Baker & Taylor

Print book retailing economics and ebook retailing economics have almost nothing in common


There has been a lot of conversation lately about the differences between wholesale pricing and agency pricing for ebooks and about what constitutes a “fair” division of revenue between publishers and retailers. Since the economics of bookstores have been generally misunderstood for years, it is not surprising that the understanding of what changes make sense as we switch to digital have also been misunderstood. A better grounding in the print book economic realities might enable a more informed discussion of what makes sense for digital.

Here are a couple of points about book economics that I learned at my Daddy’s knee.

1. The investment in inventory is the single biggest capital requirement for a bookstore.

2. Given that the ability to invest in inventory is limited, the speed at which inventory “turns” (a measurement of how long a retailer has to hold stock before it sells) is a much more powerful determinant of a store’s total gross margin, and therefore its profit, than the margin it earns on each sale (the difference between what it pays for the inventory and what it is sold for).

In simple shorthand, that means that a retail store selling books can improve its profit more easily by more closely matching what it buys to what it sells than it can by squeezing more margin out of its suppliers. It also means that a publisher can do more for a store’s profitability by shipping quickly and allowing smaller orders at workable discounts (which make it easier to match supply to demand) and offering delayed billing than it can by offering extra points of discount (which is what added margin is called in the book business). The additional benefit of employing this understanding is that margin division is a zero-sum game, but increased inventory efficiency is actually synergistic: both the publisher and the retailer benefit from it.

This reality about bookstore economics explains the value to the supply chain of wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. By offering the ability to combine orders across publishers and giving rapid, often next-day, delivery, the wholesalers enable stores to gain much more inventory efficiency at a relatively trivial reduction in margin. (Where the publishers’ “deal” is sometimes better than the wholesalers’ in a meaningful way is that publishers will often allow a longer period before demanding payment. Inventory “investment” only really begins when the books the store received are paid for.)

So, in fact, there is very little similarity between the economics of retailing print and retailing ebooks. The tech infrastructure for selling is not a trivial investment, and DRM — including customer service — is a significant expense that ebook retailers deal with that bookstores do not. The print retailer has to build a customer-friendly location and invest in (presumably knowledgeable) clerks. How those costs of doing business compare is a complicated question that changes over time as the tech gets cheaper and the cost of physical locations — driven by ever-higher real estate values in the attractive neighborhoods where bookstores tend to thrive — goes up.

But the things that change aren’t nearly as important as the things that don’t.

The stock turn of an ebook retailer is infinity. There is zero inventory investment.

Publishers first had to deal with the question of what the bookstore’s margin should be on ebooks back in the late 1990s when Palm Digital and Microsoft created the first reflowable ebook platforms. Prior to that we had PDFs, which delivered — in the current jargon — “fixed page layout” ebooks which didn’t adjust the number of words per screen to the screen size. At that time, the ebook retailers were inclined to sell at publishers’ “list prices” and publishers tended to price ebooks at about the same level as print.

But nobody paid a lot of attention because the sales and revenue were de minimus. Since Palm had the most hand-held digital assistants (Palm Pilots) in circulation back at the turn of the century and because (as we have clearly learned since) portability is one of the big drivers of ereading, Palm’s ebooks were the best-selling format. But Palm decided not to enable widespread distribution of their ebook format; they sold the ebooks themselves through a controlled vendor (originally called Peanut Press and then Palm Digital).

In fact, the mobi format that Kindle uses today was developed at the time as a bridging format, able to be read on both Microsoft and Palm devices. This was before the creation of the epub format used by everybody except Kindle today. When Amazon bought Mobi, it was apparently to prevent any other retailer from building a real ebook business selling to what was then the “entire” ebook market. B&N’s one-time exit from ebooks was because they could sell only to Microsoft and not to Palm devices, which meant they had the smaller piece of what was a very small market. Amazon apparently figured then that they’d enter the market when they were ready, but they wanted to prevent B&N from building a foothold in it before then.

I’d argue that the biggest mistake B&N made in the history of ebook evolution was not buying Mobi before Amazon did.

So it became “established” that ebooks would be sold on a similar basis to print books with discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent off publisher-set retail. It should have been no surprise to anybody that once “real” retailers — not software companies like Microsoft and Palm — took the reins, they’d give away a lot of that margin to go after market share. That’s what real retailers do; it’s in their DNA.

In fact, the first wave of discounting of print in the 1980s by the Crown Bookstores chain followed very quickly behind increases in publishers’ discounts to stores from the low 40s to 46 percent and up. Most people never noticed that; others think there’s no connection. It always seemed to me that the increased publisher discounts and the discounting to consumers were linked.

