Barnes & Noble

What the Riggio interview in the New Yorker tells us


The New Yorker did a very provocative story dated October 21  about Barnes & Noble that included a great deal of information gained from a phone interview by writer David Sax with B&N significant shareholder and chairman Leonard Riggio. B&N is a subject of obsessive interest to book publishers and their friends, family, and ecosystem. About two months ago, I wrote a post trying to pinpoint the source of their biggest challenges (lots of titles in a bookstore isn’t the magnet for customers that it once was) and suggesting a way to attack it (put bookstores in places the customers already were, which are retailers of other things, not books).

Because I lived through a story I told in that piece, it hit me between the eyes when Riggio was quoted in the New Yorker saying he favored doing smaller stores in 2000! It was 2002 or 2003 when I saw clearly, from B&N data, that the big store magnet was already an outdated relic. I then suggested to a fairly highly placed executive there, “you guys have to use your fabulous supply chain to make the 25,000-title store work”. The response was that such an idea couldn’t even really be broached internally. “Mike,” my contact said, “we’re thinking about the MILLION title store!”

So if Riggio was thinking what he remembers thinking back at that time, the word never got to some of his most trusted executives.

The second thing that jumped out at me from the New Yorker piece was Riggio’s analysis of why people shop where they do. It’s very simple in his view. If you have a bookstore close to you, you buy your books there. If you don’t, you go to Amazon. Oh, the many things that analysis oversimplifies and elides!

The first is that it totally lets BN.com off the hook for 20 years of uninterrupted failure to deliver an acceptable online shopping solution. Since the late 1990s, when Amazon started discounting heavily to discourage indies from delivering a competitive online solution, “the problem” has been that Amazon was willing to discount their books aggressively and B&N, trying to “protect” their store business, was not. But while that may have given Amazon an early edge, it doesn’t explain why B&N has lagged Amazon in every functional way from the beginning. Their search isn’t as good. Their checkout isn’t as good. Their metadata is inferior by miles.

The woman of principle I’m married to would, for years, search and shop for her books on Amazon (where she could find what she wanted) and then go to BN.com to order them (so she kept her dollars in the book business). For the same reason she bought Nook instead of Kindle. That lasted for some years. She’s now a Prime customer. Staying loyal to B&N was just too hard; the stuff didn’t work.

As it happens, people who worked at B&N Publishing and Sterling, the formerly independent publisher B&N bought, did the same thing. I’ve been told by several people that they routinely used Amazon to gather the data they needed to support internal discussions about a book or a category. The internal alarm bells should have been deafening!

Riggio’s view of how customers choose their vendor ignores another important nuance. Those decisions depend both on the customer and what they’re shopping for. The key realization I had from B&N data in 2002-3 that led me to suggest smaller stores was that professors were clearly not buying their academic and professional books at B&N anymore. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

Professors are smart people. They were well aware from years of experience that their local bookstores (B&N or any other) almost never had the most recent academic or professional book they heard about. When the Amazon alternative became available it was a clearly superior choice if your expectation was that you would just go to the store to special order and then have to go back to pick it up! Before there was an Amazon, the store with the most titles was the logical place to go look for something obscure. After Amazon was established, they gradually — quite logically — became the default for that use case.

What the professors had figured out by 2002, the whole world knows today. The savvy consumer will likely order any title s/he thinks is at all obscure from Amazon rather than expecting to find it in a local store.

Another nuance that segments how book purchasers make those decisions, besides obscurity, is the nature of what they’re shopping for. If you want to buy “The Girl on the Train”, you don’t need to see it or touch it. If you want to buy an art book for your best friend’s birthday, you might well want to look carefully at a few before you decide. Even with access to “Look Inside” capability (which is far more built out at Amazon than at BN) online, seeing the physical book in a store would be preferred for logical reasons by many people.

Then there’s the weight of the book which you might not want to carry around or the possibility that you want it just shipped directly to somebody else. Where you live in relation to a bookstore isn’t going to make much difference in those cases.

In fact, an industry veteran who started in book clubs reminds me that we knew all this decades ago. Outsiders thought mail order book clubs were for people who couldn’t easily get to bookstores. But, in fact, the people running book clubs knew that the zip codes where they had the most customers also had lots of bookstores in them.

I have one more conjecture from reading the New Yorker piece, which is that, as smart as Riggio is and as obsessed as he certainly was with the way his business ran, it is possible he doesn’t fully understand why B&N was so successful. You have to do a lot of things well to run a big bookstore chain.

It could have been because of the intelligence and care they put into selecting locations for the stores. It could have been their internal store design and layout. It could have been the the authority they gave their managers to customize their stock. (Despite the notion, true and emphasized in the the New Yorker piece, that the stores are necessarily standardized in many respects, it has always been B&N’s ethic that the store manager should buy what is needed locally that the New York buyers might miss.) It could have been the skill of the buyers in picking the books.

But I always thought the key to B&N, differentiating them from Borders and other chains and heavily advantaging them over independents, was their supply chain logistics. They built warehouses and systems that enabled them to replace many of the books they sold today by tomorrow or the day after. Stock turn is the most important metric contributing to bookstore profitability, far more impactful than discount (how much margin they get from the publishers). B&N’s supply chain was what gave them the edge.

After reading his quotes in this piece, it occurred to me that Len Riggio might not know that. He certainly said nothing to David Sax to indicate that he realized that was a critical lever for his company and exploring how he might use it. That was, of course, the foundation of my suggestion in the last B&N post I did suggesting they place B&N Book Departments in as many stores as they can.

And if Riggio does come around to that point of view, he might also revisit his concluding thought that, whatever happens, it will “play out over a long period of time”. The B&N supply chain capability, which has given it enormous leverage for decades, will also deleverage very quickly as volume and the number of stores being served goes down. It is the sales in the stores and on dotcom that pay for that supply chain. And even just reducing its size will be an expensive undertaking. That’s something for all of us to worry about.

A publishing veteran friend who recently pocketed beaucoup bucks from an “exit” speculated to me recently that Barnes & Noble would be a great company for somebody with fresh eyes and a fresh approach to do something with. He’d love to be part of a new owning group. That thought may be right, but the stock looks pretty expensive right now. I’m personally skeptical that the new “concept stores” with better food is a winning idea. Do you know anybody who picks their bookstore by the menu?

While this piece was being worked on, Barnes & Noble announced that they were closing their only store in New York’s borough of the Bronx.

And for those who can’t get enough on this subject, here are posts I wrote as long ago as 2009 (some of the linked speeches are much older than that!) and as recently as a year ago making the point that smaller bookstores were the future.

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The latest marketplace data would seem to say publishers are as strong as ever


This post began being written a couple of weeks ago when I recalled some specific misplaced expectations I had for the self-publishing revolution and started to ponder why things happened the way they did in recent years. It turns out a big part of the answer I was looking for provides clarity that extends far beyond my original question.

For a period of a few years that probably ended two or three years ago, we saw individual authors regularly crashing bestseller lists with self-published works. Some, like Amanda Hocking, parlayed their bootstrap efforts into significant publishing contracts. Others, like Hugh Howey, focused on building their own little enterprise and tried to use the publishing establishment for what it could do that a self-publisher couldn’t. (In what was certainly a very rare arrangement of this kind with a major indie author, Howey made a print-only deal for his bestseller, “Wool”, with Simon & Schuster. And he made foreign territory and language deals and Hollywood deals as well.) And we know that there were, and are, a slew of indie authors who self-publish through Amazon and don’t even bother to buy ISBN numbers to get universal distribution under a single title identifier, effectively keeping them out of bookstores.

All of this was enabled by three big changes to the historical book publishing and distribution ecosystem. One was the rise of ebooks, which simplified the challenge of putting book content into distributable form and getting it into the hands of consumers. The second was the near-perfection of print on demand technology, which enabled even print books to be offered with neither a significant investment in inventory nor the need for a warehouse to store it. And the third was the increased concentration of sales at a single retailer, Amazon. Between print and digital editions, Amazon sells half or more of the units on many titles and, indeed, may be approaching half the retail sales overall for the US industry.

(This is very hard to measure or even get reliable anecdata for. Amazon sells globally. Indeed, one of its great contributions to publishers is pretty seamlessly enabling them to reach export markets through a domestic supplier. But it also means that publishers can tend to see all Amazon sales as “domestic”, even when they’re not. US publishers are often telling us that half their sales are coming from Amazon, but how much of those sales are to offshore accounts is not consciously backed out of the numbers.)

What the rush of indie bestsellers told us a few years ago was that things had changed to the point that a single person with a computer could achieve sales numbers that would please a big corporation going after sales with the tools provided by tons of overhead: careful curation and development, sophisticated production capabilities, teams of marketers and publicists, legions of sales people, and acres of warehouse space. This had not been possible before ebooks. And the market reach of the amateur publisher was extended even further as Amazon’s share of print sales surged as a direct result of retail shelf space declining with Borders’s passing and Barnes & Noble’s shrinkage.

For a period of time that was relatively brief and which now has passed, agents and publishers worried that self-publishing could be appealing to authors they’d want in their ecosystem. The author’s share of the consumer dollar is much higher through self-publishing. And the idea of “control” is very appealing, even if the responsibility that goes with it is real and sometimes onerous.

So, I warned with what felt like prescience, entity self-publishing might present an even greater threat to publishers than independent authors would.

I was thinking about the scale value that publishers brought to producing revenue for books. Historically, that had been about capabilities that only a book publisher would have at its disposal, the tools we referred to earlier. With Ingram then adding a turnkey service called “Spark” to reach the half of the market that was not delivered by Amazon in the US, access to other ebook retailers wherever they are, and enabling print sales around the world, a publisher could “rent” all the infrastructure it would need to reach all the audience there is with two stops: Amazon and Ingram.

