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Some things I will be looking to learn more about at London Book Fair


The London Book Fair is an every-second-or-third-year thing for me, going back many decades. From an English-centric perspective, it is like a mini-Frankfurt. All the UK players are there and a lot of US senior executives. But because it is so accessible to the Continent, you can get a taste of how things look to the rest of the world.

In the US, we look to me to be in a period when two dominant giants — Amazon for online bookselling and Penguin Random House for general trade publishing — are consolidating their positions. Amazon’s enormous market share is growing, both for print and ebooks. It is too early to draw the same conclusion about PRH, but my guess is that a year or two from now we’ll have seen them taking share from their biggest competitors just like Amazon is from theirs.

(Dominant giants will be part of a conversation I’ll be taking part in on a stage in London. I’ve been asked to participate in The Great Debate, where this year the proposition is ”It’s all about size. Bigger is always better.” I’m arguing the affirmative with Ken Brooks of McGraw-Hill Education as my teammate. We’re opposed by Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, and Scott Waxman, who is both an experienced literary agent and the entrepreneur behind Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher. It should be fun. And friendly. We’re all nice guys.)

The dominant US brick-and-mortar retailer, Barnes & Noble, appears to be fairly healthy in its traditional business. It is shrinking, but the store operations are still profitable and well run. They appear to have benefited from the demise of its erstwhile competitor, Borders (as have the independents). From across the Pond, one does not get the same impression about UK’s Waterstones chain. However, in the UK, there are forces we don’t have in the US: not just the ubiquitous newsstand-type WHSmith stores, but also two supermarket chains, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which are each ambitiously trying to build a book business and their own ebook channel. One thing I’ll be asking everybody about is the impact these retailers have in the book marketplace, particularly when we get beyond the top sellers. Perhaps if they’re doing well, it would encourage Walmart to get serious about bookselling. Certainly Walmart would like to do anything they can to poke Amazon in the eye.

Without serious competition from new players who are well-funded, like the UK supermarkets, it is hard to see what stands in the way of the global ebook giants: Amazon and Apple and, to a lesser degree, Google and Kobo. Perhaps I can get a sense in London of how Barnes & Noble’s multi-territory expansion for Nook is faring. But, however they do, there is a so-far little-noted effect beginning to become evident that could tilt the global book business to the English-language marketplace, and to the US in particular.

In a recent conversation, an executive at a Big Five company told me of a recent development. His company had licensed a few titles for Russian language rights to a publisher in Moscow. But by which retailers would most of those ebooks be sold? The answer is Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo and Barnes & Noble! And the Russian publisher, really just breaking into the ebook business, has far more limited access to these retailing giants than the US publisher which had licensed them the rights.

So the US publisher, in a suggestion that seemed in everybody’s interests, offered to be the “distributor” of those Russian ebooks to the major accounts. The deal was made and it worked. I said to the executive who explained this to me, “You could be helpful in distributing all their books, not just the ones you licensed them.” “Exactly,” he said.

But then we took the conversation a little further. This house is wondering whether, in an ebook-dominant world, it wouldn’t make more sense for them to publish books themselves in Spanish, Mandarin, and French (the first three languages they are thinking about). After all, the translations are done by freelancers. Anybody can hire them no matter where they are. And if most of the books sold are ebooks, and if the publishers of English, especially those in the US, have multiple daily contacts with the big ebook retailers and others don’t, then what is the point to licensing away those rights?

That approach would mean that publishers in at least some non-English territories would, at best, be able to license the print rights for the local geography they really cover. And it would mean that the biggest publishers with the biggest checkbooks to sign the biggest authors and titles will be able to benefit from an even larger share of the book’s global market while paying the author more than they could earn with a local publisher sharing in the other-language rights.

If this is more than one company’s inspiration right now, I should be able to find evidence of that at the London Book Fair.

The other thing for me to learn, of course, is how digital marketing of books looks from the UK. In our fledgling new business with Peter McCarthy (take a look at his new post) we have already done some title optimization work for two UK-based publishers, one large and one medium-sized. So we’ve learned how to do the work using UK-based Google and Amazon and putting BIC codes rather than BISAC codes into the metadata. We’ll be formally announcing the new business and opening our web site the day before the London Book Fair opens. I expect to find a lot of interest in what we can offer, just as we have in the US. There is no doubt that the London Book Fair presents the best possible opportunity to find out very quickly what our own opportunity is outside the US as the need for sophisticated marketing naturally follows the growth and increasing complexity of the overall digital environment.

One person I will be sad not to see at London Book Fair is my longtime friend Bruce Robertson, a founder of the pioneering packagers The Diagram Group, who died a little over a week ago at the age of 79. Bruce was sui generis: a brilliant man with a unique gift for visualization that was the guiding spirit behind dozens of global bestselling illustrated books. Forty years ago, I had the opportunity to sell three of Diagram’s greatest books, “Rules of the Game”, “The Way to Play”, and “Man’s Body” when Bruce’s publisher at that time, Paddington Press, was distributed in the US by my family’s distribution company, Two Continents. I always enjoyed seeing him and hearing his witty, insightful, and often cutting take on the people and practices in our business. Fortunately, there were many opportunities to see Bruce and his endlessly good-natured wife, Pat, over the years, at industry events or when he was in NY or I was in London. We are all one of a kind, but some of us are more obviously so than the rest of us. Bruce was like nobody else. He’ll be missed by many friends from all over the world.

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Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same. If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business. Verticalization may work, as it has seemed to for Allromanceebooks but just being “indie-curated” wasn’t enough for Books on Board, a pretty longtime player that expired last year. (So far, Diesel, a comparable indie, is hanging in there.)

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

Apple opened their ebook store because they thought they had a suitable device for book consumption (the iPad), but they also had experience with selling content before (iTunes). They also see potential for iPads in the school and university markets, so they have developed technology to enable more complex books — the kind that haven’t been successful commercially yet — to be developed for their platform. Establishing their devices and the iOS ecosystem in the education market would be a big win for them.

Google recognized over a decade ago that books, being repositories of information that contained the best response to many searches, were a world they wanted to be in. With their growing position in devices — the Nexus 7 phone and Chromebook computers — and as the developers of the Android ecosystem that competes with iOS in the app market, there are many ways that being in the ebook business complements other endeavors, including, perhaps, competing with Apple and iOS in the schools.

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

Of course, ebooks definitely complement Barnes & Noble’s core business. You have a pretty obvious deficiency if you run a bookstore and don’t sell ebooks, so everybody manages to do it somehow or other. Among the mistakes Borders is accused of having made before they disappeared was turning their ebook business over to Kobo. Doubts about the future of Waterstones in the UK include whether it was wise to turn their ebook business over to Amazon. If Barnes & Noble didn’t have Nook, they’d have to make a deal with whoever did have Nook, or with somebody else.

I’m sure Apple or Kobo or Google would be just delighted to have their ebooks integrated into Barnes & Noble’s suite of offerings, and probably Amazon would too, although they would almost certainly never be asked. All of them have shown interest in affiliating with indie stores, with Google having gone in and out, Kobo now trying hard with them, and, even Amazon, which can’t penetrate indies effectively with their own published books now offering them an affiliate program to sell Kindle ebooks called Amazon Source. But surely all of them would jump at the chance to expand their distribution to Barnes & Noble customers.

It is likely that B&N believes that the Nook business can only be truly successful if they keep investing in improved devices and create a global presence. That may be true, but it also might be that Nook can be a useful adjunct to their store business without continually adding devices or creating a presence outside the US where there are no B&N stores. More and more people are comfortable reading on multi-function devices through apps. Maybe B&N could profitably hold on to a core Nook audience by emphasizing synergies with the stores more (bundling print and ebooks, like Amazon does with its Matchbook initiative and as has been tried on a smaller scale by some publishers, would be one such way) and not worrying so much about making Nook competitive with the other ebook retailers as a stand-alone business.

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.) Kobo has made it a pillar of their strategy to find brick-and-mortar partners all over the world.

