Baker & Taylor

Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding your next book, or, the discovery problem


A big flap has arisen this week — which I believe I would have been equally aware of had I been home in New York rather than in London — because the giant UK books-and-stationery retailer WH Smith has apparently found inappropriate ebooks being recommended through the kids books portions of the Kobo-managed ebook offering they host. This has sparked a lot of conversation about how recommendations — indeed how curation — is managed in the online environment. In this case, the discussion is about the specifics of this problem and how metadata might have been wrong, gamed, misunderstood. This has resulted in Smith’s turning off their whole web site, which contains the Kobo-offered ebooks, while the problem is “fixed”. It’s a mess that points to how far we are from solving core challenges of selling books in a virtual environment.

Online bookselling has a long way to go before it can deliver even what it intends to deliver in response to a search or to prompt a next sale. Of course, there are two additional and larger problems that come first: knowing what the right suggestion(s) would be and being able to make enough of them to match the book shopping experiences online sales must replace.

Analysis offered by Russ Grandinetti of Amazon at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last week suggested that the US and UK are on the verge of transacting more than 50% of the book business online, with other markets in Europe and Asia not more than two or three years behind. (This may understate the real state of affairs; in a meeting I just had in London I was told that one of the biggest UK publishers says that 60 percent of their sales of print, ebooks, and audio are through Amazon!) Online sales of books were probably in the neighborhood of 10%, or less, for most publishers a decade ago. That shift is why retail shelf space has diminished so much, with major chains having sunk in both of the big English-speaking markets (and in smaller ones as well).

When most books were bought in physical locations, it was axiomatic that a book displayed in a store had an exponentially greater chance of selling than one that wasn’t, despite wholesale supply in the US from Ingram and Baker & Taylor that could get almost any book to almost any store in 24-48 hours. It had to be seen in the store to be bought. Competent commercial trade publishers knew there was very little point to pushing a book through marketing efforts if inventory wasn’t in place at retail, because seeing the book at the time you might buy it was a more powerful trigger for purchase than any other. Indeed, all the other stimuli (reviews, suggestions from friends, conversation at the office) tended to be acted upon only when the presence in the store was in proximity to the suggestion or recommendation. (And that’s why recommendations from clerks in the store were the most powerful recommendations of all: hence the concept of “hand-selling”.)

One problem with the change to online buying from the discovery perspective is that the funnel for each shopper keeps getting narrower. It isn’t hard for somebody in a bookstore to look at hundreds of books in a few minutes. It’s nearly impossible online. This either requires the consumer to spend more time shopping to see the same number of titles they used to see in a store, or to make a decision having seen fewer. And the concern is that the decision that gets made having seen fewer can be not to buy anything at all. (Or, particularly in the case of tablet users, to buy something other than books.)

Of course, in theory, being able to present a personally-curated batch of suggestions for each customer could be far more precisely targeted than what a store can do, and, in that case, fewer titles shown might do the same job. But we are a long way from that. And, for reasons I hope this piece will make clear, personally-curated choices would actually be far more likely to be delivered by Google than by Amazon (although they would raise a host of what would be considered big privacy concerns to a lot of customers by doing it). And that’s not a reflection on the quality of anybody’s programmers, and certainly not of their commitment to their customers.

The technology that hopes to help you “pick your next book” is referred to as a “recommendation engine”. I’ve never been on the inside of such an effort but the thinking behind them seems to center around analyzing what books you’ve bought and what you’ve searched for and, from that, figuring out what you might read next. This might be based on analysis of the content itself (e.g. Pandora recommending music of similar style and quality) and/or collaborative filtering models — leveraging user inputs (purchase history, ratings, and reviews) to make recommendations for other similar users (“people who bought x also bought y”). It all recalls for me the experience of being told when I met a great bookseller, the late Joel Turner, at the 1978 American Booksellers convention in Atlanta, that “if a customer walks up to my cash register with five books, I can always sell him a sixth”.

Of course, over time, a bookseller can fill out that knowledge with even more data as they see more and more purchases and get to know their customers, and perhaps their families. But, in fact, using books bought as a guide to recommendations is an incomplete data set. It can also be a misleading one since people buy books for people other than themselves.

Another way to look at it came from my friend, Andrew Rhomberg.  Based on his experience with start-up Jellybooks, he formulated five major book discovery paths: serendipitous, social, distributed, data-driven and incentivized.

The point is that most people get their ideas about what to read next from many sources: people they talk to, reviews, news reports, business interactions. Some people say they get book recommendations from their friends; others (like me) say they don’t often read the same things their friends or relatives read. I suspect that online communities of readers tend to work best for people who do a lot of reading in genres and not nearly as well for people who mix fiction and non-fiction, entertainment and learning. And some people gravitate to what’s popular, so bestseller lists work best for them. It is clear that getting on a bestseller list fuels a book’s sales.

And books are bought for motivations other than “to read”, so it might also be important to know that a customer’s son is having a birthday, that a customer’s cousin is getting married, that a customer is shopping for a new home or looking for a new job or starting on a new hobby or spending money on an old one.

Few, if any, of these things would be apparent to even the most diligent hand-selling bookstore personnel. Bits and pieces of it might be detectable by the super-merchant Amazon (but not likely to any other).

This is one devilishly complex problem. There are countless potential inputs to the “next book purchase” decision and they are processed by each different individual in a highly personalized way. If you think it through, it seems obvious that most recommendations to most people wouldn’t work. Which takes us back to the need to make a lot of them, which a bookstore display does much better than online pages that show 10 or 20 books at one time.

In the long run, it would seem to me that Google is the entity best-positioned to address this challenge if they can somehow combine the knowledge of what you searched for (which they know), with what you read online (which they could know if you use Chrome for your browser), and the topics and book titles that have appeared in your emails (which they could know if you use Gmail) and the things you ‘like’ and talk about online (if you use Google+). Knowing your travel plans and patterns would be helpful too.

Of course, unless you use Google Play for ebook purchase and consumption, they’d be missing the two most important bits of data — what you bought and how voraciously you read it and they still wouldn’t know your print book purchases (unless they crawl your email receipts for that as well) – which Amazon is building on without all the other information. What you’d really want to do is to correlate the book buying and consumption information from the past with the behavioral data contemporary to it. With it all combined, perhaps you could filter recommendations so that the 20 or 50 you could show on line would have the commercial power of the hundreds or thousands you could see in the same amount of time in a store.

At the moment, both Amazon and Google are trying to see a pattern through one nearsighted eye.

But is this all really part of a larger problem for publishers? Is online discovery really affecting the sales patterns for books? It would appear so. One of the global ebook sellers told me during Frankfurt that their online sales are far more concentrated than publishers’ sales tended to be, with a tiny fraction of titles (under 5%) making up a huge percentage of total sales (nearly 70%). (I am assuming here that this retailer’s data is typical; of course, it may not be.) If memory serves, at the turn of the century Barnes & Noble stores saw only about 5% of their sales coming from “bestsellers” and, I believe (relying on memory of detail, which I admit is not my most powerful mental muscle) backlist outsold new titles. Publishers really live on the midlist. We know the long tail is taking an increasing share of sales and it would appear the head is too. Those sales come out of the midlist. It is pretty hard to run a profitable publisher without a profitable midlist.

And that would suggest that the increasing concentration of sales, which is likely the result of our hobbled ability to present choices in the digital sales environment, is a problem that publishers will want to address.

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How much time and effort should established publishers be spending on startups?


We are now in a period replete with startups that want to be the disruption in publishing. We see a lot of them in our office. Part of our business involves helping startups find relevance and contacts within the established publishing community.

There are three areas in particular which the startups seem to think the publishing business needs their help with, if the frequency with which we hear about propositions in these spaces is any guide. They can overlap.

