Author Solutions

Much as I like Hugh Howey, I disagree with just about all of this recent post of his


I need to say couple of things at the outset here. The first is that I really like and admire Hugh Howey and the fact that I disagree with almost every paragraph of this post of his shouldn’t suggest that I don’t. That’s not snark or irony; it is sincere. I think it is both noble and natural for people to defend the entities and circumstances that make possible their commercial success and it is just human nature that those who have benefited from a paradigm reflexively want to defend it. I only wish that Hugh would exhibit the same respect for that tendency when it is exhibited by authors who have done well with publishers.

The other is that I don’t see the “Amazon versus the publishing establishment” battle as a moral choice, just a tug of war between competing business interests. (There are societal questions at stake, which some might see as moral choices, but the companies involved are doing what is best for them and then arguing afterwards that it is also better for society.) When I wrote what I intended to be a balanced piece about the Amazon-Hachette battle, it brought out the troops from the indie author militia in the comment string to call me to task and accuse me of many things, including being a defender of the people who pay me (although my overall revenues from Big Five publishers is actually pretty paltry with not one active consulting client among them for well over two years). I expect this post will do the same, which I find an unpleasant prospect. On the other hand, I’m sorta stubborn about saying the things I believe nobody else is saying…

I am not trying to “make a case” here for anybody: not for the publishers and obviously not for Amazon. All I am trying to accomplish is to call out what I see as the almost certainly unintended bias in the arguments as Hugh frames them. I continue to believe that self-publishing is a useful tool that most authors should employ at one time or another but that, still almost all of the time, an author who is offered a publishing deal from a major house willing to pay an aggressive advance is better off to take it than go it alone. (If you’re not offered a substantial advance, the calculus shifts, but there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing that is not described in much detail in this post, even though Hugh Howey knows much better than I do how much work it is!) And I think that generalized advice to authors to eschew publishers in a world where print still matters and stores still matter remains, as of today, unwise. That may well change in the future, but it hasn’t changed yet.

In this post, everything preceded by [HH] was written and posted by Hugh Howey. Everything preceded by [MS] is my response. I have left nothing out from Hugh’s original post.

[HH] A few weeks ago, I speculated that Hachette might be fighting Amazon for the power to price e-books where they saw fit, or what is known as Agency pricing. That speculation was confirmed this week in a slide from Hachette’s presentation to investors:

HachetteLivre-Investor-Slide

So, no more need to speculate over what this kerfuffle is about. Hachette is strong-arming Amazon and harming its authors because they want to dictate price to a retailer, something not done practically anywhere else in the goods market. It’s something US publishers don’t even do to brick and mortar booksellers. It’s just something they want to be able to do to Amazon.

[MS] Uh, yes. It is something they want to do in the market for ebooks that they don’t need to do for print. And it is something they want to do to the entity that controls 60% of their ebook sales, which no print bookseller does. And you’d be forgiven if you got the impression from this that Hachette only wanted to control the price Amazon sells at, not the price everybody sells at, keeping it the same across retailers. It does matter how you frame things…

[HH] The biggest problem with Hachette’s strategy is that Hachette knows absolutely nothing about retail pricing. That’s not their job. It’s not their area of expertise. They don’t sell enough product direct to consumers to understand what price will maximize their earnings. Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple have that data, not Hachette.

[MS] But what Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple know is not how to maximize Hachette’s or Hachette’s authors’ “earnings”, however they get divided between author and publisher. What they know is how to maximize their earnings and, mainly, their market share. And only Amazon and B&N have any picture of how the interaction between ebook prices and print sales works, which deeply affects an author’s and publisher’s earnings. None of the other ebook retailers have a clue about that, and Amazon doesn’t know how bookstore sales are affected (and it would be their objective to have them affected negatively, wouldn’t it?)

[HH] Beyond their ignorance of pricing strategy, Hachette also has a strong bias toward print books. Their existing relationships with major brick and mortar retailers gets in the way of their e-book pricing. This has been confirmed by my own publishers, who have admitted privately that they would like to experiment with digital pricing but don’t want to upset print book retailers. This puts their pricing strategy at odds with their investors’ needs, their authors’ needs, even their own profitability. In sum, they are making irrational decisions with their pricing philosophy. Hachette is making the same mistake that many publishers make, which is to think that harming Amazon somehow helps themselves.

[MS] Publishers are trying to keep a print book physical distribution infrastructure alive. That’s not irrational. It is rational. And it is the crux of the difference in objectives between a publisher’s strategy and Amazon’s strategy. The more bookstores fade, the better it is for Amazon and the worse it is for publishers. This is a problem you could have read about on this blog a long time ago.

[HH] The same presentation by Hachette to investors stressed the importance of DRM and the need to fight piracy. The presentation had very little to say about authors, which would be like an oil company giving a report to prospective investors and not discussing how its current wells are performing, the proven reserves it has on-hand, and what they are doing to discover new sources of oil. You know . . . the product they make their money from. Little is also said in the presentation about readers, possibly because Hachette doesn’t know who their readers are. Again, this is a presentation to investors by a company that doesn’t know its customers. Because they have too long relied on and been beholden to middleman distributors.

[MS] I’d substitute “leveraged” for “relied on and been beholden to” in the sentence that concludes that paragraph. Up until very recently, there was no efficient means or mechanism for publishers to sell directly to readers. Their “customers” were bookstores, and they understood them very well. And all the big publishers I know are investing in learning more about who are their readers. This graf begins with the complaint that authors aren’t acknowledged by publishers and ends with the complaint that publishers don’t know their readers. And the cherry on top is a biased characterization of the value and role of brick and mortar retailers. I guess the oil company reference is just to associate bad people with each other, but it otherwise seems gratuitous. The important and relevant point is that we’re still waiting for the first major author to say “no” to a publisher. It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

[HH] DRM, piracy, and high e-book prices are not what a publisher should be fighting for and bragging to its investors about. Many consumers aren’t even aware that Amazon isn’t the source of their e-book DRM. Publishers (and self-published authors) opt in or opt out of DRM as they see fit. Those of us who think about the paying customer first and foremost opt out, and we are rewarded with their repeat business and their advocacy. Those of us who don’t fret over piracy invest our time where it can actually achieve something. Publishers need to adopt these same policies with all haste. More importantly, they need to stop ripping off their authors and their customers when it comes to digital pricing.

[MS] Recent data suggests pretty strongly that taking down pirate copies increases sales. But the efficacy of DRM is a good debatable point and it shouldn’t be in a paragraph that concludes with a gratuitous slam at big publisher pricing and royalties, which have nothing to do with DRM.

[HH] We know publishers are ripping off artists and readers when it comes to e-books. Harpercollins released this slide one year ago this month:

Harper-NewsCorp-Profitability

As author Michael Sullivan broke down in this damning blog post, it shows publishers making $7.87 on a $14.99 e-book while the author only gets $2.62. For a hardback that costs twice as much at $27.99, the publisher makes $5.67 to the author’s $4.20. What used to be a fair split is now aggressive and indefensible as publishers make more money on a cheaper product while the author makes far less. Publishers are ripping off readers and writers as they shift to digital, and they are getting away with it. They are even winning the PR campaign against Amazon, a company that has fought for lower prices for its customers and higher pay for its authors.

[MS] I agree that ebook royalties should be higher. But, in fact, only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty. The others negotiated an advance that effectively paid them far more than that. And guaranteed it before the book hit the marketplace. Publishers are making a massive PR error not raising the “standard” royalty since they effectively pay much more than that now, but the authors signing contracts with them know the truth.

[HH] Let me repeat: Publishers are waging a war here for higher prices and lower royalties. $14.99 is their ideal price for an e-book that costs nothing to print, warehouse, or ship. That’s twice what mass market paperbacks used to cost, which is what they are replacing. Reminds you of how cheaper-to-produce CDs suddenly cost twice as much as cassettes simply because they were new, doesn’t it?

[MS] Now, who’s not paying attention to authors? Right, it cost nothing to print, warehouse, or ship an ebook. But it cost something to create. And for many, if not most, publisher-published books, the publisher gave the author a substantial payment before publication. Focusing on the price without considering the value is the grossest form of “ignoring the author”. And the $14.99 price is more like the equivalent of the hardback; most publishers I know charge much less for the ebook when it is being published against a printed version that’s a paperback. And, in fact, they often charge less than $14.99 when the print edition available is a hardcover!

[HH] Publishers are also colluding with one another to offer lockstep digital e-book royalties of 25%, which is indefensible. Their every actions, when it comes to DRM, to pricing, to selling direct, to offering abusive services like Author Solutions, screams to anyone with ears that they don’t care about the writers and they don’t care about the readers. It doesn’t matter what they say, it matters what they do. And what they do is charge as much as they can get away with and take as much of the split as they possibly can. And they work with their competitors and against their retail partners to pull it off.

