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Considering the very wide range of digital change topics that should be candidates for discussion at DBW 2016


The challenge for the book business for the past decade has been rapid and less-than-predictable changes in the ecosystem because of digital. There are two underlying shifts that fundamentally alter the ecosystem: people substituting ebook consumption for print book consumption and people substituting online purchase of printed books for buying them in stores.

These two shifts, and a host of corollaries around product type, product creation, and marketing, are what people come to Digital Book World to be enlightened about and to discuss. Our job for the past seven years has been planning the program and booking all the speakers for that 3-day conference. The whole process takes months; there are about 35 or 40 discrete “sessions” and as many as 150 speakers and moderators involved.

Creating a timely and relevant program when we’re leading the target by several months — deciding on topics and recruiting speakers starting now for an event that will take place March 7-9, 2016 — is a challenge. More perspectives on the task add real value; we structure things so we can get a lot of help. We recruit a “Conference Council” — volunteers from publishing companies and their service providers and trading partners — to help advise me in shaping the event. This year we’re going to broaden the outreach for opinions about this and anybody reading this blog can be involved.

Here are the main topic headings we’re considering with a brief description of what we see as the current issues around each. The Survey linked to again at the end of this post allows you to express yourself on how important you think each topic will be to the publishing community next March when we hold the conference.

1. Data. This is a wide-ranging topic. We look for original data about what’s going on in the ecosystem wherever we can find it and we have done sessions in the past (and could again) about “Big Data” and what publishers need to understand about it. With pricing of ebooks becoming an increasingly important financial consideration for publishers and data being such a crucial component of doing that well, this is bound to remain a top-of-mind subject.

2. Global. Publishers used to be pretty much limited to their home market for marketing and sales. That’s why there is a robust international business in territorial and language rights. In the digital world, that limitation is not nearly as confining. US and UK publishers are learning there are big markets for their books all over the world, and global ebook distribution and print-on-demand make it possible for them to work those markets far more effectively than ever before from their offices, wherever they are.

3 Marketing and discovery. This is the topic that cuts across books regardless of topic or format. For fiction or art books or anything in between, whether delivered in print or as ebooks, publishers are embarked on a long journey of learning about how discovery and SEO works in the most complicated consumer product marketplace imaginable. There are a variety of topics that we entertain under this heading and, you could tell from my own checklist in my last post, I could probably build the whole conference around discovery and figure the audience was getting a large percentage of what is most important.

4. Authors and self-publishing. Authors didn’t used to have much alternative to publishers; now they do. As a result, authors have developed marketing capabilities and support services have grown up to help them. This all raises a host of issues for publishers. They have to learn how to capitalize effectively on what authors can do on their own, but they also need to provide great marketing support to authors and be seen as collaborative and as adding real marketing value.

5. M&A and investment. Most publishers, and all big publishers, are looking to acquiring smaller publishers with complementary lists (and, of course, there are different ideas about what that means). And there are a host of start-ups with capabilities publishers want to see available which are also tempting investments. Quite aside from publishing, we live in a moment with a lot of investment capital available for start-ups and acquisition and publishers certainly need to stay aware of investment flows.

6. Is the book morphing into something else? With each new cycle of Moore’s law and each new delivery mechanism — whether hardware or platform — the question of what the “product” should be gets called for reconsideration again. The history of ebooks has been commercially discouraging for those who want see the book concept rethought from the ground up, but the topic never dies and never will as long as capabilities to present stories and information and to interact with content in new ways are put in front of publishers.

7. Managing and exploiting rights. The rights marketplace for books has changed dramatically in the past two decades. In the 20th century, book clubs and paperbacks were the big-revenue rights opportunities, with serialization to print periodicals also very important. Those markets are all dramatically diminished and the rights action today mostly is about foreign languages and territories. Now, even those rights are being rethought as we see the beginings of publishers thinking about controlling multiple languages for the books they acquire themselves.

8. Agents and editors, how they relate in a mutually-supportive way. They share ownership of each author’s personal loyalty, they both might shape the book editorially, and they both will hear the author’s career ambitions and influence him or her about self-publishing and their publishers’ efforts. If publishers are going to start collaborating meaningfully with authors about marketing, that suggests agents and editors are going to be working together differently.

9. Libraries. Aside from being important customers for publishers, libraries are increasingly being seen as a venue for discovery and perhaps even for book retailing. Whatever they will be in the future, it is likely their role will be different than what Andrew Carnegie envisioned a century ago.

10. Bookstores. Since the collapse of Borders, Barnes & Noble has continued to shrink and independent bookstores have appeared to grow. Books-a-Million and Walmart have become mainstays of the US trade, but they don’t replace Borders. The UK bookstore picture is even less diverse. The ebook market seems to be consolidating in the US with Amazon and Apple leading the pack and independents not really in the ebook game at all, at least at the moment. The key skill set of a publisher is to manage a diverse system of retail intermediaries that gets their books to customers. How the intermediary ecosystem will change in the months and years to come is therefore of existential importance to publishers.

11. Standards. There are evolving tech standards around content that live outside the book business. The question for publishers, particularly big publishers, is how much effort they should expend on standards-creation efforts which are, mostly, the domain of other media and tech interests. Can they let industry bodies like IDPF and BISG handle this, or do publishers have to involve themselves in these issues?

12. Outsiders coming in. We are seeing publishing coming from non-publishers and we see non-book retailers starting to peddle books online. These are trends that industry incumbents need to monitor and understand.

13. Millennials. Some believe that the human propensity to be a book reader is changing in fundamental ways as people born into the internet age become an increasing part of the market. There are other data points suggesting that the millennials aren’t so different from their predecessors. How should publishers approach marketing differently to different age groups?

14. Digital production tech and operations. Is there already a “new normal” for integrated print and digital publishing? Do publishers need to continue thinking about investing in technology for creation and delivery?

15. Audio. Audio publishing has gone all-downloads much faster than print. An even bigger technological disruptor may be coming as TTS (text-to-speech) technology gets better and better. What the linkage will be between audiobooks and ebooks in the future is something else every publisher needs to consider.

16. Publishing automation. From content management to product generation, automation has been part of every publisher’s life for the past several years. It might be fruitful to explore how people in publishing houses feel about the automation that has taken place — has it helped? — and get a sense of what needs to be automated in the future.

17. Mobile. Because of mobile, there are shifts in consumption and an impact on search and discovery and where the transactions take place. Many publishers have worked to optimize their websites for mobile use but there’s a lot more to know about the mobile shift that could affect what they publish and how they market it.

18. Video. This topic runs a gamut. Publishers can be tempted by YouTube stars with big audiences as potential bestselling authors. But how reliably can those audience be converted to buy books or ebooks? What do publishers need to know about video production? Do videos really help with book marketing?

19. Privacy. Should publishers or booksellers be doing anything to address potential compromises to reader privacy in the digital age?

And then we have six questions for all publishers that could inform or suggest additional topics.

* What growth opportunities do you see for today’s publishers?

* What potential change in the landscape are you most worried about?

* What “problems” are you trying to solve?

* Where are you investing your capital?

* When you hire today, what skills are you looking for that you might not have ten years ago?

* Can you tell us any topic you think is important that isn’t mentioned here?

This link to our survey is intended to allow you to participate in helping us decide what’s important for DBW to cover. Even a program as extensive as ours has to make choices and your input will help us do that more wisely. In case you’re interested, here is my personal list of what publishers should be thinking about, which is a very-much-abridged version of this post.

Under the direction of our Conference Chair, Lorraine Shanley, and co-Chair Jess Johns, we are following a parallel process for our Publishers Launch Kids show which will kick of DBW on March 7. If you are kids book publishing interests you, the survey for that show is here and you’re welcome to participate in that one as well.

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My personal list of what should be top-of-mind for publishers around digital change today


What are the most important digital change issues publishers face?

To prepare for DBW 2016, we need to decide what publishers need to be thinking about and learning about next March, when the seventh annual DBW will take place. It would be extremely limiting for that selection to be based on my thoughts and opinions alone, and we have a process in place to make sure that it isn’t. (More on that to come in the next post here.) But if we were relying on me alone, here’s what we’d be focused on.

1. Ebook pricing. Publishers get anywhere from 50-to-70 percent of the retail price from most ebook retailers. Unlike the print world, where price-setting must take place before the book comes out and is, because the price is printed on the book, very hard to adjust, ebook prices can be changed quickly and frequently.

Pricing variation has historically been the province of the retailer. In the physical world, markdowns were almost never shared: the retailer voluntarily gave away part of their margin to gain market share or to build customer loyalty.

In the agency world that four of the Big Five have now created (with Penguin Random House almost certain to follow on), pricing is not only mostly controlled by publishers, they are the direct beneficiaries of higher prices and lose margin if prices are lowered.

It is true — and the indie authors who like it better when Amazon is in control rather than the publishers often point this out — that publishers have almost no experience with pricing and the impact of changes. But it is also true that the retailers, who do have more experience with it, have different objectives than publishers. Retailers want a competitive advantage against other retailers and, as part of that, they want to build customer loyalty. Publishers want to maximize revenue for each SKU, build awareness of authors, and use one book by an author or in a series to sell other titles under the same brand.

Publishers are starting very near zero on knowledge. How does discounting one title in a series affect the audience’s likelihood of getting started with it and then buying other titles at higher prices? If a book is in the news, is the right strategy to raise the price (to maximize revenue) or to lower the price (to get better market penetration on the back of the news). And is the strategy the same if the story is about the book, rather than the book being about the story? Do pricing strategies need seasonality rules, and how is that different across genres or topics?

All of these are things publishers will have to learn by a combination of experimentation, archiving of information, and analysis. A complicating aspect of this is that the market itself is still changing: a person’s ebook purchasing habits today, when they’re new to it, may change over the next couple of years, as they become more sophisticated consumers. This is a moving target but a very important one. And there is one person who stands out as having looked at this more closely than anyone: Dan Lubart, who owns Iobyte Solutions, and who previously worked for HarperCollins and now is at Hachette.