On a global basis outside the English-language world, the ebook business is still in its infancy. But it is hard to see how any player without a strong English-language presence could develop the scale to compete with those who have it. Every nation and language will have local bookstore players who have “first claim” on the book-readers in their locality. Some might harbor ambitions to also own their local ebook business, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks cannibalize bookstore shelf space. But the cost in cash and time of doing it, combined with the competitive advantage of having English-language books in the offering no matter what language your target market reads, will make a build-it-yourself strategy increasingly unattractive. So it would seem that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo are positioned to grow organically and partner ubiquitously. And it will require some seriously disruptive event, like Walmart buying Barnes & Noble, to break the hold that quartet will have on the global ebook market over the next decade.

A potential disruptive development which this piece ignores is the possibility that ebooks become largely a subscription business over the next decade. I have two overarching thoughts on that.

One is that the book-by-book purchasing habit is sufficiently ingrained that it will not be changed drastically around ebooks in the next ten years. I have no idea what percentage of the ebook market is now subscription, but I think it is safe to say “far less than 1%”. So my instinct is that it would take wild success for it to get to as much as 10% in the next ten years.

The other thing to remember is that any ebook retailer can always develop a subscription offering. Amazon effectively started already that with Kindle Owners Lending Library. You can be sure that if Oyster or 24Symbols starts gathering a substantial share of the market, all of the Big Four as we see them here will find a way to compete for that segment. (It is considerably harder to go the other way around; it is much less likely that Oyster or 24Symbols will open regular stores.)

So whether subscription grows faster or not, the giants of ebook retailing will remain the same.

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Book publishing may not remain a stand-alone industry and book retailing will demonstrate that first


You are missing some good fun if you don’t know those AT&T commercials where the grown-up sits around a table with a bunch of really little kids and asks them questions like “what’s better: faster or slower?” There always seems to be an obvious “correct” answer. Those kids could answer some important questions about ebook retailing in the future like these:

“What’s better? Selling just ebooks or selling ebooks and print books?”

“What’s better? Selling in just one country or in all countries?”

“What’s better? Selling just books or selling books and lots of other things too?”

“What’s better? Having one way to get revenue, like selling books with or without other stuff, or having lots of ways to get revenue so that books are only a part of the opportunity?”

And the answers to those simple questions, so obvious that a 5-year old would get them right, explain a lot about the evolving ebook marketplace and, ultimately, about the entire world of book publishing.

Book retailing on the Internet, let alone an offer that is ebooks only, hardly cuts it as a stand-alone business anymore. The three companies most likely to be in the game and selling ebooks ten years from now are Amazon, Apple, and Google. The ebook business will not be material to any of them — it is only really close to material for Amazon now — which is why we can be sure they will see no need to abandon it. It is a strategic component of a larger ecosystem, not dependent on the margin or profit it itself produces. And the rest of their substantial businesses assure they’ll still be around as a company to run that ebook business.

Kobo is owned by Rakuten, a large Japanese online retailer. They started a global  expansion in 2005, buying up ecommerce companies in different key markets, including Buy.com in the US. They also have invested in Pinterest. I don’t know what it is, but I have to believe that deep in Rakuten’s strategic consciousness there is a larger reason for them to have Kobo, probably based in the opportunities inherent in having a consumer’s email address and credit card information and knowledge of what s/he reads. So they also have a base bigger than the ebook business.

Barnes & Noble demonstrates the principle that books alone and one market alone just aren’t enough. They were able to use their US store presence to jump-start the Nook, but after they grabbed the low-hanging fruit among their store customers for digital reading, they quickly ran out of steam. Without a global presence and without a strong online store (BN.com has been deficient, and an albatross, for years), they just don’t have the ballast to be competitive. And that’s a shame, because B&N is the player that could make the most powerful consumer offer in the book space. They have online and offline, print and digital, but it really hurts them that the execution of offline print isn’t up to competing with Amazon and the overall coordination that would maximize the power of all these capabilities is not in evidence.

This is a totally conceptual theory being posited here, not one with any data to support it. And it is not based on the value of the consumer proposition, although it does seem to me that the “right answers” to the questions in the lead can be formulated strictly from the consumer perspective. The thinking is that book retailing, and particularly ebook retailing, is doomed to being a low-margin business. As such, it is much easier to sustain and support if there is benefit to be gained that goes beyond the margin that can be captured from those sales.

This has really been Amazon’s secret sauce from the beginning. The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.

Google and Apple are similarly situated in that way and profits (or losses) from ebook retailing don’t even rise to the level of a rounding error for them. Their ebook retailing operations exist in service to larger initiatives: search and Nexus 7 and the whole Google Play content offering in Google’s case; making devices more useful and complementing the iTunes and apps offerings in Apple’s. Their ecosystems are much larger than their ebook businesses and they benefit just from the ebook business being there.

And they’re global. As is Kobo, and Rakuten presumably has an ecosystem play in mind, although it isn’t evident yet.

This is a paradigm that leaves Barnes & Noble out in the cold. Their business, on which they must make money, is selling books. They are trying to diversify their merchandise selection a bit in their stores, but that’s a strategy that is both difficult to execute and has nowhere near the upside that Amazon, Google, and Apple have with their other businesses. This is an unfair fight where B&N is dependent on margins from their ebook (and book) sales while their competitors, if perhaps not totally content to break even on that business, aren’t materially affected if they do, or even if they lose a bit of money on that aspect of their business.

All of this is good for publishers, who benefit from having lots of retailers.

But publishers are bound to face the same problem due to atomization. As the share of the book market — print or digital — reached by online retailers grows (and it is perhaps past 50 percent for fiction already), it makes it easier and easier to put book content into the marketplace and have it reach a substantial percentage of its potential audience. Ambitious self-publishing authors have been reaping the benefits of this reality in growing numbers for the past several years; now entities ranging from newspapers and magazines to ad agencies and colleges and manufacturers are discovering the same opportunity.

In other words, publishing — like book retailing — is likely to become a subsidiary function pursued in strategic support of larger goals. Unlike in retailing, this will not be consolidated among a few players, but as widely scattered as the subjects about which books are produced. But the core challenge for the legacy publishing establishment, that they will increasingly face competition that doesn’t need the profits from that activity as much as they do, will be the same. Book publishing as a stand-alone industry with most of its significant players earning all their profits within it is in the process of morphing into something quite different, starting with the retailers.

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Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing


The digital transition of the trade book publishing business, which I would date from the opening of Amazon.com in 1995, enters its 20th year in 2014. Here are some of the ponderables as we close out the first two decades of a process of very rapid change that is far from over.

1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable “floor” for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.

2. Illustrated book publishers are likely to be the most attentive of all to the bookstore shelf space question. Six years into mass ebooks (as dated from the Kindle) and three years into good hand-held delivery of graphics (as dated from the iPad), the digital version of illustrated books have not found the market that the digital version of novels have. The illustrated book publishers learned to be global over the past four decades, so many have avenues to market that aren’t changing as fast as the US bookstore network has. But the reduction-in-shelf-space line on the graph or the sales-of-these-books-as-digital-products line, or both, have to start moving in the opposite direction or there’s a major problem brewing in that very large segment of our business. Will 2014 be the year that somebody cracks the code for delivering how-to or art-book material in a digital form that will replace shrinking print revenues?

3. As 2014 dawns, we have a host of ebook retailing models that deviate from what the book business has always done: sell one book at a time for a price for which the starting point of reference is one set by the publisher for that book. Safari, created by O’Reilly and Pearson, showed a subscription model more than a decade ago but it was for professional books. 24symbols, based in Spain, is a sort-of granddaddy of this business in the trade segment, being about three years old. They are joined by Oyster, a new start-up dedicated to ebook subscriptions and Scribd, an old start-up originally dedicated to being YouTube for documents. And Entitle, formerly called EReatah, has a slightly different subscription proposition that is more like a “book-of-the-month-club” in its structure. An even newer start-up called Librify has an offering for reader-organized book clubs in the offing. Amazon already has a lending library for its PRIME subscribers, which amounts to the same thing, and a subscription of content for kids on Kindle Fire. With so many experiments in play, we ought to get a picture by the end of 2014 of the degree to which this model appeals to consumers and whether the economics are enticing enough to get big authors and big publishers to play with more enthusiasm than they have demonstrated so far.

