No predictions this year; just questions
This is the time of year for predictions. I’ve done mine in the spirit of the holiday season in years past, going back to the late 1980s when I did a “My Say” for Publishers Weekly. (I wasn’t able to find it — some sharp reader will — but I recall that one of my predictions was that publishers would strive to put out the audio of a title at the same time they released the printed book.)
In recent years, I’ve done the predictions for PW and I’ve done them right here. This year I contributed some thoughts to a nice roundup done by Jeremy Greenfield, the new editorial brain over at the Digital Book World site.
This year, I thought I’d try something different. Rather than predict the future for the industry’s biggest players, I am posing what I think are the biggest questions faced by each category of them. Some of the questions are within their power or responsibility to answer; some depend on outside circumstances; and some may never be answered at all. But any honest futurist (and I try to be one) has to admit that questions outnumber answers. (Note: there is a great Johnny Nash song called “There Are More Questions Than Answers” that’s about 50 years old and is just as correct today as it was then.) So this post focuses on the important questions we’ll be facing throughout the industry in 2012 and beyond.
The biggest publishers:
Can their use of tech at scale — SEO and pricing seem like top candidates — add demonstrable value, cost-effective for them and persuasive to authors?
How fast do sales of print in stores decline? And how efficiently can publishers de-scale to keep overheads under control?
Can they reorganize to take advantage of the opportunities offered to the quick and nimble in a digital world?
Can they extend the “protection” of agency pricing to distribution clients and, if so, can they charge a premium for that capability? (Could this be an unintended benefit to the Big Six of Amazon’s refusal, so far, to allow agency to any except the Big Six?)
What skills and capabilities does a publisher need now that they didn’t need a few years ago, and what’s the best way (acquiring a company, outsourcing, hiring in talent) to bring those talents into the fold?
Publishers bigger than small, but not Big Six:
Can these publishers fight their way out of the box that Amazon and Apple have them in, with Amazon insisting that ebooks be transacted on the wholesale model and Apple insisting on the agency model?
Can Amazon continue to be relied upon to discount from high publisher suggested retail prices (the basis of high wholesale prices for the retailer), or will Amazon sell more frequently at the publisher’s declared price to “encourage” publishers to cut their suggested retail priceas and therefore bring Amazon’s costs, and publishers margins, down?
Can they keep up with the technological and contractual demands of digital publishing change?
Can they find niches that present opportunities they can seize to sell something other than “the book” (whether in print or digital)?
Can they create opportunities by being nimble, opportunistic, and vertical that make them more attractive than larger competitors as partners for knowledgeable agents, authors, and brands?
Can they marshall their considerable resources to sell individual titles so effectively within their network that they make up for what they miss outside their network?
Can they build any noticeable or sustainable advantage in having a repository of desireable content that is not available except through them?
Can they maintain their device and platform dominance as the competition moves far beyond the early adopter online book-reading audience?
Barnes & Noble:
Do books as gifts and objects deliver enough traffic to keep a bookstore chain successful as the sales of novels and biographies go away?
Can they create a profitable international strategy? They haven’t had one yet.
Like the publishers, can they manage down their physical plant and overhead base as the revenue it was built to serve diminishes? (We presume they can’t do it with Nook sales and services alone.)
Will the lift they get from Borders closing and B&N cutting back on shelf space for books buy them time as print book sales in stores shift to ebooks and online purchasing?
Can they make something work with Google ebooks? Or will another solution arise that works to get indies into ebook commerce in a profitable way?
Will emphasizing the books-as-objects market (gifts and otherwise) work as the customers for narrative text find it less and less necessary to visit physical locations?
How do they know that their agent understands the new range of publishing options and directs their business activity accordingly? (It’s as hard to be effective as your own agent as it is to be your own lawyer.)
How do they build their own online platform? (And every author who plans to make a living through writing and hasn’t yet built a platform has to think about having one.)
Will any author turn down a significant advance to self-publish in 2012? (So far, that behavior has been extraordinarily rare, with Tim Ferriss being the only one really close. Barry Eisler intended to, but he took an advance from Amazon instead.)
Will the number of successfully self-published mid-list authors continue to grow? Under what terms and royalty rates do these authors return to traditional publishers?
How do they make sure the full range of knowledge about the digital publishing alternatives is within their grasp? (if not in their head…)
Do they know what they need to know to make a “profit-sharing” deal with a publisher?
Can they direct an author’s own online marketing efforts? And, if they do, is some adjustment to the standard practice of a 15% share of the author royalties going to be necessary, or possible?
Illustrated book publishers:
Is “fixed page layout” the answer? Or, more likely, is it the answer for some books and not for others? Which ones?
How do illustrated publishers cope with the plethora of native formats, file requirements, and screen sizes?
Do “illustrated books” delivered on good portable screens achieve the same consumer acceptance that straight text did making the same transition?
Are there new retail channels available to sell illustrated books as bookstores diminish?
Are new models, perhaps built on social or community but also possibly built on non-book commerce, possible to support and extend illustrated book publishing?
As the global ebook infrastructure develops, does it show signs of staying diverse or does it tend to consolidate as Kindle?
With Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Kobo established as significant global ebook outlets, will any of the other players or fledglings — Google, Sony, Blio, Copia, Bookish, Anobii — start selling enough units to be an important contributor to ebook sales?
Will either white-label B2B or publisher-to-consumer sales grow markedly in significance as the time-honored sales, distribution, and monetization models atrophy?
This could well be the last Shatzkin Files post for 2011. It’s been a great year around here. We launched a new business, Publishers Launch Conferences, with our friend Michael Cader. We started the year with a great Digital Book World last January and are concluding this one putting the finishing touches on an even bigger and better one coming next month. An ebook and a print book edition of The Shatzkin Files, Volume One (the first two years, through last February) were published. We have some great new consulting clients about whom we think you’ll hear a lot in 2012. And, despite the reality that you can’t claim 50 years in the business (which I do) and remain a young person (which I’m not), good health and good cheer remain in abundance around here. Our view of publishing’s digital future seems to have been more confirmed than contradicted by the year’s events. So we’ll take a 2012 that largely resembles 2011 very happily if we can get it.
Best of the holiday season to all our readers. And may 2012 be as kind to you as 2011 was to us.