In the early days of ebooks, the volumes were so low and the tech was still under development, so the significant margin the publishers offered — and the retailers employed — might have been necessary to have any ebook retailing at all. As time passes, the fixed retailing costs get lower and the customer service costs also tend to get lower.

Once a real retailer, Amazon, got into the ebook business, deep discounts off publisher prices had to follow, and they did. The move to agency pricing had purposes beyond the principal one, which was to remove pricing as a weapon from the retail competition arsenal. It also put publishers on a path to set realistic retail prices for consumers and to reduce the notional share given to the sales intermediary from around 50 percent to 30 percent.

There’s reason to believe that even 30 percent is too high, given the plunging cost structure for retail and the economic reality of infinite turn on inventory investment. A senior Random House executive told me during the period they were not in agency (the first year it existed) that part of the reason they stayed out is that the 30 percent figure Apple wanted and the other publishers agreed to seemed “too high”. As it turned out, Random House came in a year later and accepted the 30 percent. They said at the time it was because indie bookstores were attracted to ebook retailing by the assured 30 percent margin and fixed retail prices, and Random House always wants to support independent retailers.

It was always curious to me that the preference of all the other retailers except those who can use the book business as a loss leader — Amazon, for sure, and perhaps Google —  for publisher-set retail prices never made its way into the discussion of the publisher motivation at the time, nor to Judge Cote’s reasoning, nor to the arguments which have taken place about it since.

Ebook pricing today is very confused. Apparently, many of the retailers will accept wholesale terms at a lot less than 50 percent, although this is not widely known and, indeed, isn’t even really confirmable. Discounts of print to bookstores were published, standard terms. That’s not the case with ebooks (because they’re not really sales, they’re licenses, no matter what anybody says, and they are individually negotiated contracts, the terms of which are kept private). Nobody outside Amazon really knows what margin Amazon actually takes from ebook sales; it is certainly true that most of the ebooks are discounted from whatever prices publishers “suggest”. (And sometimes those publisher-set prices may be inflated, particularly if the publisher is selling at a bookstore-like 50 percent discount.) Perhaps they only really take the 30 percent that they get from agency publishers and that they take from individual authors in KDP and that they have said in their arguments with Hachette is the “right” share for a retailer.

We actually still don’t know what the “right” or “fair” margin is for retailers of ebooks. Random House had some idea of that in 2010 when they were holding out and they seemed to think “less than 30 percent”. Comparing ebook retailing economics to print book retailing economics only tells us that physical retailers of print need a lot more to have a viable business. Dad also taught me is that the reason publishers give stores a discount off the publishers’ retail price — which should be the price a publisher would sell the book at if a member of the public came directly to them — is to give stores the margin they need to operate. Because publishers want there to be stores. First purposes may have been forgotten in course of the digital transition.

There is programming relevant to this post at Digital Book World 2015 in addition to the main-stage appearance of Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti main-with Michael Cader and me. We have a great panel discussion on “price promotion” with Josh Schanker of BookBub, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Matt Cavner of Vook. And “Blue Sky in the Ebook World” where a panel of visionaries will talk about what is over the horizon for ebook retailing, rethinking simple ebooks, making complex ebooks, and creating ebooks with soundtracks. Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen Book’s talk about how the profile of what sells in print has changed will enlighten around this topic as well.

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It is hard for publishers to apply even Harvard B School advice in their struggle with Amazon


Harvard Business Review published an article recently by Benjamin Edelman called “Mastering the Intermediaries” which gives advice to businesses trying to avoid some of the consequences of audience aggregation and control by an intermediary. The article was aimed at restaurants who don’t want their fate controlled by Open Table or travel companies who don’t want to be beholden to Expedia. The advice offered is, of course, scholarly and thoughtful. It seemed worth examining whether it might have any value to publishers suffering the growing consequences of so much of their customer base coming to them through a single online retailer.

The author presents four strategies to help businesses reduce their dependence on powerful platforms.

The first suggestion: exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.

The author cites the fact that American Airlines’ strong coverage of key routes made its presence on the travel website Kayak indispensable to Kayak’s value proposition. As a result, AA negotiated a better deal than Kayak offered others or than others could get.

Despite some suggestions in the late 1990s that publishers set up their own Amazon (which they subsequently half-heartedly tried to do with no success) and a couple of moves to cut Amazon off by minor publishers that were minimally dependent on trade sales, this tactic has never really been possible for publishers on the print side. Amazon began life by acquiring all its product from wholesalers — primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor — before they switched some and ultimately most of its sourcing to publishers to get better margin. But the publishers can’t cut off the wholesalers without seriously damaging their business and their relationships with other accounts, and the wholesalers won’t cut off Amazon. So for printed books, still extremely important and until just a couple of years ago the dominant format, this strategy is not worth much to publishers.

