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Three words of wisdom: standards, rights, & data


The Book Industry Study Group’s annual membership meeting on Friday concluded with a panel discussion among four industry executives who have leadership roles in the group. They are also four of the sharpest minds in publishing and they all had provocative things to say. Recollection of detail is not my strongest suit and I didn’t take any notes, but all of them said things that stuck with me and which struck me as ideas that deserve more attention than they get.

Dominique Raccah, the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, made the now-obvious (but new to me that morning) point that we are going to have to streamline generating metadata in multiple languages to take advantage of emerging global markets.

Maureen McMahon, the CEO of Kaplan, which serves a very targeted audience, recalled that five years ago she was able to track her very discrete list of competitors and closely calculate her market share. But as an information-provider, she now finds competitors can pop up from anywhere.

Ken Michaels, just appointed President of Hachette Book Group USA, reminded us that 70% of the sales are still print. He said that we need to stop talking about digital as if digital is all there is; that just as media and consumer habits are converging so must the approach publishers take to running their business. He stressed building workflows around content, not product, so you can curate and compose once for all formats, and incorporating digital as a way of life, even in publicity and marketing, rather than having any stand-alone digital workflows. In other words, it is time to integrate digital, not treat it as a thing apart.

All great insights, but what I really took to heart was some simple wisdom from Tom Turvey of Google. Turvey is spending a lot of time outside the US these days, as Google Play opens in markets across the globe. He reminds us that we are way ahead of everybody else in digital change. That means that potential markets abroad are only in their earliest stages of development. He sees that the publishers in those markets –and we as well — need to concentrate on three things: standards, rights, and data.

Standards, rights, and data. These are the three elements which can restrain digital growth, or propel it. They’d also serve as a good short summary of BISG’s agenda. Turvey took the opportunity to say that every country needs a BISG, but not every country has one.

Standards, of course, are a community endeavor. It is not for any one publishing player to create standards on their own for everybody else. If you’re powerful enough, like Amazon, it might be in your best interest not to throw yourself wholeheartedly into participation in standards that make it easier for others to compete with you. But, as publishers well know, insufficient standards can cost a lot of money, rendering content for different screens or even subtly different applications of epub or Adobe.

The challenges with rights are, first, having them, and second, making sure a file’s metadata spells them out clearly. One of the the first rules I learned when I came into publishing decades ago was “acquire rights broadly, license rights narrowly”. That is practice which was unambiguously the wisest commercial course until our current and developing age of digital delivery. Now agents (or publishers) having licensed rights “narrowly” can cause books not to be available to customers who would be happy to buy them when they easily could be doing so.

Data is a combination of an industry problem and an individual publisher challenge. The digital age is presenting us all with new metrics if we can gather and use them: from websites and Twitter and Facebook, as well as from publishers’ sales. We are beginning to learn what marketing and social activities move the sales needle and we’re finding it isn’t necessarily the same for different kinds of books. BISG and AAP have joined forces to deliver BookStats, the most rational and accurate book industry sales data we’ve ever had in the US and perhaps the most accurate industry data in the world. Tara Catogge of Readerlink Distribution Services did an eye-opening presentation of what that database can do earlier in the show, but we’re still at the earliest stages of learning how best to use it and we’re as blind as we’ve ever been everywhere else.

Standards, rights, and data. Publishers could benefit by reviewing their practices and progress in all three areas at a senior level on a regular basis. My hunch is that some, including the ones who joined Turvey on that stage, already do.

Two of those BISG panelists, Raccah and Michaels, are among the “innvoators” presenting at our Publishers Launch Conference next Monday, 10:30-6:30, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Dominique will be talking about two new initiatives from Sourcebooks and Ken will be explaining the value of SaaS — software as a service — to modern publishing IT departments, including some tools his team at Hachette has developed and are making available to the industry. Pub Launch Frankfurt will also feature a presentation from Noah Genner, who runs Book Net Canada — their version of BISG — about a survey of Canadian book consumers they’ve just done: more about data.