2. Building direct customer knowledge. What is knowable about audiences through listening and analytical tools today is stunning. It is critical to do audience research on a constant and ongoing basis. Publishers need to keep formulating theses about who their audiences are, then doing research to find where they hang out online and what words they use when they talk about the things the publisher wants to engage them about.

The customer knowledge is essential to do first-class search engine optimization, but it is even more important for a publisher that wants to do any kind of “campaign”. Buying keyword exposure is an exercise in constant experimentation, measurement, and management no matter what you do, but starting a campaign without doing the core audience research is simply wasteful. And what is true of ad campaigns is also true of earned media and traditional marketing campaigns. This is the marketing equivalent of “measure twice, cut once”. Don’t waste time, money, and effort doing something that research could have told you in advance wouldn’t work.

3. Building direct customer contact. Near as we can tell, the big publishers have been building email lists for years. There’s a Shatzkin Files post from the Fall of 2011 citing Tor.com’s having mailed to hundreds of thousands of people the month before, with a very high open rate and getting an extraordinary percentage of those to “take an action”.

But building lists and managing them for maximum effectiveness are two quite different things. And even more complicated is a next-generation challenge: getting publisher lists and author lists working in tandem. It would seem like a win all around for publishers to organize authors whose audiences are similar to email across their lists to everybody’s benefit. But it is easy to see why authors (or their agents or business advisors) would be reluctant to dive into something like that, or to want some control over their use in ways that effectively forestalls collective action.

Even for lists publishers entirely own and control, there is enormous work to do segment them properly and test, test, test to find the most effective ways to use them. And engagement with customers also includes branding and interaction with them in social media and targeted web sites or landing pages that can engage potential customers (and, of course, capture their email addresses as well).

4. New protocols for author collaboration around marketing. We’ve made the point in this space before that the author’s digital presence is an important component of any book’s SEO. A publisher extending its own efforts to make its books discoverable that is not including the author web sites in their analysis is missing a component essential to the success of their efforts.

This is a complicated question that will ultimately back right up to the author’s contract, but where each publisher needs to start is with an understanding of what they want from an author’s digital presence and web site. There needs to be a best practice “ask” and there needs to be analysis of what exists to pinpoint the ways it should be improved. One very alert Big Five house we know has at least an executive or two at a high level who sees the virtue in our suggestion that a graded analysis of an author’s online presence, together with specific recommendations for improvement, should be both a standard and promoted feature for authors of being published by that house. It is hard to imagine that this won’t be normal operating procedure in a couple of years but the time to start working on it, for everybody, is now.

5. Maximizing global sales: distribution and discovery. Publishers, coaxed by global ebook distributors like Ingram, Vearsa, and others, are increasingly aware that English-language ebooks have a global market. But maximizing those sales requires both having distribution to the retailers serving each market and optimizing the title description metadata so that search “works” at many places around the world.

Part of what is required there is — say it again — more research. The search terms that work best for any book may well be different in India or Australia than they are in the US. But the challenges in getting differentiated copy posted correctly in the right places are not trivial, and things don’t work the same in Amazon and Google, let alone in local retailers in each market. We figure that the sophistication of the global ebook distributors will be increasingly useful here, but it will also be necessary for each global publisher to understand their most important markets and retailers for their books to sell most effectively.

6. Building a company-wide understanding of SEO (editorial, marketing, and sales). The understanding of SEO at most publishing houses, from our experience, is both insufficient among the most knowledgeable in the house and grasped at all by far too few people. For the most part, SEO is the province of the “marketers”, but, in fact, it might even be as important that editors and salespeople understand it. The S in SEO stands for “search” but it might as well stand for “sales” or “shelved”.

Editors who don’t understand SEO lack an important tool to direct authors, particularly of non-fiction books, to address what the audience wants. Without SEO understanding, they can’t instantly tell a “bad” title (one that won’t work for SEO) from a useful one.

Salespeople, whether they are covering brick stores or online ones, need that understanding too.

The key to optimizing for search is knowing how the audience searches. This can only be accomplished by research, and it changes with time so the research for a similar book on last season’s list can’t reliably be re-used. That will become clear as we consider the next point.

7. Allocating effort across a large backlist. The biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge for publishers, as they have historically operated and as they are currently structured, is maximizing their opportunities across their backlists. The big houses are dealing with many tens of thousands of titles. We advocate techniques that require some human application so scale techniques have to be used to pinpoint the titles worth an effort.

Although we are developing tools to help digest the external cues that might affect where the focus should be — cues from the news and social graph — each publisher has to start with a combination of knowledge of the list, intuition, and a sense that sales can be improved to pick those titles worth reviewing for better audience understanding and descriptive copy improvement. Almost certainly, titles that are more than a couple of years old will need work for several reasons: the house knew so little about SEO when copy was written; time will have changed the search terms that matter; and reviews and awards and other things from the book’s experience in the marketplace might need to be incorporated.

8. Make sure you ignore what is not important. My Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy has worked inside big companies and he urged me to add this eighth point. No company has the people or bandwidth or resources to spend time on things that are not very important. Whether you use this list of mine or make your own, be very wary of expending any energy or capital or bandwidth on anything else.

Of course, DBW itself won’t be relying just on me to make the choices of what to cover and what to ignore. I have already created a much longer list of topics than this for our Conference Council to review. We have them express themselves on how useful each potential topic is in a Survey Monkey poll. We will give our readers the opportunity to take that same poll when we describe the larger list of topics in our next post.

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The utility of examining the text of a book to find search terms for SEO


The first two things to understand about optimizing book copy for SEO that I’ve learned from Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy are:

1. Copy always used to be written based on “knowledge of the book”. It should now be written based on “research into the audiences”.

2. Copy from publishers was almost always B2B, intended for intermediaries in the marketing and supply chains. Now all copy ends up being B2C, important for consumers and search.

These are tough hurdles for the most established publishers to jump, because executing on the audience research piece not only requires a change in the workflow and distribution of work among staff, doing that also requires additional effort that employs skills that may be in short supply, if they exist in the publishing house at all.

With all that additional work in front of them, any automated solution that can be offered to publishers to diminish the pain of this transition is attractive. (We’re working on a few of those ourselves.) I’ve recently become aware of the new technology offered by Trajectory, which examines a book’s text for words that should be used for SEO.

Automation is good, but this is still coming from within the book. So I asked my Logical Marketing team to help me understand: is this helpful?

The answer seems to be, “it is a positive step but a very partial one. And it does not help anybody avoid the research we think is fundamental.”

The article by Jim Bryant of Trajectory on the Publishing Perspectives blog demonstrating the value of their capability is very clear. He used as one example a book called “The Mayo Clinic Diet”. A word cloud Trajectory created from the book showed clearly that there were two big words, “calorie” and “exercise”, which appeared frequently in the book, were important to its thesis, and were not in the copy the publisher created to describe it. That’s the positive step.

But Logical Marketing methodology is to find out what words the consumer uses to describe what is in the book, particularly in search. With a backlist book, this can be easily researched in Library Thing. The word cloud at Library Thing for this very same book says the terms that the consumers use are “diet” and “dieting” (which, being in the title, were already in the descriptive copy), “cookbook” (not in), “health” and “health and fitness” (not in), “nutrition” (not in), “weight loss” (which was in the original copy; hey! it is a diet book!), and “exercise” (in because it was identified by Trajectory.) “Calorie” apparently didn’t figure as important to the consumers on Library Thing as an associated term.

But going beyond the important terms not in the book and therefore never to be found by the Trajectory methodology, were those other prime terms — “cookbook”, “health”, “health and fitness”, and “nutrition”. And a bit more work on our part also identifies longer-tail terms that will be more important for discovery than what Trajectory found: “healthy diet”, and “lifestyle changes” among them. You get that very clearly from Library Thing.

Pete McCarthy did a post for the DBW blog recently that used “To Kill a Mockingbird” to show why the words that are in the book are not sufficient for first-rate SEO. (Pete used a fiction title because it is often said that fiction is harder to SEO than non-fiction. The point is that the methodology still works.) What is that literary classic about that a semantic examination of the text probably won’t tell you? Racism. Civil rights. It is also important Southern Literature. As an aside, you can combine certain of those tags to find comparable other authors for specific aspects of the book that will resonate with certain customers. You know another author who jumps out with that analysis? John Grisham. Will Trajectory’s method show you that? We don’t think so. They have built sophisticated technology to analyze writing style and story structure, but whether that would connect Harper Lee and Grisham is very doubtful. Using the characterizations of consumers connects them very clearly.

We don’t mean to dismiss Trajectory. We might well learn to incorporate it into our methodology in circumstances where it is available to us (if a publisher we’re working with has it), but almost certainly for new titles only. It is not worthless to examine the text of a book looking for clues to good keywords. But it is a mistake to ignore McCarthy’s first rule: that the descriptive copy that serves you best for SEO requires research into the audience, even gaining knowledge as rudimentary as in the example. Semantic examination of the text automates what we’ve always tried to employ manually: knowledge of the book. That’s useful, but it is really the smallest part of a much larger job to create descriptive copy optimized for search.

To modify an old aphorism, knowledge gained from the text is often unnecessary, but never sufficient.

As for backlist, the important terms that the Trajectory examination uncovered are found much more easily and quickly at Library Thing. The tool that was well-built to begin with, has existed and been iterated upon and had data added to it for years, and been underutilized for a long time because it was seen as a “niche consumer” capability, is still the best one. It is populated with terms used by real people not employed by the author or the publishing house. Its data is not based on transactional history, but on reading history. That’s what you really want for SEO. New titles are a bit harder, and Trajectory over time will likely solve pieces of that puzzle, but audience research is still a lot more important than an examination of the book’s text to achieve the desired result of having readers who are unaware of a book but would be likely to want it have it put in front of them for consideration.

We recollect that Amazon had the full text for many books and used to do a semantic analysis of it. (They certainly still do X-ray in Kindle, which is a version of it.) They haven’t emphasized it and they haven’t built on it. That suggests that the commercial value of it is questionable. And Google also identifies “common words and phrases” and provides a word cloud, which you can see here for “The Mayo Clinic Diet” if you scroll down.

