24 Symbols

Examining the relationship between start-ups and publishers


We are in another high-funding era for digital start-ups. The book business has always looked ripe for disruption, but never any more so than now. With bookstore shelf space shrinking, ebooks growing in very uneven ways across the types of books that are published, and everything about technology getting cheaper, everything is up for grabs.

It is not a new thing that the world looks different to the companies funded by the revenues from the legacy business than it does to outsiders, some of whom want to bring tech disruption into collision with the legacy business.

Publishers see an ebook business that has been very commercially unkind to the digital versions of books that aren’t immersive narratives. Start-ups and their funders see publishers too stuck in old forms, and unable to break away from a book-style presentation when the content and use cases would call for something quite different.

Publishers see a printed book marketplace that is dominated by Amazon with less and less room for books in stores. Start-ups and their funders see an opportunity to gain further digital discovery by making the content easier for people, and web crawlers, to “see” online. And they also see making digital versions of books easier to “share” as an aid to discovery; publishers often see it as an enabler of unauthorized distribution that could cut into sales.

Publishers see books as products driven primarily by interest in the author or genre (for fiction) or the subject (for non-fiction). Start-ups and their funders see reading as an activity at least partly driven by convenience and availability and the ability to share the reading experience.

Publishers see Netflix and Spotify and think, “How many people read more than a book a month? The subscription model doesn’t really apply to our business.” Start-ups and their funders see that the consumers of all other content really like the subscription model and they can’t see why it wouldn’t work in the book business, too.

So we have, for example, several serious initiatives around subscriptions: dedicated (and often well-funded) start-ups like Oyster, eReatah, Skoobe and 24 Symbols, as well as initiatives from the totally-established Amazon.com and the differently-established Scribd. At the same time, some agents are outspoken in their objection to the whole concept, seeing it as a way that commercial power will pass from the author brand to the subscription brand. Publishers generally pay close attention to what agents say. Whatever the reasons, as of this writing only HarperCollins has broken ranks among the Big Five to place any substantial number of books in subscription services.

If you get many of the start-ups to speak candidly about publishers, they’ll often accuse them of being hidebound, unimaginative, wedded to old ways and models, and still “experimenting” with things that should be well-established.

If you get many of the publishers to speak candidly about start-ups, they’ll bemoan the fact that they too often don’t understand how the business really works or the true commercial imperatives at the publishing houses, which must continue to sign up and please authors and harvest revenues that still come overwhelmingly from sales of one item at a time to one consumer at a time through intermediaries.

At Digital Book World in January, we have five elements in the program to address the relationship between start-ups and established publishers.

First: we are running a survey of start-ups and publishers to get them each to talk about what they expect from the other. If you work for a start-up or your job at a publisher includes meeting with and evaluating start-ups, please respond to the survey! We will announce the results at DBW.

Second: Ron Martinez, who has a start-up (Aerbook), partly financed and supported by an industry leader (Ingram) and a long background in tech, patents, and design, will speak about the relationship between start-ups and incumbents.

Third, Fourth, and Fifth will be three panels exploring the question from three sides.

A panel of start-ups, which will include Martinez and Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks and two others we’ll pick after we see the survey results, will talk about what it takes to get traction with publishers, what publishing, marketing, or ecosystem problem they’re addressing, and explain their own vision of a path to success for their enterprise.

A panel of publishing business development people, including Rick Joyce of Perseus Books Group and Leslie Hulse of HarperCollins, will talk about how they view start-ups. What makes them give start-ups a meeting? What makes them engage? How much buy-in do they need from the rest of their company to be able to work together?

Finally, a panel of investors in start-ups, three of which are owned or controlled by existing publishing entities (Ingram, Macmillan, and Harvard Common Press) will talk about what persuades them to fund a start-up and what disruption they see on the horizon for publishing from the start-up community.

Very good publishing minds from three continents around the world, including Arthur Attwell,  Javier Celaya, and Brian O’Leary, have expressed themselves recently on this very problem. Although I disagree with chunks of what each of them has to say (as Jeremy Greenfield’s interview with me on the DBW blog makes clear), they individually and collectively express the real challenge of finding both workable paths to the future and workable ways for innovators to work with incumbents to get there.

The post from Jeremy triggered an exchange on Twitter among Rhomberg (from whom it inspired a thoughtful post), Peter Turner, and me which surfaced another important point. An incumbent’s job is to continue to maintain economic viability. A start-up’s objective, often, is to “change the paradigm”. If the paradigm does change, the incumbent needs to roll with that, but they don’t need to be an instrument of change. A start-up often does. That is an inherent difference in perspective that a start-up can’t afford to ignore.

As a guy who questioned why anybody would want another device just to read books when Amazon introduced the Kindle, I’m the first to admit that predicting in advance how an innovation will do — including the observations I made with such conviction in the DBW piece — is rarely a slam dunk.

