Hats off to Amazon

When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.


Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.


Explaining my skepticism about the likelihood of success for a general subscription model for ebooks

In a prior post, I observed that the apparently-successful subscription offerings for books were in niches. And I said I believed that a more general subscription model wouldn’t work for ebooks the way it has seemed to work for music (Spotify), movies and TV shows (Netflix), and audiobooks (Audible).

By that I meant two things. First of all, it will be impossible for any aggregator to secure the rights to anything like enough of the most appealing titles to deliver an offering comparable to what’s succeeded in other media. But even if they did, that kind of offering wouldn’t deliver nearly as much value to the book reader as general subscription offerings do in other media.

The latter point is based on intuitive speculation. The former is based on an informed view of the commercial realities.

Let’s briefly reiterate the case about consumer appeal. The number of songs, movies, and even audiobooks a subscriber might use in a month (the normal billing period for any subscription, so a relevant unit of measurement) dwarfs the number of books most people would read or refer to. And the heaviest readers — people who read several books a month — are often in genres (romance, science fiction) that already have subscription offerings. They don’t need a more general one.

So the price a subscription offering can command for general ebooks is almost certainly lower in relation to an individual book purchase than the price that can be charged in other media in relation to purchase. That was reflected in the thinking of the fledgling company that got me started writing these posts. They wanted to go to market with a subscription price of about $5 a month, which is less than Spotify, Netflix, or Audible!

(I may disagree with them about the overall viability of the subscription idea, but at least they recognize the necessity of a truly bargain price point.)

But it will be very hard for them, or anybody else, to put together a title base sufficiently appealing for that offering to work commercially.

Big books that consumers know about and want drive them to the points of acquisition for the title. When bookstores talk about how sales are going, they almost always cite the particular books that are driving traffic to their stores (or bemoan the fact that there haven’t been enough of them). That’s why booksellers heavily discounted Harry Potter titles the day they came out and why Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild promoted the availability of the biggest bestsellers they had rights for in their advertising.

Everybody in trade publishing understands this effect. Publishers “overpay” for big books because they know the control of them provides critical leverage dealing with bookstores and wholesalers. BOMC and Literary Guild would bid up the prices for rights to predictable bestsellers beyond what the books would “earn” in royalties on book club sales to gain the value those books had bringing members into the Clubs.

When consumers tie themselves into a subscription service, the power equation shifts for those people. Some of the power of the titles that brought in the consumer is transferred to the owner of the subscription service. If there is enough of value to keep the consumer from looking elsewhere for more content, that can provide great leverage.

It creates enough leverage that Audible can flip the 70-30 model and pay publishers 30% of the attributable revenue for digital downloads of their audiobooks. Since they are the content providers for both iTunes (Apple) and Amazon (their parent company), they have an effective monopoly on audiobooks sold that way. Any publisher that doesn’t want to agree to that split for the subscription business, and I know of at least one very big one that doesn’t, effectively has to live without most of the digital download market for their audio titles.

There have been expressions of dissatisfaction with the payment formula by which Spotify compensates the owners of the songs in their service. But how could there not be? With a combination of free and very low-cost offerings, Spotify is delivering music for far less cost to the consumer than purchasing a collection would require. (There is, theoretically, compensation on the back end because the subscription fee has to continue to be paid to maintain access, whereas older consumers — like me — get a lot of “free” listening to the music we purchased years ago.)

But less cost to consumers means less revenue to be divided by creators. And book authors can’t expect to collect on “repeat reads” the way music creators can collect on “repeat plays”.

So, from an author’s perspective, putting content into a general subscription service threatens to build up the leverage for a market channel that will almost certainly find it less necessary in the future to pay high prices for incremental content.

Simon Lipskar at Writers House, which represents a significant number of major bestselling writers, sees subscriptions as an inherently bad deal for successful writers. In our conversation about this, he echoed my thinking by saying, “Subscriptions by definition transfer the brand value of the author to the brand of the subscription service.”

Users of subscription services, he explained, are attracted to the services by the presence of authors they want to read. But once they are members and paying a monthly fee, their dollars are earmarked for the service rather than to the acquisition of individual discrete books by individual authors.

From Lipskar’s perspective, which is the author’s perspective, “these services act as a very expensive distribution model, inserting themselves between the publishers who license books from authors and the readers who read them, often taking a much bigger piece of the pie than traditional retailers.”

