Self-Publishing

eBook pricing resembles three dimensional chess


The current round of reporting from major publishers contains some danger signs. Their ebook sales are declining (in dollars and even more dramatically in units) in an ebook market that is probably not declining. The “good” news for the publishers is that print sales are pretty much holding their own, or even growing. And profits are being maintained, which is probably the most important metric in their board rooms. But the bad news is that total revenues are down. And print sales have been buoyed by the consumer excitement for adult coloring books (now spreading to adult “activity” books), so the combined results for many author-driven titles don’t necessarily reflect growth and total unit sales of print plus digital for many titles are almost certainly falling behind expectations

In a complicated marketplace with large unknowns around indie authors and indie books, particularly those that are Amazon-only, it is hard to be definitive about what the cause of this is. (Author Earnings does yeoman work trying to put the two overlapping markets in context.) Certainly, barriers to entry have come down and there are many more books in the marketplace competing for readers that don’t come from the companies the publishers think they’re competing against. But the publishers’ “success” in establishing agency pricing — where the price they set is the price the consumer pays — combined with Amazon’s decision to “respect” agency (at first with no choice but subsequently, after contracts were renegotiated, with apparent enthusiasm) and offer no pricing relief from their share of the book’s sales revenue is almost certainly a major component of the emerging problem.

Amazon doesn’t need big publisher books to offer lots of pricing bargains to their Kindle shoppers; they have tens of thousands of indie-published books (many of which are exclusive to them) and a growing number of Amazon-published books, that are offered at prices far below where the big houses price their offerings. That probably explains why Amazon can see its Kindle sales are rising while publishers are universally reporting that their sales for digital texts, including Kindle, are falling. (Digital audio sales are rising for just about everybody, but that is not an analogous market.)

This is putting agency publishers in a very uncomfortable place. It has been an article of faith for the past few years that there is revenue to unlock from ebook sales if only the pricing could be better understood. Just a bit more revenue per unit times all those ebook sales units is a very enticing prospect for publishers. After the agency settlements liberated publishers from the price limitations Apple had originally insisted on, the immediate tendency was for publishers to push ebook prices even higher.

And since ebooks are sold in a less price-competitive market than we had before agency, Amazon can devote its marketing dollars to cutting prices on the print editions. This undercuts the publishers’ intention to support a diverse (and store-based) retail network and, at the same time, often embarrasses them by making the print book price (set by Amazon) lower than the ebook price (which Amazon makes very clear was set by the publisher).

The fact that this is reducing publisher revenue and each title’s unit sales is concerning. But it is also making it much more difficult to establish new authors at the same time because lots of competing indies are still being launched with low price points that encourage readers to sample them.

It is maintained by many people that there has been a reduction in the rate of surprise breakout books over the past few years because of this pricing as well. This perception would be explained by the fact that price attracts readers to try new authors, and so the new rising talent would more frequently come from the lower-priced indies. Higher ebook prices reduce the speed with which a book can catch on in the marketplace. It feels like there is a consensus in the big houses now that it is harder to create the “surprise” breakouts. (This is a very difficult thing to actually measure.) The “Girl on the Train” phenomenon is always unpredictable, but big publishers still could count on it coming along often enough to keep the sales revenue trend line rising. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales. (Although if they cut prices as a promotion, and they market the promotion, apparently higher-priced print will also benefit from the promotion and see a resulting sales lift.) And singling out some of their ebooks for an ebook price reduction strategy could also raise a red flag with an agent. It is easy to understand a temporary price reduction that is promoted; as an overall pricing strategy it could be seen as a bite out of the author’s ebook earnings at the same time their print sale is threatened with the low-price ebook competition. And while an ebook price-reduction strategy would probably make at least Amazon and Apple, very important trading partners, quite happy, it risks angering others, including perhaps Barnes & Noble but certainly including all the indie bookstores.

On the other hand, the current “strategy” has plenty of risk.

An unpleasant underlying reality seems inescapable: revenues for publishers and authors will be going down on a per-unit basis. This can most simply be attributed to the oldest law there is: the law of supply and demand. Digital change means a lot more book titles are available to any consumer to choose from at any time. Demand can’t possibly rise as fast and, in fact, based on competition from other media through devices people carry with them every day, might even fall (if it hasn’t already). So publishers are facing one set of challenges with their high ebook prices; they’ll create another set if they lower them.

But, unfortunately, lower them they almost certainly must. With more data, we may learn that developing new authors absolutely requires it, particularly in fiction.

Here’s a suggestion for a new pricing routine that might be worth trying in the near term recalling a prior practice from quite a while ago.

There was a period earlier in my career, probably ending in the 1980s, when publishers priced new hardcovers like this: $22.95 until October 1, $24.95 thereafter. The books had the price on a corner of the jacket that could be snipped diagonally on October 1, so that only the $24.95 price would show.

Frankly, in this case the pricing device was not primarily intended to entice the consumer to buy the book before the up-pricing deadline. It was really designed to get the store to place a bigger advance order, for which the applicable discount would be based on the promotional price.

Now big advance orders are not nearly as important as they used to be, nor nearly as common. But there is still a huge dependence on consumers taking a risk on an author, particularly in the first moments after a book comes out. Two or three decades ago, this was the “secret” behind publishers moving an author from a star doing “mass-market originals” (low prices) to a hardcover bestselling author.

So what might be worth a try from the big publishers now would be “promotional ebook pricing” on launch. Make the ebook $3.99 until date X, and then raise it to the “normal” level (which for major publishers, when the hardcover is in the marketplace, would be $12.99 and up.) This is a very painful experiment to try because it will compete against the hardcover at launch, when the publisher is trying to pile up sales to make the bestseller list. It will annoy print booksellers as well.

But publishers have to find a way to put new authors into the market without a millstone of pricing that requires a significant commitment by the reader before they know the author.

Of course, that strategy suggests an even more disruptive reality about ebook pricing: it doesn’t have to remain “set” the way print book pricing does. Because of our convention of printing the publisher’s suggested retail price right on the book’s jacket or paperback cover, it is not really practical to change a book’s price except, occasionally (and less often in these low-inflation times) when a book is reprinted. (In higher-inflation times, we did sometimes employ the practice of “stickering” to increase price, but that was clumsy and impossible to conceal.) But with ebooks, prices can change pretty much as often as you like: up, down, and up again.

In fact, that already happens with promotional pricing such as has been pioneered by the email service, BookBub. The BookBub idea — emailing a subscriber list with notice of price promotions on ebooks — has been copied highly successfully by HarperCollins with their proprietary version, BookPerk, and to a lesser extent by other publishers as well. It is becoming established practice to temporarily lower the price of a title to get it ranked higher and then to raise the price and try to capture higher-revenue sales with the hyped “branding” the promotion created. So far, this is done with a clear game plan, such as discounting the first book in a series, or the most recent book in a series when a new title is about to come out.