However, the strategy was and is employable for ebooks, which are sold via contractual sufferance from agency publishers, even if the sourcing is (sometimes, not typically by Amazon) through an aggregator. That was the implied threat when Macmillan CEO John Sargent went to Seattle in the now-famous episode in 2010 to tell them that ebooks would only be available on agency terms. Amazon briefly expressed its displeasure by pulling the buy buttons off of Macmillan’s print books. (Publishers can’t cut them off from print availability, but they can cut publishers off from print sales!) In the meantime, Amazon’s share of the big publishers’ ebook sales has settled somewhat north of 60 percent, and those Kindle customers are very hard to access except through Amazon. This is considerably more share than Kayak had when American Airlines threatened their boycott.

In fact, it is likely that Amazon could live without any of the Big Five’s books for a period of time, except for Penguin Random House, which is about the size of the other four big publishers combined. The chances are that PRH’s size will prevent Amazon from treating them the way they are now treating Hachette. And the massive share that Amazon has of both print and ebook sales makes it extremely difficult for Hachette, or any other big house except PRH and possibly HarperCollins, to sustain an ebook boycott (with consequent print book sales reductions) for any significant length of time. In other words, for publishers dealing with Amazon, this horse has left the barn.

Where it has not yet left the barn is with the ebook subscription services, and for them many publishers actually appear to be following the strategy being suggested here. Only two of the big houses have put titles into Scribd and Oyster, and it appears that they got extremely favorable sales and payment terms in order to do so. Indeed, these fledgling subscription offerings must have the big houses’ branded books to have a compelling consumer proposition.

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

The HBS piece cites the complaints that eBay was giving search prominence to suppliers who advertised on the site forcing a reversal of the policy.

Although the search algorithms on powerful platforms are ostensibly geared only to give the customer what they’re most likely to want, it is probably generally understood that these results are jiggered to favor the platform’s interest. It is not surprising that Google has underwritten White Papers from UCLA professor Eugene Volokh and from Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defending that conduct. Volokh argues that the first amendment prevents the government from interfering with search results and Bork says nobody is harmed if Google favors its own interests.

Could we apply that same logic to Amazon? How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

This is the kind of an argument that can arouse the government which, so far, has shown scarcely more interest in Amazon’s dominance of book commerce than they would if they dominated the commerce in soft drinks or lawn fertilizer. Can they be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented? We don’t know, but we do know that Hachette sent lawyers to Washington early in the Obama Administration to call attention to Amazon’s growing marketplace power and their willingness to use it. That apparently had no affect (unless, in some perverse way, it contributed to the government’s interest in pursuing the “collusion” case).

There could certainly be some consumer blowback to the gaming of search results by a platform, perhaps including Amazon. The Harvard article says Google changed algorithms that seemed to be burying Yelp because consumer sentiment, partly measurable in search queries, showed dissatisfaction among the public. But in the absence of an aroused government, it would seem unlikely that this suggestion will do publishers large or small much good.

It is definitely worth noting here that Hachette authors are involved in just such an effort right now over the current Hachette-Amazon dispute. (And Amazon authors, also often called “indie authors”, are pushing back in the other direction.) There is a difference of opinion about how much this is “hurting” Amazon or whether it will push them to a quicker resolution of the dispute; I’m not sure anybody will ever know the answer to that.

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

As the piece explains, when MovieTickets was on the verge of dominating phone and online ticketing, Regal Entertainment and two other large theater chains formed Fandango.

Unfortunately, this is a strategy that simply won’t work as an antidote to Amazon. In fact, trying it, which publishers have, demonstrates a failure to understand the source of Amazon’s power in the marketplace.

Amazon’s strategy is in plain sight and is the title of the best and most recent book about them: Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”. Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin. Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental. This is one of the reasons, perhaps even the principal one, why they operate their book retailing on margins so thin that the incumbent book retailers can’t match them. After all, B&N can’t make up the margin shortfalls created by offering books cheaply by selling that same customer a lawnmower. Nor do they benefit from additional scale provided by selling lawnmowers or cat food or server space.

The fact that Amazon did book retailing in a thorough and sophisticated way as they established their business to become an online Walmart made them different from omni-retailers in the past (going back to departments stores a hundred years ago) who sold some books.

The story has been told on this blog before about Amazon cutting prices more than fifteen years ago to discourage competition coming into the market. Although publishing is a profitable business for them, it is also a strategic component of larger objectives: getting an increasing share of its customers’ purchases across a range of physical products as well as to compete as a streaming content provider across the entire range of digital media.