(This point by Lipskar makes me recall my Dad’s — Leonard Shatzkin’s — disdain 50 years ago for the “other” methods of selling consumer books — book clubs and direct mail — because they did, indeed, require more of the consumer’s dollar to execute than selling through stores did. Dad liked “efficient” and he’d argue until the cows came home that bookstores, including returns, were a remarkably efficient mechanism for distributing consumer books. This, of course, was long before the Internet. He started saying it before there were bookstore chains or national wholesalers.)

Lipskar can imagine a subscription service more along the lines of the traditional Book-of-the-Month-Club, in which readers are aided in their discovery of titles by a curatorial/editorial process that helps to select quality titles and, even more important from a commercial perspective, in which the reader’s monthly fee just funds a discount on a discrete monthly purchase.

Lipskar says that for a subscription service to be embraced by authors and publishers, the economics would have to favor authors and their publishers to a much greater extent than the models currently on the market. On that note, the one thing he said he simply could not imagine would be good for authors (or publishers) on any level would be the “all you can eat” model like Spotify, which he believes has spawned a broad feeling within the music business to be a very effective means of transferring the financial value of music from the creators to Spotify.

All the big publishers know that continuing to sign up the authors is what provides the oxygen that keeps them alive. The biggest threat from Amazon is not that they’ll extract another point or three of margin — although that is definitely a continuing concern — but that they’ll reach a point where their market share is large enough to enable them to start signing up really desirable authors on a regular basis and pull them from the rest of the distribution ecosystem. (It is worth noting that Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple have as much at stake in that regard as the major publishers do.)

Because of that, major publishers will never do anything that would distress the major agents. It doesn’t really matter whether a close reading of a contract would give a publisher the “right” to put an author’s work into a subscription service. If the publisher believes the author’s agent would react adversely to them doing that, they’ll be very disinclined to do it.  And some agents might well react adversely to their doing that for any book, not just one under contract to that agent, because agents for big authors who think the way I’m describing don’t want to see subscription services enabled at all!

So that’s why I believe that fledgling subscription services have practically zero chance to get major publishers to commit major books to their pool of available titles.

Of course, there is one entity that might make subscription for general books work and that’s Amazon. They are actually already trying to pull this off even though their efforts have apparently been unanimously rebuffed by the biggest publishers.

The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is offered to “subscribers” to Amazon Prime, the retailer’s overall package of “loyalty” benefits offering that start with free shipping. KOLL allows a loan of an unlimited length, so it is, in effect, a cat’s paw for an ebook subscription program.

Amazon is only now able to offer a robust selection in that program because of a combination of its willingness to spend and the ebook contracts it has with most publishers aside from the Big Six, as well as a very large pool of self-published titles in Kindle Direct Publishing KOLL has not — so far — noticeably damaged the ability of the publishers to sell their “branded author” ebooks successfully. The ebooks from successful authors are still benefiting from a “power law” distribution of sales (things tend to move that way in the Internet world) that favors the biggest SKUs.

Amazon has marketplace clout that dwarfs that of any fledgling with a great idea and they went to great lengths to build up a robust title repository for the KOLL debut. Still, when they launched in November 2011 they only had 5,157 titles which they said included “over 100 current and former New York Times Best Sellers”. It wasn’t an impressive selection.

But the wholesale purchasing terms under which Amazon acquires the ebooks of all publishers except the Big Six apparently enable Amazon to lend any title it wants to, as long as it purchases a copy to lend each time it does so. And it is in the ether that Amazon offered publishers a lot of money to put titles into this program. They have an impressive list of publishers whose work they are offering — including Scholastic, Norton, Bloomsbury, Grove/Atlantic, Workman/Algonquin, F+W Media, Lonely Planet, Rosetta Books as well as their own publishing imprints — but there’s no way to know how many of them went for the deals being offered or which ones are included simply because Amazon is buying a copy of any ebook from them each time a customer wants to borrow one.

And while agency pricing rules are definitely a barrier that makes it more difficult for a Big Six publisher to participate, there seemed to be no burst of creativity on any publisher’s part to figure out a way around it.