1. eBookstore alternatives to the established players.

2. Enabling social connections among readers of books.

3. Subscription services that will deliver books for a fixed monthly cost.

I wrote about the subscription services a while ago when one of the fledglings came into our office. They were well advanced in their planning and tech development. I asked them if they had spoken to any literary agents. They said “no”.

Presumably they have done so since then and have found out that big shot literary agents are very skeptical about the value of subscription propositions for big shot authors. In fact, they are (in their own enlightened self-interest) downright hostile to the idea. That makes smart trade publishers, who are highly dependent on literary agents, also hostile to the idea.

When it comes to selling subscriptions to a general audience, Amazon (and probably only Amazon) can do it without the biggest books. Maybe down the road Penguin Random House can do it because they’ll be the publishers of more than half the bestsellers. O’Reilly, with Safari, has demonstrated that subscription can work in niches, and we’d expect to see more of that in the future. But there’s a damn good reason why no Safari service has cropped up for general reading; it’s a bad commercial model for the copyright holders of the biggest commercial books.

Attention: entrepreneurs with this idea. The reason it isn’t happening has nothing to do with failures of imagination or tech competence by the legacy players.

The “social reading” play also attracts entrepreneurs and, apparently, some funding. I think there are two generic failures of understanding that drive this interest. One is the sheer granularity of the book business. The vast number of titles there is to choose from means that the percentage of overlapping titles in the reading lists of unconnected people is going to be very low. Therefore the value of shared notes and annotations or “in-book” conversations is low as well.

Enabling this kind of shared reading experience can make sense to a class of students or an organized reading group. But it takes a really vast community to deliver value in shared book conversations to many people. And let’s remember that both Amazon and Kobo offer social tools already. If they become important, they’ll build out more. The fact that they haven’t to date is not a reflection of their inadequacy; it is a reflection of how much the people selling lots of ebooks and observing real customer behavior think these capabilities matter.

Several years ago, when they were starting up, I was consulting to Copia, which built social tools right into the reading software as their distinctive feature from the beginning. As a skeptic about the value of social reading (we’re all prisoners of our own experience and preferences, and I have precious little personal interest in “sharing” my reading experiences), I suggested that the key for them was to work in niches: to recruit users who would have common interests and therefore better-than-average chances of being interested in the same books. I think they’ve moved in that direction, but the suggestion was counterintuitive to them at the time. How do you get to be bigger by targeting a smaller audience?

Many of the social plays require the simplicity of DRM-free files to make their proposition work. That just makes it harder for them to get commercial titles into their ecosystem. Or impossible.

Copia is also a competitor in the ebookstore category. There are a lot of them, despite the fact that there are market leaders with advantages it is hard to see how to overcome. The global market leaders are Amazon and Apple. The global runners-up are Google and Kobo. All four of these companies have extremely deep pockets and all except Kobo have other ways — besides selling ebooks — to amortize their investment in audiences. In the US, B&N has managed to make Nook a strong competitor, but it is still very much an open question whether they can do the same internationally without the store footprint they have here and without the funding capabilities of their competitors.

Yet, others, including Copia, keep trying. Baker & Taylor has Blio, which looked early on like a player for illustrated ebooks. Two problems: the flexible tool set they originally promised failed to materialize in the manner they first projected. And the sales of illustrated ebooks are not very good anyway. Joe Regal’s Zola Books has been trying to gain traction, with a variety of propositions including decentralized curation and exclusive content.

Three big US publishers have launched Bookish, which is presumably more a discovery mechanism than a bookstore, but which will have to attract traffic to be of much use as either.

And then there’s Inkling, which has developed tools to make complex ebooks (they seem, quite sensibly, to be more focused on school and college textbooks than on illustrated trade books) and is pairing that with a “store” which would appear by the deals they offer to be an important monetization element in their planning.

With whatever are the limitations of my understanding or imagination, I can’t see success in the cards for any of these adventures in retailing, social, or subscription (Inkling’s product-building tools are different and could have longterm value.)

All of this wraps into a larger question: how much time, money, and bandwidth should commercial publishers be spending on startups?

That subject is of great interest to the investment community, which has been frustrated by what they see as publishers’ lack of engagement with startups or interest in disruptive technologies. One angel investor we know tells us that a need to work with publishers is a real deterrent to raising money from technology investors.

But does that mean the publishers are wrong not to be embracing startups more than they do?

Javier Celaya, a Spain-based consultant to publishers on digital change, recently conducted a survey about this subject. What the detail of Celaya’s investigation seems to show is that investment in startups takes place in the educational sphere, but not in trade. That would make sense. After all, trade publishers deliver books to be consumed by a wide variety of people for an equally dispersed set of motivations. But in education, the “book” needs to fit into an ecosystem, a platform. Educational publishers recognize the possibility of controlling the platform, if they have the right tools to offer. That makes it sensible for Pearson and Cengage and McGraw-Hill and Macmillan to make investments in technologies that might give them that platform advantage.

(We’ve observed that “platforms” aside from those of the big retailers are becoming important in the juvie publishing world.)

I had an exchange with Javier Celaya about his survey after he posted it. To my skepticism that investing in startups made sense for trade publishers, Celaya pointed out that an investment in Goodreads would have been much more fruitful than the massive effort and investment three big publishers made to start Bookish.

That’s true. It is also true that no publisher that missed finding Goodreads in the first year or two or three of its existence would have been much handicapped in making good use of it whenever they did discover it. And it is not clear that owning a chunk of it would give a publisher any great advantages in using it over what they can achieve anyway. It is also not yet clear how successful Goodreads will be monetarily (although it has clearly managed to recruit an audience large enough to be valuable as a marketing engine).

If I were making policy for a publishing house, I would discourage spending any time with a social or subscription proposition that didn’t clearly have a “niche” strategy. And I’d allow the investment of only the minimum of effort in a fledgling ebookstore. Publishers do need to be able to provide their metadata and put titles up for sale easily (Ingram or others can help with that if they don’t want to serve each little ebook retailer themselves) and they should do that. But the odds of any new ebook retailer making much of a dent in the market are so long that conversations about it are most likely to just be a waste of time.

Of course, I’d also have a list of “tech we’re looking for”: ways to streamline metadata enhancement and improve creation workflows would probably make the list. The startups who came with a promise to solve a previously-identified need would certainly be welcome and experimentation might well be called for. But not investment.

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Ideas about the future of bookselling


There is a vision of online bookselling, which I share, which is that it will become increasingly atomized. Books (and, ultimately, other content too) will be merchandised in unique ways across countless web sites curating and presenting content choices for their own communities and audiences. One early prototype of how this might work is the Random House initiative powering “bookstores” for Politico and Publishers Lunch’s Bookateria.

This is not a new idea. I remember a meeting more than five years ago hosted by O’Reilly Media in New York City to plan the first Tools of Change conference at which Brian Murray of HarperCollins, not yet their CEO, talked about how a way should be found to merchandise books on current affairs topics around and adjacent to today’s news stories that were relevant. The Random House capability, among many other things it can do, readily enables just that.

This is not necessarily bad news for the biggest online retailers like Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Kobo. The Random House execution delivers “their” customers to one of the others to consummate the sale and they’re rewarded for having pushed the “discovery” by collecting referral fees from the etailer  which processes the sale. (How the revenue is split between Random House and the web site providing the screen real estate is not known to me, and presumably only one of a number of moving parts in the negotiations between them.) Doing things this way allows both Random House and their clients to avoid the two biggest (and closely-related) headaches of online bookselling: managing DRM and customer service. In addition, the costs for what is called “card and cart”  – handling credit cards and providing shopping cart technology — are also avoided by handing off the actual transactions.

Bookish, the new discovery engine and bookseller which was financed by three of the Big Six, also offers referrals in addition to their own fulfillment (which is provided by Baker & Taylor).

