Barnes & Noble

The publishing business as we have known it is not going away anytime soon


Regular readers, please pardon me for the unusual length of this post, but it covers a lot of ground that I think is necessary to make the point.

A friend who has actually been working fulltime in the book business since I was still in college and who remains active was speculating at BEA about the “next big disruption” in our business. He’s expecting it sometime pretty soon.

I don’t think I am.

Gareth Cuddy is one of the most practical service providers in the industry. His Vearsa ebook distribution company is providing global services to publishers large and small and he is a pioneer in reading and sales analytics. He recently wrote a piece that concludes “whatever emerges from this next phase will surely be a complete departure from what we understand today as an industry” with timetables around it wondering whether 2016 will be too late to respond and whether we’ll have an unrecognizable industry in 2020.

I don’t see it.

One of the disruptor-authors, one who studies the industry trends closely with special attention to indie author growth, told me he “is pegging 2019 as the year that major media outlets cover the collapse of the major publishing houses the same way they started reporting on newspaper declines last decade”.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a merger or two by then, but “collapse”? I don’t see that either.

The industry has a myriad of sales stats that are not rationalized in any way and don’t talk to each other:

BookScan (print sales, reported by select retailers)

BookScan data is compiled from reports of print sales by most, but not all, retailers. That data includes all the ISBNs (but perhaps not retailer- or indie-published books that don’t have ISBNs), but not all the sales. BookScan covers an estimated 85% of the print retail market in the US and 90% in the UK. (See the “About Nielsen Book” section.)

PubTrack Digital (ebook sales, reported by select publishers)

The PubTrack Digital data, compiled from reports by publishers, doesn’t include all the ISBNs — only those from reporting publishers — but they do include all the sales of those publishers’ ebooks.

AAP (cross-format sales, reported by select publishers)

The AAP tracks sales across all major channels and formats. Like PubTrack, AAP stats are based on reports by participating publishers. (Though all of the Big Five houses report in both cases, other publisher and distributor participation varies.)

Consumer survey data (purchases, attitudes, and behaviors, reported by consumers)

Market research firms and consumer panel surveys (Nielsen Market ResearchCodex Group, and PlayCollective among others) provide another look at how book sales are shifting.

Other survey data

Additional surveys, particularly of authors (e.g. DBW’s author surveyHarry Bingham and Jane Friedman’s author survey) help fill in some of the blanks. But as the survey organizers frequently note, these are not representative samples, so the conclusions that can be drawn from these surveys are limited and primarily directional in nature.

Proprietary data (publisher and retailer-specific)

We also get regular reports from publicly-traded companies and whatever data accounts happen to reveal to the public, which can provide useful benchmarks and comparison points. (The sales data from the accounts themselves includes self-published or retailer-published books that other two sources don’t, but no by-book sales numbers told to the public.)

Bestseller lists and scraped data

Author Earnings tries to translate ebook sales rankings (which are publicly visible at retail, and therefore “scrapeable”) into actual sales numbers. (The now defunct DBW Ebook Bestseller List, powered by Dan Lubart’s Iobyte Solutions, was based on similar principles.) And the major bestsellers lists (like USA Today and NYT) provide at least some context for relative sales performance.

And as a sign of how complicated it all is, the DBW Ebook Bestseller List was discontinued at least partly because the “noise” from Amazon reporting “sales” on ebooks distributed and read through their subscription service was making the bestseller status of many titles a bit contentious.

Despite and because of all the sources, the data is incomplete and scattered. There is inevitable ambiguity in interpretation so that a variety of conclusions can be reasonably drawn. From the big publisher perspective, it would appear that sales are about flat and that the ratio of print and digital sales has become pretty stable. This is true in an environment where publishers have experimented with even higher ebook prices and, for a variety of contractual and commercial reasons, discounting of ebooks has diminished. But that’s been true for a relatively short period of time, and the ebook reporting is routinely delayed by three months, so we don’t have enough evidence to know for sure that higher ebook prices are sustainable in this marketplace. And even if they are sustainable today, that doesn’t prove they will be in three months or a year.

On the print side, Amazon continues to be the largest single customer for almost every publisher. And even though they have managed to increase their discounts and various marketing fees and their returns have creeped up, they are still the most profitable large account for many, if not most, publishers. Since Borders went down several years ago, Amazon has, indeed, grown, but independent stores have also thrived and become more numerous. And although Barnes & Noble still slowly shrinks in sales, it remains the most important account for “breaking” many new titles and still provides more sales to most publishers than all the indie bookstores combined.

While I’ve been working on this piece, the AAP data has been being worked through. Nate Hoffelder (whose blog has been renamed “Ink, Bits, and Pixels”) scoffed at the Nielsen claim that their hard numbers constitute 85 percent of the book market. The AAP, which like Author Earnings, uses modeling and guesstimating to get from the data they have to a bigger industry picture, sees a much bigger trade industry. The point Nate wanted to make, using the AAP data (echoed by an indie author friend of mine who believes that the indies are toppling the establishment and we’d all know that if we knew the “real” numbers that didn’t leave out all the indie success stories) is that the ebook market is not shrinking or flattening.

But if you want to use AAP figures to prove that point you have to use this year’s AAP data. Because last year the AAP said the ebook market had shrunk. By the way, the AAP data was the first to offer some insight on how much ebook subscription offerings are changing the market. The answer, so far, is not very much so far. They account for about 2 million ebook units out of a market of 500 million!

I asked my knowledgeable indie author friend what he thought the consumer dollar volume was for indies last year. He reckoned it at $459 million (I love the presumption of precision: not $450 million or $475 million, but $459 million!) Since the AAP figures adult trade fiction and non-fiction at about $10 billion (and the juvie numbers, another $5 billion, actually have some big “adult” sales in them), he is implicitly acknowledging (but would never say explicitly) that indies are 5 percent of the adult business at retail, using what I’m sure is the most ambitious estimate of indie sales you’ll see anywhere.

The reality is that the business has been actually pretty stable for the past few years, after a period — about 2008 to 2012 — when the shifts away from print and from stores were dizzying and immediately disruptive.

That’s not to say we haven’t seen a lot of change or that change doesn’t continue to be much faster than it was in the period before 2008. But not all of that change is bad for publishers.

More sales at Amazon, less inventory in the physical store supply chain, more ebooks, and the outsized impact of ebooks on the inefficient mass market channel means that returns are lower and less capital is tied up in inventory, which makes publishers more profitable.

