of shopping centers to a position of great importance in selling books to the public. They became the drivers of the bestseller lists. In the same decade. Ingram and Baker & Taylor built reliable national wholesaling networks, enabling the chains and a growing number of independents to replenish stock of unsold books quickly, increasing stock turn and profitability for booksellers (and lowering returns to everybody’s benefit).

In the 10 years before that (mid-1960s to mid-1970s), the department stores started to yield their strong position in book sales, victims both of their own structured discipline (open-to-buy rules) about inventory control that reduced their title selection and of the growth of the malls. The malls inadvertently doomed the department store concept (even though department stores were the “anchors” that made malls possible) by enabling specialty retailers of all kinds, including bookstores, to provide a better shopping experience than the department that sold those goods in the department store.

In the 10 years before that (mid-1950s to mid-1960s), an increasingly affluent society saw an ever-expanding number of bookstores while, in that era, mass-market paperbacks became ubiquitous in drug stores and newsstands, vastly increasing the number of places where Americans could find and buy books.

And the 10 years before that, which takes us back to the end of World War II, saw the birth of mass-market paperbacks and the development of modern publishing sales forces in trade houses. This was, in retrospect, the beginning of a half-century of uninterrupted growth for American book publishing. It has not necessarily now come to an end, but the growth of the segment controlled by big publishers may have ended.

What happens now? The online book market is likely more than half of the total book market. That is, books purchased online — print and digital — exceed the number sold in retail stores (obviously all print). Amazon is the single most powerful retailer, and they have also made themselves the first stop for any self-publishing or small-publishing entity that wants to reach readers. Ingram and the bigger publishers offer full-line distribution services to the most ambitious of those and to everybody else who wants to reach the whole book market.

Until the last 10 years, all the developments that affected book publishing tended to grow the availability of books relative to the availability of other media. When mall stores or superstores grew, there was no associated lift for television shows or movies (although recorded music also benefited from the malls). That is no longer the case. For the first time, really, books are competing with everything else you might read or watch or listen to in a way they never did before. Online doesn’t care what is in the file it displays. This is a qualitative difference in the nature of book availability growth compared to everything else that has happened in the lifetimes of anybody in the business.

The fact is that books used to live in a moated ecosystem, independent of what was going on in other media and book readers’ communication streams. Since ubiquitous broadband, that is no longer true. This presents publishers with two challenges they never faced before.

One is to take advantage of the opportunity to promote books to readers by tying them in to other media and events in ways that were never before possible. This is digital marketing promoting discovery. In fact, a greater percentage of the potential audience for any book should know about it within a few months of its publication than ever before, if publishers do their jobs right.

But the other is that publishers need to be alert to changes in book reading habits that are bound to occur because of integrated media. Yes, the publisher can promote the book to somebody watching a related video or reading an email on a related subject. But it is also true that promotion for movies and emails from friends can interrupt a reader in the middle of a chapter if they’re reading online. This is probably changing the way people read books and might even change how they want their books edited and shaped. Publishers who pay attention will see those changes as they occur.

We can interrupt people doing something else now to tell them about a book. But they now, in turn, can easily be interrupted while they’re reading the book. Digital change and media integration cut both ways. It is very early days for this reality. It only really occurs because of the combination of broadband and reading on an Internet-enabled device. That’s a relatively recent and still-growing circumstance. We don’t know where it will lead.

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Transformation of companies and the book industry itself are not just 21st century phenomena


Company transformation is a major theme at this year’s Digital Book World conference. By “transformation” we mean substantial changes in a company’s business model or core competencies or revenue streams. We found eight worthy companies to speak on this subject. Six of them — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ingram, Quarto, Rodale, Sourcebooks, and Wiley — are long-established players in the book business that have changed considerably in some fundamental ways compared to what they were and did ten years ago. Two of them — NetGalley and Diversion Books — started relatively recently to bring digital innovation to the publishing business and have moved considerably beyond their original goals and business models.

What got us started on this whole line of thinking was an article in the Nashville Tennessean last summer about Ingram. It documented what has been a pretty massive transformation over the past two decades from a company that was a traditional book wholesaler to one that has a big technology component providing a variety of services to the global publishing industry.

As Chairman and CEO John Ingram will discuss in detail with me on the stage at DBW, the changes we see today at Ingram really date from the creation of Lightning Print in 1997. The idea of “print on demand” — manufacturing a single copy of a book to order — became extraordinarily powerful when it was incorporated into the supply chain through the global supplier with the biggest network of bookstores and libraries. Ingram could put the book they manufactured this afternoon on an even footing with those titles for which they stocked inventory from publishers. At first this was just for paperbacks with pretty strict limitations on trim size and bulk. As time went by, Lightning improved the technology to deliver much higher quality, color, and hardcovers.

The ebook revolution dawned at about the same time as Lightning began. It didn’t take long for the repository of digital files Ingram held to become an even more valuable asset. It is now called CoreSource, and it drives both POD and ebook distribution.

But, in fact, Ingram had transformed, and transformed the industry, once before. That happened in the 1970s, right about the time I started working full-time in the trade book business. And it is a story that everybody trying to understand today’s transformation would appreciate and learn from.

I had forgotten until I searched that I had written about this before, nearly seven years ago when this blog was brand spanking new. Here’s an edited version of the story as I told it then.

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Before the early 1970s, wholesalers to the trade were local and carried a relatively small number of titles. Their main job was to provide back-up stock of bestsellers very quickly. Most bookstores went directly to the publishers for just about everything else. Baker & Taylor was national, but focused on the library market. And Ingram (which was Tennessee Book Company until the Ingram family bought them) was a small and pretty insignificant player. Harry Hoffman was their president.

Most of those local wholesalers to the trade actually leaned on other business for most of their volume: school supply, library supply, or mass-market books and magazines. They looked to the trade book business for multiple copy sales of a handful of titles that were hot.

The wholesalers’ challenge was that they couldn’t carry everything, and for anything except the top titles, there was no assurance of any demand.

And that created the retailers’ challenge. Most of what they ordered from a wholesaler wouldn’t get delivered. The “fill rate” (percentage of what’s ordered that is delivered) was terrible. On average, it was well below 50%.