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex, our go-to guy for understanding the concept of “discovery”, says that bookstores offer discovery combined with availability, a “twofer”. In effect, web sites offering ebooks (and possibly print too) alongside their information and conversation are doing the same thing.

In fact, the same approach makes sense in the brick-and-mortar world, but it is a lot harder to do.

Merchandising is the bottleneck for any retailer, online or in stores, trying to sell books. Which books do you offer? Which books do you feature? What do you discount? This is a challenge online, which is why Random House believes it can build a business helping web sites do it. But it is even more challenging in a physical environment, which requires actual printed books to be displayed, sometimes to be sold and sometimes to be returned.

But smaller and more targeted displays of print books in stores — whether a general selection or one targeted to store’s other customers — also make more sense than big book superstores in the digital era. Physical bookselling locations can offer consumers convenience and speed. If you’re shopping, you can see more titles faster than you can online and you can walk away with your purchase rather than waiting for delivery.

Publishers gain access to their audience through retailers. Non-book retailers, just like web sites, are specialized in some way and they both attract and serve customers if they offer appropriate books.

The challenge for non-book retailers who would like to carry books is stocking them. Almost no matter what a store sells, from clothes to hardware to specialty food, there would be a selection of books that would please their customers and perhaps increase their sales of core items. This is obvious in, say, a crafts store or hardware store where just about everything that’s sold is part of a project (selections of which and instructions for which are often found in books) and could require instruction about how to use it most effectively (also content well suited to books).

Picking the right books is hard work. If the retailer buys them from publishers (whose sales representatives would know their content and could actually guide one to the best title choices for one’s audience), it is a hopelessly fragmented challenge. In many areas, you might find 25 good books that could require you to buy from 10 or more different publishers. The publishers’ sales terms will be one problem (minimum order sizes) and the administrative costs would be far too big to justify considering the small sales the store would get from ancillary merchandise like this. Wholesalers have the books of many publishers, but their teams don’t have the kind of title-level knowledge the store needs to make the selections.

Meanwhile, bookstores labor under a similar constraint. We pointed out in our recent B&N analysis that the cost of their supply chain gets harder to bear as sales of books diminish. Independent bookstores have also always been constrained by the cost of buying, although they don’t really see it that way because it is part of the landscape.

The core point is this: the responsibility for getting the right books onto retail shelves is one that has always belonged to the retailer. That reality encouraged, even required, large book retailing operations: big independent stores and large chains could amortize that cost across far more sales than a small bookstore or a little book department in another retailer.

There is one established way to reduce those costs: vendor-managed inventory. With VMI, the cost of negotiation — of conversation between a “buyer” and a “sales rep” — plummets. In addition, it is actually easier to stock the right books at the right time. A key component of making better decisions is making more decisions that cover shorter prediction times. Ordering more frequently makes it much easier to avoid over-ordering as a protection against going out of stock. That increases stock turn (the key to bookstore profitability) and reduces the need for returns (leaving more margin for both the retailer and the publisher).

As I’ve written previously, a long-standing client of mine called West Broadway Book Distribution has been operating a VMI system in a small number of non-book retailers for a decade. They have a system which interprets the sales reporting and makes restocking decisions based on them automatically. They also have a system to test new titles in a sample of a chain’s outlets to decide whether or not to roll them out. Their automation has enabled them to manage a lot of granularity — thousands of potential titles in more than a thousand stores with the books coming from more than a hundred publishers — profitably and with workable margins for both the retailers and the book-providing publishers.

West Broadway started because its owner had a few books of their own that they wanted to sell to a couple of “women’s hobby” accounts where they already had relationships. We encouraged them to be more ambitious and they were willing to try. So they aggregated the books from many of their competitors, larger and smaller, to add to their own and invested in the VMI system (which they might not have needed to make sales of their own books alone).

That’s a path we should expect to see other specialty publishers taking in the future. Subject-specific knowledge is helpful in doing that (although it can be done successfully without it).

Stocking a general interest store with VMI is much more complicated and will take more time to evolve. But bookstores can take steps in the right direction by consolidating their buying to a smaller number of suppliers and pushing all their really small vendor ordering to a wholesaler (or two) to gain efficiencies from managing fewer vendors.

Remember that one of the keys to efficient stocking is frequent ordering. Bookstores mostly understand that and order from wholesalers every day. But they probably also order directly from dozens of publishers. They do that to gain a little bit of additional margin and, perhaps, to reward the sales rep that calls on them to present the list.

I’m going to say flatly that the margin differential is almost certainly not worth pursuing for what it costs in stock turn (capital tied up) and risk (returns because people buy more copies when they’re tempted by the higher margin order). My father made that clear in numerous examples in his monograph, The Mathematics of Bookselling.

The rep reward is a little more complicated but most publishers these days figure out how to pay their reps for sales that go through the wholesalers.

Any store routinely dealing directly with more than 20 publishers and distributors will almost certainly improve their financial performance by cutting that back and consolidating. They might  lose a little margin; they might miss a couple of smaller-potential titles (but not big ones), but their lives will be simplified and that will save a lot of money.

And with daily ordering from wholesalers, which just about all stores do, it becomes unnecessary to carry more than a copy or two of most books, except for the purpose of display prominence.

Once a bookstore has taken those steps, it is in a position to start demanding some VMI help, even if just from the sales reps. This was an idea that was pioneered in around 1980-81 by an indie in Shaker Heights, OH, called Under Cover Books in a project on which I consulted.

We were too far ahead of our time (the computers were too klunky), but the idea was that we gave the reps reports of how their titles were performing: on-hand, shipments in, and sales. Then they had an inventory ceiling stipulated and were free to order more books, of their choosing, up to the inventory ceiling. We then calculated the inventory’s performance (beyond the scope of this piece to get into that particular detail, but essentially combined the impacts of discount and turn) and raised the inventory level for the most profitable publishers and reduced it for the less profitable.

What defeated us was the complexity of administration. Part of that was because there were so many more smaller publishers then. Part of it was that the only way to communicate the inventory data was by shipping spreadsheets by snail mail (slow and not cheap).

This would be infinitely easier to do today, and the ease would be multiplied if you were only trying to do it with a handful of big suppliers.

I am only aware of one publisher today that has worked corporately on a VMI system for books, and that’s Random House. I believe they initially developed the capability and implemented it for chains: first for Barnes & Noble and more recently for Books-a-Million. But they also seem already to be prepared to offer the service to independents. Since, when the Penguin merger is complete in a few months, stores will be able to get damn near half the most commercial books from Penguin Random House, having “just” them operating VMI would constitute a sharp reduction of the store’s operational demands.

Whether or not this is what they’re thinking at the moment, the new Penguin Random House is bound to find it sensible to employ its VMI capabilities in self-defense to open retail print book outlets in places that are bereft of bookstores in the years to come. Those outlets will have space for shelves, customers and cash registers, but no ability to discern what books they ought to stock or what the timing should be of ordering. They’ll be sought out as necessary because bookstores, which are carrying the requirement of making these stocking decisions, will have increasingly become uneconomic (and therefore defunct).

This vision of the future is of books being sold mostly in stores that aren’t bookstores, enabled by VMI systems that largely don’t exist yet. It would be even better if the VMI vision took hold in time to save some of the bookstores that exist today to survive to that future time when the demands on them to manage inventory will have been ameliorated by necessity.

In my last post, I cited a bunch of suggestions pulled together by Philip Jones for how publishers could help bookstores survive and promised to review them. This post was intended to get to that, but I couldn’t get there within a reasonable number of words. Next time.