But uncoupling the ebook pricing completely from print pricing, which seems to be where we will inevitably go, may also mean — it certainly can mean — all ebook pricing becomes dynamic. All of this definitely raises the bar for publisher knowledge of how consumers react to prices in different situations. It has been a widespread article of faith that retailers “understand” this behavior and publishers don’t. To the extent that retailers do understand it, they see it through a different lens; they almost never care about the impact of price changes on the overall sales curve for a single title. Titles are interchangeable for retailers and not for publishers. So while it is true that publishers have a lot to learn, it is probably not true that retailers already know it.

The points I wanted to make in this post were that publishers should contemplate uncoupling ebook pricing from print pricing, learn more about consumer behavior around pricing, and master the skill of managing (strategically and operationally) LOTS of ebook price changes all the time. There is another point herein, made in passing, that is worth deeper consideration on another day. Big publishers are seeing their revenue decline but their profits rise. Does that point to a strategy? For how long can publishers cut costs faster than revenues, particularly per-unit revenues, decline? Maybe for quite a while…

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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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Things are calmer than they were in the book business, but change is a constant


Among the shifts that have been taking place in publishing houses over the past decade is an increase in the head count dedicated to marketing and a decrease in head count dedicated to sales. This reflects the reduction in the number of bookstore accounts and the transfer of “discovery” from store shelves to digital search.

The reduction in bookstores and the concurrent and related reduction in print books sold in stores also affects how publishers view the economics of the sales departments and the entire support system for print distribution. The big houses still need sales forces and warehouses and sophisticated systems to track inventories and payments and returns but the “throughput” of print from their own publishing programs is declining. For many, that means that distribution clients are increasingly important. They provide the volume to support scaled operations without requiring the publisher to invest in publishing more titles. For at least four of the big five (HarperCollins being an apparent exception), distribution of other publishers’ books, with or without providing the sales force effort, is a critical component of maintaining the volume that keeps unit costs in line.

But that adds risk. Distribution contracts vary in length, but they generally only extend two or three years out. With four major publishers plus Ingram, which has, effectively, five different full distribution options to offer, on the prowl for clients, there is a plethora of choices for any publisher seeking to shed their own fixed-cost distribution or to switch distributors. Indeed, the percentages being charged for distribution services have dropped drastically over the past two decades. The competitive environment is likely to perpetuate that trend.

While the big publishers doing distribution have (so far) tended to insist on fairly large clients, Ingram is using its multiple configurations to try to serve publishers of all sizes and entities that aren’t primarily publishers at all. Today a publisher that is really a literary agency or, before long if not already, a bank, an advertising agency, or a not-for-profit with a mission, can put a book or a list of its own into the book publishing arena with sales and distribution capabilities competitive with the biggest and most experienced publishers. So a revolution that began with Amazon enabling indie authors, starting about ten years ago, to reach a big percentage of the total book market through Kindle and CreateSpace, is being dramatically extended. Going after real bookstore distribution definitely requires incremental investment and marketing savvy, even with the machinery in place to help.

But incremental investment and marketing savvy were always far easier to come by than the machinery has ever been for the small or occasional publisher.

While this levels the playing field in a major way, there are still distinct advantages to size and a B2B publishing brand. The diminishing bookstore shelf space has made the also-diminishing mass merchant (Walmart, Target) shelf space relatively more important. Between the chains — primarily Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million — and independent stores, there are only about 1000 to 1200 points of purchase for books provided by bookstores. There were three to five times that many two decades ago. So the additional thousands of opportunities to put a book in front of the public through the mass merchants are critical, particularly to move bestseller quantities.

But relatively few titles can make the cut for those outlets and the pressure on them to perform quickly is immense. Returns are high. These slots are simply not available to publishers who aren’t recognizable B2B brands with a solid reputation for backing their books effectively. These outlets represent the competitive advantage that remains for the Big Five publishers.

For the past few years, pretty much since the demise of Borders in 2011, the number of bookstores has been going up a bit each year. (It is not clear that the bookstore shelf space has been going up; indie stores seem to be smaller, on average, today than they were two decades ago, or at least there are fewer mammoth ones.) It could well be that, aside from Borders, the indie revival is also fueled by the reduction in shelf space for books at the mass merchants. If so, that is good for smaller publishers and it is good for backlist, both of which are seriously challenged getting in front of the public through mass merchants.

So, while it is definitely true that the dizzying pace of change we saw during the early years of ebooks has subsided, and it is true that the print format has not yielded much share, if any, to ebooks in the past couple of years, it is not time to celebrate a new stability. The marketplace itself is still changing; the online share when you combine print and digital is still growing and the ratio of shelf space available for backlist and slower-sellers is still declining. The smallest publishers are getting better and better market access and the biggest publishers are seeing escalating risk in how they place the books they publish and in the danger they’ll face a sudden decrease in distribution volume that would turn their fixed costs into a burden.

This is a great time in the book business to be very big (among your peer group) or very small and focused. It is a challenging time to be anything else.

A very frequent point of contention when negotiating distribution arrangements is how Amazon will be handled and compensated. Amazon is almost always the single largest account and it is not uncommon for it to represent — on many books and even some publishers — 50 percent or more of the sales. Although sophistication definitely helps in dealing with Amazon, it is also true that Amazon provides incentives to give up the “other half” of the market and just work through them. Any sophisticated businessperson is likely to get more money out of Amazon working it themselves than any distributor can get for them, even before distribution fees. (IF, and this is a big if, you discount the marketing value of books throughout the supply chain which, counterintuitively but frequently, will raise the level of sales at Amazon from what they would have been without books broadly distributed.) In any case, being able to really add value to Amazon sales would be a Holy Grail. Right now, most of the time, distributing publishers really have to make the argument that you can’t effectively split things and that they will add so much value in the rest of the world, and do the work around Amazon, that the overall relationship is worth the trade-off.

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In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?


I first learned and wrote about Hugh Howey about four years ago. At the time, he was one of the first real breakthrough successes as an indie author, making tens of thousands of dollars a month exclusively through Amazon for his self-published futurist novel, “Wool”. As soon as I could track him down, I invited Hugh and his agent, Kristin Nelson, to speak at the next Digital Book World, which they did several months later, in January 2013.

In the years since, Hugh has had a very public profile as a champion of indie publishing and as a critic of big publishers. When I first encountered Howey, he and his agent had already turned down more than one six-figure publishing deal. Nelson ultimately did a print-only deal for “Wool” with Simon & Schuster, a deal consummated before the big publishers made the apparently-universal decision that they would not sign books for which they didn’t get electronic rights.

This week there was a lengthy interview with Howey done by DBW editor Daniel Berkowitz published on the DBW blog. In this piece, Howey reviews many of his complaints against publishers. According to him, their royalty rates are too low and they pay too infrequently and on too much of a delay. Their authors are excluded from Kindle’s subscription revenue at Kindle Unlimited. Their ebook prices to consumers are too high. And, on top of that, they pay too much rent to be in New York City and they pay their big advances to wealthy authors who don’t really need the money, while aspiring authors get token advance payments that aren’t enough to give them time off to write.