The entities that I had my eye on from the book publishers’ perspective were those already in the print content business: newspapers and magazines. They all start out with assets that would seem to lend themselves to creating and promoting books. They have access to vast number of writers, on staff and through work-for-hire arrangements. They have editors on staff as well as the knowledge of how to find and hire more for projects. They have direct online access to a large number of consumers, including the opportunity to know their interests in a very granular way. They have advertisers who could be useful for promoting books or even buying them in bulk.

But despite the fact that there was, indeed, a slew of activity 2-to-4 years ago from a variety of non-book publishing content entities to get into ebooks, there have been no apparent breakthroughs. Nobody has cracked the code. Nobody who is not a book publisher has used the rent-a-scale capabilities to build a sustained book business.

It is not that many haven’t tried, or are still trying. Among those who have been or are still in the game are The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, NBC, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The Boston Globe. They have sometimes worked in conjunction with digital start-ups. For example, the New York Times worked with Vook (now called Pronoun and acquired earlier this year by Macmillan) and Byliner, whose original proposition was “short ebooks”.

There have been a variety of approaches to create the content. Sometimes these publications and websites have recycled their own material or used internal resources. The Boston Globe did an insta-book on Whitey Bulger and some on Boston sports teams, as well as creating a book of photos of Boston that had already run in the paper. (The Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship was commemorated in a book delivered both in print and digital days after they won.) The Star-Tribune used internal staff to execute the mechanics of delivering ebooks. The Boston Globe’s Bulger book, published by Norton in print, showed them that they could do the ebook work themselves.

Obviously, the idea of book programs using magazine brands is not new with the digital age. Decades ago, Hearst, Rodale, and Meredith were all big magazine companies committed to real book programs, which was what it took to support the infrastructure or to form a close relationship with a publisher to provide it. Hearst has had a robust book program for a long time because they once owned the book publishers Morrow and Avon. When they were sold in the mid-1990s, the management saw virtue in maintaining the book program so they teamed up with Sterling Publishing for everything from assists creating the content to all the scaled book publishing functions. The relationship continues to this day, although Hearst also licenses other projects to other publishers. Rodale remains active in both books and magazines, with their own organization doing the books. And Meredith temporarily moved its book program from “independent” to publisher John Wiley. It is now a shadow of its former self.

Even in the simplified age we’re in now, leaning on a publisher with all the pieces in place can be a way to tackle the challenge of having an adequate infrastructure for books. I am currently reading a “Washington Post” ebook on climate change that was published in conjunction with Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher created by literary agent Scott Waxman during the height of the indie publishing ebook fever.

But searching for a surge in this kind of activity generated by the digital revolution consistently takes us back to two and four years ago. In 2012, Random House partnered with the website Politico to deliver four ebooks on the 2012 presidential race. We’re not aware of anything similar taking place this year. The Minnesota Star Tribune was pushing their ebook initiative in 2013. The Boston Globe got into the game in 2011. The Times did a story in 2011 about the phenomenon which covered a Vanity Fair ebook of collected articles about Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation when they were the caught in a scandal. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, loved the whole idea. He loved the idea of publishing articles which had already been fact-checked and copy-edited. “It’s like having a loose-leaf binder and shoving new pages into it.”

The Byliner collaboration with the New York Times was first reported in 2012, and the Times started their initiative with Vook almost simultaneously. At the same time, programs were being announced in the UK by the Guardian and the Financial Times.

All of that inspired the pundit in me to say “watch out”. But there’s been a lot less activity since. It’s worth asking why.

Of course, there are logistical and organizational challenges to just bolting a book publishing program onto an existing content-creating entity. The writers and editors at newspapers and magazines are already fully employed; they’re not looking for additional things to do. And the job specs and incentive arrangements are all about the principal activity. The marketing mechanisms at a periodical publisher are, likewise, fully engaged. So the newspaper or magazine might have more powerful tools for some marketing purposes than a book publisher does, but no book operation inside one of them could get them dedicated to help sell books on anything but the most sporadic and opportunistic basis.

In addition to the fact that the sailors all have existing assignments, a book publishing initiative would also lack a captain. We observed a couple of years ago that one of the great indie publishing successes, a cookbook called “Modernist Cuisine”, carrying a price tag of $625 and published by Microsoft co-founder Nathan Myhrvold, was largely made possible by the leadership of a veteran publisher, Bruce Harris. Yes, Ingram did the “scale” work: printing, warehousing, selling, distributing. And it wouldn’t have been possible without them. But Harris worked out the commercial equations (what should the retail price be, for example) and the marketing campaign that carried it to its success.

There are other veteran publishers like Harris available to be engaged as consultants, but it is also much easier for a single entrepreneur like Myhrvold to make use of one than it would be to have them integrate with an existing organization formed for another purpose.

I asked indie-publishing experts Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson (their weekly “Hot Sheet” newsletter for independent authors is a great resource) for their take on the question I was posing: what happened to all those newspapers and magazine initiatives? Why did it seem that none of them achieved the success I was expecting?

Friedman drew on her experience at Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), which had publishing ambitions based on ebook economies but ultimately abandoned them. She saw the “complications” falling into three buckets.

Clearing rights for projects with multiple authors, which VQR would have been frequently called upon to do, was challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating.

The organizational structure and staffing was far from optimal for a book publishing operation.

The profit potential was too small to make it worth the effort to overcome the other two problems.

But, even accepting all of that,  I’d suggest that the biggest reason this activity was so feverish 2-to-4 years ago and isn’t so much now was revealed first in a vitally important post by hybrid author and helper-of-indies Bob Mayer and then reiterated by the latest report from the Author Earnings website.

Mayer built an impressive business for himself by reissuing titles of his that had previously been successfully published and gone out of print. He spells out clearly what has changed since the days of big indie success and the plethora of entity-based publishing initiatives.

The marketplace has been flooded. An industry that used to produce one or two hundred thousand titles a year now produces over a million. Nothing ages out of availability anymore. Even without POD keeping books in print, ebooks and used books make sure that almost nothing ever disappears completely. And Mayer’s sales across a wide range of titles — his and other authors whom he has helped — reflect the mushrooming competition. They’re down sharply, as are the sales of just about everybody he knows.

What Mayer wrote tended to confirm that the breakthrough indie authors happened far more frequently before the market was flooded. Authors who struck it rich in 2010 and 2011 (like Hugh Howey) were lucky to get in before the glut. Recommending that somebody try to do the same thing in 2013 or 2014 was telling them to swim in a pool with water of a completely different temperature.

On the heels of Mayer’s piece, Author Earnings made discoveries that seemed to startle even them. For those who don’t know, AE is a data collection and analysis operation put together by indie author Hugh Howey teamed with the anonymous analyst “Data Guy”. The AE emphasis is on what the author gets, (“a site for authors by authors” is what they call themselves) with less interest in what publishers want to know: how topline ebook revenues are shifting.

According to the industry’s best analyst, Michael Cader, the most recent AE report shows, for the first time since they’ve been tracking it, a reduction in earnings for indie authors and an increase for published authors. (Cader may have a paywall; here’s another report from Publishing Perspectives.) But even more startling is the shift in revenue. Publishers have booked 65% of Kindle revenues and Amazon Publishing has 10%. They put self-published authors at 20%, which is down from 25% previously.

It is not a big surprise that Amazon Publishing is able to grow its own share of Kindle revenue. But the fact that publishers are holding their own, in the aggregate, while indie authors are not, underscores the challenge that non-publisher books are facing. The title output of publishers has remained relatively flat. The title output of indies has surged. So the per title sales of indie books must be collapsing relative to the publishers’ output.

What this is telling us is that, whatever deficiencies there are in the way publishers are organized for publishing today, they clearly are able to marshal their resources more effectively for book after book than indies can. So, not only does the “entity publisher” have the challenge of refocusing an organization designed for something else to sell books, they’re fighting a tidal wave of competition that enters the market because of the low barriers to entry. In fact, if you were at a newspaper or magazine today and thinking about putting your company into the book business, there would be powerful arguments to follow the Hearst formulation of creating a home inside an established book publisher rather than building a low-overhead operation for yourself. But that option has always been available; it didn’t require a digital revolution to deliver it.

A lot has been made of the fact that big publishers are seeing topline revenue erosion across print and digital. But the ability for readers to consume books has, at best, remained flat (there are so many more distractions immediately available these days) and the number to choose from has exploded. That means the per-title sales are plummeting. Per-title sales are what tell us whether publishers or independent authors can make any money. And the math is clear: it is getting harder and harder to do so, but it seems to be getting harder faster for the indies than it is for the established publishers.

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The reality of publishing economics has changed for the big players


A veteran agent who was formerly a publisher confirmed a point for me about how trade publishing has changed over the past two decades, particularly for the big houses. This challenges a fundamental tenet of my father’s understanding of the business. (And that’s the still the source of most of mine.) I had long suspected this gap had opened up between “then” and “now”; it was really great to have it confirmed by a smart and experienced industry player.

One of the things that I took from my father’s experience — he was active in publishing starting in the late 1940s — was that just about every book issued by a major publisher recovered its direct costs and contributed some margin. There were really only two ways a book could fail to recover its costs:

1. if the advance paid to the author was excessive, or

2. if the quantity of the first printing far exceeded the advance copy laydown.

In other words, books near the bottom of the list didn’t actually “lose” money; they just didn’t make much as long as the publisher avoided being too generous with the advance or overly optimistic about what they printed. (Actually, overprinting was and is not as often driven by optimism as by trying to achieve a unit cost that looks acceptable, which is a different standard fallacy of publishing thinking.)

The insight that just about every book contributed to overhead and profit was obscured by the common practice of doing “title P&Ls” that assigned each book a share of company overheads. Whatever that number was, when it was calculated into the mix it reduced the contribution of each sale and showed many books to be “unprofitable”. That led publishers to a misunderstanding: perhaps they could make more money doing fewer books, if only they could pick them a little bit better. Trying to do that, of course, raised the overhead, which was neither the objective nor any help in making money.