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Perhaps the revolution has reached an evolutionary stage


The dizzying pace at which US consumers were switching from print to digital couldn’t last forever. Based on the numbers being published by the AAP, with a huge assist in interpretation by Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, it seems that the slowdown has become very noticeable in the past 12 months.

Between late 2007 when the Kindle came out and late 2011, ebook sales doubled or more every year. Since September 2011, during which Cader reckoned sales were double the year before, the monthly numbers are showing much lower (and declining) year-on-year growth. The April numbers showed only a 37% increase from the year before.

I’ve been pondering this question about when ebooks uptake would slow down for a long time. In March of 2010, 17 months ago, I wrote that my hunch was that the switchover “won’t start slowing down until ebook sales are 20-25% of what a publisher expects on a new title.” And I guessed that would occur before the presidential election of 2012. That feels reasonably consistent with what appears to have happened.

Cader also cites reports from Penguin and Simon & Schuster to document the slowdown. Penguin says ebook sales growth was about 33% in the first half of 2012. And Lunch reports that Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, told them she expects about 30% growth in ebook sales during 2012. That would almost certainly constitute their (or anybody else’s) fastest-growing sales channel, but it sure isn’t the annual doubling and tripling (or more) we had seen for several years.

A couple of weeks earlier, Cader dissected the BookStats reporting of publisher sales numbers. As longtime readers of this blog know, what I think is the important metric to watch is “store sales versus online sales”, rather than “print versus electronic”. Store sales are all print, but online sales are not all electronic. The reason I think the channel distinction is more important than the format distinction is because scale is far more useful to deal with retail stores than it is to deal with any online account. The reasons are two: inventory and logistics.

BookStats reports that publisher-direct sales to online retailers — this includes both print and digital, but does not include sales that went through the wholesalers — were about 35% of the total of sales to store and online retailers combined. Online is said to have risen about 35% in the past year and brick stores have declined about 12.6%. My rough math says that the combined total of the two was pretty close to equivalent — down about one percent. Since ebook sales are rising and ebooks are generally cheaper than print books, this passes for “flat”.

The other thing to pay attention to is the difference in ebook sales by type of book. Based on anecdotal evidence, I believe that genre and commercial fiction sales might be approaching half ebook already. (BookStats reports that unit sales of all fiction are currently 64% print and 34% digital.) Narrative non-fiction is about half that. Illustrated books of all kinds are slivers of that.

There are many things we don’t know.

We don’t know how much of the sales growth decline in the past year is due to the publishers’ success at driving up ebook prices. To the extent that’s the cause, we might see the pattern change again when (as I expect) the DoJ settlement is approved and the shackles come off Amazon’s pricing policies.

We don’t know how much of the sales growth decline in the past year might be due to the consumer switchover from dedicated ereaders to multi-function devices that offer them other media and games — and email for that matter — to compete with books. To the extent that’s the cause, the slowdown trend might well be extended because it is likely that a lot of people will switch from eink readers to multi-function devices as those devices continue to get cheaper.

We don’t know to what extent store traffic is affected by the continuing shift of bestsellers, particularly in fiction, to digital consumption. In the short run, there is probably a positive impact on the display space and sales opportunities for illustrated books and children’s books. But, in the longer run, how many stores can survive if the bestseller business continues to move away from them?

We don’t know whether mass merchants will continue to see books as worthy of their shelf space. They sell a lot of genre fiction, which is the most challenged by inexpensive independently-published (and not all of those are self-published) ebooks. And they can switch square footage from one thing to another at great speed and with no sentimentality at all.

But, all in all, the slowdown we’ve seen is good news for the legacy publishing establishment and it will be better news if the trend continues. Anything that slows the decline in brick store market share and the rise in Amazon’s buys time for big publishers and competing retailers to adjust their infrastructures and build new business models that are more effective for the future.

Unfortunately for them, the denouement of this round of DoJ activity is about to give things a sharp shove in the other direction.

