The Shatzkin Files


Looking at predictions from here going back a few years


Prediction posts are common blog- and article-fodder at the end of a calendar year. I don’t think we’ll do one this time around, but I thought it would be fun to review some of the prediction posts from prior years. So pardon the highly self-referential post, but I think reviewing the predictions and reality from the past provides some perspective on the changes we’ve experienced over the past half-decade.

In December 2012, I wrote about “what to watch for” in 2013. I don’t think this was very adventurous, but it was mostly right.

I said that:

1. Overall migration of sales from print to digital will continue to slow down.

2. “Other-than-immersive” books will continue to lag in digital transition.

3. Mergers and consolidation among publishers are likely to become more common, after a long period when they haven’t been.

4. Platforms for children’s books will become increasingly powerful gatekeepers.

5. Marketing for publishers will be a constant exercise in learning and reinvention, and increasingly difficult to separate from editorial.

In December 2011, I steered away from predictions to raise what I thought were the important questions facing the industry coming up in 2012. Despite no “predictions”, this one anticipated a number of developments that mattered, including the challenges Amazon Publishing would face, the difficulty for B&N trying to create a workable international strategy, the lift indie bookstores would get from Borders going out, and the conundrum facing illustrated book publishers as consumption migrates to digital.

That same year, I chimed in with others for Jeremy Greenfield’s annual round of predictions on the DBW blog. I commented on the restructuring of big companies that would result in new positions. And that was before anybody had people with the word “audience” in their job titles. Doesn’t everybody now?

But I really got it wrong about ebook royalties, which I thought back then would go up from the “standard” 25% and, although that may still happen someday, it hasn’t happened yet.

I didn’t write a single consolidated predictions post in December 2010 but I did posts making some predictions. One thing I got right was that ebook sales would continue to rise quickly (some people back then expected a slowdown, but we were still in a more-than-doubling-each-year period though, as noted above in the predictions last year, that slowdown came eventually). I thought bookstores would be headed for very hard times. That was just before Borders’s demise.

I’ve made the point on the blog before that every book purchased online is another nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar bookselling. … I’m expecting that what brick-and-mortar booksellers will experience in the first six months of 2011 will be the most difficult time they’ve ever seen, with challenges escalating beyond what most of them are now imagining or budgeting for.

I think the next six months will make what we’ve been experiencing for the past year look very gradual. I know smart people who have thought for the past year that there would be some flattening coming soon in the ebook switchover. It doesn’t feel that way to me.

At the same time, I focused on marketing with a suggestion — for topic-specific (vertical) ebook recommendation apps or ebooks — that I still think is out there waiting to be exploited. Maybe Mike Fine’s Mediander will take hold and carry us in that direction. (What has happened instead is ebook notification of ebook price sales, which is, to my mind, not as useful.)

I also saw backlist emphasis as a logical consequence of ebook ascent. I think publishers are still lagging in taking advantage of this the way they could. And that blows the end of this prediction, because I said everybody would see that by the end of 2011. They didn’t. (And we now understand the constraints — of time, timing, and budgeting — that make backlist marketing difficult. Publishers are now looking to tackle the backlist in scalable, data-driven, and efficient ways.)

In December 2009, I made 13 predictions for 2010. One stands out: I said that ebooks would become significant revenue contributors for many titles. That happened. And also accurate was my hunch that “windowing” for ebooks, for a little while the strategy employed by publishers to protect print, would be overwhelmed by circumstances. Windowing really didn’t last long.

In January 2009, I wrote a piece for PW analyzing how my 2008 predictions had held up. I gave myself a pat on the back. I think I deserved it. As I said in PW:

I said the popularity of e-books would increase—that the rising Kindle tide would lift all the e-book boats. That appears to be unambiguously correct.

I said Apple would make an e-book reader out of the iPod and iPhone. They haven’t, but they’ve made it easy for others to do so.

I said B&N would continue to leverage its great supply chain to lengthen its lead over Borders. And, in an incredibly difficult year for all book retailers, B&N has substantially outperformed its closest competitor.

I said the lack of a competitive supply-chain infrastructure would handicap Borders, which would get a new owner. Turns out I was half-right. The lack of a competitive supply chain has been such a handicap that Borders has not yet found a new owner!