[MS] Publishers live in a competitive marketplace in general but nowhere more than when it comes to signing authors. The 25% hasn’t moved, but every book that is signed based on a competitive situation (one agent told me that’s at least 2/3 of them; one big publisher believes they compete for 95% of what they sign) is getting an advance that is calculated on a much higher percentage than the “standard”. So they “care” about the writers. If “caring about readers” is only demonstrated by low prices, then I’d say “Hugh has a point.” The problem is that the point is in direct conflict with “caring about the writers”, whose revenue is directly related to what readers pay (with only one exception: unearned advances paid by publishers).

[HH] Their own authors defend them, partly because they don’t spend any time investigating or understanding the business in which they are engaged. One Hachette author — a good friend of mine — said something to me the other day that made me realize they don’t understand how their books are ordered by retailers or delivered by the publisher. I suppose it’s okay to write books and not worry about the rest of the business, but this same author and friend had much to say about the Amazon/Hachette dispute, but without the basic understanding of how the relationship between those two companies works. Part of the blame for not knowing falls to publishers, who keep authors at bay and away from the business aspects of publishing. It was one of my primary complaints in that old blog post. Publishers need to embrace authors as business partners, and any author who hopes to make a career at this needs to be at least a little curious about how the industry works.

[MS] This slam at Howey’s fellow authors is both uncharacteristic of him and beneath him. The Hachette authors are doing precisely the same thing Howey is doing: defending their biggest source of revenue. What’s so surprising about that? And let’s not get too worked up about what people do and don’t understand. This piece demonstrates very little understanding of the economics of brick-and-mortar and the overall effort to sustain it as long as possible.

[HH] So we can see in their own slides that publishers do not have the best interests of their artists and consumers at heart. What about Amazon? Here we have a company that forsakes profits in order to pass along the savings to: A) Readers in the form of lower prices and to: B) Authors in the form of higher pay. That’s what we know today based on their actions. Of course, some interpret Amazon’s behavior as: “Once they are big enough, Amazon will gouge customers and take advantage of authors.” If you press on numbers, you might hear that Amazon will raise e-book prices to $12.99 one day and pay authors a miserly 25% of gross. Both of which are better than what publishers offer right now.

[MS] The pricing and split speculation is a pure straw horse. We know that what Amazon does today that pleases Howey also serves their larger strategic interests: growing market share and building the installed base of Kindle users. It’s nice when interests align. But what happens when they align tells you nothing about what will happen when they don’t. The recent changes that reduced author splits from Amazon-owned Audible shouldn’t be ignored in a paragraph like this one. (Emphasis here: I don’t think Amazon was wrong or immoral to have done this, but I think those making the argument that worrying about terms changing in the future is silly should at least acknowledge what has already happened!)

[HH] This bears repeating: The very worst that Amazon might do, in some hypothetical future, according to their fiercest critics, is still better than what publishers brag to their investors about doing today.

[MS] And this bears repeating. It’s a straw horse. The argument is attributed to these unidentified “fiercest critics” because it a straw horse. Pure speculation. Who knows what is the “the very worst that Amazon might do”?

[HH] Instead of operating under the hope that publishers will improve their business practices in the future and that Amazon will reverse course and start harming writers and readers once they gain more market share, why aren’t we condemning publishers for being the problem right now while celebrating Amazon for all they are doing to expand reading habits and to provide for artists? Why?

[MS] Simple answer. Because many authors are still being very well paid and well served by publishers. That’s why.

[HH] I think two reasons: The first is that we equate publishers to bookstores and Amazon to the loss of bookstores, and we all love bookstores. This is fallacious reasoning, though. Online shopping has impacted all of retail. These changes were inevitable, and they are the result of consumer choice. How those changes played out could have been publishers colluding with a distributor to price digital works higher than their paper counterparts. That would have been bad. Amazon leading those changes with their pricing philosophy has been good.

[MS] Much of this is true. Online shopping is inevitable; the pressure on brick-and-mortar is inevitable. And we all love bookstores, even though they don’t “map” into the future very well. But it is really disingenuous to just forget that Amazon benefits by brick stores going down faster and has discounted print books as aggressively as possible as well, which has contributed to the brick-and-mortar stores decline. I’m not demonizing Amazon over this; everybody has to run their own business and they run theirs very well. But let’s not pretend that altruism is all that is working here, or that changing circumstances couldn’t change Amazon’s pricing philosophy.

[HH] The second reason for the anti-Amazon bias is that some see Amazon as the giant and little old publishers as the underdog. That’s also wrong. The publishing and bookselling arm of Amazon is likely smaller than the combined earnings of the Big 5 publishers. Amazon makes a pittance on every e-book sold, while the Big 5 make out like bandits. Also, to say that these wings of Amazon’s operations are owned by a larger entity is to ignore that the same is true for the major publishing houses. If anything, Amazon is the clear upstart and underdog here. They are new to the market, rapidly innovating, blacklisted by brick and mortar retailers, setting up shop away from the established players, and ganged up on in an illegal manner.

[MS] No question Amazon gets “ganged up on”. We have two book businesses now: Amazon and everybody else. Everybody else includes publishers and retailers and wholesalers and agents and established authors. Amazon’s decision to “make a pittance” on certain products, including some ebooks, is tactical, not altruistic. I have to admit that characterizing Amazon as an “underdog” does activate the “gag reflex”. If this doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, I’m not sure what would. Let’s be clear and real: Amazon and Hachette are both leveraging their respective negotiating positions as best they can. It’s called business. (And,, from where I sit, it looks Amazon is in the stronger position, not Hachette. I’m not sure by what measurement Amazon could be considered the underdog here; I haven’t read any other analysis that makes that claim.)

[HH] I’ll go one step further and state something both outrageous and obvious: If the Big 5 had gotten together twenty years ago and DREAMED UP an ideal business partnership, one that would increase their distribution, provide excellent customer service to their readers, improve the livelihood of their authors, keep their backlists viable and books from going out of print, reduce their 50% return rate from bookstores to 4%, provide next-day and even same-day delivery, all while only costing them 30% instead of the 45% they lose to bookstores, they couldn’t have done better than what Amazon did for them.

[MS] Lots of truth in this paragraph, up to a point. Publishers (and authors) have benefited for years from Amazon’s willingness to sell books for almost no margin and by the shift from the less-efficient sales in stores to the more-efficient sales online. I spelled out clearly in my Amazon-Hachette post that Amazon has been the most profitable print account for most trade publishers for a long time. And I am happy to give them the full credit they deserve for making the commitment necessary to make the ebook business happen. That doesn’t change the reality that as their market share grows, we can see a concentration that changes what has been a good thing into a threat. For everybody else in the book business: those who are aware of it and those who are not.

[HH] Soak that in. Publishers should have engineered Amazon from the ground-up. A company that invests in distribution networks for their products rather than pocketing profits. And instead of celebrating all the hundreds of benefits, like pre-orders and customer reviews and the savings on print runs and returns that Amazon’s algorithms provide, they are trying to figure out how to put their best resource out of business. It boggles the mind. Like those authors who fear Amazon might take royalties away tomorrow, so are happy to give up those royalties today, publishers are siding with companies that are hurting them today out of fear of their greatest ally getting even more market share tomorrow. And readers and writers are the victims of this illogical behavior.

[MS] The unreality in the suggestion that publishers are trying to put Amazon out of business is mindboggling. I have cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believe Hugh Howey believes what he says. On the other hand, I can’t believe he believes that! Any publisher that thought this was possible would be deluded. The idea that it is some sort of deliberate strategy to put Amazon out of business is as far from the world we actually live in as the world of Hugh’s novels is.

[HH] What is the solution? As a writer, the solution is to retain ownership of your rights. This has never been more important than it is today. E-book royalty rates are going to move to 50% of net. I know from some insiders that this is already happening for top-name authors and hot new acquisitions. Selling your manuscript now for half of what it will be worth in the very near future is a bad move. It takes years for books to come to market with a traditional publisher. If that is your publishing goal, exercise a bit more patience. Hold on to that manuscript (or self-publish it) while you write the next. Let the market come to you.

[MS] This advice ignores the fact that a large number of authors got an advance that already pre-paid them for the royalties they could conceivably have earned by doing their own self-publishing when the publishers’ sales died. (Those “insiders” referred to are almost certainly talking about how the ebook component is calculated for advances paid to big authors, not a change in the contractual percentage.) Howey is conflating agreeing to a “half of what it should be” digital royalty with “selling your manuscript for half of what it will be worth” in the future. They’re not the same thing. I guess it’s just part of the campaign to find that first big author who turns down a publishing deal to do it themselves instead. To read this post, you’d never know we haven’t had one yet! (I thought we had one three years ago, but the one author who really threatened to do it changed his mind and signed a publishing deal with Amazon instead.)

[HH] The other option is to embrace a smaller press that has more flexibility. Online print book sales and e-book adoption have helped level the playing field for small publishers. They are becoming more viable every single day. These are the true Davids. They now have the tools and ability to see their works sell to a wide audience and win awards. I put them as the second best option behind self-publishing, and I include Amazon’s imprints in this category. They offer higher royalty rates and terms similar to small presses, though some have grumbled lately that Amazon’s imprints are becoming more and more like the Big 5, so watch what you sign.

