The Shatzkin Files

With new opportunities come new challenges

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This blog and my speeches contain frequent references to what we see as the big shifts the book publishing industry, and some publishers more than others, are feeling. The horizontal and format-specific product-centric media of the 20th century are inexorably yielding to the vertical and format-agnostic community-centric delivery environment for content that will soon predominate.

In that context, we’ve observed that the most general publishers are the most challenged. The distinction between publisher and retailer is blurring; in a decade or two it will be a distinction without much difference. What has always been the source of competitive advantage to trade publishers is leverage; they could reach thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of customers for their wares through retail channels that aggregated audiences for content creators and curated content for consumers.

The non-trade components of the book business: publishers of textbooks, professional information, databases, and academic content already tended to specialize by subject so the challenge of being audience-specific, a prerequesite to creating community, had already been met. Non-trade publishers had never depended much on horizontal intermediaries. Even in college textbook publishing, which depended (and still largely does) on the college bookstore to actually deliver the product and collect the consumer’s money, the marketing component of the bookstore’s contribution was and is minimal. The publisher works vertically through a network of professors to drive adoptions, and adoptions are what drive the sales.

Trade publishers, which are called trade publishers because they reach consumers through “the trade” network of bookstores, libraries, and the wholesalers that serve them, have been generally alert since the 1970s to the importance of what are generically called “special sales”. Those are sales that come from outside the book trade, often from retailers in other channels. Special sales experts learned pretty quickly that you did better when you had a selection of books for an audience. If you had one book of Jewish interest, you couldn’t do much with it. If you had a dozen, it could make sense to buy a mailing lists of rabbis. If you had one home repair book, you couldn’t afford the cost of setting up relationships with retailers of hardware or construction materials (particularly thinking back to days before those outlets had consolidated into giant retailers like Home Depot and Loew’s.) But if you had a list, then the mutual interest in a relationship was obvious to both sides.

Some publishers specialized. When I was consulting with Wiley in the 1980s as they were developing their fledgling trade program, they brought their philosophy of really covering the needs of a vertical market from sci-tech to trade. They didn’t want just one resume book for job-hunters: they wanted one at every sensible price point and different ones for different kinds of jobs. One day a sales rep called in from the road to suggest that they deliver a book on the cover letters that should go out with resumes. They already knew they had a market through specialized customers of all kinds and through their direct mail efforts. The lists that worked for resume books would also work for cover letter books.

The most “general” of the general trade publishers tended not to develop the same depth of specialized lists. When Wiley considered that cover letter book, they knew they’d be able to sell it very efficiently and they knew it would enhance their relationship with individuals and channel partners through and to which they were already selling a lot of books. Would the cover letter book be big? Possibly not, but it didn’t have to be to make it clearly worth doing.

But the big trade houses were not built that way. And the biggest books, the sexiest books, the most exciting books, don’t tend to be in niches. In fact, niche identification can dampen sales in a general trade market. The CEO of a major house told me a couple of years ago that he didn’t want to label a book that could become a betseller a “mystery” title. Mystery was a “category” (read: “niche”) and, while those books tended to meet theshhold expectations more readily, he perceived them as harder to break out to the sales levels they could achieve if they were perceived as unique.

We are now seeing the early signs of what will soon be a tendency, then a trend, and then a stark reality: you just can’t sell as many copies of most books if you don’t have a proprietary position with a vertical audience. The early signs are evident through companies like O’Reilly Media (computer programming and technology), Hay House (mind body spirit), Chelsea Green (sustainable living), Harvard Common Press (cookbooks and pregnancy-childbirth), and F+W Media (several niches, including writers and crafts), which have special retail channels and huge email lists of individual customers that the big houses simply don’t. Niche by niche, the big houses will find it impractical to publish in areas that were once productive for them. Their need for each book to be “big” individually — for the single title to provide its own critical mass — works against what you must do to be “big” in a niche. To do that requires a more across-the-list kind of thinking that is counterintuitive to a company that makes the lion’s share of its sales through trade channels.

So for just about all the books that aren’t novels, memoirs, celebrity-driven, or epic works of popular history or politics, trade publishers are increasingly handicapped. Unfortunately for them, things are going to get worse.

The obvious problem is that the capacity of the general trade market to merchandise and move product is diminishing. I hate to invoke the old wisdom that many things happen “gradually, then suddenly”, but it is often true and we have been gradually losing bookstores for the past decade. What happens to the economics of the big publishers if we lose a big chunk of superstores pretty suddenly?

I recall a dinner conversation with the Chairman  of a large diversified multi-niche publisher two years ago. Even back then, we were speculating about the possible sudden demise of Borders. (Hey! It hasn’t happened; maybe we were wrong!) My dinner companion said, “you know, Mike, we’re as diversified as a publisher can be, but if Borders went out, we’d definitely feel it. It would really hurt us.”