If understanding new business models and other new ways for publishers to do their business is important to you, our Publishers Launch Frankfurt event on October 8 should be on your calendar. We are featuring a number of Publishing Innovators from around the world: executives who are inventing those new business models that will enable publishers to thrive in our new digitally-influenced publishing environment.

This conference is worth a post of its own, and it will get it very shortly. But the bottom of this post felt like a good place to point that we are going to feature many outstanding industry- leading publishing executives (and not just from the English-speaking world) who are doing things almost nobody else is. Yet.

And we’ve changed our event time from the normal 9 to 5 to 10:30 to 6:30 to allow people to arrive in Frankfurt on that Monday morning and not miss any of what will be one of the most illuminating events we’ve done.

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Extending the life of bookstores is critical, but devilishly difficult


I’ll admit that I would have thought a few years ago that by the time we got to the point when more than a third of unit sales for major houses had gone digital — and perhaps more than half for fiction — that the future shape of the book business would be discernible. But, at least according to what I learned from one Big Six house last week, we have reached that level of ebook uptake and despite that, the business still looks very much as it has. It seems impossible to me that it will stay that way.

Here are a few bits of information that came onto my radar last week.

One Big Six executive told me that ebook sales in their shop had reached the mid-30s as a percentage of units sold. That broke down to about 50% of fiction units and 25% of non-fiction.

Nonetheless, that same executive noted a real slowdown in the rate of ebook growth. This is to be expected as the base of sales grows, of course, but it slowed down faster than this house expected. They had seen a 120% increase in ebook units in 2010 and figured they’d see an 80% growth in 2011; it came in at 60%. In short, the rate of increase was cut in half.

These numbers gave this particular executive reason to believe that print demand was begining to stabilize and that it was reasonable to assume that 50% print units might persist into the future, with commensurate new stability for brick-and-mortar stores. I have since been told that a leading executive at another of the Big Six houses shares the same expectation, or hope. Perhaps they all do.

On the other hand…

Another publisher, substantial but not Big Six, has seen much more explosive growth continuing in ebooks and, for that publisher, unit sales for fiction have already gone to well beyond 50% digital.

A paper by the accountants-consultants at Deloitte in the UK, reported in the Guardian, predicts a decline of 40% in all brick-and-mortar stores over the next five years. That’s because books are not the only item for which sales are migrating from brick stores to online. We’ve already learned that books are among the items most susceptible to online purchasing for a myriad of obvious and well-established reasons. We also know that buying public in the US is at least as receptive to online purchasing as the British.

I’ve written time after time after time about the diminishing retail network for books and its potential impact. I have always seen this as existential for big trade houses, whose distinguishing value proposition for authors remains their ability to put books on retail shelves. (There are other things that matter, but I’d argue that all of them put together don’t equal that.) Publishing printed books is a complex endeavor best done by a large organization that can perform its various functions — warehousing, shipping, billing, commissioning the manufacturing, sales representation, and contact with marketing megaphones — at scale.

A proliferation of online marketing channels with real influence could once again challenge the under-resourced (authors working alone or smaller publishers) or otherwise-preoccupied (Amazon) who are trying to substitute for what the big publishers do. So far, the platforms that matter (to the extent they do…more on that below) have been limited in number, Facebook being the most prominent one. (One sales executive said to me yesterday, “Facebook isn’t a platform. It’s a requirement.”) If Tumblr becomes really important and Pinterest really were the next Facebook and, over time,  online influencers become as dispersed as our 20th century media world was, it opens up opportunity for big organizations to add value that smaller ones can’t.

So even if the Big Six optimists are wrong that their business proposition will be preserved by a slowing switch from print to digital (and, with no more knowledge than they have, my intuition against their intuition, I wouldn’t bet a dime that they’re right), perhaps we’re heading for a world where any author in her right mind would want a publisher to cover all the digital marketing bases, with the help of technology and dedicated staff, rather than trying to do it herself.

Nobody’s predicted that yet that I’m aware of, but let me be the first on the block to acknowledge the possibility.