Howey’s observations are not particularly welcomed by publishers, but he has a deep interest in indie authors and, by his lights, is always trying to help them by encouraging them to indie-publish through Amazon rather than seeking a traditional deal through an agent. He has organized the AuthorEarnings website and data repository along with Data Guy, the games-business data analyst who has turned his analytical skills to the book business whom we featured at the most recent Digital Book World this past March.

Howey and I have had numerous private conversations over the years. He’s intelligent and sincere in his beliefs and truly devotes his energy to “industry education” motivated by his desire to help other authors. Yet there are holes in his analysis of the industry and where it is going that he doesn’t fill. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much) for his own books as well as his commercial performance, it is easy to understand why he would never consider publishing any other way but as he has, as an indie author who is “all in” with Amazon. But he seems to think what worked well for him would work best for anybody.

In this interview, Howey says that any author would be better off self-publishing his or her first book than going the route of selling it to a publisher. And he actually dismisses the marketing effort required to do that. Howey says the best marketing is publishing your next book. He thinks the best strategy is for authors to write several books a year to gain success. In fact, he says taking time away from writing to do marketing is a bad choice. Expecting most writers, or even many writers, to do several books a year strikes me as a highly dubious proposition.

It is impossible to quarrel with the fact of Howey’s success. But he makes a big mistake assuming that what worked effectively for him makes self-publishing the right path for anybody else, let alone everybody else.

Howey also has an unrealistically limited view of the output of big publishing. If you read this interview (and I would encourage anybody interested in the book business to do so), you see that he thinks almost exclusively about fiction or, as he puts it, “storytelling”. Books come, like his did, out of an author’s imagination and all the author needs is the time to write. Exposure through Amazon does the rest.

He gives publishers credit for putting books into stores (although he would have them eliminate returns, which would cut down sharply on how effectively they accomplished that). But he thinks stores will be of diminishing importance. (We certainly agree on that.) He gives credit for the indie bookstore resurgence to Amazon, which would be true if you credit Amazon with the demise of Borders that wiped out over 400 big bookstores and created new opportunities for indies. But the idea that Amazon is allied with indie bookstores is contradicted by two realities. One is that the indie stores won’t stock Amazon-published books. The other is that Amazon, now in the process of opening its second retail store, may plan dozens, hundreds, or thousands more to come! We really don’t know. Certainly, very few indie bookstores would be applauding that.

Here’s how Howey sums up his advice to authors.

“Too few successful self-pubbed authors talk about the incredible hours and hard work they put in, so it all seems so easy and attainable. The truth is, you’ve got to outwork most other authors out there. You’ve got to think about writing a few novels a year for several years before you even know if you’ve got what it takes. Most authors give up before they give themselves a chance. It’s similar to how publishers give up on authors before they truly have a chance.”

This seems like sound advice, but it isn’t how it appeared to work for Howey. He published a novella which was the start of Wool and his Amazon audience asked for more. Three more novellas later, over a period of just a few months, and the four combined became his bestselling novel. Six months after he started, he was making $50,000 a month or more and had an agent selling his film rights. Then his agent started selling his book rights in non-US territories and in other languages. Meanwhile, Howey continued to earn 70 percent of the revenues from his ebooks, in a deal Amazon offered that matched what they paid to agency publishers, the biggest publishers. (Would Amazon be paying authors 70 percent if publishers hadn’t come up with that number for agency? Should big publishers get some of the credit for the very good deal indie authors are getting?)

The logic that Howey offers about how self-publishing stacks up against doing deals with a big house is very persuasive, but there are two pieces of reality that contradict it.

One is that, at this time, four years after Howey did “Wool” and eight years after the launch of Kindle, there are no noteworthy authors who have abandoned their publishing deals for self-publishing. (It appeared briefly that Barry Eisler was the first such author, except that it turned out he signed an Amazon Publishing deal after turning down a Big Six contract; he didn’t go indie. And, frankly, while he’s somewhat successful, he’s not a show-stopper author for any publisher.) In fact, Amazon’s own publishing strategy has apparently switched away from trying to persuade big commercial fiction authors to do that and is focused on the genre fiction that is the core of the self-publishing done through them. Howey has been offering the same analysis for quite a few years now but so far, the publishers have lost hardly anybody they care to keep to self-publishing. And we’re now in a period where the split of books sold online (ebooks and print) to books sold in stores (where publishers are beyond helpful; they’re necessary) appears to have stabilized — at least for the time being — after years of stores losing share.

The other is that Howey’s analysis totally leaves out one of the biggest categories of publishing: big non-fiction like history or biographies or industry analyses that take years of research and dedication to complete. Unlike a lot of fiction, those books not only take time, they require serious help and expense to research. In a imagined future world where all books are self-published, aspiring fiction writers give up very little (small advances) and successful fiction authors have the money to eat while they write the next book they can make even more money on doing it the Howey way (even though none have). But big non-fiction books like Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” (or anything by David McCullough) took years of research to put together. “Dark Money” was undoubtedly financed at a very high level by the Doubleday imprint at Penguin Random House. How books like that will be funded in the future is not covered by Howey’s analysis.

Now, that’s not to say they must be. Economic realities do rule. Howey’s thesis that things are shifting in Amazon’s direction and away from the ecosystem that has sustained big book publishers is correct. He predicts that there will be three big publishers where once there were six and now there are five. I concur with that. As that happens, maybe the big fiction writers will take Howey’s advice.

But that solution is no solution for authors like Jane Mayer or David McCullough. A world without publishers where authors do the writing and the publishing might give us an output of fiction comparable to what we have now. But the biggest and best non-fiction would need another model if publishers weren’t able to take six-figure investment risks to support them. Amazon’s not offering it and neither is Howey. If the future unfolds as Howey imagines it, we’ll never know what books we’re missing.

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Agents who come to Digital Book World will learn a lot they can immediately apply


The mission of the Digital Book World conference is industry education around digital change. There is a plethora of programming for this year’s event that will serve that purpose particularly well for literary agents. Of all the people in the industry, it would seem to me that agents would get the fastest and surest “return on investment” for the time and expense of attending DBW.

At the top of the “definitely not to be missed” list for agents are two items: the main stage presentation and breakout Q&A by Data Guy, the stats guru of Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” website, and the panel discussion called “Finding Common Ground: How publishers and authors — regardless of what path they’re taking — are working together”.

Really necessary knowledge will also be delivered by Michael Cader, immediately preceeding Data Guy’s appearance, when he reviews the sources of industry data and clarifies what can realistically be discerned from them and what can’t. One more set of information no informed agent can be without will come from Rand Fishkin, the founder, former CEO, and Wizard of Moz, who knows more about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and explains it better than anybody on the planet. Understanding SEO today is as important for everybody in our business as understanding “advance sale” or “coop advertising” was in years past.