“Temporarily,” I said. He needed me to explain.

“Sure, you’ll suffer a bad debt if they go out. That hurts right now. But over the next couple of years, you’ll get a lot of cheap and useful assets from competitors of yours that couldn’t withstand the blow. By a couple of years from now, you’ll be ahead.”

“You may be right,” he said.

So even with the obvious problem, a multi-niche publisher has a big advantage over a general publisher, just as it does over smaller niche players. But the ground for the general publishers is about to shift in ways that will be even more challenging.

Because “book publishing” in an increasingly vertical world is less and less about content sales in the unit of “books” (although that will be the lion’s share of revenue for a long time) and more and more about sales bigger than the book (databases that stretch across many books and other things too) or smaller than the book (chapters or fragments that naturally stand alone or which address a particular content need.) The iPhone app as a unit of delivery is accelerating the latter trend. The value of a database across titles has long been demonstrated by O’Reilly’s “Safari” offering, which generates more revenue for them than all but one trade account.

As the percentage of a publisher’s revenue that is generated by fragments and aggregations rises, so does the value of being vertical and, especially, so does the value of a direct relationship with the end users. The fragments piece is especially important, especially challenging, and requires new ways of thinking (and perhaps new contracts.) For example, Dominique Raccah, the visionary leader of Sourcebooks, whose Poetry Speaks is building a model for vertical community building, has found that many publishers of poetry aren’t sure they have the rights to license her vertical to sell individual poems! Does that mean she has to go directly to the poets for those rights? And how long will it be before it is more important to a poet to have their individual poems available for sale on Poetry Speaks than to have them available in a publisher’s collection bound as a book?

Bruce Shaw, the longtime empresario of Harvard Common Press, is demonstrating another aspect of this thinking that we’ve expected for a long time but hadn’t seen in practice before. He told us about a macaroni and cheese cookbook his house was considering for publication. Normally, Bruce reports, that’s a subject they’d skip because it just isn’t distinctive enough to make the ambitous sales targets he normally sets for print publications. But, in this case, he’s doing the book because his overall recipe database (all the thousands of recipes HCP has published in over 30 years in business) is light on mac and cheese recipes. So he’s willing to publish the book, knowing he’s going to make less profit than he normally requires, because it is a subsidized way to improve the value of his overall database of recipes.

The question of selling fragments opens up a host of other challenges: figuring out what is a saleable fragment, tagging it with an identifier and metadata, managing transaction costs for a much higher volume or low-value transactions, and retro-fitting accounting systems to process author royalties that will require increasingly complex analysis of smaller amounts of money.

In fact, there is opportunity on what might be viewed as a micro- or nano-level of transaction, too small for even a niche publisher to manage the customer relationship and the transaction. That is going to present new opportunities for our client, Copyright Clearance Center, which we’ll elaborate on in future posts.

There’s a great deal of new opportunity out there but a lot of it is in pennies, not hundred dollar bills.

Let’s hear it for Wifi in the air! This is the first post for The Shatzkin Files filed from an airplane. Boy, did I have fun at Spring Training!

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  • SteveWieck

    Nice blog (again).
    My company is betting on the power of the niche, but from the retail aggregator perspective not the publisher/content-producer perspective. More like Poetry Speaks.
    I think that as content creation is democratized, niches will be served more by niche-focused retail aggregators than by niche-focused publishers, because even in niche areas the role of the publisher is still being minimized by the digital transformation of delivery.
    To own a truly own niche, niche publishers will have to be willing to transform themselves into a niche retailer and sell other publishers'/creators' content to end customers. The entry barrier to niche publishing is too low now for any single publisher to dominate the niche by only carrying their own content.


    • Agreed, Steve, with this caveat: you have to do a lot more than just sell
      content to own the niche. Content is bait. It isn't an end game.


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  • markbloomfield

    Great post. I'd like to suggest one elaboration which is that the niche publishers relationship is complementary, but not fungible with the authors relationship with the readers. The most powerful publishing success stories (building influence and monetizing over multiple platforms) will be the product of the collaboration between niche publisher and author who both own and cultivate the community they serve.

    • Mark, this could also be labeled “two relevant brands are more powerful than


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  • Matt Pasiewicz

    I think CCC should buy SESAC and then pursue a performance rights model of renumeration for text. That would be an interesting move and one where an open web might not be so antithetical to the business of publishing … and it would put the likes of Amazon and Google on notice.

    I suggested that in an interview with Brewster Kayle in 2005.

    • That's an interesting idea, Matt. Certainly some sort of collective
      licensing scheme is going to be needed for content on the Internet.


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