And, indeed, we’re dealing with Trajectory 1.0. Over time they may make their analysis increasingly relevant and useful. But no matter how smart and sophisticated you are, you can’t examine the book itself to find out how people reading it react to it and think about it and that is the information that tells you most about who might read it next.

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Four of the big five have new deals with Amazon and only the biggest is still to negotiate one


A reporter called earlier this week focused on what he figures are the upcoming negotiations over trading terms between Amazon and Penguin Random House. I had observed when Amazon was throwing sharp elbows at Hachette during their contractual dispute that Amazon wouldn’t try similar tactics with PRH.

Since then, with HarperCollins and Amazon having announced they’ve reached new terms, deals have been done with all the Following Four US publishers. It would appear that the DoJ’s and Judge Cote’s work to stop publisher-controlled pricing across retailers has been very largely undone by the deals independently arrived at. So it is a sensible question for a reporter to ask, as this one was: can Penguin Random House do better than the others did in these negotiations?

I don’t know the answer to that. And even after a deal is announced, none of us will necessarily know the answer. But this is an appropriate time to consider the power of Penguin Random House’s position in the marketplace. It is very strong. If I were any of the other four major publishers, I would fear PRH more than Amazon as a potential disruptor of my business. When I put that proposition to a UK-based executive of one of those companies at the London Book Fair last week, he readily agreed with me.

When one considers what a segmented business publishing is, the Penguin Random House combination becomes that much more eye-catching. These five companies — PRH, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan — compete much more with each other than they do with anybody else. Cambridge competes with Oxford and other university presses. Quarto competes with Chronicle and Abrams and Running Press and outside the US with Egmont and other illustrated book publishers. Yes, a bestseller might come from anywhere: Harry Potter came to the US market from Scholastic and the UK market from Bloomsbury. But the publishers who compete for the bestselling authors and the front-of-store slots repeatedly are the Big Five, which were formerly the Big Six.

And when Penguin merged with Random House, that was not just any old merger of the Big Six. It was a merger between Number One and Number Two. It has created a single company that is, in the US market, about twice the size of its next competitor (about $2.5 billion in sales for PRH against about $1.2 billion for HarperCollins). And HarperCollins, in turn, is about double the size of each of the other three.

What that means is that PRH, like Amazon, can make its commercial decisions independently from the rest of the industry. They can take risks that would be very challenging for anybody else. Amazon could afford to get into a dust-up with Hachette that affected the supply of books in ways its customers could clearly see and make it public to try to make a point. Random House, even before the merger, could afford to stay out of the new iBookstore (they wouldn’t play ball with agency terms in the beginning) for a while, which would have seemed a big risk to the others. (Of course, the DoJ and Judge Cote didn’t see it as individually-discernible risk. Their explanation was “collusion”.) That decision by Random House paid off in big ways in 2010 with higher sales per ebook title (because they didn’t go to agency, which reduced the per-title take) and higher unit sales (because agency would have forbidden discounting, and Amazon went to town discounting Random House books against their agency competitors).

In the past year, Scribd and Oyster announced ebook subscription programs. Pretty quickly, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster announced varying degrees of participation in the services. And then Macmillan followed. But Penguin Random House and Hachette stayed out. Hachette is the most author- and bestseller-driven of the major houses and author brands are the most likely long run casualties if subscription services succeed. But, if they succeed, Hachette will have to go back to them hat in hand. Penguin Random House won’t, necessarily.

Because if subscriptions are actually the wave of the future and the title rosters from Scribd and Oyster are sufficient to make that happen, then PRH could compete with them entirely on their own. They would have as many prominent commercial books from their own reservoir as the other services have aggregated. And they wouldn’t be sharing with a third party vendor.

It is worth noting that PRH has gone into the Scribd service with audiobooks.

When Oyster announced last month that they would now sell ebooks a la carte as well as in subscription bundles, some of the press saw more significance to the move than it warranted. Scribd started out as an a la carte document access site. Amazon itself formed a subscription service (Kindle Unlimited) the minute Scribd and Oyster announced what they were doing. If you have the capability to sell ebooks, why not sell them by whatever commercial arrangement the customer wants?

By the same token, the distinction between publishers and retailers is melting away. Amazon went into publishing very quickly after ebooks enabled self-publishing. Barnes & Noble published proprietary books for years, even before they bought Sterling in 2002. HarperCollins built a retailing capability for themselves in the past year. (The Tor.com imprint of Macmillan said they’d be selling DRM-free ebooks directly from their own site, but we have seen no evidence that they actually ever did.)

So, the reporter trying to understand the possibly-occurring Amazon-PRH negotiations wondered, would PRH become a retailer?

I don’t think so (at least not anytime soon), but I still believe — as I did when I first speculated about all this 2-1/2 years ago — that a store could have a competitive selection of books with titles exclusively from PRH. No other publisher could serve a general interest audience at retail without other people’s books as well.

How else could PRH be disruptive? They could offer a license to schools for their titles. If a school bought one of those to load its students’ digital devices with content, they wouldn’t have everything they might want but they could conceivably have all they need. How hard would it be to sell a competing license with less good stuff in it? How hard would it be to build an aggregation so that a competing license had as much good stuff in it?

The executives I’ve spoken with at PRH — and I have high personal and professional opinions of all of them — have consistently disclaimed any interest in most of what I’m suggesting. And, indeed, they haven’t started a subscription service and they’ve shown no signs of rolling out a program to create PRH-only bookstores. There are reasons, aside from altruism or short-sightedness, why they might resist these solutions. After all, PRH publishes about half the most commercial titles in the US book trade. Subscription services and retail competition would weaken the existing bookstore network, and PRH benefits from its existence in proportion to its relative size, which is to say “much more than anybody else”.

In fact, I’ve discussed the possibility that they could be so disruptive with the CEOs of two of the other Big Five, and neither executive (unlike the one I met with in London last week) expressed much concern. One said “they don’t want to do that”, meaning “they don’t want to destroy the competition in the trade” (which is a point of view that is actually supported by what the executives at PRH have said to me, as counter-intuitive as it seems). And the other one believes that having PRH in the game to negotiate with Amazon and B&N helps keep the terms of trade in check for everybody else as well. That executive likes having PRH there, with all its size and clout.

I had the conversation with the reporter that was the catalyst for this post on Wednesday morning and it was mostly drafted on Wednesday afternoon. Penguin Random House’s new consumer-centric web site was unveiled Thursday morning and underscores their support of the trade (they’re trying to push sales to retailers, not sell directly themselves). The site appears to give a page for every book they’ve got, which could well prove very useful as they build embellishments.

They refer the sales over to a robust choice of retailers for all formats. One thing I noticed was that a particular ebook I looked for — Napoleon, A Life by Andrew Roberts — is $45 in cloth, $20 in paperback, and the ebook is listed at $29.99! Running through the list of retailers to which PRH links directly, we can see that Amazon and Google Play discount the book down to an identical approximately 14.4% off $25.65 (with Amazon touting the massive saving over the hardcover price!) but the others listed — Apple, B&N Nook, Books-a-Million, and Kobo — offer it at the $29.99 list price. Close observers of the changing state of agency pricing will be watching whether the pricing or the discounting profile changes when PRH concludes that next round of negotiations.

And, incidentally, this also jibes with something we were told very recently by an ex-Nook employee, who said that the DoJ and Judge Cote effectively stopped B&N’s ability to compete with Amazon in its tracks when they opened up discounting of agency. Not only did they strip out margin that B&N desperately needed to compete, competing then effectively required price-monitoring capability to keep up with Amazon that was beyond their capabilities. Google has no problem doing that and maybe nobody else can keep up, but it would take looking at a lot more than one title to prove that.

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More thinking about how author and publisher marketing collaboration should change


Because of our Logical Marketing work and our interest in author websites (admittedly just a corner of the author-marketing world, even if we think it is a cornerstone), I did a couple of recent posts, the basic thrust of which was that publishers needed to rethink marketing and the author interaction around it.

Now, British author Harry Bingham and American consultant and indie-publishing expert Jane Friedman have published the results of a survey they did asking authors what they think of their publishers. What Bingham and Friedman found suggests strongly that the topic of the author-publisher relationship around marketing will be the subject of attention from a lot more people in the months and years to come.

Bingham and Friedman corralled a really significant sample in response to their survey: over 800 authors, of whom nearly half had published six or more books, more than half said their last book was published by a Big Five or other large trade publisher, and more than 60 percent of whom had an agent. Fewer than 10 percent said their most recent book was self-published, so it is likely that the survey captures the views of the published author more reliably than the views of the self-published author.

But, in fact, these published authors are not strangers to self-publishing. Although about a third of the respondents said they had never considered self-publishing, well over 40 percent have done it and nearly a quarter say they’ve “seriously considered it”.

On the other hand, later in the survey 36 percent of the respondents were “horrified” at the idea of controlling every aspect of the publishing process while only 24 percent were “excited” by that idea.

The point to the exercise was to find out how authors felt about their publishers. There’s a lot of encouraging news in here for publishers around that. The authors are generally pleased with their editing, their cover designs, and the consultation with them around flap copy. But they’re much less satisfied with the interaction around marketing. Significantly more felt their books “weren’t really marketed at all” (28 percent) than felt that the publisher made “full use of” their “skills, passion, contacts, and digital presence” (17 percent).

Although half of the respondents were satisfied with the communication they got from publishers, only 20 percent thought they got the “systematic guidance” they needed so they could “add most value” to the overall effort. It is precisely that challenge that my prior posts, in perhaps an unneccesarily roundabout way, sought to address.

But what Bingham cites as most startling to him among the results was the publishers’ almost total lack of expressed desire for author feedback. About three-quarters of the authors say they weren’t asked for feedback at all from publishers and only 16 percent of the authors said feedback was solicited and they were able to communicate freely.

To me, the most telling questions were those that probed whether the author would leave their publisher or their agent if they had the chance. For the publishers: more would leave than would stay if they got an equivalent offer elsewhere. For the agents: by more than 6-to-1 authors who now have agents would stay with their representative even if they could get another. That’s powerful.