[MS] I’m always happy to see smaller presses succeed, but they have a hard time competing against the Big Five, mainly because of Amazon. They are forced (by Amazon) to sell their ebooks on “wholesale” terms, which means giving much more of the retail price they set to the supply chain. This leaves them two choices. They can set a reasonable retail price (like an Agency price) and get nearly 30% less revenue than an Agency publisher. Or they can set an artificially high price and hope the retailer will discount from it. So even if they give the author a higher percentage of ebook sales, the net might not be higher. It is hard to succeed in today’s environment as a small press, not easy.

[HH] For readers, keep doing what you’re doing. Self-publishing and small presses are booming because you care about great stories, not where they come from. You are the disruptive force in this industry, and I say that with every ounce of love I can muster. Keep disrupting by doing what you do best: Read. Write reviews. Share your enthusiasm. Infect others. Spread the joy of this greatest of pastimes. And we will trust that those who cater to your needs and to the needs of the artists you admire will be the ones who come out on top. All others will need to change their ways or perish. If they do the former, let’s cheer for them. If they persist in the latter, let’s not be sad to see them go.

[MS] I am not happy to see anybody go. The desire to make villains out of the industry establishment is the most unattractive trait of what should be a hero class: intrepid authors who forge ahead without institutional support to make success happen. There is no doubt that Amazon has made that opportunity possible for most of them and it is easy to understand why anybody who has profited from the infrastructure Amazon created would celebrate it and want to see it grow. But author success has been achieved in a wide variety of ways and the way Hugh Howey has done it is still very much the exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions from unusual cases. And I think it is an iron rule of nature that it is dangerous to generalize from one’s own personal experience.

I see from a subsequent post of Hugh’s that he will be in Toronto this week at Book Summit, as will I. I hope we’ll have a chance to have a Diet Coke and talk about this while we’re up there. My Logical Marketing Agency partner Pete McCarthy and I are kicking off the show on Tuesday morning. I always love visiting Toronto.

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The three forces that are shaping 21st century book publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization


There are three overarching realities that are determining the future course of book publishing. They are clear and they are inexorable:

Scale, and its close cousin “critical mass”, is the ability to use size as a competitive advantage in any endeavor;

Verticalization, or being in sync with the inherent capability of the Internet to deliver anything of interest in an audience-specific way; and

Atomization, or the ability for any person or entity to perform the most critical component of publishing — making content available and accessible to anybody anywhere — without capital and without an organization dedicated to distribution.

Scale

In the 20th century, scale in publishing was really an internal concept. Big publishers had more resources to sign books, get to bookstores, and roll out marketing than smaller ones. Barnes & Noble and Borders had supply chain and cost advantages over independent bookstores, except that Ingram and other wholesalers lent their scale to provide partial compensation. Bigger literary agencies had negotiated more boilerplate agreements than smaller ones and often had helpful relationships that went beyond publishing, but a single operator could still cultivate enough editors to make a legitimate case that he or she could place a book as effectively as the giants.

But that’s changed entirely in the past 10 years. Now publishing operates in a world increasingly controlled by Amazon, Apple, and Google, all companies that make far more money outside of books than through books. One Big Six CEO observed to me about five years ago that the time had passed when s/he could call all the biggest trading partners of their company and reach the CEO instantly. Penguin Random House has merged into a publishing company that will control about half the most commercial titles in the marketplace, but any suggestion that their size will enable them to dictate much to Amazon, Apple, or Google is deluded.

What Random House can do is apply scale against other publisher competitors. And they will.

Critical mass is a scale-related concept but it is also a component of verticalization. When a publisher, or any aggregator, has enough material to allow it to ignore competition in a consumer offer, it has achieved the effective barrier to entry that scale also provides. For example: subscription models for general books are a very difficult commercial proposition because the biggest agents for the biggest authors wouldn’t want their titles included. But Amazon might just have so many titles they can make available through a subscription offering that they can do it successfully even without the top of the bestseller list. The new Penguin Random House combination might also be able to do something here, if the avoidance of a 3rd party could generate enough revenue for the authors to change the minds of the agents, even though they’d be doing it with just their books. After all, Spotify was able to aggregate enough music to sell subscriptions even before they brought The Beatles into their catalog.

Another smart and relevant application of scale is by F+W Media (our partners in Digital Book World conferences), which publishes across a range of communities. They are able to offer each one the advantages of a direct retailing operation, because they maintain that capability through the scale of their entire operation. Some of the verticals in which they apply it wouldn’t be able to support such a capability on their own. F+W applies scale to their niches with their web and event teams as well.

Verticalization

In the 20th century, most trade books reached their customers through bookstores. That liberated publishers to be largely audience-agnostic in their choices about what to publish. They could stick a memoir, a novel, a knitting book, a travel guide, and a kid’s pop-up book into the same box and the bookstore would sort it out for the consumer, putting it on the appropriately-labeled shelf for the shopper.

In those days, the devotee of any subject from baseball to cookbooks would think nothing of browsing the shelves of several different bookstores to find all the offerings relevant to their interests.

Those days are gone. Twice.

Thanks to Google and its competitors, the entire universe of offerings around any topic of interest are aggregated and surfaced very quickly. And bookstores and the staff and shelf space publishers used to sort things out are disappearing.

All of this is driving publishers to be audience-centric in their thinking in ways that were never required before. If the Internet is how customers are reached, not bookstores, it becomes evident pretty quickly that it makes for highly inefficient marketing to be all over the lot with your subject matter or genres. It didn’t used to matter to publishers if they had the “next book” for the person who bought the last book. But it surely does when you’ve spent good marketing money and effort to find and reach that person, and when you can often stay in touch with them in a cost-free (or at least very low-cost) way going forward.

It is in audience-centric marketing that scale can be applied successfully today, using size and resources to improve the ability to reach out rather than to lower the unit cost of some internal mechanistic function. Understanding the reality of verticalization should also prompt publishers to rethink the way they define and build brands. Imprints are brands within a publishing house meant to communicate to their trading partners: bookstore buyers and reviewers in one direction and authors and agents in the other. In a vertical world, brand-building should be much more audience-centric. This particular requirement to think differently seems to be very challenging for publishers.

Atomization

In the 20th century, it took capital and an organization to publish a book. While you always had to provide your own capital to be a publisher, ways evolved to “rent” the organization, specifically the distribution services offered by most publishers and some specialist organizations.

The barrier to entry for book publishing was always relatively low compared to other media: magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and movies would all require much more of a financial and organizational commitment than was required to publish a book. But there definitely was a fence around the book publishing world, and the position of “gatekeeper” was both well-earned and well-rewarded.

But those days are gone too.

As of this writing in April 2013, sales of any book of narrative reading will, depending on topic or genre, be 20% to 60% in ebooks, which requires no inventory investment and minimal distribution infrastructure. Sales of the printed books — the other 40% to 80% — will be anywhere from 25% to 50% through online channels. Those sales can also be achieved (largely through Amazon) without an investment in inventory, printed at the moment they’re ordered.

The first flood of opportunists exploiting this new reality were authors who self-published. Some, like Bob Mayer and Joe Konrath, took the brands they’d built through traditional publishing (and sometimes even the very books themselves) and created a new commercial model where the majority share of margin taken by the publisher was divided between them and the retailer, usually Amazon. Others, like Amanda Hocking and John Locke in the early days  and hundreds of others since, built publishing brands on their own. These authors were driven by the desire for recognition of their writing and, in some cases, by the conviction that they could make money. Their existence in large numbers fueled the creation of an “author services” industry. The biggest and most profitable of the companies in that business, Author Solutions, was bought by Penguin a year ago. Amazon built a business called CreateSpace to serve this market; Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple all offered varieties of the same set of capabilities.

Recently, we have seen a rush of other content creators — newspapers, magazines, web sites, and new companies dedicated to exploiting the book opportunity — building their presence as book publishers, or at least as ebook publishers. There are experiments with content types (short form, author-centric) and business models (subscription being a frequently-tried one on which the jury is still definitely out).

But all of this is a precursor to the next wave, when every law firm, accounting firm, consulting firm, department of a college or university, retailer, service provider, and manufacturer will see the benefits to them of building the function of book publishing into their marketing mix. This will truly constitute an existential threat to book publishing as a business, because these entities will not be building their publishing programs with profits primarily in mind. That will make it exceedingly difficult for the companies that do — the book publishing business we’ve always known — to compete. The quality they deliver costs money. The prices they need to charge are based on their costs.

Their books will be in a marketplace competing with titles supported by other rewards and priced with considerations other than profit in mind.

Scale, verticalization, atomization. Examine any new proposition you hear about against the filter of those concepts and I think you’ll have a pretty fair sense of whether it has much chance for success. Hitting two of those three marks is no guarantee of prospering, but failing to hit any would be a pretty fair assurance of failure.

