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Two pieces of news last week that foretell changes in the ebook marketplace


Two pieces of news this past week and how things play out with them might foretell some things about the direction of the ebook market.

One news item is that reading on phones is really taking off.  More than half of ebook consumers use their phones at least some of the time and the number that primarily read on phones is up to one in seven.

The other is that the German ebook market will shortly be predominantly DRM-free. With Random House fast-following fellow global publisher Holtzbrinck in ditching the digital locks, one of the largest non-English markets in the world is going where the English-language market has determinedly refused to tread. [There are exceptions, of course — O’Reilly, Tor, Harlequin’s digital first imprint Carina, Baen, and other small, primarily genre publishers.]

It was less than a month ago that Holtzbrinck made that announcement and we figured Random House wouldn’t be far behind.

A lot of theories about ebooks are about to be tested.

My personal reaction to the switch to mobile phone reading is “what took so long?” I started reading ebooks on a Palm Pilot in 1999. I got excited about it because it brought books to a device I was already carrying all the time anyway. In the beginning to me, that was the whole point to ebooks: I didn’t need another device beyond the one I already had on my person all the time anyway. In 2002, there was a meme active for a little while which questioned the value proposition of ebooks. Why would anybody want them? I spoke at a Seybold Conference about that with a simple answer:

If you really use a Personal Digital Assistant each day, are among the growing number that carry one with you all the time, you don’t need anybody to explain the value and utility of ebooks. The converse of this is that if you don’t use a PDA regularly, ebooks are of very little value to you. There is some minor utility to having a book and reader software on your notebook, but not much.

It might have been that search for more “value” in ebooks that drove years of experimentation in making them something more than screen-fitted rendering of text, trying to add functionality using digital capability in a long succession of commercial failures.

My friend, Joe Esposito, one of publishing’s more imaginative thinkers, identified and named the concept of “interstitial reading” some years ago, by which he meant grabbing a few minutes with a book on a check-out line or waiting for the movie to start. I remember a former neighbor of mine who always had a book in hand when he got in the elevator on the 14th floor and read a page or two as we descended to the lobby. That was a peculiar habit with a printed book; it is going to be increasingly common practice as more of us read on hand-helds we always have in our possession.

It could be that publisher Judith Curr of the Atria imprint at S&S is hitting the nail on the head when she predicts that the future of reading is on phones and paper.

An important question going forward is how reading on the phone will affect the shopping patterns. Here we have an interesting dichotomy which depends on the individual use case. What kind of phone do you have, Apple or Android? And which ereading ecosystem do you prefer, Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, or somebody else’s like Google or Kobo or Nook?

Here’s why it matters. When you use the iBooks app on an iPhone, you can shop for books right in the app. I haven’t done it except to buy a book I knew I wanted. I usually read on the Kindle app and occasionally on the Google Play app. In both cases, I do my shopping from my PC on the Kindle or Google Play site. My purchase is instantly accessible on my phone after I make it, but it is a two-machine process for me to buy.

Of course, I can also go to the Kindle or Google Play sites through my phone’s browser. Going outside the app is a requirement, but using another device is not. (Frankly, it is just easier to do the shopping with a real screen and keyboard.)

The limitations on iOS devices are created because Apple insists on its 30 percent cut for sales made within their apps. Android doesn’t, so the Android versions of apps do allow shopping within the app. Still, as with almost everything, it appears that more content-purchasing and consumption takes place among iOS users than Android users.

One would expect that as phone reading increases, it will tend to favor the “home stores” for the phones themselves. Those are iBooks and Google Play. This is obviously not any sort of mortal blow to Kindle if my own experience, maintaining the Kindle habit almost uninterrupted, is any guide. But it is definitely a bit easier to buy within the app you read in than to have to go outside of it.

If is an often-made point that phones come with built-in distractions of email and text messages arriving all the time. But tablet computers — which have steadily been taking ereading share from print and dedicated ereading devices for some years now — have email arriving all the time too. And tablet computers offer the whole web as a potential distraction too, just like the phones do. I’m not sure that the distraction component has changed that much recently during the rise of phone ereading.

And there are already lots of writers who do very short chapters (like the bestselling one of all, James Patterson) that readily satisfy the “interstitial reading” windows. It will take an analysis that there is probably no obvious metadata for to decide whether books that are already “chunked” benefit from the movement to phone-reading.

New reading habits do spawn publishing initiatives. Our friend, Molly Barton (longtime Penguin digital director), has a publishing startup called Serial Box that plans to parcel out long-form novels in self-contained chunks.

The German ebook market is much a smaller part of total book sales than ours, estimated at around five percent of sales rather than in the mid-20s. That is due to a combination of economic factors — including that Amazon is hobbled by fixed pricing that places ebook discounting off limits — as well as any cultural ones. (Online book sales in Germany are variously estimated between 15 and 25 percent — perhaps half what it is in the US. Amazon does have the lion’s share of that. Bookstores have half the business; the rest is split among direct sales, mass merchants, other non-bookstores, and catalogs.)

But one publisher after another has concluded that watermarking (what is often called “soft DRM”) is all the restraint on pass-along and casual sharing that is needed. Now all the big publishers will work that way.

My friends in Germany tell me that there are still small publishers who want to keep DRM, which they will probably be enabled to do for some time. In fact, the Adobe DRM holds the information about who is a valid purchaser, so it might not be simple for retailers to walk away from it even after the locks are no longer required if they want to do more than guess whether a customer wanting to re-download a prior purchase is actually entitled to. And it might be very difficult for the market to totally dismiss DRM, if the English-language publishers still want it applied to the English-language books sold in Germany. That’s substantial business and the retailers — particularly Amazon — wouldn’t want to force a situation where the output of US and UK publishers must either be DRM-free too or not available in the German market.

It has always been the concern of many publishers, agents, and big authors that removal of DRM would result in unfettered sharing which could really hurt book sales. A longtime DRM skeptic, publisher and industry thought-leader Tim O’Reilly, once characterized DRM as “progressive taxation”, which would seem to validate the notion that big authors have something to worry about. (O’Reilly publishes professional content which changes and updates often; precisely the opposite, from a fear-of-sharing point of view, of what James Patterson publishes.) Clearly, German publishers observing what has happened in their market don’t share that fear. American publisher and part of the Holtzbrinck publishing group,Tom Doherty, has also talked publicly about the (lack of) impact of Tor’s switch to DRM-free: “…the lack of DRM in Tor ebooks has not increased the amount of Tor books available online illegally, nor has it visibly hurt sales”.

Aside from increasing the potential to lose sales through pass-along, the other impact of removing the DRM requirement could be to make it easier for anybody to be an ebook retailer putting content on just about any device. The necessity of providing DRM has always been blamed for cost and technology barriers that kept retailers from going into ebooks in any casual way. Theoretically, the cost of being an ebook retailer in a DRM-free environment could be much lower, including a claimed and hoped-for diminution of customer service requirements. If true, that could be especially important for ebook sales in verticals, where a range of content could be a sensible add-on for a retailer’s offerings. People who sell hard goods don’t want to deal with DRM and the customer service requirements it creates.

The tech details of this run deeper than my personal knowledge, but people whose sophistication about it I respect caution me not to expect that much change in this regard. Watermarking (“soft” DRM, or DRM without “digital locks”) is also non-trivial from a tech point of view. New reading systems could proliferate without DRM-discipline, which could also create customer service requirements. It could be the claims for ease-of-use without DRM will turn out to be overblown. We will see.

It has always been my contention that the DRM discussion was more heated than the effect really warranted. Since I never really wanted to move an ebook from one ecosystem to another, or pass an ebook along to somebody else, DRM never got in my way. But it was also obviously blocking entrants from joining the ebook retailing ranks and creating major customer service issues for any independent efforts.

The two things to watch in Germany are whether ebook sales, particularly for top titles, are maintained or softened in any way by pass-along and, at least as important, whether new ebook retailing really is enabled by ditching the DRM requirement. The watermarking will help publishers find the source of ebooks that end up being publicly pirated or posted. I wouldn’t expect some explosion of piracy, but there will certainly be a lot to learn.

The chances are pretty good that what will be learned will lead to DRM-free coming to the English language as well in the next couple of years.