At the end of last week, we conducted a survey of our own among agents and editors, trying to discern whether self-publishing is a useful tool to get a deal. Much to my surprise, the consensus is that it is not useful. We got far more answers from agents than we did from editors, but the clear prevailing opinion is that publishers don’t know how to interpret independent publishing efforts and, most of the time, trying it does an author’s chances of selling that book to a publisher much more harm than good. Most agents responding said they really don’t want to try to peddle a book that has already been self-published unless it has achieved pretty extraordinary success.

(What’s “extraordinary”? One UK agent suggested that it would take at least 50,000 sales to get the attention of a British publisher. An American agent said in that market the number is about 100,000.)

Agents are less negative about whether self-publishing might be helpful selling a next or different book to a publisher, but, even there, they are far less than enthusiastic about the help it provides. One agent said that publishers care about the quality of the writing and very little about the author platform. (To me, this reflects the same lack of grasp of the importance of the author’s online presence that I was writing about in those recent posts. And whatever failures of understanding there are, they are more widespread among editors in publishing houses than they are among marketers.)

What the agents and editors seem to be saying to us is that they don’t think about self-publishing very much. There are definitely exceptions, but most seem content to ignore it unless an author has achieved outlandish success doing it.

It would seem that the level of concern among the establishment about the temptations of self-publishing at any particular time is directly proportional to the apparent health of bookstores and the growth, or lack of it, in the ebook market share at that time. Since, in the U.S., bookstores seem to be doing well right now (which I’d argue is still at least partially due to the subtraction of Borders’s shelf-space and the diminution in Barnes & Noble’s) and the ebook market share has appeared stable for some time, that level of concern is currently pretty low.

So, here are a few conclusions from all of this.

1. Agents are driving the bus. They control the authors; the publishers don’t. That’s not to say that publishers don’t know this; most of them surely do. But this reality — that publisher behavior is channeled by trading partners more powerful than they are — is definitely not appreciated by indie authors and it appeared not to have entered the DoJ’s calculations when they saw collusion in the marketplace a few years ago.

2. Publishers are missing a big opportunity by not simply soliciting author feedback on their experience with the house. Just asking for it would be a win and the chances are that ideas would surface that would be easily executed and could bend that author loyalty curve a bit more in favor of the house. And it would almost certainly also add marketing value with trivial additional cost.

3. Authors are starved for guidance to direct their efforts on their own behalf. They are looking to publishers for this, although they might also look to agents. Thinking through and then spelling out more clearly what authors should be doing to help themselves is a critical task the industry seems to have collectively avoided. Agents are good at providing career guidance. (What book to write? Which house to choose?) But they’re not marketers. They generally know little or nothing about SEO, mailing lists, accessing media and events and all the rest of it. Those things are squarely the publishers’ job and (with few exceptions) publishers have always preferred to avoid much author involvement

4. There are really simple things a publisher could do that would be very evident to authors and helpful to sales. Why aren’t publishers putting some lower-level marketing staff on the task of “retweeting” and “liking” author efforts online? At a slightly higher level of effort, why aren’t publishers evaluating author websites that already exist to make SEO suggestions? The author survey results suggest that doing even little things like this would help a publisher with author loyalty, which should be an objective for every publisher. Publishers should see virtue in the idea that providing authors with knowhow would make them more effective advocates for their own work. It would be very cheap to transfer that knowhow (once it was thought through) and publishers would effectively acquire enthusiastic, energetic and FREE marketing resources.

The two key assets publishers have are their network of authors and their network of accounts. The account side has been substantially disrupted in the past two decades by Amazon’s growth and knock-on effects that have included Borders’s demise and B&N’s increased power in the brick-and-mortar world. Part of the reason we are so emphatic about the importance of author websites is that their absence, or their weakness, creates a vacuum that strengthens Amazon’s grip.

But what the Bingham-Friedman survey reveals is that publishers are vulnerable on the author side as well. The agent world is consolidating too so each powerful agent is just getting more powerful. Every time a publisher signs a book, they get a crack at developing loyalty from that book’s author. Getting ahead of what are really pretty obvious and predictable developments, including the growth of digital discovery and reading and an increased interest from authors in being involved in their own marketing, would seem like an imperative which is escaping most publishers today.

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Starter thoughts for publishers to develop new author marketing policies


In a prior post, we suggested that the time has come for publishers to have clear policies around what they should require from author web presences for an effective publishing partnership. This is a really complex and multi-faceted challenge for every publisher. The purpose of this post is to discuss that proposition in more detail, with a focus on how a publisher should approach developing those policies and the potential contractual relationship changes that they imply.

1. The first step is for a publisher to articulate their minimum standard for an author’s online presence. We have found that the role of web presences an author controls in helping Google and other search engines understand an author’s importance in context is routinely underappreciated. In addition to a properly-SEOd web site, publishers will want to make sure authors fill out their Amazon author page, their Google Plus profile, and their Goodreads page as well. All of this verbal metadata — along with images including photos and book covers — builds a strong foundation for discovery.

Obviously, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, Instagram, and Pinterest (among others) could also be a constructive part of the web presence for many authors. A publisher’s thinking should include them too, taking cognizance of the fact that they are more important for some authors and topics than for others and that it is hard and cumbersome to do anything about them if the author doesn’t do it for him- or herself.

2. Although many, if not most, authors will have a website or the intention to create one, many others don’t. In that case, the publisher will want to have a fast, inexpensive, and effective way to put one up on the author’s behalf. (The non-website components of the foundation don’t lend themselves as readily to publisher assistance.)

For authors who either don’t have the skills to put up their own WordPress site or the budget to pay for a unique one to be designed and built for them, the publisher should provide a templated interactive process to create a site inexpensively. They also will have to do the research into key words, topics, and phrases to inform the SEO. We believe that for a publisher who will operate at scale, building dozens and perhaps hundreds of these sites per year, the cost should come down to $2,000 or less per site, perhaps $1,000 or less for first-time author sites that have minimal needs for unique book pages.

3. The sites should be seen as author sites which have pages for the individual titles on them, not book sites. That means the publisher has to accept the idea of putting all of an author’s work on the site, which definitely enhances the author’s online authority even though it may promote books from other publishers. Making a site that ignores an author’s whole output is superficially self-serving for a publisher, but it is actually counter-productive if the objective is to promote the author’s online presence and discoverability.

4. Of course, in more cases than not, the author will already have a site. In that case, the publisher won’t be building one but does need to assure itself that the existing site meets the SEO standard. The means an SEO check is necessary, using much of the same knowledge and techniques as the publisher would use to establish the right key words, phrases, and topics they’d use if they were building the site themselves. In addition, publishers should evaluate the site for user experience, including the speed of loading. We’ve seen many author sites which failed on that scale.

5. The publisher should also be giving authors advice about maximizing other opportunities. If the author might blog, suggestions about length, frequency, and topics are worthwhile as are very specific ideas about maximizing the other platforms like Facebook. The publishers should be giving authors a Wish List, making absolutely certain that no opportunity for author-based promotion is ignored because of a lack of awareness on the author’s part. By the same token, knowing what the author is doing enables coordinated marketing, such as the publisher’s own social presences being used to “like” or “favorite” or “recommend” what the author is doing. Doing these things will add to the publisher’s online authority as well as giving boosts to authors on a regular basis.

6. A number of publishing service companies and independent entities have created rosters of freelance service providers that can help authors with their publishing efforts. A lot of these — like cover designers or line editors — are not necessary for an author lucky enough to have a publisher. But we know that authors sometimes want help with ongoing content generation, from blogs to tweets. Although authors should obviously avoid handing over their online identities to surrogates they don’t even know (and that is not what is being suggested here), we know that busy authors can use help with what can be time-consuming social media. Publishers would be much smarter to develop their own list of trusted helpers for this kind of work, perhaps even instructing or training them in order for them to qualify for publisher referrals, than to allow these things to happen by accident or chance. (By the way, this might be a useful way to allow an employee who is on maternity leave or any other sabbatical to stay active from locations other than an office.)

7. Looking across a number of websites enables a publisher to see the impact of Google algorithm changes, which very few authors can do. (This will be particularly important on April 21, when Google starts “punishing” the ranking of sites that aren’t mobile-friendly.) Seeing the behavior of Google for different sites, those “whacked” by a change and those that aren’t (and changes to the algorithms occur all the time, not usually as dramatic or heralded as the one around mobile), allows insight into what needs to be done to benefit from the change, or at least avoid being punished. One person in a publishing house could be helping literally hundreds of authors stay optimized and avoid the need for each of these authors to know enormous amounts about SEO themselves. (Of course, it is also true that an author who is especially brilliant at SEO might not want a publisher focusing on the landing page she created that boosted traffic and teaching other authors to compete with it. Those authors are the exception, not the rule.)

This is not a capability we’ve seen publishers create for themselves, even though they can. We’d argue it is a great benefit for an author to be published by a house that has thought through these requirements and is providing an SEO check and research into search terms. Publishers should be doing this. The early movers will gain a temporary, but substantial, competitive advantage for themselves with authors and for their authors against the field.

8. What should be clear is that the author is being given a choice: they can build their own website (or do the tweaking necessary to one they already have to bring it up to standards) or they can have one built for them by the publisher from the templated choices the publisher offers.

9. This leaves two very large commercial questions for the publisher and author to negotiate, both of which should rise to the level of being covered in the contract. The first one revolves around the investment in and “ownership” of the author’s website and, perhaps the investments needed for ongoing marketing on the author’s behalf. Of course, there is nothing to discuss if the author builds and maintains her own site and social presences. The publisher should still provide all the help they can — SEO research at the beginning and analytics help all along — but there would be no reason for any compensation or publisher ownership.

However, if the publisher invests the dollars to build the author’s site or pays for any of the ongoing efforts by freelancers, there is definitely a negotiation to take place and there are a few moving parts to that negotiation. One way to address this might be for the publisher to advance the money for this work but have the opportunity to recoup it out of proceeds, as though it were part of the advance. Or the publisher could just render the author a bill for the site creation cost (remember, we’re positing $2,000 or less) which the author could simply pay. Another possibility is that the publisher might “own” the author’s website. That is not an end result we would recommend and, if it is necessary, there should be a “buy back” clause that enables the author to recover that ownership if, for example, they move on to another house. In any case, the point to these new elements in the author-publisher agreement is that they assure that what is necessary to optimize 21st century book publication is in place. Both partners in this arrangement — author and publisher — should want that to occur. It really should not be beyond the negotiating capabilities of the two parties to come to a fair agreement about how the necessary investments are compensated.

