This post contains a batch of observations from this year’s London Book Fair. Some of it recalled an experience from about 20 years ago. We’ll begin there.
In the early 1990s, Microsoft was on a mission to get computer hardware manufacturers to install CD-Rom drives in new machines. Microsoft had a very simple motivation. Software then was sold as hard goods. One CD-Rom could hold the data that required many, many diskettes. So if the storage and transfer medium were changed, the cost of goods for Microsoft would drop sharply. Since the value customers were buying was the code, not the package, Microsoft figured (correctly) that they’d be able to keep the price of software the same and simply make more profit if their customers could handle the CD-Roms. (Please note this logic applies very nicely to any discussion of what ebooks should cost in relation to print.)
But, of course, most people don’t load that much software, so the CD-Rom argument would be strengthened if content were also available on them. That inspired Microsoft to stage a half-day conference to “educate” the trade publishing community about the “opportunity.” (Of course, areas of technical and professional publishing, which had opportunities in delivering very large amounts of data, had already started to move in that direction; the value of CD-Roms was real and obvious to them. They also had vertical audiences of professionals that were perfectly able to hook up a CD-Rom drive to their existing machines, and did.)
At the conference, Microsoft basically showed all the “cool” things the computer could do: delivering sound and images (not video so much in those days) and hyperlinks. They basically said, “we don’t know how you’re going to make money on this; you’re the content experts. But we’re giving you this great new canvas to create on. Create!!!”
The excitement Microsoft and others were able to generate led to a burst of activity by publishers to create CD-Roms. Very few people found this new packaging of content particularly appealing at any price, and they actually were listed at very high prices. In other words, the techies had no clue about the content business and their advice to it was self-serving.
Last Monday in London, Susan Danziger of Publishing Point hosted The Great Debate. The proposition being debated was that the new tech companies would ultimately deliver a “knockout blow” to the conventional publishing establishment. Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center moderated.
Speaking for the new tech companies were two stunningly successful new technology entrepreneurs: Bob Young of Lulu and Allen Lau of Wattpad, both of which take anybody’s content and put it into circulation. Lulu’s core mission is seamlessly turning content into printed books and Wattpad’s is about organizing it for crowd-sourced consumption and discussion.
Opposing them were two publishing veterans (and, I’m happy to reveal, good friends): Evan Schnittman and Fionnuala Duggan. Schnittman is about to move from a global sales and marketing position at Bloomsbury to become Hachette Book Group USA’s head of sales, marketing, and digital. Duggan came from the music business, spent several years heading up digital at Random House UK, and is now Managing Director for International Course Smart, the digital platform created by a consortium of college textbook companies.
There is no ambiguity about what happened in this “debate”. The format required each of the approximately 250 attendees to register their opinions as to which side they favored on the way in and then again after the speakers had presented. The “establishment” side — the Schittman and Duggan side — picked up about 100 votes with their arguments from where the audience was when it came in. The incoming audience favored the proposition that the knockout blow was coming by a wide margin. After the debate, the margin was as wide in the opposite direction. (Some were undecided; so don’t drive yourself nuts trying to work out the math.) It is hard to imagine a more decisive outcome.
Of course, Duggan and Schnittman know quite a bit about technology. But neither Young nor Lau seemed to know anything about the content business. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Both of them have gotten rich in businesses that are ostensibly content businesses, but they aren’t. Their financial success is not dependent on the quality of content, the skill in developing or marketing it, or its inherent appeal. In fact, Lau kept touting the volume of what he hosted and claiming that technology would handle the curation perfectly adequately in the future. This was “proof by assertion.” It was the ultimate declaration of faith. The audience didn’t buy it.
On the day before, Schnittman had hosted the Digital Minds conference. One of the keynote speakers was an old friend of his, Andrew Steele, who is the creative director of the very successful web site, Funny or Die. Steele told us the story of that business, which is instructive.
The original concept of Funny or Die was to crowd-source user-generated content, like YouTube. They’d build up traffic and monetize it. But there was a problem. Most of the amateur stuff they got just wasn’t funny. As Steele points out, we go to YouTube when somebody sends us a link for something good. We don’t go to YouTube and browse all the amateur content. There’s a reason for that. Most of it is crap. And most of what Funny or Die was getting from the crowd was crap. They weren’t getting page views. They weren’t going to succeed.
So they tried something new. (That’s called pivoting, for those of you who don’t spend enough time talking to the tech-and-finance community.) They got professionals to create content. Things changed quickly. By allowing their professionally-produced content to go off the site while it maintained the “Funny or Die” branding, they soon built a large audience. It now keeps growing and growing. Success is assured. But the lesson Steele emphasized was that professionally-created and -curated content succeeds where amateurs fail. He sees no reason why it should be any different in our world.
