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.


Business models are changing; trial and error will ensue

The announcement late last week that Random House is starting three digital-first imprints was just the most recent example showing that publishers are exploring new business models. Just days earlier we got news of the partnership between Simon & Schuster and Author Solutions making S&S the third major publisher — preceded by Christian publishing titan Thomas Nelson and dominant romance publisher Harlequin — to put their name to an offering in the “author services” sector.

One might say that S&S is the first of the Big Six to take such a big step in this direction, except that Pearson, Penguin’s parent company, actually bought Author Solutions a couple of months ago and HarperCollins bought Thomas Nelson last year. So, in fact, three of the Big Six are now involved with author services and it is four out of six if you remember the other recent big news, that Penguin and Random House are merging. (And that’s not counting more modest initiatives like HarperCollins’s “Authonomy” or Penguin’s “Book Country”.)

I remember being on a panel in Canada a few years ago with Carolyn Pittis, the very smart digital pioneer from HarperCollins, who referred to the way most publishers did business — buying the right to exploit copyrights and then monetizing them — as one possible business model for a publisher’s organization. She explicitly mentioned “author services” as another one. That was before her company had launched Authonomy, a couple of years before “Book Country”. In other words, big publishers have been thinking for a while about “author-pays” models (just as the professional publishers have).

This really all follows the lead of Amazon, which has made a practice for years of selling a la carte every component of its own value chain. I was just reading an ebook called “The Amazon Economy” published by The Financial Times (an example of a non-book publisher adjusting its own business model to include being a book publisher, about which more on another day) that suggested that Amazon actually makes more money making its infrastructure available to others than it does using it to sell stuff.

In other words, there is potentially profit in deconstructing one’s value chain and selling access to it in pieces.

In a sense, publishers have known this for a long time. They’ve made the part of their operation that handles things after the books exist: warehousing, distribution, credit and collection, and sales available to other publishers for years. Some publishers, like Random House, have built distribution into a significant business with its own management structure within the corporation. Perseus, which as a publisher is itself a roll-up of a number of smaller houses, has built a distribution service that has more than 300 clients. Ingram, whose core wholesaling operation combined with the Lightning subsidiary they built in the 1990s to provide print-on-demand and later digital services, has a comparable publisher distribution offering.

But what Author Solutions — and a host of less robust (and largely cheaper) competitors — has shown is that there is also very widespread demand for the services that precede the actual delivery of books ready for sale.

I have no way except inference to know how Nelson and Harlequin are doing with their author services offering powered by Author Solutions, but the fact that Penguin parent Pearson bought them and S&S has now done this deal certainly suggests that ASI has a good story to tell. Of course, they are market leaders because they make money, and they make money by having good margins. And the prices announced for the services for the Archway initiative — ASI’s project with S&S — are higher than those services could be purchased for elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they won’t sell lots of aspiring authors on using them.

This is all very logical, but also very tricky. Most publishers — at least until very recently — would have thought about the services they sold in a distribution bundle as “commodities”, widely available and highly comparable. It is true that any of the major publishers, many minor ones, and distributors even beyond Ingram and Perseus can deliver the core capabilities: active accounts with all the major retailers, the ability to transact with them and collect the money, and placement of the messages of availability throughout the supply chain. Obviously, they all strive to do these things better than the next guy and to justify charging a point or two more because they’re better at it.

But further up the value chain the publishers’ pride and belief in a qualitative difference between what they have and what the next guy has is much greater. Publishers generally believe in their editors and marketers more than they believe in their sales forces and warehouses. (Buddies of mine in sales 20 years ago used to say, with conscious irony, that there were two kinds of books: editorial successes and sales and marketing failures.) They see their time and bandwidth as precious. They are far more reluctant to make that time available for rent and, in fact, it would appear that all three of the big publisher deals with Author Solutions rely on ASI to provide those capabilities. They’re not coming from the publishers themselves.

All of this sidesteps another important component of successful publishing: the coordination of all these activities. Successful publishing is the result of a lot of very small decisions: in editing, in presentation (both the book itself and the metadata, like catalog copy and press releases, that support it), and, increasingly, in the SEO tags and signals about “placement” that are included in the book’s digital file or marketing metadata. In the digital age, these things can change over time. Every day’s news — about UN votes or Pentagon sex scandals or anything else — could call for a change in the metadata around a book published a month or a year ago to make it more likely to be shown by the search engine queries being placed today.

(The FT ebook on Amazon, which I recommend, makes it clear that Amazon also sells “coordination” on the retail side as an extremely important, and apparently much-appreciated, value-add.)

Indeed, whether to put more effort into a book or stop paying attention to it is — or should be — based on an analysis of sales and search trends, as well as more old-style measures like the reviews it is getting.

In the old pre-internet days, publishing books was like launching rockets. Most crashed to the earth, some went into orbit. But the publisher’s efforts — most of the time — were limited to the launch. Then the marketing team could move on. This was not a way of doing business that was appealing to authors, but it was consistent with the realities of the marketplace. The big book chains wouldn’t keep a title in stock if its sales appeal wasn’t evident at the cash register within 90 days. Without copies of a title in the stores, there was no point to the publisher pushing it.