The flip side of this was bad for the wholesalers. Most of the orders they got from stores couldn’t be filled, but still required some level of processing and communication to tell their customers what they wouldn’t get. So, cumulatively, they spent a lot of money on the orders they couldn’t make a nickel on.

And here was everybody’s shared challenge: all of this took a lot of time and effort that was unproductive and didn’t get books back on the shelves.

One day in about 1972, a former colleague of Hoffman’s from his tenure at Bell & Howell stopped by to visit and showed the Ingram team a new gadget called a microfiche reader. The reader enabled one to see what was on a piece of film that was about 3 inches by 5 inches and was literally packed with information. What somebody saw in that meeting (and Michael Zibart, a longtime friend of ours who did the buying at Ingram then and is now owner and publisher of BookPage, thinks it was Hoffman himself) was that Ingram could put the inventory count for every book it stocked on a single microfiche. So if somehow the stores could have a reader, they could get the inventory of Ingram’s books mailed to them each week.

(Yes: mailed! Isn’t it amazing how klunky life was before email and the web?)

If stores could see what books were actually there, they’d stop ordering books Ingram didn’t have. And they’d know, with reasonable certainty, what they were going to get when they placed an order. And the very good news for Ingram was that they would no longer have to process orders they couldn’t fill.

The challenge for Ingram was to get the microfiche readers Bell & Howell made, which were not inexpensive, into the stores’ hands. They decided to do that by renting them, asking the stores to pay a monthly fee (memory says it was $10 a month) to have them. So they went to the ABA Convention (American Booksellers Association, which sold the convention to Reed Exhibitions in the 1990s and which Reed turned into BEA) in Los Angeles in 1973 to peddle the readers. They had no idea what reaction they’d get.

It turned out to be overwhelmingly positive. The stores, many of which didn’t yet know Ingram, were enthusiastic about the concept and willing to pay to rent the reader. Ingram was able to charge the publishers for the cost of creating the microfiche (I think that started at $1 per month per title listed). So they created self-liquidating efficiencies which immediately supercharged their fill rate (into the 90s), boosted their volume and customer base, and eliminated lots of waste: the money they spent processing orders they couldn’t fill. As a bonus, Ingram was able to put their unique title number, which they needed to fill an order, on the microfiche so the stores did the “coding” for them, writing those numbers on orders that they sent in by mail. (We didn’t even have faxes yet.) More costs eliminated.

Within a year or two, Ingram was the first really powerful national trade wholesaler. Baker & Taylor, national but much more library-focused, copied the microfiche innovation later in the 1970s. Stores were able to stock backlist much more efficiently because they could single-source multiple publishers and order with much greater frequency.

This was really a transformation story before we thought about companies changing in this way. But it wasn’t just a company that changed that time, it was the whole industry. And it probably was changed more by the microfiche and the growth of effective wholesaling than by any other single thing that happened after that until…Lightning Print.

Two worthy extensions of this piece. John Ingram did a nice little interview with Daniel Berkowitz at the Digital Book World blog.

And my good friend Joe Esposito published a piece about a year ago citing the Ingram microfiche innovation for the significant milestone that it was. Esposito made the further point that what Ingram did for the industry was subsequently what Jeff Bezos did with Amazon for the consumer. That is, of course, particularly ironic, since it was Ingram’s inventory and rapid fulfillment capabilities that Bezos used to get Amazon started.

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Book publishing lives in an environment shaped by larger forces and always has


(Note to my readers. This longer-than-usual post is really two. The first half is a recital of what I believe is very relevant history. The second half is about how things are now. Although I am personally fascinated by the historical context, if you get bored with the history, the bolded text below marks the spot you can skip down to to get to “today”.)

Book publishing has always adapted to an environment shaped by larger forces. That hasn’t changed.

Andrew Carnegie provided a big lift early in the 20th century when he financed a lot of libraries, taking books and reading into every corner of the country. In the 1930s, publishers led by Putnam and Simon & Schuster made “returns” a part of the commercial equation between publishers and bookstores because the depression was making stores especially wary of taking on inventory.

After World War II, the mass-market paperback revolution was made possible by a network of magazine wholesalers (also called “IDs”, or “independent distributors”) who could push product out to hundreds of thousands of points of purchase.

In the 1960s, shopping center development boomed. The mall developers wanted “bankable” entities to sign up for their stores before the projects were built. Banks providing mortgage cash liked national brand names for that purpose better than unknown local entrepreneurs. That fact spawned the mall chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, which each grew into the hundreds of stores by the 1970s. All those new stores opening created pipelines for publishers to fill that made the book business grow even faster.

Then in the late 1980s, Wall Street believed the destination superstore was a good bet and happily financed Borders (which bought Walden) and Barnes & Noble (which bought Dalton) to build out the 100,000+-title store model. This again created huge pipelines for publishers to fill and, unlike the situation when 25,000-title mall stores were proliferating, the orders to fill them went deep into publishers’ backlists.

All of this 20th century growth fit a similar model for publishers, leaning on booksellers to present their books to the public and to manage the inventory in an ever-expanding number of bookshops. So publishers continued to focus on business-to-business marketing, honing their expertise at positioning their titles for reviewers, bookstore buyers, and library collection developers but only occasionally addressing the public, or any segment of any book’s consumer audience, directly. And they continued to focus their sales efforts on persuading stores to make commitments to their books. The ability to get “buys” from the booksellers really drove marketing and revenue.

Then in 1995, Amazon arrived and changed the game in many ways. And we can see in retrospect that the birth of Amazon heralded an even bigger change in the commercial context for publishers. Amazon’s arrival began an era which is now in full flower, where the environment for book publishers is largely influenced by major tech companies for which publishing is a hardly-noticed activity even though their impact on the world of publishing is profound. Although there are certainly others who figure in, the environment today for marketing and delivering books is shaped by what Professor Scott Galloway of NYU Stern School of Business calls “The Four Horsemen”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Amazon, like booksellers before them, handled the direct relationship with consumers and evolved, after an early period of depending on Ingram for their stock, to staging the inventory to serve them. It pretty quickly became apparent that they were much more disruptive than prior innovators in many ways. Among them:

Amazon operated in an environment without geographical constraints; their sales weren’t constrained by local boundaries like the physical bookstores. They could effectively provide service to customers from anywhere. So even in the beginning, when they were taking such small share away from each of the existing market players that they hardly noticed it, Amazon was building a substantial customer base for itself.