The promise that offshore markets can be reached efficiently with ebooks (which, indeed, might be masking a reduction in ebook sales domestically in the overall publisher-reported numbers) is increasingly being realized, partly through the growth in capabilities of the service offerings from old standbys like Ingram and new entrants like Cuddy’s Vearsa.

New tools and workflows are enabling publishers to package their content for both print and digital delivery much more efficiently than they did when ebooks were in their infancy.

Techniques that make it possible for books to be “discovered” through online means — search, social referrals, and growing book- and topic-based communities — are being mastered by publishers.

And a number of factors — consolidation of the accounts, more efficient wholesalers, consolidation of the publishers’ shipping through growing distributors — have reduced costs on the back end for most publishers as well.

So the publishers have, thus far, dealt with massive changes in sales, marketing, and distribution pretty effectively. They’re selling as many books as they used to despite growing competition from both indie authors (a million titles a year or more) and from Amazon itself, whose own publishing operation reportedly intends to issue 2,000 titles in 2016.

Trying to view things from the author perspective requires one to divide them into at least three big “buckets”: successful authors who know where their next totally-acceptable contract that pays them a living wage in advance to write a book is coming from; aspiring authors who either can’t get an agent or a deal or have decided that with self-publishing working as it does that they simply don’t want one; and the ones in the middle, who might have an agent or have had a deal or two, but aren’t really making a commercial success of authorship.

For those authors who find it hard or impossible to get an agent or a deal, self-publishing is a godsend. It gives them a way to really reach the global public at minimal cost and, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past decade, they can, indeed, break through and achieve commercial success. This is only a good thing for everybody. Even publishers benefit because they get to discover new talent that is surfaced by self-publishing.

For those authors who are working steadily and profitably for publishers, self-publishing has offered the possibility of greater control and bigger margins: more profit if they can achieve the same level of sale. This is not an opportunity very many authors in this category have pursued. That has surprised me a little bit, but probably it shouldn’t have. Being a publisher is a lot of work and no small risk. If an author is making a living doing the writing and letting a publisher handle the rest, that’s damn near nirvana. Very few in that position want to abandon it.

So that leaves the authors “in the middle”: getting deals or capable of getting deals, but not really making the living they want to make with those deals. Among those authors, if they have the skills to manage an enterprise and the personality to put themselves out there for promotion, self-publishing offers a real alternative to the legacy system. Particularly for those authors who have a backlist they can claw back rights to and use as a foundation for their efforts, this new opportunity has real possibilities.

And writing in genres, being able to deliver several books a year, and writing in a way that allows pieces of big books to “work” as self-contained smaller chunks, are all attributes that enhance the likelihood of self-publishing success. It is worth noting that, so far, publishers haven’t developed the techniques to make the most effective use of chunked stories or a voluminous output (unless you’re James Patterson!).

So another source of potential disruption — authors abandoning publishers to do it themselves to make more money per unit and claim greater control of their work and career — has also not really happened. I was among those who expected, during the era of dizzying change we experienced for a few years until a couple of years ago, that publishers could have a big problem holding on to their biggest stars.

Both the supply (authors) and demand (sales channels) sides of the equation appear more stable than they’ve been in recent memory. But there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way. The number of self-published titles keep growing by a million titles a year or more. They sell a paltry average per title, and a very small percentage sell a measurable amount at all, but cumulatively, their sales add up. Most of the revenue from that growing market segment goes to Amazon and a very small share of it goes to print or brick-and-mortar. Amazon’s growth in any way fuels their ability to be tough on terms, reducing publishers’ margins. (One big potential wild card is Amazon’s pressuring publishers to allow them to manufacture more and more of the inventory; that could be a paradigm-shifter if they succeed in making it widespread.) And more ebooks, particularly indie ebooks, and the subscription services for ebooks also tend to force down retail prices, which puts further pressure on publishers’ margins.

One other source of potential disruption — and this is one that I think many have in mind when they predict real danger for the establishment is around the next bend — would be some sort of disruptive product innovation. What if book readers suddenly demand video in books, or that stories be turned into games, or that books be enhanced by the margin notes made by prior readers? Would today’s publishers be able to compete? What would that do to margins?

There are areas of publishing outside trade where the “book” has either already become obsolete or could well be in a few years. As we have pointed out repeatedly over the years, ebooks have only really “worked” as substitutes for print books that one reads from beginning to end, narrative reading. The additional “functionality” that might be employed, such as those described above, has been pretty consistently and over a long period of time rejected — or, at least, not widely embraced — by the book-reading public.

But that’s not true in professional publishing, where books have often already been replaced by websites, online tutorials, and other uses of digital interactivity. (John Wiley, one of the biggest professional and trade publishers in the world, is largely exiting the business of “books”. O’Reilly Safari demonstrated over a decade ago that a subscription service was a great commercial proposition for professional books, long before it was even tried for consumer.) It is likely not to remain true in school and college textbook publishing, where the value of integrating testing and then adjusting what’s presented in the content delivery has enormous value and where institutions, rather than individual consumers, are in control. Predicting big disruption in these markets over the next few years seems like a much safer bet than in trade. Of course, those parts of the trade markets that look similar to those — cookbooks and travel in particular — have already seen wide-scale disruption.

Frequently, those who say they’re expecting disruptive change also promote the expectation that there will be some really substantial shift in consumer behavior. Quoting Cuddy:

So what is a book? What is reading? How will the millennials and children of the future consume stories? Will they even want to? I don’t think any of us know.

This is the big bugaboo: the death of long-form reading. That’s a reasonable thing to conjecture about, but not in the next three years or five years or even ten. In 2025, most of the books being read on the planet will be read by people who are reading them now. The most recent serious study about “designing books for millennials” (from Publishing Technology) seemed to conclude that millennials aren’t much different than the generations that preceded them when it comes to their book-reading habits.

Over the long run, things will almost certainly change in very big ways because of the inexorable forces eroding publisher margins described above. I wouldn’t be surprised to see only two or three big trade publishers as soon as ten years from now. I’d expect that the two recent plateaus we’ve reached, with ebook sales stabilizing in relation to print and with bookstores holding their own, will prove temporary. I wouldn’t expect ebook sales or online purchasing to grow by the leaps and bounds they did a few years ago, but it would surprise me if we’ve reached any long-term limit, particularly in ebook use. (The devices keep proliferating and people get increasingly comfortable reading for a long time on screens.)