Our Publishers Launch conference at BEA on May 29 has several presentations focused on the theme of scale. We’ll have presentations from Random House, Hachette, and F+W Media about how they’re applying it for competitive advantage. We’ll have a panel of agents discussing how scale affects their role in publishing. And in a discussion my PLC partner Michael Cader and I will be having, trying to talk about the things people in publishing jobs are constrained to discuss, it will certainly be a core topic.

Our regular readers may notice a relative lack of links in this post. Because this synthesizes and re-articulates many thoughts we’ve expressed over the years, we thought it might be more helpful to gather the relevant internal links here at the bottom of the post rather than placing some of them throughout. The links from speeches and posts here are presented chronologically to document the evolution in thinking that led to today’s post.

End of General Trade Publishing Houses: Death or Rebirth in a Niche-by-Niche World – 5/31/2007

Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric Web World – 5/29/2009

The Emerging Opportunity for Today’s Publishers – 6/17/2009

The Need for Critical Mass is Why Verticalization is a Process – 6/22/2009

Verticalization in Action – 7/2/2009

Why Publishers Need to Understand Brand – 9/23/2009 

My Advice is Not Always Easy to Follow, But Sometimes It Proves Right Anyway – 3/29/2010

Cool Springs Press, a Gardening Publisher that Really Understands “Vertical” – 6/23/2010

Publishing is Living in a World Not of Its Own Making – 7/24/2011 

Will Book Publishers Be Able to Maintain Primacy as Ebook Publishers? – 10/9/2011 

True “Do-It-Yourself” Publishing Success Stories Will Probably Become Rare – 11/6/2011 

Publishers Adding Value on the Marketing Side – 11/17/2011 

Two Questions That Loom Over the Trade Publishing Business – 2/28/2012 

Amazon’s Growth and Its Lengthening Shadow – 4/30/2012 

Everybody in Hollywood Needs an Ebook Strategy – 5/14/2012 

Subscription Models Seem to Me to Be for Ebook Niches, Not a General Offer – 7/16/2012 

Explaining My Skepticism about the Likelihood of Success for a General Subscription Model for Ebooks – 7/22/2012 

Going Where the Customers Are Might Be an Alternative to Selling Direct – 8/9/2012 

Full-Service Publishers Are Rethinking What They Can Offer – 9/4/2012 

New Publishing Companies Are Starting That Are Much Leaner Than Their Established Competitors – 9/24/2012 

Peering Into the Future and Seeing More Value in the Random Penguin Merger – 11/26/2012 

Business Models Are Changing; Trial and Error Will Ensue – 12/3/2012 

Rethinking Book Marketing and Its Organization in the Big Houses – 12/17/2012 

Buying Is a Hard Thing for Bookstores to Do Effectively, and That Becomes an Increasingly Important Reality for Publishers – 1/23/2013 

Ideas about the Future of Bookselling – 2/7/2013 

Publishers Are Reshaping Themselves – 3/12/2013 

Atomization: Publishing as a Function Rather than an Industry – 3/19/2013 

More on Atomization: Why the New Publishers Are Coming – 3/26/2013 

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Two new initiatives to ponder as we end the year


Two announcements made in the last two weeks caught our attention.

One was Simon & Schuster’s deal with Author Solutions, creating a new Archway Editions publishing imprint. This was the third such major deal with a publisher for ASI, following similar arrangements forged with romance publisher Harlequin and Christian publisher Thomas Nelson (now owned by HarperCollins).

The other was Publishers Lunch’s deal with Random House, creating the new online bookstore-lite, Bookateria. This was the second such major deal with a heavily-trafficked website for Random House, following a similar arrangement forged with the political site, Politico.

Of the two, the S&S-ASI connection offers less obvious benefits. ASI has apparently built a remarkably efficient engine to get a book delivered from a manuscript. And every publisher has many times more authors knocking at their door than they could possibly consider publishing. And many of them will never find a publisher so would be good candidates for self-publishing services.

But there are both ethical and practical commercial challenges to converting author aspirants who come looking for a deal to customers willing to buy self-publishing services. ASI seems to have persuaded publishers that the conversion works enough of the time to make the connection between publishers and ASI worth making. Let’s remember that the Harlequin and Nelson deals preceded both the acquisition of ASI by Pearson and the deal announced last week with S&S. Presumably, S&S and Pearson knew something about the results from those prior deals and were proceeding with some evidence that using a known publisher as a front door for self-publishers was an idea that works.

On the other hand, neither Nelson nor Harlequin has trumpeted the results of their ASI deal and authors may notice that the legions of successful self-publishers (John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, and more than a few others) seems bereft of ASI clients.

There are more questions than answers generated by these deals so far. It appears that the publishers really have nothing to do with their new customers aside from bringing them into the tent. (S&S says in the press release that they’ll be watching the sales of Archway books to see what authors it might want to sign for the house. But isn’t that what every big publisher should be doing across the self-publishing landscape right now?) Will the association with self-publishing damage the core publishing brands? Will the publishers feel some ownership of the self-publishers from whom they profit? Will real synergies develop between the publishers and their ASI connections, or will this remain largely a branding trick?

While all of that remains to be seen, if the ASI-publisher connections deliver revenue to publishers with little or no effort on their part, other publishers will be open to doing the same thing. The question is whether they do.

It is not difficult to discern the value delivered by the collaboration between Publishers Lunch and Random House to deliver Bookateria, a search-and-shopping experience with a Publishers Lunch perspective. It gives Lunch an easy way to deliver real convenience and value to its audience and modestly monetize it at the same time. And it further tests and proves the concept Random House first demonstrated with Politico. By delivering the tech around a pretty complete catalog of available books able to be monetized through affiliate relationships, Random House has created a “product” that any web site with substantial traffic can benefit from in the way Lunch now will.

Publishers Lunch, because it is constantly reporting book news, has more opportunities than the average site to link to purchase pages for a book it is mentioning. It regularly refers to various and sundry lists of award winners and top sellers and it makes nothing but great sense for them to make purchase of these books easy (and make a little money at the same time.)

It may be (and I’m not on the inside of any of these deals; aside from our partnership in Publishers Launch Conferences, Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch runs his businesses and I run mine) that Publishers Lunch is taking a more active role in merchandising books than Politico is. That would make sense. Books are PL’s business, and they have to both be thoughtful and appear thoughtful about how they present them. And since this capability is probably at least as much about providing utility to site visitors as it is about increasing revenue, the merchandising would want to reflect the site’s knowledge and point of view.

I have long believed that book and ebook distribution would ultimately follow the web’s innate tendency to verticalize audiences. Why wouldn’t you buy your political books or sports books or knitting books where you learn about them and be guided more by recommendations of “domain experts” than “book experts”?

I had visualized this verticalization working out from a publisher, which would use its content to attract audiences which it would then monetize many ways, including by selling them books and ebooks of its own and from other publishers. To varying degrees, this is what I saw unfolding with Hay House, F+W Media, Osprey, and Harlequin with the most highly-developed Big House example being Tor Books inside of Macmillan.

Some new propositions — notable among them being the still-promised book retailer Zola and the distributed sales “apps” from Impelsys and Ganxy — were built around the understanding that book curation was most effectively done by the experts and communities functioning in any domain and it made sense to deliver a way for them to enable their own ecommerce for the content they suggested or reported on to their audiences.

But it is in a trade publisher’s DNA to work with aggregators and intermediaries (which is what bookstores, mass merchants, libraries, wholesalers, and special sales outlets are). Random House applied the same vision of distributed and vertical curation but decided that they didn’t need to offer the entire ecommerce solution to execute on it.

So Politico and Publishers Lunch — and, one presumes, more to follow — use Random House to provide their catalog and metadata and some level of curation and they all rely on the existing retail network to complete the transactions and do the fulfillment. Random House and their partners (presumably) share affiliate revenues from the retailers, not the “full margin” on the content sales.

This could be viewed as a bit klunky from the customer’s perspective and it definitely will be for some. You wouldn’t be “shopping” and then “checking out” as two discrete and serial experiences. Each “buy” decision would take you to a retailer choice and then deep-link you to the purchase page for that book at the retailer you choose. Anybody who wants to purchase multiple titles would definitely find this less convenient than just shopping on a retailer’s site.

But if the retailer were delivering the curation and information that Politico or Publishers Lunch is offering in the area of vertical interest, then the customer would probably do their multiple-title shopping at the retailer anyway. The Random House-powered strategy is more opportunistic than that. It’s more about facilitating impulse purchasing than attracting a shopper.

And when you stop and think about it for just a minute, you realize that conversion is likely to be much higher by offering customers a choice of their favorite retailers than it would be if you were signing them up to a new account with a retailer (web site) they hadn’t purchased from before. This is true even in the case of Publishers Lunch, which has credit card numbers for a large number of its most regular visitors because they’re members of Publishers Marketplace. It would be even more of a barrier to making a purchase at Politico and other non-membership sites.

