Merchandising ebooks is a problem not really solved yet

I have always been in the process of reading at least one book since I was about 8 years old. When I was a little kid, I’d find them in the house (Dad was in publishing) or at the library in my home village of Croton-on-Hudson or in the school library. Sometimes extraordinary measures delivered a lot of reading material. On the fourth to the last day of second grade, I got the chicken pox and was in bed for a couple of weeks. I had already developed an affinity for a Random House series of children’s books on American history called Landmark Books, which are still available. Dad knew the person at the printer responsible for the Random House account and a box of 40 of them arrived the day after I was diagnosed and was completely read through by the time I was back on my feet.

When I was in junior high school, I found that a big drug store in the retail space at 42nd and Vanderbilt in Grand Central Station had a massive selection of mass-market paperbacks and that became a shopping destination for me for a while.

As an adult, the shopping and discovery moved to bookstores. And although I did occasionally get my ideas of what to read next from book reviews or friends’ recommendations, usually I just shopped. I would go browse American history or biography or sports (baseball always had its own shelves within sports).

It never took me much time to find what I wanted to read next until I started reading ebooks.

In the pre-Kindle ebook era, I was a captive of the Palm Digital store, because I read on a Palm and their commercial approach was to not allow other retailers to sell their format. The choices were limited because the publishers before the arrival of Kindle were reluctant to make the investments required to deliver ebooks to me and the four other people who read them at the time. That changed immediately when Kindle arrived and, because of Kindle and the other major formats that have hit the marketplace since then, the choices are robust. Just about every new book I’d want to read is available for my device of choice (the iPhone) and the digitization of the backlist just carries on going deeper and deeper into publishers’ repositories.

But the merchandising, at least for somebody who shops on the iPhone (it’s a bit better through the ereading devices or PCs), leaves a lot to be desired. My shopping experiences are actually a bit of a random walk. I ask my ebook retailer to show me books by category and, since my categories don’t change much (and haven’t since I was a kid) I tend to see the same books over and over again, far too many of which I have already read (perhaps in somebody else’s format.)

A short time ago I was shopping for my next read on the iPhone. I started out shopping with Kindle and then Nook and a few minutes on each of their mobile sites didn’t turn up anything that moved me. Then at Google Ebooks I found “Making of the President 1968” by Theodore White. That was definitely one I wanted to read. I bought it and I’m in the middle of it.

There is no particular guarantee that I’ll find my next book on Google. I haven’t found any clear pattern yet among the four stores I shop regularly (Kobo being the fourth). Obviously, if I know I want to read another James Patterson or John Locke thriller, any of them would deliver it to me quickly and painlessly in response to a search. It is when I am hunting by subject that the search returns seem to be pot luck. I’m probably not making it any easier on the retailers by spreading my shopping around; if any of them actually did have a good engine to take my purchasing and reading profile and make the next great recommendation, I’d be screwing it up by spreading around my data.

All of this underscores how difficult is the challenge being faced by Bookish in the US and aNobii in the UK, two “find what to read next” sites financed by major publishers. And they join a long line of sites that have tried to build recommendations and community conversation around what people are reading: Goodreads, Shelfari, Library Thing, and the new ebook platform, Copia.

It happens that our office is now going through the exercise of placing the book of “The Shatzkin Files” on platforms other than its originator, Kobo. (Kobo’s 60-day exclusive is about up.) When we encountered a limit of seven keywords in loading process for Kindle, I inquired about it. Why limit this, I wondered?

I got a good answer when I asked. It turns out that any author or publisher’s inclination would be to put in lots and lots of keywords. That was my intention. I was going to take every keyword from every post and put it in for the book. But, on reflection, as my friend at Amazon pointed out, that really wouldn’t be helpful to the reader who was searching. The fact that one blog post is about a holocaust survivor doesn’t mean that somebody searching under that topic would want my book, of which more than 99% is about things totally unrelated.

It turns out that Amazon uses algorithms created by full text searching to enhance what they can deliver in response to searches in ways that the publisher and author would not necessarily think about when creating metadata. As an example, he pointed to a book that you’ll discover on Amazon if you search  for “erasure coding”, a term of art that might very well not have been included by any author or publisher inserting keywords but which their more sophisticated methods enable you to use for discovery.

My friend at Amazon didn’t say this, and maybe I’m reading too much into what they do, but it almost seems like the keywords we put in could be superfluous and the capabilities they have through full-text analysis and algorithms actually govern what is discovered. Of course, if the solicitation of keywords from authors and publishers is a placebo, that’s not something I’d expect them to reveal.

I was just looking for “American history” when I found “Making of the President 1968” on Google (and didn’t find it anyplace else in the time I allotted to look.) So Amazon’s sophisticated capabilities didn’t deliver it to me and now their engine doesn’t know that this was a book I wanted because I bought it someplace else.

But I’m really glad I found this book, which was probably pretty recently made available in ebook form. I was active in that campaign and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where I was Pierre Salinger’s assistant on the first McGovern campaign. (George McGovern declared late to give the Bobby Kennedy supporters who couldn’t abide Gene McCarthy a place to go. I had been one of those; I left the Ambassador Hotel an hour before Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968 because the security was tight and I couldn’t get into the party. Ironic.) The author of the Making of the President books, Theodore White, was a friend of Salinger’s and I met him at the convention. But I’m saving the stories of that campaign for another post on another day.


A debate across panels is coming at our London show on June 21

It looks like we’re going to have a bit of an unintended debate stretching across several of our panels at the Publishers Launch show in London. Since I’m the guy who put the show together, I can speak with authority to the fact that it was really unintended. But I consider it serendipitous and proof of Branch Rickey’s axiom that “luck is the residue of design”.

I first started probing the question of new business models for agents two years ago when I was organizing the first Digital Book World conference. I had been asked by F+W Media to create a program that would be (in their words) “more practical” than they found Tools of Change to be. I was in partnership with O’Reilly at that time working on a “StartWithXML” show to take place in London. I wasn’t really looking for a reason to compete with them; we were collaborators.

But as I thought about what they did (which I like) and what I might do, I realized that our approaches would be different and our shows would be different. In my mind, the clearest delineation of the difference was that I put agents squarely into the middle of our show planning. This move is a bit counterintuitive in the conference business since agents have never been big ticket-buyers for the industry’s digital education events. But I thought then — and events have subsequently confirmed — that agents were key actors in the digital transition. You can explore the tech challenges of digital change without them, but you can’t really think about the changing economics of trade publishing without bringing them into the conversation.

What seemed logical then — also confirmed by subsequent events — is that agents might become ebook publishers. This had actually happened a decade before, when agent Richard Curtis set up his E-Reads business at a time when most publishers just wouldn’t do ebooks for most titles, if at all. Richard had run into political problems with the agents’ association (AAR) which I believe he headed at the time. They have a code of ethics which could be interpreted to prohibit an agent-publisher such as he had become. In fact, I was a bit surprised (but definitely sensitized and enlightened) when a good friend of mine who is a successful and highly ethical agent told me she couldn’t possibly participate in a conversation that might be seen to endorse the idea of agents becoming publishers.

We put together a panel on “new models” for agents at DBW 2010. We repeated it last year (even though there’s a natural reluctance to repeat things year to year), and we surely are going to include the topic at DBW 2012 next January.

And that brings us to what is going to happen in London on June 21.

We have four prominent agents speaking on different panels on the program. At least three of them are likely to renew the conversation about whether an agent can become a publisher and still be a credible representative for an author.