More and more entities of all kinds will be using books, and particularly ebooks, to further their own missions through education or content marketing. They may not “flood” the market, but they’ll add a lot of product not necessarily priced with commercial intent that will steal sales and reader time from what publishers are trying to peddle.

For some time, I have figured that book reading might grow but that the industry that delivers books for profit might shrink. That would still be my expectation.

The biggest threat to publishers as we have known them would be consolidation among the intermediaries who sell their books. My hunch today would be that Amazon sells more than 40 percent of the books in the US. Indeed, their own publishing operation is growing despite the fact that they face continued resistance from their competing retailers to carrying their books. That suggests that books can be profitable, and authors made happy, on sales made to the Amazon audience alone. The bigger their share gets, the more that presents a real danger to publishers.

The whole point of publishers is “many to many”. They handle the output of multiple authors to give them the scale necessary to provide services to multiple sources of revenue for both books and rights. Amazon consolidated a big enough share of the audience that what they alone could sell constituted a viable market. That, combined with the elimination of inventory investment enabled by ebooks, created a robust indie publishing business. (Yes: iBooks and Nook and Google and Smashwords and others are part of it, but Amazon created it, and it might not be much of anything yet if they hadn’t!) Amazon could afford to pay a higher share of the consumer price than any publisher selling through them could and that created the marketplace in which indie authors could thrive financially and have a logical basis to express incredulity that other authors would take a publisher’s deal. During the days when both Amazon’s share and the ebook market were growing without any obvious limits, predicting that they would one day soon put a bullet in the heart of the publishing business might have been an overambitious projection, but it wasn’t entirely illogical.

But those days have passed. In retrospect, the big threat to publishers probably ended when Larry Kirshbaum’s efforts to get big name mainstream authors to leave legacy publishing in some numbers for Amazon failed, largely (I’d conjecture, we’ll never really know) because the competing retailers refused to play ball. Their outspoken refusal to carry Amazon books escalated the risk to an author’s career if they took any amount of money to be Amazon-published. That was not necessarily a deal-killer to a genre author who could reach a big share of their market with Amazon alone, but it made it just about impossible for Kirshbaum (or anybody else who might have occupied that seat) to use a checkbook to persuade an author already successful with legacy publishers to, essentially, risk their career.

Since then, despite Amazon Publishing’s continued growth (primarily in genres, not general trade) and what appears to be the continued growth in self-publishing have not really threatened the legacy publishing business. As long as the big authors don’t abandon the publishers, they’re safe. And as long as there is a complex demand chain for publishers to manage and service to pull in the revenue, they probably won’t.

So figuring out whether or when the industry turns upside down depends on figuring out whether or when the demand consolidates at Amazon to such an extent that the rest of the market can be lived without.

There will be fewer bookstores. There will be more titles competing from outside the commercial publishers. There will be continued downward pressure on prices. There will be diminishing interest in having a narrative book in printed form. And despite publishers’ efforts to add value by reaching distant markets and learning how to do digital marketing at scale, the publishing industry will, indeed, shrink.

But an apocalypse is probably not around the corner. And the book business as we see it today will still be recognizable in 2020 and even in 2025. I suspect that the business environments for all other media — music, movies, TV, and games — will change more than the business for narrative trade books over the next ten years.

Remember that we are conducting two surveys of industry opinion to inform the programming we’re doing for next March. Click here if you want to express yourself on the topics for Digital Book World 2016 and here if you want to register opinions on the program ideas for Publishers Launch Kids. 

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Considering the very wide range of digital change topics that should be candidates for discussion at DBW 2016


The challenge for the book business for the past decade has been rapid and less-than-predictable changes in the ecosystem because of digital. There are two underlying shifts that fundamentally alter the ecosystem: people substituting ebook consumption for print book consumption and people substituting online purchase of printed books for buying them in stores.

These two shifts, and a host of corollaries around product type, product creation, and marketing, are what people come to Digital Book World to be enlightened about and to discuss. Our job for the past seven years has been planning the program and booking all the speakers for that 3-day conference. The whole process takes months; there are about 35 or 40 discrete “sessions” and as many as 150 speakers and moderators involved.

Creating a timely and relevant program when we’re leading the target by several months — deciding on topics and recruiting speakers starting now for an event that will take place March 7-9, 2016 — is a challenge. More perspectives on the task add real value; we structure things so we can get a lot of help. We recruit a “Conference Council” — volunteers from publishing companies and their service providers and trading partners — to help advise me in shaping the event. This year we’re going to broaden the outreach for opinions about this and anybody reading this blog can be involved.

Here are the main topic headings we’re considering with a brief description of what we see as the current issues around each. The Survey linked to again at the end of this post allows you to express yourself on how important you think each topic will be to the publishing community next March when we hold the conference.

1. Data. This is a wide-ranging topic. We look for original data about what’s going on in the ecosystem wherever we can find it and we have done sessions in the past (and could again) about “Big Data” and what publishers need to understand about it. With pricing of ebooks becoming an increasingly important financial consideration for publishers and data being such a crucial component of doing that well, this is bound to remain a top-of-mind subject.

2. Global. Publishers used to be pretty much limited to their home market for marketing and sales. That’s why there is a robust international business in territorial and language rights. In the digital world, that limitation is not nearly as confining. US and UK publishers are learning there are big markets for their books all over the world, and global ebook distribution and print-on-demand make it possible for them to work those markets far more effectively than ever before from their offices, wherever they are.

3 Marketing and discovery. This is the topic that cuts across books regardless of topic or format. For fiction or art books or anything in between, whether delivered in print or as ebooks, publishers are embarked on a long journey of learning about how discovery and SEO works in the most complicated consumer product marketplace imaginable. There are a variety of topics that we entertain under this heading and, you could tell from my own checklist in my last post, I could probably build the whole conference around discovery and figure the audience was getting a large percentage of what is most important.

4. Authors and self-publishing. Authors didn’t used to have much alternative to publishers; now they do. As a result, authors have developed marketing capabilities and support services have grown up to help them. This all raises a host of issues for publishers. They have to learn how to capitalize effectively on what authors can do on their own, but they also need to provide great marketing support to authors and be seen as collaborative and as adding real marketing value.

5. M&A and investment. Most publishers, and all big publishers, are looking to acquiring smaller publishers with complementary lists (and, of course, there are different ideas about what that means). And there are a host of start-ups with capabilities publishers want to see available which are also tempting investments. Quite aside from publishing, we live in a moment with a lot of investment capital available for start-ups and acquisition and publishers certainly need to stay aware of investment flows.