The future of bookstores and the future of publishers if the bookstores diminish much futher in importance should be one of the most important topics on the minds of all stakeholders in the book business. We’re going to try two different ways to explore it at our next Publishers Launch Conference, taking place at BookExpo on June 4. Both of them involve one of the distinguishing features of our events: delivering insightful data about our industry that is not delivered by other industry conferences.

All of the current industry data reporting, including the recent effort called BookStats put together by the AAP, BISG, and Bowker, are unable to isolate sales and inventory in stores by type of book. To plan future publishing programs (and to sign up books this month and next), publishers need to understand with some level of granularity whether it is true that stores are shifting their buying (and selling) from immersive reading to illustrated books and, if so, which illustrated books. Among the reasons that the industry stats fail to capture this properly is that they don’t look beyond the sales publishers make to wholesalers to find out what happened with the books the wholesalers bought.

But the wholesalers know whether the book they just sold went to a brick store, a library, an online store, or an individual. We’ve been fortunate to get Phil Ollila of the Ingram Content Group to examine his company’s records to give us a more detailed and granular understanding of what is really happening in the retail marketplace. Are bookstores really stocking fewer novels and more illustrated books? Is the proportion of sales made online versus in stores changing at different speeds for straight immersive books and illustrated books? Ingram is mining its data to come up with answers to those questions. Ollila will report some findings at our conference.

We will also have a data-rich and sobering presentation from Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. Hildick-Smith and his team have been surveying book consumers on a quarterly basis for nearly a decade. Their work is high-level and expensive and is normally only available to the big companies that can afford to subscribe. But Hildick-Smith sees a crisis ahead for the industry in his data, and he cares enough about our collective future to want to sound an alarm. He’ll be doing that our June 4 event.

And what he sees and documents is the critical role bookstores play in consumer discovery of new books and authors. He demonstrates with data and logic that SEO and social media are totally inadequate substitutes. Hildick-Smith thinks a future without bookstores will be very different than the present. He makes the case that author brands established in the bookstore era will be largely unchallenged when the bookstore ladder gets pulled up and future authors can’t climb it. And he believes that publishers don’t appreciate that all measures, even desperate measures, are called for to preserve the brick store base as long as possible.

When you start trying to figure out how publishers could do that, you appreciate very quickly that you’re tackling a very challenging problem.

Six decades ago, long before there was any bookstore crisis, my father, Leonard Shatzkin, then at Doubleday, recognized that bookstores were the publishers’ lifeblood. He didn’t see the logic in giving bigger discounts to wholesalers than to retailers. After all, wholesalers primarily put their books in warehouses waiting for orders that publishers’ marketing efforts and a book’s inherent appeal create while retailers put them on shelves in front of customers, stimulating demand. His solution, implemented ever-so-briefly, was to eliminate the wholesalers’ discount differential and offer them the same terms as retailers.

Unfortunately, this is a story about which I didn’t capture all the details while Dad was around to give them to me. I know that the wholesalers went ballistic and demanded meetings with Doubleday management (presumably including Dad, who implemented policies like this from the relative safety of the “Research Department”, not from the front lines of the Sales Department.) The policy was reversed and the wholesale discount was restored.

But I can personally attest to the enduring bad feelings this initiative engendered. In 1974, around two decades after the failed experiment, I was working for Dad selling books for Two Continents. As the top sales guy, it was my role to introduce the company to Bookazine, a wholesaler that then occupied a warehouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Bill Epstein was the owner of Bookazine and, when he met me, all of the anger from that Doubleday discount change came to the surface, as if he’d been waiting 20 years to complain about it again.

The day has perhaps come again when publishers will want to consider offering the highest discount incentive for placing a book on a retail store shelf. (The idea exists in the world of commerce: it is called a “retail display allowance”, although the concept would need to be extended to favor all retail display, not just favored positioning.) This would be a devilishly difficult policy to design and implement to avoid alienating the wholesalers the way my Dad did. (There is no way a policy like this would be well-received by Amazon.) But after publishers hear Peter Hildick-Smith at Pub Launch BEA, it is bound to strike some, at least, as an idea well worth considering.