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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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Going where the customers are might be an alternative to selling direct


The news that Faber in the UK has partnered with a company called Firsty Group to offer direct-to-consumer services to their distribution clients again calls the question about publishers selling direct. In my recent post about the likely outcome of the DoJ settlement being accepted by the Court, I said I was re-thinking my admonition that all publishers should sell direct because it would appear that Amazon (and all retailers) will now be free to discount ebooks to their heart’s content and therefore can undercut any publisher’s prices if they want to.

It would appear that the wholesalers would have the most to gain from publisher-direct selling. The win for them would be complicated, because the ones with the most to lose would be the retailers who are the wholesalers’ best customers. But, ultimately, as Amazon demonstrated clearly nearly two decades ago and, most recently, F+W Media proved again, anybody can become a retailer of a large selection of print and digital books simply by setting up an account with Ingram or Baker & Taylor. (Amazon started out by having the wholesalers ship the books to them which they then re-shipped to the consumer. F+W works with Ingram on the same model, probably because their own books are combined in many of the orders and they’d lose margin unnecessarily if they had Ingram ship their books.)

Ingram brings a staggering selection of printed books through its warehouse holdings and the millions of titles available to print-on-demand through Lightning, as well as the Ingram Digital ebook wholesaling capability that represents most of the ebooks published. (Setting up distribution for an agency publisher through Ingram also requires the active cooperation of the publisher.) Baker & Taylor is trying to couple its Blio ebook platform, which handles illustrated books but does not have anything like the title selection Ingram has, with its warehouse print inventory, to provide a slightly different combination of titles.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to own inventory to offer a wide selection.

Phil Ollila of Ingram expanded on their approach to direct selling. They provide what they’re good at: inventory and fulfillment and the database of titles. They refer publishers to other service providers for the “cart and card” component of ecommerce. There are a variety of reasons, including potential tax issues involving “nexus” and the requirements of PCI compliance, the rules about what you have to do if you’re storing consumer data, that Ingram prefers to leave that portion of the business to specialists.

But Ollila also reports that Ingram found recently, surveying the top 100 web sites for which it does digital fulfillment, that about half of the top sellers were publishers. A few of them are selling books from other publishers, but most are just selling their own ebooks very successfully. So either my theory about Amazon undercutting these publishers on pricing is just wrong, or they haven’t turned their attention to these “competitors” yet.

Any business the size of a major publisher which has the ability to sell digital downloads (with or without the ability to sell printed books too) would find useful opportunities to employ it. Or, put another way, not having the ability to complete transactions with consumers would constrain a publisher’s ability to build the direct relationships with end users that so many believe are essential to the future of publishers. Being able to offer distribution clients what might soon be seen as an essential capability for publishers is probably what motivated the Faber deal with Firsty.

One vision of the future that appeals to me is that every web site that has any substantial traffic could offer books and/or ebooks as a combination service to its audience and enhancer of its revenues. I thought this would be the proposition we’d get from Open Sky when they first came on the scene but they changed the business model away from providing that capability. A fledgling retailing platform called Zola Books has a variation of this idea — individually curated “stores” that they host — built into their planning. I liked the idea when Open Sky had it originally and still do; it will be great if Zola can pull it off.

The creative minds at Random House have come up with a different approach to capitalize on the potential for the widely distributed retailing model. They’re prototyping it with Politico, which has a huge audience of the politically-interested.

Random House now merchandises Politico’s “Bookshelf”: its hosted bookstore. The store displays a wide range of titles from all publishers, divided by political category, on which you can click through for additional information. Then you can buy, offered a choice of retailers. I saw the choices Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Politics & Prose (a local store in Washington, DC) and Apple’s iBookstore.

In addition, on the bottom of many, if not all, of the Politico stories, there is a row of additional book offerings called “Related Books on the Politico Bookshelf.” The books in that row below the stories are all Random House books.

Aside from curating the store, which gives Politico both value-added information for its site visitors and an additional revenue stream from affiliate sales (which they presumably share, although I don’t know the commercial arrangement), Random House can help Politico publish.

Random House is developing technology to help them curate the offerings of all publishers for the Politico store. This is no small feat from a standing start. But building the technology that can curate from metadata has additional value. They learn how to combine the metadata associated with the title file with what they can learn about sales ranking and placement by observing what is happening at other retailers. And they’re learning about their competitors’ lists as well in a different way than they ever had before. It seems likely that this knowledge will someday help inform acquisition decisions for new books and the positioning — timing and pricing as well as marketing emphasis and metadata creation — of the books as they publish themselves.

This approach gives Random House what amounts to a gatekeeper position for book offerings to Politico’s substantial site traffic. If they’re acquiring a book appropriate to that audience, they have that marketing exposure and sales opportunity to factor into their revenue calculation (and into their pitch to the agent that they’re the “right” publisher). Other publishers’ books will be sold there too, of course. But they aren’t the gatekeepers, so they can’t be as confident of the boost, and they certainly can’t promise it to an author. And Random House has the exclusive opportunity to exploit the “related books” shelf on each story page.

Meanwhile, Random House is developing the curation and merchandising tools that will enable them to do similar things on sites that have robust traffic for different topic verticals. If the Politico experiment works, they have a very appealing capability to put in front of all of the most heavily-trafficked sites for which a curated book offering would be an attractive value-add.

Random House has essentially chosen to develop bookstores without cart and card. They’re not collecting customer names with their ecommerce or building an installed base of consumers whose credit cards they have on file. Rather, they’re organizing somebody else’s traffic to be distributed to the retailers they are already doing business with.

And, of course, in the same way that Amazon started out relying on the wholesalers for books before they went to buying most of their inventory direct, Random House can install the ecommerce engine any time they like and add a “buy direct from us” button to the choices.

I see this as building future distribution with a trade publisher’s mentality, which is “I don’t need to own the customer; I need to reach the customer and I’m perfectly happy doing that through an intermediary that does lots of work to attract the customer.” If the combination of curation and publishing tools that it can offer site owners like Politico is sufficiently attractive, one could imagine Random House building a network of high-traffic sites with very extensive consumer reach which would, in effect, comprise a new distribution model.

The Random House approach has opened my eyes. It has long been clear to me that the web would organize people by vertical, as it has, and that ultimately specialized content would be found and transacted within the verticals. I leaped to the conclusion that the publishers needed to be the vertical, or own the vertical, in order to thrive in that environment. That is essentially the strategy being executed by F+W Media and Osprey, to name two outstanding examples (both of which have recently made an acquisition that substantially increased their size, F+W of Interweave and Osprey of Duncan Baird).

But Random House is showing another way: becoming the book specialists for the verticals. It is too early to know whether the experiment being executed at Politico will turn into a replicable business model. But it sure is a smart idea to try.

While I was Googling doing some research for this post, I was stunned to see this on the site for the Firsty Group [see update below] that I refer to at the top. It was disturbing to see that they’ve been lifting my posts verbatim and posting them without attribution to their own site. (In fairness, there is a link, but you have to intuit that it is there to find and use it!)

On reflection, it appears that what they’re doing is just publishing our RSS feed, which a) does include the whole post and b) leaves out any “author” name. In that case, this copyright violation is actually being done “unconsciously.” I’m checking out whether that’s true with this post, because they certainly wouldn’t be posting something where I call them out for copyright violation except in an automated way!

Once we see what happens with this post and confirm my hunch that the behavior is automated, we’ll send a polite takedown notice and suggest that Firsty change its policy to post only the first X words of an RSS with a link through. (We are also exploring changing our RSS feed, but we actually don’t want to inconvenience people who are using it legitimately.)

I cast no aspersions on Faber here. They’re a great company and I’m sure they and Firsty deliver a solid service together.

***Very quickly as this post went live, we got an extremely apologetic note from Firsty explaining that, indeed, they were working from the RSS feed, and they indeed did have a protocol of cutting off the article and then linking through. For whatever reason, it wasn’t working on my stuff and, apparently, only on my stuff. They did a takedown while they investigate and fix and asked that we agree to allow them to continue to host our RSS samples after they had. Of course, we agreed. Great to know that it was a mistake and that they were alert enough to jump on it quickly. All’s well that ends well.