6. Is the book morphing into something else? With each new cycle of Moore’s law and each new delivery mechanism — whether hardware or platform — the question of what the “product” should be gets called for reconsideration again. The history of ebooks has been commercially discouraging for those who want see the book concept rethought from the ground up, but the topic never dies and never will as long as capabilities to present stories and information and to interact with content in new ways are put in front of publishers.

7. Managing and exploiting rights. The rights marketplace for books has changed dramatically in the past two decades. In the 20th century, book clubs and paperbacks were the big-revenue rights opportunities, with serialization to print periodicals also very important. Those markets are all dramatically diminished and the rights action today mostly is about foreign languages and territories. Now, even those rights are being rethought as we see the beginings of publishers thinking about controlling multiple languages for the books they acquire themselves.

8. Agents and editors, how they relate in a mutually-supportive way. They share ownership of each author’s personal loyalty, they both might shape the book editorially, and they both will hear the author’s career ambitions and influence him or her about self-publishing and their publishers’ efforts. If publishers are going to start collaborating meaningfully with authors about marketing, that suggests agents and editors are going to be working together differently.

9. Libraries. Aside from being important customers for publishers, libraries are increasingly being seen as a venue for discovery and perhaps even for book retailing. Whatever they will be in the future, it is likely their role will be different than what Andrew Carnegie envisioned a century ago.

10. Bookstores. Since the collapse of Borders, Barnes & Noble has continued to shrink and independent bookstores have appeared to grow. Books-a-Million and Walmart have become mainstays of the US trade, but they don’t replace Borders. The UK bookstore picture is even less diverse. The ebook market seems to be consolidating in the US with Amazon and Apple leading the pack and independents not really in the ebook game at all, at least at the moment. The key skill set of a publisher is to manage a diverse system of retail intermediaries that gets their books to customers. How the intermediary ecosystem will change in the months and years to come is therefore of existential importance to publishers.

11. Standards. There are evolving tech standards around content that live outside the book business. The question for publishers, particularly big publishers, is how much effort they should expend on standards-creation efforts which are, mostly, the domain of other media and tech interests. Can they let industry bodies like IDPF and BISG handle this, or do publishers have to involve themselves in these issues?

12. Outsiders coming in. We are seeing publishing coming from non-publishers and we see non-book retailers starting to peddle books online. These are trends that industry incumbents need to monitor and understand.

13. Millennials. Some believe that the human propensity to be a book reader is changing in fundamental ways as people born into the internet age become an increasing part of the market. There are other data points suggesting that the millennials aren’t so different from their predecessors. How should publishers approach marketing differently to different age groups?

14. Digital production tech and operations. Is there already a “new normal” for integrated print and digital publishing? Do publishers need to continue thinking about investing in technology for creation and delivery?

15. Audio. Audio publishing has gone all-downloads much faster than print. An even bigger technological disruptor may be coming as TTS (text-to-speech) technology gets better and better. What the linkage will be between audiobooks and ebooks in the future is something else every publisher needs to consider.

16. Publishing automation. From content management to product generation, automation has been part of every publisher’s life for the past several years. It might be fruitful to explore how people in publishing houses feel about the automation that has taken place — has it helped? — and get a sense of what needs to be automated in the future.

17. Mobile. Because of mobile, there are shifts in consumption and an impact on search and discovery and where the transactions take place. Many publishers have worked to optimize their websites for mobile use but there’s a lot more to know about the mobile shift that could affect what they publish and how they market it.

18. Video. This topic runs a gamut. Publishers can be tempted by YouTube stars with big audiences as potential bestselling authors. But how reliably can those audience be converted to buy books or ebooks? What do publishers need to know about video production? Do videos really help with book marketing?

19. Privacy. Should publishers or booksellers be doing anything to address potential compromises to reader privacy in the digital age?

And then we have six questions for all publishers that could inform or suggest additional topics.

* What growth opportunities do you see for today’s publishers?

* What potential change in the landscape are you most worried about?

* What “problems” are you trying to solve?

* Where are you investing your capital?

* When you hire today, what skills are you looking for that you might not have ten years ago?

* Can you tell us any topic you think is important that isn’t mentioned here?

This link to our survey is intended to allow you to participate in helping us decide what’s important for DBW to cover. Even a program as extensive as ours has to make choices and your input will help us do that more wisely. In case you’re interested, here is my personal list of what publishers should be thinking about, which is a very-much-abridged version of this post.

Under the direction of our Conference Chair, Lorraine Shanley, and co-Chair Jess Johns, we are following a parallel process for our Publishers Launch Kids show which will kick of DBW on March 7. If you are kids book publishing interests you, the survey for that show is here and you’re welcome to participate in that one as well.

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Asking whether Amazon is friend or foe is a simple question that is complicated to answer


I’ve been invited to join a discussion entitled “Amazon: Friend or Foe” (meaning “for publishers”) sponsored by the Digital Media Group of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (only in England!) and taking place in London next month. I think the answer must be “both”, and I suspect that my discussion-mates — Fionnuala Duggan, formerly of Random House and CourseSmart; Michael Ross from Encyclopedia Britannica; and Philip Walters, the moderator for the conversation, will agree. This is a simple question with many complicated answers. I am sure that Fionnuala, Michael, and Philip will introduce some perspectives I’m not addressing here.

The first thoughts the question triggers for me are three ways I think Amazon has profoundly changed the industry.

Although just about every publisher has headaches dealing with Amazon, very few could deny that Amazon is their most profitable account, if they take sales volume, returns, and the cost of servicing into consideration. This fact is almost never acknowledged and therefore qualifies as one of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Because they’ve consolidated the book-buying audience online and deliver to it with extraordinary efficiency, Amazon must feel totally justified in clawing back margin; it wasn’t their idea to be every publisher’s most profitable account! But since they are effectively replacing so many other robust accounts, the profitability they add comes at a big price in the stability and reliability of a publisher’s business, which feels much more comfortable coming from a spread of accounts. Publishers strongly resist Amazon’s demands for more margin, partly because they don’t know where they’ll stop.