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eBook sales comparisons to print aren’t always what they seem


When Amazon talks about how ebooks are selling in relation to print books, as they did again this week, they are comparing apples to apples. They are comparing what their customers bought in digital form versus what they bought in print in any given period of time.

When PW or the AAP or even the publishers themselves talk about how the industry is doing selling ebooks in relation to print books, they are usually comparing apples to oranges. They are comparing what actual consumers bought from retailers in digital form with what retailers and wholesalers bought from publishers in print form for any period of time. So they are comparing ebooks that consumers actually bought now with print books that consumers might, or might not, buy later.

(It is true that sometimes Nielsen BookScan numbers are referenced in these comparisons and, in that case, they are apples to apples because BookScan measures cash register sales which are legitimately comparable to the ebook numbers. PW, for example, reported that BookScan sales were down 26% for paperbacks and AAP numbers were down 36%, which underscores the effect being explained in this post.)

The ubiquitously flawed comparison is fundamental to understanding many things. It is part of the explanation of why ebook penetration numbers appear to fall sometimes, even though it is counterintuitive that they would.

There is probably a difference in the month-to-month fluctuations in consumer behavior purchasing print and digital books. For one thing, Christmas presents of print would tend to be purchased before December 25 and Christmas presents of ebook-capable devices would tend to result in ebook sales after December 25. (The devices would have been sold before Christmas, of course.) It might be true that people buy more ebooks in the first month or two that they own a device than they do on an ongoing basis.

But analyzing ebook pentration from these numbers is much more complicated than that because we must also take into account the fluctuations in trade ordering behavior which are also partly driven by the publishers’ collective decision about when to issue new books.

As frontlist-oriented as ebook consumption seems to be, the reporting of print book shipments would be even more so because big slugs of of big books are shipped to stores for publication date. Publishers tend to issue far fewer big books in January and February than at any other time of the year. The data suggest that returns fluctuation isn’t as great as shipment fluctuation, but the same returns on a lower sales base yield a higher returns percentage, or a relatively higher impact in depressing apparent print sales.

The lower the print number, the higher the percentage of total sales will be of the same ebook number.

So for the period left in our time of transition when Christmas presents of devices add new digital reading converts — and we certainly have one or two more Christmases like that coming, if not three or four — we can expect ebook sales surges right after Christmas that calm down in March and later.

For the period left in our time of transition when there’s a significant brick infrastructure requiring inventory in anticipation of Christmas sales — and we have some more years of that to expect too — sales of print measured by publisher shipments will look much higher in the fourth quarter of the year than in the first quarter of the following year. Then, assuming the amount of shelf space lost in the post-Christmas period doesn’t cancel out the effect of more big titles coming from publishers in March and after, print sales will rise again.

And for the period left in our time of transition when big publishers continue to slot big books to come in Fall in time for Christmas, hold them back at the turn of the year, and start issuing them again as we move toward the second quarter, and that also most certainly will continue for a couple more years or more because these patterns are deeply ingrained in companies resistant to change of this kind, the ordering pattern of the stores will be reinforced by the issuing pattern of the publishers.

There are always other factors in play. When publishers went to agency, ebook sales briefly went down because the big publishers’ take per copy went down. A smaller version of that impact was just registered when Random House went to agency on March 1. We also have a real impact, if one that is hard to calculate, from the Borders troubles. Publishers aren’t shipping to them, and other retailers are being cautious because so much Borders inventory is competing with them at distressed prices at the moment.

But the apples-to-oranges comparison, where print shipments to the sales channels are lumped with ebook consumer sales for the purposes of analysis, assures us that we’ll see some optical illusions. One of them is the apparent drop in ebook share that will be a seasonal feature of conversation for at least a couple more years.