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The publishing world is changing, but there is one big dog that has not yet barked


Recent data seem to show that, for the publishers, the growth in the retail ebook market has slowed down or stopped (at least for the moment), while Amazon’s ebook sales apparently continue to grow. The share of the market controlled by the publishing establishment — the Big Five publishers and others — is starting to be slowly eroded. This does not yet suggest that an author’s best bet is to go out on his/her own and we may be a very long way from that. But it does suggest that life may get increasingly difficult for publishers.

The headline data we saw last week is that Hachette’s ebook sales went down last year. All their sales declined, but ebooks fell faster and the percentage of their business in ebooks is diminishing. How much that has to do with their war last year with Amazon over terms is not clear.

What we’re also seeing and hearing is that publishers might have boxed themselves in with their return to agency pricing. When publishers first “raised prices” by instituting agency pricing for ebooks in 2010, they saw no reduction in ebook sales, which continued to grow. Michael Cader’s analysis (can’t find it in print, but he told it to me) was that publishers may have misread the real impact of price increases because they raised them in a growing market. The number of ebook readers was increasing every day, so those who were put off by the high prices were outnumbered by the new entrants who just wanted to read their books digitally on their shiny new devices.

Whatever is the reason, the anecdotal reports I’m getting suggest that the price increases aren’t being so easily swallowed in the current round of Agency pricing. Amazon may not care about ending discounting from those prices because they don’t need to or want to, but it would appear that the new deals won’t let them. They certainly don’t have the flexibility to do so that they did before Agency came to the marketplace. So the sometimes startlingly high publisher-set prices are prevailing. And, aside from the Hachette numbers that were reported, we’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher agency prices are activated.

Hugh Howey told me this was happening in a private exchange three months ago. I didn’t believe him. I do now.

We continue to see a shift in market share. Amazon’s share continues to grow, as does Apple’s. Nook’s share continues to shrink. Google and Kobo are harder to read, but both are smaller than the others anyway.

But this is not a zero-sum game and it isn’t simple. It’s Rubik’s Cube complicated.

Some of the change in the market could be due to subscription services taking a chunk of ebook consumption out of the by-the-book retail market. Although Scribd and Oyster appear to have very small market shares, Scribd was so “successful” with some readers that they had to cut back their romance offering; it was apparently costing them too much to provide all the books their romance subscribers could read.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited may be having a bigger impact on the overall market. In all these cases, it is the public understanding that the subscription services are “purchasing” the ebooks from the established publishers. (Kindle’s own authors are compensated with a “by the page read” division of a pot that Amazon arbitrarily decides.) But the Big Five aren’t participating in KU and they aren’t putting their new books — the biggest sellers with the highest prices — into the subscription services. So all the reader bandwidth and revenue going through those services might be coming out of the big players’ and big books’ share.

Our friends at Ingram told me another piece of anecdata which may also be at play. They keep track of the number of SKUs that sell 100 copies or fewer and those that sell 10,000 copies or more. The aggregate sales of the former group is growing; the aggregate sales of the latter group is not. What that suggests is that the sales of books that are not really commercial are taking share away from those that are, whether those that are come from publishers or indie authors like Hugh Howey. Whether that particular change is yet impactful, it is inexorable.

The reduction in ebook sales of hot new titles could be starting to affect future deals — one agent told me unambiguously that it is visible — which would be the next step in the indie vision of how publishers disappear. Publishers base their advances on revenue expectations, which, for ebooks, might now be diminishing. If authors can’t get the same big advance as they did before, might they prefer to go it alone and take the bigger share of ebook revenues they can (still) get with a do-it-yourself approach? Obviously, for some, as the equation shifts, that could happen.

But, at the same time, we’re seeing print book sales, and — at least for the moment — print book retail shelf space, holding their own. As long as that’s true, publishers still have a vital role to play. As long as the proposition “we put books on shelves” has value, so do publishers.

In fact, Ingram (not Amazon) offers the complete suite of services a publisher needs to provide, as does Perseus, whose distribution business Ingram tried to acquire in the 3-way deal with Hachette that went sour about a year ago. Both of them can get a book printed, offset in a print run or on-demand. They warehouse and bill and collect. They have a sales force. They do business with all the retail outlets that every publisher does. And they offer all those capabilities on a marginal cost basis. (The big publishers offer a similar suite of services, but generally are less interested in smaller players that Ingram and Perseus are happy to serve.) Whether you publish one book, 100 books, or have a long list, all you need is the rights to the book and the cash to pay your costs and you can buy the logistical capability to match any publisher.

But you won’t have two things that really matter:

the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;

the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.

For big author brands, the “sure to sell” component might well be in place, but the marketing complications, and the risk (because a lot of inventory could be involved) would not be trivial.

What this means for the future of publishers, or for what will constitute the best business decision for authors, is not obvious. Everybody trying to make money in the future from the books they write will suffer from the problem the data Ingram cites points to: the increasing share of the readers’ attention that will be taken by books not published with serious commercial intent. If publishers lower their prices to compete more effectively with indie-published books and the subscription offers, their revenue will go down but so will the indies’, who will lose some of the benefits they now gain from their pricing advantage.

It is sometimes suggested that publishers need to move out of Manhattan to be competitive, but, in fact, there are many ways to reconfigure aside from that. The service offerings from Ingram and Perseus (and others: one example is that Donnelley also offers publishers the ability to convert manufacturing management and warehousing overheads to variable costs) allow publishers to get leaner and more focused on their core missions of identifying, developing, and marketing content.

What is definitely true is that the share of the reading market held by commercially-minded publishers (not just commercial “for profits”, but also university presses) will diminish as both successful self-published authors and hundreds of thousands of others who don’t succeed (and maybe don’t even care) take their content to market on their own.

The university and academic presses, of course, have a defining characteristic that might well protect them. They require certified knowledge to underpin their books. (Whether you’re publishing about accounting or brain surgery, you need validated authority that will be an insuperable barrier for independent publishing.)

This is not a death-knell for anybody. This is a changing world for everybody. Of the current household names, only Amazon and Ingram are structurally positioned to grow quite naturally in a shrinking overall market. (The publishers can grow by acquiring each other, and PRH and HarperCollins would seem to be in the best position to take advantage of that.) Amazon will sell an increasing share of the books; Ingram will provide more and more services to more and more publishers while they remain the biggest supplier to everybody besides Amazon that sells books. (Perseus can also expand its distribution business.) The roster of publishers will continue to consolidate, as it has been doing pretty relentlessly (except for a recent decade of relative stability which seems to have now unleashed a more recent stage of more extreme consolidation) for at least 40 years. But as long as print is sold in stores and, after that, as long as half of the books are sold by somebody other than Amazon, there will be a need for publishers that most authors will be delighted to allow compensation for.

Let’s remember that there is a very big dog that has not barked. No major author of recurring bestsellers has stepped up to take charge of his or her own output. It is bound to happen someday, and if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been sure it would have happened by now. Five years ago I would also have figured that one of the big publishers by 2025 would be a version of United Artists, several major authors organized to share an organization and create their own brand. There have been no signs of that yet either. Indie publishing is still growing and it seems that established publishing is at a standstill. But we’re still many years — most likely a decade or more — from any real changing of the guard.

I don’t see myself as a sophisticated reader or analyst of fiction. But I want to offer the opinion that “Go Set A Watchman”, the controversial new release from “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, is a very worthwhile book. And, by my reading, both the story and the Atticus Finch character fit perfectly well with what we read in “Mockingbird”. What changed most between the two books was the circumstances of the south. “Mockingbird” takes place in a time of unquestioned white dominance. “Watchman” takes place in a time when white dominance is under serious threat. It is a more complex time and deals with more complex issues. It is easy to see why a commercial editor in the late 1950s would find “Watchman” a very uncomfortable book to sell and “Mockingbird” much easier to place in the market.

There are dueling opinions on this. I agree with novelist Ursula Le Guin (you’ll have to click on “newest post” if you go there before she publishes her next one; not sure how you’ll navigate after that), not with the bookseller who thinks the book is so bad that the store is compelled to offer refunds to disappointed readers.

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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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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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Doing SEO right requires research into the audience, not maximum knowledge of the book


There is a core point that Pete McCarthy made clear to us when we first started working with him on digital marketing challenges a year or so ago, which, critical though it is, seems extremely difficult for publishers to take on board.