Pretty early in the game, Amazon persuaded Wall Street that it was “different” and didn’t ultimately have to make its fortune selling books. Books were just the key to the first step: customer acquisition. The profits would come from subsequent steps: selling those customers other things (and — the more sophisticated part — selling the infrastructure it was creating at scale). Once the investment community was on board to finance that strategy, Amazon was liberated to price-compete in a way that, it is clear in retrospect, no book-centric retailer could keep up with.

The number of shipping points for Amazon, which have recently proliferated and is now in the dozens at least, grew slowly, so Amazon was inherently more “efficient” with its purchases than bookstores could possibly be. Each book shipped to them had a much bigger sales base than it would in a single store and therefore also had a much lower chance of being returned. At the same time, as they took sales away from brick-and-mortar stores, returns from that side of the business tended to go up, at first because the publishers’ sales forecasting was unconsciously working with a diminishing base, and then later because moving to fewer titles in stock became part of the solution to reduced sales and returns were part of how they got there.

The book-buying public adjusted very quickly to Amazon. For several decades leading to the 1990s, publishers and bookstores had learned that a massive in-store selection was a powerful magnet to draw customers. The choice of books has always been so granular that it is virtually impossible for any retailer to stock everything a customer might want. Jeff Bezos knew and understood that, and he had the vision to understand how an online retailer could benefit from the impossible challenge a brick-and-mortar bookstore faced.

Amazon used a Baker & Taylor database that hadn’t been “cleaned”, so it had a lot of out-of-print books in it. Amazon turned that into a benefit for their customers, because it gave Amazon a platform to tell a searcher that the book they wanted was no longer available if that were the case. (If you just don’t find your book when you search, you would be inclined to look again elsewhere. But if you find it and are told it is out of print, you would perhaps look for a substitute.) Combining that with rigorous “promise dates” telling customers when their books would arrive progressively lured, and then satisfied, more and more book buyers. The less likely the buyers thought it would be that they’d find a book in a store, the more likely it would be they’d just order it from Amazon. In a story we’ve told on this blog before, we learned on a consulting assignment with Barnes & Noble in the first couple of years of this century how dramatically the buying habits of academics had shifted away from store-shopping to buying from Amazon.

By the end of the first decade of this century, the future had arrived with a vengeance. Amazon dominated the rapidly-growing ebook business, driving the publishers into an embrace with Apple (one “Horseman” come to save them from another) that brought them into conflict with the Department of Justice. And then Borders, one of the two dominant national bookstore chains and proprietors of more than four hundred 100,000-title stores nationwide, shut down, taking a big double-digit percentage of the nation’s bookstore shelf space with them.

The collapse of Borders had an impact on the publishers’ ecosystem comparable to what the effect will be on sea levels when the Greenland or West Antarctica ice sheets break off: a sudden surge of change reflecting a long-term trend. As Hemingway wrote about the way things often happen: “gradually, then suddenly”.

And this brings us to the world we live in today. Like a frog in gradually heated water, many of us have lived through the change so we may think we’re more adjusted to it than we actually are.

Publishers now live in a world where more than half the sales for most of them — the exceptions are those who are heavily into illustrated books and children’s books — occur online through varying combinations of print and ebooks. Their two biggest accounts — Amazon for online sales and Barnes & Noble for stores — each reign supreme for their channel of the business. (And although Amazon has opened a store and Barnes & Noble has an online sales capability, they are likely to remain the leading player where they are now and much less important in the other channel.) Because they’re so important, they can be increasingly aggressive in how much margin they insist on as discount from the publishers’ price and various merchandising fees.

When bookstores were the distribution path for books, they were also the primary avenue for “discovery”. That was what the big store was about. People could browse it and find things they had no idea existed that they wanted to buy. But, as we all know, “discovery” now is largely an online thing, driven by some magical combination of “search engine optimization”, social media promotion and word-of-mouth, and online retailer merchandising.

So the model that has served publishers for a century, putting out books through a network of stores that both draw in the public and contextually position the books for them (in topical “sections” and some featured placements like windows or front tables), has been seriously eroded. What has replaced big parts of it are online purchases of books “discovered” through a variety of mostly online channels. And that’s where the Four Horsemen become so prominent.

Amazon and Apple are, along with Barnes & Noble, where most of publishers’ sales will take place. Each retailer does its own merchandising, of course. All of them will undoubtedly be increasing the variety and sophistication of its offerings, but will also have different rules and algorithms influencing how they respond to descriptive copy and metadata triggers the publishers will be providing. Understanding how this all this works at Amazon and Apple as well as publishers always did with Barnes & Noble and other brick-and-mortar retailers is a clear agenda item for all publishers. And they get it.

What some are still learning is “the fallacy of last click attribution”. (This is one of the more important nuggets of knowledge I’ve picked up in the past couple of years from my partner, Peter McCarthy, as we’ve been building our Logical Marketing business.) In a nutshell, that means that where somebody buys something is not necessarily where they made the buying decision. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber getting free shipping on your books, you go to Amazon to buy regardless of where you learned about the book. And that’s why all four horsemen are so important.

Although Google is also a retailer, a much less potent one than Amazon or Apple, Google’s importance is that it dominates search. And despite the penetration of apps on both the iOS and Android platforms (more everybody needs to understand about Apple and Google), search is still the primary way almost everybody looks for things. Google still has in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 percent of search activity (even though Microsoft’s Bing now powers AOL and Yahoo search). Many of the sales transacted on Amazon and Apple are made because of search results delivered by Google. According to the latest SimilarWeb numbers, approximately 25% of Amazon’s traffic originates as a Google search. One quarter. And Amazon is one of Google’s very largest advertisers.