Next Tuesday afternoon there will be a memorial celebration for the life of Ruth Cavin, the longtime mystery editor at the St. Martin’s division of Macmillan, who died at age 92 in January. It convenes at 5:30 at the Salmagundi Club at 5th Avenue and 11th Street. Ruth was a childhood friend of my mother’s, close to both of my parents from their days in college, and I knew her from my Day One to her Day Last. She was a wonderful person and I hope to see many of the people who knew and loved her at the event.

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Where do we lose the shelf space and how much do we lose?


There are two questions about the impact of digital change on publishing that are just about impossible to answer.

One is: how much of the sale of ebooks is incremental business and how much of it is cannibalization of prior print sales?

The other is: what will be the fate of independent bookstores?

The two are connected.

As we watch the (long-term) inexorable but (short- and medium-term) unpredictable growth in ebook sales, it is really not possible to tell to what extent we’re just selling established customers the same purchases in a different form (certainly some of it and my personal guess would be the lion’s share of it) and to what extent we’re finding new customers (also certainly some of it and, to my way of thinking, more likely to the user of a multi-function device than a dedicated book reader like Kindle or Nook) or making incremental sales to established customers.

(We plan to address the whether the multi-function device users have a different consumption profile at the Digital Book World conference in January. It’s a knotty question but we think we have a way to get at it.)

The measurements of industry sales have been far too imprecise and muddied to address a sophisticated question like that. (The AAP and BISG are making a serious joint effort to remedy that situation; I have seen some of the great work in building a new data model that has been led by Tina Jordan of AAP and Scott Lubeck of BISG. More on that very promising initiative some other day.) The aggregate industry numbers that we’re used to probably won’t be sufficient to change any closely-held opinions any time soon.

Individual publishers might see data worth intepreting in the total unit sales of major authors that  have established clear sales patterns over time, if they can analyze their way past the fluctuations that must inevitably occur in the sales of each new major release by an established bestseller writer. One place one might expect to see an uptick is in the prior titles in a series (but, even then, you don’t know if the extra sales of four prior Carl Hiaasson titles weren’t instead of sales of four other books, do you?)

My own analysis has been simplistic, assuming pretty much flat sales into the digital future because that has been the case in our overwhelmingly non-digital recent past. When I do the calculations that lead me to think that the sales available to brick-and-mortar stores will decline drastically over the next five years, I’m assuming that the rise of digital sales results in a pretty much equivalent decline in print sales. I also assume that the increase in ebook sales and the reduction in retail shelf space allocated to books accelerates the movement of print book sales to online. If ebook sales aren’t largely cannibalizing, and they don’t themselves reduce the sales available to be made in stores as much as their growth would suggest, then shelf space might not disappear as fast.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations (which have been endorsed in a series of private conversations with publishers, booksellers, and analysts but also strongly resisted in a private conversation by at least one person whose judgment I really trust and also apparently contradicted by the expectations expressed by Random House CEO Markus Dohle in his recent interview) are that brick-and-mortar’s share of total trade book sales will reduce from around 80% today (some say it is higher) to about 30% five years from now. That would be a reduction of more than 60%. Let’s say the share is still 50% in five years (which I speculated might be the number in 2-1/2 years). That would still constitute a 35-40% reduction from where we are today. That’s drastic.

But it still doesn’t tell us “who fails?” Shelf space reductions can come in a variety of ways. Stores can be closed, chain and independent. Dedicated bookstores of all kinds can become less dedicated and turn over shelf space to other items. And mass merchants can decide to reduce the space they gave books or to eliminate them. All three things will happen to varying degrees.

This is a bit like trying to do a weather forecast based on one’s confident knowledge of climate change. The two are related but there are local factors in addition to global ones. Each time a store closes or reduces its shelf space (or, for that matter, in the rarer cases where a new store opens or one increases its shelf space), it affects the fate of the other stores in its vicinity.