One veteran publishing marketer told me that conversion on clickthroughs to Amazon were very high in his experience, ranging from 8% to 17%. He really doubted whether any fledgling retailer could achieve anything like that rate of conversion.

That constitutes evidence that the revenue achievable as an affiliate could well be higher than what could be gained executing the sales and keeping “full margin”, which brings along with it full responsibility for maintaining an infrastructure and providing customer service. None of that is necessary working as an affiliate.

There is a superficial similarity to these two initiatives. Both involve a company offering tech at scale to help another company monetize its existing network in ways that it doesn’t now. How effective that monetization really will be is still an open question. But it would appear that the ASI service to publishers entirely depends on that: aside from whatever revenue it can yield, there’s no other real benefit to the publisher and, in fact, it could confuse or cheapen the perception of their core business.

The Random House offer to websites, on the other hand, has all sorts of “soft” value. The partnering web site unambiguously offers a service to its site visitors by enabling rapid purchase of relevant content encountered while pursuing their vertical interest. Selling content and earning revenue is only one way to win; they also benefit from more traffic and more stickiness, the inevitable by-products of improving the value being offered any site’s visitors.

What is also interesting to contemplate about the Random House-powered distributed curation is what its potential impact will be on the retail network. Enabling the content purchaser to choose her retailer would, one assumes, distribute the sales from their site in pretty much the same proportions as the market had already.

On the other hand, it might also make it easier for consumers to switch. It could dilute the advantage Amazon has built through their usually superior (compared to other retailers) curation and presentation. It would make it much easier for a supporter of independent bookstores to make the choice to buy from them. (The choices presented are obviously flexible. Politico offers “Politics and Prose” bookstore, an indie based in Washington that specializes in political books. Bookateria instead offers Indiebound, the ABA’s way of sending you to an independent retailer.)

One more observation. There have been two retailers expected to make their appearance anytime now for the last six months: the big publisher-created Bookish and the previously-mentioned Zola Books. The rumors about both of them say that they are having a really hard time making the metadata we have in our industry work well enough to execute on ecommerce. Obviously, Random House had to overcome that same problem to deliver their proposition (although perhaps the bar was a bit lower since they execute sales as an affiliate rather than transacting themselves). An informational page for Bookateria makes it clear that metadata improvement will be an ongoing work-in-progress.

As the other big publishers look at what Random House is doing and wonder if they should be doing the same, they might want to rethink the digital aphorism that anything, once done, can be replicated in half the time and for half the cost. Even if that’s true, starting now to replicate the Random House capability could take a year or more; this is not something that Random House dreamed up last week. In a year, Random House could pick off a number of very desirable large sites and improve their metadata organization even further. I don’t think any competitor who takes this concept seriously will be able to afford to wait for proven success or failure to start developing if they want to be in this game.

NPR did a great job of choosing four minutes of me to sound wise on All Things Considered as part of a publishing roundup. Or you can read a summary of my bit instead of listening to it. We start with the Random House and Penguin merger and meander a bit from there.

This is the last post for the fourth calendar year of The Shatzkin Files. Our annual rhythm is that our quietest week of the year (this one) is followed rapidly by our most intense: the 7-1/2 days of conference programming in four days on the calendar that comprise Digital Book World  2014 and the two Publishers Launch events that bookend it. 

Happy New Year to all my readers, and especially the many of you who take the time to add to the conversation here in the comment string. Double-especially to those of you who dispense your wisdom in concise doses.

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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.

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Full-service publishers are rethinking what they can offer


At lunch a few months ago, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, expressed dissatisfaction with the term “legacy” to describe the publishers who had been successful since before the digital revolution began. For one thing, he felt that sounded too much like “the past”. “We need to come up with a different term,” was his assessment and he suggested that perhaps “full-service” was more apt.

I find I keep coming back to “full service” as an accurate description of the publisher’s relationship to an author. That’s what the long-established publishers have evolved to be.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that publishing organizations were deliberately created as service organizations for authors. They weren’t. In fact, as we shall see, the service component of a publisher’s DNA was developed in service to other publishers.

My Dad, Leonard Shatzkin, pointed out to me 40 years ago that all trade book publishing companies were started with an “editorial inspiration”: an idea of what they would publish. Sometimes that was a highly personal selection dictated by an individual’s taste, such as by so many of the great company and imprint names: Scribners, Knopf, Farrar and Straus and Giroux, for examples. Random House was begun on the idea of the Modern Library series; Simon & Schuster was started to do crossword puzzle books.

That is: people had the idea that they knew what books would sell and built a company around finding them, developing them, and bringing them to market.

And the development and delivery to the market required building up a repertoire of capabilities that comprised a full-service offering.

The publisher would find a manuscript or the idea for one and then provide everything that was necessary — albeit largely by engaging and coordinating the activities of other contractors or companies — to make the manuscript or idea commercially productive for the author and themselves.

The list of these services describes the publishing value chain. It includes:

select the project (and assume a financial risk, sometimes relieving the author of any);

guide its editorial development (although the work is mostly done by the contracted author or packager);

execute the delivery of the content into transactable and consumable forms (which used to mean “printed books” but now also means as ebooks, apps, or web-viewable content);

put it into the world in a way that it will be found and bought (which used to mean “put it in a catalog widely distributed to opinion-makers or buyers” but now largely means “manage metadata”);

publicize and market it;

build awareness and demand among the people at libraries and bookstores and other distribution channels who can buy it;

process the orders;

manufacture and warehouse the actual books or files or other packaged product;

deliver;

collect;

and, along the way, sell rights to exploit the intellectual property in other forms and markets, including other languages.

It has long been customary for publishers to unbundle the components of their service offering. The most common form of unbundling is through “distribution deals” by which one publisher takes on some of the most scaleable activities on behalf of other smaller ones. It has reached the point where almost every publisher is either a distributor or a distributee. Many are depending on a third party, quite often a competing publisher, for warehousing, shipping, and billing and perhaps sales or even manufacturing. All the big ones and many others, along with a few companies dedicated to distribution, are providing that batch of services. It is not unheard of for one publisher to do both: offering distribution services to a smaller competitor while they are in turn actually being distributed by somebody larger than they.

An assumption which influenced the way things developed was that the key to competitive advantage for a publisher was in the selection and editorial development of books and in their marketing and publicity, which emerged organically from their editorial efforts. All the other functions were necessary, but were not where many editorially-conceived businesses wanted to put their attention or monopolize their own capabilities.

About 15 years ago, working on VISTA’s “Publishing in the 21st Century” program, I learned the concept of “parity functions” in an enterprise. They were defined as things which can’t give you much competitive advantage by doing them well but which can destroy your business if you screw them up. This led to the conclusion that these things were often best laid off on somebody else who specialized in them, leaving the publisher greater ability to focus on the things which truly and meaningfully differentiated them from competitors.

Another driving force here was the way that bigger and smaller publishers look at costs and scale. If you’re very big, it is attractive to handle parity functions as fixed costs: to own your own warehouse, have a salaried sales force, and to invest in having state-of-the-art systems that do exactly what you want them to do. If you’re smaller, you often can’t afford to own these things anyhow and, on a smaller base, fluctuations in sales could suddenly render those fixed costs much too high for commercial success.

It is therefore more attractive to smaller entities to have these costs become variable costs, a percentage of sales or activity, that go up when sales go up but, most importantly, that also go down if sales go down. And the larger entity, by pumping more volume through their fixed-cost capabilities, subsidizes its own overheads and improves the profitability and stability of its business.

One of the things that is challenging the big publishers — the full-service publishers — today is that the unbundling of their, ahem, legacy full-service offering has accelerated. You need scale to cover the buyers and bill and ship to thousands of independent accounts. If you’re mainly focused on the top accounts — which today means Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor for most general trade publishers — you might feel you can do it as well or better yourself with one dedicated person of your own.

And if you’re willing to confine your selling universe to sales that can be made online — print or digital — you can eliminate the need for a huge swath of the full-service offering. Obviously, you give up a lot of potential sales with that strategy. But the percentage of the market that can be reached that way, combined with the redivision of revenue enabled by cutting the publisher out of the chain, has made this a commercially viable option for some authors and a path to discovery for others.

So the consolidation of business in a smaller number of critical accounts as well as the shifting of business increasingly to online sales channels has been a challenge for some time that larger publishers and distributors like Perseus and Ingram have been dealing with.

But now the need for services and the potential for unbundling is moving further up the value chain. The first instances of this have been seen through the stream of publishing efforts coming directly from authors and content-driven businesses like newspapers, magazines, and websites.

To the extent that the new service requirements are for editorial development help and marketing, it gets complicated for the full-service publishers to deal with. The objective of organization design for large publishers for years has been to consolidate the functions that were amenable to scale and to “keep small” the more creative functions. So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.

That means they are not designed to be scaleable and they’re not amenable to getting work from the outside. It’s much less of an imposition for somebody in a corporate business development role to ask a sales rep to pitch a book that had origins outside the house than it is to assign one to an editor in an imprint. The former is routine and the latter is extremely complicated.