I got a chance to visit with Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore. He was a bit bleary-eyed at the Digital Minds event on Sunday because the site had opened to the public that weekend. When I saw him on the show floor during the week he had just benefited from a full seven hours of zzzs, and he was enjoying his status as a game-changer.
The key to Charlie’s disruption was his willingness to substitute watermarking for DRM. He said it definitely made him nervous to do it, but he couldn’t see any other way to achieve what he wanted for Pottermore. He had to be able to sell to any device; he wanted to be able to allow any purchaser complete interoperability. There was no way to do that and maintain DRM.
His technical infrastructure is awesome. It stood up even though the average length of engagement by each user was three or four times what they had projected and the traffic exceeded expectations as well. But the most startling early news was what he reported about piracy.
Apparently, Potter ebook files started showing up on file-sharing sites pretty much right away after they opened. But before they could serve any takedown notices, Charlie says the community of sharers reacted. They said “C’mon now. Here we have a publisher doing what we’ve been asking for: delivering content DRM-free, across devices, at a reasonable price. And, by the way, don’t you know your file up there on the sharing site is watermarked? They know who you are!” And then the pirated content started being taken down by the community, before Pottermore could react. And very quickly, there were fewer pirated copies out there than before.
I heard a rumor from a very reliable source that two of the Big Six are considering going to DRM-free very soon. The rumor is from the UK side, but it is hard to see a global company doing this in a market silo. Another industry listener I know was hearing similar rumors from different sources.
Could we see another crack in this wall sometime soon, maybe this year?
This is one lecture the techies have been delivering to the content folks that might have been on the money. I’ve always been skeptical that DRM prevents piracy, but I’ll admit that I was more concerned in the past than I am now that it would cost sales.
At the Digital Minds conference, there was a panel on children’s content publishing. Sara Lloyd, head of digital for Pan Macmillan, moderated a group that included Belinda Rasmussen from her own company, Eric Huang from Penguin, Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, which is a new children’s “book publisher” that seems much more focused on apps.
I have trouble seeing a future for book publishers in the kids’ content world. Everybody seemed to agree about what the apps of the future required (interactivity, game elements, animation) and that the parents of five years from now will be much more likely to hand their kids in the back seat an iPad than a book. So I asked them, as books diminish, what will publishers have to offer here? Wouldn’t this business belong to people who know gaming and animation, not books?
Kate seized the question from the stage and answered in a way that seemed to confirm my conjecture. “We don’t hire people with book experience,” she said. When I checked in with her later, she agreed that books were a revenue-generating convenience to get her company started. She sees the day when they won’t be part of her business anymore. What excited her (and well it should) was that they’d just made their fifth app and had created all the software tools they needed to build it while making the first four. The cost of creating their apps is plummeting because they’ve built the toolkit.
The news about the DoJ’s charges against five publishers and Apple and their settlement with three publishers broke just before LBF. It was a topic of much discussion, of course. Most people in the industry are horrified by the lawsuit and the settlement and there is really widespread fear about the consequences of ending the agency model. (The settlement doesn’t do that, but having three big publishers pushed to allow discounting for the next two years at least certainly cripples it.)
On Publishers Lunch, Michael Cader rounded up an impressive set of links to media around the country who are just as horrified as publishers, retailers, and agents at LBF were. Here are the stories from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall, unfortunately), Slate, and the Los Angeles Times.
We understand that an amendment to the Tunney Act obliges the DoJ to take note and report to the court any opinions expressed in writing by the citizenry about a settlement that takes place in a case still being litigated. Cader notes that the law has usually been used to expand a judge’s ability to exercise oversight when the court believes DoJ hasn’t been tough enough. In this case, we’ll be asking them to pare back a settlement, which is apparently a less common use of the law. But the law allows us 60 days from the settlement to get those letters in and it is what we in the community can do to help fight this battle.
As I wrote in my summary of the impact of this settlement, it is one where Amazon and the cost-conscious ebook consumer win, but everybody else (and that means authors, publishers, retailers, and the public that wants good books, as I explained on NPR) lose. The low-price side of this is easy to understand. The publishing business side isn’t. (If this were a GOP DoJ, I’ll admit that I would have inserted a snide remark here about what this shows about their IQ.)
One point to note here, which didn’t occur to me at first, is that the three settling publishers are about to game the two fighting publishers (and, perhaps, Random House) the same way Random House gamed them when they stayed out of agency at first. Whether or not they stick with agency, they are now enabling discounting, so they might get the same benefit of the retailer discounting their goods while they retain their revenue that Random House got for the first year of agency.
In other words, more weight on the shoulders of the two companies, Macmillan and Penguin, who are carrying the fight for the whole industry. And that means more reason for the rest of us to try to help.
I am working on my letter to DoJ now, and I’ll publish it in a future post. I hope all my readers who understand what’s at stake here will also write to Justice. Address your letters to
Chief Litigation III Section
U.S. Department of Justice
450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000
Washington, DC 20530