So Amazon is, in effect, conducting an experiment testing my theory that a general subscription offering won’t be a powerful magnet. For now, the test is to see how many of the Prime customers find it possible to live largely or entirely within the selection of titles that KOLL offers them, and particularly whether they are weaning those customers away from the higher-profile offerings of the Big Six. Perhaps we’ll see Amazon extend the reach of KOLL sometime by offering a Kindle feature package that is cheaper than what Prime has to be to offer free shipping. I’d sort of expect that. Wouldn’t you?

Will Amazon have an argument to make in a year or two, to publishers or to authors, saying that there is a substantial pool of desirable readers they that they can only reach by participating in KOLL?

They might.

But can anybody else but Amazon put together the combination of the audience and title base they have, piggybacking as they are on Prime and willing as they are to buy an ebook just to lend it once to demonstrate that they can?

I doubt it.

It was been called to my attention by Pam Boiros of Books24x7 that in my prior piece I gave Safari Books Online credit for pioneering the subscription model and the payment by metered usage and that actually credit for both should go to Books24x7. Safari came along a few short years after Books24x7 had started the model which they operate today across a wide range of verticals, serving a mostly institutional customer base. I thank Pam for refreshing my memory, which was the source of the information. Safari is still a great service and the closest thing to a trade subscription model outside the single-publisher efforts, but they followed a path that was originally cut by Books24x7.


Subscription models seem to me to be for ebook niches, not a general offer

Another fledgling ebook retailing venture came through our office this month touting a subscription proposition. I told the entrepeneur “I’m skeptical of the subscription model for ebooks,” and he said, “I know”.

We had a great chat, but I’m still skeptical. When I say that, I mean I’m skeptical that a general offering subscription model can work.

There certainly is a logic to subscriptions, particularly for those who think the book business should learn from other content businesses. Cable TV really started with subscription and then only later moved to pay-per-view, which is more like the ebook sales model (but not exactly). We have Netflix for movies and TV, Audible for audiobooks, and a host of services for music, the most successful of which seems to be Spotify.

I have a Spotify subscription, even though I don’t use it much. Perhaps foolishly, I’m comfortable spending $119.88 a year (which is what $9.99 a month comes out to) to have access to just about any song I might ever want to hear instantly when the urge (or suggestion) to hear it arises. (Spotify very seldom disappoints me by not having the song.) And that’s even though most of my listening needs are satisfied with the 6,000 or so songs I have in my iTunes repository of which the best 1,000 are on my phone.

Spotify was cited by the entrepreneur I met as a motivation for him to start his ebook subscription business. As he correctly pointed out, “sharing a playlist” with a fellow Spotify subscriber enables them to immediately — with no additional cost or friction — “consume” that music. Sharing an iTunes playlist with somebody just leads them to having to make purchases which, quite aside from the money, put time and (a considerable) effort between receiving the playlist and enjoying it.

So, it is posited, this logic should apply to books. With a host of very explainable exceptions, I’m not sure it does, at least not anytime soon.

I’m fresh off a speech in Washington about what the DoJ doesn’t understand about publishing. The answer, if boiled down to a single word, would be “granularity”.

According to the MPAA, North American movie releases for 2007, 2008 and 2009, were 609, 633 and 558 respectively. There are foreign films and perhaps some below-the-radar indie films that must be added to that number to reckon what’s being made available, but it gives you an order of magnitude.

The Big Six publishers average more than 3,500 titles a year each. And there is far more production of titles beyond the Big Six in publishing than there is production of movies beyond the Hollywood studios. It would be very conservative to estimate that there are 100,000 new professionally-produced book titles a year intended for consumers. (Many more are published for professionals or as school or college texts and were you to add in self-published ebooks, which sometimes reach big audiences, they would multiply that number.)

Commercial releases of music would fall in between movies and books in number, but much closer to movies.

That’s the short answer as to why most people share music and movie experiences with far more friends and acquaintances than book experiences. It is also the short answer to why people outside the book business just can’t grasp it; each one of those books is a separate creative and commercial endeavor, down to having its own contract, its own development path and schedule, and its own marketing requirements.

(It also helps explain why many people who use libraries for some of their reading don’t use it for all. No library will have all the books a voracious patron would want to read.)

In the days before and digital books, there were two kinds of subscription services that worked for consumer books.