It is also true that Amazon just about singlehandedly created the ebook business. Yes, there had been one before Kindle was introduced in November, 2007, but it was paltry. It took the combination that only Amazon could put together to make an ebook marketplace really happen. They made an ereading device with built-in connectivity for direct downloading (which, in that pre-wifi time, required taking the real risk that connection charges would be a margin-killer). They had the clout to persuade publishers to make more books, particularly new titles, available as ebooks. And they had the attention and loyalty of a significant percentage of book readers to make the pitch for ebooks. With all those assets and the willingness to invest in a market that didn’t exist, Amazon created something out of nothing. Everything that has happened since — Nook and Apple and Google and Kobo — might not have worked at all without Amazon having blazed the trail. In fact, they might not have been tried! Steve Jobs was openly dismissive of ebooks as a business before Amazon demonstrated that those were downloads a lot of people would pay for.

The other big change in the industry that is significant but might not have been without Amazon is self-publishing. The success of the Kindle spawned it by making it easy and cheap to reach a significant portion of the book-buying audience with low prices and high margins. Amazon added its skill at creating an easy-to-use interface and efficient self-service. Again, others have followed, including Smashwords. But almost all the self-publishers achieving commercial success have primarily Amazon to thank. It appears that, in the ebook space at least, self-publishers among them move as many units as a Big Five house and, in fiction, they punch even above that weight. Without Amazon, this might not have happened yet.

So, in the three ways Amazon has really changed the industry — consolidating the bulk of online book buyers, creating the ebook business, and enabling commercially-viable self-publishing, publishers would really have to say the first two are much to their benefit (friend) and the last one they could have done without (foe).

The second big heading for this Amazon discussion is around the asymmetry between what Amazon knows about the industry and what the industry knows about Amazon. Data about the publishing industry is notoriously scattered and because of the large number of audiences and commercial models in the “book business”, very hard to interpret intelligently. Amazon, on the other hand, has its own way of making things opaque by not sharing information.

The first indication of this is that Amazon doesn’t employ the industry’s standard ISBN number; they have their own number called an ASIN. So whereas the industry had a total title count through ISBN agencies that required its own degree of interpretation, the titles published exclusively by Amazon, which only have ASINs and not ISBNs, are a total “black hole”. Nobody except Amazon knows how many there are or into what categories they fall.

Another piece of Amazon’s business that has critical relevance to the rest of the industry but is totally concealed from view is their used book business. There is an argument to be made that the used book marketplace Amazon fosters actually helps publishers sell their new books at higher prices by giving consumers a way to get some of their money back. But it is also pretty certain that people are buying used copies of books they otherwise would have bought new, with the cheaper used choice being offered to them from about the first moment a book comes out. One would intuitively assume that the effect becomes increasingly corrosive as a title ages and the supply of used copies keeps rising as the demand for the book is falling, inexorably bringing the price of the used books down. But none of us outside Amazon know anything about this at all, including how large the market is.

And, by the same token, we have no idea how big Amazon’s proprietary book business is: the titles they sell that are published by them exclusively. Beyond not knowing how many there are or what categories they’re in, the rest of us can’t interpret how the sales of Amazon-published titles might affect the prospects for titles a publisher might be signing up. Amazon has that perspective to inform their title acquisition, their merchandising, and to gauge the extent of their leverage in negotiations with publishers.

Going back to the original question, except for the possibility that some new book sales occur because the purchaser is confident of a resale, this is all foe!

In retrospect, it is clear that Amazon’s big advantage was that they always intended to use the book business as a springboard to a larger play; they never saw it as a stand-alone. This was an anticipation of the future that nobody inside the book business grasped when it was happening, nor was it imitated by book business pure players. But it was the key to Amazon’s economics. They didn’t need to make much margin on books; they were focused on “lifetime customer value” and they saw lots of ways to get it. Google and Apple have the same reality: books for them are in service to larger purposes. But they started with the larger purposes and, for that and other reasons, have never gotten as good as Amazon is with books. (One big deficiency of the Google and Apple offers is that they are digital only; they don’t do print books.) And B&N and Waterstone’s never thought beyond books; it appears that Waterstone’s scarcely thought beyond physical stores!

But it could well be that Amazon is approaching its limits in market share in the book business. What they did worked in the English-speaking world — for printed books two decades ago and for ebooks almost a decade ago — because they were first and able to aggregate an enormous customer base before they got any serious challengers. They will not find it as easy to dominate new markets today, particularly those that have rules that make price competition harder to employ. Language differences mean book markets will remain “local” for a long time and strong local players will be hard for Amazon to dislodge.

Amazon has powerful tools to keep their customers locked in. PRIME is the most effective one: once customers have paid a substantial fee for free shipping, they’re disinclined to buy elsewhere. Kindle is another one. The devices and the apps have broad distribution and, because of self-publishing, Kindle remains the ebook retailer with the biggest selection.

The marketplace is changing, of course. Amazon’s big edge is having the biggest selection of printed and digital books in one place. That’s been known for decades to be the best magnet to attract book buyers. But now a lot of book reading is done without the title-by-title shopping in a bookstore that it always used to require. We are at the beginning of an age of “distributed distribution”. Many different tech offerings — Aerbook, Bluefire, De Marque, Page Foundry, and Tizra among them — can make it easy for publishers to sell ebooks directly (and Aerbook enables that and promotion in the social stream). The subscription services Scribd, Oyster, 24Symbols, and Bookmate (as well as Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited) are pulling customers away from a la carte ebook buying and Finitiv and Impelsys make it easy for any entity to offer digital reading by subscription. All of these sales except Kindle Unlimited come primarily out of Amazon’s hide, since they are the dominant online retailer for books. Publishers mostly see this dispersal of the market as a good thing for them, even though some of the same opacity issues arise and, indeed, the big general subscription services are a new group of potentially disruptive intermediaries now being empowered.

For the foreseeable future — years to come — Amazon will remain dominant in most of the world as the central location where one shops online for books a la carte because they have the best service, the biggest selection, and they sell both print and digital books. But they now have their own new challenge dealing with the next round of marketplace changes, as what they dominate becomes a smaller portion of the overall book business in the years to come. Publishers face the same challenge presented a somewhat different way.

The event that gave rise to this post takes place the night before the London Book Fair opens. The entry fee is nominal. If you’ll be at LBF and want to attend, please do! I will, typically, have no real base of operations at LBF, but I’ll be there all three days with some time available to meet old friends and new. Email to [email protected] if you want to set something up. 