One of the panels I’m most looking forward to on that day is called “An Emerging Opportunity: Selling into the US”. Charlie Campbell, an agent at Ed Victor Ltd., will participate on that one. We wanted Charlie on the panel based on a conversation we had with him a few months ago about the possibilities he saw for his office’s clients to capture sales in the US through ebooks. When Victor’s office announced the creation of a new publishing operation to handle their own authors’ books, our interest heightened. So Charlie will be explaining how that publishing operation will work and how it benefits the authors in their stable within the context of capturing US sales from a UK or Ireland base. His fellow panelists will be publishers.

Our last panel of the day has Michael Cader and me interviewing four leading luminaries of UK publishing. Three of them are publishers, but the fourth is the agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown is frequently rumored to be about to start an operation similar to what Victor has announced. (In the US, by the way, agent Scott Waxman — a member of the DBW Conference Council and one of the original participants in our conversations about this — has created a publishing adjunct to his business called Diversion.) Our focus in that panel was not intended to be on the ethics of agents starting publishing companies, but now I think the topic is likely to arise.

Why? Because a third agent on the program that day, Peter Cox of Redhammer, has placed it front and center with a post he published yesterday called “Your Agent Should Not Be Your Publisher”. Peter is on a panel about “Innovation in Marketing and Business Practice.” He caught our attention because he’s been training his authors in digital marketing for years and because he told us he was thinking that the agent’s model had to change to handle fewer clients for a higher-than-standard percentage of the revenue. We didn’t ask Peter at the time how he felt about agents becoming publishers.

It turns out he is very firmly against it and is very clear and articulate about why he thinks that. The moderator of that panel is Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association. I’m sure his membership will very much want him to invite Cox to expand on his ideas. Cox’s panel takes place after Campbell’s but before Geller’s. The juxtaposition of the commentary across the panels will probably be of great interest to the audience and should make for some very interesting tweeting. Maybe we’ll need a special hashtag just for #agentsaspubs!

It was the fourth agent on the program that we thought was going to have the trickiest assignment. David Miller of Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd. will be discussing “Territorial Rights and Open Markets” with Richard Charkin and Toby Mundy. Since the future of both practices depends very largely on what agents will agree to as the publishing landscape changes, I had thought David had the most politically challenging conversation of the group. It turns out that he’s excused from what will certainly be one of the most controversial aspects of the day’s discussions, although in our very open format, everybody’s free to say pretty much what they want. Perhaps Philip Jones, the moderator of that panel, will want to touch on this question with his panel as well.

It might be that at Publishers Launch Frankfurt we’ll stage this more directly as a debate (but that’s a crowded program and it might be hard to fit it in). You can bet it will be aired thoroughly at Digital Book World next January. And you can be pretty damn sure we’ll be generating some news on this topic (and others too, I’m sure) out of “A Global View of Digital Change”. If you’re in (London) town on June 21, you ought to be there.


Technology, curation, and why the era of big bookstores is coming to an end

I stumbled across a Sarah Weinman post from a few months ago that posits the notion that the chain bookstore (by which it would appear she means the superstores of the past 20 years, not the chain bookstores in malls that grew up in the prior 20 years) perhaps had a natural life cycle which is now coming to an end. She points out that the investment by Wall Street in the concept of massive destination bookstores enabled their creation, but ultimately resulted in great excess: too many stores with too many square feet to fill and too many books in them that don’t sell.

This is a really good and thoughtful post and I think the observation that the availability of capital built the excess which is now partly responsible for dragging down the structure is correct. But it triggered some additional thoughts that make me want to again trace the history (which I believe has called for smaller bookstores for several years) from before the 1990s when Sarah’s post picks it up and to look at bookstore history through the lens of tech development, which I think both enabled the massive bookstores and is now bringing about their demise.

The core challenge of bookselling — in the past, present, and future, online and in stores, for printed books or digital ones — is curation. How does the bookseller help the reader sort through all of the possible reading choices, of which there are, literally, millions, to find the reader’s next purchase?

In a shop, that curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

In the period right after World War II, there was virtually no technology to help booksellers with curation at all. Sales reps would call (or not) and show catalogs of forthcoming books from which the bookseller would order. There were hundreds of publishers any full-line bookstore would have to do business with. But there weren’t very many full-line bookstores then. Departments stores and small regional chains (Burrows Brothers in Cleveland, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago) were the principal accounts.

Frankly, what was stocked in most stores then had a huge randomness component. This was the world my father, Leonard Shazkin, encountered when he became Director of Research at Doubleday in 1954 and, a few years later, created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. By offering the service of tracking the sales in stores, using reps to take physical inventories in the days before computers could track it, Doubleday took the order book out of the bookstore’s hands for the reordering of Doubleday backlist titles. That solved the problem of breaching the first line of curation. And the reps, now freed of the enormously time-consuming task of selling the buyer on backlist reorders title by title, had more time to affect the second and third lines of curation: the display of the books in the stores and the knowledge the store personnel had about Doubleday books. Sales of Doubleday books exploded, approximately quadrupling for the backlist.

In the early 1960s, Len saw the impact of increased selection from the bookstore’s side of the table. He had moved from Doubleday to Crowell-Collier/Macmillan, which owned the Brentano’s chain. He was put in charge. At first, Brentano’s weakest store was its outlet in Short Hills, New Jersey. They doubled the selection of books and, almost instantly, Short Hills became the best-performing store in the chain.

It took until the late 1960s, when shopping centers were springing up across the country, for the first two national book chains, Walden and B. Dalton, to develop and become a serious force in the industry. And in the early 1970s, Ingram and Baker & Taylor became the first national book wholesalers to cover the country with a wide selection of titles. Dalton and Ingram became industry leaders and both were boosted by technology breakthroughs.

Dalton installed smart cash registers that enabled them to key in a number for each book, telling them what had sold. They didn’t use ISBNs, which were in their infancy; Dalton assigned their own SKU (stock-keeping unit) numbers which were stickered onto the books. The system was far from perfect, but it was revolutionary. For the first time, a bookseller and its publisher suppliers knew some real sales data in a timely fashion (Dalton’s numbers were tallied weekly). And the system also enabled Dalton to keep books that were selling in stock through automated means as well.

Ingram was the first wholesaler to employ microfiche technology to tell booksellers what was available right now in their warehouse. The weekly microfiches were, of course, primitive signals of availability compared to today’s instantaneous online capabilities, but this was also a revolutionary breakthrough. It enabled rapid resupply for all stores, including the chains, of the books they sold each day..

In the late 1970s, scanning technology had developed so that the Dalton key-in-the-SKU system could be leapfrogged by Walden using ISBNs at the register, which could often be scanned into the computer record. Also being developed at that time were various methods for automated order processing between publishers and their customers. By the middle of the 1980s, just before the period when Sarah’s narrative begins, bookstores were growing rapidly. The cost of putting the books on the shelves was dropping in relation to sales and the ability to put the right books on the shelves at the right time was enhanced for everybody. Good curation became much cheaper and much easier and, not surprisingly, sales of books grew dramatically.

Paradoxically, the decline of mass-market paperback distribution created new opportunities for the biggest publishers in hardcover. Mass-market grew on the illusory efficiency of forced distribution. For the first two decades after World War II, the rack-sized paperbacks would show up in the pockets at your local drug store or five and dime without a local buyer having to make a selection. That, combined with a much smaller share of margin going to the retailer, paid for the inherent inefficiencies of ham-handed curation. (And, let’s remember, only the covers had to be sent back for “returns”.)