But what does this mean? Should publishers have editorial services for rent? Should they try to scale and use technology to handle editiorial functions — certainly proofreading and copy-editing but ultimately, perhaps, developmental editing — as a commodity to assure themselves a competitive advantage on cost base the way they do now for distribution? Should publishers try to scale digital marketing? Should they have teams that can map out and execute publishing programs for major brands?

The way Murray sees it, a major publisher applies a synthesis of market intelligence and skills that can only be delivered by publishing at scale. He believes that monitoring across markets and marketing channels along with sophisticated and integrated analysis of how they interact provide an unmatchable set of services.

The scale challenge for trade publishers to collaborate with what I’m envisioning will be an exploding number of potential partners is to find ways to deliver the value of the synthesized pool of knowledge and experience efficiently to smaller units of creativity and marketing.

There is plenty of evidence that publishers are thinking along these lines. The most obvious recent event suggesting it is Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions. Penguin had shown prior interest in the author services market by creating Book Country, a community and commercial assistance site for genre fiction authors. Penguin suddenly has real scale in the self-publishing market. They have tools nobody else has now to explore where services for the masses provide efficiencies for the professional and how the expertise of the professionals can add value to the long tail.

There are initiatives that stretch the previous constraints of the publisher’s value chain that I know about in other big companies, and undoubtedly a good deal more that I don’t know about. Random House has a bookstore curation capability that they’ve coupled with editorial development in a deal with Politico that could be a prototype. Hachette has developed some software tools for sales and marketing that they’re making available as SaaS to the industry. Macmillan has a division that is developing educational platforms that might become global paths to locked-in student readers. Scholastic has a new platform for kids reading called Storia that involves teachers and parents that they’d hope to make an industry standard. Penguin has a full-time operative in Hollywood forging connections with projects that can spawn licensing deals. Random House has both film and television production initiatives.

These developments are very encouraging. One of the reasons that Amazon has been so successful in our business is that our business is not the only thing they do. One of the elements of genius they have applied ubiquitously is that every capability they build for themselves has additional value if it can be delivered unbundled as well. Publishers were comfortable with that idea for the relatively low-value things that they do long before they ever heard of Amazon. It is a good time to think along the same lines for functions which formerly seemed closer to the core.

Speaking of which, many of publishing’s most creative executives will be speaking as “Publishing Innovators” at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on Monday, October 8, 10:30-6:30, on the grounds of the Book Fair. 

We did a free webinar with a taste of the Frankfurt conference last week and it’s archived and available and worth a listen. Michael Cader and I were joined by Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Marcello Vena of RCS Libri.

Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, Helmut Pesch of Lubbe,  Rebecca Smart of Osprey, Anthony Forbes Watson of Pan Macmillan, Ken Michaels of Hachette, Stephen Page of Faber, and Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (as well as Joyce and Vena) will all be talking about initiatives in their shops that you won’t find (yet) going on much elsewhere. And that’s just part of the program. There is a ton of other useful information — about developments in the Spanish language, the BRIC countries, the strategies of tech giants and how they affect publishing, and much more — that will make this the most useful single jam-packed day of digital change information you’ll have ever experienced. We hope to see you there.

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Can big publishers compete if the coin of the realm is “names”?


In a conversation earlier this week I learned that the big Hollywood talent agencies have come to the recognition that “audience aggregation”, a component of what I have been calling a “vertical” strategy, needs to be incorporated into their thinking going forward. This was signaled very strongly recently when longtime publisher Steve Ross took his fledgling business offering self-publishing advice to authors with him to the Abrams Artists Agency where he set up a new department for them to represent authors rights to publishers.

What does that mean? It means that the celebrities will start increasingly try to “own” their audiences: to gather them in networks, bind them with various content offers like newsletters or other material from the person they “know”, and sell them stuff. The people managing the careers of movie stars are seeing the writing on the wall. The intermediary structure that connected the stars to their public — studios, producers, theatrical distribution — is suffering the pain of all media: declining prices for content because of the increase in supply and consumption habits changing because of more and more quality screens and digital delivery.

Many authors, of course, are trying to do the same thing. They have web pages; they collect the names of those who want to keep in touch with them; and they are, increasingly, selling them stuff. Sometimes the stuff is content (with a way blazed by Joe Konrath and his successful conversion from published author to self-publishing author, so far almost exclusively through Amazon) and now, thanks to Open Sky, they could be selling anything at all.

So the authors and the movie stars are getting ready for the day when they have to bring real live customer contact to the party if they want to be invited. But the big publishers are lagging behind here. Why? One reason is that the big accounts appear to have intimidated them from selling direct to consumers.

This is the kind of thing you don’t know for sure from the outside. Conversations between publishers and their top accounts, like conversations between publishers and the agents for their top authors, are private and closely guarded. But it has been anecdotally reported in the past that Barnes & Noble is not happy if publishers sell to consumers. And I’ve also heard that Amazon has told publishers that if they charge any price lower than the suggested retail in a direct sale, Amazon will consider that lower price to be the basis of their discounts, not the suggested retail.

That threat effectively prevents any publisher from selling direct unless they operate on the agency model and have eliminated price competition in the marketplace. (Of course, under the agency model, all sales are considered sales by the publisher, except, of course, that they don’t have the names or the customer relationship!)

In a business that is built on the leverage of intermediary trading partners who aggregate customers, which trade publishing is, very few are in a position to gratuitously annoy the two most powerful levers they have.

So the publishers have been reluctant to be seen to be selling direct. This concern also applies, for the same reason, to the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Both depend on bookstore business for their survival and it is, perhaps, an enlightened position not to compete with their core customers so neither company sells directly. But it is very constraining. Baker & Taylor really needs a full-line store to sell their BLIO ebook platform, but they can’t do it themselves. And Ingram — our client but we have not discussed this question with them at all — serves publisher clients as a DAD and as an ebook wholesaler who could use a retailing capability; but it is a very longstanding Ingram policy not to compete with their bookseller customers.

That’s the context in which LibreDigital announced their new SkyShelf service last week. SkyShelf is a direct-to-consumer ebook sales capability for the publishers LibreDigital serves as a digital distributor, but it gives them a certain amount of “deniability” or distance from it.

In my opinion, the big publishers must face some very critical questions fraught with customer relationship management challenges.

On the one hand, publishers — all publishers — must start forming direct relationships with end users. They have no choice. Authors are doing it. The retailers are doing it. The Hollywood stars and politicians and ballplayers they want to write books for them are doing it. Part of what the publisher wants to get paid for is marketing. When the most important marketing asset for any book is the number of likely-interested people who can be emailed about its publication, publishers without any names to offer will have a harder time selling their value.

Publishers who do have names on file — from Digital Book World owners F+W Media to Hay House to Harlequin and including others that grow in number every day — are already benefiting. They’re selling more copies expending less marketing money and they’ve got something important to offer authors looking for a publisher.

But it is hard to collect names and build a relationship with an audience if you don’t sell things to them. That’s one place that big publishers are really stuck at the moment. That’s why LibreDigital built SkyShelf to help them out. At the same time they put their competitor Ingram in a ticklish spot because it is hard for them to offer a similar service for the same reason that publishers need the help!

At the same time, the big retailers are pushing their way up the value chain into the publishers’ territory. Amazon has had self-publishing capability that is aimed at authors for a long time. Barnes & Noble invested in iUniverse, one of the first self-publishing start-ups (now part of Author Solutions), over a decade ago. Now B&N has delivered a suite of services called “PubIt” to compete with Amazon’s offering for authors.

Amazon has such a large share of the online print and ebook businesses that, with the publisher disintermediated and the author able to take a much larger share, they can credibly make the argument that a branded author — or one that otherwise does her own promotion and marketing — can make as much money through them alone as through a publisher serving the entire market.

It is more difficult and expensive for Barnes & Noble to leverage their store shelves for self-published authors but, to the extent they can, it will be a very attractive lure. I’d be very surprised if they’re not thinking about how to do that. Borders did a deal with self-publisher Lulu a couple of years and a couple of management changes ago. How long will it be before they revitalize that arrangement and add more competition for the authors’ attention?

The names of people potentially interested in a book who can be contacted for free will be the most important coin of the publishing realm in a short time; in some cases, it is already. There are publishers who are emailing to millions of names every month right now, but none of them are the biggest publishers. If gathering names is not a major priority at any publishing house, it surely should be. It’s mission-critical; it’s about survival. Seen in that light, it must certainly be worth some tough negotiating with major accounts if that’s what publishers have to do to make it happen.

This post was provoked by new information, about what the Hollywood agents are doing and about the launch of SkyShelf. But we’ve been pounding this drum of direct contact for some time. We did a pair of posts (here and here) with the help of direct response expert Neal Goff a few weeks ago trying to push publishers in this same direction. Those posts were about how. This one is about why.