Book clubs offered price deals and curation (help with selection) but it was the price deals that really attracted members. Before ubiquitous bookstores (which arrived in the 1980s), Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild got the highest-profile books distributed to consumers who would have had a hard time getting to them (as well as those near bookstores who just wanted the convenience of mail delivery.) As bookstores spread, the Clubs found that “niche clubs” (around mysteries, science fiction, or subjects like gardening) were apparently more profitable than the big general interest clubs. (“Apparently” is a highly operative word, but the explanation of that will wait for another day.)

The other subscription concept that worked was the “continuity series”. The market leader there was Time-Life Books. These books were about a particular subject (World War II, say) and they were “packaged” specifically for the series and not available in stores. Continuity relied on the combination of intense subject interest and the “collection” mentality: somebody who started collecting the series didn’t want to have holes in their collection.

Both models were pretty much blown out of the water by online book purchasing which suddenly made every book available for home delivery to everybody everywhere.

In specific niches, subscription models can work very well. The granddaddy of them on the digital side is Safari Books Online, originally conceived and built by O’Reilly in partnership with Pearson. Safari serves a community of programmers and has a huge collection of instructional and reference books which they can use on the job. Most users of these books dip in and out of them, rather than reading them straight through. And they frequently like the idea of checking out what several books might say about a problem they’re tackling.

Safari pioneered the model of dividing the publishers’ share of the subscription fees by metering usage. The more your book is viewed, the more money you get from the pot. And since users of Safari will almost always find the answers they need within the service, leaving your book out means it won’t be found and used. Since at least some of the time Safari usage could lead to a sale of the book itself (even if not very often for most books), that discovery element is lost along with any Safari-generated revenue if the book isn’t included in the database. A publisher should feel pretty confident that they aren’t losing many sales being inside Safari.

(The model that looks like “all you want for a price” to the purchaser and like “pay per use” to the content owner in even purer form than Safari does it is the deal offered by Recorded Books for its digital downloading service for audiobooks to libraries. There are other subscription models in the library space; it is a distraction to the point of this post to get into them which is why they’re not covered here.)

O’Reilly saw at the beginning that their books alone wouldn’t be the strongest subscription offer so they were open to participation by others from the very beginning. Safari is exceptional in at least three ways: they are bigger than one publisher; they are built on a professional user base; and they deliver value primarily through chunks, not end-to-end reads.

But if a publisher is strong in a niche, a subscription service can work for them too: Baen Books (science fiction) and Harlequin (romance) are two niche publishers who have sold subscriptions successfully. (In fact, Harlequin recognizes sub-niches, further segmenting their audience for better subscription targeting.) The Osprey-owned sci-fi house, Angry Robot, offers subscriptions. eBooks by subscription are also part of the model for Dzanc, which does more literary books (fiction and non-fiction; they’re really less niche-y, except for “quality”) and it will be interesting if they can make the “quality” paradigm work the way “romance” and “science fiction” do.

Sourcebooks is a general trade publisher, but they have a robust romance list. They’re trying to establish a club and community called “Discover a New Love” which operates more like the old BOMC: subscribers can choose one of four featured titles each month in addition to getting other benefits from discounts on other books to early looks at some titles.

Subscriptions are offered in the children’s ebook area as well. Disney Digital Books has a monthly subscription service, as does Sesame Street eBooks. In both cases, the model is browser-based delivery rather than downloads.

F+W Media is a publisher that works across many verticals (niches). They had two big head starts. One is simply being vertical. They have audiences that are defined by their interest, which has been the key to making a subscription offer work in the book business. The other is that they were once publishers of magazines and operators of book clubs, so they have experience with direct customer contact and managing those relationships. They also had a lot of names. And F+W is managing subscription offerings for many things other than ebooks.

Most of F+W’s communities have been non-fiction (subject-specific) and they offer subscriptions for content in art, writing, and design. But they are also venturing into the romance market now and their Crimson Romance offer is an “all you can read” model. Baen introduces the wrinkle of releasing a novel in stages to subscribers, like a serial.

And we note in the recent reminder that the TED conferences started doing ebooks (sort of: only within an iOS app) that a subscription model is part of their thinking too. Once again: in a niche. The app that enables them to manage subscriptions is powered by The Atavist, which is another attempt to build a following for a publisher distinguishing itself by its content choices, like TED or Dzanc, rather than around already-established consumer clustering (romance, sci-fi, or a topic like writing or design.)