And, speaking of “coop advertising”, DBW will also feature an appearance by Fred Argir, the new Chief Digital Officer at Barnes & Noble. In a conversation with me, he will be laying out some insights from the biggest bookstore chain on new ways they might collaborate on marketing with publishers in the future.

The Author Earnings website scrapes and interprets Amazon data, breaking down Amazon bestsellers by publisher type: Big Five, indie authors, and others. Then AE goes further, trying to calculate what share of the revenue went to authors. Recent enhancements to AE’s data collection have improved the precision of their sales and income estimates. They’re showing steady market share gains by indie authors with their lower-priced books, particularly since in their new contracts the publishers have “succeeded” in preventing discounting from their agency prices.

Any agent trying to advise an author curious about or tempted by self-publishing really must know what Data Guy is up to. This will be DG’s first public presentation. His breakout Q&A will be moderated by Michael Cader, so the most knowledgeable industry perspective will be present as DG delivers his compelling alternative view of our sales universe.

The “Common Ground” panel explores the new reality that author efforts constitute a critical component of all book marketing today. Jane Friedman, the leading indie author Sherpa in our business, will moderate a panel of two agents and two editors with extensive experience working with authors who have published both indie and through houses. Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich and Julie Trelstad of Writers House are the agents; Johanna Castillo of Atria (S&S) and Jaime Levine of Diversion Books are the publishers. These five people will draw on recent experience with dozens of authors to help us understand the current state-of-the-art for author and publisher collaboration around marketing.

The challenge of “discovery” or helping readers find their “next book” has been moving up the industry agenda since Digital Book World started in 2010. Rand Fishkin of Moz will be focusing on “choosing the right web marketing channels for your book”. Agents who might previously have pushed for an ad in New York Times Book Review or a 5-city author tour need to understand what is the most effective use of support dollars today. Fishkin’s talk is also expected to provoke a lot of questions so he, like Data Guy, will have a breakout session that will allow attendees to get him to address their personal cases.

There are two other whole categories of information agents need to know about that are big components of our DBW program.

The four additional sessions on marketing could also be considered “can’t miss” for the agent keeping up with the digitally-affected ecosystem: one on ebook pricing; one on tracking “the book buyer’s journey” from discovery to purchase; a third on inbound and content marketing; and a fourth on email marketing. Since authors are critical players on the content marketing front and many also possess substantial email lists , it’s obvious that any agent would benefit from these!

(And on the day before DBW officially opens, when we have a full slate of other programming including our Publishers Launch Kids conference, we have four “Mostly Marketing Masterclasses” — on SEO, audience research, managing paid digital media, and sales data analysis — which are a separate ticket but also worth considering for any agent that wants to do a deep dive into modern book marketing.)

The other big category is understanding the larger ecosystem in which publishing exists, mostly shaped by the biggest tech companies. For the past 20 years, publishing has been increasingly dependent on and has given up a great deal of control to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Those “Four Horsemen” are the ongoing focus of NYU Stern School of Business Professor Scott Galloway, who will describe them and their strategies in a Main Stage talk. Two speakers with a skeptical view of tech’s impact on publishing economics are Jon Taplin of USC’s Annenberg School and anti-trust attorney Jonathan Kanter. Taplin will lay out his theory about how Silicon Valley has steadily devalued content in favor of tech and what the content industry can do to fight back. And Kanter will explore the near-term possibilities for anti-trust activity that could loosen the grip those companies, each bigger than the whole book industry, have on our ecosystem. In the same vein, Jessica Saenger of Germany’s Boersenverein will update us about anti-monopoly activity taking place in Europe that could affect those companies and, since every US company and author gets real revenue from Europe, is important to all of us.

There’s tons more: the company transformation talks (eight of them); author Virginia Heffernan on how the Internet is changing culture as well as how we buy and consume content; a session on sales reporting and analytics chaired by Hachette’s former CMO, Evan Schnittman. And what is actually a core topic for them, every agent needs to hear the panel discussing potential changes to copyright law being chaired by Roy Kaufman of Copyright Clearance Center.

It seems pretty certain that the agent who attends Digital Book World will be better prepared to do the jobs of advising authors about marketing and business, as well as negotiating their deals, than the agent who doesn’t.

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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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What Oyster going down demonstrates is not mostly about the viability of ebook subscriptions


The news that the general ebook subscription offering Oyster is throwing in the towel was not really a surprise. The business model they were forced to adopt for the biggest publishers — paying full price for each use of a book with a threshold trigger at considerably less than a complete read while, at the same time, offering consumers a monthly subscription price that barely covered the sale of one book, let alone two — was inevitably unprofitable. Their only hope was that they’d build a large enough audience fast enough that publishers would become in some way dependent on it (if not the revenue it produced) and agree to different terms.

It would be a mistake to interpret Oyster’s demise as clear evidence that “subscriptions for ebooks don’t work”. Obviously, they can. Safari has been a successful and profitable business for nearly two decades. The Spain-based 24Symbols has been operating an ebook subscription business, mostly outside the US and mostly not in English, for too many years to be running exclusively on spec VC money. Scribd has very publicly (and a bit clumsily, in my opinion) adjusted their subscription business model to accommodate what were unprofitable segments in romance ebooks and audiobooks, but the inference would be that for other segments the business model is working just fine. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which is sui generis because they control so many of the parts, including deciding more or less unilaterally how much they’ll pay for much of the content.

What seemed obvious to many of us from the beginning, though, was that a stand-alone subscription offer for general trade books could not possibly work in the current commercial environment. The Big Five publishers control the lion’s share of the commercial books that any general service would need. All of those publishers operate on “agency” terms, which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a subscription service to pull those books in unless the publisher allows it. The terms that the publishers would participate in the subscriptions required, which were, apparently, full payment for the book after a token amount was “read” by a subscriber, combined with a limited number of titles offered (no frontlist), made the subscription offer inherently unprofitable.

The publishers see the general subscription offers as risky business for books that are currently selling well a la carte. Not only would they threaten those sales, they threaten to convert readers from a la carte buying to going through the subscription service. To publishers, this just looked like another potential Amazon: an intermediary that would control reader eyeballs and have increasing clout to rewrite the terms of sale.

So they only participated in a limited way. Penguin Random House (the biggest, and in shouting distance of half of the most commercial books all by themselves) and Hachette Book Group did not even experiment with the non-Amazon subscriptions. HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, and to a lesser extent Macmillan, participate in a limited way. Multiple motivations drove the participation that did take place. The primary goad, probably, was to simply oppose Amazon. Having customers nested anyplace except the behemoth in Seattle can look like a good idea to most publishers. But another was to collect at least some of that VC money poured into an unlikely-to-work business model before it was exhausted. And because the publishers got to decide which books to include, they could choose backlist titles that weren’t generating much revenue anyway and which might benefit from “discovery” within the subscription service.