4. It is accurate, but misleading, to describe the Penguin Random House combination as a merger of “two of the big six”. It is actually a merger of the two biggest of the former Big Six, and it creates a publisher that is nearly as big as the four others combined. So we now really have a Big One and a Following Four, rather than a Big Five. The big question is what PRH can do to apply what is a huge difference in size as a scale advantage. The hunch here is that proprietary distribution channels can be created by a company that controls approximately half the most commercial books in the English-language world. Whether that will manifest itself as ebook subscriptions, special retail distribution using vendor-managed inventory, or the creation or purchase of marketing channels for its exclusive use — or all of the above and more — will be one of the most important things to watch in 2014.

5. The financial reports from big publishers in 2013 have been mostly encouraging. It looks like the shift to ebooks has had the impact of improving publisher margins and profitability. But can those good times last? Publishers now face a world where there is a single dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer, a single dominant internet retailer, and, as noted above, a single dominant publisher. Agents want to keep competition alive, so they’re going to be sensitive about pushing the Following Four too hard or allowing too quick a migration of authors to the industry leader, but the retailers won’t be so accommodating. Another pressure point on margins will be ebook pricing. It has been driven down by successful self-publishing and the the court’s elimination of agency as a protection. Now big publishers have discovered “dynamic pricing” — lowering prices on a book temporarily to spike sales and awareness — adding their own activity to the list of forces reducing margins. Both the top line and the bottom line will be harder to maintain in 2014, but how it will turn out is an open question. After all, most of these things were true in 2013 and margins still improved.

6. Literary agents have been dabbling with publishing for the past several years since ebooks and POD have made it possible to do it without inventory or an organization. Agencies have started publishing operations (E-Reads, Diversion, Rosetta) and many more have brought on the expertise to give authors help with digital services (Curtis Brown, Writer’s House). Publishers have expanded into author services with speaker’s bureaux, but, so far, none has thought to add literary agenting services except for the time-honored practices of selling rights (foreign, paperback, book club), which was part of their publishing process. Might a publisher either create or ally with a literary agency to create a way to “own” an author’s entire career? If one tried this in 2014, it wouldn’t come as a total surprise.

7. Simon & Schuster has made a number of pioneering deals for a publisher of its size. They offered print distribution service to bestselling indie author John Locke. Then they made a print-only deal — which the big houses pretty much said “we will never do” — with another indie with a hit, Hugh Howey. Now they’ve extended an idea they started a few years ago and signed a deal to give Yankee shortstop and icon Derek Jeter an imprint to be a publisher. Jeter has the ability to focus public attention on any book he wants (although certainly more with some topics than others) and he’s an articulate spokesperson with a strong personal following. S&S had done this in 2007 with 50-Cent; Hachette more recently gave an imprint to Chelsea Handler and HarperCollins gave one to Johnny Depp. Will celebrity imprints become a common idea? There will be plenty of attention paid to how Jeter’s initial efforts work. Or it may be that some other athlete or actor, musician or politician, will be the next experiment with this model. In any case, this is something else to watch in 2014.

8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?

9. And, in that same vein, we have what would seem to be an unsustainable dichotomy in the ebook marketplace as a result (I would say, editorializing here) of the Justice Department’s lack of understanding about where power really lies in the book business. Apple insists on “agency pricing”: publishers set prices, Apple keeps 30%. Amazon — for everybody except the former Big Six — insists on the wholesale model which gives them 50% of the publisher’s set price to divide as customer discount and margin as they choose. This has resulted in all publishers except the biggest being forced to put two prices on their ebooks: a ”digital consumer retail” price (intended to be a selling price, for Apple, and lower) as well as a “list” price (intended for the retailer to discount, for Amazon, and higher). When the distinction began, the agency price couldn’t be discounted. Now it can so the only real differences are the margins and the hard-to-explain-or-justify publisher-set prices. Only the biggest publishers have the clout to overcome the marketplace power of Apple and Amazon to dictate how the sales structure will work. Everybody else lives in an Alice in Wonderland world. I’d expect something to give on this in 2014.

Many of these questions will be explicitly discussed at the biggest and best Digital Book World ever, coming up in less than two weeks. It has become the premier global gathering of book publishers talking about the impact of digital change. We’ve counted them up and there are 156 speakers and moderators on the 2-day DBW program, plus dozens more in DBW’s workshop program and the Publishers Launch Kids conference hosted by Michael Cader and me and programmed by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International. You can’t spend that week with us without bumping into smart people who are getting great things done.

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Looking at predictions from here going back a few years


Prediction posts are common blog- and article-fodder at the end of a calendar year. I don’t think we’ll do one this time around, but I thought it would be fun to review some of the prediction posts from prior years. So pardon the highly self-referential post, but I think reviewing the predictions and reality from the past provides some perspective on the changes we’ve experienced over the past half-decade.

In December 2012, I wrote about “what to watch for” in 2013. I don’t think this was very adventurous, but it was mostly right.

I said that:

1. Overall migration of sales from print to digital will continue to slow down.

2. “Other-than-immersive” books will continue to lag in digital transition.

3. Mergers and consolidation among publishers are likely to become more common, after a long period when they haven’t been.

4. Platforms for children’s books will become increasingly powerful gatekeepers.

5. Marketing for publishers will be a constant exercise in learning and reinvention, and increasingly difficult to separate from editorial.

In December 2011, I steered away from predictions to raise what I thought were the important questions facing the industry coming up in 2012. Despite no “predictions”, this one anticipated a number of developments that mattered, including the challenges Amazon Publishing would face, the difficulty for B&N trying to create a workable international strategy, the lift indie bookstores would get from Borders going out, and the conundrum facing illustrated book publishers as consumption migrates to digital.

That same year, I chimed in with others for Jeremy Greenfield’s annual round of predictions on the DBW blog. I commented on the restructuring of big companies that would result in new positions. And that was before anybody had people with the word “audience” in their job titles. Doesn’t everybody now?

But I really got it wrong about ebook royalties, which I thought back then would go up from the “standard” 25% and, although that may still happen someday, it hasn’t happened yet.

I didn’t write a single consolidated predictions post in December 2010 but I did posts making some predictions. One thing I got right was that ebook sales would continue to rise quickly (some people back then expected a slowdown, but we were still in a more-than-doubling-each-year period though, as noted above in the predictions last year, that slowdown came eventually). I thought bookstores would be headed for very hard times. That was just before Borders’s demise.

I’ve made the point on the blog before that every book purchased online is another nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar bookselling. … I’m expecting that what brick-and-mortar booksellers will experience in the first six months of 2011 will be the most difficult time they’ve ever seen, with challenges escalating beyond what most of them are now imagining or budgeting for.

I think the next six months will make what we’ve been experiencing for the past year look very gradual. I know smart people who have thought for the past year that there would be some flattening coming soon in the ebook switchover. It doesn’t feel that way to me.

At the same time, I focused on marketing with a suggestion — for topic-specific (vertical) ebook recommendation apps or ebooks — that I still think is out there waiting to be exploited. Maybe Mike Fine’s Mediander will take hold and carry us in that direction. (What has happened instead is ebook notification of ebook price sales, which is, to my mind, not as useful.)

I also saw backlist emphasis as a logical consequence of ebook ascent. I think publishers are still lagging in taking advantage of this the way they could. And that blows the end of this prediction, because I said everybody would see that by the end of 2011. They didn’t. (And we now understand the constraints — of time, timing, and budgeting – that make backlist marketing difficult. Publishers are now looking to tackle the backlist in scalable, data-driven, and efficient ways.)