No enterprise focused primarily on books can compete with that. Amazon takes too many customers off the table before whoever else is competing gets to begin and keeps them for a wide range of reasons. They’ve got the most admirable competitive position conceivable: a first-class operation supported by scale provided by myriad other enterprises, totally wide-ranging and broad knowledge of the details of book retailing, and the financial heft to accept diminished (or even negative) margins from time to time to support strategic objectives.

So, Bookish, the attempt to compete (although that objective was not explicitly stated) forged by three major publishers more than a decade after Ingram’s I2S2 attempt to create a broader base of online retailers, was never a serious threat. (It is now owned by another Regal, Joe Regal, whose Zola Books — an ambitious upstart ebook retailer — bought Bookish, apparently for its recommendation engine, from the publishers.)

This is probably the 20th year in a row, dating from their start in 1995, that Amazon has gained market share for sales of books to consumers. And that’s because consumers are making what for them is the obvious choice for convenience, total selection, and competitive pricing, as well as getting tied into Amazon through their PRIME program. Unless one of the other two tech giants in the bookselling world — Apple or Google — decides to make a dedicated effort to take some of that market share away from Amazon in both print and digital (and neither of them is much interested in print), it is hard to see where a serious competitor can come from.

As of this moment, there is no way for any ebook retailer except Amazon to put DRMed content on a Kindle, which eliminates a big part of the audience from play for any competitive platform.

The fourth suggestion: deal more directly. The article points out that people ordering takeout through online platforms like Foodler and GrubHub have often already chosen their restaurant so that restaurants that deal directly can afford to exit the platform.

As I was working on this post, HarperCollins announced that they have redesigned their website to be consumer-facing which enables them to sell books directly to consumers. They’ve collaborated with their printer-warehouse partner, Donnelley, to handle print book fulfillment and have a white-label version of indie ebook platform Bluefire to deliver ebooks. They promise that authors will be able to use the capability very easily to connect their own web presences and they’re thinking about additional compensation to authors that generate those sales.

This bold move has a hole in it, though, and it is one that publishers so far have no easy way to fill. All the non-Amazon platforms use Adobe DRM, which HarperCollins/Bluefire supports, so they can put your ebook on a Nook or Kobo device with copy-protection. Of course, they have their own “reader”, which can be loaded with ease on most web-capable devices and can apparently also be squeezed onto a Kindle Fire. But, because HarperCollins wants to continue to use DRM protection for the content, they won’t be able to sell directly to users of Kindle devices that are dedicated e-readers.

Although publishers have certainly encouraged that competition to Amazon which exists, their direct efforts have for the most part been limited to cultivating direct interaction with the end user audience to influence awareness and selection. Many smaller publishers are willing to sell direct without DRM and other large publishers sell direct in a more restrained way, but this seems to be the first concerted effort by a major player to drive direct sales.

It will be interesting to watch the pricing interaction between Harper and Amazon and whether Harper can come up with “specials” (bonus content, some connection to the author, bundling) that Amazon or another retailer can’t match. Competing on price is the retailer’s first instinct, but for publishers competing with Amazon on price is a fool’s errand, fraught with the potential for retaliation in many ways (including that “discounts” from publishers, the retailers’ margin, is presumably based on the publisher’s price. What does “publisher’s price” mean if they sell for less?)

But HarperCollins doesn’t need to get a big volume of direct sales for this to be a worthwhile initiative for them. I’d expect it to be copied. Any sales they can get directly increase their power in the marketplace.

There is one other initiative we’re aware of that can perhaps help publishers disintermediate Amazon for direct sales. That’s Aerbook, which widgetizes a book or promotional material for a book so that it can be “displayed” in any environment. Aerbook’s widgets can contain the capabilities for transacting or for referring the transaction to a retailer, Amazon or anybody else. Putting the awareness of the book directly into the social and commercial streams can be a big tool for authors and publishers. But even Aerbook can’t put a DRMed file on a Kindle. They offer a version of “social DRM” — essentially “marking” the ebook in a way that identifies its owner — which can be loaded onto the Kindle. But big publishers and big authors have apparently not yet come to a comfort level with that solution; perhaps the need to get to the Kindle customer directly and the experience Aerbook develops with their method will encourage a more open mind on that question over time.

So, it would seem, the best thinking presented by Harvard Business Review for how producers and service providers can dodge platforms trying to lock in their audiences has precious little that can be usefully applied by publishers to escape the grip of Amazon. Having taken about half the retail book market over the two decades of their existence, they have given themselves a reputation, tools, and momentum that will make it very hard to stop them from eating into the other half substantially in the years to come.

The fact that competing with Amazon is difficult doesn’t stop smart people from trying to figure out how it might be done. A group of publishing thinkers are holding a 2-day brainstorming session at the end of this month to come up with ideas. Two of them, Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon, will be presenting at a session at Digital Book World in January called “Blue Sky in the ebook future”, which will include thoughts on how to improve the narrative ebook itself from Peter Meyers and somebody not yet chosen to speak about complex ebooks.