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Publishers Launch conference at BEA will cover a wide range of digital change issues


What are the important topics to discuss today concerning publishing and digital change? I think we’ve got most of them covered at Publishers Launch BEA, the one-day conference we’ll stage at the Javits Center next Monday, June 4.

Our all-day event has sixteen distinct presentations and panels. There may be a topic of interest to somebody somewhere that we won’t cover, but we’re definitely not missing much.

The day will begin with a review of recent industry developments from Publishers Launch co-founder Michael Cader. As I write this, the news of the moment is “Waterstones will sell Kindles”. That event, and others that may follow between now and then, will be put into context by the man who prepares our daily Publishers Lunch. Michael likes to point out the topics we spend more time discussing than they’re worth. Those observations are always amusing and insightful.

We’ve noticed that cloud solutions — commonly called SaaS, “software as a service” — are becoming increasingly important in the operations at publishing houses. We think the topic is so important, in fact, that we’ve scheduled an all day conference called “Book Publishing in the Cloud” for July 26 in New York. Ken Michaels, the COO of Hachette Book Group USA, is a big proponent of SaaS and believes it could change the way we work, together and separately, as an industry. He’ll kick off our conference describing what he sees as the opportunity for publishers represented by cloud solutions.

Then a panel of four publishers will talk about a very much related subject: how publishing houses are remaking their processes and workflows to respond to the demands of the digital age. Publishing veteran David Wilk will chair that panel, which will include Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks, Sara Domville of F+W Media, Joe Mangan of Perseus, and Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins. All of these companies are doing some very basic things quite differently than they did only a couple of years ago and these executives will discuss how things have changed, how hard it was to change, and what benefits have come to them because they did change.

We like to feature short conversations with industry players who have a unique view. One of these is Molly Barton, who is the global digital director for Penguin. Molly is the only digital head I know today who started out inside the publishing house as an acquiring editor. Now she has a view of digital change around the world from the top of one of the world’s biggest book publishing empires and within an even larger publishing company that has many digital irons in the fire. I’ll have an onstage conversation with Molly, and we’ll cover a wide range of topics from DRM to enhancement to whatever might have arisen earlier that morning.

After Molly, we’ll move to a new feature of Publishers Launch Conferences: the Publishers Launchpad sessions. Launchpad is our slot for introducing new products and services. When we debuted it at Digital Book World last January, we were pleased to recruit a consulting client of my Idea Logical Company, Linda Holliday of Semi-Linear, to moderate the sessions. On June 4, Linda’s own new product will be the kickoff Launchpad subject.

And Linda’s new product, Citia, has as its objective nothing less than reinventing the presentation of high-concept non-fiction in the digital age. It is a shamelessly ambitious undertaking, literally deconstructing and then reconstructing the ideas in a book. The debut Citia title will be “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly, from Penguin, the house of the previous speaker, Molly Barton. Barton is one of the biggest fans of the new Citia presentation of material. Michael Cader will interview Linda and they’ll show you how the complex ideas we previously could only access through narrative text and illustrations can be rethought and made clearer with what I call, for simplicity, “Cliff’s Notes for the Digital Age” but which is really much more than that.

Then Linda will bring on two other new propositions as part of the Launchpad session. Both of them are new SaaS services to make ebooks.

The simpler proposition is from Hugh McGuire and is called Pressbooks. It is a free XML ebook-making tool built on WordPress that enables users to produce epub and PDF files on the web.

The other tool is called Aerbook Maker, created by Ron Martinez of Invention Arts. Aerbook makes enhanced ebooks and both HTLM5 and native apps. It is a tool that allows mixing in audio and video and interactive elements without advanced programming skills.

Then, before lunch (aren’t you hungry already?), we’ll have our agents panel. Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent will moderate a great agent group that includes Laura Dail of Laura Daily Literary Agency, Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, and Jennifer Weltz of The Jean V. Naggar Agency. They’ll be discussing both the changes in the business of agenting and the dynamic negotiating climate with the publishers. We’ll learn what they’re thinking about managing their digital backlist and what new skill sets they think their authors will be demanding of them.

Kelly Gallagher of Bowker will kick things off after lunch with with the latest report from their new Global eBook Monitor (GeM), a global look at ebook uptake around the world. Gallagher will feature “country level data” to a degree that hasn’t previously been revealed. We’re looking forward to it.

One key premise about digital change is that the world is getting smaller and publishers will find it easier to sell books, particularly ebooks, in territories other than their own. Our panel called “Sales Across the Borders — Import” will look at the increased penetration of ebooks from abroad, particularly in languages other than English. I’ll moderate a group of three panelists: Patricia Arancibia, Editorial Director, International Digital Content, for Barnes & Noble, consultant Javier Celaya from Spain, and Spanish publisher Blanca Rosa Roca of Roca Editorial. Blanca Rosa is doing some very innovative things to get her books into the US market in both Spanish and English. (She’s just created an English language ebook publisher called Barcelona eBooks and forged a partnership with Open Road for marketing and distribution.) Javier consults to companies throughout Europe and will report on how publishers, particularly in Spain, Italy, and France, are viewing this opportunity. And Patricia wrangles content for B&N to sell from all over the world. There are very few people, if indeed there is anybody, who knows more about this subject than she does. One wrinkle on this topic is that other-language publishers are now translating their own books into English to hit the English-speaking ebook market. One thing we’ll want to learn from our panelists is how commonplace they expect to see that practice become.

The complementary panel, which will be moderated by longtime sales executive Jack Perry, is “Sales Across the Borders — Export”. For this one we’ve gathered three experienced export sales executives: Chris Dufault of Random House, David Wolfson of HarperCollins, and Dan Vidra, who has just this month left Simon & Schuster to work for the new German-based (but global and multi-language) ebook platform, textr. They’ll be joined by David Cully, the President Retail Markets/EVP Merchandising for Baker & Taylor, the US wholesaler that has long been a global leader helping US publishers sell their books abroad. This panel will tell us what markets are showing the most promise for US publishers, how the sales growth of ebooks is affecting the sales of print, and how the growth of export might be impacting the related business of selling foreign translation rights. (We’ll be able to cross-check what they say with what the agents will have told us a couple of hours before.)

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo is always a popular speaker at publishing events because he shares interesting data. This time we’ve asked Michael to focus on what Kobo has learned from its recent experience in new markets, particularly the UK and France where Kobo tied up with major retailers. What we’ll want to know for non-English markets particularly is how powerful the draw of wide title selection in English is. Will ebookstores in other countries really expand the sale of our books in English around the world? Tamblyn will certainly get us started on answering that question.

Our final chunk of programming in the afternoon is all about change.

Fritz Foy is Macmillan’s EVP for digital. Macmillan made news a couple of weeks ago when they announced that they would be going DRM-free with their Tom Doherty Associates imprints including Tor, Forge and other related sci fi and fantasy imprints. We immediately called him and got him to agree to talk about that on the program. Foy is going to do a presentation that recaps Macmillan’s thinking about this question, which he says goes back several years. Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the anti-DRM crusader who is one of Tor’s key authors, Macmillan had already experimented with it. Foy promises us there will be surprises and at least one news announcement coming from his presentation. We’ll be surprised right along with you when we find out what it is.

Phil Ollila of Ingram Content Group accepted our challenge to comb their sales data for clues about how bookstores and other retailers have been changing their stocking decisions in recent years. The short summary of Ollila’s findings, which are summarized in an article he did for our conference book (all Publishers Launch Conferences have a printed conference book!), suggest that fiction is down, some surprising categories are up, and that what publishers can expect is more titles in more different stores with fewer sales per store per title.