Google also has an enormous impact on an author’s ability to be part of the merchandising process. Google Plus hasn’t turned out to be much of a social interaction platform, but an author’s profile there can have a big impact on how the author and his/her books rank for search. This has long been true but is not, even now, universally appreciated.

In short, Google Plus author pages are nearly as important as Amazon author pages, a fact totally independent of the traffic either of them gets.

Facebook is the only one of the Four Horsemen that doesn’t (for now, anyway) actually function as a retailer at all, but Facebook is increasingly important to book marketing. Something north of two billion people use Facebook, a billion of them every day. Nineteen percent of the world is on Facebook; forty percent of Internet users. More and more time is spent there by more and more people.

As anybody who uses it knows, Facebook makes it incredibly simple to share content or links. More and more authors and publishers are learning how to use Facebook as a marketing and advertising tool. Everybody’s there. Rule #1 of marketing: fish where the fish are.

So the transactions take place primarily at Amazon, often at Barnes & Noble (still) and Apple, and occasionally at Google. But the drivers to the transactions are Google and Facebook. (And others, of course, but none approaching the importance of those two.) How successfully publishers will sell books in the future will largely depend on how well they master the opportunities presented by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

One of the big new opportunities, beyond the scope of this piece to cover in detail but very much part of the new operating environment, is “nearly effortless global” sales. All of the Four Horsemen reach every corner of the planet. The structural barrier there is that the responsible sales operators haven’t historically had to think about many different global sales opportunities.

Another is to make better synergistic use of author relationships. What authors do on Facebook and Google Plus (and a host of other social networks) needs to become part of the publisher’s overall picture of the book and its marketing. And the structural barrier there is that the editor is too often forced to be the conduit for this coordination, a task for which they are neither prepared nor supported.

Operating through and with these behemoth companies is a big challenge for our industry. David Young, who just retired from Hachette UK, shared an observation with me when he was CEO of Hachette US a few years ago. The CEO of a big publisher in the past could always get the CEO of his or her biggest accounts on the phone if necessary. That was no longer true eight years or so ago when he made the observation, talking about Amazon. (And talking about Amazon a few years before Hachette and Amazon had a very public dispute that hurt Hachette sales very badly.)

There are two legacy accounts for publishers that remain critical to their future: Barnes & Noble, the industry’s one omni-channel wholesaler, and Ingram, which began as a book wholesaler but which has morphed into a service provider helping publishers with all sorts of modern challenges, including global distribution, print-on-demand, and now, with the acquisition of Aer.io, the ability to promote and sell through new technology Ingram and Aer.io offer. Ingram, unlike any of the other players, is helping smaller publishers with tools to enable them to punch above their weight. That is likely to be a growth proposition in the years to come.

But B&N and Ingram, just like all the publishers, will have to understand the strategies and activities of the four big companies driving change and creating a new ecosystem for the book business. They’ll also have to do it without a direct line to their CEOs. But, then, not very many publishers were able to get Andrew Carnegie on the phone 100 years ago either.

Digital Book World 2016 has a lot of programming addressing the issues raised in this piece. Professor Scott Galloway will talk about the Four Horsemen. Professor Jon Taplin of USC will analyze how revenue has moved from content creators to tech companies and suggest some ways some if it might be clawed back. Rand Fishkin, founder, former CEO (and now Wizard) of Moz and perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about search, will offer the latest insights into how search is being affected by “local” and “mobile” and then have a session to take questions.

Virginia Heffernan, author of Magic & Loss will discuss the cultural and economic impacts of the digital age for content creators.  Antitrust attorney Jonathan Kanter  will look at the relationships among book publishers, major technology players, and consumers from a competitive and regulatory perspective

Roy Kaufman of Copyright Clearance Center will moderate a panel talking about changes in copyright law, something also driven by big players affecting the publishers’ commercial environment. And we have a slew of presentations about companies “transforming” — changing how they do business in fundamental ways while maintaining the revenues that sustain them. That will include a presentation from Ingram Chairman and CEO John Ingram. And Barnes & Noble’s new Chief Digital Officer, Fred Argir, will talk about how they are building out an “omni-channel” strategy and what they can offer publishers in the way of improved digital discovery.

And there will be panel discussions of both the issues we identified as publishing opportunities: global sales and marketing collaboration with authors.

DBW 2016 takes place in New York March 7-9, 2016.

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An obituary last week reminded me of some family history we are proud of


Normally what is written here is about publishing’s present with a look to its future. An obituary notice last week recalled some personal family history about publishing’s past and shed some light on how much has changed in the past six decades. It’s publishing history from a highly personal point of view, but it seems an appropriate story with which to end the year.

Last week there were several reports, including from The New York Times and from Publishers Weekly, of the death of Charles F. Harris at the age of 81. Harris had been the founder of Armistad Press, now an imprint of HarperCollins, and was for a time the director of Howard University Press. He was very unusual, if not unique, being an African-American executive in the world of trade and university press publishing. It was noted that he began his career at Doubleday in 1956.

This brought back to me that my father, Leonard Shatzkin, had hired Harris at Doubleday back then. The obit triggered a partial memory: that Dad had hired two black men at Doubleday in the 1950s and was then told, by somebody in authority: “that’s enough, Len”. Dad died in May of 2002 and Mom, Eleanor Shatzkin, in January of 2007, so I pinged my sisters Karen and Nance to help me piece together more of the story. Turns out there was more in my memory that my sisters helped me to dig out (but memory turned out to be only a secondary authority).

I had met the second of the two hires in the 1970s. I believe that at that time he owned a printer of book jackets. I couldn’t remember his name — which was Ed Simmons — until I dug it up in a way you’ll be told in the postscript. Nance and I had some professional interaction with Harris in his Howard University Press days. Ed Simmons’s name was temporarily lost to memory, including with the one veteran of Doubleday at that time with whom I was able to check, until I found it later.