In December 2009, I made 13 predictions for 2010. One stands out: I said that ebooks would become significant revenue contributors for many titles. That happened. And also accurate was my hunch that “windowing” for ebooks, for a little while the strategy employed by publishers to protect print, would be overwhelmed by circumstances. Windowing really didn’t last long.

In January 2009, I wrote a piece for PW analyzing how my 2008 predictions had held up. I gave myself a pat on the back. I think I deserved it. As I said in PW:

I said the popularity of e-books would increase—that the rising Kindle tide would lift all the e-book boats. That appears to be unambiguously correct.

I said Apple would make an e-book reader out of the iPod and iPhone. They haven’t, but they’ve made it easy for others to do so.

I said B&N would continue to leverage its great supply chain to lengthen its lead over Borders. And, in an incredibly difficult year for all book retailers, B&N has substantially outperformed its closest competitor.

I said the lack of a competitive supply-chain infrastructure would handicap Borders, which would get a new owner. Turns out I was half-right. The lack of a competitive supply chain has been such a handicap that Borders has not yet found a new owner!

I said publishers would push harder to publicize books through the Internet because traditional review channels would continue to diminish. Well, the traditional review channels have certainly diminished, and publishers have increasingly turned to bloggers, Web sites and e-mail blasts to promote their titles. Most publishers now have dedicated staff for Web marketing.

I also said 2008 would be the year of experimentation. In many ways it was: Random with free e-book giveaways; Penguin beefing up its e-book editions of classics; Harper creating an imprint with Bob Miller that has a new business model for authors and a no-returns option for intermediary customers, as well as its Authonomy and BookArmy sites. Experimentation will be curtailed in 2009 because of the difficult economy, so I got that one into the right year.

At the end of 2013, we look forward to a new year with a revised commercial trade publishing landscape, mainly because what was formerly the Big Six is now (to my way of thinking) the Big One and the Following Four. The challenge for publishers will be to hang on to their margins, which will be under assault from a single dominant store network, a single dominant online retailer, and literary agents who know their author clients are reading the same articles they are about how the publishers’ profit has remained healthy through the early phases of the digital transition. The challenge for bookstores will be to stay relevant now that the most avaricious readers no longer must visit them to get their next book. And the challenge for everybody is to make a profit and generate some leverage on the even-diminishing share of the business that isn’t controlled by Amazon.

At this year, the fifth Digital Book World, I’ll start the show with a quick summary of what has changed since we started having the Digital Book World conference in 2010. And the wrap-up panel I co-host with Michael Cader will focus again on “Looking Back, Looking Forward”; what has happened that is significant in the past year and what we expect in the year ahead. We are delighted to have John Ingram, Mary Ann Naples, and Simon Lipskar joining us for that conversation.

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Barnes & Noble and managing the digital transition


We keep making the case that the split that matters when trying to foretell the future of the book business (and everybody in it) is not “print” versus “digital”, but “bought online” versus “bought in stores”.

Of all the major retailers, only Barnes & Noble has a stake in all four of the meaningful transaction streams for trade books: print in stores, devices in stores, print online, and ebooks. (All devices are available online.) Amazon has no store presence. Kobo has a minimal store presence through independent retailers but has no print business. Apple has no store presence for content at all and doesn’t sell print online. And Google seems to only tangentially deal with any of the non-digital content businesses.

In fact, B&N is in a fifth “segment”: college bookstores. That segment was the only one that showed revenue growth in their latest reporting, although even in that segment same store sales showed a slight decline. College textbooks having been slow to move to digital has helped preserve that business, but it would be a weak bet to expect that to last forever, or even for many more years.

What this means is that Amazon, Kobo, and Apple are firmly planted in parts of the business that are growing. Kobo and Apple only sell ebooks and Amazon sells print too, but, in general, the migration to online buying and ebook consumption is going to continue so the sales taking place in the environments in which they operate will continue to grow. Whatever their share, they will be taking it from a bigger and bigger pie.

B&N, on the other hand, gets most of its sales from print in stores. That is the component of the sales which is declining and bound to continue to decline. That means that B&N, uniquely, has the challenge of keeping its customers as they switch their mode of buying and consuming books.

The retailer announced their latest quarterly results this week and, at least superficially, they are not encouraging. Sales of devices are down. Sales of digital content are down. Sales of print in stores and online are down. The company points out that book sales in general took a hit because the two most recent book sales phenomena, “Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades of Gray” are running out of steam and haven’t been replaced by The Next Big Thing(s) yet. But in the absence of sales information about print and ebooks from Amazon (which data is normally well-masked in their overall reporting), we have no basis for comparison. And comparison is what we need to know how B&N is doing and what their future holds.

In other words, are Amazon’s online and ebook sales declining because of the lack of a replacement for “Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades”? Or is B&N not only losing sales, but also losing share as the market migrates from stores (their strength) to online (Amazon’s strength)?

There really is no “industry” data to help us get at an answer to that. For a few years in the prior decade, Idea Logical did some sales data analysis work for a number of publishers large and small. Each publisher gets clear reporting of its sales in a granular-enough way to examine this. Of their B&N sales, they know what is digital and what is print, and they know what is sold in stores and what is sold by BN.com. At the time that we were doing this work, which ended before ebooks became a significant portion of the commerce, it appeared that Amazon sold about 10 times as many books across most lists than BN.com did. (Of course, at that time at least, B&N stores sold more than Amazon.)

Barnes & Noble is in a unique position. Every other player is looking to capture customers migrating from old patterns to new ones, whether switching from buying print in stores to buying it online (Amazon) or switching from reading print to reading ebooks. Only B&N is trying to keep customers who came to them for print in stores.

In 2010 and 2011, it appeared they were doing very well at just that, selling lots of Nook devices in their stores. It appeared that there were a large number of heavy book readers who had been unwilling to jump to digital. Perhaps they wanted to see and touch the devices first. Perhaps they wanted to see that many friends and family of theirs had made the leap before they would. Or perhaps they just wanted their trusted book vendor, Barnes & Noble, to offer them the ebook opportunity.

The anecdata suggested (there was no clear objective data to prove) that, following the launch of Nook in the Fall of 2009, B&N’s format shot up pretty quickly to a market share in the neighborhood of 20-25%, with Apple (initially) taking about 10% with the iBookstore. Amazon’s Kindle declined from more than 90% of the market to around 60%.

Then some things changed in the marketplace. The DoJ suit effectively ended publisher-set pricing. Apple took the direct link to the bookstore off all the iOS apps except their own. And tablets and phones increased their share of the ebook market in relation to dedicated ereaders. Again, relying on anecdata where no industry data exists, reports suggest that the B&N/Nook share has declined, Apple’s iBookstore has risen, and Amazon has perhaps come back a bit. (Amazon, Apple, and Kobo have a much bigger global footprint than B&N, although that probably doesn’t matter much in the US market.) Certainly, the numbers from B&N reporting that digital content sales have declined in real terms strongly suggests a reduction in their US market share. Overall digital content sales have almost certainly not declined.

It is beyond B&N’s power — or anybody else’s — to do much to affect overall consumer behavior. People will buy and read in the way that the current combination of price, convenience, and technology motivate them to. In the abstract, it would seem that a company that has a foot in all the markets would have a better chance to capture people switching buying or reading modes than a company with a more limited offering. It would seem that way, but it isn’t working out that way. B&N has to figure out how to make their ubiquity work in their favor which, except for a year or two around the debut of the Nook, they haven’t managed to do yet.

The facts tell us that Barnes & Noble failed years ago to make its store customers into online customers. They’ve been sharing customers with Amazon since Amazon began. Indeed, the skill sets a corporation needs to run a successful online business aren’t the same as they are to run a chain of physical stores. But it can be done: the office supply retailer Staples is the second-largest online retailer in the US. I think if I were at B&N I’d be asking somebody up there how they did it.