(Raised the overhead? I can hear some people asking…Yes, two ways. One is that publishing fewer books would mean that each one now had to cover a larger piece of the overhead. The other is that being “more careful” about acquisition implies more time and effort for each book that ends up on the list, and that costs overhead dollars too.)

For years, this “reduce the list and focus more” strategy was seen by my father, and those who learned from him, as a bad idea.

One of the young publishers my father mentored was Tom McCormack, who — a decade after Len worked with him — became the CEO of St. Martin’s Press. There, McCormack applied Len’s insight with a vengeance, increasing St. Martin’s title output steadily over time. And, just as Len would have expected they would, St. Martin’s profits grew as well.

All of this was taking place in a book retailing world that was still dominated by stores making stocking decisions independently from most other stores. In the 1970s, the two big chains (Walden and B. Dalton) accounted for about 20 percent of the book trade. The other 80 percent was comprised of nearly as many decision-makers as there were outlets. So while it took a really concerted effort (or a very high-profile book or author) to get a title in every possible store location, just about every book went into quite a few. With five thousand individuals making the decision about which books to take, even a small minority of the buyers could put a book into 500 or 1000 stores.

But two big things have conspired to change that reality. The larger one is the consolidation of the retail trade. Now there are substantially fewer than 1000 decision-makers that matter. Amazon is half the sales. Barnes & Noble is probably in the teens. Publishers tell us that there are about 500 independent stores that are significant and that all the indies combined add up to 6 to 8 percent of the retail potential. The balance of the trade — about 25 percent — is the wholesalers, libraries, and specialty accounts. The wholesalers are feeding the entire ecosystem, but the libraries and specialty accounts are both very much biased as to the books they take and very unevenly covered by the publishers. In any case, ten percent of the indie bookstores today gets you 50 on-sale points, not 500. That’s a big difference.

The other thing that has happened is that the houses are much better organized about which books they are “getting behind”. This has the beneficial effect of making sure the books seen to have the biggest potential get full distribution. But it also has the impact of reducing the chances that the “other” books will get full attention from Barnes & Noble (able to deliver more outlets with a single buyer than one would customarily get from the entire indie store network). And, without that, it takes a lot of luck or online discovery to rescue a book from oblivion.

The agent who was confirming my sense of these things agreed that the big houses used to be able to count on a sale of 1500 or 2000 copies for just about any title they published. Now it is not uncommon for books to sell in the very low triple digits, even on a big publisher’s list.

Even before any overhead charge and with a paltry advance, that isn’t going to cover a house’s cost of publication. So there definitely are books today — lots of books — coming from major houses that are not recovering even their direct costs.

This is a fundamental change in big publisher economics from what it was two decades ago. While the potential wins have become exponentially bigger than they were in bygone days, the losses have become increasingly common. And while it is still an open question how well anybody can predict sales for a book that isn’t even written yet (which is the case for most books publishers acquire), there is a real cost to getting it wrong, even when the advance being paid is minimal.

So it is no longer irrational to cut the list and focus. Obviously, every book published is a lottery ticket for a big win, and the odds in a lottery are never good. But the world most general trade publishers have long believed in, where the big hits pay for the rest of the books, is really now the one they inhabit.

I am proud to be part of the organizing committee for Publishing People for Hillary. We’re staging a fundraiser for her in midtown Manhattan on Friday, September 30, at which Senator Cory Booker and Senator Amy Klobuchar will be the featured speakers. You can sign up to join us here. Contribution levels for the event range from $250 to $2500, with a special opportunity to meet the Senators at the higher levels.

And, having NOTHING to do with publishing, but for all baseball fans in the crowd, please check out this story about Yogi’s mitt and Campy’s mitt that you will not have seen anywhere else.

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eBook pricing resembles three dimensional chess


The current round of reporting from major publishers contains some danger signs. Their ebook sales are declining (in dollars and even more dramatically in units) in an ebook market that is probably not declining. The “good” news for the publishers is that print sales are pretty much holding their own, or even growing. And profits are being maintained, which is probably the most important metric in their board rooms. But the bad news is that total revenues are down. And print sales have been buoyed by the consumer excitement for adult coloring books (now spreading to adult “activity” books), so the combined results for many author-driven titles don’t necessarily reflect growth and total unit sales of print plus digital for many titles are almost certainly falling behind expectations

In a complicated marketplace with large unknowns around indie authors and indie books, particularly those that are Amazon-only, it is hard to be definitive about what the cause of this is. (Author Earnings does yeoman work trying to put the two overlapping markets in context.) Certainly, barriers to entry have come down and there are many more books in the marketplace competing for readers that don’t come from the companies the publishers think they’re competing against. But the publishers’ “success” in establishing agency pricing — where the price they set is the price the consumer pays — combined with Amazon’s decision to “respect” agency (at first with no choice but subsequently, after contracts were renegotiated, with apparent enthusiasm) and offer no pricing relief from their share of the book’s sales revenue is almost certainly a major component of the emerging problem.

Amazon doesn’t need big publisher books to offer lots of pricing bargains to their Kindle shoppers; they have tens of thousands of indie-published books (many of which are exclusive to them) and a growing number of Amazon-published books, that are offered at prices far below where the big houses price their offerings. That probably explains why Amazon can see its Kindle sales are rising while publishers are universally reporting that their sales for digital texts, including Kindle, are falling. (Digital audio sales are rising for just about everybody, but that is not an analogous market.)

This is putting agency publishers in a very uncomfortable place. It has been an article of faith for the past few years that there is revenue to unlock from ebook sales if only the pricing could be better understood. Just a bit more revenue per unit times all those ebook sales units is a very enticing prospect for publishers. After the agency settlements liberated publishers from the price limitations Apple had originally insisted on, the immediate tendency was for publishers to push ebook prices even higher.

And since ebooks are sold in a less price-competitive market than we had before agency, Amazon can devote its marketing dollars to cutting prices on the print editions. This undercuts the publishers’ intention to support a diverse (and store-based) retail network and, at the same time, often embarrasses them by making the print book price (set by Amazon) lower than the ebook price (which Amazon makes very clear was set by the publisher).

The fact that this is reducing publisher revenue and each title’s unit sales is concerning. But it is also making it much more difficult to establish new authors at the same time because lots of competing indies are still being launched with low price points that encourage readers to sample them.

It is maintained by many people that there has been a reduction in the rate of surprise breakout books over the past few years because of this pricing as well. This perception would be explained by the fact that price attracts readers to try new authors, and so the new rising talent would more frequently come from the lower-priced indies. Higher ebook prices reduce the speed with which a book can catch on in the marketplace. It feels like there is a consensus in the big houses now that it is harder to create the “surprise” breakouts. (This is a very difficult thing to actually measure.) The “Girl on the Train” phenomenon is always unpredictable, but big publishers still could count on it coming along often enough to keep the sales revenue trend line rising. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales. (Although if they cut prices as a promotion, and they market the promotion, apparently higher-priced print will also benefit from the promotion and see a resulting sales lift.) And singling out some of their ebooks for an ebook price reduction strategy could also raise a red flag with an agent. It is easy to understand a temporary price reduction that is promoted; as an overall pricing strategy it could be seen as a bite out of the author’s ebook earnings at the same time their print sale is threatened with the low-price ebook competition. And while an ebook price-reduction strategy would probably make at least Amazon and Apple, very important trading partners, quite happy, it risks angering others, including perhaps Barnes & Noble but certainly including all the indie bookstores.

On the other hand, the current “strategy” has plenty of risk.

An unpleasant underlying reality seems inescapable: revenues for publishers and authors will be going down on a per-unit basis. This can most simply be attributed to the oldest law there is: the law of supply and demand. Digital change means a lot more book titles are available to any consumer to choose from at any time. Demand can’t possibly rise as fast and, in fact, based on competition from other media through devices people carry with them every day, might even fall (if it hasn’t already). So publishers are facing one set of challenges with their high ebook prices; they’ll create another set if they lower them.

But, unfortunately, lower them they almost certainly must. With more data, we may learn that developing new authors absolutely requires it, particularly in fiction.

Here’s a suggestion for a new pricing routine that might be worth trying in the near term recalling a prior practice from quite a while ago.

There was a period earlier in my career, probably ending in the 1980s, when publishers priced new hardcovers like this: $22.95 until October 1, $24.95 thereafter. The books had the price on a corner of the jacket that could be snipped diagonally on October 1, so that only the $24.95 price would show.

Frankly, in this case the pricing device was not primarily intended to entice the consumer to buy the book before the up-pricing deadline. It was really designed to get the store to place a bigger advance order, for which the applicable discount would be based on the promotional price.

Now big advance orders are not nearly as important as they used to be, nor nearly as common. But there is still a huge dependence on consumers taking a risk on an author, particularly in the first moments after a book comes out. Two or three decades ago, this was the “secret” behind publishers moving an author from a star doing “mass-market originals” (low prices) to a hardcover bestselling author.

So what might be worth a try from the big publishers now would be “promotional ebook pricing” on launch. Make the ebook $3.99 until date X, and then raise it to the “normal” level (which for major publishers, when the hardcover is in the marketplace, would be $12.99 and up.) This is a very painful experiment to try because it will compete against the hardcover at launch, when the publisher is trying to pile up sales to make the bestseller list. It will annoy print booksellers as well.

But publishers have to find a way to put new authors into the market without a millstone of pricing that requires a significant commitment by the reader before they know the author.

Of course, that strategy suggests an even more disruptive reality about ebook pricing: it doesn’t have to remain “set” the way print book pricing does. Because of our convention of printing the publisher’s suggested retail price right on the book’s jacket or paperback cover, it is not really practical to change a book’s price except, occasionally (and less often in these low-inflation times) when a book is reprinted. (In higher-inflation times, we did sometimes employ the practice of “stickering” to increase price, but that was clumsy and impossible to conceal.) But with ebooks, prices can change pretty much as often as you like: up, down, and up again.