But as paperbacks became more important and more mainstream, the biggest customers of the local wholesalers who racked them wanted better margins and more control. And the sales volumes had built to the point that many of them could now afford a buyer to deal directly with a number of mass market publishers, so the best accounts started shifting to direct. This weakened the original distribution network, but it opened up the opportunity for publishers to put books other than the rack-sized paperbacks into what had been rack-only accounts.

The first probes with larger trade paperbacks were with romance authors like Rosemary Rogers. The mass channels were more comfortable trying an experiment with format and price with authors they already knew.

The first great exploitation of mass distribution for what was really a trade book was by Peter Mayer (the boss) and Bill Shinker (the marketer) at Avon with the book “The People’s Pharmacy” in about 1975. Avon, a paperback house that published a lot of romance titles, had been one of the pioneers putting the larger books into the mass channel.

Bantam then used the technique for hardcovers, again starting with authors the mass channel already knew like Louis L’Amour and Clive Cussler, before hitting a massive all-channels mass-market home run with “Iacocca” in 1985. (And thanks to Jack Romanos, who was running things there then, for helping me get my recollections straight.)

The increased efficiency of distribution through technology and disintermediation in turn enabled discounting. Crown Books built a chain in the 1980s which mostly sold remainders and bargain books but carried a good selection of current titles with bestsellers deeply discounted. This fueled a further increase in unit sales.

Meanwhile, independent bookstores beginning to use primitive computerized inventory management systems were proving repeatedly what Brentano’s had demonstrated to Len Shatzkin in 1963: a big selection of books attracts a very substantial clientele. So technologically-driven efficiency lent a hand to delivering a more attractive selection (curation) by making it a bigger selection.

And in the late 1980s, these two things — the Crown discounting attraction and the independents large selection attraction — were combined by entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, who created a store called Bookstop that provided both. Bookstop became the prototype “super” bookstore and, before long, Wall Street money was financing Barnes & Noble (which had bought Dalton) and Borders (which had bought Walden) to roll out these bookselling behemoths nationwide.

Which is where Sarah’s post kicks in. But in the context of what came before, I’d add one element she didn’t to the analytical mix. It created a paradigm shift in curation using technology. It’s called Amazon dot com.

While even the largest bookstore had shelf space limiting its title selection, Amazon did not. Through good luck (licensing the Baker & Taylor database which contained a lot of out-of-print titles), good thinking (providing a clear “promise date” for the available books and assisting people’s search efforts by telling them explicitly if a book was not available), and brilliant execution (Amazon’s hallmark from its first moment until the present day), Amazon completely shifted the psychology of book shopping.

Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.

I first saw what is clearly the impact of this through some work I did with Barnes & Noble sales data for university presses about a decade ago. In the recent years before that work, starting in the late 1990s, Barnes & Noble had tried to expand its selection of university press titles. This was applying a time-honored understanding of curation to improve the store selection.

But the results were beyond disappointing. Sales were not rising for the university presses; returns were. What became increasingly clear was that professors, the biggest market for university press books, were a leading edge demographic shifting their buying online. Makes sense, really, considering that they were often finding out about the books they wanted to order through something that had occurred online!

It was at that time — about 2002 or 2003 — that the late Steve Clark, then sales rep for Cambridge University Press and one of the publishers I was working with, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for his company than all other US retailers combined.

This was a big “aha” for me. I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.

And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.

Of course, massive selection is only the first aspect of curation and the other parts are not nearly so well done online. Or, at least, they haven’t been yet. This is a major conundrum for the industry as bookstores fade and it’s the reason three big publishers have financed the startup Bookish. The stores depend on the publishers’ metadata to do this work and the publishers’ depend on the stores’ systems and merchandising creativity. Perhaps partly because the necessary collaboration hasn’t occurred, an effective online equivalent to in-store browsing hasn’t yet been developed.


eBook sales comparisons to print aren’t always what they seem

When Amazon talks about how ebooks are selling in relation to print books, as they did again this week, they are comparing apples to apples. They are comparing what their customers bought in digital form versus what they bought in print in any given period of time.

When PW or the AAP or even the publishers themselves talk about how the industry is doing selling ebooks in relation to print books, they are usually comparing apples to oranges. They are comparing what actual consumers bought from retailers in digital form with what retailers and wholesalers bought from publishers in print form for any period of time. So they are comparing ebooks that consumers actually bought now with print books that consumers might, or might not, buy later.

(It is true that sometimes Nielsen BookScan numbers are referenced in these comparisons and, in that case, they are apples to apples because BookScan measures cash register sales which are legitimately comparable to the ebook numbers. PW, for example, reported that BookScan sales were down 26% for paperbacks and AAP numbers were down 36%, which underscores the effect being explained in this post.)

The ubiquitously flawed comparison is fundamental to understanding many things. It is part of the explanation of why ebook penetration numbers appear to fall sometimes, even though it is counterintuitive that they would.

There is probably a difference in the month-to-month fluctuations in consumer behavior purchasing print and digital books. For one thing, Christmas presents of print would tend to be purchased before December 25 and Christmas presents of ebook-capable devices would tend to result in ebook sales after December 25. (The devices would have been sold before Christmas, of course.) It might be true that people buy more ebooks in the first month or two that they own a device than they do on an ongoing basis.

But analyzing ebook pentration from these numbers is much more complicated than that because we must also take into account the fluctuations in trade ordering behavior which are also partly driven by the publishers’ collective decision about when to issue new books.

As frontlist-oriented as ebook consumption seems to be, the reporting of print book shipments would be even more so because big slugs of of big books are shipped to stores for publication date. Publishers tend to issue far fewer big books in January and February than at any other time of the year. The data suggest that returns fluctuation isn’t as great as shipment fluctuation, but the same returns on a lower sales base yield a higher returns percentage, or a relatively higher impact in depressing apparent print sales.

The lower the print number, the higher the percentage of total sales will be of the same ebook number.

So for the period left in our time of transition when Christmas presents of devices add new digital reading converts — and we certainly have one or two more Christmases like that coming, if not three or four — we can expect ebook sales surges right after Christmas that calm down in March and later.

For the period left in our time of transition when there’s a significant brick infrastructure requiring inventory in anticipation of Christmas sales — and we have some more years of that to expect too — sales of print measured by publisher shipments will look much higher in the fourth quarter of the year than in the first quarter of the following year. Then, assuming the amount of shelf space lost in the post-Christmas period doesn’t cancel out the effect of more big titles coming from publishers in March and after, print sales will rise again.

And for the period left in our time of transition when big publishers continue to slot big books to come in Fall in time for Christmas, hold them back at the turn of the year, and start issuing them again as we move toward the second quarter, and that also most certainly will continue for a couple more years or more because these patterns are deeply ingrained in companies resistant to change of this kind, the ordering pattern of the stores will be reinforced by the issuing pattern of the publishers.

There are always other factors in play. When publishers went to agency, ebook sales briefly went down because the big publishers’ take per copy went down. A smaller version of that impact was just registered when Random House went to agency on March 1. We also have a real impact, if one that is hard to calculate, from the Borders troubles. Publishers aren’t shipping to them, and other retailers are being cautious because so much Borders inventory is competing with them at distressed prices at the moment.

