The digital transition of the trade book publishing business, which I would date from the opening of Amazon.com in 1995, enters its 20th year in 2014. Here are some of the ponderables as we close out the first two decades of a process of very rapid change that is far from over.
1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable “floor” for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.
2. Illustrated book publishers are likely to be the most attentive of all to the bookstore shelf space question. Six years into mass ebooks (as dated from the Kindle) and three years into good hand-held delivery of graphics (as dated from the iPad), the digital version of illustrated books have not found the market that the digital version of novels have. The illustrated book publishers learned to be global over the past four decades, so many have avenues to market that aren’t changing as fast as the US bookstore network has. But the reduction-in-shelf-space line on the graph or the sales-of-these-books-as-digital-products line, or both, have to start moving in the opposite direction or there’s a major problem brewing in that very large segment of our business. Will 2014 be the year that somebody cracks the code for delivering how-to or art-book material in a digital form that will replace shrinking print revenues?
3. As 2014 dawns, we have a host of ebook retailing models that deviate from what the book business has always done: sell one book at a time for a price for which the starting point of reference is one set by the publisher for that book. Safari, created by O’Reilly and Pearson, showed a subscription model more than a decade ago but it was for professional books. 24symbols, based in Spain, is a sort-of granddaddy of this business in the trade segment, being about three years old. They are joined by Oyster, a new start-up dedicated to ebook subscriptions and Scribd, an old start-up originally dedicated to being YouTube for documents. And Entitle, formerly called EReatah, has a slightly different subscription proposition that is more like a “book-of-the-month-club” in its structure. An even newer start-up called Librify has an offering for reader-organized book clubs in the offing. Amazon already has a lending library for its PRIME subscribers, which amounts to the same thing, and a subscription of content for kids on Kindle Fire. With so many experiments in play, we ought to get a picture by the end of 2014 of the degree to which this model appeals to consumers and whether the economics are enticing enough to get big authors and big publishers to play with more enthusiasm than they have demonstrated so far.
4. It is accurate, but misleading, to describe the Penguin Random House combination as a merger of “two of the big six”. It is actually a merger of the two biggest of the former Big Six, and it creates a publisher that is nearly as big as the four others combined. So we now really have a Big One and a Following Four, rather than a Big Five. The big question is what PRH can do to apply what is a huge difference in size as a scale advantage. The hunch here is that proprietary distribution channels can be created by a company that controls approximately half the most commercial books in the English-language world. Whether that will manifest itself as ebook subscriptions, special retail distribution using vendor-managed inventory, or the creation or purchase of marketing channels for its exclusive use — or all of the above and more — will be one of the most important things to watch in 2014.
5. The financial reports from big publishers in 2013 have been mostly encouraging. It looks like the shift to ebooks has had the impact of improving publisher margins and profitability. But can those good times last? Publishers now face a world where there is a single dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer, a single dominant internet retailer, and, as noted above, a single dominant publisher. Agents want to keep competition alive, so they’re going to be sensitive about pushing the Following Four too hard or allowing too quick a migration of authors to the industry leader, but the retailers won’t be so accommodating. Another pressure point on margins will be ebook pricing. It has been driven down by successful self-publishing and the the court’s elimination of agency as a protection. Now big publishers have discovered “dynamic pricing” — lowering prices on a book temporarily to spike sales and awareness — adding their own activity to the list of forces reducing margins. Both the top line and the bottom line will be harder to maintain in 2014, but how it will turn out is an open question. After all, most of these things were true in 2013 and margins still improved.
6. Literary agents have been dabbling with publishing for the past several years since ebooks and POD have made it possible to do it without inventory or an organization. Agencies have started publishing operations (E-Reads, Diversion, Rosetta) and many more have brought on the expertise to give authors help with digital services (Curtis Brown, Writer’s House). Publishers have expanded into author services with speaker’s bureaux, but, so far, none has thought to add literary agenting services except for the time-honored practices of selling rights (foreign, paperback, book club), which was part of their publishing process. Might a publisher either create or ally with a literary agency to create a way to “own” an author’s entire career? If one tried this in 2014, it wouldn’t come as a total surprise.
7. Simon & Schuster has made a number of pioneering deals for a publisher of its size. They offered print distribution service to bestselling indie author John Locke. Then they made a print-only deal — which the big houses pretty much said “we will never do” — with another indie with a hit, Hugh Howey. Now they’ve extended an idea they started a few years ago and signed a deal to give Yankee shortstop and icon Derek Jeter an imprint to be a publisher. Jeter has the ability to focus public attention on any book he wants (although certainly more with some topics than others) and he’s an articulate spokesperson with a strong personal following. S&S had done this in 2007 with 50-Cent; Hachette more recently gave an imprint to Chelsea Handler and HarperCollins gave one to Johnny Depp. Will celebrity imprints become a common idea? There will be plenty of attention paid to how Jeter’s initial efforts work. Or it may be that some other athlete or actor, musician or politician, will be the next experiment with this model. In any case, this is something else to watch in 2014.
8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?
9. And, in that same vein, we have what would seem to be an unsustainable dichotomy in the ebook marketplace as a result (I would say, editorializing here) of the Justice Department’s lack of understanding about where power really lies in the book business. Apple insists on “agency pricing”: publishers set prices, Apple keeps 30%. Amazon — for everybody except the former Big Six — insists on the wholesale model which gives them 50% of the publisher’s set price to divide as customer discount and margin as they choose. This has resulted in all publishers except the biggest being forced to put two prices on their ebooks: a “digital consumer retail” price (intended to be a selling price, for Apple, and lower) as well as a “list” price (intended for the retailer to discount, for Amazon, and higher). When the distinction began, the agency price couldn’t be discounted. Now it can so the only real differences are the margins and the hard-to-explain-or-justify publisher-set prices. Only the biggest publishers have the clout to overcome the marketplace power of Apple and Amazon to dictate how the sales structure will work. Everybody else lives in an Alice in Wonderland world. I’d expect something to give on this in 2014.
Many of these questions will be explicitly discussed at the biggest and best Digital Book World ever, coming up in less than two weeks. It has become the premier global gathering of book publishers talking about the impact of digital change. We’ve counted them up and there are 156 speakers and moderators on the 2-day DBW program, plus dozens more in DBW’s workshop program and the Publishers Launch Kids conference hosted by Michael Cader and me and programmed by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International. You can’t spend that week with us without bumping into smart people who are getting great things done.