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New data on the Long Tail impact suggests rethinking history and ideas about the future of publishing


For most of my lifetime, the principal challenge a publisher faced to get a book noticed by a consumer and sold was to get it on the shelves in bookstores. Data was always scarce (I combed for it for years) but everything I ever saw reported confirmed that customers generally chose from what was made available through their retailers. Special orders — when a store ordered a particular book for a particular customer on demand, which meant the customer had to endure a gap between the visit when they ordered the book and one to pick it up — were a feature of the best stores and the subject of mechanisms (one called STOP in the 1970s and 1980s) that made it easier. But they constituted a very small percentage of any store’s sales, even when the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor made a vast number of books available to most stores within a day or two.

It was an article of faith, and one I accepted, that if you could expose most books to a broad public, they would “find their audience”. The challenge was overcoming the gatekeepers or, put another way, the aggregate effect of the gatekeepers (the store buyers) was to curate, or act as a filter, to find the worthwhile books that the public would really see from which they would choose what to buy.

There was also ample evidence over time that a large selection of books in a store acted as a magnet to draw customers. That fact was noted by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, in the early 1960s, when they doubled the inventory at the Short Hills, NJ, Brentano’s store (the chain reported to my father, who was a Vice-President of Crowell-Collier, the company that owned Brentano’s, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and Macmillan Publishers, among other things) and it went from the worst-performing store in the chain to the best. In the 1970s, BP Reports published a survey that said that nearly half of bookstore customers chose the store they were in on the basis of the selection they’d find and more than half reported their particular purchase decision was made in the store.

By the late 1980s, both of the big national bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and Borders — were undergoing a massive expansion of “superstores”. Whereas chain bookstores (B&N’s B. Dalton and Borders’s Walden) carried 20,000 or 30,000 titles, and large independents carried as many as twice that, now the new superstores would carry 100,000 titles or more! Customers flocked to the massive bookstores and the ever-expanding chains ordered lots of the publishers’ backlists and everybody celebrated a new era, except the independent bookstores who were increasingly squeezed by their new large competitors. The era was less than 10 years old when it got disrupted.

In the 1970s, it was my responsibility for a couple of years to write the orders for stores that accepted vendor-managed inventory from Two Continents, my family’s distribution company. I was being careful to make sure that each store earned $2 gross margin per dollar of inventory investment, which was what you’d get from 40% discount with inventory turned 3 times a year. This gave me a hands-on look at how stock turn in the aggregate was affected by the inventory decisions on specific titles.

When you do this, you figure out pretty fast that you can produce very high stock turn on books that are moving consistently. If a store were selling five copies a month of a title on a sustained basis and I put in 10 and replenished monthly, they would be getting an annual turn of 10 or perhaps much more on those moving books. (Turn calculation: sales divided by average inventory for a period multiplied by the number of such periods in a year.) That would support a lot of single copies of books that moved very slowly or, as it turned out, not at all. Since very few stores managed a turn of 3 or 4 on their own (chain store turns were usually under 2), giving the stores on our Plan a good result with the advantage of shipping monthly was shooting fish in a barrel.

But if you think about the turn you’re achieving with the titles that really move, know that the titles that move are a large percentage of the store sales, and take on board what stores’ overall turns tended to be, it leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling, or calculation, that a very high percentage of the titles each store ordered didn’t sell a single copy in that store. In fact, one big advantage of vendor-managed inventory is that it gives you the ability to use the high turn on your titles to stock the titles of yours that turn slowly or don’t sell at all, rather than having the store “waste” those margin dollars your books produce stocking somebody else’s slow-moving books.

Remember, in physical retail, selection was the magnet. The books that didn’t sell were helping to pull in the customers for the books that did sell. Stores knew that too. Later work I did demonstrated that there were whole store sections that turned at half or less of the rate of the store as a whole. But if you want, say, a philosophy section that “turns”, it would only have about ten titles in it. If you want a philosophy section people will browse and shop from, you have to carry a lot of slow-moving titles.

But just when the bookstores put the inventory in place to stimulate book buying all over the country, along came the Internet, Amazon.com, print-on-demand, and ebooks, in that order. All four were fully integrated into the book publishing ecosystem over a decade-and-a-half starting in 1995. As quickly as the magic of selection via the 100,000-title store was implemented, it was superseded by the “total” selection provided by Amazon’s, and then BN.com’s, “unlimited shelf space”. Now every book would have its full chance to sell, or so it seemed.