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Getting books more retail shelf space is going to require a new approach


That bookstore shelf space is disappearing is a reality that nobody denies. It makes sense that there are people trying to figure out how to arrest the decline. There has been some recent cheerleading about the “growth” of indie bookstores, but the hard reality is that they’re expanding shelf space more slowly than chains are shrinking it. No publisher today can make a living selling books just through brick-and-mortar bookstores. For straight text reading, it is rapidly becoming an ancillary channel, a special market. Illustrated book publishers, whose books don’t port so well to ebooks and whose printed books are more likely to be bought if they are seen and touched, are working “special” sales — those not made through outlets that primarily sell books — harder than ever. That means they’re trying to put books into retail stores that aren’t primarily bookstores.

A recent Publishing Perspectives brings us an article by a small publisher envisioning an expanded market for selling books through libraries. Deborah Emin of Sullivan Street Press imagines a world where libraries become book retailers liberated from the normal retailer’s concerns about “exorbitant rent and the dealings with landlords who can terminate a lease renewal at will”. But what really caught my attention was this statement:

What if bookstores could invest in what bookstores are best at — filling their shelves with books and taking chances on new authors rather than being concerned that their stock won’t move fast enough and they are wasting valuable space trying to sell what is more difficult to sell but that they know can be sold?

This stopped me because, in fact, I have precisely the opposite take on the problem. What I see is that the cost of buying books, and the impossiblity of doing it “right” based on the sales and inventory data of a single store, is really the biggest barrier to profitable bookselling, even more of a challenge than the cost of the space.

One big component of the problem, in a nutshell, is that most books don’t sell enough copies to have a “sales rate” in any one store. Consider a little quick retail math. A store that does $1.2 million in sales a year ($100,000 a month) is selling 5 to 10 thousand books a month. Call it eight thousand. The chances are that store’s eight thousand sales will be more than 7,500 “ones”, with the balance made up mostly of “twos”, with a handful of titles — in the neighborhood of a dozen — that sell three or more. If the store turns its stock 4 times a year (which would be a very good performance), it is sitting on about 25,000 books at a time, also mostly “ones”, so let’s say they have 22,000 titles. So in the average month, 2/3 of their titles sell zero and more than 90 percent sell no more than one.

In the following month, the 7,500 titles that sell one will largely change.

There is no mathematician in the world that can make meaningful predictions for what any particular title will sell in a subsequent month with data like that. And there is no mathematician in the world that can tell you how the hundreds of thousands of titles not in the store would have done if they had been there, based on the store’s data on those titles (which is zilch).

In the past decade, indie stores have gotten some real help getting some indications about sales outside their four walls. Ingram ranks titles across a much broader universe. The store system provider Above the Treeline provides some title-level visibility across their client base. That’s a lot better than nothing, but the data is not provided in a form that would enable any automated use of it for reordering.

And that points to the second, and larger, component of the problem: automating the ordering. The human attention it takes to make the stocking decisions for a bookstore has not really been scaled. B. Dalton Booksellers, which was bought by, absorbed into, and then discarded by Barnes & Noble, pioneered automated models in the 1970s, the first real computer-assisted inventory management in bookstores. A buyer would set an inventory level and reorder point for a book in a store (“setting the model” or “modeling the title”) and the computer would take over from there, automatically reordering when inventory fell to or below the reorder point. This capability made Dalton grow faster than Walden, its chief competitor, which didn’t have this ability to keep backlist in the stores without buyer or store manager intervention. The shortcoming of the model system, of course, is that a buyer has to put it on, take it off, or change it. So we have a manual requirement to manage the automation.

When you think about the sheer number of store-title model combinations in a chain of hundreds of stores with hundreds, if not thousands, of modeled titles per store, that’s no trivial task.

Unfortunately, the art or science or technology (or all three) of inventory management for books in stores hasn’t progressed a whole lot since then. Barnes & Noble built a great internal supply chain with warehouses that could resupply its stores very quickly and that improved the efficiency of the models. But an unnoticed and uncommented upon current reality is that internal supply chain will be hard to sustain and increasingly costly as the base of stores and sales it serves diminishes in size.

My father recognized this problem sixty years ago and created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan to solve it. That plan provided vendor-managed inventory for the stores. The reps walked out with an inventory count rather than an order. It was posted (manually) to a ledger by a roomful of workers at Doubleday’s home office, and an order was then created and sent to the store which had agreed in advance to accept it. Sales exploded, cost of sales shrank, and this program propelled Doubleday into the top echelon of book publishers. Leonard Shatzkin’s system was not automated, but it was a lot faster and more efficient than the store’s own efforts, particularly in those days when there was no computer assistance to track the inventory.

As stores gained the ability to track inventory through the 1980s, and were further assisted by a wholesale network led by Ingram that could restock them quickly, improved inventory management sharply increased bookstore profitability and the bookstore network grew. But with bookstores now heavily invested in systems to help them order more efficiently, the need for and receptiveness to publisher management of inventory declined.

But stores that don’t normally buy books and which can’t make the investments in book-oriented inventory tracking and buyers with the huge amounts of special knowledge that book buyers have still needed the help. Nearly two decades ago, I helped a client build an automated stocking system that could manage inventory on thousands of titles in thousands of stores with very little human intervention. It has run successfully to this day and is used to stock books in three of the largest chains in the country.

We used a pretty simple logic to build this system, limited as we were by what computers could do in 2000. The system calculates stock turn by title across the chain and then ranks the books by that metric. Then each store gets the highest-ranked books it doesn’t already have each week to replace the books it has sold. This automated system is crude, but extremely effective.

Of course, persuading a bookstore to accept a publisher’s or wholesaler’s decisions about what titles to stock would be a very heavy lift. But as the retail book market shifts from dedicated bookstores to shelf-space-for-books in retailers with other specialties, it becomes easier for publishers or distributors to find shelf space that can be stocked on that basis.

Since I am now working on a more modern version of what we designed in 2000, it is easy to see that much more sophisticated ranking systems and stocking rules can be managed in an automated way than was possible then.

Changing the paradigm by which books find their way to store shelves is a way to meaningfully improve the efficiency of book sales in brick-and-mortar stores. Coupling it with true consignment terms (which sale-and-return is not) can make book sales viable for stores at lower discounts, which could meaningfully improve publishers’ margins.