But the apples-to-oranges comparison, where print shipments to the sales channels are lumped with ebook consumer sales for the purposes of analysis, assures us that we’ll see some optical illusions. One of them is the apparent drop in ebook share that will be a seasonal feature of conversation for at least a couple more years.

Next Tuesday afternoon there will be a memorial celebration for the life of Ruth Cavin, the longtime mystery editor at the St. Martin’s division of Macmillan, who died at age 92 in January. It convenes at 5:30 at the Salmagundi Club at 5th Avenue and 11th Street. Ruth was a childhood friend of my mother’s, close to both of my parents from their days in college, and I knew her from my Day One to her Day Last. She was a wonderful person and I hope to see many of the people who knew and loved her at the event.


Consignment might be helpful, but it is not a panacea and not easy to implement

One of the commenters on the blog asked last week about consignment selling, because, he believes, a number of publishers are entertaining it. (I am not personally aware of that, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they would be contemplating it.) This is a subject I’ve paid some attention to over the years, partly because I had a hand in creating a business which puts the books of many publishers into specialty retail chains on a consignment basis, and has been doing so for well over a decade.

Of course, we’ve had pretty widespread (but not universal) returnability of books in the US market for the better part of a century. (It might be worth noting that Britain has ubiquitous return privileges now, but returns were not the norm when I first became aware of the UK trade in the early 1970s.) But it is not the same thing for a bookstore to buy books from a publisher with the right to return them as it would be for the store to receive books on consignment although much of the logic behind the two is very much the same.

Consignment underscores that the inventory risk is mostly with the publisher, as well as timing the store’s responsibility to pay to the date of their sale rather than to the date when goods were shipped to them. But just like there is variation in sale-and-return terms that is material, so there is with consignment terms.

Under the sale-and-return convention that governs the sale of most books today, here are some important variables.

1. The discount off the retail price.

2. Whether the store pays the inbound freight or the publisher does. (I am not aware of a publisher who pays return freight.)

3. Whether the amount credited for a return is equal to the amount the store originally paid for the book or, as is often the case, just a little bit less.

4. The payment terms: how soon after shipment (which is usually the invoice date) the publisher expects to be paid.

All of these except the amount credited for a return would also be variables in a consignment arrangement. Saying “consignment” doesn’t promise a particular discount, doesn’t imply anything about who pays freight, and doesn’t in and of itself stipulate a speed of payment.

The point is that saying “consignment” isn’t saying enough to describe the commercial relationship. What’s the discount compared to the sale-and-return discount? How often and how soon after the sale is made is the store obliged to pay?

The reason that stores ask for consignment is that they believe it will improve their cash position and enable them to carry more inventory. In fact, there are circumstances in which consignment would speed up payment. When hundreds of thousands of copies of a new novel from a perennially bestselling author land at Barnes & Noble, they’ll sell a large number of them long before the 60, 90, or 120 days they’re going to take to pay the publisher. If consignment called for weekly payments for sales made through the prior week (which is a reasonable formula), the cash flow on hundreds of thousands of sales would be worse for the chain than it is in the current paradigm.

For consignment to be an advantage to the store, one or more of three things must be true. Payment must be delayed after the sale is made, payment must be infrequent, or the store must be permitted to carry many books that it would otherwise have deemed too slow-moving to be worth the investment.

Consignment will add responsibility for publishers, just like the agency model, which also changed the buy-sell relationship between publishers and retailers, did in the ebook world. Consignment inventory is owned by the publisher, not by the store. It is possible that consignment could create “nexus” and possible tax liabilities for the publishers in locales they’ve never heard of.

Of course, consignment would have been a great advantage to the publishers if the inventory Borders possessed had been consigned because publishers would have been entitled to take it back. Under sale-and-return terms, Borders “owns” that inventory, even if the invoices for it haven’t been paid. Lots of unpaid-for inventory is now being sold at fire-sale prices, making it more difficult for publishers to sell replenishment inventory of those titles to stores which are in sound financial health and paying their bills.

From the store’s point of view, consignment terms are all about cash flow. Publisher, however, particularly those whose results are reported in a public company, also think about the balance sheet. When publishers print a book (as I understand it; I’m not an accountant) and put it in their warehouse, it is on their books valued at the unit cost of manufacture. When they ship it to a store and invoice it, the value of the book as an asset grows to the price they invoiced. If they consigned it to the store, its value would remain the manufacturing cost until it was sold.

What that adds up to is that any publisher switching to consignment terms would take an apparent “hit” to their financials. It would be a one-time hit because once the new system took hold, books would steadily be moving from inventory-value to sales-value. And there would be a longer-run balance sheet benefit that large returns wouldn’t suddenly erase value. (This would happen because the returned inventory had been valued at the publisher’s sale price; now it will be valued at cost of manufacture if the returned stock is returned to inventory. If it isn’t, and it often isn’t, it’s a write-off.) It might be a lot to explain to shareholders or senior management that very large slugs of sales were substantially delayed in being recognized.

The store, on the other hand, would suffer no comparable impact. Under sale-and-return, they had the books at their cost on their balance sheet, but they were also debited for the cash they paid or owed. With consignment, they recognize neither the value of the books nor the payment for them until they’re sold, when they book the sale and also recognize the obligation to pay.

Consignment would definitely give the stores an apparently infinite return on inventory investment; there would be no inventory investment. The only limitation on how much stock the store would want is the available space to display it. The incentive to be rigorous about monitoring inventory really shifts from the retailer to the publisher or distributor.

Retailers have been striving for consignment terms, also called “pay on scan”, for years because, overall, inventory investment is one of the major working capital requirements for most of them. When we set up the distributor mentioned above in the late 1990s, we used consignment as a way to “guarantee” a store’s margin and their ROI. The retailer gets a fixed margin based on the retail price. The distributor makes all the inventory management decisions — shipments and returns — and pays the freight to ship the books in and out.

One other wrinkle of consignment is that “shrink” — inventory disappearing without going through the cash register — becomes a shared problem because it delays payment until inventory is ultimately reconciled. That is only really forced to happen when the publisher or distributor takes a complete inventory (rare) or calls for the return of a book that hasn’t been reported as sold but the store finds it isn’t there.

Under sale-and-return, the store pays for what is shipped to it. Shrink is entirely the store’s problem. This is an important concern to any publisher contemplating moving to consignment.

Another reason — and a good one — that publishers resist consignment is that they have a much-less-certain accounting of what they are owed. They are depending on the store’s POS system capturing every sale, with the differences being made up on a very delayed basis when inventory is taken or returns are requested and not found. Orders by a retailer of the same books from another source — if the consignment relationship isn’t a sole-source relationship — can seriously complicate the record-keeping.

If it is true that a number of publishers are contemplating a consignment model, that’s a good thing because it would demonstrate creative thinking is occurring where it is required. As we have said over and over again, shelf space at retail is going to be an increasingly vexed issue in our business in the months and years to come. Anything publishers can do to make it easier and more attractive for owners of brick locations to put books on their shelves is going to be needed and appreciated. Consignment, properly done and properly positioned, can be helpful, but it isn’t a panacea and it requires a lot of consideration of the details of implementation.

Consignment terms for retailers, I must admit, is one of the few important topics not being discussed at either our “eBooks Go Global”  conference at BEA on May 25 or our “Global Perspective on Digital Change” conference in London on June 21. If you’ll be in the vicinity on those dates, click the links and check out the programs. We’re very excited about what we’ve been able to put together.