It is worth noting that there are “all you can eat” subscription offers and ones that are limited but which offer discounts on further purchases. That variation exists in other media too. Spotify is one price for everything; Audible and Netflix meter your use and you can pay more if you consume more.

There’s a pretty strong pattern here to the subscription offers we see.

They’re usually done by publishers. (Safari isn’t a publisher anymore, but it was started by publishers.) That means they’re working with the publishers’ margins (bigger than an aggregator’s margins). Controlling the product flow means they can make good use of intereaction with their audience, learning through data and conversation what they should be doing next. And, most important of all: from a product offer point-of-view, they’re focused.

They’re precisely the opposite of Spotify or Netflix or Audible who all want every single song, movie or TV show, or audiobook they can lay their hands on.

So, what about a more general model for ebooks?

It hasn’t happened yet and I don’t think it will anytime soon, despite the ambitions of my recent visitor. The challenges of putting together the title base for one are daunting and, as I hope this post makes clear, so is providing and demonstrating persuasive value.

I can see only one player that might be able to pull off a more general subscription offering in the near term. (You can guess who that is.) The “whys” of that will be the topic of a future post.

One thing that is pretty certain is that when there are many publishers offering subscriptions in their niches (and someday there will be), they’ll each be powered by a Cloud-based service of one kind or another. None will be asking the IT department to create the software to handle it.

I will admit that I haven’t programmed anything specific about “subscriptions” into the “Book Publishing in the Cloud” program we’re running on July 26, but if that’s what any attendee wants to find out, they’ll have a great opportunity at our “Conversations with an Expert” session to get the answers. Almost all of the speakers will be available during structured chat time, as well as representatives from the great companies that are sponsoring the event. 


Things learned and thoughts provoked by London Book Fair 2012

This post contains a batch of observations from this year’s London Book Fair. Some of it recalled an experience from about 20 years ago. We’ll begin there.

In the early 1990s, Microsoft was on a mission to get computer hardware manufacturers to install CD-Rom drives in new machines. Microsoft had a very simple motivation. Software then was sold as hard goods. One CD-Rom could hold the data that required many, many diskettes. So if the storage and transfer medium were changed, the cost of goods for Microsoft would drop sharply. Since the value customers were buying was the code, not the package, Microsoft figured (correctly) that they’d be able to keep the price of software the same and simply make more profit if their customers could handle the CD-Roms. (Please note this logic applies very nicely to any discussion of what ebooks should cost in relation to print.)

But, of course, most people don’t load that much software, so the CD-Rom argument would be strengthened if content were also available on them. That inspired Microsoft to stage a half-day conference to “educate” the trade publishing community about the “opportunity.” (Of course, areas of technical and professional publishing, which had opportunities in delivering very large amounts of data, had already started to move in that direction; the value of CD-Roms was real and obvious to them. They also had vertical audiences of professionals that were perfectly able to hook up a CD-Rom drive to their existing machines, and did.)

At the conference, Microsoft basically showed all the “cool” things the computer could do: delivering sound and images (not video so much in those days) and hyperlinks. They basically said, “we don’t know how you’re going to make money on this; you’re the content experts. But we’re giving you this great new canvas to create on. Create!!!”

The excitement Microsoft and others were able to generate led to a burst of activity by publishers to create CD-Roms. Very few people found this new packaging of content particularly appealing at any price, and they actually were listed at very high prices. In other words, the techies had no clue about the content business and their advice to it was self-serving.
Last Monday in London, Susan Danziger of Publishing Point hosted The Great Debate. The proposition being debated was that the new tech companies would ultimately deliver a “knockout blow” to the conventional publishing establishment. Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center moderated.

Speaking for the new tech companies were two stunningly successful new technology entrepreneurs: Bob Young of Lulu and Allen Lau of Wattpad, both of which take anybody’s content and put it into circulation. Lulu’s core mission is seamlessly turning content into printed books and Wattpad’s is about organizing it for crowd-sourced consumption and discussion.