BN.com has been the weak link in the Barnes & Noble chain since they launched it under joint ownership with Bertelsmann. When the company was run by strong merchants, they didn’t pay close attention to it. For the past few years, the company has been run by an ebook-focused management and they didn’t improve it. In both cases, BN.com’s success was secondary to another agenda. It is ironic that the current management, rooted in finance and operations, seems to have focused on this core — perhaps existential — strategic problem, with improvements in BN.com promised shortly.

Another aspect of the B&N reporting was that major shareholder and Chairman Leonard Riggio announced that he is “suspending” his interest in buying the stores. Whether that is an indication that he’s less confident of their future than he was before or whether, as the announcement says, he just feels that B&N as a company needs to concentrate on making the Nook-and-store combination work more effectively, is not something anybody but he and his closest advisors know for sure.

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The totality of the relationship is what matters


Like a marriage, relationships between people and companies are seldom made or broken on the back of one transaction or one kind of transaction. They are bigger and more complicated than that. That point was driven home in my house over the weekend by the dustup between Time Warner Cable and CBS, which resulted in both our local Channel 2 and Showtime being removed from our service. That meant that Martha couldn’t see the last episode of “Dexter”, a show she has loyally followed for years.

Although, as of this morning, it is still not clear to us whether CBS pulled their programming as a negotiating ploy or whether Time Warner booted it to strengthen their own hand, it seems evident that the broadcast networks want to move to pay-channel remuneration from the cable systems that use them, among other programming, to get us to use their services and pay their bills. (In our case, that’s north of $300 a month for TV, internet, and telephone service.) Pulling just one brick out of that wall — the CBS-owned programming — has us immediately questioning the whole bundle.

We say we’re confused about this because TW customer service, and some news reports, said that CBS pulled the programming. But the Times contradicts that.

“Indeed, timing seems to be the dominant factor driving the dispute. CBS has continued to insist that it would make its programs available to the cable company throughout the negotiations and that the cable company acted now to remove them from its service because Time Warner Cable would lose leverage as the football season got closer — a point the cable executives do not dispute. They acknowledge they need to push the issue now.”

I remember that when we had RCN — an alternative provider — one “price” we paid was that we didn’t get Channel One, a NY news channel. We didn’t switch to Time Warner for that reason (I can’t remember what the motivation was; probably a price offer at the time) but we weren’t losing popular series or can’t-miss sports like Tiger Woods’s golf victory yesterday or the NFL games coming on CBS.

My reaction was anti-Time Warner immediately, and to start investigating alternatives. But since some accounts suggested that CBS had pulled the programming to gain the edge in negotiating, Martha reserved a large part of her annoyance for them. If they can pull programming she’s been following closely for years in this way, she reasoned, then she can’t trust them not to do it again. Her solution is to reconsider becoming loyal to any CBS (or Showtime) series in the future. She says she will immediately stop watching “Ray Donovan” for that reason.

But I think it is easier for her to find substitute dramatic series than it is for me to find a substitute for NFL football. Both of us are annoyed at the moment, but how we respond depends on the totality of our relationship with CBS. CBS is apparently counting on us to punish Time Warner, reasoning that TW is producing a large-scale relationship on the back of their programming.

Publishers will want to watch how this plays out. CBS really has a small fraction of the total possible programming, comparable to the sliver a large-ish but not supersized publisher might have. The new Penguin Random House combination, on the other hand, has about half the most commercial book titles in the marketplace. How will anybody run a functioning bookstore without those titles? (In fact, Amazon backed down from its own mini-boycott of Macmillan in 2010 because it would have upset the totality of their relationship with their customers.)

This “totality of the relationship” point is going to become more important to us, but it is not new. In 2010, when five of the Big Six publishers had gone to Agency pricing — reducing their revenue-per-ebook-sold in a vain attempt to re-engineer the ebook marketplace into one  in which publishers controlled the selling price — a sales executive at one of them was querulous about B&N’s apparently unwillingness to “punish” Random House for continuing wholesale terms. “We largely did this for B&N,” was the executive’s complaint. He really couldn’t understand why B&N was, effectively, letting Random House “get away” with staying out, effectively gaming the change to its own advantage.

Of course, the fact that B&N lived with Random House’s ebook selling policy was not because they weren’t unhappy with it. It was because so much else in their relationship worked so well. With Random House having invested in systems that enabled them to provide vendor-managed inventory, they were probably B&N’s most profitable trading partner. B&N wasn’t going to cut off its nose to spite its face. On the whole, they did well in the Random House relationship, even if a high-profile component of it wasn’t to their liking.

The same principle applied, in different ways, when Apple started to enforce its requirement that in-app sales pay a 30% “toll” to Apple. Since that requirement would have effectively made profitable ebook sales impossible, the other ebook vendors — Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and others — complied by taking the direct link to their stores out of their apps. So, from that day (until now), you can only buy ebooks for iOS devices directly from the app if you’re buying from iBookstore. That’s annoying, and it certainly has had the effect of increasing sales at the iBookstore at the expense of their competitors for readers using iPads or iPhones to read books. (iBookstore share has reportedly jumped since then. Of course, they also have added Random House titles, which they didn’t have at the beginning and which certainly diminished the totality of their customer relationship until they did.)

But many iOS-device customers who are satisfied with the totality of their experience with Kindle or Nook or Kobo continue to shop with them, even if it is less convenient. And Apple has apparently decided satisfaction with the total iOS experience might be too badly damaged if they took the step of prohibiting the apps for other platforms entirely.

One senior executive from a big publisher was recently expressing frustration at what it took to set up a functioning direct relationship with consumers, opining that publishers couldn’t sell ebooks profitably one-at-a-time. Only a subscription model of some kind could work. That’s likely to be true, but underscores again that there needs to be a relationship larger than individual transactions to enable individual transactions.

Amazon has operated on this principle for a long time; it is the core of the logic behind Amazon Prime, which entices a customer to stay loyal with a variety of incentives, the most obvious of which is “free” shipping.

And that brings me to a point worth considering in today’s news about the evolving ebook marketplace. The Department of Justice has asked for changes that are intended to be punitive to Apple. Certainly the suggestion that Apple be forced to allow in-app sales without compensation would be. It is likely that iBookstore sales will suffer almost immediately if they are no longer the only ebook vendor on iOS devices with a link straight to the store from within the app.

But with the DoJ’s desire to totally liberate the book marketplace from price controls, they could also be setting up the whole incumbent ebook business, including Amazon and the others as well as Apple, for an entirely new kind of competition based on total relationships that aren’t being contemplated.

(Caution: this coming bit of future-think will only work effectively for ebooks in a DRM-free environment. My own hunch is that DRM-free is coming before long for unagented and midlist books, particularly those of an instructional nature. It should be noted that F+W Media, one of the largest active “books to use rather than read” publishers, already sells DRM-free.)

Let’s say you’re a seller of home improvement tools, fixtures, and services, like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Wouldn’t you like to have all the searching for books on those subjects taking place on your site, so you knew who was looking for new bathroom fixtures and who was looking for robin’s egg blue paint? What if you made your site a destination for that kind of searching by offering no-margin pricing on all books in that category, combined with enhanced metadata for those titles in the subject area(s) that matter to them? (Metadata enhancements will come from the knowledge of the specialists at a vertical retailer who think about what is in a book differently than a book publisher or retailer would.) How about if you sweetened the pot further by offering customers a credit on their purchase of a sink or a can of paint based on their book and ebook purchases?

Or let’s say you’re a law firm that specializes in bankruptcies and divorces. You could do the same thing, perhaps enhanced with your lawyers’ (and their clients’) highly relevant commentary on whether one book or another was particularly useful in a real-life circumstance.

On the hard-copy side, these vendors can set themselves up with Ingram or Baker & Taylor to fulfill print as well. But since margin-free transactions are baked into the strategy, whether or not they make the sale wouldn’t be the central concern. They want the interested traffic and the information that come from the searches. That’s the payoff.