The family account had always been that, after he got the word from higher-ups to stop his personal integration movement that our Mom had to wrestle with him to cooperate so he wouldn’t lose his job. That shook loose another slightly-off memory, which was that Dad corrected that account sometime before he died. I recalled that he had defied both Mom and his bosses and did offer a third black man a position at Doubleday. “How come you didn’t lose your job, Dad?” The answer? Because the person to whom the job was offered turned it down!

Karen recalled that Dad had gotten help from the Urban League to find worthy candidates who would pass muster in as genteel (and in this case gentile as well, Len very much excepted) an environment as this major New York publisher in the 1950s.

Reflecting on this made me think a bit harder about Dad’s career. He left Doubleday in 1961 for Crowell-Collier Macmillan, a company that would have been presumably more hospitable to him since it was headed by a Jew. (Jews were vanishingly rare at Doubleday in the 1950s.) But Dad found reasons to object ethically to the Macmillan management too, and he resigned from there in 1963. He went on to McGraw-Hill in a much less exalted (and substantially lower-paid) position and was there for about five years before starting his own businesses: first a book production service and then a trade book distributor. During that same period, he quit a lucrative consulting gig in a company originally started by a mentor of his because he objected to the Board decisions of the founder’s children.

In other words, Dad wasn’t real good at working for other people.

He apparently passed that along to us. Sister Karen runs her own law firm and sister Nance runs her own consultancy doing data management in the health care business. But at least they have worked for other people, at least for a while. Since I left my Dad’s employ in 1978, I never have. Fortunately, the independent temperament we inherited from Dad and which was nurtured by both our parents was augmented by training in basic business skills that we got mostly from our mother. (She started as a physicist but then became a management consultant.)

We now live in times where we would not be told by any employer that would conceivably have us that we couldn’t hire a person of any particular color. There are other aspects of corporate and organizational life that would prevent a child of our parents from being a happy component of somebody’s larger scheme, but that particular problem is a relic of history. I’m so glad that our Dad’s courage in the 1950s gave Charlie Harris an opportunity that, with Harris’s own talent and application, turned into a remarkable career.

And, as I was finishing this post, I searched “Urban League” within my blog and found out I had told the story once before, back in April, 2009. Turns out I remembered back then the name of the second hire, Ed Simmons, so I was able to put it in here. And I also got the story straight about how I learned that Dad had hired a third person, which I left mangled in this recollection. AND I got at least part of the straight scoop on exactly how the word came down from Doubleday. This post adds some insight that the first didn’t, but I would also refer you to the original. And let this one and the gaps between them stand as testimony to how much we can forget in nearly seven years.

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Can crowd-sourced retailing give Amazon a run for its money?


Although it has always seemed sensible for publishers to sell their books (and then ebooks) directly to end users, it has never looked to me like that could be a very big business. In the online environment, your favorite “store” — the one you’re loyal to and perhaps even have an investment in patronizing (which is how I’d characterize Amazon PRIME) — is only a click away. So however you learn about a book (or anything else), it is very easy to switch over to your vendor of choice to make the purchase.

There is a concept called “the fallacy of last click attribution” that is important in digital marketing. You don’t want to assume that the place somebody bought something (the last click) was the place they decided to buy it (attribution). If you’re a marketer, you want to aim your messages where the decision gets made and you need to know if that wasn’t where the purchase was made. You learn quickly that the two are often not the same.

There are a variety of reasons why direct sales are hard for publishers. One is that their best retailer customers — Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, but many others as well — don’t like their turf encroached upon by their suppliers and they have power over their suppliers’ access to customers. They particularly don’t like it if suppliers compete on price.

But it isn’t just publishers who have trouble competing with the online book retailers and ebooks are just as hard as print. On the ebook side, many readers are comfortable with specific platforms — Kindle, Nook, Kobo — and are uncomfortable “side-loading” content into them. And when you get away from the owner of an ecosystem, the complications created by the perceived need for DRM — some ability to either lock up or identify the owner of content that might be “shared” beyond what its license (which is what a purchase of ebooks is) allows — makes things even more complicated.

Because it appears so superficially simple to transact with trusted customers, attempts to enable book and ebook sales by a wide variety of vendors are nearly as old as Amazon itself. In fact, Amazon began life in 1995 leaning almost entirely on Ingram to supply its product and began discounting in earnest when Ingram started to extend the same capability to other retailers through a division called I2S2 (Ingram Internet Support Services) in the late 1990s. The aggressive discounting by Amazon quickly and effectively scared off the terrestrial retailers who might have considered going into online sales.

When one company, a UK-based retailer called The Book Depository, organized itself to fulfill print books efficiently enough to be a potential competitor, Amazon bought them. Nobody else ever really came close. Borders didn’t try, initially turning over its online presence to Amazon. Barnes & Noble partnered with Bertelsmann in the 1990s to create Books Online, which has continued (to this day) as BN.com. But they have not (to date) managed to achieve a synergistic interaction with the stores to give themselves a unique selling proposition. And the Amazon discounting strategy, designed to suck sales away from terrestrial retailers and partly supported by Amazon’s reach well beyond books, was never a comfortable fit for BN. As a result, Amazon has never been threatened as the online bookselling king.

Barnes & Noble dominates physical retail for books; Amazon owns online. One channel is shrinking; the other is growing.

Trying to do retail for print books without a substantial infrastructure is just about impossible, but ebooks are tempting because, at least superficially, those challenges appear to be much smaller. That may have been behind the attempt by three publishers — Penguin (before the Random House merger), Hachette, and Simon & Schuster — to launch Bookish a few years ago. By the time it opened, Bookish was touted as a “recommendation engine”, but its true purpose when it was started was to give its owning publishers a way to reach online consumers in case of an impasse with Amazon. They get points for predicting the impasse, which Hachette famously suffered from during ebook contract negotiations with Amazon in 2014. But the solution wasn’t a solution. Bookish never had the juice to build up a real customer base and probably never could have, regardless of how much its owners would have been willing to invest.

There are currently two noteworthy players in the market enabling any player with a web presence to have an ebookstore selling everybody’s titles. One is Zola Books, which started out two or three years ago promoting itself as a new kind of web bookstore. They were going to let anybody create their own curated collection of books and profit from their curation. And they were going to host unique content from brand name writers that wouldn’t be available anywhere else. It didn’t work, and now Zola, having acquired much of the defunct Bookish’s tech, is trying to be an enabler of online ebookstores for anybody who wants one.