We’ll have a bit of a change of pace with a presentation by David Steinberger, the one who is Founder and CEO of the Comixology platform. (There is another David Steinberger, of course, who is the CEO of Perseus.) Comics constitute a very big global business that operates in silos by language and by country. Will it stay that way? Will the rights and cultural issues that have kept the market from globalizing continue to do so in the digital age? As the creator of the most successful comics-selling platform in the US and a man with an eye for the world stage, Steinberger is in a unique position to speculate on the answers. And perhaps we’ll get some insight about how other highly-illustrated genres with strong localized content — travel and food come to mind — might change because of the digital transition.

There is a growing consensus in the industry around two points that would have been controversial only two or three years ago. One is that bookstores are declining rapidly and will, unfortunately and in the not-too-distant future, atrophy to the point that they are a subsidiary channel for book sales, not the primary one. The other point is that the marketing exposure that books get in retail stores is a critical component of their early exposure, leading to the “discovery” by consumers that is the key to getting commercial traction. Our last two sessions of the day will focus on that challenge.

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex has been conducting studies of book purchasers for a decade, including careful tracking of how they learned about the books they bought and read. Peter is one of the greatest champions of the bookstore’s role in discovery, and perhaps the leading skeptic that search engine optimization and social network marketing can be an adequate substitute. In this presentation, Peter will make his case thoroughly backed with data from the years of research his company has done.

Then Peter will join our final panel of the day, one focused on “The Future of Book Discovery.” Two publishers that are doing a lot of work in this area, Amanda Close of Random House and Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Scott Stein, who heads up the book coverage for USA Today, will be part of that discussion, which will be moderated by Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center. One of Hildick-Smith’s key points is that there is a Catch-22: if you don’t know something about a book, you’re not likely to search for it. And unless somebody gets the ball rolling for a book, there’s nobody to comment on Facebook or Twitter to get you started that way. The publishers on the panel and the overseer of one of America’s most widely read book pages will talk about their efforts to build something new that will tell us about books the way window displays and stacks and face-out displays have for years.

After that, Cader and I will wrap up the day. Very briefly. We’ll all be very happily exhausted!

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Kobo’s new deals propel them into the top tier of global ebook competitors


The week I spend each year at the Frankfurt Book Fair is always the most stimulating week of my professional year. The concentration of the best thinkers and most powerful people in publishing always seems to lead me to a new burst of understanding about our global publishing world, particularly in these times of rapid change.

I saw one Big Six CEO who noted that I had said last week that I expected the US publishers to be living in an 80% ebook world pretty soon although the global head of another of the Big Six companies had just stated the belief that the switchover to digital would stop, or slow down significantly, at 40%. I respectfully disagree, but will save that argument for another post. The one I talked to, who chuckled about the wide disparity in these two predictions, didn’t express an opinion about which of us was right, but the implications of the two predictions are so different that it behooves the people running the biggest companies to at least consider mine, even if they believe his.

I also talked to a business development executive for one of the tech companies that has been converting backlists from print and pdf to epub. He made the point that his business remains robust but moves around the world as new markets discover serially that they need to get their intellectual property into digital form. We agreed that those of us who make a living on the digital transition — and that certainly includes me at the moment (what are you reading this blog for?) — have a few more years ahead of us before we’ll have to figure out how to make a living on the new reality (if we need to keep making a living when it arrives…)

With the deals announced at Frankfurt by Kobo with the English retailer WHSmith and the French retailer Fnac along with the quickening pace of store openings by Apple and Amazon, the future shape of the ebook retailing landscape has been more clearly defined. It looks to me like we’ll have three principal global players that will be active in every market — they being Amazon, Apple, and Kobo — plus perhaps a local contender in each market as well. Barnes & Noble has played the latter role extremely successfully so far in the United States; Waterstone’s will attempt the same in the UK starting next Spring; there is local competition in Germany; and certainly there will be in many other countries as the ebook revolution laps at their shores. Google, being Google, will not go away, but they will remain a relatively marginal player unless and until they put considerably more energy into their solution and into promoting what they have.

The Kobo deals are the game-clarifiers, if not game-changers. A sage observer of the digital scene stopped at my stand here in Frankfurt to discuss the WHSmith-Kobo arrangement with me and he wondered whether this was the best deal for both sides. Should Kobo have been trying harder to make a deal with Waterstone’s? Is it wise for WHSmith to be making a deal where they sell the devices but connect them to a Kobo-branded store?

But that, of course, is the key to the deal. The economics of the devices don’t work unless you also can sell the ebooks to go into them. (That’s the answer to all the geniuses who think Barnes & Noble is being thick not implementing an international rollout of the Nook!) Neither WHSmith nor Fnac is principally a book retailer: books are just another product line in stores that sell other things and have a broader identity. By selling a reader attached to an ebook store that serves customers well, they buy themselves relevance to the book consumer during the transition and extend their lives as booksellers. They demonstrate recognition that building and maintaining a ebook store is not a trivial undertaking and, in the face of several global competitors, not something they want to undertake from their position as a country-specific, and more general, retailer.

By tying up with Kobo, both WHSmith and Fnac can get into the market with ereading devices at about the same time as Amazon brings in the Kindle. And WHSmith launching for Christmas 2011 should be terrifying Waterstone’s, which will be months behind with devices and almost certainly delivering a less consumer-friendly store off the bat than the experienced Kobo offering will be.

Barnes & Noble has achieved startling success at establishing a strong second-place position in the US ebook market, but their situation may prove to be unique. First of all, they’re in the biggest single ebook market (by value, even though poorer markets may pass them sometime sooner in units) we’re likely to see for a decade or more. Second, they are a very serious book retailer that has built strong relationships among book publishers worldwide over many years. And third, their execution was nearly flawless. Even with their precedent as an example, there is no guarantee that Waterstone’s, or anybody else, can pull off what they did in another market.

So if it is a global game and you have to be a global player to be competitive, as well as a “whole ecosystem” game that requires devices attached to a well-stocked and well-presented econtent retailing environment to succeed, we can see the steep uphill fight to be waged by the other players trying to compete with Amazon, Apple, and Kobo, whether they be Google, Copia, Sony, Baker & Taylor’s Blio, or the new entrants financed by publisher collaboration: Anobii in the UK and Bookish in the US.

All other things being equal, I can see a global ebook marketplace that some years from now is 90-95% controlled by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and a local player in each country, with Google getting most of the rest. Google may punch above its weight on the long tail because discovery of the obscure or highly niched content might be their forte; one scholarly publisher told me at Frankfurt that he is already seeing some real growth in his Google sales, which no trade publisher has said in my earshot yet.

But all other things may not remain equal. One informed member of the European digerati told me he believes that the European Competition Commission may outlaw the agency model in the European Union. Were that to happen, that would tilt the playing field substantially toward Amazon. It is ironic that the biggest, strongest, and most deep-pocketed competitor for global ebook sales could be handed an enormous competitive advantage by bureaucrats ostensibly trying to foster a competitive marketplace. Publishers may have deficiencies in their understanding of the digital transition, but it would appear that the government bureaucracies the world over might be far more confused than the publishers are.

I’m posting this before I leave the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday afternoon, European time. I won’t have the opportunity to respond to any comments until at least Monday night London time. I drive with a friend and the charming little hotel we stay at in Monschau doesn’t have wifi and I don’t have the digital dexterity (with “digital” in this case referring to “fingers”) to do lengthy replies on my iPhone.

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What smaller publishers, agents, and authors need to know about ebook publishing


As the shift from a print-centric book world to a digital one accelerates, more and more digital publishers are creating themselves.