(Carolyn Reidy, the CEO at Simon & Schuster, tipped to this in her talk last week at the BISG Annual Meeting where she specifically mentioned the value of the discovery S&S has seen take place in the subscription platforms.)

But not all the subscription services were equal. The established Safari was in a market niche, serving mostly B2B customers in technology companies. (They have recently gone to an expanded offering because Boeing and Microsoft techies don’t just need books about programming; they’re also parents and cooks and gardeners so general-interest non-fiction can appeal to them. But that’s not the foundation of Safari’s business and they’re not trying to push fiction.) Scribd had a foundation business as a sort-of “YouTube for documents” that the ebook subscription business both built on and enhanced. For Amazon, Kindle Unlimited just gave them another way to transact with the ebook customer and it gave them another outlet for their exclusive Kindle content.

Only Oyster and another pretty-much simultaneous startup, Entitle (which had a proposition more like a book club than a straight subscription service), were trying to make the alternative ebook revenue stream into a stand-alone business. Entitle went down before Oyster. Librify, another variation on the theme, was acquired by Scribd.

So the failure of Oyster is actually another demonstration of a “new” reality about book publishing, except it is not so new. Book publishing — and book retailing — are no longer stand-alone businesses. Publishing and bookselling are functions, and they can be quite complementary to other businesses. And as adjuncts to other businesses, they don’t actually have to be profitable to be valuable. What that means is that entities trying to make them profitable — or, worse, requiring them to be profitable to survive — are at a stark competitive disadvantage.

Amazon is the past master at making this reality obvious. Remember that they started as a “book retailer” and nothing else. They leaned on Ingram’s Oregon warehouse to enable their business model, which was to take an order for a book and accept payment, then procure the book from Ingram and send it to the customer, and then a little later pay Ingram’s bill. This positive cash-flow model was so brilliant that Ingram could have readily enabled lots of copycats, and they formed a division called Ingram Internet Support Services to do just that. So Amazon killed that idea by cutting their prices to no-margin levels and discouraged anybody else from getting into the game. That was in the late 1990s.

They could do that because the financial community had already accepted Amazon’s strategy of using books to build a customer base and to measure future business prospects by LCV — the “lifetime customer value” of the people they did business with. And it became clear pretty rapidly that they could sell book readers other things so no- or low-margin sales were simply customer acquisition tactics. This was a game Barnes & Noble and Borders couldn’t play.

Now book and ebook sales are almost certainly no more than a single-digit percentage of Amazon’s total revenue. Kindle Unlimited, like their publishing enterprises and self-publishing offerings, are small parts of a powerful organization that has many ways to win with every customer they recruit.

Scribd is not as powerful as Amazon, but they began with a network of content creators and content consumers. That gave them a marketing advantage over Oyster — not every customer had to be acquired at high cost since many potential customers were already “in the tent”. But it also gave them some stability. Eyebrows were raised recently when Scribd put the brakes on the lending of romance books and audiobooks. But tweaking the business model for those verticals simultaneously leaves open that the model is actually working in other niches.

We can see this playing out in a much more limited way in Barnes & Noble stores, where books are being replaced on shelves by toys and games. But that’s not likely to be enough diversification to matter in the long run. It is certainly not going to get B&N where Amazon is, where far more than nine out of every ten dollars comes from something other than books. And Barnes & Noble is nowhere near a point Amazon has reached: where the profit from book sales is incidental if they keep bringing in new customers and also keeps them loyal.

The story on Oyster, still incomplete as of now, is that a lot of their management team is on its way to Google, which, in effect, “bought” the company to get them. Google seems to be trying hard to make sure we don’t think they bought Oyster’s business, they just bought Oyster’s staff. Obviously, Google fits the description of a company with many other interests in which books can play a part. In the beginning, that was all about search. Now it is also about the Android ecosystem and media sales in general. An ebook subscription business, or even a content subscription business, could make sense in Google’s world. But it would be a relatively small play for them. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that they have something other than a mere “book subscription service” in mind for that Oyster staff to work on. Smarter observers than I seem to believe that the personnel Google recruited give them knowledge about Oyster’s mobile reading and discovery technology. Of course, that’s core information for Google.

Similarly, Apple, which now has subscription service for music, might also consider doing one for books — or for all media — at iOS at some point. They don’t have one of Amazon’s advantages — a big stable of intellectual property they control — but they are all about creating an ecosystem that people stay in and don’t leave. Book subscriptions could enhance that.

But the central point I’d take away from this is not that subscription failed, but that a pure book business play failed. One obvious question that provokes is when we will see some signs of synergy between Kobo and their owners at Rakuten, who presumably have Amazon-type ambitions but haven’t seemed to use their ebook business to help pursue them.

And what is true of book retail is also true of book publishing, as we observed in this space quite some time ago. Both publishing and book retailing will increasingly become complements to larger enterprises and decreasingly be stand-alone activities that business can dedicate themselves to for profit.

The New York Times this morning has a front-page article essentially reporting that the ebook surge is over, at least for now, and the print business appears stable. This is great news for publishers if the trend is real. Unfortunately, there were a few important points either elided or ignored that might have undercut the narrative.

One is that, while publishers report ebook sales as a percentage of total book sales steady or slightly declining, Amazon says (and Russell Grandinetti was quoted in the article) their ebook sales are going up. Assuming all this is true, is the difference perhaps sales migrating away from publishers (which sales would be reported by the AAP stats they rely on) and moving to cheaper indie titles available only through Amazon (which sales would not)?

Another is that publishers are raising prices on ebooks and making the price rises stick because of Agency. Is all the sales resistance created by higher prices resulting in print sales, or is some of it causing the book to be rejected for something cheaper? In other words, might total sales for many titles be less than publishers would have looked for before? (At least one agent tells me this is the case.)

And another is that the indie bookstore resurgence has occurred in the years following Borders’s demise and the shifting of the product mix in Barnes & Noble. It is worth asking whether the indies are temporary beneficiaries of a sudden shelf space deficiency or whether we’re really seeing not only an increase in print reading, but a renewed interest by book readers to go to stores to buy the print. That question isn’t posed in this piece.

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Barnes and Noble results and the latest news from Perseus


The most recent Barnes & Noble financial results — which appear to have discouraged Wall Street investors — aren’t good news for the book business. They show that the sale of books through their stores is flat at best, as is the shelf space assigned to books. And it would take a particularly optimistic view of their NOOK results to see anything but an accelerating slide to oblivion for what was, for a time a few years ago, the surging challenger to Kindle.

It is safe to say that every book publisher wants a healthy Barnes & Noble. I asked the CEO of one large publisher recently whether the touted recent growth of independent bookstores was making up for the loss a few years ago of Borders. The response was “not even close”. Less dramatic than all the Borders stores going out at one time is that B&N must logically be reducing its shelf space for books, since some stores — though not many — are closing and the presence of toys and games is growing in those that remain.