It isn’t likely that our sessions at DBW will help anybody predict which innovations will succeed in the future, but it might help both start-ups and incumbents develop more mutually productive approaches to engaging with each other. That’s certainly the intention.

Don’t forget to respond to the survey if you are either a start-up or in a role at a publisher that involves meeting with or evaluating them. We’ll be collecting responses through next Monday, November 18.

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More thoughts on libraries and ebook lending


On Thursday of this week, I’ll be at the Charleston Conference appearing in a conversation organized by Anthony Watkinson that includes me and Peter Brantley. Brantley and Watkinson both have extensive backgrounds in the library and academic worlds, which are the milieux of most attendees at this conference. I don’t. I am being brought in as a representative of the trade publishing community. Watkinson believes that “the changes in the consumer area will break through into academic publishing and librarianship.” I am not so sure of that.

I am imagining that what creates interest, and concern, among all librarians about trade publishing has been the well-publicized tentativeness of trade publishers to serve the public libraries with ebooks in the relaxed and unconcerned manner with which they have historically been happy to sell them printed books. Big publishers have expressed their discomfort with ebook library lending in a variety of ways. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, up to this writing, have declined to make ebooks available to libraries at all. HarperCollins instituted a 26-loan limit for ebooks with libraries a little over a year ago. They received apparently widespread — certainly loud — criticism when they announced the policy, but it seems now to have been accepted. Penguin and Hachette delivered ebooks for lending and then stopped. Now both are putting toes back in the water with experiments. And Random House raised their prices substantially for ebooks delivered to libraries for lending.

So, six for six, the major publishers have struggled publicly to establish a policy for ebook availability in libraries.

The concern, as I’m sure my conversation-mate Peter Brantley will point out, extends to what rights libraries have when they obtain ebooks. I’ve expressed my belief before that all ebook transactions are actually use-licenses for a transfer of computer code, not “sales” in the sense that we buy physical books. When Random House declared the opposite in the last fortnight — that they believed they sold their ebooks to libraries — it only took Brantley a wee bit of investigation to find that Random House’s definition of “sale” didn’t line up with his.

Of course, his doesn’t line up with mine. I believe (he’ll correct me on stage in Charleston, if not in the comments section here, if I’m wrong) Brantley accepts the one-file-transferred, one-loan-at-a-time limitation that has been part of the standard terms for libraries since OverDrive pioneered this distribution over a decade ago. That control enabled ebook practices to imitate print practices (except for the “books wear out” part, which Harper was addressing with its cap on loans). Without it, one ebook file transfer would be all that a library — or worse, a library system — would need of any ebook to satisfy any level of demand. The acceptance on all sides of that limitation says clearly to me, without resort to any other information or logic, that there is an agreement — a license — that the library recipient of an ebook file accepts in order to obtain it.

People who spend a lot of time with libraries and library patrons are quite certain that the patrons who borrow books and ebooks often also buy books and ebooks. (Library Journal offers patron data that supports that idea.) Although library services are many-faceted and not primarily designed to serve as marketing arms for publishers, the libraries themselves see the ways in which they aid discovery by their patrons.

And they also see the patrons that couldn’t afford to buy the books or ebooks they borrow and therefore wouldn’t and couldn’t read them if they weren’t available in the library. Since these patrons become part of a book’s word-of-mouth network by virtue of being able to read it, it looks like this behavior by publishers is not only anti-poor and anti-public, but also counter to the interests of the author and the publisher itself. (In fact, most publishers acknowledge the importance of libraries to the viability and marketing of the midlist although that, until very recently, was adequately addressed with print alone.)

And, the libraries point out, the one-book, one-loan limitation means that all the hot books have long waiting lists anyway, so many patrons just cut to the chase and buy the ebook rather than wait. (In fact, schemes by which the libraries themselves can sell the ebook are beginning to develop as well.)

The view from the publishers’ perspective (and, it is important to add, from the perspective of the agents of many highly-compensated authors, who have enormous influence over publishers’ thinking) is quite different. Libraries, which can be the core market for many books published by academic and professional publishers, are more likely to be around 10 percent or less of an adult trade book’s sale. So the risk-reward calculation starts with a sharp limitation on what is the expected “reward”.

The risks are harder to quantify because they are much more complicated than just trying to figure out how many of the loans of an ebook licensed to a library cost the publisher a sale of that ebook through retail channels.

The big publishers are acutely aware that the ecosystem of bookstores they’ve depended on for a century is giving way to something new, which appears to be a mix of retail ebook platforms, community book information sites like GoodReads, author-based marketing, and, of course, publisher efforts to reach potential book buyers through community- and list-building, SEO, and collaboration with other websites.