In fact, that already happens with promotional pricing such as has been pioneered by the email service, BookBub. The BookBub idea — emailing a subscriber list with notice of price promotions on ebooks — has been copied highly successfully by HarperCollins with their proprietary version, BookPerk, and to a lesser extent by other publishers as well. It is becoming established practice to temporarily lower the price of a title to get it ranked higher and then to raise the price and try to capture higher-revenue sales with the hyped “branding” the promotion created. So far, this is done with a clear game plan, such as discounting the first book in a series, or the most recent book in a series when a new title is about to come out.

But uncoupling the ebook pricing completely from print pricing, which seems to be where we will inevitably go, may also mean — it certainly can mean — all ebook pricing becomes dynamic. All of this definitely raises the bar for publisher knowledge of how consumers react to prices in different situations. It has been a widespread article of faith that retailers “understand” this behavior and publishers don’t. To the extent that retailers do understand it, they see it through a different lens; they almost never care about the impact of price changes on the overall sales curve for a single title. Titles are interchangeable for retailers and not for publishers. So while it is true that publishers have a lot to learn, it is probably not true that retailers already know it.

The points I wanted to make in this post were that publishers should contemplate uncoupling ebook pricing from print pricing, learn more about consumer behavior around pricing, and master the skill of managing (strategically and operationally) LOTS of ebook price changes all the time. There is another point herein, made in passing, that is worth deeper consideration on another day. Big publishers are seeing their revenue decline but their profits rise. Does that point to a strategy? For how long can publishers cut costs faster than revenues, particularly per-unit revenues, decline? Maybe for quite a while…

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Barnes and Noble faces a challenge that has not been clearly spelled out


The sudden dismissal of Ron Boire, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, follows the latest financial reporting from Barnes & Noble and has inspired yet another round of analysis about their future. When the financial results were released last month, there was a certain amount of celebrating over the fact that store closings are down compared to prior years. But Publishers Lunch makes
clear that store closings are primarily a function of lease cycles, not overall economics, and we have no guarantees that they won’t rise again this year and in the years to follow when a greater number of current leases expire.

With B&N being the only single large source of orders for most published titles for placement in retail locations, publishers see an increasing tilt to their biggest and most vexing (but also, still their most profitable) trading partner, Amazon.

Although PW reported immediate dismay from publishers over Boire’s departure, there has been plenty of second-guessing and grumbling in the trade about B&N’s strategy and execution. Indeed, getting their dot com operation to work properly is a sine qua non that they haven’t gotten right in two decades of trying. But one thing Boire did was to bring in a seasoned digital executive to address the problem. This is presumably not rocket science — it isn’t even particularly new tech — so perhaps they will soon have their online offering firing on all cylinders.

The big new strategy they revealed, one they’re going to try in four locations this year, is what they call “concept stores” that include restaurants. And, although it was a bit unclear from their last call whether the store-size reduction they’re planning extends to these restaurant-including stores, they have said that the overall store footprint they’re planning will be 20-25 percent smaller than their current standard. These two facts both make the point that B&N is facing a reality which has become evident over the last decade, and which questions a strategy and organizational outlook that was formulated in another time. If this new challenge is properly understood, and I haven’t seen it clearly articulated anywhere, it would make the restaurant play more comprehensible. (Note: I have to admit that my own recent post, where I traced the history of bookstores in the US since World War II, failed, along with everybody else, to pinpoint the sea change that makes B&N’s historical perspective its enemy while trying to survive today.)

Here’s the change-that-matters in a nutshell. A “bookstore” doesn’t have the power it did 25 years ago to make customers visit a retail location. Selection, which means a vast number of titles, doesn’t in and of itself pull traffic sufficient to support a vast number of large locations anymore. This changes the core assumption on which the B&N big store buildout since the late 1980s was based.

This has been true before. One hundred years ago the solution to the problem became the department store book department. Post-war prosperity grew shelf space for books, but the department stores remained the mainstays for book retail. The first big expansion of bookstores started in the 1960s when the malls were built out, which put Waldens and Daltons in every city and suburb in America. The mall substituted for the department store; it delivered the traffic. In fact, department stores “anchored” all the malls to be sure they’d get that traffic!

(Here are a couple of additional factoids to illustrate the importance of the department store channel in the mid-20th century. When Publishers Weekly did an article about the Doubleday Merchandising Plan in 1957, the stores they used as examples were the book departments of Wanamakers and Gimbels! When I came into the business fulltime in the 1970s, there were two significant “chain” accounts in Chicago: the bookstore chain Kroch’s & Brentano’s and the Marshall Field department stores.)

Bookstore customers came in many flavors, but they all benefited from a store with greater selection. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, first noticed that selection was a powerful magnet when he was overseeing the Brentano’s chain (no relation to K&B in Chicago) in the 1960s. Their Short Hills, New Jersey store was an underperformer. They doubled the number of titles in it and it became their best performer. Whether the bookstore customer knew what they wanted or just wanted to shop, the store with more titles gave them a better chance of a satisfying result.

Over time, that understanding was followed to a logical conclusion.

By the late 1980s, it appeared that standalone bookstores outside of malls could become “destinations” if their selections were large enough, and that created the superstore expansion: B&Ns and Borders. But, only a few years later when it opened in 1995, the universal selection at Amazon mooted value of the big-selection store, especially for customers who knew before they shopped what book they wanted. Selection as a traffic magnet stopped working pretty quickly after Amazon opened in 1995 although it was not so immediately obvious to anybody.

I had some experience with B&N data that demonstrated pretty emphatically by 2002 that the action on slow-selling university press titles had shifted overwhelmingly to Amazon. (At that time, the late Steve Clark, the rep for Cambridge University Press, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for CUP than all other US retail combined.) It took the further hit of expanded Internet shopping at the consumer level, which grew with increased connectivity even before ebooks, to make what had been a great business obviously difficult. Then, as if to emphasize the point, we lost Borders…

What just doesn’t make it anymore, at least not nearly as frequently, is the “big bookstore”. Although there is no scientific way to prove this, most observers I’ve asked agree that the new indie stores popping up over the past few years tend to be smaller than than the Borders and older indie stores they are replacing. We are seeing book retailing become a mix of pretty small book-and-literary-centric stores and an add-on in many places: museums, gift shops, toy stores. These have always existed but they will grow. And true “bookstore” shelf space will shrink, as has space for “general” books in mass merchants. The indie bookstore share will definitely continue to grow, but whether their growth will replace what is lost at B&N and the mass merchant chains is doubtful. Every publisher I’ve asked acknowledges significant indie store growth in the past couple of years, but they are also unanimous in saying the growth has not replaced the sales and shelf space lost when Borders closed.

Barnes & Noble is clearly rethinking its strategies, but this is one component that I have never seen clearly articulated. Back when I had my “aha!” moment about what was happening with the university press books, I suggested to one B&N executive that they had to figure out how to make the 25,000-title store work.

He said, “that’s not where we are. We’re thinking about the million-title store!” In other words, “we want to manage big retail locations”. This is thinking shaped by what we can now see is an outdated understanding of what the value of a big store is. So now they’re trying to sustain slightly-smaller big locations with things other than books. (Whether they plan to go as low as 25,000 titles in stores that used to stock four or five times that many is not clear. But they did say in their recent earnings call that the new concept stores would get 60 percent of their revenues from books, rather than the 67 percent they get now.) They have added non-book merchandise; now they’re thinking about restaurants. All of that is to increase traffic and to increase sales from the traffic they already get.

But there is another way to attack the challenge that “books alone” doesn’t work the way it used to. Barnes & Noble’s core competency is book supply to retail locations anywhere in the United States. Nobody, except Ingram, does this as well. (Although Amazon clearly is now planning to give it a try.)

Other retailers are suffering the same Internet sales erosion as booksellers, and a properly-curated selection of books can work for just about any store’s customer profile. Might Barnes & Noble complement its own stores by offering branded B&N Book Departments to other retailers? Let them bring in the traffic (although the books will undoubtedly bring in some more) and then B&N could manage those departments. (This is a variation of a tactic I suggested for Penguin Random House some years ago.) Let other retailers play the role the department stores and then the malls played for books in the past 100 years. Let’s not require the retail customer to come to a location strictly to shop for books.

The “trick” would be for B&N merchandisers to adjust their book selection to suit the specific customer base each store attracts. But is that a harder challenge than going into the restaurant business? And isn’t extending the B&N brand for books a more sensible tactic than trying to extend it to food? Or to create a new brand for food? And wouldn’t it be a good idea to get started on this tactic to expand book retail shelf space before Amazon, which keeps showing signs of wanting a retail presence, does?

This is not an easy market to just walk in and take over. There are already wholesalers providing books to retailers who don’t support a full-fledged buying effort for them. Those wholesalers are often getting more margin from the publishers than B&N is now, but that’s actually more of an opportunity than an obstacle. Presumably, a B&N-branded book section is worth something. (If it isn’t, that’s another problem.) Presumably, B&N has buying expertise and domain knowledge that would enable them to fine-tune a selection of books for each outlet’s customer base. And, presumeably, B&N’s supply chain efficiency would be superior to anybody else’s in the industry, except Amazon’s and perhaps Ingram’s.

The big bookstore model is an anachronism. Just making it big doesn’t pull in the customers anymore. So a new strategy is definitely called for. B&N is going part of the way to one by recognizing that they need to do more to bring in customers and, at the same time, they can’t profitably shelve 100,000 titles across hundreds of stores. Taking their capabilities to where the customers already are would seem like an idea worth exploring.