“A Global Perspective on Digital Change” will be our first show in London

The first Publishers Launch Conferences show outside the United States, “A Global Perspective on Digital Change”, will be at the Congress Centre in central London on June 21, with the Publishers Association serving as our partners in putting on the event. We also owe special thanks to the PA’s group of Digital Directors, who were extremely generous with their time and insight. If you can be in London that day, you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than with us.

We’re still putting the finishing touches on what will be a one-day conference packed with illuminating conversation, but we can tell you quite a bit about it already. We aim to deliver strategic, practical, and focused discussion of near-term issues and opportunities. This won’t be a showcase for cool products or a venue to debate what the future might look like some day. We’re examining essential issues — ebook “export” opportunities; what happens to territorial rights; hiring and retraining to meet today’s challenges; revamping publishing systems for a dual print and digital paradigm; getting “found” on digital shelves — that publishing professionals should focus on now to thrive in the days to come.

The UK market is in between the US and the rest of the world in its migration from print to digital reading. Kindle and iPad sales really took off last Christmas and, while ebook penetration may be a fourth or less of what it is in the US, it has grown enough to be disruptive and to generate a consensus acceptance that very substantial change in the industry is inevitable.

On the one hand, my PLC partner Michael Cader and I have followed the developments in the US very closely so we have some firsthand experience with some aspects of what the UK trade is going through. On the other hand, we know history won’t repeat itself precisely. There are important differences in the markets and there is a substantial group of companies with experience and capabilities developed in the North American market that can hit the ground running in Britain or anywhere else in the world. That alone will make everybody else’s experience different than what happened in the US.

In order to be sure we were talking with the UK industry, not at it, we took some preparatory steps. In February, we put a large number of ideas for panels and topics up on Survey Monkey and invited 70 players in the UK book trade to express their opinions on them. In five days, 40 of the people responded.

Then we followed up by spending three days in London meeting with about 50 people to discuss our ideas and theirs. Our partners at the PA provided invaluable assistance, hosting our conversations and inviting us to join a regular meeting of the Digital Directors to get the insights of the most knowledgable people in the UK market. Those conversations were crucial in helping us focus properly on topics and in locating some key sources of insight. Frankly, despite our long experience working with the British publishing community (I have visited London on business three or four times a year for 35 years), putting this conference together would have been impossible without the help we got.

But because of that help, I think we’ll be presenting the UK publishing community with a lot of very useful discussion that hasn’t taken place at the many prior gatherings that have discussed book publishers and digital change.

One topic that we identified very early is the opportunity we see for publishers in Britain and Ireland to sell into the US market now without payng for a distributor infrastructure or taking an inventory risk. When we started to explore this topic, we learned that, of course, people are definitely starting to plan for it. Some are starting to exploit it. This was something we thought should be happening below the radar, and it is.

This is a peculiar opportunity, because it might be more important for independent UK publishers large and small than it is for the biggest global players. We’re still filling out the panel for this one, but we have Helen Kogan of Kogan Page, an independent whose company was already working in the US market (and therefore has some helpful experience to pass along) but who is seeing the expanded opportunity presented by digital, and Jean Harrington of Maverick House Publishers in Dublin. Jean is also President of Publishing Ireland and we invited her to join this particular conversation for a reason. The Irish diaspora in the US has a particularly strong identity with the old country and we expect books of Irish history and Irish fiction will find a substantial additional market through ebook sales in America.

We’re working on adding another British publisher and an agent to that dialogue.

Another topic arose out of a conversation that longtime UK consultant Mark Bide and I had while we were at Tools of Change in New York in February. How long will it be, I wondered, before half of UK sales are digital? Mark said he wasn’t sure about the timing, but he was sure that the publishers’ systems, overhead allocations, staffing, and infrastructure would require a lot of adjustment to be ready for that day. That’s a good conference topic, we thought.

Then, in our conversations at the PA 10 weeks ago, Anthony Forbes Watson, the MD of Pan Macmillan, told us he had charged his team with thinking through the question exactly as we had defined it. Anthony wants to know “what does 50% ebooks look like? What do we have to do to be ready for it?” The next day we talked to James Long of Pan Mac who told us that, yes, he was actually the person in the company with the primary responsibility for thinking this question through.

We decided the best frame for this conversation was “thinking about the future.” James, as he will tell us on June 21, is largely focused on what Pan Mac needs to do in systems development and integration, workflow changes, and skills development to be ready for a 50% digital world.

But there are two other aspects of preparing for the future we felt could be illuminated by other panelists we recruited.

Perseus, a US company whose Constellation division that provides digital services to smaller publishers is a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, is one of several companies in the world (Ingram in the US is another; so might Random House be in the US and the UK) that are investing in warehouses and print book distribution capabilities at precisely the time many publishers are disinvesting in them, precisely because they know that most publishers will have to disinvest in them. They’re trying to be there for publishers who want to dispose of fixed cost overheads for the shrinking print book market. We put Rick Joyce of Perseus into this conversation to cover the sensitive topic of consolidation on the physical side (a subject that Dominic Myers, the MD of Waterstone’s, famously put on the UK publishing community’s agenda a couple of months ago.)

Copyright Clearance Center, the US RRO which is also a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, has steadily called our attention to another industry-wide challenge: the need to manage rights more effectively and on a more granular level to take advantage of emerging opportunities to license chunks and fragments for apps, ebooks, and web sites. We thought that the voice for this topic in London should be local, and we were pleased that Sara Faulder, head of the Publishers Licensing Society, agreed to join this conversation.

Mark Bide has agreed to moderate this group in what I think will be a dialogue about publishers and the digital future unlike any the audience will have heard before. (Except, that is, if they are at our Publishers Launch BEA show on May 25, where we’ll have a different version of this conversation, one more focused on export and rights sales than infrastructure, but also covering the change we’ll see to selling more and more fragments.)

We’re not above stealing our own ideas and giving them a local spin. One panel that was extraordinarily successful at Digital Book World last January was one we describe in shorthand as “new skill sets”. It’s about capabilities publishers need to get that they don’t have and it is about process and workflow changes and the use of cross-functional teams as well as hiring in or training people with new skills. Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins did that panel for us in New York in January and is reprising it at our BEA show. In London, he’ll be joined by Juan Lopez-Valcarel of Pearson and Jacks Thomas, the CEO of Midas Public Relations, on a panel moderated by Jo Howard of Mosaic Search & Selection Ltd. One of the key elements in the New York discussion of this, which we expect will arise again in London, is “when is it best to hire in the skills and when is it better to retrain the people I already have?” This is a subject every publisher needs to be thinking about that isn’t discussed in public very often.

We’ll have three of the top digital leaders of UK houses — George Walkley of Hachette, David Roth-ey of HarperCollins, and Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan — joining Michael and me for a dialogue about the big companies who have cut their teeth on the US market and are now taking their capabilities worldwide, starting in the UK. We’ll be talking about Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Ingram, and Overdrive (the six clearly-declared and clearly-capable global ebook players) as well as Sony, aspirants like Copia and Blio, and US titan Barnes & Noble (which has shown no clear signs of global interest yet.) It looks to us like there is only one UK player with a global perspective, still-tiny cell phone provider Mobcast, but we’ll be learning from our panelists whether there are others we should be considering. And our audience will learn more about the North American companies which are bound to be a big part of the local market’s ebook life in the years to come.