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The other comparison: ebook royalties versus ebook self-publishing


My last post tried to lay out a comparison of royalties paid by big publishers to agented authors on ebooks against what they pay on print books. What it showed is that the authors suffer a bit on ebook sales that substitute for hardcover print sales, but that they do pretty well selling an ebook instead of a paperback. And the numbers also showed that a publisher selling ebooks under a wholesale arrangement pays the author a higher royalty than an agency publisher when the print is in its hardcover life, but that the agency publisher is actually paying more royalties if the printed edition is a mass-market paperback.

But this comparison has its limits. It helps an author or agent compare their economic prospects with an agency publisher as opposed to a wholesale one. But it doesn’t help an author understand the next comparison she’ll want to make, between doing her book with a publisher and doing it herself without a publisher at all

Fortunately for authors and agents, the benchmark for self-publishing revenue is clearly established by the ebook platform Smashwords, which I first wrote about at the end of a post 16 months ago. There are certainly alternatives to Smashwords: web-based solutions like Scribd, full-service offerings like our clients at Bookmasters, and things in between like Author Solutions. But Smashwords is the most automated, least expensive, and, at this point, most heavily used self-publishing solution for ebooks.

Smashwords pays authors 85% of the sales price for ebooks sold on its own site, and about 85% of the receipts for sales made through iBooks (Apple), Sony, B&N, Kobo, and the Diesel eBook Store. In other words, an author would get more than three times the “old” standard 25% ebook royalty offered by the big publishers and double the “new” possible 40% royalty implied as the new ceiling by the Random-Wylie agreement announced last week.

It is worth noting that Mark Coker of Smashwords says that all their deals will be agency going forward because control of the retail price is very important to their authors and publishers. The net to the author or publisher through their existing deals is 42.5% for sales made through Sony or B&N, 46.75% for sales made through Kobo, and 60% on their agency deals with Apple and the Diesel eBook Store.

And although Smashwords does not (yet) have an agreement to distribute through Kindle (though they’re working on it), the authors and publishers that use Smashwords would be free to make a separate deal with Kindle, giving them a possible 70% of their retail price if they can keep the potential discounters in line (that would be B&N, Kobo, and Sony.)

One thing very much in Smashwords’ favor is that the barriers to use them are very low. All you need is a doc file and a bright person to pay attention to quality control as you work through your conversion. They make metadata management simple.

What might give big authors pause about using Smashwords is that they distribute DRM-free (although the retailers listed above will be adding their own unless the publisher tells them not to) and that they depend on trust. Each retailer selling Smashwords titles has the content file and the metadata file in their possession and the sales reporting cannot effectively be audited.

But whether or not Smashwords is everybody’s solution, they certainly are establishing that pure automated ebook conversion and distribution services are worth 15% of what is collected from the consumer or from the intermediary selling to the consumer.

Smashwords is already pretty big and growing fast. They have 18,000 titles on offer from 8,000 different authors and publishers at the moment and Coker says they’ve added 2,500 titles in the past 30 days!

And I can personally attest to the fact that Smashwords has some books people will want. I found a title on iBooks called “A Year in Mudville” about the Mets first season — baseball history being a subject I know well and read broadly — which is terrific. It is well-researched, well-written, and well-edited. I found some presentation glitches (type fonts changing for no apparent reason) and pointed them out to Coker. He showed them to the author who then corrected the file. (The glitches didn’t interfere with reading the book at all.) And that book was priced at $8.99 on iBooks, which means the author was getting $5.40 from the sale! Look at that against the chart in my prior post! On a $9 list-price ebook, the author would be getting $1.125 from a wholesale publisher and $1.575 from an agency publisher at 25% royalty; $1.80 and $2.52 at 40%. (And, assuming they did an Amazon deal separately and could meet the restrictions required for the 70% royalty, that author would be getting $6.30 for each sale on Kindle!)

At per-unit revenues from ebook sales anywhere from 2.5-to-6 times what they could get from a publisher, and ebook sales rising inexorably as a percentage of total sales, authors and their agents are ultimately going to be doing their math against this option for each new book they have to offer. Some may be doing it already.

There are a few things publishers can tell authors to try to keep them from jumping.

1. “Don’t forget: we give you an advance!” That is the first, and for many authors the most powerful, argument. Agents like advances too, so they’re likely to be sympathetic to the publishers’ point here. But, of course, with that advance comes the publisher’s claim to more than half of what would otherwise be the author’s ebook profits.

2. “Don’t forget: print books are still 90% of your market!” This is really the reason established authors will be reluctant to jump to Smashwords. And as long as print is 90%, or even 80% (and it is falling to that level on many immersive reading books now), getting a multiple on the ebook sales still leaves a shortfall of revenue to the author unless they figure out how to also have the book available in print. The big publishers won’t be doing print-only deals for quite a while, but smaller publishers will certainly be available to work with brand-name authors on that basis. And when the print share falls to 50% of the total sales, which many of us believe it will over the next few years, this argument won’t be effective anymore. (There are many ways for the author to self-publish print too, but only the print-on-demand solutions don’t require big investment or risk, and you aren’t going to get what a publisher would deliver with POD alone.)

3. “You’ll have to do your own publicity and marketing.” This is true, but it is also true that publishers have wanted authors to do a lot of their own publicity and marketing already. From here, it would seem that the author’s marketing efforts will be critical either way. If the author is already big and branded (likely due at least in part to the prior efforts of a publisher, but that’s not necessarily relevant here), it’s less of a barrier than if they’re not. It might be no barrier at all. This is an uncomfortable point for publishers because the authors who need the least help are the ones they want to publish the most.

4. “If we publish you, you’re legitimatized.” I think this point carries almost no weight with any author who has had a bestseller already or has already had more than a couple of books published by established houses. I think it will carry less and less weight with everybody else. I just found my first great book by an unknown author on Smashwords. Sooner or later, you will too.

5. “We’ve built email lists and other direct contact with the consumers you want to sell to, plus we have relationships with the book retailers to get you more attractive placement and promotion through them than you can get without us.” Now, that would be attractive. Can any big publisher justify that claim?

6. “We will pay you 70% of receipts on ebooks to keep you in our stable. It isn’t the 85% you get from Smashwords, but with our advance, our print book sales, and taking all the admin and management off your hands, it’s a better deal for you.” That will probably work, but no publisher wants to let it get to that point.

Publishers better work on number five.

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Serious disruption just over the near horizon


The monthly release of ebook sales figures by the IDPF provides a regular reminder about how fast this market is growing and it always provokes me to project the curve into the future and think about the implications. It was an IDPF data release that triggered the thought that we needed a “Tipping Points” panel at Digital Book World last January which turned out to be one of the highest-rated presentations by the attendees of the conference. And it was another release of that data that made me say on this blog on March 22 that I thought ebook sales would reach 20-25 percent of the sales for new works of narrative writing by the time of Obama’s reelection in November 2012.

Then last week, The Economist had a story quoting Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, forecasting S&S ebook sales in that range in “3 to 5 years.” This is the first time that I’m aware of that a Big Six CEO has been willing to put their name on a forecast that is just about as aggressive as my own. Another conversation with the head of another one of the Big Six companies captured a forecast that is in the same ballpark.

So I think it is worth a few moments to contemplate what it means if this forecast is accurate, or even close to accurate.

If by the end of 2012, 25% of sales for a new book are digital, then about half of new book sales will be made through online purchases if we count the print book sales made through online retailers (mostly Amazon.)

Online print sales can be served through inventory generated on demand. So, if these estimates are right, we are less than three years away from a publisher (or author) being able to reach half the market for a book without inventory risk!

Having half the market reachable without print-run risk or inventory storage; having half the customers connecting with their reading through online paths that make them at least theoretically identifiable; and having a quarter of those customers reading through a medium that enables interactivity will make all the changes we’ve seen so far in trade publishing appear trivial. And if the very perspicacious Carolyn Reidy, her unnamed counterpart, and I are right, that disruption is going to take place before many books now under contract reach their publication date.

The immediately disruptive effects of this, for which every major publisher should be preparing right now, include:

1. Publishers are going to really have to rethink the development process for their ebooks. Right now, publishers put their creative energy into optimizing print books; ebooks are an afterthought.  The most forward-thinking houses are going to XML workflows which will reduce the costs of conversion to ebook formats. But are any of them fundamentally rethinking how the editor and author shape the project to optimize the ebook experience? That working relationship is going to have to undergo fundamental change.

2. It will be eminently sensible to launch books with a no-inventory strategy and move to press runs with returns allowable when reviews or sales have proven that it makes sense. Of course, publishers will be happy to sell anytime on a no-returns basis and for some books launched “digital first” there could be enough no-returns demand to generate a printing, but the idea of printing and distributing speculatively will make less and less sense as the potential market to be reached by that tactic diminishes as a share of the whole. By the way, this reality would give B&N, the only retailer with its own DC resupply infrastructure, an additional competitive advantage.