Unlike the period of superstore expansion, when substantial orders for deep backlist suddenly became commonplace in a continuing windfall for publishers, the new era with Amazon was characterized by things getting harder for many publishers. That wasn’t necessarily clear at first, but the impact of Amazon, and then Lightning (print on demand offered by Ingram) was to dramatically increase the number of titles competing for sales. It gave the Long Tail a real opportunity to get to customers which, through bookstores — even very big bookstores — only the top 100,000 titles were able to do. Publishers were a bit like the metaphorical frog in heating water; the challenges imperceptibly became greater over time. In 1990, a new book competed with about 100,000 available titles. In 1997 it competed with many hundreds of thousands and that number just kept growing. Today it competes with millions.

The challenges for conventional publishers got steeper again when ebooks became mainstream, pioneered by Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007. There had been a modest ebook business building for about a decade, but until Amazon committed its resources to creating a dedicated device, a repository of content, and audience awareness, it had a trivial impact. But a full-fledged ebook business unleashed a new wave of competition from self-publishing authors. Amazon fostered growth by creating an easy on-ramp for self-publishing, a move quickly copied by B&N, Apple, and Kobo. In the several years that ebooks have been commercially important, many — certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands — of authors have achieved meaningful sales. Many of those have been of backlist books originally published conventionally but there have also been thousands of successful original ebooks. Whether revived formerly-dead backlist or new titles, these are books that are competing with the output of the conventional publishers and wouldn’t have been a decade or two ago.

So the Long Tail for books has been a topic of conversation for most of the past 20 years. Amazon’s limitless shelves and Ingram’s Lightning contributed heavily to this before the turn of the century; self-publishing has accelerated it dramatically. The early expectations, including mine, were that the Long Tail would take sales from all the books being “currently” published. But it became evident pretty early that the big books were just getting bigger: the head of the sales curve wasn’t diminishing. In fact, both the head and the Long Tail took sales from the middle of the curve. This was particularly challenging for publishers because publishing mid-list, those books they do that aren’t bestsellers, became much more challenging.

The Long Tail continues to grow. There are a limitless number of aspiring authors and their aspirations to self-publish successfully are fueled both by success stories and by a growing band of indie authors who tout their success and question the business models and practices of the majors. Because being conventionally published has its own set of hurdles and time requirements, it has seemed to many (and I haven’t been immune from this thought) that self-publishing would just continue inexorably to take share from the publishing business.

But now we have some data that calls that assumption into question. I encountered two examples of that in the past week.

In Toronto last Wednesday, Noah Genner of Booknet Canada presented information about the Canadian market showing that the number of ISBNs was expanding rapidly, but that the number of individual ISBNs selling at least one single copy was about flat.

Then this week, Marcello Vena of RCS Libri in Italy published a White Paper based on his company’s data (link through to the White Paper from the DBW piece introducing it) which showed something similar. Sales of his company’s books were becoming increasingly concentrated in a small number of titles. Vena added an analysis using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). HHI measures the concentration in a market and is, according to Vena, used by the US Department of Justice to measure concentration in an industry. The HHI is calculated by adding the squares of the market shares of the players. So if one company owned 100% of a market, the HHI would be 100 squared, or 10,000. But if 100 players each owned 1% of the market, the HHI would be 100 times 1/10,000 (1/100 squared) or 0.01. Using the market concentration and title concentration numbers in tandem, Vena finds that they’re linked. As market concentration increases, the sales move to the head of the sales curve and flatten further in the Long Tail.

Of course, Italy and Canada are not the United States. Our market is bigger and richer. But Italy and Canada are not trivial samples, either.

One further point about Long Tail sales. In the aggregate, they can be very significant. But for each individual title, they are trivial. So the real commercial benefits flow to the aggregators — Amazon and Lightning — and much less to the publishers or authors of the individual titles. There certainly are situations where particular publishers have a lot of Long Tail books: the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses would be prime examples of this. For them, with thousands of titles in the Long Tail, the aggregate sales are probably commercially significant. But for a publisher with 100 titles, or even 1000 titles, selling a copy or two a year (or none), and that’s what we’re talking about here, it hardly makes any difference. I personally own several Long Tail titles. I get checks from somebody every month, but it adds up to three figures a year, not four.

The implications of this in the discussion of how the publishing industry might be affected by self-publishing disruption are interesting. It would suggest to me that the boosts publishers can give a book — even their catalogs provide more marketing lift than most self-published books start with — will become increasingly important as the market becomes increasingly flooded. If the data Vena has presented turns out to be the future trend, the increase in self-published titles will drive more and more sales to a smaller number of winners, and my hunch would be that the winners will most likely be from publishers. That would indeed be a paradox and a totally unintended consequence.