That’s something that has changed dramatically in the digital age. With some titles and genres achieving half their sales through ebooks or online bookselling, there is no longer a time limit on marketing effectiveness. In what is a subject we will certainly explore at a future conference, this must be causing traffic jams in publishers’ marketing departments. They can no longer be counting on the older titles making way and clearing marketers’ schedules to work on newer ones.

Open Road is a digital-only publisher that works primarily, but not exclusively, with backlist. (Recently they seem also to be specializing in books brought in from offshore publishers and in helping illustrated book publishers break into ebooks.) What impressed me when I met with them a year ago was that they didn’t distinguish between “frontlist” and “backlist”. They marketed to the calendar and the events and holidays everybody was thinking about, not to the newness of their books. I believe this actually brought increased relevance to their marketing. Obviously, this was also making a virtue of necessity because they didn’t have a flow of “new” books to tout. But it also capitalized on the new situation: that the books don’t suddenly become largely unavailable because retailers throw them off the shelves.

A by-product of the extended sales life of books is that it makes it easier for publishers to cluster them for marketing purposes. Now four books on a similar topic can be pushed in unison, even if they were published months or even years apart. Open Road has made ample use of that reality.

These are challenges and opportunities that compel publishers to rethink the organization of their marketing departments and the deployment of their marketing resources. It is an opportunity for a publisher to extend its value to an author if it pushes an author’s book six months or a year later when a related title hits the marketplace or a news event makes an older book newly relevant. Since authors are increasingly able to do some useful things on their own behalf to capitalize on these opportunities, they will be increasingly impatient with publishers that quit on their books too soon..

There are things the author just can’t do. They can’t adjust the book’s metadata and add tags. They can’t push for or buy promotional screen placement from the retailers when somebody else’s new book makes them suddenly relevant again. Authors also don’t have the benefit of arriving at marketing best practices and rules of thumb by examining performance data across various groupings of titles: large title sets, categorized sets, comparable-selling sets, and others. They’re counting on the publishers to do that.

The publisher’s role in coordinating and managing a myriad of details has always been one of its principal value-adds and it can be even more so in the digital age. But only if they actually do it, and there’s precious little indication that they intend to do it for the titles they’re being paid for.

Jane Friedman (the blogger and expert advisor to writers, not the CEO of Open Road) points out that her alma mater, Writers Digest, and Hay House — the vertical publisher in mind-body-spirit that has done so well interacting with their reading audience — also did ASI deals. She points out that the big successes we all know about among self-published authors — John Locke, Joe Konrath, and Amanda Hocking being the headline names — didn’t go through ASI. Jane takes issue with the ASI promise to help publishers “monetize unpublished manuscripts”. It’s hard to dispute that publishers who are primarily in business to pay authors to publish them could be walking a fine line having a business model right alongside that charges authors for services that are unlikely to lead to them making money.

On the other hand, Random House has made an emphatic statement about the value legitimate publishers can bring with the success of “Fifty Shades of Gray”, originally a self-published story and now, very much thanks to the biggest publisher, the biggest commercial success of all time. No self-published book has come close and it will be a very long time before one does. I see their digital-first imprints (which they are not the first to launch, but seem to be the first promoting aggressively to the self-publishing diaspora) as a step toward a different business model that recognizes the new commercial realities of publishing. It enables lower-investment publishing — the authors in these digital-first imprints are unlikely to receive advances at levels commensurate with most Random House books — and perhaps they’ll get less editing attention too. Marketing is simplified by the fact that print isn’t involved and therefore retail stores aren’t either. So the threshold for profitability is much lower and, as we have learned, they can still decide to give any book in these new imprints the “full treatment” — print copies stacked up in stores — later on if they want to.

It is too early to judge whether the tie-up between publishing houses and author services offers will produce value on all sides. All these publishers now have or will have, at the very least, a stable of self-published authors that are contributing margin to them and in which they have a financial stake (even if they didn’t have to invest to get it). There is definitely inherent conflict between trying to make the most money one can from an author hiring publishing services and recruiting authors and books that will be commercially successful.

But publishers still know how to make books with commercial potential sell better than mere civilians do. Whether ASI and their partner publishers can find the formula that makes the promise inherent in a publisher’s brand productive for authors that hire services under it is a question that will be answered in the months to come.

Having more companies trying to figure it out certainly improves the odds that somebody will (and ASI has every interest in spreading best practices as they emerge). And more and more cheaper services for those aspects of self-publishing that really are commodities means that ASI and all its partners are going to have to demonstrate convincingly that they can add effective marketing to their offering mix if they’re going to be around ten years from now.

Michael Cader and I are doing our first Authors Launch show, in partnership with our friends at Digital Book World, on Friday, January 18, the day after the 2-day DBW 2013 will end. The question of where the line gets drawn between publisher efforts and author efforts is a major topic. We have a great roster of experts to serve as faculty: the aforementioned Jane Friedman, along with Porter Anderson, Jason Allen Ashlock, Dan Blank, ex-Random House marketer Pete McCarthy, co-authors Randy Susan Meyers and M.J. Rose, Meryl Moss, and David Wilk. Among the publishers speaking will be Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Matt Schwartz of Random House. This is a conference really intended for published authors rather than self-published, but it will teach skills and insights for any author willing to invest time and effort to sell their book.