In some ways, changes in the merchandise mix makes sense. Borders and B&N were, for quite some time, in a competition to provide the greatest possible in-store selection. With Borders out and most indies a fraction of the size of superstores, B&N can have the biggest selection available to most consumers with fewer titles in stock than they had before. (They do not publish any data that shows makes it explicit that there is a reduced title selection. One can only intuit that from the fact that other products have a growing presence and that some publishers report anecdotally that midlist is harder to place in the stores.) In any case, since the slowest-selling books are really barely selling at all, it would make sense that replacing them with other products could add to the store’s margins.

If B&N is successfully weeding only the slowest selling books, they should be removing titles that are turning so slowly that, after the initial hit of taking the returns, the publishers’ revenue line shouldn’t be too seriously affected.

But the overall store experience is definitely diminished. When big store selections were being built up in the 1990s, it was widely believed — or understood — that the books that didn’t sell brought people into the store to buy the books that did sell. And some book categories have so few strong sellers that eliminating the slower-turn books means you don’t have much of a section at all.

And all this ultimately drives sales online and that usually means to Amazon. (I did a calculation several years ago that suggested that Amazon had picked up several times the amount of once-was-Borders business that B&N did. It was Bowker data that I based it on.) It could well be the case that Barnes & Noble has held close to the same market share over the past few years, but they were the logical inheritors of the Borders brick-and-mortar business, and that is not what happened.

The real failure we see at B&N, which almost certainly affected the NOOK business as well as the stores, was that the customer knowledge within the dot com and NOOK operations apparently has never been used on behalf of the store business. This might be blamed on organizational silos that ran these three components as separate businesses. The failure is otherwise hard to explain. How hard can it be, really, to dig up email addresses of people who bought a book by a particular author to let them know s/he’ll be autographing books near where they live sometime soon?

Or, putting that in terms Barnes & Noble should relate to, might you not be able to charge the publishers a promotional fee for doing that? (AND you’d drive more traffic and sell more books!)

We had a recent conversation with Sergio Herz of the Livraria Cultura chain in Brazil. They are much smaller than B&N, 17 stores rather than many hundreds. But they started a dot com business in the mid-1990s, about the time Amazon did and before BN.com (which started as a joint venture between B&N and Bertelsmann called Books Online, or BOL). Their dot com is by far their largest single store, doing 28 percent of the chain’s total sales. (We don’t see how to discern from B&N’s public numbers how they compare with Cultura in that regard, but we’ll admit to being something less than the best analyst of financial reporting.)

One thing that distinguishes Cultura is the success of their in-store events, which are frequent (thousands per year) and take place in theater-like spaces within their stores. When I asked Herz whether Cultura drove dot com customers to store events he told me they do, and have done so “from the beginning”. Cultura’s management sees the integration of their stores and their dot com presence as an important competitive tool, becoming increasingly important as Amazon makes inroads into the Brazilian market.

That should be B&N’s secret sauce as well: delivering an integrated branded experience, with customer loyalty payoffs that encourage book readers to stick with B&N for both in-store and online purchasing of print and their branded ebooks, applying whichever would work best for them for each book they purchase. And while they do not appear to use their email lists on behalf of store events, B&N does enable online purchase for in-store pickup. The offer to do that appears on book product pages; it isn’t particularly featured. You can also buy in a store for dispatched delivery as if bought online. But there is almost no promotion of that capability either. I would guess that if you asked loyal B&N customers, many wouldn’t even be aware those choices exist. And if you are not a B&N customer, you certainly would have no idea. Promotion of those capabilities to former Borders customers (which would have been a highly targetable group when the Borders demise was still fresh) might have enabled B&N to do better at picking up their business instead of having the lion’s share of them apparently go to Amazon.

The people who own and run B&N are plenty smart. Before the game changed and was complicated by the online option, they had organized their supply chain to give them real competitive advantage over Borders and all other book retailers. But they were tripped up by a combination of Amazon’s longer-term view as an upstart in the 1990s and early 2000s when B&N was an established and profitable company. This was a classic “innovator’s dilemma”, failing to employ a new technology to maximum advantage because a legacy position was being defended.

Amazon was willing to lose money for many years to build its customer base. That was how they could build their stock price. B&N was a profitable company at the top of their category. Profits were how they grew their stock price. This not only discouraged deep investment in the early years of online bookselling, it discouraged the kind of discounting from their online store that Amazon did. Both of them knew that discounted books online put competitive pressure on the brick-and-mortar business. That was fine with Amazon. It was not appealing to Barnes & Noble.

In fact, long before NOOK, Barnes & Noble tried to be in the ebook business. At the turn of the present century, they had such ambition in the ebook space that they built a capability that was later spun out to be a company called Publishing Dimensions (now owned by Jouve) to help publishers with the digital conversion from print books to ebooks. But in the early part of the last decade, the ebook business wasn’t ready yet. There were three formats: PDFs (we all know about them), Microsoft Reader, and Palm Digital. Most ebooks were read on Palm, but Palm’s strategy was to sell the content themselves rather than let retailers do it.

Mobi was invented as a solution to the formats problem, to be one that could serve both MS Reader and Palm. By the time Mobi was created, B&N had expended a lot of cash and effort on an ebook market that didn’t materialize. They never took the next step of using Mobi. Amazon, bought Mobi in 2005 and effectively buried it for a while, only to bring it a couple of years later as the format that ran on the Kindle.

The ebook decisions B&N made were not crazy. Launching the Kindle business was a big roll of the dice for Amazon in 2007 when there had been no empirical evidence that there would really be an ebook market. Once again, as with the deep discounting of print books for online sales in the 1990s, the heavy investment in building a customer base made more sense for a multi-product retailer whose stock price responded to customer base growth, regardless of revenue or profitability, than for a more conventional legacy retailer.

When B&N decided to go after the ebook market with the NOOK, organizationally they did it with a dedicated and largely independent effort, not an integrated one. That might have been necessary. But it also might have been B&N’s last chance to build on its one distinctive advantage: having a strong store base and a real dot com business. (Borders never had the latter and Amazon, of course, doesn’t have the former.)

Doing the integration among the three strands of their business — stores, dot com, and ebooks — should still be Barnes & Noble’s top priority. That’s their biggest lever. There potentially are others. Moving from a sale-and-return purchasing paradigm to consignment terms with publishers, which would also almost certainly require allowing vendor-managed inventory, would also really help their financials by removing a large capital requirement. But it would also require rewriting the rule book on buying and substantial changes to their systems. There is also a potential opportunity getting indie authors to pay the cost of putting printed-on-demand copies on the store shelves on consignment as well, with potential profit in the printing and sales as well as new positioning with the growing base of indie authors and their readers. The recent attention Walmart got for stocking one indie title tips to the potential PR and merchandising advantage of that tactic.

