What I was thinking when I said that wild stuff
At our Publishers Launch Conference on the Wednesday of BEA, Michael Cader and I introduced a new feature we think will become regular at our events: a candid 1-on-1 conversation between us. It went well.
In fact, it went so well that what reads like a pretty damn accurate verbatim account of much of it constituted a story for Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives. So, now, thanks to Ed, much of the world knows that I made a number of pretty bold forecasts, probably the boldest of which is that we’ll see the US market boil down to one dominant trade publisher over the next 10 years.
There are a lot of unexpressed assumptions in that calculation. And, in the “predicting the future” part of my business, when I say 10 years I don’t count myself “wrong” if it takes 15. So, with thanks to Ed for reporting me accurately, it seems worthwhile to elaborate a bit more on what I said last week.
Operating with absolutely no “inside” knowledge, I outlined two expectations I have for initiatives we’ll see from Penguin Random House, about which I’ve written before. One is that they’ll create an ebook subscription offering which operates exclusively for their own books. The other is that they’ll apply the knowledge they’ve already gained about vendor-managed inventory (VMI) to create book departments within stores of all kinds, taking advantage of the reduction of shelf space in dedicated bookstores and the related challenges facing all other retailers to maintain top line revenues for whatever is their line of business as sales of all things, not just books, migrate online. Both of these capabilities could also be extended to include their distribution clients; it might require some renegotiation of terms to do it, but it would almost certainly be seen as a beneficial add-on by the distributees.
If PRH did that, and if they hit my made-up-from-thin-air target of 1000 proprietary sales locations over a couple of years, the new trade behemoth would have a bigger distribution base than all the other trade houses to go along with their already-bigger checkbook. So the consolidation of the general trade business under them could occur author-by-author as contracts expire, not requiring them to buy or merge with other companies.
I think the ebook subscription service is a relative no-brainer, assuming Random House can come up with the deal structure to get big authors to agree to it and, without a third party taking out some of the revenue, that should be doable. They don’t need 100% participation; I’d guess that if half the big-brand authors go ahead, the others will follow and the rest should be delighted with the opportunity.
I also think that every major publisher should be offering an ebook subscription service for their kids’ books, because they all have extensive lists and major brand names for that market and subscriptions will prove a very convenient way for parents to give kids lots of reading material at a predictable cost as the book world goes increasingly digital. There are aggregators in the field doing that now across many publishers’ titles, but there might be room for a lot of offers here and the publishers would be wise to consider whether they do best by creating their own subscription offers, licensing their big brand content to aggregators, or doing both.
But the build-up of proprietary offerings at retail and the prediction that trade publishing will consolidate as radically as I forecast, depend on the future of consumer behavior which nobody, and certainly not I, can predict with any certainty.
What most industry observers track is how the percentage of a publisher’s revenue that comes from digital books is rising. That’s commonly considered to be in the 25-30 percent range at the moment, going up by perhaps 30-40% a year (so next year it might e 33-38 percent) after having been rising much faster in recent years. A more nuanced view of this recognizes that it is particular books that (so far) really sell in digital form — generally books you read from beginning to end rather than those you skip around or dip into or which require illustrations — while others do not. For fiction, we are likely at 50% or more digital for a high percentage of the titles published.
In fact, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, tracking ebook sales against print sales, believes that digital will exceed print in a pretty short time.
But an even more important index if you’re charting the future of publishing is what’s bought in stores versus what’s bought online. Obviously, all ebooks are bought online. But there’s pretty strong evidence that the percentage of print books sold online is still steadily rising. In our discussion on stage, Michael Cader (the most reliable source for industry facts there is) remarked on the fact that Amazon print sales are still rising; more slowly than before, but still rising. Juxtapose that fact against the reality that total sales of print books through retailers are not rising, and sales through bookstores are certainly shrinking and it is clear that the online share of print sales is still going up.
I’m assuming that trend will continue. When bookstores close, the people who shopped in them often switch to buying online. When a bookstore reduces the selection of titles it offers, as Barnes & Noble certainly seems to have done, some of the people who browsed it are going to switch to browsing online. This leads to more stores closing and to more stores reducing their book inventory. It’s called a vicious cycle. It’s not a new concept.
Every publisher is trying to put print books into more retail places with great urgency. Some have better lists for it than others; some have better sales policies and other tools for it than others. But the barrier, most of the time, is that buying books is really hard for retailers. Each book is a unique product that has to be tracked uniquely and thought about uniquely and a store has to have at least hundreds, and preferably thousands or tens of thousands of them to be a decent place to shop for books.
That’s why vendor-managed inventory is so important; it can eliminate the need for the store to have book-buying expertise as a pre-condition for them to carry a decent range of books, even in a defined niche market.
So if PRH does what I think they will do and the shelf space for bookstores keeps shrinking and the share of book sales that take place in stores shrinks along with it, the position of other general trade publishers becomes increasingly difficult to navigate. PRH has additional distribution that nobody else has and the biggest checkbook among publishers. Amazon will have an increasing share of the potential market, so authors signing with them will be missing less and less eschewing what most publishers could give them beyond Amazon and the biggest checkbook of all.
Almost two decades ago, when the Internet first posed a threat to the business model for scholarly journals, I asked my friend, Mark Bide (now head of business development for Publishers Licensing Society in the UK), what would be the early warning sign that the traditional journals model is headed for trouble. He said “when the scholars stop submitting to the journals. As long as the scholars submit, their business will work.” In other words, the danger wasn’t so much losing their sources of sales as it was losing their sources of intellectual property.
It looks to me like that wisdom will apply to general trade publishers over the next decade or so.
In the discussion with Cader, we talked about how the other publishers might respond to this. It would take all four of them merging to present an equivalent title offering to PRH, and that would, at the very least, take some time. Another possibility is that a third party aggregator could create a competitive set of titles, or even do the job for the whole industry including PRH. But the challenge there would be terms; publishers need to give up margin to make this workable for a 3rd party, a problem PRH wouldn’t have on their own. And it is also true that PRH could probably complete its set of bestsellers if it had to by buying in those that it didn’t publish for this offering. One CEO I talked to about this nearly a year ago conceded that, if PRH went this way, that CEO’s company would almost certainly have to sell them whatever books they wanted.
And while this post is still extremely speculative, it has what might be the virtue of being fairly consistent with the thinking reflected in the speech I did at BEA six years ago predicting “the end of general trade publishing houses”.
Final point on this one. I am not saying that nobody but one publisher will publish books that people will want. There will be publishers in many niches, including fiction niches. What I’m predicting is that the “general trade” model of a publisher that issues books on subjects across the board, trusting the book retailing system to sort out the books for the customers by subject and genre, will consolidate to a single player in the next couple of decades.