For all our careers, descriptive copy — catalog copy, title information sheets, press releases — about any book was written by somebody who really knew the book. That normally meant it was drafted by a junior editor or marketer who had read every word of the manuscript, and perhaps even worked on developing it.

But in today’s world, where the most important job of descriptive copy is to make the book “discoverable” through search to the person likely to buy it, it must be written with knowledge of the potential audiences, and that knowledge can only be gathered through research.

The reason for this change is not hard for anybody to understand. Almost all publisher-generated copy until the past ten years was intended for B2B intermediaries: buyers at accounts, book reviewers and editors, or librarians. It was their job to translate an accurate description of what was in the book for their audiences. Most consumers never saw publisher-generated copy except if they were browsing a shelf and chose to pick up a book and read its flap or cover copy, which usually differs only slightly from the B2B copy.

And whether or not consumers today see publisher-generated copy on a product page, search engines do, and consumers are increasingly driven by what search engines tell them. Writing copy without knowledge of the potential audiences, the language they use, the frequency with which specific search terms arise, the ability to interpret what they mean about consumer intent, and the other people, places, and things (let alone books!) competing for those terms, is not going to achieve the desired results for discovery, no matter how accurately and eloquently the book’s content is described.

Even if the logic is fully absorbed and appreciated, the challenge for most publishers to change their process for creating descriptive copy is substantial. We’ve now replaced “knowledge of the book”, which has usually been routinely gained through work that takes place before the copy is needed, with “research into the audience”, a separate task that can take a couple of hours or more and requires a dedicated effort.

(A parenthetical point here: if that audience research were done before the book was completely written, it could inform what content would sell best, not just what descriptive copy would be most readily discovered. That’s where publishers have to go in the long run, which would actually suggest that editorial staff needs to learn the audience research techniques as urgently as marketers. And we will add the massive understatement that knowing what this research would tell you can be extremely helpful in gauging the true potential audience for a book or author, which would influence the amount you’d calculate would be a sensible advance.)

The research exercise we’re suggesting is a prerequisite doesn’t just take time: it takes knowledge and skill, as does applying what is learned to the copy. Even if the knowledge were there and distributed across all the people who write descriptive copy today — and there is no publisher on the planet in which it is — the time required for the research would tax the resources of any house.

And that’s before we get to the distractions that can make publishers forget the core point, and they are plentiful.

The most recent one we’re aware of arose twice recently, two weeks ago in a piece by Porter Anderson and then again last week in an article in Publishing Perspectives  which featured the new tech-driven book deconstruction and analytical capabilities developed by an ebook distributor called Trajectory. They acquired the assets of another auto-analysis engine, described in the piece as a “book discovery site”, called Small Demons.

What Small Demons and now Trajectory do — somewhat like BookLamp, which was acquired by Apple — is use natural language processing and semantic indexing to identify characteristics of the book that can be discerned by examining the writing. Small Demons seemed to focus on proper nouns, so it could find all the books that had action taking place in Paris. Trajectory and BookLamp focused as well on writing style, sentiment analysis, and story construction.

The logic is that if you like books set in wealthy suburbs with handsome 34-year old male protagonists who break four hearts before falling hopelessly in love and who speak eloquently with the frequent use of five dollar words, and then get chased by bad guys until the heroine comes to the rescue in the last chapter, we can find them for you.

Even before I met Pete McCarthy, it seemed dubious to me that the kinds of similarities these analyses could document really predicted what a person would want to read based on what they’d read before. This logic would only make sense if the objective were to recommend a “next book” to a reader, assuming they liked what they were reading and wanted their next book to provide a similar experience. (There clearly are readers like this and they are very visible in fiction genres, but I’m quite skeptical that most readers are like this.)

But if the point to the analysis is to create copy that will promote “discovery”, off-page keywords or even “comps”,  and you buy Pete McCarthy’s premise that delivering solid SEO (search engine optimization) depends primarily on “understanding audiences”, it is clear that calling this kind of analysis a tool to aid “discovery” is a massive misnomer that mostly leads to a wild goose chase.

In fact, it is doubling down on the very thing the industry needs to rethink. It is not nearly as important to develop a deeper tech-assisted understanding of “the book” as it is to do research into the audience. And analyzing a book’s text doesn’t deliver that understanding.

The promise of BookLamp, Small Demons, and, presumably, Trajectory, is that they can deliver an analysis that requires little or no staff time because they use sophisticated technology. And the main barrier to wider adoption of Pete McCarthy’s SEO techniques is that they require research that, even using the best tools, will take 2-to-4 hours of human investigation before the first word of copy can be written.

If you’re looking for books that are similar in style and content, the tech can help you and you should use it. But if what you want is to make your book pop in the searches of likely readers, you can’t dodge the work. And finding a book that is similar in writing style, pacing, and story construction really won’t help you at all.

“Discovery” is often discussed by publishers as though it were a problem consumers consciously have. I don’t think they do. My own unproven paradigm is that there are people who are always reading a book and people who are not. The former group knows well how to find them, but using search is part of many of their arsenals. For the latter group, the books tend to find them rather than the other way around, but today the best way for the book to find them would be when they’re searching for something else and a book would be a relevant return to the query. In either case, publishers have a vested interest in showing up for the right searches for the right people at the right times.

The Logical Marketing Agency we’ve built around Pete’s knowledge of digital marketing offers a variety of ways to help publishers with this challenge, including both having us do the audience analysis for particular books and delivering training seminars that can teach a publisher’s staff what it needs to know.

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Headliners galore will address Digital Book World 2015


Half of Digital Book World is delivered to the entire audience from the Main Stage. The speakers for 2015 comprise the most illustrious group we have ever had. The headine is definitely that we have managed to corral both Amazon and Apple speakers for our main stage — a feat we don’t believe any other conference in the book business has ever managed to pull off — but I’d be proud of this program even if neither of them were on it! Beyond the retailers, we have three bestselling authors, three leading publishing executives (four if you count that F+W CEO David Nussbaum will deliver a welcoming speech), three data-driven experts, and two leaders from adjacent industries.

The program will kick off with a presentation from best-selling author Walter Isaacson, whose current book is “The Innovators”. Isaacson wrote definitive bios of both Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs in recent years, both of whom had their own role to play in the book business. His current book really is about the digital revolution in general, the context in which publishing’s change, DBW’s topic, occurs. Context-setting is always a good way to start, and Isaacson definitely fills the bill.

We discovered ed-tech investor Matthew Greenfield during the course of planning DBW 2015 and we think our audience will agree he was a great “find”. Greenfield’s Rethink Education business invests in start-ups, which for ed-tech he divides into three groups of companies: those that deliver ebook readers and content for school use; those focused on short form reading, like news; and those that are writing-related, which are likely to include leveled collections of reading to help developing writers. Since the ed-tech field is largely about creating new platforms within which the content is consumed in schools and colleges (as well as adding value with context and evaluations), he will explicitly include advice for trade publishers who sell their content for educational use and will increasingly find it necessary to sell through these platforms. Greenfield also has some interesting speculation to offer about where educational technology is going and what we can expect to see from publishing’s biggest disruptor, Amazon.

You can’t be trying to figure out the future of publishing without being aware of the new phenomenon of “content marketing”. So I reached out to the Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, Joe Pulizzi, about imparting some wisdom to book publishers. I started out thinking the content marketing business might make use of some of our content, but he straightened me out pretty fast: that’s not the most likely synergy between what he knows and what we need. In fact, Pulizzi is an expert on how to use content to drive consumer engagement and he does it for organizations and brands that have to pay to create that content. Of course, we in the book business already have lots of content and ready access to more within our existing staffing and networks. In this presentation, Pulizzi will be talking about how we can use content to build consumer engagement and loyal customers to whom we can market repeatedly (vertical thinking). Everything Pulizzi says is likely to suggest questions to publishers, so we’ve also given him a breakout session to allow those who want to hear more and interact more to do so.

The first of our publishing CEOs to take the stage will be Linda Zecher from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Zecher runs a company that is very big in education publishing but has a top 10 general trade list as well, so she is really the only CEO managing across those two publishing segments. She’s also the rare publishing executive with a tech background (hers was at Microsoft). This interview with Michael Cader will focus on the lessons learned from the education side which could be harbingers of adjustments trade publishers will also have to make.