Opposing them were two publishing veterans (and, I’m happy to reveal, good friends): Evan Schnittman and Fionnuala Duggan. Schnittman is about to move from a global sales and marketing position at Bloomsbury to become Hachette Book Group USA’s head of sales, marketing, and digital. Duggan came from the music business, spent several years heading up digital at Random House UK, and is now Managing Director for International Course Smart, the digital platform created by a consortium of college textbook companies.

There is no ambiguity about what happened in this “debate”. The format required each of the approximately 250 attendees to register their opinions as to which side they favored on the way in and then again after the speakers had presented. The “establishment” side — the Schittman and Duggan side — picked up about 100 votes with their arguments from where the audience was when it came in. The incoming audience favored the proposition that the knockout blow was coming by a wide margin. After the debate, the margin was as wide in the opposite direction. (Some were undecided; so don’t drive yourself nuts trying to work out the math.) It is hard to imagine a more decisive outcome.

Of course, Duggan and Schnittman know quite a bit about technology. But neither Young nor Lau seemed to know anything about the content business. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Both of them have gotten rich in businesses that are ostensibly content businesses, but they aren’t. Their financial success is not dependent on the quality of content, the skill in developing or marketing it, or its inherent appeal. In fact, Lau kept touting the volume of what he hosted and claiming that technology would handle the curation perfectly adequately in the future. This was “proof by assertion.” It was the ultimate declaration of faith. The audience didn’t buy it.
On the day before, Schnittman had hosted the Digital Minds conference. One of the keynote speakers was an old friend of his, Andrew Steele, who is the creative director of the very successful web site, Funny or Die. Steele told us the story of that business, which is instructive.

The original concept of Funny or Die was to crowd-source user-generated content, like YouTube. They’d build up traffic and monetize it. But there was a problem. Most of the amateur stuff they got just wasn’t funny. As Steele points out, we go to YouTube when somebody sends us a link for something good. We don’t go to YouTube and browse all the amateur content. There’s a reason for that. Most of it is crap. And most of what Funny or Die was getting from the crowd was crap. They weren’t getting page views. They weren’t going to succeed.

So they tried something new. (That’s called pivoting, for those of you who don’t spend enough time talking to the tech-and-finance community.) They got professionals to create content. Things changed quickly. By allowing their professionally-produced content to go off the site while it maintained the “Funny or Die” branding, they soon built a large audience. It now keeps growing and growing. Success is assured. But the lesson Steele emphasized was that professionally-created and -curated content succeeds where amateurs fail. He sees no reason why it should be any different in our world.
I got a chance to visit with Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore. He was a bit bleary-eyed at the Digital Minds event on Sunday because the site had opened to the public that weekend. When I saw him on the show floor during the week he had just benefited from a full seven hours of zzzs, and he was enjoying his status as a game-changer.

The key to Charlie’s disruption was his willingness to substitute watermarking for DRM. He said it definitely made him nervous to do it, but he couldn’t see any other way to achieve what he wanted for Pottermore. He had to be able to sell to any device; he wanted to be able to allow any purchaser complete interoperability. There was no way to do that and maintain DRM.

His technical infrastructure is awesome. It stood up even though the average length of engagement by each user was three or four times what they had projected and the traffic exceeded expectations as well. But the most startling early news was what he reported about piracy.

Apparently, Potter ebook files started showing up on file-sharing sites pretty much right away after they opened. But before they could serve any takedown notices, Charlie says the community of sharers reacted. They said “C’mon now. Here we have a publisher doing what we’ve been asking for: delivering content DRM-free, across devices, at a reasonable price. And, by the way, don’t you know your file up there on the sharing site is watermarked? They know who you are!” And then the pirated content started being taken down by the community, before Pottermore could react. And very quickly, there were fewer pirated copies out there than before.
I heard a rumor from a very reliable source that two of the Big Six are considering going to DRM-free very soon. The rumor is from the UK side, but it is hard to see a global company doing this in a market silo. Another industry listener I know was hearing similar rumors from different sources.

Could we see another crack in this wall sometime soon, maybe this year?

This is one lecture the techies have been delivering to the content folks that might have been on the money. I’ve always been skeptical that DRM prevents piracy, but I’ll admit that I was more concerned in the past than I am now that it would cost sales.
At the Digital Minds conference, there was a panel on children’s content publishing. Sara Lloyd, head of digital for Pan Macmillan, moderated a group that included Belinda Rasmussen from her own company, Eric Huang from Penguin, Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, which is a new children’s “book publisher” that seems much more focused on apps.