An approach that could evolve would be that houses have a “web site allotment”, making the sites they create “free”, but then they should pay that same amount in support of authors who create their own sites.

10. The other knotty element that should be negotiated is around the use of email lists that these optimized author sites will generate. It is self-destructive for either the author or the publisher to simply say “they’re mine!” Email list use has a lot of history, but best practices in cases like these are necessarily still evolving. For example, a publisher might build a mammoth email list by working with 10 authors with similar audiences for a promotion going across their email list base. Each author will benefit from being exposed to many readers of the other authors. Most authors will want that to happen if the opportunity is presented to them. Another possibility is that a house does a promotion and each author involved sends a personal note to his/her list letting them know about the promotion which, perhaps, could be a book signing or a webcast. The point is that the house has lists and the authors have lists, each can benefit from collaboration with the other and the house can create synergies by building joint efforts among authors.

These questions are complex but, while time passes, they are not getting any simpler. The value of the web and email list assets that can be optimized with cooperation is increasing, which means the cost of not doing this right is also increasing. It is simply not acceptable for every author and every publisher to avoid the discussion, leaving us with tens of thousands of entities operating in siloed vacuums. That’s the status quo. It isn’t satisfactory.

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No author website rules of the road in publishing contracts is a big fail for the industry


The topic of author websites and what the relationship between publishers and authors around them should be is a big “fail” for the publishing industry at the moment. Nobody seems to have thought this through. Publisher policies are all over the lot, even within houses, and that demonstrates that agents haven’t figured out what policies and publisher support an author should require. When they do, there will be much greater uniformity across publishers. (Note to conspiracy theorists about often-alleged Big Five “collusion”: that’s how it actually happens. They’re bullied into it by agents or accounts.)

Although we have been thinking about this for a while, it has been hammered home to us, once again, by events in our own shop this past week. On one hand, we have supplied an agent who asked for one with a proposal to build a website for a key author. The agent is talking to the publishers on both sides of the Atlantic (different divisions of the same big house), trying to get some financial support from them for what the author wants to build and own. Each of the two imprints is lobbying to build the site themselves. We’re not privy to the details of that conversation, so we’re not sure exactly why they want to build it themselves or what other considerations — like domain name ownership, list ownership and management, outbound links, and day-to-day attention to the site — might be motivating the publisher side of this conversation (in addition, we’d assume, to legitimate concerns about the quality of the site and its SEO).

Last week we did a seminar at another house. As we usually do in those sessions, we gave the house the benefit of some of our research into digital footprints for some of their own books and authors. What we found, as usual, is that the author website deficiencies were handicapping their sales and discovery efforts, sometimes by their total absence. That is, on occasion we found no author website at all.

As far as we know, there is no clear policy in either of these big houses concerning author websites. The decisions around how much to help or intervene or invest are, like so many decisions in publishing, left to each imprint to negotiate with each agent for each author. In yet another big house where we have had live meetings and this question came up, it was clear that the marketers understood the author-owned website SEO issues much better than the editors did, and everybody was hamstrung by the editors’ widely varied ability and willingness to engage with their authors or their agents on this subject.

From where we sit, not having contractual policy around a host of questions that involve an author’s web presence is as big an omission as it would be not to have clearly-defined subsidiary rights splits. In fact, we’d argue that, for most authors, the commercial value of the assets around the web presence are more valuable than subsidiary rights are! No publisher or agent would accept a contract that didn’t cover subsidiary rights. It is a sign that the industry is not keeping up with the new realities that the website policy is so far from being worked out.

This is a big challenge on both sides: for agents and for big houses. Most agents don’t operate at a scale that would enable them to gather the expertise and the knowledge to set their authors up properly or to inform what the demands on the houses should be. But the biggest publishers have a hard challenge too. They’ve all structured themselves around clear delineations between what’s big, requires scale, and should be handled centrally (warehousing, sales, IT) and what’s small, requires an intimate relationship with the author, and should be handled in decentralized imprints (title acquisitions, creative decisions, individual title marketing and publicity). This is a really tricky balance to strike from an organizational perspective. It is reflected in job descriptions and in each staff member’s bonus structure. That is, it is really complicated stuff to mess with and requires attention from the very top of enormous businesses to affect and change.

And because there really is no “house policy” on these things anywhere, any agent except the very biggest would get nowhere trying to handle these issues within a contract.

This is a problem that can’t possibly be solved in a big house without CEO-level involvement because it cuts across too many lines: central and imprint, marketing and editorial, author and agent relationships and contractual terms.

There should be no doubt about the critical importance of an author’s web site (and no, a page on the publisher site isn’t an adequate substitute). The author site serves three absolutely essential purposes that will not be adequately addressed without one.

1. It gives an author the capability to make it crystal clear to Google and other search engines precisely who the author is. All SEO efforts are hobbled without it. An author’s website is a central hub of data (a Pete McCarthy point: “data” isn’t always about numbers, in SEO “data” is often words) about the author, to which both fans and search engines can go for authoritative information.

2. It gives the author an extensible platform from which to engage more deeply with fans, some of whom are megaphones and media from whom the benefits of deeper engagement are substantial. An  author can use it to gather email signups and really only with a site can an author reliably and systematically build and own direct relationships.

3. It gives a logical place for anybody writing about the author to link. That’s why author websites often score so high in search. (Inbound links are SEO gold.) And if an author doesn’t have a website, the next logical place to link might be the Amazon author page, or the Amazon product page (the book). The next choice would be a primary social presence, like Twitter or LinkedIn.

This last point is not registering in many places. At one big house, we know that their policy is to avoid linking to Amazon if they can; they’d rather link to B&N. But they also don’t highly value author websites, and they certainly don’t routinely make sure they exist. The omission of author sites means they’re creating links to Amazon, whether they like it or see it that way, or not. The contradiction is apparently not evident.

Let’s kill the thought once and for all that it doesn’t matter whether an author has a website. We’d maintain that if it’s worth the investment to print the books, it’s worth the investment to have a website. Yes, you can do all sorts of useful things in social media, but the website is the only platform the author can own. Everything else is a rental, and the landlord can change the rules about what you can or can’t do at any time. We note that indie author expert Jane Friedman agrees and is helping guide authors to set up their own sites.

There is one more over-arching truth publishers and agents need to understand. And this one goes to the “what’s big and what’s small” paradigm around which big houses organize themselves.

Superior website management, particularly of SEO, is supported and enabled by knowledge of a lot of author websites. In fact, Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy has been noodling the process for a publisher-operated Google Analytics capability across multiple author sites that would, if implemented, apply learnings that would improve the performance of all of them. This is a Logical Marketing project still in its conceptual stages, but what we envision is that authors would get great benefits from allowing the publisher to put Google Analytics (or something else to serve that purpose) on the author site around the publication of a book or longer because they’d get better insight than they could get running it on their own. Publishers can help authors do this better than they could do it alone. To date, they don’t (that we know of), but they can and they should.

If you accept it as a fact that there should be at least a rudimentary website for just about every author, a little thought makes it clear that there is a lot a publisher and author should negotiate agreement on as part of their contractual arrangement.

At the very least, this includes site ownership, design, ongoing maintenance (including content creation), and to what extent it promotes author activity not related to the house (which could be other books). The site will gather email addresses; how can the publisher and author work collaboratively to get the most value from them? (Now, there is a question that has hardly been explored!) The site could well earn affiliate income from sales made through referral links to retailers; is that divided in any way?

The site ownership should logically be with the author, but ownership usually goes to whoever makes the necessary cash investments. That’s the tricky bit our agent client is dealing with right now. The agent wants the author client to own the site but also wants some financial support from the publishers. The publishers apparently are willing to pay for it, but they also apparently want to own it.

The design of the site touches three things: tech competence, SEO competence, and aesthetics. The house should be able to provide important expertise around tech and SEO, but the author will frequently want a voice in the aesthetics. And despite scale advantages that provide a real edge, no house we know of has clearly established that they can provide the tech to make something solid and extensible, or that they have the chops to really deliver the SEO.

The ongoing maintenance of the site opens up a number of questions, particularly around content creation. And content creation questions go beyond the site. Is the author, or the author’s staff, able to write the blog posts for the site, the Facebook posts, and the Tweets (let alone create what is needed if Instagram or Pinterest is being employed)? Or should the publisher or a freelancer be providing that help?

And how does that help, beyond the design and creation of the site, get paid for? It could be any combination of author pays, publisher pays, or publisher advances and recoups.

It is my plan in a subsequent post to lay out a scenario or two for a sensible House Position on these questions. It is my hope, but one not supported by any evidence I have in hand, that the Big Five houses and the biggest literary agents are already working on this problem.

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Asking whether Amazon is friend or foe is a simple question that is complicated to answer


I’ve been invited to join a discussion entitled “Amazon: Friend or Foe” (meaning “for publishers”) sponsored by the Digital Media Group of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (only in England!) and taking place in London next month. I think the answer must be “both”, and I suspect that my discussion-mates — Fionnuala Duggan, formerly of Random House and CourseSmart; Michael Ross from Encyclopedia Britannica; and Philip Walters, the moderator for the conversation, will agree. This is a simple question with many complicated answers. I am sure that Fionnuala, Michael, and Philip will introduce some perspectives I’m not addressing here.

The first thoughts the question triggers for me are three ways I think Amazon has profoundly changed the industry.

Although just about every publisher has headaches dealing with Amazon, very few could deny that Amazon is their most profitable account, if they take sales volume, returns, and the cost of servicing into consideration. This fact is almost never acknowledged and therefore qualifies as one of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Because they’ve consolidated the book-buying audience online and deliver to it with extraordinary efficiency, Amazon must feel totally justified in clawing back margin; it wasn’t their idea to be every publisher’s most profitable account! But since they are effectively replacing so many other robust accounts, the profitability they add comes at a big price in the stability and reliability of a publisher’s business, which feels much more comfortable coming from a spread of accounts. Publishers strongly resist Amazon’s demands for more margin, partly because they don’t know where they’ll stop.