We’ve reached a time when “metadata” is an important subject to discuss, no matter how dry or back room it has seemed. We were fortunate to get Graham Bell of EDItEUR to moderate a dialogue about this for us. He’s recruited Jon Windus of Nielsen and Karina Luke of Penguin to discuss it with him. We’re now looking for a retailer to join them. The condition of metadata in the marketplace is not good enough in enough places yet. This is costing publishers sales. This panel will explain why that is and what every publisher should do to make sure this isn’t a huge hole in the side of their boat as online sales, print and digital, grow and the impact of metadata grows right along with them.

We are also going to have a discussion of the future of territorial rights. Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury, a well-known skeptic about them, and David Miller, an agent with Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd., have agreed to participate. We’re looking for a full-throated defender of the current territorial regime to join them in what will be more of a conversation than a debate. We wonder whether territorial rights make as much sense in a 50% ebook world as they do in the 5% ebook world we might now be in. The agent’s voice in this conversation might be the most important one because, after all, they decide whether the deals are acceptable or not.

One thing that the territorial rights dialogue will certainly entertain is what we should expect to see in terms of author initiatives. That topic is bound to come up in two other discussions as well. There’s one we’re now calling “experiments, best practices, and out of the box thinking” which is really about innovation. But we are going to focus on innovation in business models and practices and innovation in marketing, not on product innovation. We are still working on putting this group together, but we were very impressed with our preliminary conversations with two of the panelists.

Marc Gascoigne is at Angry Robot, a sci-fi imprint started by HarperCollins and then bought by Osprey. Angry Robot’s better mousetrap is its community focus; Gascoigne will make the case that doing that right (which many publishers say they want to do) requires that everybody, and that means every editor and everybody else, communicate directly with the audience. It is hard to see putting that across in many established trade houses.

Richard Mollet of the PA will moderate the conversation with the innovators.

Also on that panel will be Peter Cox, an agent with Redhammer. Cox is changing his own business model (providing more in the way of services to his authors, but charging them more for it and looking to represent fewer authors, not more) but he’s effectively changing the author-publisher relationship as well by making the author an active marketer and community gatherer. He’ll have examples and he’ll have ideas that will challenge the thinking of many publishers and agents in the audience.

The last panel of our day is intended as a Grand Finale. Michael Cader and I will sit with Stephen Page of Faber, Rebecca Smart of Osprey, John Makinson of Penguin, and agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. We’ll get their take on the speed of the ebook takeup and its consequences.

How will British publishers cope in a market that may soon have no full-line bookstore chain? How will the industry cope with the rise of self-publishing? Is there any real danger of a consolidated English-language world in which London becomes subsidiary to New York? Or, in some companies, might it be vice-versa? Will both agents and publishers be changing the core business models which have prevailed for the past century over the next few years?

What excites me about the last panel — aside from the sheer smarts and savvy of the people we got to join us — is the diversity of their perspectives. The publishers run companies of different sizes and with very different approaches to building their publishing lists. The agent joining us has gained a reputation as one of the most digitally savvy players in the UK market. Michael and I thrive on spirited conversations with very smart people; we think we’re going to finish the day very stimulated and with big smiles on our faces.

And we think our audience will too.

Of course, before we get to London, we’ll be running our “eBooks Go Global” show aimed at international visitors and their trading partners at BEA. At that show, we’re particularly excited about two panels we won’t be doing in London. One is with a few booksellers already working with the new Google Ebooks capability reporting on how it is functioning for them. The other takes a slightly different approach to the “selling in the US” opportunity. Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, which has aggregated about ten times as many ebooks in Spanish as most people in Spanish markets will tell you exists, will open a lot of foreign publishers’ eyes to the possibilities that exist for them in the US market. We’ll also have a chat with Barry Eisler, the author who turned down half-a-million bucks to self-publish. And that’s not all. Tickets still available… And tickets still available for London as well.

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But what if it gets really easy to deliver apps or enhanced ebooks?

This is an unusually brief post today, but some worthy observations don’t require long explanations.

I wrote nearly 18 months ago about my concern that publishers’ interest in enhanced ebooks would bring on a repeat of the commercially disastrous CD-Rom era of the mid-1990s. Of course, since the CD-Rom era, a lot has changed.

* The opportunities in linking and multiple media have been explored every conceivable way through the web.

* The number of devices on which people can readily consume enhanced content has exploded.

* A number of tools have been announced that can enable one person working alone, even without much technical expertise, to put an enhanced product together, if they have the digital assets and the rights to use them.

The tools are really in the news lately. Vook, the start-up that has been pioneering video integration into ebooks, has a tool kit being trialed called Mother Vook. Packager Charlie Melcher has a new initiative called Push Pop which promises transmedia authoring tools for Apple’s iOS. And I see on the web a new company called Yapper, for “your app maker”, that looks like Smashwords on steroids.

There are also tool sets operating at a more sophisticated level, but still making development more efficient. Touch Press has just applied its capabilities — which, among other things, enable them to make objects “spin” to be viewed from all sides — to a third iPad app called “Gems and Jewels”. (They had previously done “The Elements” and “The Solar System”.) We’re working with a developer in New York on some sports encyclopedia apps that make use of their proprietary system development to convert large databases to app presentations very efficiently.

A question that will probably rise in importance is whether the system that enables you to make an app for the iOS operating system will also get you to epub or HTML5. That’s one the “do-it-yourself” system developers will also have to answer.

(It might be worth observing parenthetically — which is why I’m doing it that way — that we see Apple developing the huge monopoly position on apps that Amazon has selling independently-published ebooks through the Kindle platform. While it almost always makes sense to distribute content as broadly as you can to amortize the investment in intellectual creativity, Kindle gets you so much of the ebook market and Apple so much of the app market that the effort-reward ratio to doing the rest can only make sense if there’s very little effort required.

(A companion parenthetical observation is that iPad apps with no iPhone-size counterpart are another sign that the creation tools aren’t powerful enough. I know you can’t recreate “The Elements” as it is done for the iPad on an iPhone screen, but you certainly have, within what was done, the makings of a terrific alternative fitted to the form.)

I don’t know how good the enhanced ebook and app creation tools are…yet. (Other people will judge that and tell me.) There have been announcements like what we’re hearing from Vook and Push Pop before that didn’t deliver or haven’t yet, going back to the beginning of ebook time in the early 1990s. There was fairly recent buzz that disappeared about Zinio Fusion. There was a Google App Inventor for Android ballyhooed last year, but that hasn’t been heard from lately. In fact, robust tools were part of the early promise of Blio, which got us very excited 18 months ago, but they have failed to gain traction along with the rest of the Blio platform. The “so easy anybody can do it” promise hasn’t been really fulfilled yet.

But I know the tools will get great eventually. And that might be soon.

When they do it will mean that anybody can make a media- and link-rich ebook; just add intellect.

That’s a trend I’m not sure works in favor of big publishers who are looking for opportunities to apply scale. These tools, if they work, undermine scale by reducing the need for tech wizardry in product creation. Of course, editorial wizardry is still required.

There’s one more trend I expect to see over the next couple of years: a marked increase in the number of ebooks created from what was originally illustrated book content. Some of those books integrated visual images for practical purposes, to illustrate how to tie a tie or cut a piece of wood, or as the images do in the print version of “The Elements”. For some books, “coffee table books”, the illustrations are the featured content.

In either case, the ebooks of 2007-2011 weren’t really suitable for them; in the next couple of years, publishers will be learning how to make appealing digital products with intellectual property like that.