But the time B&N has to change the reality that they can’t seem to grow their market share continues to shorten. The one big advantage they are likely to retain over their competitors in Seattle — who are certainly growing theirs! — will be a cooperative attitude from the publishers, who live in fear of Amazon’s growing power. But even that advantage has its limits.

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The news comes this week that Perseus has engaged bankers to help them sell their company. This follows the collapse about a year ago of the sale of Perseus to Hachette with the simultaneous handoff of Perseus’s distribution business — many times the size of its publishing operation — to Ingram.

There has never been any official or public explanation of what caused the Hachette deal to be called off a year ago. But the tricky part of selling this company is definitely that the distribution component will likely need a different home than the publishing assets. It will take a Big Five or other very large publisher to be able to absorb the publishing assets of Perseus. Those companies do distribution deals, but they seem to prefer much larger publishers for that service than many of the hundreds of Perseus distribution clients are.

Ingram was the logical home for the distribution business because it has the ability to scale, has been developing the automation of its distribution service offering through Ingram Spark, and it already handles smaller clients routinely. If Perseus’s estimated $300 million in distribution business yields about $40 million in revenue (as we’ve seen in one estimate), that’s a pretty small business for one of the Big Five to take on as a separate operation. But the many small publishers wouldn’t necessarily combine very well with the current distribution activities of the big houses.

So whichever big publisher might want the Perseus publishing operations (primarily Basic Books, Running Press, Da Capo, and the travel publisher Avalon) might well need an Ingram in the deal the same way Hachette did. It will almost certainly take a combination of two companies to swallow this particular elephant. Presumably the publishing components lean on some acquirer’s overhead, but the distribution piece would probably take a bit of a margin hit as a stand-alone.

There are, presumably, some companies who might want to break into the publishing business with a fully operational scaled entity like Perseus distribution. So maybe a new entrant will be enabled by this opportunity.

Of course, Ingram was interested the first time because they want to add clients to their existing distribution operation. Presumably, they still do. Perhaps they get back in this game again as somebody’s partner, like they did last time. But in the short run, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to tell Ingram that Perseus clients, knowing the company is on the block, might be receptive to switching and at least some of the growth Ingram sought might be attainable through salesmanship rather than through acquisition.

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The publishing world is changing, but there is one big dog that has not yet barked


Recent data seem to show that, for the publishers, the growth in the retail ebook market has slowed down or stopped (at least for the moment), while Amazon’s ebook sales apparently continue to grow. The share of the market controlled by the publishing establishment — the Big Five publishers and others — is starting to be slowly eroded. This does not yet suggest that an author’s best bet is to go out on his/her own and we may be a very long way from that. But it does suggest that life may get increasingly difficult for publishers.

The headline data we saw last week is that Hachette’s ebook sales went down last year. All their sales declined, but ebooks fell faster and the percentage of their business in ebooks is diminishing. How much that has to do with their war last year with Amazon over terms is not clear.

What we’re also seeing and hearing is that publishers might have boxed themselves in with their return to agency pricing. When publishers first “raised prices” by instituting agency pricing for ebooks in 2010, they saw no reduction in ebook sales, which continued to grow. Michael Cader’s analysis (can’t find it in print, but he told it to me) was that publishers may have misread the real impact of price increases because they raised them in a growing market. The number of ebook readers was increasing every day, so those who were put off by the high prices were outnumbered by the new entrants who just wanted to read their books digitally on their shiny new devices.

Whatever is the reason, the anecdotal reports I’m getting suggest that the price increases aren’t being so easily swallowed in the current round of Agency pricing. Amazon may not care about ending discounting from those prices because they don’t need to or want to, but it would appear that the new deals won’t let them. They certainly don’t have the flexibility to do so that they did before Agency came to the marketplace. So the sometimes startlingly high publisher-set prices are prevailing. And, aside from the Hachette numbers that were reported, we’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher agency prices are activated.

Hugh Howey told me this was happening in a private exchange three months ago. I didn’t believe him. I do now.

We continue to see a shift in market share. Amazon’s share continues to grow, as does Apple’s. Nook’s share continues to shrink. Google and Kobo are harder to read, but both are smaller than the others anyway.

But this is not a zero-sum game and it isn’t simple. It’s Rubik’s Cube complicated.

Some of the change in the market could be due to subscription services taking a chunk of ebook consumption out of the by-the-book retail market. Although Scribd and Oyster appear to have very small market shares, Scribd was so “successful” with some readers that they had to cut back their romance offering; it was apparently costing them too much to provide all the books their romance subscribers could read.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited may be having a bigger impact on the overall market. In all these cases, it is the public understanding that the subscription services are “purchasing” the ebooks from the established publishers. (Kindle’s own authors are compensated with a “by the page read” division of a pot that Amazon arbitrarily decides.) But the Big Five aren’t participating in KU and they aren’t putting their new books — the biggest sellers with the highest prices — into the subscription services. So all the reader bandwidth and revenue going through those services might be coming out of the big players’ and big books’ share.

Our friends at Ingram told me another piece of anecdata which may also be at play. They keep track of the number of SKUs that sell 100 copies or fewer and those that sell 10,000 copies or more. The aggregate sales of the former group is growing; the aggregate sales of the latter group is not. What that suggests is that the sales of books that are not really commercial are taking share away from those that are, whether those that are come from publishers or indie authors like Hugh Howey. Whether that particular change is yet impactful, it is inexorable.

The reduction in ebook sales of hot new titles could be starting to affect future deals — one agent told me unambiguously that it is visible — which would be the next step in the indie vision of how publishers disappear. Publishers base their advances on revenue expectations, which, for ebooks, might now be diminishing. If authors can’t get the same big advance as they did before, might they prefer to go it alone and take the bigger share of ebook revenues they can (still) get with a do-it-yourself approach? Obviously, for some, as the equation shifts, that could happen.

But, at the same time, we’re seeing print book sales, and — at least for the moment — print book retail shelf space, holding their own. As long as that’s true, publishers still have a vital role to play. As long as the proposition “we put books on shelves” has value, so do publishers.

In fact, Ingram (not Amazon) offers the complete suite of services a publisher needs to provide, as does Perseus, whose distribution business Ingram tried to acquire in the 3-way deal with Hachette that went sour about a year ago. Both of them can get a book printed, offset in a print run or on-demand. They warehouse and bill and collect. They have a sales force. They do business with all the retail outlets that every publisher does. And they offer all those capabilities on a marginal cost basis. (The big publishers offer a similar suite of services, but generally are less interested in smaller players that Ingram and Perseus are happy to serve.) Whether you publish one book, 100 books, or have a long list, all you need is the rights to the book and the cash to pay your costs and you can buy the logistical capability to match any publisher.

But you won’t have two things that really matter:

the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;

the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.

For big author brands, the “sure to sell” component might well be in place, but the marketing complications, and the risk (because a lot of inventory could be involved) would not be trivial.