It should be noted that the Indigo chain in Canada, under the leadership of owner Heather Reisman, has apparently successfully transitioned to a “culture” store where books are the key component of the offering. She has apparently found a product mix, or an approach to creating one, that is working for Indigo. Every large book retailer in the world is going to school on what Indigo has done. Because Amazon and online purchasing in general have not taken hold in Canada the way they have in the United States, we can’t jump to the conclusion that the Indigo formula could be successfully applied here. But it sure wouldn’t be a crazy idea for B&N to buy Indigo to gain the benefit of Reisman’s insights and expertise, assuming that a) Canadian law would permit U.S. ownership of such an important cultural asset and b) Reisman herself would sell and then work for somebody else. Two very big assumptions.

It is also worth nothing that the Pocket Shop chain, the small-bookstore concept chain that we’ve written about previously, is going to start opening stores in the UK. 

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The “Big Change” era in trade book publishing ended about four years ago


Book publishing is still very much in a time of changing conditions and circumstances. There are a host of unknowables about the next several years that affect the shape of the industry and the strategies of all the players in it. But as publishers, retailers, libraries, and their ecosystem partners prepare for whatever is next, it becomes increasingly evident that — from the perspective of trade publishing at least — we have already lived through the biggest period of transition. It took place from sometime in 2007 through 2012.

At the beginning of 2007, there was no Kindle. By the end of 2011, there was no Borders. And by the end of 2012, five of America’s biggest publishers were defending themselves from the US Department of Justice. The arrival of Kindle and the exit of Borders are the two most earthshaking events in the recent history of book publishing and its ecosystem. The Justice Department suit first distracted and then ultimately strait-jacketed the big publishers so it was both difficult to focus and then difficult to react to further marketplace changes.

Paying close attention to what we then called “electronic publishing” started for me in the early 1990s, with a conference other consulting colleagues and I organized for Publishers Weekly which we called “Electronic Publishing and Rights”. This was before Amazon existed. It was when the big transition taking place was from diskettes to CD-Roms as the means of storage. And it was even before Windows, so the only device on which you could view on a screen anything that looked at all like a book was a Macintosh computer, which had literally a sliver of the market. The most interesting ebook predecessor was the Voyager Expanded Book, and it could only be used on a Mac.

In this speech I gave in 1995, I put my finger on the fact that online would change all this and that publishers shouldn’t spend too much energy on CD-Roms.

The period from then until when it was clear Kindle was establishing itself — the awareness that it was for real slowly dawned on people throughout the year 2008 — was one where the inevitability of some big digital change was generally acknowledged. But dealing with it was the province of specialists operating alongside the “real business” and largely performing experiments, or getting ready for the day when it might matter. There was a slow (and inexorable) shift from store-purchasing to online purchasing. And the online purchasing almost all went to Amazon. But even that wasn’t seen as particularly disruptive. Neither ebooks nor online purchasing called for drastic changes in the way publishers saw their business or deployed their resources.

The first important new device for books in 2007 didn’t start out as one at all. It was the iPhone, first released in June of that year. Although Palm Pilots were the ebook reader of choice for a big chunk of the then-tiny ebook community, they lacked connectivity. The iPhone was not seen as an ereader when it came out — indeed, Apple head Steve Jobs still believed at that point that ebooks were not a market worth pursuing — but they could, and did, rapidly become one when it was demonstrated that there was a market. And they vastly expanded the universe of people routinely paying for downloaded content, in this case music from the iTunes store.

Then Kindle launched in November of 2007. A still unannounced number of Kindles sold out in a few hours and Amazon remained out of stock of them for several months! Because the original Kindle was $399, it was only a “good deal” for the consumer who read many books on which they could save money by buying electronic. What this meant was that Kindle owners bought ebooks in numbers much greater than the relatively small number of devices placed would have suggested. Throughout 2008, the awareness dawned on the industry that ebooks were going to be a significant business.

And that awareness rapidly shook loose a raft of competition. Barnes & Noble saw that they had to compete in this arena and started a crash program to deliver the Nook, which first appeared almost precisely two years after the first Kindle, in November 2009. Months earlier, Amazon had released the app that put Kindle on the iPhone. Meanwhile, Jobs had become persuaded to take ebooks seriously, and, anyway, he had a store selling content downloads to devices like crazy. Now, about to launch his new tablet format, the iPad, he had what looked like the perfect vehicle with which to launch ebooks. The iPad and the iBookstore debuted in April 2010. A month later, Kobo entered the market as a low-priced alternative with their first device. And by the end of the year, Google reorganized and rebranded what had been Google Editions into Google eBooks. The original concept was that they would populate the readers that were using epub, which meant Nook and Kobo at that time.

All of this change within three calendar years — 2008 through 2010 — created a blizzard of strategic decisions for the publishers. Remember, before all this, ebooks were an afterthought. Amazon had applied pressure to get publishers into the Kindle launch in 2007. Before that, no publisher that I can recall made any effort to have ebooks available at the time a book was initially launched. There were workflow and production changes (XML FIRST!) being contemplated that would make doing both print and digital editions a less onerous task, but they were seldom fast-tracked and doing ebooks meant taking on and managing a book-by-book conversion project.

During the period when Amazon was pretty much alone in the game (the pre-Amazon market leaders, Sony and Palm, faded very quickly), they started pricing Kindle titles aggressively, even willing to take losses on each sale to promote device sales and the ecosystem. This alarmed publishers, who were seeing small Kindle sales grow at what were frightening rates and raising the spectre of undermining their hardcovers. It didn’t hurt that the retailers with whom they (still, then, though not now) did most of their business were also alarmed. Nook arrived and Barnes & Noble would never have been as comfortable as Amazon with selling these new products at a loss. But B&N also worried about the impact that cheap ebooks might have on more expensive print book sales. Amazon didn’t.

So when Apple proposed in late 2009 and early 2010 that there could be a new way to sell called “agency” which would put retail pricing power for ebooks into the publishers’ hands, it met a very receptive audience of publishers.

And that, in turn, led to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the big publishers which was instituted in April of 2012.

Coinciding with and enabled by all of this was the huge growth in author-initiated publishing. Amazon had bought CreateSpace, which gave them the ability to offer print-on-demand as well as Kindle ebooks. The combination meant that a huge audience could be reached through them without any help from anybody else. When agency happened (2010), they started to offer indie authors what amounted to agency terms: 70 percent of the selling price for ebooks. This was a multiple of the percentage an author would get through a publisher.

Agency pricing fell right into Amazon’s and the self-published hands. Getting 70 percent on the ebook, the indie author got $2.10 pricing at $2.99 and $2.80 pricing at $3.99, royalties comparable to what they’d get from full-priced print. Many bestselling indie ebooks were priced at $0.99. The very cheap ebooks indie authors would offer juxtaposed against the publisher’s agency up-priced (many at $14.99) and undiscounted branded books created a market opening that allowed the Kindle audience to sample (aside from the free chapter that is standard in ebooks) cheap ebook authors for peanuts. Suddenly, names nobody had heard before were on the map, selling millions of ebooks, and taking mindshare away from the industry’s output. And it also handed the publishers’ authors an alternative path to market that could only have the effect of improving their negotiating position with the publishers.

Meanwhile, Borders sent the most persuasive possible signal that the shift in sales from stores to online, accelerated by the ebook phenomenon, was really damaging. They went out of business in 2011. That took the account that sold upwards of 10 percent of most publishers’ books, and a far greater percentage of the bookstore shelf space for backlist, off the board. Or, viewed another way, publishers went from two national retailers who could place a big order and put books in front of the core book-buying audience to one.

So the authors’ negotiating position was stronger and so was Barnes & Noble’s.

And all of those events — the devices, the ebook surge, the introduction of the agency business model, and the Department of Justice suing most of the big publishers, a very noticeable rise in successful independent publishing, and the increased leverage of the trading partners with whom publishers negotiate their revenues and their costs — were head and body blows to the titans of the industry. Every one of them threatened the legacy practices and challenged the legacy organizations and resource allocations.

During this period, Random House (the number one publisher) merged with Penguin (the number two publisher) and created a super-publisher that is not far from being as big as the four remaining members of what were called “The Big Six” in 2007. If you are viewing the world from the perspective of HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, or Macmillan, that might have been the biggest development of all.

Compared to the sweeping changes of that era, what has happened since and what is likely to happen in the next couple of years is small beer. There are certainly clear trends that will change things markedly over time.

Amazon continues to grow its share, and they are around 50 percent of the business or more for many publishers these days.

Barnes & Noble is troubled but in no immediate jeopardy and is still, by far, the number one brick-and-mortar account for publishers. But the optimistic view is that their book sales will remain flat in the near future.

Independent bookselling continues to grow, but even with their growth since Borders went down, they are less than 10 percent of the sales for most publishers. It is true that ebook sales for publishers have flattened (we don’t know the overall trend for sure because we don’t really know the indie sales at Amazon, and they’re substantial) and don’t seem likely to grow their share against print anytime soon.

These things seem likely to be as true two years from now as they are now. Nothing felt that way in from 2008-2012.

Digital marketing, including social network presence, is an important frontier. The industry has a successful digital catalog, called Edelweiss, which has obviated the need for printed catalogs, a cost saving many publishers have captured. And another start-up, NetGalley (owned by Firebrand), has organized the reviewer segment of the industry so that publishers can get them digital advance copies of books, which is cheaper and much more efficient for everybody.

Owning and mining email lists is a new skill set that can pay off more each year. Pricing in digital seems to offer great opportunity for improved revenue, if its effects can be better understood. International sales of American-originated books are more accessible than they’ve ever been as the global network created by Ingram creates sales growth opportunities for just about every publisher. That should continue and requires new thinking and processes. Special, or non-traditional, markets increase in importance, abetted by digital marketing. That will continue as well.

Audio, which has been one of the big beneficiaries of digital downloading, will continue to grow too. The problem from the publishers’ perspective is that Audible, owned by Amazon, owns most of that market. So they have a sophisticated and unsentimental trading partner with a lot of leverage controlling a market segment that is probably taking share from print and ebooks.