Of course, the publishing business isn’t one business; it is segmented. So far, the commercially successful self-published authors overwhelmingly, if not entirely, fall into two categories. There are authors who have reclaimed a backlist of previously published titles and self-published them. And there are authors of original genre fiction who write prolifically, putting many titles into the marketplace quickly. Successful self-publishing authors are often in both categories but very few are in neither. Those two categories are nearly 100% of the self-publishing success stories but a minority of the books from publishers. So, even before Vena published his White Paper, the idea that self-publishing would upset the commercial establishment was way overblown. If Vena’s data turns out to be prophetic, the road is going to get harder and harder for all books, but especially the self-published.

Two big items in the news today. On B&N’s decision to spin out Nook and college into a separate public company, I have little to say except to wish them all well. On Hachette’s and Ingram’s division of the two Perseus businesses, I’d say this. 1) The notion that this is about Hachette “bulking up” for the Amazon battle is almost certainly wildly wrong and anybody saying that has disqualified themself as an expert. 2) The titles Hachette get here really change the character of their list, adding a non-fiction and academic dimension they never had. 3) Ingram has made a major leap in scale for their Ingram Publisher Services business which now, in the aggregate, is Big Five sized.

Once again, the Feedburner service failed to distribute my most recent post, which was a graf-by-graf disagreement with a post by Hugh Howey. The comment string of that post contains ample evidence that the fact contained in the last paragraph here is not widely acknowledged.

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All the Amazon-Hachette coverage doesn’t seem to cover some important causes and implications


A great deal has been written in many venues about the current tussle between dominant Internet retailer Amazon and one of the three smallest of book publishing’s Big Five general trade houses, Hachette Book Group. Although neither side has been particularly explicit about the precise points of contention, both what I read and what I hear tell me that the argument is about adjusting the ebook sales terms that were first hammered out in the doomed initial Agency implementation and then modified by a settlement reached under the Court’s direction. That settlement restored Amazon’s ability to discount from the publisher-set agency price (which pretty much defeated the purpose of agency from the point of view of the publishers who implemented it) but did not change the 30%-of-agency-price margin that had been established. Expanding that margin seems to be Amazon’s current objective.

My “position” on all this is that it reveals an imbalance that only the government can fix. I don’t know enough about the law to have an opinion about whether Amazon is abusing its marketplace power in an illegal way (although some seem to think they are), but I am quite sure (and so is an op-ed from the Wall Street Journal) that there is not a lot Hachette (or most publishers) can do to resist Amazon’s demands except suffer and hope the suffering is mutual. Hachette has gotten some recent strong support in the marketplace from some of Amazon’s competitors. Little fledgling retailer Zola started it, but Books-a-Million, Walmart, and now Barnes & Noble have joined to push and discount the books that Amazon is trying to bury. It would surprise me if their efforts covered Hachette for half of what they’ll lose.

Even when I’m credited by somebody else with coming up with a suggestion — raising the author split of ebook revenues so that the publishers don’t wave fat ebook margins in front of observant and powerful retailers — that would have made Hachette’s position stronger had they accepted it, I am dubious that the publishers can do much about this. Nothing publishers can do — or could have done in the past — would change the fact that Amazon controls anywhere from 35 to 75 percent of the sales for most trade books. Anybody with that much market inside its corral can charge a considerable toll for getting inside its gates.

For all that has been written, there are some critical points that I think have not been made as often or as emphatically as their importance warrants.

1. Amazon used the book business to build an enterprise no longer dependent on books. Although the executives at Amazon I know maintain that they have always had a “profitable” book business (and I don’t doubt them), the company has famously been willing to live with less margin than its retailing competitors. That takes the oxygen out of the room for any retailer competing with them within the four walls of the book business. Amazon has skillfully used books as a customer acquisition tool and focused on the lifetime customer value across product types, not the margin that could be earned from the book business alone. There’s nothing morally, ethically, or legally wrong with that, but it has been steadily demonstrated for the past two decades (and acknowledged on this blog years ago) that it makes it very hard, perhaps impossible, for somebody retailing books alone to compete with them.

2. Partly as a result of that, Amazon has changed the book business ecosystem. It was almost certainly inevitable that more and more book business would move online. But the consolidation of all the online business in one place — helped along by Amazon’s skillful integration of the used book business (the dimensions of which nobody knows much about) and their market-making Kindle initiative (more about which below) has created a distribution and revenue-source imbalance that publishing has never had before.

3. Amazon, at great expense and with great vision, made the ebook business happen. Before the Kindle, the ebook marketplace was small and unambitious. The biggest player in terms of sales was Palm, which wasn’t really interested. The most interested party was Sony, which repeatedly tried over more than a decade to establish some sort of ebook device and ecosystem. But Amazon made a significant corporate commitment — creating the Kindle device, pressuring the publishers to make much more of their catalog available as ebooks, and investing heavily in discounted sales and screen real estate to build the consumer market. When B&N with Nook in late 2009 and Apple with iPad and iBookstore in early 2010 entered the market, they were attempting to capitalize on a product class that Amazon had pretty much single-handledly created.

