One takeaway from Digital Book World that is not to be missed
I think just about everybody has fun at Digital Book World, but it is hard to have more fun there than I do. It’s damn near a year of work coming together over a couple of days with dozens of smart speakers making me personally look good for putting them on the program. So they work hard and satisfy the audience and I get congratulated. What could be better (for me) than that?
(OK, I did do a little bit of work. Besides emceeing the show and co-hosting the final panel, I delivered opening remarks trying to set the stage.)
There were a lot of great takeaways this year. Perhaps the biggest news was the final presentation before the wrap-up panel Michael Cader and I hosted. That was by Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of Anobii, a UK-based ebook retailer that has substantial investment from Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins. Matteo didn’t exactly “call for the end” of DRM, but he certainly described a better world without it. And the main point he made was, “I want to sell to Kindle customers and the only way I can do that is if we get rid of DRM.” The combination of the message and the messenger made this the most newsworthy presentation of the show, I thought.
But the factoid that most grabbed me was delivered on the previous day as part of the data developed by AllRomanceebooks.com about the romance readers market. Very superficially, the point being made was also about DRM, but that’s actually a distraction. There was a much larger point buried within.
All Romance is a specialized ebook retailer. To serve the romance reader community more effectively, they’ve built out the BISAC taxonomy for romance, adding more categories. And they’ve added a metadata element called “flames” which basically measure the frequency and explicitness of the sex scenes in any particular book.
The romance world, particularly among the cognescenti in it, is a very anti-DRM environment. And an outfit like All Romance, which has no “device lock-in” working for them — essentially everything they sell gets “side-loaded” somehow, and DRM can often make that more challenging — is right in step with their community sentiment. So the survey contained questions trying to get at the audience attitude about DRM.
There were two relevant stats that I recall. One is that only about 20% of even All Romance’s readers really resist books with DRM. That is to say: 80% don’t. But the factoid that grabbed me is that 96% (that’s not a typo: ninety-six percent) of the ebooks they sell do not have DRM.
All Romance also reports that 91% of the titles they have available are protected by DRM. That makes sense, since all the titles from all the Big Six publishers and all the titles from Harlequin except those from their new digital-first imprint, Carina, have DRM.
What this means is that the nine percent of All Romance’s offerings that do not have DRM are selling 96% of their units overall. And since only 20% of their customers find DRM as a strong deterrent to sales, that means those fledglings are outselling all the majors for other reasons.
This provokes two very important lines of inquiry to me, and neither of them have anything to do with DRM.
The first one would be top of mind to me if I were a major publisher. What are these books that are selling like hotcakes? Why are these books selling like hotcakes? Why can’t we publish these books that are selling like hotcakes?
It is a virtual certainty that a lot more romance ebooks are sold through the “traditional” channels like the Kindle and Nook and Kobo stores than through All Romance. But they have a market big enough to get 6,000 respondants to a survey in a couple of weeks so they’re definitely serving a big clientele. They’ve obviously aggregated an audience that is buying a lot of books that major publishers are missing. Some of this is due to price, undoubtedly, since the All Romance stats also showed robust sales at price points below where the majors are usually most comfortable. Some of it could be attributed to a raunchier title selection being compiled by the smaller upstart title selection (remember All Romance’s “flame” ratings.) Some of it might be loyalty to authors who could be signed up by majors with the right offers.
But if 24 out of every 25 books being sold by a pretty damn big specialist retailer to the biggest ebook genre that I competed in were outside of my immediate competitive set (which, for the Big Six, is basically each other and Harlequin), I’d want to know more about the details of that. And I’d also be asking All Romance what I could do to get more sales from their audience. I have a feeling they’d say that better metadata, more sex (within the pages of the books, that is), and lower prices are all more important than stripping off the DRM, but it’s s conversation the big publishers should be having with them.
The second question that the data provokes to me is whether this phenomenon — all these successful books outside the purview of the major houses — is a unique characteristic of romance books. I don’t know if there’s an All Mystery ebooks vendor or an All Thrillers ebook vendor or even an All Sci-Fi ebook vendor (I’ll bet we’ll find out from our comment string after this is posted!!!) but, if there is, it would be interesting to find out if this is true there too.
These are the immediate questions All Romance’s appearance put in the front of my mind. I think they show another aspect of verticalization. As a vertical retailer, they invent new metadata elements that really help them merchandise to their audience. What that suggests is an opportunity for an All History or All Politics retailer as well; enhancing metadata might be even more valuable for non-fiction subjects than it is for specialized fiction.
There was an article about Amazon by Brad Stone in this week’s issue of Bloomberg Business Week in which I was quoted about Larry Kirshbaum, the former head of Time Warner Book Group (now Hachette) and currently the head of a new Amazon imprint whose mission it is to recruit mainstream authors to be published by the retailer. Many of Larry’s former colleagues and counterparts at big publishers take this decision of his to join Amazon extremely personally and it is reflected in what they say they now feel about Larry himself. That was reflected in my quote which says that Larry “has gone from one of the most well-liked people in publishing to the one of the most reviled.”
I want to make clear that I was not expressing my personal opinion. I still very much like Larry Kirshbaum and I’m a bit embarrassed to be quoted (even accurately) characterizing the feeling about him in these terms. The people running big NY houses see Amazon as a bare-knuckled competitor. With their responsibility for the continued success and viability of their own enterprises and the threat Amazon poses in that regard, contentiousness is built into the interaction and competition between Amazon and the big publishers. I believe my quote accurately reflected the degree to which that is transferred to personal feelings, even for somebody whom so many people have known and liked for years. Although I well understand the feelings my quote described, this is one case where I wish I hadn’t been so candid.