It is also true that Amazon just about singlehandedly created the ebook business. Yes, there had been one before Kindle was introduced in November, 2007, but it was paltry. It took the combination that only Amazon could put together to make an ebook marketplace really happen. They made an ereading device with built-in connectivity for direct downloading (which, in that pre-wifi time, required taking the real risk that connection charges would be a margin-killer). They had the clout to persuade publishers to make more books, particularly new titles, available as ebooks. And they had the attention and loyalty of a significant percentage of book readers to make the pitch for ebooks. With all those assets and the willingness to invest in a market that didn’t exist, Amazon created something out of nothing. Everything that has happened since — Nook and Apple and Google and Kobo — might not have worked at all without Amazon having blazed the trail. In fact, they might not have been tried! Steve Jobs was openly dismissive of ebooks as a business before Amazon demonstrated that those were downloads a lot of people would pay for.

The other big change in the industry that is significant but might not have been without Amazon is self-publishing. The success of the Kindle spawned it by making it easy and cheap to reach a significant portion of the book-buying audience with low prices and high margins. Amazon added its skill at creating an easy-to-use interface and efficient self-service. Again, others have followed, including Smashwords. But almost all the self-publishers achieving commercial success have primarily Amazon to thank. It appears that, in the ebook space at least, self-publishers among them move as many units as a Big Five house and, in fiction, they punch even above that weight. Without Amazon, this might not have happened yet.

So, in the three ways Amazon has really changed the industry — consolidating the bulk of online book buyers, creating the ebook business, and enabling commercially-viable self-publishing, publishers would really have to say the first two are much to their benefit (friend) and the last one they could have done without (foe).

The second big heading for this Amazon discussion is around the asymmetry between what Amazon knows about the industry and what the industry knows about Amazon. Data about the publishing industry is notoriously scattered and because of the large number of audiences and commercial models in the “book business”, very hard to interpret intelligently. Amazon, on the other hand, has its own way of making things opaque by not sharing information.

The first indication of this is that Amazon doesn’t employ the industry’s standard ISBN number; they have their own number called an ASIN. So whereas the industry had a total title count through ISBN agencies that required its own degree of interpretation, the titles published exclusively by Amazon, which only have ASINs and not ISBNs, are a total “black hole”. Nobody except Amazon knows how many there are or into what categories they fall.

Another piece of Amazon’s business that has critical relevance to the rest of the industry but is totally concealed from view is their used book business. There is an argument to be made that the used book marketplace Amazon fosters actually helps publishers sell their new books at higher prices by giving consumers a way to get some of their money back. But it is also pretty certain that people are buying used copies of books they otherwise would have bought new, with the cheaper used choice being offered to them from about the first moment a book comes out. One would intuitively assume that the effect becomes increasingly corrosive as a title ages and the supply of used copies keeps rising as the demand for the book is falling, inexorably bringing the price of the used books down. But none of us outside Amazon know anything about this at all, including how large the market is.

And, by the same token, we have no idea how big Amazon’s proprietary book business is: the titles they sell that are published by them exclusively. Beyond not knowing how many there are or what categories they’re in, the rest of us can’t interpret how the sales of Amazon-published titles might affect the prospects for titles a publisher might be signing up. Amazon has that perspective to inform their title acquisition, their merchandising, and to gauge the extent of their leverage in negotiations with publishers.

Going back to the original question, except for the possibility that some new book sales occur because the purchaser is confident of a resale, this is all foe!

In retrospect, it is clear that Amazon’s big advantage was that they always intended to use the book business as a springboard to a larger play; they never saw it as a stand-alone. This was an anticipation of the future that nobody inside the book business grasped when it was happening, nor was it imitated by book business pure players. But it was the key to Amazon’s economics. They didn’t need to make much margin on books; they were focused on “lifetime customer value” and they saw lots of ways to get it. Google and Apple have the same reality: books for them are in service to larger purposes. But they started with the larger purposes and, for that and other reasons, have never gotten as good as Amazon is with books. (One big deficiency of the Google and Apple offers is that they are digital only; they don’t do print books.) And B&N and Waterstone’s never thought beyond books; it appears that Waterstone’s scarcely thought beyond physical stores!

But it could well be that Amazon is approaching its limits in market share in the book business. What they did worked in the English-speaking world — for printed books two decades ago and for ebooks almost a decade ago — because they were first and able to aggregate an enormous customer base before they got any serious challengers. They will not find it as easy to dominate new markets today, particularly those that have rules that make price competition harder to employ. Language differences mean book markets will remain “local” for a long time and strong local players will be hard for Amazon to dislodge.

Amazon has powerful tools to keep their customers locked in. PRIME is the most effective one: once customers have paid a substantial fee for free shipping, they’re disinclined to buy elsewhere. Kindle is another one. The devices and the apps have broad distribution and, because of self-publishing, Kindle remains the ebook retailer with the biggest selection.

The marketplace is changing, of course. Amazon’s big edge is having the biggest selection of printed and digital books in one place. That’s been known for decades to be the best magnet to attract book buyers. But now a lot of book reading is done without the title-by-title shopping in a bookstore that it always used to require. We are at the beginning of an age of “distributed distribution”. Many different tech offerings — Aerbook, Bluefire, De Marque, Page Foundry, and Tizra among them — can make it easy for publishers to sell ebooks directly (and Aerbook enables that and promotion in the social stream). The subscription services Scribd, Oyster, 24Symbols, and Bookmate (as well as Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited) are pulling customers away from a la carte ebook buying and Finitiv and Impelsys make it easy for any entity to offer digital reading by subscription. All of these sales except Kindle Unlimited come primarily out of Amazon’s hide, since they are the dominant online retailer for books. Publishers mostly see this dispersal of the market as a good thing for them, even though some of the same opacity issues arise and, indeed, the big general subscription services are a new group of potentially disruptive intermediaries now being empowered.

For the foreseeable future — years to come — Amazon will remain dominant in most of the world as the central location where one shops online for books a la carte because they have the best service, the biggest selection, and they sell both print and digital books. But they now have their own new challenge dealing with the next round of marketplace changes, as what they dominate becomes a smaller portion of the overall book business in the years to come. Publishers face the same challenge presented a somewhat different way.

The event that gave rise to this post takes place the night before the London Book Fair opens. The entry fee is nominal. If you’ll be at LBF and want to attend, please do! I will, typically, have no real base of operations at LBF, but I’ll be there all three days with some time available to meet old friends and new. Email to [email protected] if you want to set something up. 

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Better book marketing in the future depends a bit on unlearning the best practices of the past


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A few years ago, publishers invented the position of Chief Digital Officer and many of the big houses hired one. The creation of a position with that title, reporting to the CEO, explicitly acknowledged the need to address digital change at the highest levels of the company.

Now we’re seeing new hires being put in charge of “audiences” or “audience development”. I don’t know exactly what that means (a good topic for Digital Book World 2016), but some conversations in the past couple of weeks are making clearer to me what marketing and content development in book publishing is going to have to look like. And audiences are, indeed, at the heart of it.

I’ve written before about Pete McCarthy’s conviction that unique research is needed into the audiences for every book and every author and that the flow of data about a book that’s in the marketplace provides continuing opportunities to sharpen the understandings of how to sell to those audiences. Applying this philosophy bumps up against two realities so long-standing in the trade book business that they’re very hard to change:

How the book descriptions which are the basis for all marketing copy get written
A generic lack of by-title attention to the backlist

The new skill set that is needed to address both of these is, indeed, the capability to do research, act on it, and, as Pete says, rinse and repeat. Research, analysis, action, observation. Rinse and repeat.

I had a conversation over lunch last week with an imprint-level executive at a Big House. S/he got my attention by expressing doubt about the value of “landing pages”, which are (I’ve learned through my work with Logical Marketing; I wouldn’t have known this a year ago) one of the most useful tools to improve discovery for books and authors. I have related one particularly persuasive anecdote about that here. This was a demonstration to me of how much basic knowledge about discovery and SEO is lacking in publishing. (The case for how widespread the ignorance of SEO in publishing has been made persuasively in an ebook by British marketer Chris McVeigh of Fourfiftyone, a marketing consultancy in the UK that seems to share a lot of the philosophy we employ at Logical Marketing.)

But then, my lunch companion made an important operational point. I was advocating research as a tool to decide what to acquire, or what projects might work. “But I could never get money to do research on a book we hadn’t signed,” s/he said, “except perhaps to use going after a big author who is with another house.” (Indeed, we’ve done extensive audits at Logical Marketing for big publishers who had exactly that purpose in mind.) “But, routinely? impossible!”

The team Pete leads can do what would constitute useful research which would really inform an acquisition decision, for $1000 a title. If the capability to do what we do — which probably requires the command of about two dozen analytical tools — were inhouse, it would cost much less than that.

Park that thought.

I also had an exchange last week with Hugh Howey, my friend the incredibly successful indie author with whom I generally agree on very little concerning big publishers and their value to authors. But Hugh made a point that is absolutely fundamental, one which I learned and absorbed so long ago that I haven’t dusted it off for the modern era. And it is profoundly important.

Hugh says there are new authors he’s encountering every day who are achieving success after publishers failed with them. It is when he described the sales curve of the successful indie — “steadily growing sales” — that a penny dropped for me. An old penny.

We recognize in our business that “word of mouth” is the most effective means of growing the market for a book. If that were the way things really worked, books would tend to have a sales curve that was a relatively gentle upward slope to a peak and then a relatively gentle downward slope.

Of course, very few books have ever had that sales curve. Nothing about the way big publishers routinely market and sell would enable it to happen. Everything publishers do tries to impose a different sales curve on their books.

A gentle upward slope followed by a gentle downward slope would, in the physical world, require a broad and very shallow distribution with rapid replenishment where the first copy or two put at an outlet had sold. But widespread coordination of rapid replenishment of this kind for books selling at low volumes at any particular outlet (let alone most outlets) is, for the most part, a practical impossibility in the world of distributed retail.

