As part of the promotion of the Digital Book World conference, I do some interviewing with the very capable Jeremy Greenfield, the editor of their blog. And Jeremy takes our conversations and chops them up into short pieces around the themes of our show. Since the focus of Digital Book World is “how digital is changing publishing”, Amazon is a topic of great interest and one we try to address in an original and enlightening way.
In my interview with Jeremy, for which he published very brief but entirely accurate excerpts, I did say that publishers would face a real selling job with authors when Amazon’s share grows by another 25% from its current base or if Barnes & Noble closed. Neither of those things is likely to happen in the next few years. If and when the day comes that one of those things does happen, not all publishers would be entirely defenseless even with today’s arsenal of capabilities. And Jeremy’s piece closes with my suggestion that publishers can help themselves by doing “digital marketing at scale, which is audience-centric in its thinking.”
Despite how this is interpreted in some circles, it does not add up to publishing “spiraling down the drain”.
Amazon is already truly disruptive and it isn’t clear to anybody but those on the inside of Amazon exactly how disruptive. I’ve written earlier that we know nothing about the used book marketplace they host and foster, which we must assume cuts into sales, particularly of bestselling books which have many copies in circulation. A recent discussion on a mailing list I’m on revolved around what we don’t know about how many ebooks are being published. Why? Because Bowker, which issues ISBN numbers and therefore helps us count the titles going into the marketplace, doesn’t necessarily get to touch (and count) titles that stay entirely inside of Amazon and therefore only use the Amazon “ASIN” substitute for the ISBN. Other ebook retailers will handle titles without ISBN numbers, but only Amazon has a large enough market by itself to make a substantial number of self-publishers work with them alone.
And now we have the anomaly of sales reporting from the AAP, once again working without totally internal Amazon IP, that suggests ebook sales are going down. Are they going down? Or are self-published titles exclusively inside Amazon taking share away from the part of the business we can see and count for ourselves and masking the ebook sales growth that is actually taking place? I have no evidence, but that strikes me as a more likely reality than that ebook sales have actually fallen year-to-year recently.
What that means is that we are developing two publishing businesses. One of them includes all of us: all the publishers, all the retailers, all the industry bodies counting books and sales. And one of them is “private” or “proprietary”; it is Amazon. They are publishing an unknown number of titles selling an unknown number of copies netting an unknown number of dollars under a numbering system nobody else can crack or track.
Actually, Amazon is not entirely alone in wanting proprietary titles. Perhaps there are some within Nook or Kobo, but hosting proprietary titles to establish themselves in the market is the declared strategy of upstart retailer Zola Books. Last week they announced exclusive titles from Joan Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. They think having showcase titles of this kind will enable them to crack the ranks of established ebook retailers. I think it would take a lot more of them than they’ll ever get to make a dent, but time will tell. And if they don’t sell a lot of the ones they have, it will become impossible to persuade anybody else to give them such an exclusive on any basis.
But Amazon, being more than half the market already for a lot of genre fiction, can use painless (to them) financial incentives to induce authors to give them exclusives through the KDP Select program. So they get them in numbers none of the rest of us can count but which could conceivably be large enough to actually make industry figures inaccurate.
My assumption is that Amazon can do more for a book inside Amazon than a publisher or author can working Amazon from the outside, all other things being equal (although the U-turn from the ambitious Larry Kirshbaum publishing program might cast doubt on that). And the publisher takes a big share of the Amazon-generated revenue. That means that the publishers have to make up the difference in revenue for the author in one or both of two ways:
They have to do a superior job publishing the book — editing, positioning it in the marketplace, selling rights, and sustaining a marketing effort that will be largely digital — so that it sells more even inside Amazon than it would without those efforts. In other words, they have to assure that “all other things” do not remain equal.
They have to sell lots of books outside of Amazon so that the revenue from the larger publishing ecosystem makes up for the Amazon-generated revenue that the author shares with the publisher.
The shift that has taken place so far is apparently not crippling publishers at all. There are no clear tallies about this, but it certainly feels like there are more authors moving from self-publishing to a publishing house (to borrow a term that usually has a different meaning in our business: “discovered” by publishers because of their self-publishing success) than the other way. So either they’re able to make more money, or they really appreciate the full bundle of editing and marketing services a publisher provides, or they value the broader exposure through a publisher’s entire distribution network more than the perhaps-higher revenue they could make from fewer sales through Amazon alone, or some combination of the three.
My point, and what should be a broad industry concern, is that the publisher’s challenge continues to get steeper. Amazon’s share is growing in relation to the rest of the market and more and more service offerings for editing and marketing are making it ever-easier for authors to entertain a non-publisher option. There is a very small but growing population of authors with lengthy backlists who have gotten their rights back, or secured their ebook rights alone, and are able to consider alternative paths to market.
Although she wasn’t the first, Jane Friedman saw this very early — and it is the opportunity that got things started for her Open Road Integrated Media, probably the largest new publisher built during our current shifting paradigm. Richard Curtis of E-Reads and Arthur Klebanoff of Rosetta were pursuing a similar strategy before Friedman got started, but she found the funding and added the promotional sizzle to build a bigger business faster. (It is still an open question whether the companies that are building themselves by offering more generous royalty splits for already-established backlist have a sustainable business model.)
We’ve said repeatedly in this space that the publisher’s time-honored core proposition has been “we put books on shelves”. That is changing and the new proposition has to be “we will help authors reach their whole audience”. A very smart executive from a major house suggested another formulation that makes sense: “publishers are experts at building author brands.”
Either of those, as a competitive statement against Amazon, will almost certainly reflect a potential advantage for authors. But as the difference between what is Amazon’s audience and what is the whole audience gets smaller, the publishers’ challenge gets harder. And only by doing a smashing job at both publishing in a way that sells more on Amazon and by maximizing the market outside Amazon will publishers retain their power to attract authors in the years to come.
The answers for publishers as seen from here are “verticality”, or “audience-centricity”, combined with scaled skills (and tools) to do digital marketing in ways the authors can’t on their own and which Amazon isn’t likely to develop. The two go together: focusing on an audience enables a publisher to build scaled capabilities to reach that audience that others without that focus will not have.
There have always been publishers that have gone “down the drain” or, more likely, seen themselves become part of some other publisher rather than a stand-alone entity. We will certainly see consolidation in various segments of the industry at the same time that we will see lots of new smaller entrants attracted by book publishing’s diminishing cost of entry. (We call this atomization.) But seeing that things will get harder is not the same as seeing a pending apocalypse, and recognizing there are benchmarks that would signal a real escalation of the challenge is not the same as saying we’re about to hit them.
The topics covered in this post will get a thorough airing at the Digital Book World conference on January 14-15, 2014. (Here’s the full program.) Our Amazon coverage will include presentations from Brad Stone, Benedict Evans, and Joe Esposito, followed by a panel discussion among them. Professor Dana Beth Weinberg combines her data analysis skills as a sociologist with her publishing interest and knowledge as a romance writer to present a unique perspective on the changing dynamic between publishers and authors. And Phil Sexton, the publisher of Writer’s Digest, will present the results of his organization’s survey of more than 5,000 freelance writers, capturing an up-to-date picture of how writers view the choice between working with a publisher and putting their material out on their own.