(At the moment, there is a below-cost selling war on print taking place between Overstock.com and Amazon.com, sparked by Overstock.com’s announcement that they’d sell at 10 percent below Amazon’s prices. This is an attention-grabbing device for Overstock.com, not a sustainable strategy, and Amazon is demonstrating that by driving many books into a downward pricing spiral in response. The most damaged parties will be BN.com, and all the bookstores. Overstock will gain some share, but mostly at the expense of those who don’t have the breadth of total experience being provided by Amazon, which will be everybody else that sells books. Amazon will just use the challenge as an opportunity to demonstrate again that they won’t be undersold.)

Whatever you sell, the books on the subject are of interest to the customers for your goods. If the ebook marketplace is further court-mandated into unprofitability, it is probably just a matter of time before books which are used rather than read will become part of the “totality of the relationship” with a vendor who doesn’t sell books for a living. They’ll be the ones who can benefit from being the front end.

And that is a sustainable reason that selling books for a living is going to continue getting harder to do.

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Further ruminations about the complex notion of scale in publishing


Our May 29 conference is built around the theme of “scale” in our business, which means something different than it did a very short time ago. Usually “using scale” means “employing the competitive advantages of size” but it can also be leveraging efficiency; the key beneficial characteristic of scale is that unit costs decline with increased activity.

In times past in publishing, the advantages of scale included lower printing costs (bigger companies doing more volume get better prices); lower warehousing and systems cost (because operations almost always get cheaper on a unit basis as they get bigger); and more revenue for each unit sold (because bigger publishers with better lists could get retailer and wholesaler customers to buy at slightly lower discounts).

All of these scale advantages were centered around what has been the core capability of a book publisher: to put books in sight and in reach of consumers on retail shelves. For the better part of the past 100 years, the publisher who could do that more effectively than its competitors had a significant advantage in the marketplace.

But with more and more of the business of customers finding and buying books shifting away from stores, those scale advantages are both reversing in reality and diminishing in importance. Publishers who had built great systems, efficient warehouses, and a nonpareil sales network find them managing less and less “throughput.” That means that less of their business is taking place in their scale-advantaged activities, but it also means the price of maintaining them is going up on a unit basis.

That’s why you see the two Big Six publishers who have invested most heavily in their scalable activities — Random House and Hachette — most active in competing with Ingram and Perseus (two companies far more dedicated to providing services) pursuing distribution clients. They can offer the benefits of their scale pricing to clients and, at the same time, preserve those benefits for themselves as the print-to-store segment of their business diminishes.

The shift in the business to online discovery and purchase would, at first glance, seem to have a leveling effect. Scale in reaching customers that used to require big publishing operations are now largely offered by Amazon, Apple, and Google. When you “searched” for a book in stores (whether you knew you were searching for that specific book or not), you might find it there and you might not. And you were ever so much more likely to find it if the publisher had a stack of copies in the front than if they had one spine-out copy in a store section. Those distinctions aren’t nearly as determinant of whether you’ll find a book at Amazon, or have it suggested to you by Google.

So the smartest big companies have focused on where scale can benefit them in the new context. Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, made the point to me over a year ago that his company was advantaged because they were launching books by the dozen into the marketplace every week, and each one gave them an additional opportunity to learn about search optimization, customer reactions, and how various tools from Facebook to Pinterest worked to boost awareness and sales. He was confident that the volume of activity they engaged in provided its own scale advantage.

As former Random House marketing strategist Pete McCarthy will make exceedingly clear in his introductory remarks at our May 29 show (and will amplify considerably at the Marketing show we’ll hold on September 26 just about to be announced), publishers can and should plan and execute all their marketing efforts in a holistic way to keep learning both about the components of the marketplace environment and about individual consumers. And, yes, the bigger companies will have a definite scale advantage in doing that.

But in our increasingly unbundled book business, “scale” — unit costs going down with increased activity — can be applied to niches with precision.

Companies like Hay House and Harvard Common Press and even F+W Media are relatively tiny compared to Random House (even before the Penguin acquisition) or HarperCollins or Hachette, but their focus on specific audiences means they may learn more on a niche-by-niche, or even customer-by-customer, basis than the big guys do.

I keep being amazed at what my longtime clients at Vogue Knitting can do on the back of a relatively small-circulation magazine brand in a niche market, including staging phenomenally successful and profitable live events that will ultimately dwarf the returns from their book publishing efforts (and augment them at the same time). But they can truly apply the scale they have reaching the audience of people who knit and want to know more about it. Nobody can do it as effectively as they can.

(I’ve told this story before. An agent told me several years ago that he had sold a mind-body-spirit title to Random House and that they sold 12,000 copies. He sold the author’s second book to Hay House, a MBS publisher, and they sold 200,000 copies. At that time, I believe Hay House had about one million email addresses of MBS-interested people. They undoubtedly have many more now. That’s people that you can mail to free; scale doesn’t come more starkly presented than that. For MBS scale, Hay House is the 800 pound gorilla.)

What we’re beginning to see repeatedly is that scale can be provided from a position outside publishing. One of our panels on May 29 is of new publishers that work from a base outside the publishing business. Two major daily newspapers (the Chicago Tribune and the Toronto Star), a kids’ animation studio (Frederator), and a business school (Wharton) all have publishing programs. They’re built on their own scale, and they have cost-effectiveness both on the content creation side and the audience-reaching side of the spectrum of publishing activity provided by their existing activities.

Publishers have watched Amazon come into the publishing business employing their scale. They’re now seeing Google do the same thing. Google’s entrance is in a self-created game niche, apparently far less threatening than Amazon’s far-reaching multi-genre plus general publishing approach to signing up titles many publishers might also be competing for. (How long before Apple decides to publish some books?)

These cuts to the commercial publishers’ share of the market are coming from literally thousands of directions. Each is a relative pinprick, but cumulatively they could lead to a lot of bleeding. Will the “scale” that a big publisher can bring to marketing from the experience they have with thousands of titles from across the interest universe provide a proposition that gets them into the game for the biggest commercial-potential books that can be produced by this new myriad of players? If there is truly scalable marketing activity, it should only become more efficient by adding relevant titles to its activity base. That would seem like the modern publishing equivalent of the perpetual motion machine.

I’m not smart enough to know if that’s possible, but I don’t think we’d even be asking the question if bookstores had the share they had five years ago.

A dramatic demonstration of the opportunities that can be provided by scale occurred yesterday, when Amazon announced its new initiative “Kindle Worlds” around fan fiction. Fan fiction has existed in a commercial box; because it depends on using characters invented and owned elsewhere, it couldn’t be sold. But the all time record bestseller “50 Shades of Gray”, liberated by rewriting away from the “Twilight” characters that spawned it, showed the powerful commercial possibilities in the genre.

So Amazon is applying scale to create a whole new commercial enterprise. First, they are licensing the rights to material fans can turn into their own stories, starting with properties from Alloy Entertainment but clearly planning to build out from there. Then Amazon will sell (and own copyright) in the output, using its huge audience as a commercial launching pad and paying royalties to all the stakeholders. Everybody in the game wins: the originators, the fans who create the fiction, the fans who buy and read the fiction, and, of course, Amazon.

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Unbundling in the book business: the fourth big trend


A few weeks ago, I wrote that there are three big forces driving the future of publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization.

I was wrong. I had forgotten my own blogpost from last September when I identified another trend that belongs with the first three: “unbundling”. The book business, in the trade segment I follow most closely but in every other segment as well, is seeing its value proposition becoming unbundled in a number of ways.

Up until very recently, a trade publisher controlled just about every aspect of a book’s publication. The indispensible parts of the value publishers offered were two: the advance against royalties that often provided essential financing to enable the writer to create the manuscript and the network of relationships and infrastructure that put books on shelves for consumers to find and buy them.

Because the publisher was taking both a capital and reputational risk with every book published, it was natural that it would handle all the supporting steps: developmental and copy-editing, marketing and publicity, design and manufacturing. The publisher would commission the artwork for the book’s cover and determine what was the best foot forward on flap copy.