In fact, distributed retail demands a completely out-of-synch sales curve. It wants a big sale the first week a book is out to give it the best chance of making the bestseller list and, even failing that, the best chance of being worthy of continuing attention by a publisher’s sales staff, and therefore, the marketing team. Books in retail distribution are seen as failures if they don’t catch on pretty quickly, if not in days or weeks, certainly within a couple of months. And if a store sells two copies, say, of a new book in the first three months, it probably doesn’t make the cut as a book to be retained. If they bought two, they’re glad they’re gone and not likely to re-order without some push by the publisher or attention-grabbing other circumstance. If they bought ten, they’ll want to get their dollars back by making returns so they can invest in the next potentially big thing.

But that’s not the case online, where there is no need for distributed inventory (especially of ebooks!) If the first copies sold lead to word of mouth recommendations, the book will still be available to the online shopper. And there will be nothing in the way it is presented — it won’t have a torn cover hidden and be hidden in the back of the store, say — to indicate it isn’t successful. People can buy it and the chain can continue, building over time. Three months later, six months later, it really doesn’t matter; the book can keep selling. And, by the way, this will be true at any online retailer with an open account at Ingram (including for print-on-demand books), not just at Amazon.

But, in the brick and mortar world, the book will effectively be dead if it doesn’t catch on in the first three months. And the reality of staffing, focus, and the sales philosophy of most publishers means it won’t be getting any attention from the house’s digital marketers either.

If you live in the world of indie success like Hugh Howey does, you are repeatedly seeing authors breaking through months after a book’s publication, at a time when an experienced author knows a house would have given up on them.

Now park that.

I also had a chat last week with a former colleague of mine now at a periodical. He was explaining that one major conceptual challenge for his publication in the digital age was to see their readership as many pretty small and discrete audiences, not one big one at the level of the “subscriber”. No story in his publication is intended for “everybody”; what is important is for a newspaper or magazine to know whether particular stories are satisfying the needs of the particular niche of their audience that wants that topic, that kind of story. Talking to this former colleague about digital marketing and publishing was a variation on the themes that are topics with Pete.

One thing I learned in this conversation made another penny drop. Let’s say you have a story on any particular topic, from theater to rugby, my friend posited. Your total “theoretical market” within the publication’s readership is every person who ever read a single story on that subject. But your “core market” is every person who has read two stories on it. If a high percentage of those read it, the story succeeded. If not, the story failed.

And a further implication of this analysis is that seeing your audiences that way, and growing them that way, will also ultimately allow monetizing them more effectively. This wouldn’t be advertising-led, so much as harvesting the benefits of audience-informed content creation, but it is totally outside the way editorial creation at newspapers and magazines has always occurred.

And now park that.

We had a meeting two weeks ago with a fledgling publisher whose owner has a great deal of direct marketing expertise. As he heard Pete explaining what he did, looking for search terms that suggested opportunity (lots of use of the term and relatively few particularly good answers), he wondered if we could tell him through research what book to write. We’ve gotten some publishers in some circumstances to do marketing research early enough to influence titling and sub-titling. McVeigh in his ebook makes the same point under the rubric that SEO should be employed before titling any book.

Of course, we don’t sell that kind of help very often or we haven’t so far. It would require getting marketing money invoked early to pay for research like that. But we know it is useful.

And all of this together brings into sharper focus for me where trade publishing has to go, and how the marketing function, indeed, the whole publishing enterprise, needs to be about a constant process of audience segmentation, research, tweaks, analysis, and repeat. A persistently enhanced understanding of multiple audiences can productively inform title selection and creation. And systems and workflows need to be built to systematically apply what is being learned every day to every title which might benefit. Audience segmentation and constant research are really at the heart of the successful trade publishing enterprise of the future, even if we are only lurching toward them now with a primitive understanding of SEO, the occasional A-B test for a Facebook ad, and the gathering of some odd web traffic and email lists that don’t relate to any overall plan.

A publisher operating at scale ought to have the ability to provide those authors that want to build their audiences one reader at a time better analysis and tools than they would have to do it on their own.  Publishers have always depended on the energy of authors to sell their books; the techniques just have to change. Instead of footing the bill for expensive and wasteful author tours, publishers should be providing tools, data, and helpful coaching to be force multipliers for the efforts authors are happy to extend on their own behalf. The publisher’s goal should be have their authors saying “I don’t know how I could possibly be so effective without the help I get from my publisher.”

Publishers should also be doing the necessary research to examine the market for each book they might do before they bid on it. They should have audience groups with whom they’re in constant contact, and they also need the ability to quickly segment and analyze audiences “in the wild”. The dedicated research capabilities need to be applied to the opportunities surfaced by constant monitoring of both the sales of and the chatter about the backlist.

Size, scale, and a large number of titles about which a lot is known should give any publisher advantages over both indie authors and dominant retailers in building the biggest possible audience for the books it publishes. But getting there will require both learning the techniques of the future and unlearning the concepts and freeing themselves of the discipline of “pub date” timing that have always driven effective trade publishing.

The publishers creating new management positions with the word “audience” in the title would seem to be very much on the right track. It is worth recalling that my father, Leonard Shatzkin, carried the title of Director of Research at Doubleday in the 1950s. Research would be another function to glorify with a title and a budget assigned and monitored from the top of each company. Note to the CEOs: a budget for “research” for marketing and to inform acquisition should be explicit and it should be the job of somebody extremely capable to make sure it is productively invested.

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No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one


One of the best-attended breakout sessions of Digital Book World 2015 was the discussion called “Should Amazon Be Constrained, and Can they Be?” which shared the very last slot on the two day program. That conversation was moderated by veteran New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta, and included Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, thriller author Barry Eisler, and Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation.

It turns out that the two Barrys, who have pretty much diametrically opposed positions on Amazon (Lynn wants them investigated by the DoJ as a competition-stifling monopoly; Eisler casts them, for the most part, as the heroes of the book business’s digital transition) have a common position on the Big Five publishers. They refer to them as a “cartel”. Eisler is sneeringly dismissive of “New York”, which he refers to the way Republicans of the 1980s referred to “Moscow”, as an obvious pejorative. He appears befuddled by how anybody interested in the well-being of authors and the reading public could take the side of these publishers who maintain high prices for books, contract with authors to pay them smaller percentages of sales than Amazon does (either through Amazon’s own publishing operations or through their self-publishing options), and notoriously reject a very high percentage of the authors who come to them for deals.

Perhaps because the focus was Amazon, perhaps because Eisler was both emphatic and entertaining in his roasting of the publishing establishment, and perhaps because the facts to defend them are not well known, neither moderator Auletta nor panelist Lowrey challenged the big publisher baiting from Eisler with which Lynn mostly agreed.

It was just as well that I wasn’t on the panel. I am not certain that Amazon can or should be constrained, but I am damn sure that the Big Five publishers are not villains, and they are certainly not a cartel. They do seem to be extremely poor defenders of their own virtue but they are doing yeoman work maintaining the value in the old publishing model — for themselves and for authors — while adjusting to changes in their ecosystem that require that they develop strong B2C capabilities while maintaining their traditional B2B model, the death of which has been greatly exaggerated. If I’d been on that stage, the discussion of Amazon would have been diverted when the trashing of the big publishers began.

I took the step of confirming in an email exchange my recollection of the counts in Eisler’s very entertaining, persuasive, and unchallenged indictment of the big publishers.

1. Their basic contract terms are all the same, which it felt at the time he was suggesting demonstrated collusion, but which in our subsequent exchange he clarified he interprets as evidence of “asymmetrical market power and a lack of meaningful competition”;

2. They pay too low royalties on ebooks, which he also attributes to their “asymmetrical power” and “an implicit recognition that publishers come out ahead if they don’t compete on digital royalties”;

3. They only pay royalties twice a year, rather than more frequently or more promptly, which Eisler also attributes to a lack of competition;

4. The term of big publisher contracts is normally “life of copyright”, which Eisler calls “forever terms”, and;

5. They reject a lot of authors. Here Eisler clarifies that this is not an “indictment, just an axiom”. I agree when he applauds self-publishing for creating a better world where “readers have more to choose from”. But we quickly part company again because he characterizes self-publishing as freeing us from a world where “an incestuous cartel” makes “virtually all the decisions about what tiny fraction of books readers will every have a meaningful opportunity to learn of and read”.

In our exchange, Eisler expressed the belief that “the only reason people have been okay with this is that the Big Five are ‘my people'”. So they get a pass which he likens to what conservatives gave George Bush or liberals give Barack Obama. (In another point of disagreement between us, Eisler seems to find very little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. I guess that is some people’s way of saying “nonpartisan”. What it says to me is “not discerning”.) And Eisler finds it “interesting” that the publishing revolution has “people decry” Amazon for “doing, or often only for potentially one day doing, the very things that are the definition of the Big Five.” (I have problems with this too, because none of the big publishers have a dominant market share selling books online and ebooks. In other words, Amazon and the publishers really aren’t comparable. Check back with me if any of the big publishers builds — or buys — a market-leading retailer.)

I’m going to plead “no contest” to the charge that the Big Five are “my people”, which I hope won’t discredit my arguments any more than the fact that Eisler is an Amazon-published author discredits his. But the cartoon picture of publishing in Eisler’s reviled “New York”, where some small group of extremely like-minded people apply their narrow views to effectively restrict what people read is a massive distortion of reality. Let me try to set the record straight about this world so many of my friends inhabit and with which I’ve been interacting for the better part of five decades.

First of all, the Big Five have plenty of competition: from each other, as well as from smaller niche publishers who may but be “big” but certainly aren’t “small”. (That is why the big ones so often buy the smaller ones — they add scale and simultaneously bring heterogeneous talent in-house). They are all quite aware of the authors housed elsewhere among them who might be wooable. In fact, since we have started doing our Logical Marketing work, we have done several jobs which were big author audits commissioned by publishers who wanted to steal the author, not by the one which presently has them signed. Eisler explicitly resisted accusing the publishers of “collusion”, but he does accuse them of “not competing” with each other. That is an accusation that is simply not supported by the facts. Nobody who has spent any time talking to people who work in big houses could possibly get the impression that they don’t compete.