What this means for the future of publishers, or for what will constitute the best business decision for authors, is not obvious. Everybody trying to make money in the future from the books they write will suffer from the problem the data Ingram cites points to: the increasing share of the readers’ attention that will be taken by books not published with serious commercial intent. If publishers lower their prices to compete more effectively with indie-published books and the subscription offers, their revenue will go down but so will the indies’, who will lose some of the benefits they now gain from their pricing advantage.

It is sometimes suggested that publishers need to move out of Manhattan to be competitive, but, in fact, there are many ways to reconfigure aside from that. The service offerings from Ingram and Perseus (and others: one example is that Donnelley also offers publishers the ability to convert manufacturing management and warehousing overheads to variable costs) allow publishers to get leaner and more focused on their core missions of identifying, developing, and marketing content.

What is definitely true is that the share of the reading market held by commercially-minded publishers (not just commercial “for profits”, but also university presses) will diminish as both successful self-published authors and hundreds of thousands of others who don’t succeed (and maybe don’t even care) take their content to market on their own.

The university and academic presses, of course, have a defining characteristic that might well protect them. They require certified knowledge to underpin their books. (Whether you’re publishing about accounting or brain surgery, you need validated authority that will be an insuperable barrier for independent publishing.)

This is not a death-knell for anybody. This is a changing world for everybody. Of the current household names, only Amazon and Ingram are structurally positioned to grow quite naturally in a shrinking overall market. (The publishers can grow by acquiring each other, and PRH and HarperCollins would seem to be in the best position to take advantage of that.) Amazon will sell an increasing share of the books; Ingram will provide more and more services to more and more publishers while they remain the biggest supplier to everybody besides Amazon that sells books. (Perseus can also expand its distribution business.) The roster of publishers will continue to consolidate, as it has been doing pretty relentlessly (except for a recent decade of relative stability which seems to have now unleashed a more recent stage of more extreme consolidation) for at least 40 years. But as long as print is sold in stores and, after that, as long as half of the books are sold by somebody other than Amazon, there will be a need for publishers that most authors will be delighted to allow compensation for.

Let’s remember that there is a very big dog that has not barked. No major author of recurring bestsellers has stepped up to take charge of his or her own output. It is bound to happen someday, and if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been sure it would have happened by now. Five years ago I would also have figured that one of the big publishers by 2025 would be a version of United Artists, several major authors organized to share an organization and create their own brand. There have been no signs of that yet either. Indie publishing is still growing and it seems that established publishing is at a standstill. But we’re still many years — most likely a decade or more — from any real changing of the guard.

I don’t see myself as a sophisticated reader or analyst of fiction. But I want to offer the opinion that “Go Set A Watchman”, the controversial new release from “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, is a very worthwhile book. And, by my reading, both the story and the Atticus Finch character fit perfectly well with what we read in “Mockingbird”. What changed most between the two books was the circumstances of the south. “Mockingbird” takes place in a time of unquestioned white dominance. “Watchman” takes place in a time when white dominance is under serious threat. It is a more complex time and deals with more complex issues. It is easy to see why a commercial editor in the late 1950s would find “Watchman” a very uncomfortable book to sell and “Mockingbird” much easier to place in the market.

There are dueling opinions on this. I agree with novelist Ursula Le Guin (you’ll have to click on “newest post” if you go there before she publishes her next one; not sure how you’ll navigate after that), not with the bookseller who thinks the book is so bad that the store is compelled to offer refunds to disappointed readers.

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Things to discuss


The planning process for the main Digital Book World program — about 40 discrete programming elements using about 150 speakers over two days — has always benefited from a “Conference Council” brainstorming meeting. This year’s iteration is later this week. We’ll have attendees from all of the Big Five, several other publishers, agents, and assorted industry players who can help us understand the concerns and initiatives across the waterfront of industry interest.

Sometime after we started doing this in 2009, we added a pre-meeting survey component, asking our Council members to register their opinion about the topics we knew we wanted to consider. That survey was primarily a tool to guide the very fast-moving conversation we have at the Council meeting.

This year we have added a “public” version of the survey. That turned out to be a really good idea. This post is a list of programming ideas that either came directly from the public survey or were inspired by suggestions made there which are very likely to become important parts of Digital Book World 2016.

I’m excited about the idea of doing an entire track on “Making Investments Pay Off”, which is a persistent concern in the world we live in where new business models and new initiatives are being tested all the time. After years with basically the same business model and workflow, publishers are trying new things all the time now without knowing exactly how to make them commercially beneficial. We can see at least four areas where publishers are putting in a lot of effort, but could probably benefit from a discussion about how to measure, monetize, and manage their efforts.

End-user databases (collecting names)
Digital marketing campaigns (publishers are hiring the talent; now, how to make effective use of it)
Building author brands (aligning interests; knowing what you want; making it pay)
Research (it is cheaper and more effective than ever, but how does it pay off)

With all the discussion that persistently takes place around how much of a threat self-publishing does or doesn’t constitute to the establishment (a conversation into which I waded last week), we should host a discussion on the future of self-publishing. I know I’d want Amazon on such a panel, if they’d join. Some other players who could shed light on self-publishing’s future are Kobo, Smashwords, Ingram, a literary agent, and a self-published authors. (This panel has Jane Friedman’s name written all over it as the moderator!)

We’ve never convened a panel of Human Resources people to discuss how what they look for has changed across job functions. That would be an interesting discussion.

With all the new topics, ideas, and startups that seem to arrive on a daily basis, big companies must exercise discipline around what to spend time on and what to avoid. That’s another topic that could be a very important one, if we can find executives willing to speak to it. What are the rabbit holes? What are the things a company should not spend time discussing or exploring in the current environment?

As publishers adjust to a commercial environment where intermediaries are more problematic (partly because they become fewer in number and partly because those that remain become increasingly powerful) but direct sales opportunities become easier to develop and manage, new things are possible. Publishers can now develop online courses and proprietary subscriptions, if they have the right content for them. Tools — like Aer.io — are being put in place for them to sell digital content or hard goods direct with minimal investments in tech. Two publishers, Sourcebooks with “Put Me In the Story”, and Quarto with “This is Your Cookbook”, have recently created custom book lines — using technology to personalize existing content —  that are largely made possible by direct selling. Direct selling is a leading edge of change that enables product types and customer relationships that would never have been possible in the past. More and more publishers will want to know what’s being done and how it might apply to them.

And as the far-flung world becomes reachable from anywhere, English-language publishers in each English territory have unprecedented capability to sell to all the other territories. Getting the Most out of the English-Speaking World — what you need to do, or do differently, to optimize sales in US, UK, Australia, S Africa, India, etc. — is now a topic that just about every English-language publisher can benefit from.

All my readers are invited to participate in the DBW topic survey. Thanks to all of you who have already contributed your thoughts and ideas. As you can see, we’re paying attention.

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