This will be a process of trial, feedback, and improvement on an industry-wide level as we all learn what people actually like, do, and value. But there will be skill development on a highly individualized basis as people develop and express their editorial “touch” for integrating the elements, managing them through Mother Vook, Push Pop, Yapper, Blio, or one of the next dozen competitors that arise.

Will small entrepreneurial publishers develop and relate to these resources best, or big ones? In the next couple of years, I think we’ll find out.

We have one segment of our “eBooks Go Global” show at BEA that will explore the strategy and approach to investing in enhancement, another that looks at what skill sets publishers need to find or get, and yet another featuring publishers managing their digital publishing without much in the way of internal tech resources. And we’ve just added a short demo from Charlie Melcher to show us the tools he’s about to deliver. Here’s the registration link.

On this Thursday, May 5, we’ll be taking part in BISG’s annual Making Information Pay conference. We worked closely with BISG’s Scott Lubeck in putting together this year’s show, which is called “Constructing the 21st Century Publishing Enterprise.” There will be a keynote by Hachette COO Ken Michaels and important presentations on discovery within the context of the semantic web. We’re delivering a presentation jointly with Heather Reid of CCC and David Marlin of Metacomet about what we’ve learned from talking to publishers and service providers about rights databases. Rights databases, like the other topics at MIP and like the topics discussed in the body of this post, will be moving from a peripheral position to center stage in the very near future.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I thought I was writing a blog, but it turns out I wrote a book!

An ebook of the first two years of The Shatzkin Files is now available and will be linked for the forseeable future from our left nav bar. This post is the introduction to the ebook, which explains how it came about.

My friend, Joe Esposito, first told me about blogs in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century before just about anybody else I knew had heard of them. I am not sure why it took me many years to start one of my own.

I’ve been training for this gig for a lifetime. My Dad insisted that I learn to touch-type when I started fooling around with a typewriter at the age of 8. (As he said, “either we teach him the right way, or he’ll teach himself the wrong way.”) Three months of twice-weekly lessons got me up to 42 words a minute on a manual typewriter, but trained my fingers to do the right thing so that today on a computer I can do about 3 times that speed. By the time I was 11, I was filing copy on a weekly basis on the Little League games for our local newspaper. I got paid too: 15 cents a column inch. The newspaper job actually continued for the next several years as I moved on to covering high school sports.

In my junior year of college, I started writing a weekly column I called The View from Underneath for the UCLA Daily Bruin. I don’t know how good it was or how many people read it, but it got me a certain amount of notoriety. Because of the column, I networked my way into the Bobby Kennedy presidential campaign and, after his death, a slot as an assistant to Pierre Salinger on the 1968 McGovern effort at the National Democratic Convention. (That was the one in Chicago that featured police against protestors in the streets and which villainized Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daley to that generation of young liberal activist Americans.)

Between the end of The View from Underneath and the commencement of The Shatzkin Files blog, 40 years passed. I did plenty of writing in the meantime: some books (mostly about baseball), a bunch of articles about publishing in trade publications in many countries, and, starting in the mid-1990s, speeches on publishing and digital change delivered at industry forums and then preserved on my website. The posted speeches were a great boon to my professional career, making it possible to build credibility (and “brand”) among people who never attended these live events.

Others I know had blogged daily, or almost daily. Richard Charkin, now Managing Director of Bloomsbury, wrote every day when he was head of Macmillan. My friend Gwyn Headley, Managing Director of the stock agency fotoLibra, told me that when he started blogging, he did so with a list of 365 topics in hand so he’d always have something to choose from on a day he wasn’t feeling creative. Richard gave up his blog when he changed jobs and I don’t think Gwyn kept up the daily habit very long either.

In my case, I blogged six times the first two or three weeks, then five times the next few weeks, and it diminished from there to what is now a one or twice weekly post. It seems like it usually takes me about 1500 words to get in and out, although some posts run a bit longer. I find that I need to review what I’ve written at least three times a few hours apart after I think I’m done to make sure I’m happy with it. Occasionally, a post gets to that point and gets scrapped.

As I think must be normal with these things, the audience for the blog just grew. As of this writing, The Shatzkin Files has about 1700 subscribers who get the blog delivered as an email to their inbox. A number generally ranging from half that to twice that (and occasionally, quite a bit more) reads the posts on the site. The comment strings keep getting longer.

Fortunately, one of my regular readers is Cameron Drew, who, like me, came into the book business through the most honorable possible path: working for his father. I knew David Drew, one of the great book sales reps of my generation, long before I ever met Cameron. Since Cameron has gone to work for Kobo, the global ebook retailer spawned by Canadian retailer Indigo, he and I have seen each other at conferences and trade shows. He told me from the very beginning that he was a loyal Shatzkin Files reader.

Early in 2011, Cameron told me he often found it useful to refer back to previous posts of The Shatzkin Files but that doing so through the website was clunky and difficult. “Your stuff should be collected into an ebook,” he said. “If we did it at Kobo, would you give us a 30-day exclusive?”

I was extremely flattered. “I’ll happily give you 60 days,” I said.

And thus we have this ebook.

If you live in the world of trade book publishing — the publishing that has reached its audience primarily through bookstores for about 100 years — you know we are all in a different world than we were in when I began The Shatzkin Files blog in February, 2009. One of the early posts speculated that it might be  harder for Amazon to hold onto their stranglehold on ebook sales than their hegemony on online print sales. At the time, Kindle was extending its dominance of the ebook marketplace by enabling the Kindle owners to access their ebook content through the iPhone and other devices. And Amazon’s pricing policy of selling below their cost was beginning to scare publishers.

Then, around the first anniversary of the blog, Apple’s iPad and the iBookstore arrived on the scene, offering publishers the opportunity to implement the so-called “agency model,” under which the discounting of ebooks is effectively stopped. I attribute to that tactic, along with the introduction of the iPad, the Nook, Kobo and Google Editions, the stabilization of ebook distribution in a multi-retailer market with evolving global competition. So, two years later, it looks like that early post was right.

We’re going to see a lot more change in trade publishing in the years to come. I expect the next two years to present even greater challenges and more drastic change than the last two years have. Since The Shatzkin Files began, the extremely challenging times we’ve expected for bookstores have become very evident. Over the next two years, the extremely challenging times it has seemed to me must follow for general trade publishers will probably become equally evident.

One thing worth using this introduction to say is that I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.

There are serious initiatives in the big houses to acknowledge the importance of verticalization (mostly in genres), to create direct contact with audiences, and to employ scale in search engine optimization and in locating customer clusters online that it is hoped will enable a new version of the horizontal, big book publisher model to leap the chasm of change. At the same time, the big publishers are figuring out how to step back from the enormous overheads associated with doing business the way they have for the past 100 years. How much change is sufficient, and how fast is fast enough, are questions we’ll only know the answers to with the passage of time.


It will be hard to find a public library 15 years from now

I spoke last week to a group in Montreal convened by the English-language Publishers of Quebec and the Quebec Writers Association in a small auditorium at the Atwater Library. The Atwater Library is a private library with very limited government funding which is more than 100 years old. (The Globe and Mail article that quoted me says it dates from 1828.) It occupies a nostalgia-provoking building on a downtown corner across from a small park and a long slapshot away from the site of the no-longer-present Montreal Forum, where the Canadiens played for many years (and where I was fortunate enough to see a game once in 1958.)