The biggest publishers, with the resources of sophisticated IT departments to guide them, have been in the game for years now and paying serious attention since the Kindle was launched by Amazon late in 2007. But as the market has grown, so has the ecosystem. And while three years ago it was possible to reach the lion’s share of the ebook market through one retailer, Amazon, on a device that really could only handle books of straight narrative text, we now have a dizzying array of options to reach the consumer on a variety of devices and with product packages that are as complicated as you want to make them.

Free or very inexpensive service offerings through web interfaces suggest to every publisher of any size, every literary agent, and every aspiring author “you can do this” and, the implication is, “effectively and without too much help”. Indeed, services like Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) service, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!, and service providers Smashwords and BookBaby, offer the possibility of creating an ebook from your document and distributing it through most ebook retailers, enabled for almost all devices, for almost no cash commitment.

Is it really that simple? One suspects not, since literary agencies are creating ebook publishers (for example: The Scott Waxman Agency’s Diversion) and baskets of services (for example: The Knight Agency in Atlanta) and consulting to help their authors. And a bit further upstream, ebook distribution companies (for example: MintRight) and ebook-first publishers (for examples: Open RoadRosetta, and the granddaddy of them all, Richard Curtis’s e-Reads) are creating more alternatives, sometimes propositions explicitly addressed to the agents. If publishing ebooks to all channels were really a simple matter of uploading a file, it would hardly seem necessary to build all this infrastructure.

We know that small publishers, literary agents, and authors are becoming publishers at an astounding rate. Two years ago when I was trying to organize a panel of literary agents to talk about working with authors on a charge-for-services basis instead of a share-the-royalties basis, it was hard to get volunteers to discuss new models. Two weeks ago, a major agent outside New York said to me, “we all have to think about it now; we have no choice.”

In short, it isn’t just the big publishers who are compelled to develop a digital strategy to adjust their businesses to changing times. Their smaller competitors, the agents they depend on to deliver their content, and even the authors that have always just depended on the publishers to handle the business of getting a book from a manuscript to a purchase, are all assessing the new landscape. They are considering what new approaches might reduce or eliminate their need for a publisher, or at least reduce the publisher’s share of the take.

Although the correct strategy for any entity would depend on the factors that prevail in each case, there are things it would seem that everybody entering this arena needs to know and understand.

First of all, what are all the things publishers do to get from manuscript to sale, are all the steps necessary, and what do they cost? Developmental editing, copy-editing, mark-up for design, creating metadata: these are all things publishers do routinely. Are they critical for every book? Would a purchaser-reader notice if a publishing newbie left any of them out? Will the services that promise to make and distribute an ebook without a cash investment do these things well?

The ebooks themselves have gotten increasingly complicated. The ebook standard epub (used for just about every ebook not intended for the Kindle ecosystem) has risen to the challenge posed by apps to be able to accommodate color and video and audio and software elements. Everybody who knows that “you get what you pay for” expects complicated ebooks to take more effort and money to create than ebooks of straight narrative text. But what constitutes “complex”? And how much more money does that additional effort cost the publisher that wants to deliver an ebook more complicated than just simple text?

Marketing ebooks also requires a whole new set of knowledge and skills. The key to all ebook marketing is the accompanying metadata: coding that travels along with the file specifying its core bibliographic information and price, but which can also tell a retailer or a search engine much more than that. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of delivering metadata that makes the book more likely to be found in response to various searches and queries; that’s yet another set of understandings new ebook publishers have to acquire.

That is just the beginning of what is possible (and therefore necessary) in ebook marketing. Sample chapters can be given away. Web sites can be invoked as partners.

And authors and publishers can, and therefore must, engage in “social network marketing”: using Twitter and Facebook and commenting in high-profile streams to catch attention and gain credibility with core audiences for the books. This is more knowledge to acquire.

Any new publisher will need to understand the paths to market. Yes, Amazon gets more than half of the US ebook sales and Barnes & Noble gets half of the rest. But it isn’t that way on every book, ignoring the others leaves a big chunk of the market unexploited, and things are changing quickly. Amazon’s market share has dropped by a huge percentage in the past two years.) OverDrive is the primary path to libraries. Ingram aggregates many independent stores. Baker & Taylor is opening up markets among mass merchants. Kobo is as important in Canada as B&N is in the US and works in markets all over the world. Google has the ebook ecosystem making the most serious penetration of independent book retailers. Sony is about to introduce new devices that could increase their importance. And Apple is doing its best to dominate sales to its own device holders, who constitute a large wedge of the ebook customer pie.

One can go to all of these channels directly but there are also a slew of services to handle what is the increasingly complex job of delivering to and administering the multiple channels. Perseus Constellation, Ingram Digital, INscribe DigitalLibreDigital (just bought by Donnelley), and Bookmasters as well as the automated services like Smashwords, BookBaby, and MintRight we mentioned above, and others offer service packages to do that and to help with the creation and marketing needs as well.

As we said at the top, nowhere is the change in publishing greater than in the agent community. What has been a stable business model for generations is now, suddenly, changing. There seem to be as many new models and approaches as there are literary agencies. That adds another thing that all of the fledging epublishers — some of which are agents, others being small publishers and authors — need to know about and understand. The relationships among authors, agents, and publishers are getting much more complicated and everybody needs to spend some time thinking that through and discussing what it means.

If all this strikes you as a set of topics worthy of a day’s discussion, we’re in agreement. We think it is too. And that’s why our new Publishers Launch Conferences partnership with Michael Cader is delivering a day-long event called “eBooks for Everyone Else” in New York (in conjunction with The Center for Publishing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies) on Monday, September 26 and in San Francisco (co-located with F+W Media’s new StoryWorld conference) on Wednesday, November 2.

Not only do we have an expert-packed lineup to deliver the information, we’ve carved out time for our attendees to get their own specific questions answered by the experts and by the providers of many of the services that are part of the new ecosystem. If the business of ebook publishing is part of your future strategy, you’re bound to get the knowledge and make the connections you need at eBooks for Everyone Else.

Among the leading service providers who will participate in eBooks for Everyone Else in New York and be available for “speed-dating” conversations with attendees are our global sponsors Copyright Clearance Center, Constellation, and Bowker, as well as supporting sponsors Ingram Content Group, INscribe Digital, B&N’s PubIt!, Kobo, and BookBaby. (Kobo and PubIt! will be speaking from the main stage as well.)

Our New York show features an all-star lineup of literary agents including Jane Dystel, Robert Gottlieb, Sloan Harris, and Scott Waxman. We have a distinguished group of publishing veterans — including Jack Perry and David Wilk, Smashwords founder Mark Coker, Renee Register, Iris Blasi, Rich Fahle, Ron Martinez, and Joshua Tallent — who will present advice and insight to help you develop a comprehensive ebook strategy. Most of them will be available at the breaks and alongside the speed-dating sessions to lead small group discussions and answer your questions about creating, marketing, and distributing your ebooks. (The San Francisco roster is slightly different, but just as powerful.)

Michael Cader and I will be moderating all the day’s activities, asking questions, and helping to put an enormous volume of facts into a strategic context for an audience with a staggering array of choices as to how to proceed with ebook publishing.

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Technology, curation, and why the era of big bookstores is coming to an end


I stumbled across a Sarah Weinman post from a few months ago that posits the notion that the chain bookstore (by which it would appear she means the superstores of the past 20 years, not the chain bookstores in malls that grew up in the prior 20 years) perhaps had a natural life cycle which is now coming to an end. She points out that the investment by Wall Street in the concept of massive destination bookstores enabled their creation, but ultimately resulted in great excess: too many stores with too many square feet to fill and too many books in them that don’t sell.

This is a really good and thoughtful post and I think the observation that the availability of capital built the excess which is now partly responsible for dragging down the structure is correct. But it triggered some additional thoughts that make me want to again trace the history (which I believe has called for smaller bookstores for several years) from before the 1990s when Sarah’s post picks it up and to look at bookstore history through the lens of tech development, which I think both enabled the massive bookstores and is now bringing about their demise.

