On Amazon stores and publishers accepting standardization; two unrelated commentaries
When the “Amazon-opening-400-stores” rumor landed a week ago, many people were gobsmacked. It took me a minute to get past that, which also required getting past my firm conviction when they opened the Seattle store last year that it was an information-gathering exercise, not the opening move of a bigger retail play.
But, when you think it through, it not only doesn’t seem crazy that Amazon would open stores, it seems like an obviously compelling move.
Other retailers that started strictly online have opened retail locations, most notably the eyeglasses shop Warby Parker. (This New Yorker story mentions that. It also has an interesting disclaimer at the end because “Amazon Studios is producing a New Yorker series in partnership with Condé Nast Entertainment”. Wow.)
“Omni-channel”, which is really a new-fangled fancy term for selling both online and through a brick store, is the buzzword du jour of retailing. Actually, the online piece of that is the harder part and Amazon already had that licked.
Barnes & Noble “beat” Borders largely because they had a network of distribution centers that made stocking their retail locations extremely efficient. Amazon’s network of distribution centers is complicated because it isn’t just books, but they have many times the number of points of inventory storage as B&N. In fact, they have many times the number of storage points as B&N and Ingram and Baker & Taylor combined!
Amazon has tons of information that nobody else does that would inform their stocking decisions if they harnessed it. They know where searches are coming from for particular book titles or for generic needs, both geographically and psychographically. And they probably can detect early lifts for particular books faster than anybody else, simply because they have more data.
It is possible that if B&N and the indies had responded differently to Amazon Publishing, agreeing to stock the books rather than boycotting them, this could have played out differently. (No stronger argument could be made for the efficacy of that strategy than this post arguing that stores should stock Amazon titles to punish them because the returns would make them unprofitable! You can’t beat logic like that.) If the stores had stocked their titles, Amazon might have chosen to use their distribution center advantage to start wholesaling, rather than to support their own retail locations (as they appear to be doing).
But the determination of the brick retailers to boycott Amazon was spelled out loudly and clearly. So opening Amazon retail locations — as it increasingly appears they have every intention to do — has two strategic payoffs for them. One is that it gives them access to at least some brick-and-mortar retail locations for their publishing output, which otherwise they can only sell online. And the other is that it capitalizes on their distribution centers, delivering additional sales and margin for investments already made.
In a recent post, I suggested one specific way Amazon could get very disruptive if they had more than a handful of stores. There’s another. They are a tech company that likes to have computers make decisions that in other companies and in other times have been made by humans. I suspect they’ll figure out pretty fast that they will want to have some sort of vendor-managed inventory system to streamline and optimize the stocking decisions for what will almost certainly be a growing network of retail locations. (The part of a trade book person’s DNA that is most out-of-step with the digital age is that we like to make decisions case-by-case, rather than living with decisions made by rules we create. That’s the key to the second half of this post.)
Sophisticated but automated stocking and restocking decisions are not part of the toolkit at B&N or of any other retailer or wholesaler we know. Could that be the next battleground that Amazon retail stores create? That would certainly be disruptive, but at least in this corner of the world it would not be a surprise.
One mantra of the book publishing world is “every book is different”. We sometimes refer to that fact as reflecting the “granularity” of the book business compared to other kinds of consumer goods businesses or other media. Even if you think in terms of categories, there are just more of them in publishing than there are for other products or media.
Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that publishers are often inclined to encourage that uniqueness beyond where it is required. And, frankly, it is only required for editorial development and for targeting the marketing. The objective at every place in the value chain in between should be to standardize and, as much as possible, to treat many different books the same. That’s not a creative imperative; it is a commercial imperative.
My father first experienced the tension that this insight can create at Doubleday in the 1950s when he persuaded the company to standardize the trim sizes of their books for maximum printing efficiency. That didn’t require radical changes. It simply meant that books would be an eighth- or quarter-inch longer or shorter, wider or narrower. These were differences that were really not perceptible to most people, yet it was a real internal corporate battle to wrest control from designers who believed “every book is different” and that this mystery (or cookbook) had to be published as a 6 by 9 inch book while that one had to be 6-1/2 inches by 9.
In fact, the trivial differences in trim size were not important at all to the books’ chances of success. There were other decisions — the specific paper or type face among them — that also had no discernible commercial impact on each individual book but were, nonetheless, intentionally made book-by-book as though they did. In many houses, and (admittedly I’m saying this without any supporting data) probably more in smaller houses than larger ones, they still are. And that’s true even though whether the paper is 55 pound or 60 pound or the type face is Times Roman or Baskerville can’t be shown to have any impact at all on a book’s sales.
Now the University of North Carolina Press has been funded by the Mellon Foundation to put Dad’s theory to use in the university press and academic publishing world. They’ve created a service offering through their Longleaf distribution platform that takes the design, pre-press, production, and distribution burden off the hands of university press and academic publishers so they can focus on what makes them distinctive: the books they choose to publish and the skill with which they edit them.
This fits an industry reality I identified a couple of years ago that I called “unbundling”.
On one hand, UNC Press Director John Sherer reports real success, expecting to grow that part of their business by 50 percent in the coming year. But he also reports resistance by some presses who believe that making these design and production decisions adds so significantly to the “quality” of their output that they’re comfortable losing money doing it.
My own hunch is that many directors just don’t have the heart (or courage) to get rid of staff that, with all the best intentions and capabilities but without the advantages of technology and scale, provide them with no better than average quality at a much higher cost than they need to spend. This was a battle for Leonard Shatzkin when he fought it at Doubleday in the early 1950s and apparently it is still being fought hard six decades later.