The three forces that are shaping 21st century book publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization
There are three overarching realities that are determining the future course of book publishing. They are clear and they are inexorable:
Scale, and its close cousin “critical mass”, is the ability to use size as a competitive advantage in any endeavor;
Verticalization, or being in sync with the inherent capability of the Internet to deliver anything of interest in an audience-specific way; and
Atomization, or the ability for any person or entity to perform the most critical component of publishing — making content available and accessible to anybody anywhere — without capital and without an organization dedicated to distribution.
In the 20th century, scale in publishing was really an internal concept. Big publishers had more resources to sign books, get to bookstores, and roll out marketing than smaller ones. Barnes & Noble and Borders had supply chain and cost advantages over independent bookstores, except that Ingram and other wholesalers lent their scale to provide partial compensation. Bigger literary agencies had negotiated more boilerplate agreements than smaller ones and often had helpful relationships that went beyond publishing, but a single operator could still cultivate enough editors to make a legitimate case that he or she could place a book as effectively as the giants.
But that’s changed entirely in the past 10 years. Now publishing operates in a world increasingly controlled by Amazon, Apple, and Google, all companies that make far more money outside of books than through books. One Big Six CEO observed to me about five years ago that the time had passed when s/he could call all the biggest trading partners of their company and reach the CEO instantly. Penguin Random House has merged into a publishing company that will control about half the most commercial titles in the marketplace, but any suggestion that their size will enable them to dictate much to Amazon, Apple, or Google is deluded.
What Random House can do is apply scale against other publisher competitors. And they will.
Critical mass is a scale-related concept but it is also a component of verticalization. When a publisher, or any aggregator, has enough material to allow it to ignore competition in a consumer offer, it has achieved the effective barrier to entry that scale also provides. For example: subscription models for general books are a very difficult commercial proposition because the biggest agents for the biggest authors wouldn’t want their titles included. But Amazon might just have so many titles they can make available through a subscription offering that they can do it successfully even without the top of the bestseller list. The new Penguin Random House combination might also be able to do something here, if the avoidance of a 3rd party could generate enough revenue for the authors to change the minds of the agents, even though they’d be doing it with just their books. After all, Spotify was able to aggregate enough music to sell subscriptions even before they brought The Beatles into their catalog.
Another smart and relevant application of scale is by F+W Media (our partners in Digital Book World conferences), which publishes across a range of communities. They are able to offer each one the advantages of a direct retailing operation, because they maintain that capability through the scale of their entire operation. Some of the verticals in which they apply it wouldn’t be able to support such a capability on their own. F+W applies scale to their niches with their web and event teams as well.
In the 20th century, most trade books reached their customers through bookstores. That liberated publishers to be largely audience-agnostic in their choices about what to publish. They could stick a memoir, a novel, a knitting book, a travel guide, and a kid’s pop-up book into the same box and the bookstore would sort it out for the consumer, putting it on the appropriately-labeled shelf for the shopper.
In those days, the devotee of any subject from baseball to cookbooks would think nothing of browsing the shelves of several different bookstores to find all the offerings relevant to their interests.
Those days are gone. Twice.
Thanks to Google and its competitors, the entire universe of offerings around any topic of interest are aggregated and surfaced very quickly. And bookstores and the staff and shelf space publishers used to sort things out are disappearing.
All of this is driving publishers to be audience-centric in their thinking in ways that were never required before. If the Internet is how customers are reached, not bookstores, it becomes evident pretty quickly that it makes for highly inefficient marketing to be all over the lot with your subject matter or genres. It didn’t used to matter to publishers if they had the “next book” for the person who bought the last book. But it surely does when you’ve spent good marketing money and effort to find and reach that person, and when you can often stay in touch with them in a cost-free (or at least very low-cost) way going forward.
It is in audience-centric marketing that scale can be applied successfully today, using size and resources to improve the ability to reach out rather than to lower the unit cost of some internal mechanistic function. Understanding the reality of verticalization should also prompt publishers to rethink the way they define and build brands. Imprints are brands within a publishing house meant to communicate to their trading partners: bookstore buyers and reviewers in one direction and authors and agents in the other. In a vertical world, brand-building should be much more audience-centric. This particular requirement to think differently seems to be very challenging for publishers.