Until the turn of the 21st century, it was the exceptional author who had any kind of “platform” that could be employed for the book’s marketing: something like a TV show or newspaper column or fame achieved some other way that could be a springboard for promoting the book. In the cases where those opportunities existed, publishers recognized that the book was being “piggybacked” onto something that had its own commercial purpose and was not subject to the wishes or timetables of a book’s publisher.

What changed before the publishing business changed is that many of us have some sort of platform now, as in “a way to reach an audience”. And, although my platform isn’t comparable to Rush Limbaugh’s or Jay Leno’s, it is, indeed, mine all mine and I can do what I want with it. Many other people have platforms of their own that are far more powerful than mine.

It could be said that publishers themselves began the unbundling process as they got authors to use their platforms to market their books. With the advent of ebooks and driven by the CreateSpace services offered by Amazon, it became possible for any author to publish his or her own book and those with a platform, or even just building one, no longer had to get the assent of a publisher to put their book into the market.

My friend, futurist David Houle (whose new book “Entering the Shift Age” has been published by Sourcebooks), was frustrated in 2007 with his inability to connect with a publisher for his predictive thinking. He was just starting his blog, “Evolution Shift” and it didn’t have enough history or audience to persuade any publisher he found to put out his companion book, “The Shift Age”. So he did it himself, through Amazon, even before there was a Kindle. Over the years, David has sold about 7,000 copies of his book, many through Amazon but many more through his own public appearances as a speaker. (And what he’s made per copy is far more than what he’d have made in a publishing deal.)

Since Houle published “The Shift Age” several years ago, an industry has grown around offering services for publishing. This is referred to as the “author services” business. The core offerings are to take the creator’s file (in Word or InDesign) and make it accessible in various ebook formats at the front end and then to interact with ebook retailers (delivering the file and capturing the sales information and the revenue) at the other end. The services offered by the retailers themselves (and you can get this help from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) don’t push the ebook out to other ebook retailers. Amazon is the only one to offer a companion print option.

The first mover on these services in the ebook age outside the retailers was Smashwords. They’ve been joined by a host of others. Author Solutions, acquired about a year ago by Penguin, rolled up a number of companies that offered these services in the print-only world that existed before Kindle. They have all come to recognize that publishers provide more than the essential services at each end of the publishing process; they also provide editing and packaging and marketing services in the middle. So these have popped up as discrete offerings — “unbundled” — both through the complete service providers and as stand-alones.

Now there’s an aggregator of the stand-alone service providers, BiblioCrunch, which features a host of freelancers that any author can access. Another fledgling, NetMinds, which has made some news lately by publishing Nolan Bushnell’s book, makes provision of expert services in many categories a part of its model.

This unbundling effect plays out in interesting ways. When Hugh Howey sold the rights to his smash success “Wool” to Random House UK (before he had a US publisher), they worked with Howey and did some editing, including creating an additional chapter, for their edition. Howey took that component of Random House’s work and was able to make it available for the print edition he licensed in the US to Simon & Schuster and then incorporated it into the ebook version he sold himself.

All of this evidence that the publishers’ proposition is being unbundled leads to two strategic observations.

As the services game shifts from “authors” to “entities” (what I call atomization and of which there are new examples just about every single day), there is a critical job description missing from the service offerings. That job is “publisher”. The publisher makes the overall decisions about the editorial, production, and marketing resources that are committed to each book.

In the author services environment, this role can often be useful but would not be missed in many circumstances. There is no “what to publish” decision; the author has a book. There are very limited “resource allocation” decisions because the available resources to allocate are the author’s own.

But as entities of all kind take over from authors as the primary providers of books outside the industry itself, the role of publisher becomes critical. Decisions will need to be made.

There are 26 categories of helper available in BiblioCrunch. “Publisher” is not one of them.

I met last week in Los Angeles with a team of producers and development executives who are acting on an idea I have pushed: that Hollywood can become an important center for fiction book publishing. They have a core resource of thousands of great stories developed in the hopes that they will become a movie that ultimately doesn’t get funded, or as they say out there, “green-lighted”. This team has over 100 projects that are candidates for their book publishing efforts, but they can’t just “do them all”. They have to set up a company, pay to turn scripts into novels (or, at least, narrative stories), and put them into ebook and probably also print book formats. So, they asked me, which ones would you do first?

I said, “I wouldn’t ask me. I’d ask a publisher.” I named two very good and experienced ones immediately who are currently unemployed. These people have vast experience with all the decisions that are required: which stories are most saleable as books, what length the books should be, what style they should be written in, and how they should be titled, packaged, and promoted.

This necessity is even more evident when one thinks about non-fiction entities that might become publishers. If every museum, library, and department of a university is “a publisher waiting to happen” (and I believe all of them are), how could any of them proceed without a publisher?

If you were trying to get a museum started on becoming a book publisher, you’d begin with a discovery process that asked key questions. Who comes to the museum and what do you know about them? Who comes to the museum’s web site and what do you know about them? What IP do you already own that could be publishable as books? What good IP could you lay your hands on if you would publish it as a book? What is your relationship to sources of IP and marketing, like academic institutions, not-for-profits, or other museums? If you asked supporters of your museum for money to fund a publishing program, would they give it to you?

What the publishing program should be in response to the answers to those questions is something only a publisher has real experience figuring out. The publisher is the first service the entity needs. Renting a publisher takes precedence over renting an editor or a cover artist.

Ingram Publisher Services had a great success with a wildly expensive ($625) cookbook series (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Perhaps lost in the reporting of that story is the fact that Myhrvold’s first stop was to engage Bruce Harris, the former Publisher of Harmony Books and a former Random House sales executive. Harris has “publisher” in his DNA, and he undoubtedly shaped key decisions, probably including engaging Ingram in the first place, let alone directing their activites, that were instrumental to the success of the project.

So the first strategic point is that hiring all the services without hiring a publisher is like having a football team without a quarterback.

The second strategic observation is that the industry itself, but particularly the trade component of it, is also being unbundled. Disparate efforts that bookstores aggregated and welded together are now coming apart.

Here I’m not thinking about the value chain for each book, which is overseen by the publisher, but the value chain for the industry, which includes the supply chain. Although there have always been some vertical bookstores — in New York City until a few years ago they ranged from specialists in architecture to specialists in mysteries — most books were sold in general bookstores that sold everything. As publishers are forced to reach readers in different ways than they used to, the subject of a book, and the consistency of audience appeal within a publisher’s list, becomes a key to its marketing in ways it never was.

But ebooks are creating another distinction, between books that are meant to be read from start to finish and all other books: art books, illustrated instruction, references, and compendia. Narrative writing, particularly fiction, works as ebooks. The others don’t. That increasingly encourages publishers who depend primarily on narrative reading to stick to it and to not publish books of other kinds.

It is also creating a differentiated distribution problem for publishers, depending on their output. Publishers of novels and narrative non-fiction are seeing the decline in their print book sales compensated for by increases in their ebook sales. They have a new challenge reaching the audiences and making them aware of their books, but their problem isn’t exacerbated by the format change. Many of their readers simply switch over from print to digital on whatever device they want to use and one-color straight text printing enables reducing the print runs without costs getting completely out of line.

But that’s not true for publishers of other books. As bookstores close and readers switch to digital formats, they face existential questions. They can’t suffer the print run reductions readily. They can’t just make a digital version by copying the print. And, if they did, it won’t sell.

Some illustrated book publishers have robust distribution outside the bookstores, to museums or gift shops, for example. In some cases, the book trade was already a diminishing share of their business before the ebook revolution happened.

But the impact of digital change on publishers that used to all depend together on a healthy bookstore network is very highly variable. Their fates were joined. They’re now being unbundled.

