Serious disruption just over the near horizon
The monthly release of ebook sales figures by the IDPF provides a regular reminder about how fast this market is growing and it always provokes me to project the curve into the future and think about the implications. It was an IDPF data release that triggered the thought that we needed a “Tipping Points” panel at Digital Book World last January which turned out to be one of the highest-rated presentations by the attendees of the conference. And it was another release of that data that made me say on this blog on March 22 that I thought ebook sales would reach 20-25 percent of the sales for new works of narrative writing by the time of Obama’s reelection in November 2012.
Then last week, The Economist had a story quoting Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, forecasting S&S ebook sales in that range in “3 to 5 years.” This is the first time that I’m aware of that a Big Six CEO has been willing to put their name on a forecast that is just about as aggressive as my own. Another conversation with the head of another one of the Big Six companies captured a forecast that is in the same ballpark.
So I think it is worth a few moments to contemplate what it means if this forecast is accurate, or even close to accurate.
If by the end of 2012, 25% of sales for a new book are digital, then about half of new book sales will be made through online purchases if we count the print book sales made through online retailers (mostly Amazon.)
Online print sales can be served through inventory generated on demand. So, if these estimates are right, we are less than three years away from a publisher (or author) being able to reach half the market for a book without inventory risk!
Having half the market reachable without print-run risk or inventory storage; having half the customers connecting with their reading through online paths that make them at least theoretically identifiable; and having a quarter of those customers reading through a medium that enables interactivity will make all the changes we’ve seen so far in trade publishing appear trivial. And if the very perspicacious Carolyn Reidy, her unnamed counterpart, and I are right, that disruption is going to take place before many books now under contract reach their publication date.
The immediately disruptive effects of this, for which every major publisher should be preparing right now, include:
1. Publishers are going to really have to rethink the development process for their ebooks. Right now, publishers put their creative energy into optimizing print books; ebooks are an afterthought. The most forward-thinking houses are going to XML workflows which will reduce the costs of conversion to ebook formats. But are any of them fundamentally rethinking how the editor and author shape the project to optimize the ebook experience? That working relationship is going to have to undergo fundamental change.
2. It will be eminently sensible to launch books with a no-inventory strategy and move to press runs with returns allowable when reviews or sales have proven that it makes sense. Of course, publishers will be happy to sell anytime on a no-returns basis and for some books launched “digital first” there could be enough no-returns demand to generate a printing, but the idea of printing and distributing speculatively will make less and less sense as the potential market to be reached by that tactic diminishes as a share of the whole. By the way, this reality would give B&N, the only retailer with its own DC resupply infrastructure, an additional competitive advantage.
3. A non-US publisher will be able to reach half the US market without needing an operation of any kind in the States. This is a sea-change that could even encourage our UK counterparts to reconsider their staunch defense of territorial rights. We already know that the greatest part of marketing value beyond the display and positioning in a bookstore is generated online. That means it can be done from anywhere without a local nexus. By the end of 2012, we’re saying half of all the sales potential can also be reached with the product without a local nexus: no requirement of local inventory or any shipping or revenue collection facility beyond your digital distribution and print-on-demand partner.
4. Because books or ebooks will be purchased by half of their customers electronically, the potential exists to know exactly who those are and to establish interaction with them. Obviously, the intermediaries have both selfish and customer-oriented reasons not to share data, but for ebooks, at least, publishers will find hooks to get readers to check in with the publisher and establish contact. (Of course, they will also be selling more and more units direct to consumers, without any intermediary at all.) This opportunity presents a new battleground for competitive advantage that publishers will have to pursue both for marketing and for author relations.
5. Publishers will have to start devoting the bandwidth and resources to direct sales that they devote to intermediary sales today. The notional 50-50 split of sales between terrestrial and online means that half the sales are actually direct sales. Publishers will increasingly find ways to influence those sales decisions, but the companies that devote management attention and resources to the challenge will find those ways faster, to their competitive advantage.
6. There’s an inevitable concurrent downward spiral of brick-and-mortar retail inherent in this forecast that sales are moving online. The nearly-limitless online selection has been an increasingly powerful magnet since the day Amazon opened and in the new paradigm there will be a growing body of talked-about content not visible on store shelves. It is beyond the scope of today’s speculation to consider what this means for the strategy and survival of bookstores and wholesalers and for publishers’ expectations for them, but it’s not likely to be pretty.
7. Self-publishing strategies for entities that can do the marketing become much more compelling. It is no secret that an author can make more money on each copy sold managing her own publication through Lulu or Author Solutions or Bookmasters. If half the market is directly available without regard to the effectiveness of a field sales force then we can be sure, at the very least, new title acquisition will be more challenging for established publishers. The big players will still be the only big bankrolls in town, but that’s a two-edged sword that can lead to overspending and losses as well as to securing desirable projects.
8. If the infrastructure for direct sales management at most publishers will be woefully lacking, the infrastructure for print warehousing and delivering print orders at most houses is likely to be heavily underutilized. That should lead to a reduction in the charges for distribution services, adding pressure to a business that will already suffer from the growing viability of no-inventory publishing. And publishers with volume-related pricing contracts with their printers will find they don’t need as much capacity as they contracted for a year or two before.
For the past three years, Ted Hill and I have conceived and organized the program for the Book Industry Study Group’s Making Information Pay conference, coming up on May 6. Our theme this year — Points of No Return — addresses precisely this issue from the perspective of how functions will be organized, what the changing skill sets will be, and how secure people doing jobs today can feel about having a job they can do tomorrow. If you found that this post gave you something to think about, you’ll find MIP a morning very well spent.