I have trouble seeing a future for book publishers in the kids’ content world. Everybody seemed to agree about what the apps of the future required (interactivity, game elements, animation) and that the parents of five years from now will be much more likely to hand their kids in the back seat an iPad than a book. So I asked them, as books diminish, what will publishers have to offer here? Wouldn’t this business belong to people who know gaming and animation, not books?

Kate seized the question from the stage and answered in a way that seemed to confirm my conjecture. “We don’t hire people with book experience,” she said. When I checked in with her later, she agreed that books were a revenue-generating convenience to get her company started. She sees the day when they won’t be part of her business anymore. What excited her (and well it should) was that they’d just made their fifth app and had created all the software tools they needed to build it while making the first four. The cost of creating their apps is plummeting because they’ve built the toolkit.


The news about the DoJ’s charges against five publishers and Apple and their settlement with three publishers broke just before LBF. It was a topic of much discussion, of course. Most people in the industry are horrified by the lawsuit and the settlement and there is really widespread fear about the consequences of ending the agency model. (The settlement doesn’t do that, but having three big publishers pushed to allow discounting for the next two years at least certainly cripples it.)

On Publishers Lunch, Michael Cader rounded up an impressive set of links to media around the country who are just as horrified as publishers, retailers, and agents at LBF were. Here are the stories from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall, unfortunately), Slate, and the Los Angeles Times.

We understand that an amendment to the Tunney Act obliges the DoJ to take note and report to the court any opinions expressed in writing by the citizenry about a settlement that takes place in a case still being litigated. Cader notes that the law has usually been used to expand a judge’s ability to exercise oversight when the court believes DoJ hasn’t been tough enough. In this case, we’ll be asking them to pare back a settlement, which is apparently a less common use of the law. But the law allows us 60 days from the settlement to get those letters in and it is what we in the community can do to help fight this battle.

As I wrote in my summary of the impact of this settlement, it is one where Amazon and the cost-conscious ebook consumer win, but everybody else (and that means authors, publishers, retailers, and the public that wants good books, as I explained on NPR) lose. The low-price side of this is easy to understand. The publishing business side isn’t. (If this were a GOP DoJ, I’ll admit that I would have inserted a snide remark here about what this shows about their IQ.)

One point to note here, which didn’t occur to me at first, is that the three settling publishers are about to game the two fighting publishers (and, perhaps, Random House) the same way Random House gamed them when they stayed out of agency at first. Whether or not they stick with agency, they are now enabling discounting, so they might get the same benefit of the retailer discounting their goods while they retain their revenue that Random House got for the first year of agency.

In other words, more weight on the shoulders of the two companies, Macmillan and Penguin, who are carrying the fight for the whole industry. And that means more reason for the rest of us to try to help.

I am working on my letter to DoJ now, and I’ll publish it in a future post. I hope all my readers who understand what’s at stake here will also write to Justice. Address your letters to

John Read
Chief Litigation III Section
Antitrust Division
U.S. Department of Justice
450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000
Washington, DC 20530


The evolving role of agents

Because of a couple of panels I spoke on last spring and because of the development of FiledBy, I have had more and more conversations lately with agents. They are part of the General Trade Publishing ecosystem. So their lives are getting more difficult and more complicated, like everybody else’s in Book Valley.

The agents’ concern is frequently expressed as “what do I tell my authors?”  Publishers are increasingly insistent that a prospective author have an internet platform to build on before they sign a book. Editors always wanted credentials to back up a writer’s authority on any subject; now they’d like to see that the writer has a following on that subject as well.

But agents are also concerned about themselves. The two most innovative imprint initiatives in recent memory — Bob Miller’s HarperStudio inside HarperCollins and Roger Cooper’s Vanguard inside Perseus — are built on the idea of reducing risk, paying the author a lower advance. Yes, they also promise a higher reward (higher royalty), but experienced agents know most books don’t earn anything beyond the advance.

Miller and Cooper are smart guys and it could well be that their imprints will have a higher percentage of earnouts than most. But, as smart guys, they wouldn’t be willing to pay more on the high side if they didn’t believe they were saving at least that much on the risk side.