The core challenge of bookselling — in the past, present, and future, online and in stores, for printed books or digital ones — is curation. How does the bookseller help the reader sort through all of the possible reading choices, of which there are, literally, millions, to find the reader’s next purchase?

In a shop, that curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

In the period right after World War II, there was virtually no technology to help booksellers with curation at all. Sales reps would call (or not) and show catalogs of forthcoming books from which the bookseller would order. There were hundreds of publishers any full-line bookstore would have to do business with. But there weren’t very many full-line bookstores then. Departments stores and small regional chains (Burrows Brothers in Cleveland, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago) were the principal accounts.

Frankly, what was stocked in most stores then had a huge randomness component. This was the world my father, Leonard Shazkin, encountered when he became Director of Research at Doubleday in 1954 and, a few years later, created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. By offering the service of tracking the sales in stores, using reps to take physical inventories in the days before computers could track it, Doubleday took the order book out of the bookstore’s hands for the reordering of Doubleday backlist titles. That solved the problem of breaching the first line of curation. And the reps, now freed of the enormously time-consuming task of selling the buyer on backlist reorders title by title, had more time to affect the second and third lines of curation: the display of the books in the stores and the knowledge the store personnel had about Doubleday books. Sales of Doubleday books exploded, approximately quadrupling for the backlist.

In the early 1960s, Len saw the impact of increased selection from the bookstore’s side of the table. He had moved from Doubleday to Crowell-Collier/Macmillan, which owned the Brentano’s chain. He was put in charge. At first, Brentano’s weakest store was its outlet in Short Hills, New Jersey. They doubled the selection of books and, almost instantly, Short Hills became the best-performing store in the chain.

It took until the late 1960s, when shopping centers were springing up across the country, for the first two national book chains, Walden and B. Dalton, to develop and become a serious force in the industry. And in the early 1970s, Ingram and Baker & Taylor became the first national book wholesalers to cover the country with a wide selection of titles. Dalton and Ingram became industry leaders and both were boosted by technology breakthroughs.

Dalton installed smart cash registers that enabled them to key in a number for each book, telling them what had sold. They didn’t use ISBNs, which were in their infancy; Dalton assigned their own SKU (stock-keeping unit) numbers which were stickered onto the books. The system was far from perfect, but it was revolutionary. For the first time, a bookseller and its publisher suppliers knew some real sales data in a timely fashion (Dalton’s numbers were tallied weekly). And the system also enabled Dalton to keep books that were selling in stock through automated means as well.

Ingram was the first wholesaler to employ microfiche technology to tell booksellers what was available right now in their warehouse. The weekly microfiches were, of course, primitive signals of availability compared to today’s instantaneous online capabilities, but this was also a revolutionary breakthrough. It enabled rapid resupply for all stores, including the chains, of the books they sold each day..

In the late 1970s, scanning technology had developed so that the Dalton key-in-the-SKU system could be leapfrogged by Walden using ISBNs at the register, which could often be scanned into the computer record. Also being developed at that time were various methods for automated order processing between publishers and their customers. By the middle of the 1980s, just before the period when Sarah’s narrative begins, bookstores were growing rapidly. The cost of putting the books on the shelves was dropping in relation to sales and the ability to put the right books on the shelves at the right time was enhanced for everybody. Good curation became much cheaper and much easier and, not surprisingly, sales of books grew dramatically.

Paradoxically, the decline of mass-market paperback distribution created new opportunities for the biggest publishers in hardcover. Mass-market grew on the illusory efficiency of forced distribution. For the first two decades after World War II, the rack-sized paperbacks would show up in the pockets at your local drug store or five and dime without a local buyer having to make a selection. That, combined with a much smaller share of margin going to the retailer, paid for the inherent inefficiencies of ham-handed curation. (And, let’s remember, only the covers had to be sent back for “returns”.)

But as paperbacks became more important and more mainstream, the biggest customers of the local wholesalers who racked them wanted better margins and more control. And the sales volumes had built to the point that many of them could now afford a buyer to deal directly with a number of mass market publishers, so the best accounts started shifting to direct. This weakened the original distribution network, but it opened up the opportunity for publishers to put books other than the rack-sized paperbacks into what had been rack-only accounts.

The first probes with larger trade paperbacks were with romance authors like Rosemary Rogers. The mass channels were more comfortable trying an experiment with format and price with authors they already knew.

The first great exploitation of mass distribution for what was really a trade book was by Peter Mayer (the boss) and Bill Shinker (the marketer) at Avon with the book “The People’s Pharmacy” in about 1975. Avon, a paperback house that published a lot of romance titles, had been one of the pioneers putting the larger books into the mass channel.

Bantam then used the technique for hardcovers, again starting with authors the mass channel already knew like Louis L’Amour and Clive Cussler, before hitting a massive all-channels mass-market home run with “Iacocca” in 1985. (And thanks to Jack Romanos, who was running things there then, for helping me get my recollections straight.)

The increased efficiency of distribution through technology and disintermediation in turn enabled discounting. Crown Books built a chain in the 1980s which mostly sold remainders and bargain books but carried a good selection of current titles with bestsellers deeply discounted. This fueled a further increase in unit sales.

Meanwhile, independent bookstores beginning to use primitive computerized inventory management systems were proving repeatedly what Brentano’s had demonstrated to Len Shatzkin in 1963: a big selection of books attracts a very substantial clientele. So technologically-driven efficiency lent a hand to delivering a more attractive selection (curation) by making it a bigger selection.

And in the late 1980s, these two things — the Crown discounting attraction and the independents large selection attraction — were combined by entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, who created a store called Bookstop that provided both. Bookstop became the prototype “super” bookstore and, before long, Wall Street money was financing Barnes & Noble (which had bought Dalton) and Borders (which had bought Walden) to roll out these bookselling behemoths nationwide.

Which is where Sarah’s post kicks in. But in the context of what came before, I’d add one element she didn’t to the analytical mix. It created a paradigm shift in curation using technology. It’s called Amazon dot com.

While even the largest bookstore had shelf space limiting its title selection, Amazon did not. Through good luck (licensing the Baker & Taylor database which contained a lot of out-of-print titles), good thinking (providing a clear “promise date” for the available books and assisting people’s search efforts by telling them explicitly if a book was not available), and brilliant execution (Amazon’s hallmark from its first moment until the present day), Amazon completely shifted the psychology of book shopping.

Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.

I first saw what is clearly the impact of this through some work I did with Barnes & Noble sales data for university presses about a decade ago. In the recent years before that work, starting in the late 1990s, Barnes & Noble had tried to expand its selection of university press titles. This was applying a time-honored understanding of curation to improve the store selection.

But the results were beyond disappointing. Sales were not rising for the university presses; returns were. What became increasingly clear was that professors, the biggest market for university press books, were a leading edge demographic shifting their buying online. Makes sense, really, considering that they were often finding out about the books they wanted to order through something that had occurred online!

It was at that time — about 2002 or 2003 — that the late Steve Clark, then sales rep for Cambridge University Press and one of the publishers I was working with, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for his company than all other US retailers combined.

This was a big “aha” for me. I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.

And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.

Of course, massive selection is only the first aspect of curation and the other parts are not nearly so well done online. Or, at least, they haven’t been yet. This is a major conundrum for the industry as bookstores fade and it’s the reason three big publishers have financed the startup Bookish. The stores depend on the publishers’ metadata to do this work and the publishers’ depend on the stores’ systems and merchandising creativity. Perhaps partly because the necessary collaboration hasn’t occurred, an effective online equivalent to in-store browsing hasn’t yet been developed.

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