Next up will be James Robinson, Director, News Analytics, for The New York Times. Robinson is, effectively, the Times’s techie in the newsroom. He takes the view that writers and editors need to understand who their readers are, and, of course, they are not the same for every story. He also wants to make sure that as many people as possible see each relevant story, whether they would have expected it from The Times or not. If I do say so myself, Robinson has a sterling background. He spent several years working with me at The Idea Logical Company before he went on to get a Masters at NYU studying under thought leader Clay Shirky. The way he thinks about content and audiences for The Times contains lessons for non-fiction book publishers and perhaps for fiction publishers as well.

The first morning of Main Stage presentations will conclude with Cader and me interviewing Russ Grandinetti, SVP, Kindle, at Amazon. Grandinetti is a straightforward and outspoken executive who has been with Amazon since just about the very beginning and who has shepherded Kindle throughout its existence. With Amazon now generally acknowledged as the most powerful and disruptive force in the book business, we will all be interested to hear what he thinks is the future for printed books versus digital, bookstores versus online purchasing, and how much Amazon’s own publishing and subscription programs are likely to grow.

The second morning will begin with Michael Cader interviewing Internet and marketing guru Seth Godin on the subject of “what’s next?” Godin, who saw — and wrote about — the importance of building personal brands and mailing lists at the dawn of the Web era, is a successful book author who has been watching how publishers operate and market for several decades. In this conversation, he will deliver intuitive and logical advice that many can follow. Anybody who listened to Godin talk about “permission marketing” 20 years ago and followed his advice now has a massive emailing list that is a major marketing asset. Just about every publisher will likely come away from this session with some new ideas to apply.

Next up, for an interview with me, will be CEO Brian Murray of HarperCollins. Under Murray’s leadership, HarperCollins has established itself as the number two English-language trade publisher in the world. Two recent acquisitions, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson and romance publisher Harlequin, have given them strong foundations to develop large vertical communities. In addition, Harlequin had a global infrastructure in place that HarperCollins is using as a springboard to build out their own global — and beyond just English — presence. Murray will discuss how these acquisitions position HarperCollins strategically to compete with the substantially larger Penguin Random House and to build their ability to reach readers beyond those they get to through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and an ever-smaller number of ever-larger retail trading partners.

Over the past several years, ebooks have taken market share from print that is probably in the range of 25 percent across the board. But that’s not distributed evenly by genre or subject or type of book. Jonathan Nowell, the CEO of Nielsen Book, is going to help us understand how the mix of what sells in print has changed as a result of this. Understanding what the evolving print marketplace really looks like willboth publishers and retailers plan for the ever-changing future, in which we will probably see less print overall, but not for everything.

Ken Auletta of The New Yorker has been covering both content and technology businesses for many decades. Nobody understands how the companies in both those industries work — including their cultures — better than he does. Among his five bestsellers is “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It”. Auletta will talk about “Publishing in World of Engineers” and how the smaller content companies cope with their new partners that come from the world of technology. The culture clash between long-established content providers and techies who place high value on “disruption” is a theme we all deal with and about which Auletta can shed real light.

Hilary Mason is a data expert who has honed her talent for analytics during a stint at Bit.ly. Mason has spent years learning about individuals through their online behavior. In this talk, she is going to tell publishers what she’s learned about how to gain insight into individuals and audiences and how to use those insights to garner interest and affect behavior. Like Pulizzi, we anticipate that Mason will raise a lot of points some of our attendees will want to pursue further around their particular interests. So we have also given her a break-out session in the afternoon, where the most interested can explore further how to use data and analytics effectively.

Judith Curr is President and Publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint. She has always had an admiration for entrepreneurship and indie authors have looked attractive to her as a publisher for a long time. (She points out that Vince Flynn started out as a self-published author.) So Curr did some brainstorming and tried to figure out how to make her imprint a place that an indie author would want to be. In this talk, other publishers who see the importance of appealing to authors who want to market themselves, manage their careers, and publish faster (or shorter) than the conventional process, can learn from her thinking, insight, and experience.

Our main stage activity will conclude with an interview by Michael Cader with Keith Moerer, who runs Apple’s iBooks Store. iBooks Store has established itself as the second leading global seller of ebooks and has ambitious plans for continued growth. We’ve never had the good fortune to have them on the DBW program before. We are thrilled to be able to close our main stage day with Amazon and our second with Apple, giving publishers a chance to hear from the two biggest retailers in the world for their ebooks.

Not covered in this post or my prior post about the DBW breakout sessions is the sterling Launch Kids program organized by our friend and frequent collaborator, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International. The world of juvie and YA publishing will probably change the most of all publishing segments and there are legions of players outside what we think of the book business working on it. Lorraine has corralled a number of them — familiar names like Google, Alloy, Wattpad, and NewsCorp’s Amplify and innovators such as Kickstarter, Speakaboos, Paper Lantern Lit, I See Me, and Sourcebooks’s new smash success, Put Me In The Story. If publishing for young people is on your radar, you’ll want to plan for three days with us and start with Launch Kids the day before DBW 2015 begins.

Through the comments section of this blog, I got to know Rick Chapman, who is the self-published author of books on software (and, now, also some fiction.) Chapman’s comments on the blog were so insightful that I recruited him to speak on a panel at DBW (covered in the last post). Yesterday, Rick published this piece challenging the conventional wisdom that Amazon is the indie author’s best friend. He has even started a survey of indie authors to gather data for his DBW appearance. Whatever position one takes on Amazon, Chapman’s post is thought-provoking and entertaining. If you read this, you’re likely to want to see him when he speaks on a panel at DBW.

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Big publisher bashing again with fictional facts


The estimable Clay Shirky has written a lengthy piece called “Amazon, Publishers, and Readers” on medium.com saying, essentially, that an Amazon-dominated world would be an improvement over the Big Five “cartel”-dominated world of publishing we have today. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Big Five are not nearly as broad a cartel as Amazon — which reaches way beyond the consumer books they publish — is a monopsony. Amazon touches much more of the book business than the Big Five publishers do. To make his case, Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation to get from his own impression of the current Hachette-Amazon dispute (about which he says “Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact”) to a completely different conclusion.

My complaint with the facts and logic start at the top: with the two paragraphs Shirky uses to set up his argument and establishes the “holier-than” context for his position. He says:

Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.

Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to protect first editions; as long as ebook prices remained high, hardback sales could be protected. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.

Almost every sentence of this is subtly or blatantly wrong.

1. Publishers did not begin selling large numbers of books in digital format in 2007. Amazon started Kindle in late November 2007. Significant sales of ebooks didn’t start to occur until after Christmas and continued to grow rapidly thereafter.

2. Although an uninformed person would be led to infer from reading this that DRM was somehow created for Amazon, in fact DRM was routinely used for ebooks for their entire existence before Kindle. DRM on Kindle continued current practice; DRM was not created for Kindle or at Kindle’s behest.

3. DRM maintains pricing power for content owners as well as hardware vendors. In fact, I’d say it is more for the content owner than for the hardware owner. What it does for the hardware owner, particularly Amazon because they eschew the industry standard Adobe, is lock customers into their ecosystem. Of course, it is that lock-in that Shirky is telling publishers they can overcome by going DRM-free. (This precise antidote to Amazon was offered up by Matteo Berlucchi, then the CEO of Anobii, at a talk we put him on stage to give at Digital Book World in 2012.) In fact, it is not transparent that eliminating DRM would curb Amazon; it might fuel them. How well would the other retailers stand up to Amazon having easy access to their customers? Because that would happen at the same time.

4. Publishers did not believe — let alone “clearly assumed” — they were handing Amazon any sort of consolidated control. Perhaps that was a failure of vision, but it was a justifiable expectation since nobody had succeeded at selling ebooks before Kindle.

5. Amazon’s discounting was entirely at their own expense and was a tactic designed, at least originally, to sell devices and create captive customers. The publishers’ “inflated profits” (if that’s what they were) were not at issue in 2007 or 2008. So Amazon “sided with the customer”, but they also “sided with their own interests”. Some might say that’s not relevant; I think it is. Either way, it should be acknowledged, not elided or ignored.