There’s plenty of rent being paid for space books would sell well in. The problem is the cost of putting the right books into those spaces. We won’t get there presenting, ordering, and fulfilling title-by-title as we’ve always done. That’s the first place to look for a better answer. Reducing or eliminating rent would be helpful in the short run, probably not sustainable in the long run, and it would sidestep the real challenge of retail: presenting the most saleable possible mix to the consumers who will shop from it every single day.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What makes books different…


Before the digital age, retailers that tried to sell across media were pretty rare. Barnes & Noble added music CDs to their product mix when the era of records and cassettes had long passed. Record stores rarely sold books and, if they did, tended to sell books related to an interest in music. For those stores, it wasn’t so much about combining media as it was about offering a defined audience content related to their interest, like Home Depot selling home repair books. For the most part in pre-Internet times, books, music, and video each had its own retail network.

But when media became largely digital in the first decade of the 21st century, the digital companies that decided to establish consumer retail tried to erase the distinction that had grown up dividing reading (books) from listening (music) from watching (movies and TV). The three principal digital giants in the media retailing space — Amazon, Apple, and Google — all sell all these media in their “pure” form and maintain a separate market for “apps” as well that might contain any or all of the legacy media.

The retailing efforts for all of them are divided along legacy media lines, acknowledging the reality that people are usually shopping specifically for a book or music or a cinematic experience. Most are probably not, as some seem to imagine, choosing which they’ll do based on what’s available at what price across the media. (This is a popular meme at the moment: books “competing” with other media because they are consumed on the same devices. Of course, only a minority of books are consumed on devices, unlike the other media. Even though this cross-media competition might be intuitive logic to some people, it has scarcely been “proven” and, while it might be true to a limited extent, it doesn’t look like a big part of the marketing problem to me.)

It seems from here that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have a distinct advantage over all their other competitors in the ebook space because, with books — unlike movies and TV and music — the audience toggles between print and digital. And this might not change anytime soon. The stats are scattered and not definitive, but a recent survey in Australia found that ninety-five percent of Australians under 30 preferred paperbacks to ebooks! Other data seem to indicate that most ebook readers also read print. To the extent that is true, a book shopper — or searcher — would want to be searching the universe of book titles, print and digital, to make a selection.

It should be more widely understood that the physical book will not go the way of the Dodo nearly as fast as the shrink-wrapped version has for music or TV/film. It hasn’t and it won’t. There are very good, understandable, and really undeniable reasons for this, even though it seems like many smart people expect all the media to go all-digital in much the same way.

Making the case that “books are different” requires me to unlearn what I was brought up to believe. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, used to ridicule the idea that “books are different”, which was too often (he thought) invoked to explain why “modern” (in the 1950s and 1960s) business practices like planning and forecasting and measuring couldn’t be applied to books like they were to so many other businesses after World War II. In fact, Dad shied away from hiring people with book business experience, “because they would have learned the wrong things”.

But in the digital age, and as compared to other media, books are definitely different and success in books, whether print or digital, is dependent on understanding that.

First of all, the book — unlike its hard good counterparts the CD (or record or cassette) and DVD (or videotape) — has functionality that the ebook version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write margin notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate around back and forth through the text much more readily than with an ebook. There are no comparable capabilities that come with a CD or DVD.

Second, the book has — or can have — aesthetic qualities that the ebook will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.

But third, and most important, is the distinction about the content itself. When you are watching a movie or TV show or listening to music through any device, the originating source makes only the most nuanced difference to your consumption experience. Yes, there are audiophiles who really prefer vinyl records to CDs and there probably are also those who will insist that the iTunes-file-version is not as good as the CDs. And everybody who has watched a streamed video has experienced times when the transmission was not optimal. There are almost certainly music and movie afficionados who will insist on a hard goods version to avoid those inferiorities.

But the differences between printed books and digital books are much more profound and they are not nuanced. In fact, there are categories of books that satisfy audiences very well in digital form and there are whole other categories of books that don’t sell at all well in digital. That is because while the difference between classical music and rock or the difference between a comedy and a thriller isn’t reflected in any difference between a streamed or hard-goods version, the difference between a novel and a travel guide or a book of knitting instruction is enormous when moving from a physical to digital format.

For one thing, the book — static words or images on a flat surface, whether printed or on a screen — is often a presentation compromise based on the limitations of “static”. The producer of a record doesn’t think “how would I present this content differently if it is going to be distributed as a file rather than a CD?” But the knitting stitch that is shown in eight captioned still pictures in a printed book could just as well be a video in an ebook. And it probably should be.

In fact, this might be the use case for which a consumer would make a media-specific decision. If you know what knitting stitch you need to learn, searching YouTube for a video might make more sense than trying to find instructions in a book!

Losing the 1-to-1 relationship between the printed version and the digital version adds expense and a whole set of creative decisions that are not faced by the music and movie/TV equivalents. And they are also not a concern for the publisher of a novel or a biography. But these are big concerns for everybody in the book business who doesn’t sell straight-text immersive reading. The point is that screen size and quality are not — and never were — the only barriers in the way of other books making the digital leap.

So even though fiction reading has largely moved to digital (maybe even more than half), most of the consumer book business, by far, is still print. Even eye-catching headlines like the one from July when the web site AuthorEarnings (organized and run by indie author Hugh Howey, who is a man with a strong point of view about all this) said “one in three ebooks” sold by Amazon is self-published, might not be as powerful at a second glance.

Although Howey weeds out the ebooks that were given away free, the share of the consumer revenue earned by those indie ebooks would be a much smaller fraction than their unit sales. The new ebooks from big houses, which is a big percentage of the ebook sales they make (and that AuthorEarnings report in July said the Big Five still had an even bigger share of units than the indies), are routinely priced anywhere from 3 to 10 times what indie ebooks normally sell for. So that “share” if expressed as a “share of revenue” might be more like five or ten percent. It really couldn’t be more than 15%.

(In fairness to Howey, he tries to make the point that indie authors earn more from lower revenue because their cut is so much bigger and he makes the argument that they are actually earning more royalties than the big guys. He also tells me that he calls some S-corp and LLC publishers “uncategorized”, even though they are almost certainly indies, in his own attempt to be even-handed. In fairness to the industry, I will point out that his accounting doesn’t take unearned advances into consideration, and since most sales of big house ebooks are of authors who don’t earn out, that lack of information really moots the whole analysis about what authors earn. Another big shortcoming of the comparison is that most published authors are getting a much more substantial print sale than most indie authors.)

But indie authors on Amazon are the industry high-water mark of indie share and ebook share. They are almost entirely books without press runs or sales forces, so they are almost entirely absent from store shelves. And they are also entirely narrative writing.