And with all of this, what will also continue to grow is relentless margin pressure from the publishers’ two biggest accounts: Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

But the challenges of today aren’t about change of the magnitude that was being coped with in the period that ended five years ago. They’re more about improving workflows and processes, learning to use new tools, and integrating new people with new skill sets into the publishing business. And there are a lot of new people with relevant skills up and down the trade publishing organizations now. That wasn’t so much the case when things were changing the fastest, 2007-2012.

It isn’t that there aren’t still many of new things to work on, new opportunities to explore, or long-term decisions to make. But the editor today can sign a book and expect a publishing environment when it comes out in a year or two roughly like the one we have today. The editor in 2010 couldn’t feel that confidence. The marketer can plan something when the book first comes up for consideration and find the plan will still make sense six months later. And while things still very much in flux in sales, a blow comparable to the loss of Borders isn’t on the

Of course, there could always be a black swan about to announce itself.

This post explains why, among other reasons, I will no longer be programming the Digital Book World Conference, as I did for seven years starting with its debut in 2010. At its best, DBW anticipated the changes that were coming in the industry and gave its attendees practical ways to think about and cope with them. Future vision was a key perspective to programming although we always strived to give the audience things they could “take back to the office and use”.

It has been harder and harder over the past couple of years to find the big strategic questions the industry needed answers to. The writing was on the wall last year when most of the publishers I talked to felt confident they understood where books were going; they wanted to hear from other segments of the digital world. That was a sign to me that the educational mission I had in mind for DBW since I started it was no longer in demand.

To their credit, the DBW management, as I understand it, is trying a new vision for the show, more focused on the immediately practical and the hands-on challenges of today. I wish them the best of luck with it.

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Things are calmer than they were in the book business, but change is a constant


Among the shifts that have been taking place in publishing houses over the past decade is an increase in the head count dedicated to marketing and a decrease in head count dedicated to sales. This reflects the reduction in the number of bookstore accounts and the transfer of “discovery” from store shelves to digital search.

The reduction in bookstores and the concurrent and related reduction in print books sold in stores also affects how publishers view the economics of the sales departments and the entire support system for print distribution. The big houses still need sales forces and warehouses and sophisticated systems to track inventories and payments and returns but the “throughput” of print from their own publishing programs is declining. For many, that means that distribution clients are increasingly important. They provide the volume to support scaled operations without requiring the publisher to invest in publishing more titles. For at least four of the big five (HarperCollins being an apparent exception), distribution of other publishers’ books, with or without providing the sales force effort, is a critical component of maintaining the volume that keeps unit costs in line.

But that adds risk. Distribution contracts vary in length, but they generally only extend two or three years out. With four major publishers plus Ingram, which has, effectively, five different full distribution options to offer, on the prowl for clients, there is a plethora of choices for any publisher seeking to shed their own fixed-cost distribution or to switch distributors. Indeed, the percentages being charged for distribution services have dropped drastically over the past two decades. The competitive environment is likely to perpetuate that trend.

While the big publishers doing distribution have (so far) tended to insist on fairly large clients, Ingram is using its multiple configurations to try to serve publishers of all sizes and entities that aren’t primarily publishers at all. Today a publisher that is really a literary agency or, before long if not already, a bank, an advertising agency, or a not-for-profit with a mission, can put a book or a list of its own into the book publishing arena with sales and distribution capabilities competitive with the biggest and most experienced publishers. So a revolution that began with Amazon enabling indie authors, starting about ten years ago, to reach a big percentage of the total book market through Kindle and CreateSpace, is being dramatically extended. Going after real bookstore distribution definitely requires incremental investment and marketing savvy, even with the machinery in place to help.

But incremental investment and marketing savvy were always far easier to come by than the machinery has ever been for the small or occasional publisher.

While this levels the playing field in a major way, there are still distinct advantages to size and a B2B publishing brand. The diminishing bookstore shelf space has made the also-diminishing mass merchant (Walmart, Target) shelf space relatively more important. Between the chains — primarily Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million — and independent stores, there are only about 1000 to 1200 points of purchase for books provided by bookstores. There were three to five times that many two decades ago. So the additional thousands of opportunities to put a book in front of the public through the mass merchants are critical, particularly to move bestseller quantities.

But relatively few titles can make the cut for those outlets and the pressure on them to perform quickly is immense. Returns are high. These slots are simply not available to publishers who aren’t recognizable B2B brands with a solid reputation for backing their books effectively. These outlets represent the competitive advantage that remains for the Big Five publishers.

For the past few years, pretty much since the demise of Borders in 2011, the number of bookstores has been going up a bit each year. (It is not clear that the bookstore shelf space has been going up; indie stores seem to be smaller, on average, today than they were two decades ago, or at least there are fewer mammoth ones.) It could well be that, aside from Borders, the indie revival is also fueled by the reduction in shelf space for books at the mass merchants. If so, that is good for smaller publishers and it is good for backlist, both of which are seriously challenged getting in front of the public through mass merchants.

So, while it is definitely true that the dizzying pace of change we saw during the early years of ebooks has subsided, and it is true that the print format has not yielded much share, if any, to ebooks in the past couple of years, it is not time to celebrate a new stability. The marketplace itself is still changing; the online share when you combine print and digital is still growing and the ratio of shelf space available for backlist and slower-sellers is still declining. The smallest publishers are getting better and better market access and the biggest publishers are seeing escalating risk in how they place the books they publish and in the danger they’ll face a sudden decrease in distribution volume that would turn their fixed costs into a burden.

This is a great time in the book business to be very big (among your peer group) or very small and focused. It is a challenging time to be anything else.

A very frequent point of contention when negotiating distribution arrangements is how Amazon will be handled and compensated. Amazon is almost always the single largest account and it is not uncommon for it to represent — on many books and even some publishers — 50 percent or more of the sales. Although sophistication definitely helps in dealing with Amazon, it is also true that Amazon provides incentives to give up the “other half” of the market and just work through them. Any sophisticated businessperson is likely to get more money out of Amazon working it themselves than any distributor can get for them, even before distribution fees. (IF, and this is a big if, you discount the marketing value of books throughout the supply chain which, counterintuitively but frequently, will raise the level of sales at Amazon from what they would have been without books broadly distributed.) In any case, being able to really add value to Amazon sales would be a Holy Grail. Right now, most of the time, distributing publishers really have to make the argument that you can’t effectively split things and that they will add so much value in the rest of the world, and do the work around Amazon, that the overall relationship is worth the trade-off.

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Four players in the book business with the power to rewrite some of the rules


The news came last week that ReaderLink has purchased Anderson News. Those two companies have been the leading suppliers of books to the mass merchandisers: primarily Wal-mart, Target, and Sam’s Club. There are other players selling books in the space, including Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and smaller distributors like the less-well-known American West. But most of the books going to most of the mass merchant accounts have gotten there through what will now be one company supplying them: ReaderLink.

By my count, that puts four companies in the book business who have extraordinarily powerful holds on their space. They are ReaderLink in the supply of books to mass merchants, Amazon as an online retailer, Barnes & Noble as a bricks-and-mortar retailer, and Penguin Random House as a commercial trade publisher.

ReaderLink, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble now have extraordinarily powerful positions from which to demand better terms from their publisher-suppliers. In all three cases, they have customer bases which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a competitor to take away from them.

Amazon has pretty much owned the online book customer since the year they opened for business in 1995. There is a faint hope that fragmentation of the online marketplace and the placement of commerce in the social stream, such as is enabled by Ingram’s Aer.io technology, could wrest some of their share. Perhaps, over time, that will happen. But they keep pulling further ahead of their only real competition, BN.com, and I am not aware of even one single reporting period when Amazon’s share of the online book market hasn’t grown. It is simply not an option for a publisher who wants to sell to consumers to avoid Amazon. (The only way a publisher could conceivably do that is if their customer base is reached entirely by direct sales or through intermediaries outside the book business.)

Barnes & Noble may be losing brick-and-mortar market share to independents, but they remain by far the leading bookstore chain. If a publisher wants books in the retail marketplace, Barnes & Noble has been, since the demise of Borders five years ago, the only one-stop way to get national coverage. In fact, they almost certainly control the majority of bookstore shelf space in the country, and their single biggest competitor, Books-a-Million, has fewer than half as many stores. And B-a-M’s stores are smaller.

ReaderLink is now in a similar position vis a vis the mass merchants. These stores constitute the other big component of the store retailing system and they are critical for bestsellers, mass-market paperbacks, and “merchandise” like adult coloring books and kids books. In fact, ReaderLink and Anderson lived with what was a “managed competition” controlled by their accounts; they each had stores assigned to them by their mass merchant customers. Publishers have always had to deal with both of them in order to place their books in the mass accounts. And, indeed, it could be that there will be efficiencies to this consolidation that will be beneficial for the publishers. But, if there are, it is also quite likely that ReaderLink will find ways to adjust their terms to take at least some of the benefits back and they are likely to be successful persuading publishers to allow that. (They have also manifestly strengthened their negotiating position with those accounts that are committed to stocking books.)

There is a fourth powerful player: Penguin Random House. PRH is almost (but not quite) the size of the other four members of the Big Five combined. As such, they are in a position to do things in the marketplace that no other publisher could contemplate. Since the merger of Penguin and Random House, I’ve written about what they uniquely could do with their marketplace power. The two key suggestions, neither of which has drawn any evident interest from the management at PRH, were a program to supply non-bookstores with vendor-managed inventory (creating store retail accounts nobody else would have) and to create their own ebook subscription service. (That would also create unique distribution.)

The new combination in mass-merchant supply could suggest another such opportunity. Perhaps this one will be more compelling.

The supply of books to mass merchants, as to any account that is not primarily in the book business and comfortable with both the logistical challenges and relatively low profit potential in books, is complicated, expensive, and usually inefficient. The number of titles that actually make it into these stores is a paltry percentage of the industry’s output. Only the biggest publishers have enough of the right books to really play.