6. Amazon was partly enabled to give the big discounts to consumers because publishers gave discounts too big to them, foolishly aping the print book business model even though a retailer’s costs drop much more than a publisher’s do with the change to digital. Stock turn is the key profitability metric for retailers. Stock turn on digital books is “infinity”. (I’d note that these are small points in this piece but are really really big points that go ignored in most of the discussions about ebook economics, which are almost always “fails” at understanding the core economics of publishers or retailers.)

7. The reduction in publisher revenue per book sold which resulted from Agency pricing (pejoratively characterized by Shirky as “colluded with Apple” rather than the at-least-equally accurate “using Apple’s established app store business model”) was not due to “Apple’s cut”. “Apple’s cut” was less than “Amazon’s cut” had been under the wholesale model. And, if you doubt that, you should take note that Amazon prefers not to switch to “Apple’s cut” so they don’t allow any but the biggest publishers to sell on the agency model with its lower margin. (Publishers can get 70% of net direct through KDP, but they have to stick to the $2.99-$9.99 price band and are at the mercy of KDP’s terms.)

8. It is misleading to attribute the publishers’ desire to keep “hardbacks” (really, all print) alive as a desire to protect “first editions”. It was primarily a desire to protect the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It should be said that way for accuracy but also to make the motivations of the sides clear. Publishers want to strengthen or maintain bookstores because their ability to reach them is a core competence that keeps them in business. Amazon wants to weaken or eliminate bookstores because it is clearly established that many customers of each bookstore that closes come to them. Another motivation for the publishers was to maintain a diverse ebook ecosystem, which at that time had just added Nook to its ranks and was about to add Apple. It is likely that Amazon’s discounting — thanks to the DoJ’s and court’s actions weakening agency — did as much to weaken Nook as any mistakes made by Barnes & Noble. And let’s not forget that Kobo has also abandoned active marketing in the US ebook market since then as well.

The other piece of Shirky’s screed that is misleading and inaccurate is his history of paperbacks.

Whether you date the beginning of paperbacks in the US to Pocket Books’s founding and Penguin’s establishing itself in the US in 1939 or to the period right after World War II when paperback publishing writ large discovered the magazine distribution system and really took off, there were decades between their arrival on the scene and their consolidation into the larger book business under joint ownership with hardcover houses. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that, to the degree that the ebook disruption is analogous to the paperback disruption, the reaction would be even more extreme on the part of the incumbent establishment dealing with the lightning-quick change that has transpired since ebooks took off in 2008.

And that is quite aside from the fact that the paperback revolution was not 60-to-70 percent controlled by a single account that also controlled a substantial and growing chunk of the rest of the book sales as well. Be that as it may, Shirky is simply factually wrong to say that what happened was that the hardcover houses just bought up the paperback houses and consolidated them into the existing business. The acquisitions took place in both directions. In at least three cases, the paperback house bought the hardcover house (Avon bought Morrow, Penguin bought Viking, and Bantam bought Doubleday) in order to assure themselves a steady supply of good books.

And before the consolidation even began, real troubles had started to develop with the distribution through the magazine ecosystem. Returns were climbing (that is why prices of paperbacks went up) and paperback publishers were finding they needed to sell directly to many accounts, which made them more like the hardcover publishers. And over the couple of decades between the end of World War II and the beginnings of consolidation, almost every “hardcover” house had started doing its own “trade” paperbacks: not rack-sized and sold through the same network that sold hardcover books.

In other words, the analogy is not analogous in many important ways.

It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”.

Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”. It seemed like Shirky himself tried to dismiss that idea near the opening of his piece, when he attacks Steve Coll for writing “about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes”, which Shirky describes as maintaining the current “elites” or seeing Amazon become a “soul-crushing monopoly”. But that is precisely where he ends up. To look at things this way rejects not only what the publishers keep trying to tout as their “added values” (curation and editing, yes, but also marketing, distribution, and rights management) but it also ignores the interests of academic and professional publishing, textbook publishing, bookstores, and a diverse book retailing — and therefore book recommending — ecosystem.

There will be many Hachettes fighting their version of this battle over the next few years. But there will only be one Amazon.

Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.com is joining us for an interview by Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and me at Digital Book World 2015, coming up next January 14-15. 

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What makes books different…


Before the digital age, retailers that tried to sell across media were pretty rare. Barnes & Noble added music CDs to their product mix when the era of records and cassettes had long passed. Record stores rarely sold books and, if they did, tended to sell books related to an interest in music. For those stores, it wasn’t so much about combining media as it was about offering a defined audience content related to their interest, like Home Depot selling home repair books. For the most part in pre-Internet times, books, music, and video each had its own retail network.

But when media became largely digital in the first decade of the 21st century, the digital companies that decided to establish consumer retail tried to erase the distinction that had grown up dividing reading (books) from listening (music) from watching (movies and TV). The three principal digital giants in the media retailing space — Amazon, Apple, and Google — all sell all these media in their “pure” form and maintain a separate market for “apps” as well that might contain any or all of the legacy media.

The retailing efforts for all of them are divided along legacy media lines, acknowledging the reality that people are usually shopping specifically for a book or music or a cinematic experience. Most are probably not, as some seem to imagine, choosing which they’ll do based on what’s available at what price across the media. (This is a popular meme at the moment: books “competing” with other media because they are consumed on the same devices. Of course, only a minority of books are consumed on devices, unlike the other media. Even though this cross-media competition might be intuitive logic to some people, it has scarcely been “proven” and, while it might be true to a limited extent, it doesn’t look like a big part of the marketing problem to me.)

It seems from here that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have a distinct advantage over all their other competitors in the ebook space because, with books — unlike movies and TV and music — the audience toggles between print and digital. And this might not change anytime soon. The stats are scattered and not definitive, but a recent survey in Australia found that ninety-five percent of Australians under 30 preferred paperbacks to ebooks! Other data seem to indicate that most ebook readers also read print. To the extent that is true, a book shopper — or searcher — would want to be searching the universe of book titles, print and digital, to make a selection.

It should be more widely understood that the physical book will not go the way of the Dodo nearly as fast as the shrink-wrapped version has for music or TV/film. It hasn’t and it won’t. There are very good, understandable, and really undeniable reasons for this, even though it seems like many smart people expect all the media to go all-digital in much the same way.

Making the case that “books are different” requires me to unlearn what I was brought up to believe. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, used to ridicule the idea that “books are different”, which was too often (he thought) invoked to explain why “modern” (in the 1950s and 1960s) business practices like planning and forecasting and measuring couldn’t be applied to books like they were to so many other businesses after World War II. In fact, Dad shied away from hiring people with book business experience, “because they would have learned the wrong things”.

But in the digital age, and as compared to other media, books are definitely different and success in books, whether print or digital, is dependent on understanding that.

First of all, the book — unlike its hard good counterparts the CD (or record or cassette) and DVD (or videotape) — has functionality that the ebook version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write margin notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate around back and forth through the text much more readily than with an ebook. There are no comparable capabilities that come with a CD or DVD.

Second, the book has — or can have — aesthetic qualities that the ebook will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.

But third, and most important, is the distinction about the content itself. When you are watching a movie or TV show or listening to music through any device, the originating source makes only the most nuanced difference to your consumption experience. Yes, there are audiophiles who really prefer vinyl records to CDs and there probably are also those who will insist that the iTunes-file-version is not as good as the CDs. And everybody who has watched a streamed video has experienced times when the transmission was not optimal. There are almost certainly music and movie afficionados who will insist on a hard goods version to avoid those inferiorities.

But the differences between printed books and digital books are much more profound and they are not nuanced. In fact, there are categories of books that satisfy audiences very well in digital form and there are whole other categories of books that don’t sell at all well in digital. That is because while the difference between classical music and rock or the difference between a comedy and a thriller isn’t reflected in any difference between a streamed or hard-goods version, the difference between a novel and a travel guide or a book of knitting instruction is enormous when moving from a physical to digital format.

For one thing, the book — static words or images on a flat surface, whether printed or on a screen — is often a presentation compromise based on the limitations of “static”. The producer of a record doesn’t think “how would I present this content differently if it is going to be distributed as a file rather than a CD?” But the knitting stitch that is shown in eight captioned still pictures in a printed book could just as well be a video in an ebook. And it probably should be.