I said publishers would push harder to publicize books through the Internet because traditional review channels would continue to diminish. Well, the traditional review channels have certainly diminished, and publishers have increasingly turned to bloggers, Web sites and e-mail blasts to promote their titles. Most publishers now have dedicated staff for Web marketing.

I also said 2008 would be the year of experimentation. In many ways it was: Random with free e-book giveaways; Penguin beefing up its e-book editions of classics; Harper creating an imprint with Bob Miller that has a new business model for authors and a no-returns option for intermediary customers, as well as its Authonomy and BookArmy sites. Experimentation will be curtailed in 2009 because of the difficult economy, so I got that one into the right year.

At the end of 2013, we look forward to a new year with a revised commercial trade publishing landscape, mainly because what was formerly the Big Six is now (to my way of thinking) the Big One and the Following Four. The challenge for publishers will be to hang on to their margins, which will be under assault from a single dominant store network, a single dominant online retailer, and literary agents who know their author clients are reading the same articles they are about how the publishers’ profit has remained healthy through the early phases of the digital transition. The challenge for bookstores will be to stay relevant now that the most avaricious readers no longer must visit them to get their next book. And the challenge for everybody is to make a profit and generate some leverage on the even-diminishing share of the business that isn’t controlled by Amazon.

At this year, the fifth Digital Book World, I’ll start the show with a quick summary of what has changed since we started having the Digital Book World conference in 2010. And the wrap-up panel I co-host with Michael Cader will focus again on “Looking Back, Looking Forward”; what has happened that is significant in the past year and what we expect in the year ahead. We are delighted to have John Ingram, Mary Ann Naples, and Simon Lipskar joining us for that conversation.

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  • Jeff Dwyer

    Mike,

    Interesting and, I think, correct predictions for 2014. One thing that I’ve seen mentioned minimally but that might have a large presence going forward is the possibility that public libraries will begin to sell ebooks as part of their service to their users and as a much needed revenue producer. Most small cities and towns have a public library, and as the indie brick and mortar bookstores disappear, the ability to purchase an ebook and receive it immediately at one’s public library may fill that void. How it will work out is going to be an interesting thing to watch.

    Jeff Dwyer

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      My own hunch is that the benefit to libraries from ebook sales will be minimal. It is damn hard to get consumers to sign up at a different store. And it is damn hard to run an effective retail operation. I certainly wouldn’t discourage a library from trying this out and perhaps across many libraries it can amount to something of value to publishers. But I wouldn’t have high expectations for this to be any kind of game-changer.

      Mike

      • Jeff Dwyer

        Mike,

        I suspect you’re right, but, I think that the absence of indie bookstores in communities will drive book people towards alternatives, and that may become their libraries. We’ve all watched the problem that libraries have had obtaining ebooks from publishers. Some folks believe that the self-published authors will find a way to get their ebooks into libraries in greater numbers than the traditional publishers have done since the self-published authors can’t get their books into indie bookstores. Primarily, self-published authors rely on Amazon. When there’s no bookstore in a town, those folks who worked for minimum wage at those stores because they love being around books may volunteer at their library. That may lead them to creating an innovative service that could benefit the library and their borrowers. Recently, I tried to dispose of 1500 hard and soft cover books from a summer house that I was selling. The used bookstores are buried with inventory and they don’t want more books, and the regional book auctions are closed or are also buried with unsold inventory. I ended up sending the thirty-nine cartons of books to a country auction along with a truck load of other stuff. The books were sold by the carton. 1500 books fetched $140.00 total as no one bothered to even open the cartons. I’ve spoken with several old used bookstore colleagues of mine who have either closed their shops or are planning to do so soon. Of course, we’re older and most are getting tired of the dwindling margins. The cost of the real estate to store and display used books where fewer and fewer people spend time browsing through the stock makes it looked like a doomed business model. I think the majority of new and used indie bookstores will slip away soon and be just a fond memory for those of us from the old AB Bookmans’s Weekly days. Now, I carry my inventory around on my Kindle, and I’ve found that I buy more books. When a business model becomes available to sell those “used” ebooks, that’s going to be a game changer for old used book dealers presently sitting around depressed in their assisted living apartments.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        For the sake of publishers and authors (and then, ultimately, readers), I hope the day when there are common transactions for “used” ebooks never comes.

        Mike

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