On Tuesday night, I came home from a late meeting with a former Cabinet official who was thinking about buying an independent bookstore and seeking my advice, which, based on no specific knowledge, was “don’t.” I walked in to receive a call from a reporter who asked me for my comment on the Barnes & Noble “news.” “What was that?” I asked. “They’re putting themselves up for sale,” he said. “What has happened recently that would motivate that?”

Without having read the press release, which would have signaled to me that they weren’t actually putting themselves up for sale so much as beginning the process of taking themselves private, I strived to answer the question. I thought the acceleration of ebook uptake, some of it fueled by B&N’s Nook device, was recent news that didn’t bode well for physical bookstores. I thought the recent rescue of Borders, which could postpone their demise or shrinking, wasn’t happy news for Barnes & Noble. And I wondered whether the Ron Burkle lawsuit might make the Riggios less interested in owning the business.

Of course, all of those things are true but none of them apply because the premise was wrong. The Riggios are probably not trying to sell the business; they’re more likely trying to buy the business.

Then I checked with a commission rep friend of mine about the bookstore the former politician I met earlier that evening wanted to buy. It turns out to be an independent with a relatively solid future, with knowledgeable staff underneath its owners and a great reputation with the publishers which assures a continuing flow of traffic-building author appearances. In other words, “don’t” might not be the right advice in this particular case.

Whether the brick-and-mortar share of the business falls by 25%, 50%, or 75% over the next five years from what it is now (and all are possible), the reduction in shelf space depends on whether that reduction is against a rising base of total sales or a stable one. And how it affects any one particular store depends on what has happened to the shelf space allocations by others in that store’s immediate vicinity. That will be very hard for anybody to track.

I am still extremely skeptical of recent celebrations of the successes of independent stores, which we’ve seen coming out of New York City and Pittsburgh in the past couple of weeks. Anecdotal information is not projectable data; it is often misleading data. Nobody seems to be making the claim that bookstore shelf space is increasing in New York or Pittsburgh or anyplace else. Any one bookstore might still, for a while, be a reasonable bet. But this is a case where the usual laws of investment (diversify as much as you can) would likely not apply. It is hard to imagine bets on five or ten or twenty independent stores paying off in the aggregate in the years to come. Unless you were making those bets with knowledge about exactly where Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million,Walmart, Target, and Costco were reducing their shelf space the odds will be against you, and I’m pretty sure there won’t be anybody who knows all those facts in a timely way.

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Lots going on; no single topic today


I find myself with a lot of pages open on my web browser. Even before Amazon’s announcement yesterday about ebooks passing hardcovers in sales this past quarter, there has been a lot going on.

There had been some suggestions, which I never bought into, that ebook sales were slowing in 2009. (Is this a meme that started with somebody anti-Agency? More on that later…) I look at the IDPF chart as it stands today and it is headlined 2010 Sales  “OFF THE CHART” vs. Previous Quarters and that’s how it looks to me. A major publisher told me yesterday that AAP figures suggest ebook sales are up 210% this year and that house’s numbers are up 225%, so they feel they’re rising with the tide. That’s about what PW said the AAP said with the additional information that hardcover sales were up and paperback sales, trade and mass market, were down.

In fact, Amazon, in the face of the apparently-stiff competition from the Nook and the iPad, says Kindle book sales have tripled in the first half of the year!

Nonetheless, Madeline McIntosh at Random House doesn’t see ebooks causing problems for paperback sales. She’s quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “Our conclusion is that there’s no data to prove any connection—good or bad—between growth in e-books and the growth or decline, in trade paperback sales. … If anything, we may be seeing a positive effect in which the steady pace of e-book sales helps to keep a book in front-of-mind for a growing number of consumers after hardcover momentum slows.”

Kat Meyer, blogging for O’Reilly, got an indie ebookseller to talk on the record about the difficulties they’re having with the transition to Agency. This would seem to undercut the idea (which I agree with) that Agency is good for smaller sellers, because the little guys will get squashed in a price war with big guys. A seminal figure in the online book retailing world who has worked with smaller stores on these challenges for years told me in a phone conversation this week that he completely agrees with me. But the problems Kat lays out for the smaller guys during the transition are real. Let’s hope we don’t lose too many of them while this all gets figured out.