That same idea is the proposition of Hummingbird, an initiative from American West Books, a California-based wholesaler that provides books to leading mass merchants. They have created technology to enable anybody with a web presence to sell ebooks. The company told us that their internal projections suggest that they can capture 3% of the US ebook market in 24 months from their imminent launch. They promise an impressive array of resellers, ranging from major big box retailers (many of which are their customers for books) to major publishers themselves.

There are others in the space, providing white label platforms and other direct sales solutions, including Bookshout, Enthrill, Bluefire, and Impelsys. And there are distributors, etc. who support their clients’ D2C efforts — Firebrand, Donnelly/LibreDigital, Demarque.

Then, yesterday (Tuesday) morning, Ingram announced that they have acquired Aer.io, a technology firm based in San Francisco headed by Ron Martinez. The Ingram-Aer.io combination will probably motivate the owners of Zola and Hummingbird to rethink their strategies. It is motivating me to reconsider whether, indeed, a large number of Net points of purchase for books could change the nature of the marketplace.

Disclosure is appropriate here. Ingram has been a consulting client of ours for many years. In that role, I introduced them to Aerbook, the predecessor to Aer.io, two or three years ago and I knew that Ingram had invested in it. But I didn’t know about the integration the two were working on until literally moments before they announced the merger on Tuesday. It is extremely powerful.

What Martinez and Ingram have built with a simple, elegant set of tools is the ability for anybody — you, me, a bookstore, a charity, a school, an author — to build its own branded and curated content store. You can “stock” it with any items you want from the millions of books and other content items Ingram offers. You can set any prices you want, working with a normal retail margin and paying “by the drink” for the services you need, namely management of the transaction and fulfillment. And while there is certainly “effort” involved in building your selection and merchandising, there are no up-front or recurring charges to discourage anybody from getting into the game.

One of our observations in the past couple of years has been that Amazon’s competitive set is limited because most of their ebook competitors don’t sell print books. It seemed to me that the one chance to restrain their growth — and every publisher and bookseller that is not Amazon would like to do that — was for Google to get serious about promoting and selling print as well as ebooks. But that won’t happen. Google is a digital company and they’re interested in doing all they can with digital media. They don’t want to deal with physical, even — as I suggested — doing it by having Ingram do the heavy lifting.

Whether any publishers or booksellers or other merchants or entities can build a big-and-profitable business selling books using the Aer.io tool remains to be seen. But it would seem that many can build a small-and-not-unprofitable sideline to their current activities and it would be one that would underscore their knowledge, promote their brand, and provide real value to their site visitors and other stakeholders. Thousands of these businesses could be consequential; millions could be game-changing. How many will there be? That’s impossible for me to predict, but the Aer.io proposition is totally scaleable, so the answer depends entirely on how enticing it is for various entities with web traffic and brands to have a bookstore.

And, depending on the uptake here, there will be some strategic conversations taking place around this at Amazon as well. When they have a handful of competitors selling print and ebooks, as they have, price-matching (or price-undercutting) can be an effective, and targeted, strategy. But how do you implement that when there are thousands of competitors, some of which are discounting any particular title and many of which are not? And does the customer care if they’re paying a couple bucks more to buy the book “directly” from their favorite author, particularly if the author offers a hand-signed thank-you note will be sent (separately, of course) to acknowledge every purchase?

How this will play out is something to watch over the next few years but there is at least the potential here for a real change in the game.

We already had John Ingram, Chairman and CEO of the Ingram Content Group slotted as a keynote speaker for Digital Book World 2016 to talk about one of our main themes: “transformation”. More than half of Ingram’s revenues come from businesses they weren’t in 10 years ago. We’ll see how things look as they start to roll out Aer.io, but it would seem likely Aer.io would be an appropriate add to the program as well.

If you haven’t signed up yet for DBW (which runs March 7-9), the Publishers Lunch code gets you the lowest price.

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It is being proven that smaller bookstores can work commercially


Sometimes it takes a decade or more for an insight to be validated, but it is always nice when it happens.

Around the turn of the century, I was developing a business called “Supply Chain Tracker”, which had a nice client base for a few years. What we did was take the data feeds — Excel spreadsheets — provided by publishers’ major accounts and find the nuggets of insight within them that enabled better inventory decisions.

This followed the logic of one of Shatzkin’s Laws, which in this case is “every spreadsheet is one calculation short of useful”. We added some calculations to make meaningful metrics out of raw data. For B&N’s spreadsheets reporting inventory and sales activity to publishers, two of these were calculating the “percentage of store inventory sold” from the “on hand” and “sales this week” columns and “the percentage of total stock in the warehouse” derived from “on-hand in the stores” and “on-hand in the warehouse”.

My first client for this work was Sterling in the final year that they were independently owned before they were bought by B&N, which still owns them. When we showed our first prototype of a Supply Chain Tracker report to Sterling, we sorted by “the percentage of total stock in the warehouse” and two books popped to the top: 5000 copies with 100 percent in the warehouse! When Sterling’s then-Sales VP (later CEO) Charles Nurnberg saw that he said, “those books have been there since October!” This analysis was taking place the following February.

It turns out that B&N at the time had no systematic check of this metric in their workflow. If a B&N buyer bought five thousand copies and didn’t order a “store distribution”, the books would go into the warehouse and just sit there. It was a hole in their system. And since publishers tended to eyeball the spreadsheets in order of “sales”, looking for books that needed to be replenished, they just never caught this.

When Sterling showed the problem to the responsible execs at B&N, it bolstered the view of one of them that having the publishers intelligently reviewing inventory was useful support for the chain’s buying activity. They became supporters of our Supply Chain Tracker reporting (which we then extended to other accounts: Borders, Books-A-Million, Amazon, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor). But Barnes & Noble was everybody’s biggest account at the time and they offered the most robust reporting, so they were the primary focus of our work.