The topic of the talk was whatever I wanted it to be so I riffed on what I think are the two big themes of digital change in publishing: vertical and global. Readers of this blog have seen material on both. Vertical refers to subject-specificity, or, if you prefer, audience-specificity. I posit that publishing across subjects — as all the biggest consumer publishers do — is made possible by bookstores, who sort the books onto shelves that make sense to customers.

An important component of the “vertical” argument is the inevitable decline of bookstores. What leads to that is the inexorable movement of customers from shopping in stores to shopping online, combined with the “critical mass” requirement for a bookstore. Some people say a bookstore will close if it loses 10% of its business; I usually say 15%. Obviously, it varies with the store. Just as obviously, a store doesn’t need to lose all its business, or even half of it, before it would be economically unviable and forced to close.

As stores close, shopping in them becomes less convenient. As the remaining stores cut back on the shelf space they can devote to books, they become less attractive. All this drives more and more people to buy print online or to switch to ebooks.

Since the single most critical skill set for consumer publishers for the past 100 years has been being able to put books on bookstore shelves, this is a frightening development for any trade publisher paying attention.

The global trend is more encouraging for people in publishing today and it is particularly more cheerful for publishers in small countries who deliver content in big languages. That means Canadian publishers in both English and French should benefit enormously as the ebook infrastructure builds out and puts them closer to customers all over the world.

Partly because we were in a library and partly because somebody asked, I also ruminated about the future of libraries. The Toronto Globe & Mail reported it this way:

And libraries? “Libraries make no sense in the future,” Shatzkin said on stage in a library that dates back to 1828. Anyone with Internet access already has access to far more books than were in that library, he pointed out. “There is no need for a building.” There will be an ongoing need for librarians, however; their skills will continue to be in demand, as will those of editors.

This quote, which was really off-hand, is clearly annoying a lot of people. So I thought it would be worth devoting a post to the subject of the future of libraries.

First of all, the key word is “future.” I find myself making the point repeatedly that the infrastructure for printed book creation and distribution has had mostly organic change for about 100 years now. It’s a well-developed capability. Publishers know how to make printed books well and efficiently; they know how to find and serve the customers for them. They know how to print them at scale and, over the last dozen years or so, 1-at-a-time. The special requirements that libraries have to prepare books for shelving are met seamlessly by Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

The print book infrastructure is like a network of roads, sidewalks, and superhighways. Everything gets where it wants to go by well-established paths.

Ebooks live in a different world. There are no superhighways and, for many books and many markets, there isn’t even a beaten path yet. We’re still hacking our way through the jungle. So, for the most part, the world we’ll live in when there is a fully-built ebook infrastructure only exists in our imagination today.

The world I was describing in the quoted and paraphrased section of my talk is imaginary. It is expected (at least by me), but it isn’t here yet and I wasn’t trying to suggest that it is.

In a fully ebooked world, which I expect we’ll be living in 10 or 15 years from now, print books won’t be extinct, but they’ll be either exotic or very purpose-driven. They won’t be common or an ordinary way to deliver content, the way they are today.

I also expect a world where all of us will have access to, or personal ownership of, many screens. Through those screens, we’ll also have access to a variety of content that is suggested by what the Internet can deliver us today. My hunch is that, by then, our “basic Internet” (think “basic cable”) subscription will include access to more books than exist in most libraries today, with shedloads of others available for usually nominal and occasionally substantial additional fees. We may have to choose a screen (or two) to carry with us when we leave our house in the morning (or not — there will be screens to borrow at Starbucks and the hotel lobby and the waiting room at your dentist), but we’ll have access to content for it (or them) wherever we are and at any time. Since the same screen will deliver us our tools for personal productivity (the blog post I’m working on, the shopping list for the cheese store on the way home), probably connect us to our money, and, of course, contain our calendar and directions to the party we’re supposed to go to this evening, carrying additional “stuff” — whether a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a notepad — will be a long-discarded anachronism.

The core purpose — the founding purpose — of a library, around which other things have grown, is to deliver access to printed words. Even the smallest local library almost certainly had more content housed within it than any individual had in their home and, in most cases, far more content than would be available at any local store. It was the books in the library that initially defined the library and attracted a core of patrons to it. When all of us have access to more books on our screens than are in the library, what’s the point to the library?

At least, that’s what I was thinking.

The very thoughtful Gary Price, who is a library and information professional who has spent far more time considering libraries this or any other week than I have in my lifetime, posted his ruminations on this subject, triggered by the paragraph in the Globe and Mail but going way beyond them. Gary raises some good points worthy of response (about which he has posted additional thoughts since I saw and wrote about them.)

He wonders what kind of libraries I’m talking about. Simple answer: consumer libraries. Libraries that serve a professional constituency — academic or otherwise — are outside the scope of these predictions.

Gary observes that statistics show that libraries are being used more than ever. I don’t doubt that but it doesn’t undercut my belief about where things will be in 10 or 15 years. Newspapers had record years for profits in the mid-1990s.

Gary observes that many people use the library for more than books, specifically citing their mission in providing technology education and to provide Internet access, and making the point that not everybody has access to the computer and the Internet at home. In my opinion, all these objections will be almost entirely mooted in the next 10 or 15 years.

(A parenthetical point. In the US, at least, the poor will almost certainly always be with us. People will be left behind by change; our country routinely permits that. I’m a liberal Democrat; that’s not an aspect of America that makes me happy. Libraries will vanish faster than the need for them does. I predict what I believe will happen, not what I want to happen.)

He points out that there are special collections, archives, and other materials found in library buildings and that they, as well as some books, might not be digitized anytime soon. Perhaps true, although a lot less true in 10 or 15 years. But what percentage of today’s libraries would that kind of material keep open? Particularly if we’re talking about libraries for consumers? A small percentage, I’d warrant.

As others have, Gary points to the community events that take place in a library as a counter to my argument. I don’t think it is. I didn’t say community centers would cease to exist. There are many community centers that aren’t libraries. The fact that it is convenient and sensible for a town to use its local library building for other purposes doesn’t mean they need to keep the library to serve those other purposes. In fact, there will be lots of empty former retail storefronts to use as community centers all over America in 10 or 15 years.

One of the people at the Atwater in Montreal told me that they are reducing their shelf space for books (like a lot of bookstores, I might add.) If we get to the day when the store is still called Barnes & Noble and it has one shelf of books and is otherwise full of stationery, plush toys, and reading gadgets, is it still a bookstore? If the Atwater converts itself over time into a commmunity center with one room that has some books in it, will it still be a library?

I don’t think so. Others may disagree, but I would call that a semantic argument, not a substantive one.

Gary’s last point, which has nothing to do with anything I said, is to ponder what happens to the books and other materials in a library if the library shuts down. He hopes they don’t end up in a dumpster. I take no position on that (if they have value at the time, they won’t), but I would point out that many libraries today, unlike the situation a few years ago, won’t take your contribution of books when you clean your shelves at home. They have no place to put them and many, like Atwater, have less space for books, not more. I know libraries try to hold used book sales to make money, but I imagine we’re going to find that libraries will be causing books to be destroyed in the future, from necessity.

I did make the point in Montreal, which the Globe and Mail picked up and Gary applauded, that librarianship will be needed by people long after buildings full of books are not. That’s going to require an entirely new business model that hasn’t been invented yet. Consider that part of the paved infrastructure that we’ll have in a decade or so, but can only exist in our imaginations at the moment.

How about writing a whole post about libraries and not mentioning the HarperCollins limitation on ebook lending? Maybe another day…