Consumers will, of necessity, be changing their shopping habits as they migrate from reading print books to reading ebooks. Right now, as ex-Random House marketer Peter McCarthy points out, the key decision is which retailing platform they use. If you buy a Kindle, NOOK, Apple, or Kobo device, you’d be inclined to buy from their platform. It would definitely be easiest and on a Kindle, Nook, or Kobo device, it is really the only practical choice.

But on an Apple device or a tablet computer (or a laptop or desktop, for that matter, although fewer and fewer people will read ebooks on them), the consumer is actually free to use any of the ecosytem apps and, if they want to, choose by price. McCarthy makes the case that doing that on a title-by-title basis will become increasingly unusual. He’s probably right.

But we’re nowhere near the final stage of ebook development. It is going to get easier and it is going to become more widespread. Ultimately what concerns publishers is a vast reservoir of ebook content available on one website (your local library’s, or even a not-so-local library’s) for free while the merchants are trying to make you pay. That’s why such programs as KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) have not gained favor with big publishers.

It really isn’t hard to imagine that in a pretty short time, libraries and KOLL (and some fledglings like the recently-announced “maybe we’re the Spotify of ebooks, or maybe we’re not” Oyster subscription service or Spain-based 24 Symbols) have robust selections available for free (libraries), as part of a broader offering (KOLL), or for very cheap (Oyster’s and 24 Symbols’ aspiration). If that happened, how many customers could be drawn away from the ebook retailer sites and effectively removed from the market for title-by-title purchasing of new books?

How many? Well, we don’t know how many. That’s precisely the concern.

Another thing we really don’t know is what is the future of public libraries. As the relative utility of a building full of printed books declines, libraries correctly point out that they serve many other functions. One that is often cited today, but which I think will be more dated than the printed books aggregation ten years from now, is that libraries provide hardware and Internet access for people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. As devices and bandwidth get cheaper, and the social and commercial benefit of having everybody connected grow and become universally acknowledged and appreciated, that deficiency is likely to be cured by other means.

What is an ongoing need that is not likely to go away is the need for librarianship. The more sources of information there are and the more sophisticated people become about demanding the right information for any task or need, the more that professional help navigating the choices has value. But how will that help be delivered? Online, I reckon, not in a building that you go to and seek out the help. I don’t know the business model yet, but I do know that communities are going to be sorely tempted in the years to come to devote the cash they now spend on public libraries with books and computers in them to providing wider access to more materials through the Internet and providing the information experts, the librarians, outside the confines of a building full of the materials. The materials — with a variety of access and payment models — will be virtual and the librarian will help you get what you need at the price you want to pay for access.

And all of that sounds, and seems, a lot like what booksellers do today (except a lot more complicated).

Which brings us back to publishers and their concerns. Right now, the biggest publishers’ biggest worry is that they will end up in a world where Amazon is the only path to a majority of their potential customers. (Right now, for trade publishers, that number is probably more like 20-30 percent.) That’s why three of the biggest publishers (one being Penguin, so ultimately, this could involve Random House as well) are continuing to struggle to launch Bookish, a strategy that looks increasingly dubious to me. It is why they were so eager to help Apple launch the iBookstore and why they root from the sidelines for NOOK and Kobo and Google to be successful competitors.

Anything that takes business away from the ebook retailing network might be depriving one of Amazon’s competitors of the oxygen they need to compete. (That’s one of the reasons Bookish is looking like a bad idea.) But, more important, with the Internet now making it pretty easy to deliver a selection of reading material larger than anybody will ever plow through at rock-bottom prices, having libraries offer and promote free ebook availability could foster habits that will cost authors and publishers customers in the future.

Of course, all of this is speculative. The library community’s belief that making ebooks available through them will stimulate sales of those books is speculative. But so is the fear of the commercial authors and publishers that libraries in the digital age will have a significantly different impact on reading and purchasing habits than they did for print.

When the problem is lack of information, one of the best antidotes is to enable flexibility and experimentation. That’s why I’m very pleased to be working with Recorded Books on a new ebooks-for-libraries program that will give publishers enormous flexibility in how they structure the license for each book: with granular, title-by-title control of availability, price, a number of loan limit, or a time limit. This requires RB to also give libraries the information and dashboards necessary to manage their ebook collections in ways their print book collections never required. The flexibility will mean that publishers can experiment with a variety of models. The multiplicity of models will be a nuisance for libraries — although RB can do a lot to mitigate it — but it will make a lot more ebook titles available by giving each publisher the ability to control the risks as they see fit. Recorded Books expects to put the program in beta early in 2013 and roll it out by Q3.

It is my hope and belief that the various models offered and the libraries’ reaction to them (agreeing to the licenses or not) will lead to some consensus-forming around particular formulas for these deals. Of course, everything is temporary because everything is changing. And that will continue to be true for quite some time.

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