Let’s recall that the early years of this century were still the years of superstore expansion. B&N and Borders were proudly featuring stores that had 120,000 titles or more. It was precisely because they stocked so many titles and that the great majority of them turned very slowly that they wanted the additional publisher help in inventory tracking, particularly further down the sales ranks. And no publishers seemed more logical candidates for that help than university presses. B&N wanted to stock them more heavily, but their books were predominantly in the slow-turning majority. Distinguishing the books that would sell a copy or two in a store versus the ones that wouldn’t demanded the deep title knowledge of the publisher combined with the insight of well-structured reporting. Our work seemed to fit, so B&N subsidized our relatively expensive engagements providing our reports and tutorials on how to use them to university presses.

What we found as we started analyzing, though, was disappointing and initially surprising to all of us. But, as we thought about it, it was intuitively logical.

The university press titles had effectively stopped selling, even in B&N stores that were near university campuses. Why? Those sales had all moved to Amazon, which, at the time, was barely more than five years old. This first struck us all as disappointing and surprising. But, then, think about it…

The university professor would hear about a book. S/he’d go down to the local bookshop — could be a B&N or another store, didn’t matter — and look for the book. It would almost always not be there. So s/he’d “special order” it and wait for it. It didn’t take long for this to become an expectation, so ordering online became a very sensible default behavior. By 2002 and 2003, when we were doing this work, the battle to sell the obscure book to an audience that knew it was there and wanted it through a brick-and-mortar store was already lost. When you thought about this, it was intuitive, even though none of us anticipated it when we started doing the work.

Cambridge University Press at the time had a sales representative (since deceased) named Steve Clark. He was one of my most engaged B&N-subsidized clients. As we were doing this work and analysis, Clark told me that Amazon was already a bigger account for CUP than all other US retail outlets combined! That was a “wow”. But it underscored the degree to which Amazon had captured market share from the stores on hard-to-find books.

B&N still operated smaller stores that had been in the B. Dalton chain and Borders had a similar chain called Waldenbooks. While B&N and Borders were building out the 100,000-plus title stores, their mostly-mall chains were 20,000 and 30,000 title stores. They were in the process of shutting them down as leases expired.

With full knowledge of the strategy that governed their activity in those days, I said to my principal contact at B&N, “you guys should be figuring out how to use your infrastructure to make the twenty-thousand title store work”. He said to me, “Mike, we’re thinking about the million title store!” In other words, there was no appetite to take on board what we had all just learned to make a big change to the overall strategy. They had fully absorbed and couldn’t rapidly unlearn the lesson first discovered by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, when he was running Brentano’s in the 1960s: a big selection of books is a huge magnet for customers.

Unfortunately, Amazon had already changed that reality in a few short years after their inception. The huge selection was not as powerful a magnet as the online marketplace when the customer knew exactly what they wanted, particularly if it wasn’t a bestseller.

Now, flash forward to the present day. I’ve been fishing for lessons from retailers around the world that might constitute useful insight for the Digital Book World audience. My friend Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners suggested I talk to Anna Borne Minberger, the CEO of the Pocket Shop chain of stores, owned by the Swedish publisher, Bonniers. I got to meet Minberger for a conversation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the last fortnight.

And, lo and behold, Pocket Shop has taken the suggestion I made to Barnes & Noble well over a decade ago and made it work at an extreme I didn’t imagine. Their tiny bookstores stock only about TWO thousand titles, but they are a thriving chain in Sweden and Finland now expanding into Germany. Their formula is a very small title selection placed in very-high-traffic locations (of particular interest here in New York City where both our main railroad stations are losing somewhat larger bookstores) with highly knowledgeable and helpful staff. I didn’t get into the details of buying, inventory management, and centralized infrastructure support in our Frankfurt conversation.

But, near as I can tell, Barnes & Noble still needs a solution to grow their book business; the strategy today only seems to be about how to profitably manage shrinking it. Particularly if it continues to work in Germany, a market (unlike Sweden and Finland) where online buying is strong and Amazon is a real presence in the market, one would think that the Pocket Shop formula would be even more effective if supported by the B&N infrastructure and branding in the United States. Of course, making a strategic shift of this nature is probably a heavier lift for B&N now than it would have been when I first suggested it many years ago.

But I don’t discern any other strategy that leads to growth in what B&N is doing now. If they don’t try copying Pocket Shops strategy in the US, maybe somebody else will. One could execute on this leaning on Ingram’s infrastructure rather than creating one’s own supply chain. Who knows? Maybe even Pocket Shops themselves would like to give it a try.

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The big global publishers are integrating across both territories and languages


Since I posted this two days ago, one of the Big Five CEOs pointed out some things I missed that are important. These are addressed in a post-script at the bottom. Subscribers to the blog would have received the original post without the “correction”. My apologies.

The announcement this week that John Sargent has apparently moved up another notch in the global Holtzbrinck hierarchy reminds us that the cross-border and now cross-language integration of the publishing giants, a very complex undertaking, continues to develop. Sargent was already the global “trade” head for the company, which suggested that integration of the publishing strategy and operations across Macmillan (Holtzbrinck’s trade division) companies was already an important priority. Now he is EVP of the entire global entity.

This follows an announcement a few months ago by HarperCollins that it was appointing digital head Chantal Restivo-Alessi to be EVP, International, to oversee the publishing through Harper’s growing foreign language capabilities.

Until very recently, just publishing simultaneously in a coordinated way across English language companies located in different countries was a seldom-attempted challenge. HarperCollins and Holtzbrinck seem to be shooting right past that hurdle and are setting themselves up to publish in multiple languages in a coordinated way, which is a much heavier lift.

The publishers who are doing this are seeing at least two things that motivate them.

One is that selling books is considerably more profitable for publishers than selling rights. This fact has been behind the creation of the global trade publishing behemoths in the English language. Until things began to change in the 1970s, there really were no trans-national book publishing companies. Since then, acquisitions have given us five big global trade book publishing houses. The only American-owned one, Simon & Schuster, and the French-owned one, Hachette, seem to have the least integrated global English trade presences. Simon & Schuster just has less in the way of foreign-based assets. Both Hachette and Penguin Random House have a federated structure by which the local companies report up to the parent, not to a global trade head. Macmillan and HarperCollins have both been more aggressive about integrating their international English publishing efforts.