And then the publisher has to cover both the retail accounts that will ultimately sell their books and the distributor-intermediary that supplies them. It will be a bit easier for the big publishers selling books to Wal-mart and Target to manage the business through one big account rather than two (one fewer account to deal with), but it is still a frustratingly inefficient segment of the business. (The one fewer account aspect of this is bound to be causing some nervousness right now in the sales departments of some publishers.) Visibility into inventory status is, relative to the store-level view available at Barnes & Noble, klunky. Returns are high. Responsiveness to breaking events is slow. And the margins are worse than for any other part of the domestic business.

But part of the reason for that is that delivering on the service requirements for these accounts is expensive. One sales executive I spoke to estimated that ReaderLink has more than 2500 detail people calling on the outlets of the mass merchants: checking stock, tidying fixtures, and replacing sold books. No wonder these distributors need hefty margins to do this work. And this also explains why Ingram and Baker & Taylor, who, of course, carry all the titles these merchants would ever need, don’t appear to move aggressively to take this business away from the incumbent(s).

To picture the Penguin Random House options, I try to view this from the perspective of one publisher with about half the books that these mass merchant accounts need. I’m giving away margin to a middle player that adds a layer of inefficiency and cost in order to be an effective aggregator. Obviously, the accounts want that aggregator. They don’t want to deal with hundreds of publishers individually, or even with just each of the Big Five. It would be a non-starter for a publisher supplying five or ten or even twenty percent of their books to say: “can we work out a way to do this directly?” So just about everybody has to accept the inefficiency.

But what about if it were a supplier that provided half the books? And what if that supplier offered, as an opening gambit, to share some of the margin that now goes to the middle player directly with the account? And what if that effectively became the account’s only way to get those books, because the powerful publisher was no longer willing to play ball with the high discounts and high returns that the current system entails?

Only Penguin Random House is in a position to take this approach. And it wouldn’t be an easy thing to do. They’d have to create a VMI system. They’d have to organize a detailing army quite different from the sales force(s) they have created and managed historically. They’d have to either gear themselves up to execute more smaller shipments or form alliances that would make that possible. But the payoffs would also be substantial. And PRH has a much bigger margin share to support their efforts than ReaderLink, or any other wholesaler or distributor, would have.

Sales would go up. Returns would go down. Margins would improve. Their competitors would be weakened. In fact, it is conceivable that, over time, a PRH direct-supply operation could morph into a ReaderLink service that was available to other publishers as well. (All big publishers, including PRH, already offer their core distribution services to competitors. This would be a variation on that theme.)

Perhaps Penguin Random House will never behave in a qualitatively different way than the other Big Five houses, exercising power that they uniquely have. They certainly haven’t so far. On the other hand, it was pointed out to me recently that the integration of what were the two biggest publishers among the Big Six when Random House and Penguin combined four years ago is, even today, not yet complete. Rationalization has occurred in the “back end”, with the consequent job losses which are part of the payoff for the owners in any big merger of this kind. But more consolidation is still in front of them, and perhaps the radical paradigm-shifting initiatives need to wait until that job is really done.

And perhaps Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and now ReaderLink are wary of poking the bear, and are less demanding that PRH honor their primacy with margin than they are of PRH’s competitors. In fact, the CEO of one of their Big Five competitors told me a year or two ago that he liked having a competitor of PRH’s size on the publisher side because this executive felt it kept the overall industry terms under control. The belief on this CEO’s part was that PRH’s size restrained the big accounts to the benefit of all the big players.

But unlike Amazon or Barnes & Noble, whose businesses can not be efficiently replaced by any direct effort, the supply of mass merchant accounts is something PRH could conceivably do better on their own. Whether the acquisition of Anderson by ReaderLink provides the catalyst to get them to try it is something it will probably take a couple of years to find out.

Although Ingram occupies a unique position in the global book supply chain and, indeed, might be the single most important player, they aren’t in the position of these other four to exercise power. In wholesaling, they have always had a powerful national competitor, Baker & Taylor, which is now even more financially stable having itself been acquired last week by Follett. Even in smaller-publisher distribution, where Ingram grew dramatically by acquiring Perseus, they will always have all the big publishers and a host of smaller distributors as alternatives for those considering their services. Indeed, Ingram could try to compete with ReaderLink for the mass merchant accounts, but they’d have to support the substantial systems and staff investments on a distribution margin, which is a much more challenging proposition than it would be for PRH with the publisher’s margin.

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A great step forward by Sourcebooks which we expect other publishers will imitate


Since I started working with Peter McCarthy, he has been impressing me with the importance of publishers doing “research” in the digital age, by which he means “audience research” done with a variety of online tools. That audience research should inform what publishers do to market their books by identifying, segmenting, locating, and understanding the potential buyers for those books. That enables publishers to “aim” their marketing efforts where they are likely to do the most good.

Indeed, everything we do at Logical Marketing, the suite of services we have built around Pete’s unique knowledge and talent, is informed by the research we do. Sometimes it is clear that the deliverable really is the research itself. At one point in the course of my learning from Pete, we published a piece in this space suggesting that every publisher really needs to have a dedicated research function.

What we were already beginning to see then (and more since) is that many publishers, and by now most of the big ones, have created an executive position with the word “audience” in the title or job description. The responsibilities to address audiences required research as a prerequisite, but it has seldom been framed that way.

This week we were delighted to see that Sourcebooks, a legitimate contender for the title of “most innovative company in book publishing”, has created a “data and analysis” department. As reported by Shelf Awareness in its newsletter (and also reported by Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly):

Sourcebooks has created a data and analysis department that brings together “experts from supply chain, editorial, and sales” to streamline data functions and offer a higher level of analytical support to departments, partners and customers.

The only part about this that is disappointing is that the word “research” is not in the department name or description. But the separate department to specialize in “data and analysis” is exactly what we were advocating when we called for creation of research departments.

It is important to keep the connection between “data and analysis” and “research” in mind because, historically, “data and analysis” in publishing have meant “post mortem analysis” of specific marketing efforts. Indeed, many publishers have “analytics” roles already, but they are not cross-functional and they tend to be focused on analysis of time-honored activities, not applying new techniques on audiences as is enabled in the digital age.

As an industry, we have usually used “data and analysis” to measure the effectiveness of prior activities rather than to understand what we’re aiming at in the future. Being explicit about the fact that “research” is the core function means you are also being explicit that the primary purpose of that function is to aim future efforts, not evaluate the successes or failures of prior ones. Research is seeking to be predictive as well as to inform rapid response to an ever-changing landscape. With most of their existing capabilities and activities, in Pete’s words, “publishers don’t look out; they don’t look forward; and they don’t look ‘big'”.

This is not to say that it isn’t worth knowing whether an ad or a promotion that was tried last week paid off. Indeed, knowing that could influence whether you try that same promotion again. But it is far more useful to be better informed before money and effort are expended than after. And what useful audience identification and segmentation research delivers is the knowledge that enables marketing efforts to be aimed at the right audiences and with the right messages to have a greater possibility of succeeding, and doing so more efficiently.

Publishers will always be interested in knowing whether the front-of-store placement they bought or the author tour they paid for moved the needle on sales. But it is actually more important to figure out before they spend the money whether the customers they’re looking at are good candidates for an impulse buy at Barnes & Noble or likely to be affected by the media exposure an author tour would bring. And the same research that will uncover answers to those questions will also tell the publisher what messages to stress on their cover copy or in media opportunities. And it will tell them which search terms are both revealing of “intent” (to buy, to learn, to know) and occur in enough volume to be worth going to extra efforts to rank for them.

We applaud the Sourcebooks approach to staffing their data and analysis group, which acknowledged that “editorial, sales, and supply chain” needed to participate. (We would, emphatically, add “marketing and publicity” to the list.) Audience research and understanding can be used productively across a range of publishing house activities: acquiring the rights in the first place; shaping the book from proposal to completion; creating all the marketing copy, from that on the book itself to what’s in the catalogs or ads; the geographical placement of physical copies in the retail channels; the timing of reducing stock levels in the supply chain; and the identification and execution of newly-arising opportunities on the backlist.

All this covers the “who”s (staff members with what skills and what in-house knowledge) and the “what”s (the tasks research can inform), but not the “how”s of doing this work. The research itself is done with a set of digital tools. Some — like Google Trends, Moz, SimilarWeb, and Facebook Audience Insights — are known to a lot of marketers and we could almost say they are “commonly” used. (They should be.) But a super-expert digital marketer — like my colleague, Pete McCarthy — work with many more. Pete uses over 150 tools that help him get insights from just about every platform and understand search in a highly nuanced and targeted way.

Educational seminars are a component of our Logical Marketing suite of offerings and we are comfortable introducing fledgling audiences to very sophisticated digital tools. But learning more than a 100 of them — that they’re there, what they do, and how to use them — is not something that is done quickly or casually. It might not require the 20-plus years of experience in the industry Pete has, but it’s not something you do in a month, or even a year. And then understanding how all these tools and insights are best applied to the book business is another important requirement that also takes time and application to achieve.

We’re delighted to see Sourcebooks taking the lead at recognizing the cross-functional requirement of data and analysis and we fully expect that effort by them to be a leading indicator of where the industry will go.

The Logical Marketing team has worked with just about all the biggest publishers and, of course, that includes Sourcebooks. We have done a seminar on how to think “audience-first” with them. Currently we’re working on a project helping them create landing pages to improve traffic to two of their websites. We had absolutely nothing to do with their decision to create a department for data and analysis, but we’re not surprised they’ve taken that initiative. We’ve seen up close how seriously they take both digital change and innovation. We’re proud of the fact that the companies we work the most with are the most sophisticated and advanced at digital marketing. Sourcebooks is a prime example of that.

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If Amazon pricing of ebooks is the problem, is agency actually the right solution?