In fact, this might be the use case for which a consumer would make a media-specific decision. If you know what knitting stitch you need to learn, searching YouTube for a video might make more sense than trying to find instructions in a book!

Losing the 1-to-1 relationship between the printed version and the digital version adds expense and a whole set of creative decisions that are not faced by the music and movie/TV equivalents. And they are also not a concern for the publisher of a novel or a biography. But these are big concerns for everybody in the book business who doesn’t sell straight-text immersive reading. The point is that screen size and quality are not — and never were — the only barriers in the way of other books making the digital leap.

So even though fiction reading has largely moved to digital (maybe even more than half), most of the consumer book business, by far, is still print. Even eye-catching headlines like the one from July when the web site AuthorEarnings (organized and run by indie author Hugh Howey, who is a man with a strong point of view about all this) said “one in three ebooks” sold by Amazon is self-published, might not be as powerful at a second glance.

Although Howey weeds out the ebooks that were given away free, the share of the consumer revenue earned by those indie ebooks would be a much smaller fraction than their unit sales. The new ebooks from big houses, which is a big percentage of the ebook sales they make (and that AuthorEarnings report in July said the Big Five still had an even bigger share of units than the indies), are routinely priced anywhere from 3 to 10 times what indie ebooks normally sell for. So that “share” if expressed as a “share of revenue” might be more like five or ten percent. It really couldn’t be more than 15%.

(In fairness to Howey, he tries to make the point that indie authors earn more from lower revenue because their cut is so much bigger and he makes the argument that they are actually earning more royalties than the big guys. He also tells me that he calls some S-corp and LLC publishers “uncategorized”, even though they are almost certainly indies, in his own attempt to be even-handed. In fairness to the industry, I will point out that his accounting doesn’t take unearned advances into consideration, and since most sales of big house ebooks are of authors who don’t earn out, that lack of information really moots the whole analysis about what authors earn. Another big shortcoming of the comparison is that most published authors are getting a much more substantial print sale than most indie authors.)

But indie authors on Amazon are the industry high-water mark of indie share and ebook share. They are almost entirely books without press runs or sales forces, so they are almost entirely absent from store shelves. And they are also entirely narrative writing.

The facts, apparently, are that even heavy ebook readers still buy and consume print. There is not a lot of clear data about whether “hybrid readers” make their print-versus-digital choice categorically or some other way. There is some anecdata suggesting that some people read print when it is convenient (when they’re home) and digital when it is not. There are a number of bundling offers to sell both (offered by publishers and one called “Matchbook” from Amazon), which certainly seems to say that publishers believe there’s a market of people who would read the same book both ways at the same time!

What that all would seem to say is that the retailer selling ebooks only is seriously disadvantaged from getting searches for books from the majority of readers.

Do we have any independent evidence that selling to the digerati only — selling ebooks only — might limit one’s ability to sell ebooks? I think we do. It would appear that B&N has sold roughly the same number of Nooks as Apple has iPads. (This equivalence will probably not last since Nook sales seem to be in sharp decline.) That is somewhat startling in and of itself, since Apple is perhaps the leading seller of consumer electronics and B&N was entirely new to that game. Nook also seems to have — at least for a while — sold more ebooks than Apple. (This “fact” may also be in the rear view mirror with the apparent collapse of Nook device sales.) I will be so bold as to suggest that this is not because Nook has superior merchandising to the iBookstore. More likely it is because the B&N customer is a heavier reader than the Apple customer and prefers to do his or her book shopping — and even his or her book device shopping — with a bookseller.

[Correction to the above paragraph made on 11 Sept. I misheard and therefore misreported something that was caught by a reader in the comments below, but I should also correct here.  Apple has sold ~200M iPads but are only roughly 12% of the ebook market whereas B&N has sold only about 1/20th the number of Nooks and are about 18% of the ebook market. That fact makes little sense to anyone in Silicon Valley but speaks to how book audiences really behave. We all know a very high % of Nook owners are active store buyers.]

There is one more huge distinction between books and the other media and it is around the motivation of the consumer. While sometimes TV or movies might be consumed for some educational purpose, most of the time the motivation is simply “entertainment”, as it is with music. While analysis of prior video or music consumed and enjoyed might provide clues to what should be next, figuring out what book should be next is a much more complex challenge.

And the clues don’t just come from prior books consumed and enjoyed. Books are bought because people are learning how to cook or do woodworking, or because they are traveling to a distant place and want to learn a new language or about distant local customs, or because they are going to buy a new house or have suddenly been awakened to the need to save for retirement. You can’t really suggest the next book to buy to many consumers without knowing much more about them than knowing their recent reading habits would tell you.

But not only do (most of) the ebook-only retailers not know whether you’re moving or traveling, they don’t even know what you searched for when you were looking for print. And, even if they did know, operating in an ebook-only environment would make many of the best suggestions for appropriate books to address everyday needs off limits, because many of those books either don’t exist in digital form or aren’t as good as a YouTube video to satisfy the consumer’s requirements.

Indeed, it is the sheer “granularity” of the book business — so many books, so many types of books, so many (indeed, innumerable) audiences for books — that makes it so different from the other media.

Of course, there is one company — Google — that is not only in the content business and the search business but which also handles “granularity” better than any company on earth, down to the level of the attributes and interests of each individual. Google not only would know if you were moving or traveling, they would be in a great position to sell targeted ads to publishers with books that would help consumers with those or a million other information needs. (They also know about all your searches on YouTube!) But because Google’s retailing ambitions are bounded by digital, they are walking past the opportunity to be the state-of-the-art book recommendation engine. They’re applying pretty much the same marketing and distribution strategy across digital media at Google Play. They aren’t seeing that book customers are both print and digital. They aren’t seeing that books are, indeed, different.

When the day comes that they do, this idea will look better to them that it might have at first glance.

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This is a teamwork play that could really give Amazon a headache if they got together


I will admit that I have long been among those who believe that Amazon has what amounts to an enduring stranglehold on the book business. They have achieved a market share — which could be in the neighborhood of half the trade books sold if you combine print and digital versions — that is unprecedented in book business history. This is a smaller share than the two giant bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders — had combined at the peak of their marketplace power.

Lately, I have seen that point of view challenged. Jake Kerr wrote a very thoughtful piece making the point that Amazon’s desire to take margin out of the ebook business is a good defensive move that diminishes the appetite of their mega-company ebook competitors — Apple, Google, and, less so, Microsoft — to invest in beating them back. Suw Charman-Anderson picked up on the theme that Amazon is being defensive, “looking tired”, and found others who seemed to think the same way. Both of them express doubts about Amazon’s continuing hegemony without even using one powerful argument I think is important. Amazon is protected from ebook competition by the inability of competitors to put DRMed content onto dedicated Kindle ereader devices. (Another barrier is that so many early ebook adopters did so via a Kindle account, so their content and login credentials are in the Amazon platform along with a lot of other shopping data that raises the switching hurdle.) But the share controlled by dedicated devices is diminishing and anybody reading on a multi-function device can choose from a range of ebook retailers. (And that’s not to mention that somebody might invent a way to place protected content on Kindles without Amazon’s help; rumors have it that somebody already has!)

Contemplating Amazon’s weaknesses is new thinking for me. What I see is Amazon’s power over the book business, which is great. Amazon has achieved this position through smart and efficient operations and brilliant tactics like Amazon Prime that build customer loyalty, as well as being beneficiaries of the natural migration of sales from brick stores to online. But, most of all, Amazon benefits from its broad business base. They don’t have to support their business exclusively, or even substantially, from their book sales margin. And, on top of that, they don’t have to finance the building and maintenance of a global operation strictly from what they earn in the United States.

So they trump everybody. Barnes & Noble, their only competitor selling both print and digital books, seems to have stalled in its bid to build a rival global empire with the Nook device as the leading edge. Their lack of stores outside the US robs them of the main tool they used to build Nook from a standing start to what seemed for a while to be a serious threat to Kindle and the consequent lack of global scale is hobbling their Nook business. The US stores are still profitable as print-sellers, but very few are those who maintain that print-in-stores is anything but a declining market. (As for BN.com, the less said the better. Of the four principal components of B&N’s business: bookstores, college stores, Nook ebooks, and their online retailing operation, the most dramatic and persistent failure has been BN.com.)