And now both of them appear to be interested in extending that integration beyond their English-language companies.

The logic behind this kind of integration is both clear and unassailable. In the Internet age, as we’ve seen for a long time, there really is no such thing as “local” publication anymore. Anything announced anywhere is heard everywhere. And it actually requires active controls to stop anything that is available anywhere from also being available everywhere. Because English is so widely known beyond native English-speakers, the English language editions of new high-profile books sell in many countries for which the first language is not English. This has become a new factor in placing non-English rights.

Until the Internet really “arrived” two decades ago, the rights-trading activity could take time and it didn’t matter, even within the English-speaking world. I remember about 20 years ago when my friend George Gibson discovered the bestseller phenomenon “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. He published it in the US and it became a big bestseller. But even though it was a story that took place in England, it took him a year or more to make a sale to a UK-based publisher. (When he did, “Longitude” went on to one of the longest-runs of all time on the UK bestseller lists.)

A story like that would be very unlikely today. Gibson owned those rights to sell. The chances are the search traffic numbers alone would have accelerated the process of finding a buyer. Or else the US publisher, even a tiny one like Walker, where Gibson was at the time, would have released the ebook for global distribution and made some sort of deal for print to be made available as well.

Because the marketing of each and every book starts with the enthusiasm of an acquiring editor, and because each new deal an agent can negotiate is a new opportunity to get a publisher to overpay, both agents and publishers were comfortable with the process as it has always been. Relatively few of the high-profile agented books are even sold for “world English”, let alone with rights beyond the English language. Just like publishers’ value is directly related to the number of accounts through which they find customers for a book, an agent’s value is directly related to the number of deals they can make for each property.

If an author can get the reach they need through Amazon alone, then it is hard to accept a royalty from a publisher of a third or less of what Amazon will pay directly. Amazon, the publishers, and the author community are all very aware of this. It is one of the two main reasons why publishers try so hard to shift share away from Amazon. (The other, of course, is that the bigger Amazon’s share of the market, the more leverage it gives them to push for a bigger share of each sale.)

And if we see a trend where one publishing deal gets an author just about all their revenue, it will also be harder for authors to accept paying a full 15 percent agent’s commission to get it, particularly once the author becomes a global brand. (And the big brand authors are precisely the ones whose books will benefit the most from a coordinated global publishing effort.)

The structural impediments to publishing this way are not trivial. It will be a very long time — not in the working careers of any of today’s executives — before coordinated global publishing is important for any but the biggest books on the list. Most titles that each of the local companies puts out will be territorially constrained, as they have always been.

But it will, indeed, be the biggest ones — probably fewer than five percent of the titles that could earn half the revenue — that the coordinated efforts will affect. These are the books that every big global house needs to sustain itself.

Nielsen, through its Books & Consumer data service, is able to create individual author profiles for approximately 350 authors: those with substantial enough sales to enable digging down into the demographics of their book buyers and getting useful information with granularity. I’d guess those profiles will make popular reading as the publishers develop their global capability, particularly since Nielsen is also tracking across both countries and languages. And those 350 authors are almost certainly among the 500 top candidates for this type of treatment.

Sargent and Restivo-Alessi are blazing a new trail. Integration of publishing efforts this way will affect advances, royalties, workflows, and marketing strategies. They will effectively create “new propositions” to put in front of the biggest authors in the world. Penguin Random House and Hachette, because of their internal structures and S&S, because of its relative US-centricity, will be challenged to keep up. (Until their internal structures change, of course, or until they make some other adjustment. Which they will.)

Agents for the biggest authors in the world will be hearing the new pitch. On the one hand, they’ll be looking at opportunities to do record-breaking contracts. On the other hand, they’ll be doing what used to be two, three, four, or more deals in one and, in the long run, probably making at least some of their authors wonder whether they should have to pay that same hefty commission the next time around. When an author in this category asks for a fee reduction to continue the relationship, I suspect that most of the time, they’ll get it.

Of course, working in multiple languages and territories is something Amazon can also do very well. But they will probably stay out of this competition, at least at the beginning, because it will be a high-advance environment and Amazon has shown no taste for that as a strategy.

Nonetheless, the signs are that the ecosystem at the top of the commercial pyramid is going to have some new distinguishing characteristics. It has been noted many times in many places by many people that the economy the Internet creates favors the winners and exacerbates power law distribution. This is about to become another example.

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And now the postscript.

In fact, the “structural” differences are not as dramatic as the post describes them, although there are differences and, indeed, HarperCollins and Macmillan are best-positioned to offer and execute on global multi-language and multi-territory deals than the others.

Markus Dohle is the CEO of Penguin Random House. He has the same “authority” as Murray and Sargent do. But Random House has always been highly “federated”, with a lot of power in the imprints. That makes coordination across territories that much more challenging, as does the fact that PRH is twice the size of HarperCollins and six times the size of the other three. Being of a “certain” size is necessary to make global publishing possible, but the larger you are beyond the minimum required, the harder is coordination. It could even be that smaller global publishers — there aren’t many, but Quarto is one example and Bloomsbury another — could execute on this concept even better than the Big Five. On the other hand, smaller publishers won’t compete for the massive books like those of the 350 authors that Nielsen tracks.

In Hachette’s case, Arnaud Nourry in France holds a position above all the companies as well. All the English-language Hachette publishers report to him, as well as others. But since the biggest books have their biggest share of sales in English, and because Hachette too has given great autonomy to the local companies, it is still likely that they would find it difficult to engineer the kind of coordination we’d expect to see from Harper and Macmillan in the relatively near future.

And, finally, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster is also a global head, but the company doesn’t have nearly the resources across languages and countries that the other four do.

Since I’m adding this post-script, I will also report that a couple of significant agents pushed back at me on Twitter, saying that they were very skeptical of the potential for big company coordinated synergy across the world. They’re saying they’ll be hard to convince. But, then, so did the original piece.

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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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