In the past week, I’ve had conversations with leading executives at two of Amazon’s competitors in the ebook space. They had strikingly different takes on whether the agency pricing regime, which is now in place by contract with all five of the biggest trade publishers, helps keep competitive balance in the ebook marketplace or prevents it.

Agency pricing was promulgated by Apple for the opening of the iBookstore in 2010. What it meant was that publishers would set a price that was “enforced” across the retail network. Apple liked this because it meant both that they didn’t have to price-compete with Amazon and because they didn’t have to think about pricing hundreds of thousands of items on a daily basis. (And it fit the model Apple used to sell other media.) Publishers liked it because they feared the erosion of print sales that cheap ebooks might lead to and because it seemed that level prices might reduce what was then Amazon’s stranglehold on the ebook market.

As we know, the Department of Justice interceded because they saw the Apple-publisher agreements as collusive. The DoJ cares most about price; discounting is a good thing unless it is “predatory”. If companies get together to prevent low prices, that’s clearly bad. So the short-term remedy was to enable retailers to discount off agency prices. That pretty immediately stopped the decline in Amazon’s ebook market share, which started to grow again once discounting was reinstated.

Now the big publishers have replaced the original agency agreements with new ones that appear satisfactory to the court because they were obviously separately negotiated. And the new ones seem to allow at least some of them more flexibility to set and enforce higher prices than the numbers in the original Apple-promulgated deals. And all of that has led to a reconfigured marketplace.

The good news for the publishers is that print sales erosion — at least for the moment — seems to have been stopped. (Print sales started to grow even before “new Agency”; when higher prices hit the ebook market, print was immediately assisted.) A variety of industry and company sales statistics seem persuasive on that point. The percentage of revenues coming from ebooks for big publishers has declined and the sales of print have risen. And there is even some anecdotal evidence suggesting that bookstore retail shelf space is increasing again. Even if that is true, it is an open question whether it is sustainable, or whether it is a delayed and temporary marketplace response to the shuttering of 400 giant Borders stores, which occurred in 2011. Bookstores might also be helped by the diminishing book shelf space at mass merchants, a venue where print continues to lose ground.

But there is also some good news for Amazon in how all this has worked out. Their market share on the ebook side is rising. Their margins on the ebook side must have gone up even more, since they’re being “forced” to keep the margin they earn on Big Five ebook sales. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if Amazon’s internal calculations are that they can afford more losses on their Kindle Unlimited subscription program because of the margin they’re earning on the Big Five single-title sales? We can only guess…) And certainly Amazon benefits from the increased sales of print.

In fact, they could be partly responsible for it. All the searches on Amazon for Big Five books show an agency-priced ebook with a highly-discounted print book, often cheaper than the ebook, alongside of it. How much of the print book sales increase is due to the reaction of consumers being presented with that choice?

(Let’s remember how much of a “better deal” it is for the consumer to buy print if the prices are the same or close. The print book can decorate a bookshelf. It can be resold, which the ebook can’t be, or at least can’t be yet.)

Only Barnes & Noble can even attempt to meaningfully compete with Amazon in this environment. The price-sensitive book consumer needs to see both the ebook and the print book to make a wise purchasing decision. They won’t see that at Kobo, Google, or Apple’s iBookstore.

So competing with Amazon on price is confined to B&N on print and confined to non-agency titles — which means only a sliver of the bestseller list — for everybody else. So, is everybody happy? Publishers are selling more print, which they wanted. There’s growth in the indie store base, which publishers also wanted. But Amazon continues to grow market share in relation to Barnes & Noble and now threatens to open bookstores to compete with B&N and the indies. And that is most definitely not what publishers wanted.

Is there any way to achieve both robust competition for Amazon and also to protect print books from being cannibalized by much cheaper ebooks?

The conversations I had this past week with two of the competitors to Amazon surfaced diametrically opposite opinions about whether agency was helpful or not in that regard.

One ebook executive suggested that the Big Five publishers should stick to the agency pricing margin but should do it on wholesale pricing terms. That person encouraged me to think through this proposition: what if those ebooks were sold to the accounts at 70 percent of the publisher’s price (or even a bit more), but without any restrictions on discounting?

The other believes that price-competing with Amazon is a game that is impossible to win and that there is clear evidence from the experience in the UK market, where several ebook players tried to undercut Amazon on price, that it is not an effective strategy.

The advocate for the wholesale model, which would allow discounting by retailers up to whatever the authorities decide is “predatory” (and that definition is anything but clear), believes that Amazon is being given a free ride. Of their competitors, it would seem that only Google and Apple would have the deep pockets to fight Amazon by sacrificing margin, but either of them certainly could and it would certainly be, at the very least, a big nuisance to Amazon if they did.

This raises again the question of what discounting would be permissible before the discounting would be labeled “predatory”. There is no definitive answer. Some believe that retailers are not permitted to discount below their own cost (although, even then, it is not clear whether that means on a per-title basis or across all their ebook purchases and sales or some other basis). By that interpretation, if an ebook were listed at $15.99 and sold at a wholesale price of $11.19 (70 percent), there could be a legal risk that pricing below that point could be considered “predatory”. In fact, ebook pricing flexibility is such that publishers could make that same ebook $18.99 for the first month ($13.29 wholesale), when the print is fighting for bestseller status.

(It should be noted here that Amazon sold Kindle ebooks at well below cost in the days before they had competition, as a carrot to get customers to buy Kindle e-readers, which were originally priced at $400. By doing so, they made the reader-and-content equation attractive to the people who bought the most books. The DoJ and Judge Cote said that Amazon’s pricing at that time was not predatory, but the Supreme Court could, at least theoretically, change that understanding. And, in fact, Amazon has continued to behave as though the $9.99 price point is the “right” ceiling for ebooks, even as the device-and-content equation has changed with considerably lower Kindle device prices and a plethora of multi-function devices having changed the market.)

Big 5 players going to wholesale could change the ebook marketplace in two ways. One is that it would unleash Google and Apple — both of which have plenty of cash — to discount aggressively to compete with Amazon. At the very least, that would diminish Amazon’s margin as they compete on price and it might also reduce their unit sales. It could also lead to the smaller publishers now selling wholesale to attempt to reduce their discounts. And that could lead to Amazon using its market power to resist a reduction in margin. That could be construed as an abuse of marketplace power, which is another test for anti-trust.

An anti-trust lawyer explained it to me this way. The analysis is more nuanced than just looking at whether prices are lowered. Generally, the antitrust enforcers do look favorably on practices that result in lower prices.

That being said, the goal of antitrust is broader: it is to protect the competitive process. It can get complicated in two-sided or multi-sided markets where prices might be low on one side of the market, but the platform uses its power on the other side of the market to harm competition. In the case of Amazon, one side of the market faces the consumer and the other faces the publisher.

It’s particularly problematic if the conduct locks in participants, raises barriers to entry, or results in the platform extracting more than its fair share on the other side of the market.

By that measure, perhaps the most problematic aspect of Amazon’s commercial terms could be the requirement for exclusivity to be part of the Kindle Unlimited subscription program. That keeps titles away from competitors.

But going to wholesale is not viewed as a solution by all of Amazon’s competitors. One of them thinks having agency in the marketplace is a big boon to competition. That executive saw the UK market as a “test bed”, because over the last three years a number of companies have tried deep discounting to buy share. It was tried pre-agency and during the post DoJ “agency lite” period. From this executive’s perspective, the results of those efforts make discounting looks like a pretty futile competitive strategy.

Unlike the “wholesale” advocate who thought the agency publishers were helping Amazon by preventing price competition from the other deep-pocketed players, this executive presented a completely different analysis. By their lights, market share comes from two sources.

Access to cost-effective customer acquisition sources. Amazon and B&N have their own existing customer bases. Kobo has retail partners. Apple and Google have pre-loaded apps and registered customers for iTunes and Android. So everybody has a pool of customers to draw on. (We pegged this as an advantage Scribd had over Oyster when those two companies started selling ebook subscriptions.)

Then the trick is to retain customers and capitalize on lifetime value.

What this executive believes is that price-cutting as a way to recruit customers is a fool’s errand. The customers who come aboard for a cheap deal will abandon you just as fast for somebody else’s cheap deal. They don’t stick. On the other hand, offering pricing advantages based on customer loyalty is a better bet. This player thinks that having agency in the market makes it easier to hold onto customers once a platform has acquired them. As evidence, that person pointed to the loss of market share by Nook that occurred once the DoJ restored discounting under agency.

It has seemed to me from the very beginning that making ebook discounts mirror print book discounts was a major strategic mistake by publishers. The two products are not comparable from the standpoint of the store’s economics. Stores don’t have to buy ebooks in advance. There is no “shrinkage”; they don’t get lost or stolen. They don’t have to be handled. Rent doesn’t have to be paid on the space they occupy before they’re sold. With such a different commercial reality, aggressive discounting by retailers should have been a predicted outcome when they were given so much more margin than they needed to operate.

So the division of the customer’s dollar instituted by agency is more appropriate to ebook realities and probably takes things back to where they should have started.

The wholesale versus agency question is more complicated. But it does certainly seem like the time would be right for one of the Big Five publishers to break ranks, as Random House did when agency was originally instituted, in their own selfish interest. They’d achieve what Random House did then (before the Penguin merger): collecting the same or a higher price from the retailers and seeing them peddled to the public at a lower price. (Of course, nobody is doing this anytime soon. The current round of agency contracts which went into effect over the past two years still have some years to run.)

The same executive who analyzed the marketplace for me offered another observation that really matters. Less than half of the reading public has made the switch from reading print to reading digitally. There are a lot more future converts left in the pool. There is a lot of ebook growth left for retailers whether they’re attracting their competitors’ customers or not.

And so it would seem that the stability we now see in the ebook market is a temporary thing.

Thanks to Teleread for the Q&A with me they just posted.

And Digital Book World is just around the corner. I hope we’ll see you there.

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