3. A non-US publisher will be able to reach half the US market without needing an operation of any kind in the States. This is a sea-change that could even encourage our UK counterparts to reconsider their staunch defense of territorial rights. We already know that the greatest part of marketing value beyond the display and positioning in a bookstore is generated online. That means it can be done from anywhere without a local nexus. By the end of 2012, we’re saying half of all the sales potential can also be reached with the product without a local nexus: no requirement of local inventory or any shipping or revenue collection facility beyond your digital distribution and print-on-demand partner.

4. Because books or ebooks will be purchased by half of their customers electronically, the potential exists to know exactly who those are and to establish interaction with them. Obviously, the intermediaries have both selfish and customer-oriented reasons not to share data, but for ebooks, at least, publishers will find hooks to get readers to check in with the publisher and establish contact. (Of course, they will also be selling more and more units direct to consumers, without any intermediary at all.) This opportunity presents a new battleground for competitive advantage that publishers will have to pursue both for marketing and for author relations.

5. Publishers will have to start devoting the bandwidth and resources to direct sales that they devote to intermediary sales today. The notional 50-50 split of sales between terrestrial and online means that half the sales are actually direct sales. Publishers will increasingly find ways to influence those sales decisions, but the companies that devote management attention and resources to the challenge will find those ways faster, to their competitive advantage.

6. There’s an inevitable concurrent downward spiral of brick-and-mortar retail inherent in this forecast that sales are moving online. The nearly-limitless online selection has been an increasingly powerful magnet since the day Amazon opened and in the new paradigm there will be a growing body of talked-about content not visible on store shelves. It is beyond the scope of today’s speculation to consider what this means for the strategy and survival of bookstores and wholesalers and for publishers’ expectations for them, but it’s not likely to be pretty.

7. Self-publishing strategies for entities that can do the marketing become much more compelling. It is no secret that an author can make more money on each copy sold managing her own publication through Lulu or Author Solutions or Bookmasters. If half the market is directly available without regard to the effectiveness of a field sales force then we can be sure, at the very least, new title acquisition will be more challenging for established publishers. The big players will still be the only big bankrolls in town, but that’s a two-edged sword that can lead to overspending and losses as well as to securing desirable projects.

8. If the infrastructure for direct sales management at most publishers will be woefully lacking, the infrastructure for print warehousing and delivering print orders at most houses is likely to be heavily underutilized. That should lead to a reduction in the charges for distribution services, adding pressure to a business that will already suffer from the growing viability of no-inventory publishing. And publishers with volume-related pricing contracts with their printers will find they don’t need as much capacity as they contracted for a year or two before.

For the past three years, Ted Hill and I have conceived and organized the program for the Book Industry Study Group’s Making Information Pay conference, coming up on May 6. Our theme this year — Points of No Return — addresses precisely this issue from the perspective of how functions will be organized, what the changing skill sets will be, and how secure people doing jobs today can feel about having a job they can do tomorrow. If you found that this post gave you something to think about, you’ll find MIP a morning very well spent.

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Literary agents and the changing world of trade publishing


who can see the digital book possibilities in every idea before you peddle it.

I had a lunch conversation this week with three successful literary agents, who will remain anonymous for this post. They wanted to talk about the panel we’re having at Digital Book World called “The Changing Author-Agent Relationship: How Will It Affect the Business Model?”

That panel was born when I engaged an agent last summer with my observations about digital change and tried to recruit her to join a panel discussion about it. “Suppose you work with an author to develop her manuscript so your creative input becomes part of the work. Then you can’t sell it, or you get only a token offer for it, and the author wants to self-publish. Shouldn’t you, or any agent in that spot, be entitled to something in that case?”

The agent, sensing quickly that I was going to a model of “author pays agent for consulting help” said, “I can’t participate in a conversation like that. We have a canon of ethics in the AAR, and that might well run afoul of it.”

As it turns out, the canon of ethics of the AAR only explicitly prohibits agents from charging “reading fees” to prospective clients. Other charges are explictly permitted, such as for xeroxing and messengers. And others, such as consulting on self-publishing options, aren’t mentioned.

But, still, the question of whether the business model needs to change remains. The kind of book advances that agents have made a living on for years are diminishing in number. And now that self-publishing is legitimately part of the commercial continuum, authors have a right to expect that their career business manager, which an agent is, will employ it, or suggest that they do, when it makes sense. And agents will have a right to expect to be paid for that.

Of course, that’s not what these three successful working agents do. Their business assets are their personal knowledge of and relationships with acquiring editors; their ability to shape a writer’s concept and proposal into a commercial book; their knowledge of the ins and outs of book contracts and publishers’ accounting procedures. Exploring and keeping up with the various print and electronic self-publishing options: starting with Author Solutions and Smashwords, but including many others including our client Bookmasters, lulu.com, and many others, is a fulltime job in itself. (There’s a string started on Brantley’s list today by Joe Esposito who noticed announcements for four new self-publishing startups in his email in the past few days.) And searching out the authors with the money to self-publish, let alone to pay for advice on how to do it effectively, is also not what the successful agent in the current marketplace does.

I had spoken at a Writer’s Digest conference two months ago and told aspiring writers “get an agent” but also, “make sure the agent knows about the self-publishing options.” These very professional and desirable agents did not. But they agreed that when ten or thirty or fifty times a year a project they’d developed goes off for self-publishing, they’ll want to have a way to monetize that. We agreed that the likely solution will be an alliance with somebody who perhaps positioned themselves more as a “consultant” to aspiring authors. There is no shortage of such people.

The conversation turned to contract terms, particularly regarding ebooks. The agents asked me: “don’t the big trade publishers see that the strategy of paying authors half or less of what many ebook publishers will pay on digital book royalties isn’t sustainable? that we’ll end up splitting those deals?” I told them that I had raised this point with Big Six CEOs and they all said, “we won’t buy print-only; never happen.” The big publishers are counting on the authors’ (and agents’) desire for the advance to keep them locked into the current model. (Richard Curtis made this same point in a recent eReads post.) It is clear that the idea of splitting off ebooks from print contracts is one that these agents have been thinking about for a while. The relative attraction of the advance goes down as the level of ebook sales on which you’re taking half or less of what you could get goes up.

We also spent a little time discussing “verticals” and my theory that power is moving from “control of IP to control of eyeballs.” In the past week, I’ve had two conversations with Hay House executives (they’re on the Digital Book World program too) about their business. To somebody with a trade orientation, it’s pretty phenomenal. They run between 30 and 100 live events a year for their community. They have over 1 million email addresses that drive the sales of all their books. One of the agents said he had an author for whom he sold a book to one of the Big Six houses and they sold twelve thousand copies. He sold the next title to Hay House and they sold two hundred thousand. How long will the Big Six houses be able to compete for big-potential books in Hay House’s sweet spot (mind-body-spirit), advances or no advances?

One of the agents at lunch does a lot with juveniles. “Do I have to worry about this ebook thing much?” that agent asked. Soon you will, I said. After lunch I was working with my frequent collaborator Ted Hill on a proposal we’re making for another conference on digital tipping points. One we were talking about is “when does the publishing house have editors shift their focus from developing a print book with an author, with the ebook as afterthought, to developing the best possible digital product, with the print book coming out of it?” That gave me an answer for that agent: you better have somebody on your team now who can see the digital book possibilities in every idea before you peddle it. Now that you’ve made me think about it, I realize that if you’re not fully exploring the creative possibilities for digital products for every kids book you develop, you’re already missing the boat.

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The new Thomas Nelson self-publishing initiative; more questions than answers


The announcement was made earlier this week through the Wall Street Journal and the blog of the publisher’s CEO, Michael Hyatt, that one of the giants of Christian publishing, Thomas Nelson, will be publishing a new list under an imprint to be called WestBow Press. The books will come from Author Solutions, the provider of self-publishing services, which will, according to the story, share the fees paid by the funding authors with Nelson.

Here are some very pertinent questions that weren’t touched by Hyatt or the WSJ reporting.

1. How many such titles will they do per season or per year?

2. How will access to Nelson’s (always limited, as is any publisher’s) sales and marketing bandwidth be allocated to this imprint?

3. Will the books be vetted as suitable for Nelson’s Christian mission? And, if so, how and by whom?

4. Will the books be vetted at all for quality? Or will an author just choose the WestBow option and, if that’s the case, how much extra will be they paying and what will they be told they’re getting for their money?

5. The story says that Nelson editors won’t touch the books but will “monitor sales to identify potential big sellers.” What’s the pre-monitoring launch plan? What’s the plan if Nelson editors actually identify a “potential big” book?

Hyatt discusses the initiative on his blog and says he sees real revenue in it. But he doesn’t answer any of the questions above.

I am not alone in anticipating that publishers may change things around in the future with big authors, sharing more risk (less or no advance in this case, not cash for services) for more reward. But it is a more radical step than I would have imagined for a publisher with an industry brand for quality to allow authors to buy their way onto the list. Their must be some controls here, one would think. But we certainly don’t know what they are yet.

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