The advance pool is probably shrinking. John Sargent, Macmillan’s CEO, said as much at a gathering of agents a couple of months ago when he explained that the de-leveraging that is taking place throughout the economy is also taking place in publishing. Big houses just won’t have the cash available to them that they used to, and that means less money for advances, less money for printing, and less money for promoting.

But in addition to shrinking, publishing advances are taking on much more of a power law configuration, with concentration at the top and a long tail of books getting less and less (and extended by mushrooming self-publishing where the “advance” is actually negative; it’s a cost!)

This is already having an effect. I have heard from people who know that larger agencies are now shopping among the smaller ones to buy them out. It takes more agents working to pay the same rent than it used to. And the smaller agents are finding it harder and harder to make a living so they’re ready to sell out a bit of their upside to get some stability. The small number of agents that have clients at the power end of a power law distribution are doing great; those who have traditionally made a living on making lots of second level deals are really suffering.

Compounding the problem for agents is the changing nature of publishing opportunity. While the sales and royalty potential of the book through the publisher is declining, other opportunities are opening up. There is a multiplicity of ebook channels that in the aggregate do not replace the revenue that print used to provide and doesn’t anymore. Chunks of books and material too short to be published as a book can be sold through them. Agents have for years been trying to split off audio rights to sell to Audible or Brilliance or Tantor Media. The opportunity to sell content to web sites seems to be emerging. But all of these deals require conceiving, pitching, closing, negotiating, and contract reviewing. For fifteen percent of what?

And further comlicating things is the ubiquitous self-publishing option. As self-publishing becomes part of the strategic approach to getting a “real” publisher (and it is), it adds a further complication to the business relationship between agent and writer. Is it fair for an agent to work with a writer on developing a proposal or a manuscript and then, when it fails to sell to a publisher, see that writer self-publish what amounts to a collaborative effort without owing anything to the agent? I think most agents would say, “NO!”

An agent for a book writer carries the same title as the agent for an actor or the agent for a performing musician but that’s a bit misleading. A book writer’s agent is really a business partner, more like the managerof an actor or musician. I see the writer and agent as two halves of a business: the writer creates the product and the agent handles the B2B relationships necessary to turn it into money.

When the book agent’s job, most of the time, was to find the biggest possible up-front payment for an author’s work, a straight commission deal made complete sense. With writer-pays options becoming not only more common and accessible, but more sensible as a commercial choice and, indeed, becoming part of the step-ladder to commercial success, it increasingly will not.

At a conference on “Giving It Away” in Toronto at which I spoke two weeks ago, Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins was explicit that the publisher buying content and making money by selling it was “one model”, and she pointed out that there is a “fee for services” model as well. The inference I drew was “that’s not what we’re doing today, but every option is on the table for tomorrow.” Why not? Don’t we have to believe that one of the exit strategies for the investors in Author Solutions, the biggest rollup of self-publishing service companies, might be to sell to one of the Big Six who, despairing of the future of their publishing model, tries to buy their way into a new one?

I am old enough to remember that agent’s fees, now standard at 15% of revenue, once were 10% (like the agents in other businesses I referred to at the top.) When that change happened — was Scott Meredith the first? — many of the 10 percenters sneered at the change as exploitation. But eventually they all went that way. About 10 years ago, agent Richard Curtis started EReads, an ebook publishing company which gave his authors, and others, another choice besides throwing the ebook rights in for print publishers who, at that time, seldom exploited them. Curtis was also excoriated in some circles for generating a conflict of interest, which, indeed, it would have been if he steered his authors away from better ebook options with their publishers. (He doesn’t do that.) It would be like a doctor owning a medical testing business, for crying out loud! (And they do do that…)

A friend of mine in the financial business wrote a book 20 years ago and wanted to get an agent to sell it. He knew the advance would be low, but he also knew the book would add credibility to his business. He wanted it sold. An agent told him that the agency only handled books on which they thought the advance would be $25,000 or more, yielding a commission of $3,750 at the normal 15%. This friend told the agent, take the first $3,750. The agent took the book, sold it for $6,000, and everybody was happy. This kind of arrangement, as well as others where the agent actually charges a fee for helping an author manage self-publishing options, are going to have to become more common in the future. Let’s not be too judgmental about the pioneering agents who change the paradigm.