Kobo, Apple, and Google are all ebook purveyors only with no print book complement. Kobo has nominally tried to deliver a combined offering, and claimed some store support to sell their devices, by making alliances with leading local booksellers in many markets. Apple, a company primarily interested in selling its hardware and the ecosystems it builds around them, has no apparent interest in print. Google appears to have hit on a broader variation of the Kobo strategy, making alliances with physical retailers by offering a combination of its power in search and a same-day delivery capability called Google Shopping Express — competing with Amazon Prime — that retailers in a single vertical couldn’t deliver for themselves.

Under that rubric, Google is now allied with Barnes & Noble. But I see this as an initiative with the accent on the wrong syllable. The combined companies’ offering is only of real value applied to the small number of book purchases for which same day delivery adds substantial utility (and for which the digital version — always delivered instantly — doesn’t constitute an adequate solution for the need for speed). They are further limited by the books available in the particular B&N store plugged into the program in each locality and each store carries far fewer titles than the chain does as a whole. So the number of books customers will need delivered with that alacrity will be further reduced by the imperfect match between the demand and what’s available. Even if this program steals a high percentage of the same-day demand sales from Amazon, I’m not sure how much it would shift market shares. And with Amazon also offering rapid delivery and probably around a greater number of titles, it is not a given that the new offering from Google and B&N will steal much market share at all.

That doesn’t make it a bad move. The sales and visibility are incremental pluses for Barnes & Noble. Google’s new Google Shopping Express has a business model into which B&N fits very nicely. Books are a nice-to-have additional product line to offer within that service, designed to compete with Amazon’s growing same-day goods delivery. This is a fight between two behemoths that is much larger than the book business (as it has to be to interest them). B&N has a role to play, but it is a supporting position, not a lead.

From where I sit, this offering from Google and B&N doesn’t look like a game-charger for the book business. Nothing about it would seem to threaten Amazon’s overall (and still growing) hegemony in book retail. The migration of sales from print to digital and from stores to online has clearly slowed down, perhaps even plateaued, in the past year or two but few are those who believe those trends are permanently over.

Google is on a right track with Google Shopping Express; people who buy physical goods use Google search to find them and see Google ads when they do. But going after the smallest corner of the print book business — those books on which 6-hour delivery presents a very big advantage over 24-hour delivery — is not going to bend the curve much on Amazon’s future, even if it provides some marginal benefit to B&N and Google.

But there is a different combination that could give Amazon a real headache. There are two companies that together could deliver print and digital, just about anywhere in the world with competitive delivery speed, with discovery capability that would rival Amazon’s as well. Between them, they really have almost all the capabilities and infrastructure required already in place.

One of those companies is, of course, Google.

The other is Ingram, the book business’s biggest US wholesaler and, through its present activities already providing global digital and print distribution as well as print-on-demand. Ingram is positioned to deliver any book in any form anywhere extremely efficiently. They also have a robust and accurate database of book metadata which, if combined with Google’s data and search mastery (and capabilities that match Amazon’s “Search Inside” offering as well), could challenge Amazon effectively as a “best first place to look” for any information about books.

What Google needs to take on board to make the strategic leap to explore a partnership like this is that most book consumers read both print and digital and probably will for some time to come. It will get harder and harder to compete with Amazon without a print-and-digital offering; you can’t be fully effective with either one unless you do both.

And it would help if Google saw the book business as distinctly different from the other media businesses that with books constitute Google Play. The differences play to and can enhance Google’s core strength. Book marketing is almost infinitely granular, because the number of possible motivations to buy a book are so great in number. Rarely do you buy music or video because of where your next vacation will be or because you want to put a new roof on your house or change careers. Associating specific book suggestions to discerned interests and motivations is the key to effective book marketing in the digital environment. And the insights about any individual by analyzing their book search also can tell you what else they may be looking for. Nobody does those things better than Google. They have limited impact on the ability to suggest music or movies, but enormous value in selecting what books to feature to any particular customer at any particular time and what else they can be sold after they’ve bought a book.

A Google-Ingram partnership would not only start with every capability necessary to compete with Amazon as a global bookseller, they would have some additional Secret Sauce as well. Google and Ingram wouldn’t actually have to make money on the combined retailing component because they make money other ways that are associated with it. Google would be adding incremental search and ad placement opportunities. Ingram would be benefiting as a wholesaler providing all the print books and many of the ebooks the new “store” sells. They could make nearly nothing from the new retailing operation, just like Amazon does with its book retailing operation, and still have the enterprise return a profit for their engagement.

A joint digital retailing enterprise to sell books and ebooks from Google and Ingram is the only possibility I can see on the horizon that would save the legacy publishing business from being entirely subject to Amazon’s inexorably growing marketplace power. It is almost certain that Ingram — part of the book business Amazon is so successfully disrupting — sees this very clearly. (Full disclosure seldom necessary in this space: Ingram has been a client of The Idea Logical Company for many years.) Being a hero to the book business may be a less immediate objective for Google, but making life a bit more difficult for Amazon almost certainly is. Nothing they could do would create more challenges for Amazon than a partnership with Ingram to create an all-media store that sells both physical and digital versions of everything, including and especially books.

Since I posted my last piece, triggered by Amazon’s invoking of Orwell and Streitfeld’s accusation that they got him wrong, two conflicting posts have arisen. I’m indebted to Hugh Howey for pointing out that apparently Orwell really did want to destroy cheap paperbacks but Orwell’s estate takes a different view. In fact, I don’t think which side got it right is particularly germane to the arguments I was making. The Orwell connection made a cute hook, but it is not really an essential part of either side’s story.

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It is hard for publishers to apply even Harvard B School advice in their struggle with Amazon


Harvard Business Review published an article recently by Benjamin Edelman called “Mastering the Intermediaries” which gives advice to businesses trying to avoid some of the consequences of audience aggregation and control by an intermediary. The article was aimed at restaurants who don’t want their fate controlled by Open Table or travel companies who don’t want to be beholden to Expedia. The advice offered is, of course, scholarly and thoughtful. It seemed worth examining whether it might have any value to publishers suffering the growing consequences of so much of their customer base coming to them through a single online retailer.

The author presents four strategies to help businesses reduce their dependence on powerful platforms.

The first suggestion: exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.

The author cites the fact that American Airlines’ strong coverage of key routes made its presence on the travel website Kayak indispensable to Kayak’s value proposition. As a result, AA negotiated a better deal than Kayak offered others or than others could get.

Despite some suggestions in the late 1990s that publishers set up their own Amazon (which they subsequently half-heartedly tried to do with no success) and a couple of moves to cut Amazon off by minor publishers that were minimally dependent on trade sales, this tactic has never really been possible for publishers on the print side. Amazon began life by acquiring all its product from wholesalers — primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor — before they switched some and ultimately most of its sourcing to publishers to get better margin. But the publishers can’t cut off the wholesalers without seriously damaging their business and their relationships with other accounts, and the wholesalers won’t cut off Amazon. So for printed books, still extremely important and until just a couple of years ago the dominant format, this strategy is not worth much to publishers.

However, the strategy was and is employable for ebooks, which are sold via contractual sufferance from agency publishers, even if the sourcing is (sometimes, not typically by Amazon) through an aggregator. That was the implied threat when Macmillan CEO John Sargent went to Seattle in the now-famous episode in 2010 to tell them that ebooks would only be available on agency terms. Amazon briefly expressed its displeasure by pulling the buy buttons off of Macmillan’s print books. (Publishers can’t cut them off from print availability, but they can cut publishers off from print sales!) In the meantime, Amazon’s share of the big publishers’ ebook sales has settled somewhat north of 60 percent, and those Kindle customers are very hard to access except through Amazon. This is considerably more share than Kayak had when American Airlines threatened their boycott.

In fact, it is likely that Amazon could live without any of the Big Five’s books for a period of time, except for Penguin Random House, which is about the size of the other four big publishers combined. The chances are that PRH’s size will prevent Amazon from treating them the way they are now treating Hachette. And the massive share that Amazon has of both print and ebook sales makes it extremely difficult for Hachette, or any other big house except PRH and possibly HarperCollins, to sustain an ebook boycott (with consequent print book sales reductions) for any significant length of time. In other words, for publishers dealing with Amazon, this horse has left the barn.