4. Amazon is just about every trade publisher’s largest and most profitable account. (Academic and professional publishers, which operated on “short” or “professional” discounts in their interactions with retailers, have been pushed way up on discounts so this generalization usually doesn’t apply to them.) Amazon is a unique account for publishers. They sell both print and ebooks and they sell them globally. Because they don’t have to stock tens or hundreds of far-flung stores, their efficiency of sales, as measured by their very low returns, is almost certainly the highest among retailers and probably the highest of all accounts (including the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor, which can also be pretty efficient). Amazon has no interest in being anybody’s most profitable account; what the publisher profitability suggests to them is that their efficiencies are responsible for a lot of margin generation and they are inclined to want more of it. From Amazon’s perspective, being equivalently profitable to other large accounts is “generous” enough. From many publishers’ perspective, the enormous marketplace control Amazon has was built on the back of the publishers’ and authors’ intellectual property. With Amazon now having effectively replaced large components of the marketplace: Borders being gone and Hastings in the process of going, the independent channel a shadow of what it was a decade ago (despite recent signs of “growth” that might just be partial replacement of Borders demand), and B&N — at the very least — slowly shrinking its store footprint, publishers rely on the margin Amazon provides.

The contradiction here, of course, is that the high relative profitability is all created by efficiencies in the (shrinking) print marketplace. Amazon wants to take the margin back on the (growing) ebook side.

5. Amazon wants lower prices for consumers — at least right now. (They’d say it is a core value and they’ll want it forever; there is room for an honest difference of opinion about how they’ll feel about it when their market share rises further.) Everybody else in the book business (authors, agents, publishers, other retailers) want prices at the very least maintained and probably would prefer they rise. This is the crux of the publishers’ problem with the government and with some quarters of public perception. Lower prices for consumers is catnip for politicians. They simply can’t resist it.

6. Amazon pays amateur authors, often unedited, who upload files not yet ebook-ready to them and don’t know anything about marketing or metadata, as much as 70 percent of retail if they meet certain exclusivity and price stipulations. (Obviously, there are great gems among those, but they are still mostly unproven, unknown, and unsuccessful.) They are apparently fighting hard to avoid giving Hachette — which invests substantially to be consistently superior to a fledgling author on all these counts — the same cut.

7. In the course of building the powerful position they now occupy, Amazon both made substantial infrastructure investments and subsidized sales for publishers through heavy discounting, sometimes below the price publishers charged them for the goods (particularly for ebooks in the days before agency pricing). Very few publishers complained about Amazon’s deep discounting of print books in the late 1990s when it began. Amazon’s pricing strategy discouraged many brick-and-mortar retailers from even entering online selling at that time (which, of course, must have been part of the calculus that motivated them to do the discounting the in the first place) but publishers just benefited through greater sales.

8. Hachette is, essentially, tied with Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for third place among the Big Five publishers. HarperCollins is twice as big. Penguin Random House is more like five times as big. This fight is already being costly to Amazon’s reputation among authors (many of whom, including Malcolm Gladwell, John GreenJames PattersonCharlie Stross and Michael J. Sullivan, have been heard from directly) and can’t be well-received among consumers. They’re not likely to try the same tactics with PRH. That means PRH is the most significant beneficiary of what is now going on. If nature takes its course, they should have much better terms than the other big publishers after this round of negotiations over new terms is concluded. That, along with their deepest pockets and excellent execution, puts them in a position to take down their competitors author-by-author, or editor-by-editor.

In some ways, the die for a reshaped publishing business was cast when Jeff Bezos had the vision to get Wall Street to finance an “everything store” (hat tip to author Brad Stone) built on a foundation of book-buying customers. Amazon has plenty of internal justification for believing that their investment and risk-taking has been a huge benefit to publishers for most of the 20 years of their existence. But that doesn’t change the fact that an imbalance exists that will feed on itself. Amazon will grow at the expense of all other book and ebook retailers and Penguin Random House will grow at the expense of all other trade publishers. Smaller publishers have already felt the pain and self-published authors will in the future. That’s what will happen naturally and organically from now on, unless a stronger force intervenes, and on the right side instead of the wrong side the next time.

The last two posts, the most recent one on subscriptions and the prior one about Amazon-Hachette, were not sent out by the Feedburner service that delivers email versions of the posts to subscribers. I suspect this one won’t be either. Until we move to a new distribution capability, I’ll continue to link to the undistributed posts with each new one, as I’ve done here.

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Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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