Although the organizing theme of our Pub Launch BEA conference is “scale”, the other trends definitely get their moment. Ken Michaels of Hachette will talk about tools his company has developed that are being unbundled and delivered as services to other publishers. And the particular challenge of the illustrated book publishers as they lose the ability to piggyback on bestseller traffic in bookstores is the subject of the final chunk of the day’s programming. First, Ron Martinez of Aerbook will survey the new tools available to make putting an illustrated book into digital form cheaper and more effective. Then a panel of illustrated book publishers — Joseph Craven (Quarto Group), Tim Greco (Dorling Kindersley), Lindy Humphreys (Abrams), and Mary Ann Naples (Rodale) – will talk about how they are adjusting to the new retailing environment unbundling is creating in a panel discussion moderated by former Crown Illustrated publisher Lauren Shakely.

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“Scale” is a theme everybody in publishing needs to be thinking about, so we’ve made it the focus of our next Publishers Launch Conference


The overarching theme of our upcoming Publishers Launch Conference at BookExpo America on May 29 is “scale”. I thank my PLC partner, Michael Cader, for urging that we label that as a core concern worthy of being the centerpiece for a day’s discussion. (With that nudge, I identified “scale”, along with “verticalization” and “atomization”, as one of the three big forces driving publishing change in the current era of transition.)

We’re covering “scale” from many angles on May 29.

The program will kick off with a presentation from Pete McCarthy, formerly a digital marketing strategist at Random House, about moving beyond our standard understanding of “industry data” — what we learn about the industry in the aggregate from BookStats and Bowker and others — to mining and analyzing the massive amounts of public data about readers: who they are and where they are. The data we care about, and that can really help us, isn’t labeled “book publishing data” but is far more useful and actionable than much of what we try to decipher meaning from that is tagged that way.

The requirements of scale threaten to really change the business of literary agents. Since the rise of agents as intermediaries between publishers and authors in the 1950s and 1960s, it has always been possible for agents to operate as very tiny operations. Single-agent offices have never been terribly unusual, and agents could run a successful business with a handful of prosperous clients, or even just one! The unusual convention in publishing by which the buyer (the publisher) customarily pays for the lunch at which the seller (the agent) learns about the buyer’s likes and priorities has been a symbol of the viability of this highly decentralized world.

But those times are changing. The opportunities for self-publishing and the requirements for authors to be self-promoters have placed new demands on literary agency offices. It is often no longer sufficient to have knowledge of acquiring editors and what they want and a network of foreign co-agents who can help place projects in other languages and territories. Agencies large and small are adding self-publishing services, which can include capabilities as mundane as getting cover art designed and as sophisticated as distribution to a global network of ebook retailers. This adds the potential for “conflict” for the agents. In some cases, agencies have chosen a course that might present a choice for an author between a publisher’s deal and their agent’s deal.

These changes and the challenges they present will be discussed by three agents — Brian DeFiore of DeFiore and Company, Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media Group, and Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management — in a conversation that will be moderated by Michael Cader.

We will have presentations from three publishers about how they are employing scale. David Nussbaum of F+W Media (owners of our Digital Book World partners) will talk about how they support a variety of vertical businesses with central services providing ecommerce and event management that make it possible for all their communities to benefit from a wider variety of offerings and capabilities. Ken Michaels of Hachette will describe some of his company’s solutions to knotty challenges like digital marketing and metadata quality that they are then making available industry-wide as SaaS offerings. And Jeff Abraham of Random House will be talking about their efforts to utilize scale in a new publishing environment, to drive efficiency and reach in the supply chain and to reach consumers more effectively via their marketing programs.

Ben Evans of Enders Analysis studies big companies that operate at scale far beyond our industry but whose activities very much affect us: namely Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. His presentation will focus on how their strategies and activities influence the environment for the publishing industry, with insights as to how publishers can surf the waves of these giants’ activities rather than be overwhelmed by them.

As publishers have rethought their organizations in the past several years, the words “business development” have popped up in publishing job titles, which they never had before. We’ll have four publishers talking about what “business development” means to them: Peter Balis of John Wiley, Andrea Fleck-Nisbet of Workman, Adam Silverman of HarperCollins, and Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster, in a panel conversation moderated by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.

Brian Napack was President of Macmillan for several years; he’s now an investor at Providence Equity Partners. In a conversation with Michael Cader, Napack will discuss how he views the importance of scale as an investor and how his views have evolved since he was an operator in one of the large companies that might be challenged by the scale of even larger competitors.

The changes in publishing and the provision of services have also enabled publishing with less organization or investment and by the application of scale created outside publishing to new publishing enterprises. A panel of new publishers with roots outside the industry: Jennifer Day of the Chicago Tribune, Steve Kobrin of Wharton Digital Press, Alison Uncles of the Toronto Star/Star Dispatches, and David Wilk of Frederator Books will talk about how their organizations publish in ways that wouldn’t have been possible or even conceivable a few short years ago on a panel that will be moderated by longtime Harper executive and digital pioneer Carolyn Pittis.

Dan Lubart of Iobyte Solutions has been tracking ebook sales data for years and has been providing the data and analysis behind the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Lubart will present insights from “behind” the bestseller list data, including a deeper dive into the trends relating to ebook pricing. The ebook bestseller lists have been the evidence of strong challenges to the publishers who operate with scale on their side, as an increasing number of self-published authors have seen their work rise to the very top of the charts.

Our conference will also tackle the special problems facing illustrated book publishing. The success of ebooks has been pretty much confined to narrative reading made reflowable on devices of any screen size. No formula or format has yet proven to work commercially for illustrated books. We’ll address that question from two angles.

Ron Martinez of Aerbook is the best thinker we know around the question of making creative complex ebooks and apps more efficiently. His company has developed its own tool, Aerbook Maker, to address that challenge. But Ron is also knowledgeable about and respectful of other efforts, including tools from Apple and Inkling, that reduce the cost of experimentation for illustrated book publishers looking for ways to deliver an appealing and commercially viable digital version of their content. He will kick off our discussion of the challenges for illustrated book publishing by reviewing the tools and best practices for lower-cost experimentation. And in his quest to improve the margins for illustrated book publishers delivering virtual versions, he has also worked out what might be a marketing and distribution tool that can improve the equation from the revenue side.

Ron will be followed by a panel of illustrated book publishers talking about how they plan to thrive in an environment where the virtual solution hasn’t arrived and the store environment is becoming more challenging. Joseph Craven of the Quarto Group, Tim Greco of Dorling Kindersley, Lindy Humphreys of Abrams, and Mary Ann Naples of Rodale will discuss these issues in a panel moderated by Lauren Shakely, who faced these challenges herself as the longtime publisher at Crown Illustrated.

Our normal practice at Publishers Launch Conferences, which this review of our planned show spells out, is to put the smartest and most articulate players really dealing with the challenges of digital change in the spotlight to talk about what they’re doing and what they’re facing. This has the virtue of showcasing real solutions to real problems.

Frankly, our view is that very few of the outside disruptors, often tech- and private equity-centric start-ups providing “solutions” to the problems as they perceive them, have gained much traction or added much value. We’ll get more perspective on that from our “business development” panel, who are the ones in their companies charged with interacting with the aspirants, but we stick to the belief that there is more to be gained by watching what the established publishing players and the biggest companies in technology are doing than in tracking the theories spawned by industry outsiders who think their insights will change our world.

But we recognize a weakness to our approach. There are some things the established players just can’t discuss. We can’t expect Random House and Penguin — or their biggest competitors — to talk about what the merger of the two biggest publishers will mean to the marketplace. We can’t expect publishers who must trade with Amazon and Barnes & Noble to discuss the impact of their unique marketplace power — one in online sales and one in brick-and-mortar — on publishers’ margins. We can’t expect agents and publishers to talk candidly about when and whether established authors might be willing to eschew their bookstore sales in favor of higher margins on their online sales through a direct tie to Amazon.

But Michael Cader and I have informed opinions on these subjects and neither of us is looking for a job in the industry beyond the one we already have, which is, from our different perches and platforms, to call them as we see them. So we’re going to engage in a 30-minute 1-on-1 discussion of the topics we think it would be hard for the speakers we recruit to discuss as candidly as we will.

I think our discussion will be a highlight of what will be a stimulating day. Frankly, I’m looking forward to all of it. Join us if you possibly can.

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