Where it has not yet left the barn is with the ebook subscription services, and for them many publishers actually appear to be following the strategy being suggested here. Only two of the big houses have put titles into Scribd and Oyster, and it appears that they got extremely favorable sales and payment terms in order to do so. Indeed, these fledgling subscription offerings must have the big houses’ branded books to have a compelling consumer proposition.

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

The HBS piece cites the complaints that eBay was giving search prominence to suppliers who advertised on the site forcing a reversal of the policy.

Although the search algorithms on powerful platforms are ostensibly geared only to give the customer what they’re most likely to want, it is probably generally understood that these results are jiggered to favor the platform’s interest. It is not surprising that Google has underwritten White Papers from UCLA professor Eugene Volokh and from Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defending that conduct. Volokh argues that the first amendment prevents the government from interfering with search results and Bork says nobody is harmed if Google favors its own interests.

Could we apply that same logic to Amazon? How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

This is the kind of an argument that can arouse the government which, so far, has shown scarcely more interest in Amazon’s dominance of book commerce than they would if they dominated the commerce in soft drinks or lawn fertilizer. Can they be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented? We don’t know, but we do know that Hachette sent lawyers to Washington early in the Obama Administration to call attention to Amazon’s growing marketplace power and their willingness to use it. That apparently had no affect (unless, in some perverse way, it contributed to the government’s interest in pursuing the “collusion” case).

There could certainly be some consumer blowback to the gaming of search results by a platform, perhaps including Amazon. The Harvard article says Google changed algorithms that seemed to be burying Yelp because consumer sentiment, partly measurable in search queries, showed dissatisfaction among the public. But in the absence of an aroused government, it would seem unlikely that this suggestion will do publishers large or small much good.

It is definitely worth noting here that Hachette authors are involved in just such an effort right now over the current Hachette-Amazon dispute. (And Amazon authors, also often called “indie authors”, are pushing back in the other direction.) There is a difference of opinion about how much this is “hurting” Amazon or whether it will push them to a quicker resolution of the dispute; I’m not sure anybody will ever know the answer to that.

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

As the piece explains, when MovieTickets was on the verge of dominating phone and online ticketing, Regal Entertainment and two other large theater chains formed Fandango.

Unfortunately, this is a strategy that simply won’t work as an antidote to Amazon. In fact, trying it, which publishers have, demonstrates a failure to understand the source of Amazon’s power in the marketplace.

Amazon’s strategy is in plain sight and is the title of the best and most recent book about them: Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”. Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin. Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental. This is one of the reasons, perhaps even the principal one, why they operate their book retailing on margins so thin that the incumbent book retailers can’t match them. After all, B&N can’t make up the margin shortfalls created by offering books cheaply by selling that same customer a lawnmower. Nor do they benefit from additional scale provided by selling lawnmowers or cat food or server space.

The fact that Amazon did book retailing in a thorough and sophisticated way as they established their business to become an online Walmart made them different from omni-retailers in the past (going back to departments stores a hundred years ago) who sold some books.

The story has been told on this blog before about Amazon cutting prices more than fifteen years ago to discourage competition coming into the market. Although publishing is a profitable business for them, it is also a strategic component of larger objectives: getting an increasing share of its customers’ purchases across a range of physical products as well as to compete as a streaming content provider across the entire range of digital media.

No enterprise focused primarily on books can compete with that. Amazon takes too many customers off the table before whoever else is competing gets to begin and keeps them for a wide range of reasons. They’ve got the most admirable competitive position conceivable: a first-class operation supported by scale provided by myriad other enterprises, totally wide-ranging and broad knowledge of the details of book retailing, and the financial heft to accept diminished (or even negative) margins from time to time to support strategic objectives.

So, Bookish, the attempt to compete (although that objective was not explicitly stated) forged by three major publishers more than a decade after Ingram’s I2S2 attempt to create a broader base of online retailers, was never a serious threat. (It is now owned by another Regal, Joe Regal, whose Zola Books — an ambitious upstart ebook retailer — bought Bookish, apparently for its recommendation engine, from the publishers.)

This is probably the 20th year in a row, dating from their start in 1995, that Amazon has gained market share for sales of books to consumers. And that’s because consumers are making what for them is the obvious choice for convenience, total selection, and competitive pricing, as well as getting tied into Amazon through their PRIME program. Unless one of the other two tech giants in the bookselling world — Apple or Google — decides to make a dedicated effort to take some of that market share away from Amazon in both print and digital (and neither of them is much interested in print), it is hard to see where a serious competitor can come from.

As of this moment, there is no way for any ebook retailer except Amazon to put DRMed content on a Kindle, which eliminates a big part of the audience from play for any competitive platform.

The fourth suggestion: deal more directly. The article points out that people ordering takeout through online platforms like Foodler and GrubHub have often already chosen their restaurant so that restaurants that deal directly can afford to exit the platform.

As I was working on this post, HarperCollins announced that they have redesigned their website to be consumer-facing which enables them to sell books directly to consumers. They’ve collaborated with their printer-warehouse partner, Donnelley, to handle print book fulfillment and have a white-label version of indie ebook platform Bluefire to deliver ebooks. They promise that authors will be able to use the capability very easily to connect their own web presences and they’re thinking about additional compensation to authors that generate those sales.

This bold move has a hole in it, though, and it is one that publishers so far have no easy way to fill. All the non-Amazon platforms use Adobe DRM, which HarperCollins/Bluefire supports, so they can put your ebook on a Nook or Kobo device with copy-protection. Of course, they have their own “reader”, which can be loaded with ease on most web-capable devices and can apparently also be squeezed onto a Kindle Fire. But, because HarperCollins wants to continue to use DRM protection for the content, they won’t be able to sell directly to users of Kindle devices that are dedicated e-readers.

Although publishers have certainly encouraged that competition to Amazon which exists, their direct efforts have for the most part been limited to cultivating direct interaction with the end user audience to influence awareness and selection. Many smaller publishers are willing to sell direct without DRM and other large publishers sell direct in a more restrained way, but this seems to be the first concerted effort by a major player to drive direct sales.

It will be interesting to watch the pricing interaction between Harper and Amazon and whether Harper can come up with “specials” (bonus content, some connection to the author, bundling) that Amazon or another retailer can’t match. Competing on price is the retailer’s first instinct, but for publishers competing with Amazon on price is a fool’s errand, fraught with the potential for retaliation in many ways (including that “discounts” from publishers, the retailers’ margin, is presumably based on the publisher’s price. What does “publisher’s price” mean if they sell for less?)

But HarperCollins doesn’t need to get a big volume of direct sales for this to be a worthwhile initiative for them. I’d expect it to be copied. Any sales they can get directly increase their power in the marketplace.

There is one other initiative we’re aware of that can perhaps help publishers disintermediate Amazon for direct sales. That’s Aerbook, which widgetizes a book or promotional material for a book so that it can be “displayed” in any environment. Aerbook’s widgets can contain the capabilities for transacting or for referring the transaction to a retailer, Amazon or anybody else. Putting the awareness of the book directly into the social and commercial streams can be a big tool for authors and publishers. But even Aerbook can’t put a DRMed file on a Kindle. They offer a version of “social DRM” — essentially “marking” the ebook in a way that identifies its owner — which can be loaded onto the Kindle. But big publishers and big authors have apparently not yet come to a comfort level with that solution; perhaps the need to get to the Kindle customer directly and the experience Aerbook develops with their method will encourage a more open mind on that question over time.

So, it would seem, the best thinking presented by Harvard Business Review for how producers and service providers can dodge platforms trying to lock in their audiences has precious little that can be usefully applied by publishers to escape the grip of Amazon. Having taken about half the retail book market over the two decades of their existence, they have given themselves a reputation, tools, and momentum that will make it very hard to stop them from eating into the other half substantially in the years to come.

The fact that competing with Amazon is difficult doesn’t stop smart people from trying to figure out how it might be done. A group of publishing thinkers are holding a 2-day brainstorming session at the end of this month to come up with ideas. Two of them, Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon, will be presenting at a session at Digital Book World in January called “Blue Sky in the ebook future”, which will include thoughts on how to improve the narrative ebook itself from Peter Meyers and somebody not yet chosen to speak about complex ebooks.

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