(In fact, a friend of mine just moved from one big house to another. He is explicitly persona non grata at his prior employer. Now, in this case, I think the house that lost him is behaving childishly, but it certainly underscores the fact that they believe they are in intense competition and now this one-time colleague has gone over to “the other side”.)

But the big flaw in Eisler’s logic is the same one that dooms Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” project to irrelevance: the assumption that the per-copy royalty terms and rights splits are the most important element of publishing contracts. In fact, they’re not. Actually, those terms matter in 20 percent or fewer of the agented author contracts with the Big Five. Why? Because the agents get the publishers to pay advances that don’t earn out!

In fact, I have been told by three different big houses what they calculated the percentage of their revenues paid to authors amounted to. We could call that the true royalty rate. The three numbers were 36, 40, and 42 percent. That includes what they paid for sales of paperbacks, all of which carry “stipulated” royalties of well less than 10 percent of the cover price (and therefore below 20 percent of revenue).

Take that on board. Big publishers are paying 40 percent of their revenue to authors! That leaves them 60 percent to pay everything else: overheads, manufacturing, and profits! Compare that to the margin Amazon has even if they pay a 35 percent digital royalty, or compare it to what anybody else has in any other business after paying to acquire the raw material for what they sell. If there were really an “asymmetrical” power equation favoring publishers, you’d think they could acquire the author contracts for a bit less, wouldn’t you?

Not only were the authors’ collective royalty rates much higher than contracts stipulated, the authors got most of that money in advance, eliminating the authors’ risk. The only contracts on which the royalty terms matter are those that do earn out (and, arguably, those that are close). For all the others, most of Eisler’s list of complaints is irrelevant. And, for the record, I have never heard an author complain about that show of confidence, the work that follows in helping him or her reach an audience (which benefits all involved), nor the cash upfront.

More frequent accounting doesn’t matter if you aren’t owed any money. And if the solution to “forever” contracts were that you could buy your way out by paying back what you got in advances that your book didn’t “earn”, how many authors would do that?

But, in fact, agented authors don’t have forever contracts; agents have been negotiating performance clauses for publishers to keep rights for years. And, on top of that, no author in the US can possibly have a “forever” contract because the copyright law of 1978 requires the publisher to revert rights to the copyright holder after 35 years on request. Agents tell me this is has been resulting in additional “advances” for re-upped books for the past couple of years. Note: this is the law. No publisher disputes it. But the “forever contract” argument ignores it.

But, even beyond that, the negative characterization of Big Five New York publishing is terribly unfair.

First of all, the standard terms in big house contracts are almost always more generous than the terms in smaller publisher contracts. Few — if any — of the smaller ones pay a hardcover royalty as high as 15 percent of list. Although higher digital royalties can sometimes be found, usually those are from publishers who have little capacity to deliver print sales, so digital royalties is all you’re going to get. (That might be okay for a romance novel where a big majority of sales could be digital. It would be disaster for the author of just about anything except genre fiction.) And some smaller publishers actually pay less than 25 percent for digital royalties.

So the Big Five terms are generally better and they routinely pay agented authors advances that no other publisher would attempt to match.

But, beyond that, the idea that they are a “cartel” (a characterization enthusiastically seconded by Amazon critic Barry Lynn after it was introduced by Amazon supporter Eisler), is really preposterous. In fact, the Big Five are, to varying degrees, federations of imprints that even compete internally for books, sometimes to the extent that they will bid against each other when an agent conducts an auction. And it would appear from Eisler’s pre-Amazon publishing history that he himself has, in fact, been the beneficiary of bidding competition among major houses.

The internal-to-the-house competition occurs because of the way big publishers are organized. It has been understood for decades that some aspects of a publisher’s operation benefit from scale and size and other functions must remain small. In general, publishers deliver accounting, manufacturing, and sales as centralized functions and editorial acquisition and development, packaging and design, and marketing as localized capabilities housed within the imprints. The power of imprints, which are individual editorial units, varies, but it is generally the case that they have autonomy over their acquisitions and must “compete” internally for the centralized services.

The digital transition is definitely straining that organizational structure. Having the by-title P&L responsibilities distributed makes it more difficult for houses to organize cross-imprint initiatives for everything from direct sales to audience-centric (vertical- or subject-oriented) marketing. Having multiple imprints that all contain “general” lists is probably an anachronism in an age when we want brands (which imprints are) to make sense to consumers. Publishing imprint brands were always B2B, meant more to inform such trading partners as libraries and bookstores and reviewers, not the general public.

But the big houses reap large benefits from the power of their central services. They get rock-bottom prices for printing and lightning-fast service for reprints. They have daily contact with the biggest accounts, which matters for getting reorders onto suddenly-empty shelves or to execute a short-lived price promotion for an ebook. They have teams of people staying abreast of every promotional opportunity at every account or service like BookBub. They are increasingly developing teams and tools to keep their marketing metadata fresh and relevant, to monitor the online world for marketing opportunities, or to build or advise authors on creating effective web presences.

Although authors can certainly be found who felt they were signed and then ignored, most houses sweat all the details: editing the book, packaging it for sale, and following rigorous pre-publication routines to get endorsements. They all have special sales departments that are regularly working catalogs and specialty retailers for the books appropriate to their audiences. Smaller houses don’t have all these capabilities. To suggest to an author with no publishing background that s/he can do all this themselves, even with an unlimited budget to buy outside services, is really setting a novice up for frustration and failure, or at the very least near-certain dissatisfaction.

I asked Eisler about the competition among the big houses that doesn’t seem to enter his calculus. Here’s what he told me:

As for competition among the Big Five, I call it kabuki competition. Competition that results in decades of zero innovation and the same antediluvian lockstep contractual terms is by definition meaningless. It’s managed competition, agreed-upon competition. A lack of industry innovation is like the dog that didn’t bark: the absence is itself evidence, because in the presence of meaningful competitive pressure, industry players innovate. To argue otherwise, you’d have to argue there has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices. I think that would be a hard argument to make.

To put it another way, what the Big Five cooperate on is far more significant than what they compete on. By it’s [sic] nature, competition is more noticeable than cooperation, so a little bit of competition obscures a lot of cooperation.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell me much. I don’t know what the Big Five “cooperate” on. And though the argument that there “has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices” would, indeed, be nonsense, so is the claim that there has been no innovation. A “failure to innovate” doesn’t describe the last five years that I’ve been living through. All the Big Five houses have continuously reorganized, brought in outside-of-publishing digital talent at a high level to up their game, and introduced digital-first operations and contracts, all at the same time that they have had to manage down fixed investments in plant (warehouses) and change manufacturing-and-inventory processes to take advantage of improved digital printing capabilities.

It is now often forgotten that, while it is true that Amazon “made” the ebook market really happen, publishers had for a very long time before Kindle been creating editorially magnificent products and were far ahead of Amazon in seeking to publish in ebook formats, only partly because of better economics. (At the time all costs were additive and the market was tiny.) They published them because readers seemed to want them and big publishers, whatever their bashers might think, feel a responsibility to assure maximum distribution of a writer’s work.

In fact, the big houses all are comprised of competing imprints. Among them they employ hundreds of acquiring editors who are each trying to build their own successful lists (competing with each other). They are shamelessly commercial: a book with the potential to sell only a few thousand copies won’t get their attention. But, beyond that and those things that are far outside prevailing public morals and sensibilities, I can’t see any restrictions on what they’ll publish.

The Big Five houses have negotiated the digital transition that has occurred so far with startling success. The self-publishing business has grown, fueled by investment from Amazon and other big players, but big houses have hardly lost any authors. They are facing down dominant retailers in their two biggest channels — brick bookstores and online — and managing to maintain their margins and profitability. They are all moving on a variety of initiatives to build vertical (audience-centric) capabilities and extend their global marketing and sales reach.

But even if one assumes the “worst” of the big publishers, it is a total canard to say, as Eisler did to me, that “in the absence of meaningful competition, the Big Five has exercised incredible power over what books are published and what people are functionally permitted to read.” In fact, the argument that authors can reach their audiences successfully through self-publishing (which on other days, Eisler and his fellow musketeers Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath make with gusto) explicitly contradicts that contention. But so do Harry Potter, published by Scholastic, and “Fifty Shades of Gray”, picked up by Knopf after a self-published start, to name two sales phenomena of relatively recent times. There are a number of very capable publishers just a bit smaller than the Big Five (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has the Lord of the Rings books, for example) and there are legions of specialty publishers who do books the Big Five would generally not even consider.

Sometimes the Big Five acquire those publishers to add diverse author and publishing talent to their rosters to compete in niche markets. Harpercollins’s acquisitions of Thomas Nelson and Harlequin fit that description. How much a big house can publish is one thing; what they can publish is also a function of the talent onboard and the audience development that has already taken place.

The Big Five are actually specialists of a different sort: they do the books with the biggest commercial potential. I’d argue that having five very large companies all capable of making a book a mammoth commercial success is a pretty big number, not a small one. If those companies were broken into more of their component parts and we had 15 or 25 large-ish publishers rather than five giant ones, it is not at all obvious that author advances or sales would be higher. There would probably be more manufacturing and sales staff per title (and less investment in tech to support either) than there is now, but those salaries would be subtractions from the company’s margins, and would therefore likely increase book prices. That’s not going to produce more value for either authors or readers. So I actually think author advances — which one must always remember is the metric that matters most in determining how well authors are getting paid — would be lower.

During our on-stage conversation at Digital Book World 2015, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, took great pains to express his view that self-publishing capabilities are good for authors and for readers. On the same morning, Judith Curr, who is the President of S&S’s Atria imprint, explained how her house specifically targets successful indie authors to bring them in. Every big house has some respectful variation on those themes. The animus between big publishers and some components of the self-publishing community is really a one-way street. In a prior post of mine about the illogical publisher-bashing, the comment string taught me that the mostly rhetorical and histrionic arguments from the self-publishing side against the big houses constituted an emotional, not a rational, reaction.

A dispassionate examination of the facts and an understanding of how things really work make it clear that big publishers — both goaded and constrained by powerful agents — are very good for authors. That doesn’t mean self-publishing isn’t good for them too but, then, no big publisher I know is saying that it isn’t!

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