Meanwhile, Knopf made some news with the announcement that they are converting more of their backlist to ebooks. We were wondering what titles they could have missed so far. Random House has never been a laggard at ebook conversion and we’re scratching our heads wondering about a conversion initiative that would be imprint-specific. But this shows that the ebook sales records being broken are occurring without the gun being fully loaded; they’re still making ebullets out of old books.

Joe Wikert wrote a blog about the emerging ebook landscape in which he imagines that the various indies selling Google Editions will, all together, constitute a big Amazon. I don’t think so. I don’t think Google can save indies with what they’re doing. But it is good that they’re trying.

Joe also thinks that Amazon will abandon the Kindle device in favor of the Kindle as a platform. I don’t agree with that either. The device is reportedly still selling like hotcakes with sales rising quickly since a recent price cut, even while the Nook has established itself and iPad has been “competing.” I think there’s room for tablet computers and ereaders, which might be a minority position at the moment. (Being in the minority is perfectly comfortable for me.)

You know we’re all about vertical here at The Shatzkin Files. It looks like some authors from big houses are taking this vertical thing into their own hands. A bunch of gardening authors have created their own garden experts speakers bureau.  It won’t surprise anybody if I predict that this effort will be more successful than the “horizontal” speakers bureaus launched by some of the major houses over the past few years. I checked with the folks at Cool Springs Press, the gardening publisher I featured here a couple of weeks ago, and, of course, they’re involved.

I had written a blogpost recently saying that I thought ebook selling nodes would explode and be all over the web. It looks like Oprah is fueling that idea in a way that I hadn’t entertained: with an app. Why not? Who has a better brand than Oprah for “curation”? Maybe Barnes & Noble. But maybe not.

It also seems that self-publishing is growing in ubiquity and respectability. PW announced the plans of an author who told his agent not to bother selling his rights. If this isn’t the major trade houses’ worse nightmare, it should be! Joe Konrath, who may go down in history as the trailblazer who proved that some authors, at least, can make money without publishers, is reporting his rising Amazon revenues on books the New York houses have turned down, and they’re eye-catching.

And the last thing I note in this pot-pourri is the news from Farrar Straus & Giroux that they’re launching an online literary magazine. On the one hand, this is the kind of niche marketing we’ve been advocating that larger houses pursue. On the other hand, the story suggests this is all about promoting FS&G books, not about building a community of like-minded readers, few of whom would know or care which publisher put out the last book they liked.

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Two anomalies on my desk this morning


While the AAP reports that US book sales are definitely down and my friends in major houses report a decline of 10% or more across the board, that’s not what we’re hearing from Canada and it’s not what we hard from small and midsize publishers responding to our BISG “Shifting Sales Channels” survey.

BookNet Canada reports 665 “same stores” in Canada reported units up 6.7% and dollar volume up 5% year on year in the first quarter! Michael Tamblyn tries to fish for reasons on the BNC blog, but there is no cause immediately apparent. Michael decides that it isn’t a Stephenie Meyer effect because there something like the Meyer effect happens just about every year.

The BISG and Idea Logical survey for “Sales Channels” was nowhere near as scientific, but we did get 245 responses which suggests the results are worthy of serious consideration.

One response in particular blew me away. We asked whether “overall sales for the past 12 months have been considerably weaker than for the two years prior?” Every large publisher we talked to said “yes” to that. Three significant smaller publishers we talked to said emphatically “no”, they just had record years. In the survey, 73% of large publishers said “yes” (sales had been much weaker) and 65% of smaller and midsize publishers said “no”!

We got a similar split on the question “have sales of your books fallen substantially any specific channels or accounts over the past three years?” Only 44.9% of the medium and small publishers said “yes” to that but 63% of the large publishers did!

So sales seem to be stronger for smaller publishers and smaller countries.

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