In the 20th century, it took capital and an organization to publish a book. While you always had to provide your own capital to be a publisher, ways evolved to “rent” the organization, specifically the distribution services offered by most publishers and some specialist organizations.
The barrier to entry for book publishing was always relatively low compared to other media: magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and movies would all require much more of a financial and organizational commitment than was required to publish a book. But there definitely was a fence around the book publishing world, and the position of “gatekeeper” was both well-earned and well-rewarded.
But those days are gone too.
As of this writing in April 2013, sales of any book of narrative reading will, depending on topic or genre, be 20% to 60% in ebooks, which requires no inventory investment and minimal distribution infrastructure. Sales of the printed books — the other 40% to 80% — will be anywhere from 25% to 50% through online channels. Those sales can also be achieved (largely through Amazon) without an investment in inventory, printed at the moment they’re ordered.
The first flood of opportunists exploiting this new reality were authors who self-published. Some, like Bob Mayer and Joe Konrath, took the brands they’d built through traditional publishing (and sometimes even the very books themselves) and created a new commercial model where the majority share of margin taken by the publisher was divided between them and the retailer, usually Amazon. Others, like Amanda Hocking and John Locke in the early days and hundreds of others since, built publishing brands on their own. These authors were driven by the desire for recognition of their writing and, in some cases, by the conviction that they could make money. Their existence in large numbers fueled the creation of an “author services” industry. The biggest and most profitable of the companies in that business, Author Solutions, was bought by Penguin a year ago. Amazon built a business called CreateSpace to serve this market; Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple all offered varieties of the same set of capabilities.
Recently, we have seen a rush of other content creators — newspapers, magazines, web sites, and new companies dedicated to exploiting the book opportunity — building their presence as book publishers, or at least as ebook publishers. There are experiments with content types (short form, author-centric) and business models (subscription being a frequently-tried one on which the jury is still definitely out).
But all of this is a precursor to the next wave, when every law firm, accounting firm, consulting firm, department of a college or university, retailer, service provider, and manufacturer will see the benefits to them of building the function of book publishing into their marketing mix. This will truly constitute an existential threat to book publishing as a business, because these entities will not be building their publishing programs with profits primarily in mind. That will make it exceedingly difficult for the companies that do — the book publishing business we’ve always known — to compete. The quality they deliver costs money. The prices they need to charge are based on their costs.
Their books will be in a marketplace competing with titles supported by other rewards and priced with considerations other than profit in mind.
Scale, verticalization, atomization. Examine any new proposition you hear about against the filter of those concepts and I think you’ll have a pretty fair sense of whether it has much chance for success. Hitting two of those three marks is no guarantee of prospering, but failing to hit any would be a pretty fair assurance of failure.
Our Publishers Launch conference at BEA on May 29 has several presentations focused on the theme of scale. We’ll have presentations from Random House, Hachette, and F+W Media about how they’re applying it for competitive advantage. We’ll have a panel of agents discussing how scale affects their role in publishing. And in a discussion my PLC partner Michael Cader and I will be having, trying to talk about the things people in publishing jobs are constrained to discuss, it will certainly be a core topic.
Our regular readers may notice a relative lack of links in this post. Because this synthesizes and re-articulates many thoughts we’ve expressed over the years, we thought it might be more helpful to gather the relevant internal links here at the bottom of the post rather than placing some of them throughout. The links from speeches and posts here are presented chronologically to document the evolution in thinking that led to today’s post.
The Emerging Opportunity for Today’s Publishers – 6/17/2009
Verticalization in Action – 7/2/2009
Why Publishers Need to Understand Brand – 9/23/2009
Publishers Adding Value on the Marketing Side – 11/17/2011
Amazon’s Growth and Its Lengthening Shadow – 4/30/2012
Everybody in Hollywood Needs an Ebook Strategy – 5/14/2012
Ideas about the Future of Bookselling – 2/7/2013
Publishers Are Reshaping Themselves – 3/12/2013