The facts, apparently, are that even heavy ebook readers still buy and consume print. There is not a lot of clear data about whether “hybrid readers” make their print-versus-digital choice categorically or some other way. There is some anecdata suggesting that some people read print when it is convenient (when they’re home) and digital when it is not. There are a number of bundling offers to sell both (offered by publishers and one called “Matchbook” from Amazon), which certainly seems to say that publishers believe there’s a market of people who would read the same book both ways at the same time!

What that all would seem to say is that the retailer selling ebooks only is seriously disadvantaged from getting searches for books from the majority of readers.

Do we have any independent evidence that selling to the digerati only — selling ebooks only — might limit one’s ability to sell ebooks? I think we do. It would appear that B&N has sold roughly the same number of Nooks as Apple has iPads. (This equivalence will probably not last since Nook sales seem to be in sharp decline.) That is somewhat startling in and of itself, since Apple is perhaps the leading seller of consumer electronics and B&N was entirely new to that game. Nook also seems to have — at least for a while — sold more ebooks than Apple. (This “fact” may also be in the rear view mirror with the apparent collapse of Nook device sales.) I will be so bold as to suggest that this is not because Nook has superior merchandising to the iBookstore. More likely it is because the B&N customer is a heavier reader than the Apple customer and prefers to do his or her book shopping — and even his or her book device shopping — with a bookseller.

[Correction to the above paragraph made on 11 Sept. I misheard and therefore misreported something that was caught by a reader in the comments below, but I should also correct here.  Apple has sold ~200M iPads but are only roughly 12% of the ebook market whereas B&N has sold only about 1/20th the number of Nooks and are about 18% of the ebook market. That fact makes little sense to anyone in Silicon Valley but speaks to how book audiences really behave. We all know a very high % of Nook owners are active store buyers.]

There is one more huge distinction between books and the other media and it is around the motivation of the consumer. While sometimes TV or movies might be consumed for some educational purpose, most of the time the motivation is simply “entertainment”, as it is with music. While analysis of prior video or music consumed and enjoyed might provide clues to what should be next, figuring out what book should be next is a much more complex challenge.

And the clues don’t just come from prior books consumed and enjoyed. Books are bought because people are learning how to cook or do woodworking, or because they are traveling to a distant place and want to learn a new language or about distant local customs, or because they are going to buy a new house or have suddenly been awakened to the need to save for retirement. You can’t really suggest the next book to buy to many consumers without knowing much more about them than knowing their recent reading habits would tell you.

But not only do (most of) the ebook-only retailers not know whether you’re moving or traveling, they don’t even know what you searched for when you were looking for print. And, even if they did know, operating in an ebook-only environment would make many of the best suggestions for appropriate books to address everyday needs off limits, because many of those books either don’t exist in digital form or aren’t as good as a YouTube video to satisfy the consumer’s requirements.

Indeed, it is the sheer “granularity” of the book business — so many books, so many types of books, so many (indeed, innumerable) audiences for books — that makes it so different from the other media.

Of course, there is one company — Google — that is not only in the content business and the search business but which also handles “granularity” better than any company on earth, down to the level of the attributes and interests of each individual. Google not only would know if you were moving or traveling, they would be in a great position to sell targeted ads to publishers with books that would help consumers with those or a million other information needs. (They also know about all your searches on YouTube!) But because Google’s retailing ambitions are bounded by digital, they are walking past the opportunity to be the state-of-the-art book recommendation engine. They’re applying pretty much the same marketing and distribution strategy across digital media at Google Play. They aren’t seeing that book customers are both print and digital. They aren’t seeing that books are, indeed, different.

When the day comes that they do, this idea will look better to them that it might have at first glance.

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This is a teamwork play that could really give Amazon a headache if they got together


I will admit that I have long been among those who believe that Amazon has what amounts to an enduring stranglehold on the book business. They have achieved a market share — which could be in the neighborhood of half the trade books sold if you combine print and digital versions — that is unprecedented in book business history. This is a smaller share than the two giant bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders — had combined at the peak of their marketplace power.

Lately, I have seen that point of view challenged. Jake Kerr wrote a very thoughtful piece making the point that Amazon’s desire to take margin out of the ebook business is a good defensive move that diminishes the appetite of their mega-company ebook competitors — Apple, Google, and, less so, Microsoft — to invest in beating them back. Suw Charman-Anderson picked up on the theme that Amazon is being defensive, “looking tired”, and found others who seemed to think the same way. Both of them express doubts about Amazon’s continuing hegemony without even using one powerful argument I think is important. Amazon is protected from ebook competition by the inability of competitors to put DRMed content onto dedicated Kindle ereader devices. (Another barrier is that so many early ebook adopters did so via a Kindle account, so their content and login credentials are in the Amazon platform along with a lot of other shopping data that raises the switching hurdle.) But the share controlled by dedicated devices is diminishing and anybody reading on a multi-function device can choose from a range of ebook retailers. (And that’s not to mention that somebody might invent a way to place protected content on Kindles without Amazon’s help; rumors have it that somebody already has!)

Contemplating Amazon’s weaknesses is new thinking for me. What I see is Amazon’s power over the book business, which is great. Amazon has achieved this position through smart and efficient operations and brilliant tactics like Amazon Prime that build customer loyalty, as well as being beneficiaries of the natural migration of sales from brick stores to online. But, most of all, Amazon benefits from its broad business base. They don’t have to support their business exclusively, or even substantially, from their book sales margin. And, on top of that, they don’t have to finance the building and maintenance of a global operation strictly from what they earn in the United States.

So they trump everybody. Barnes & Noble, their only competitor selling both print and digital books, seems to have stalled in its bid to build a rival global empire with the Nook device as the leading edge. Their lack of stores outside the US robs them of the main tool they used to build Nook from a standing start to what seemed for a while to be a serious threat to Kindle and the consequent lack of global scale is hobbling their Nook business. The US stores are still profitable as print-sellers, but very few are those who maintain that print-in-stores is anything but a declining market. (As for BN.com, the less said the better. Of the four principal components of B&N’s business: bookstores, college stores, Nook ebooks, and their online retailing operation, the most dramatic and persistent failure has been BN.com.)

Kobo, Apple, and Google are all ebook purveyors only with no print book complement. Kobo has nominally tried to deliver a combined offering, and claimed some store support to sell their devices, by making alliances with leading local booksellers in many markets. Apple, a company primarily interested in selling its hardware and the ecosystems it builds around them, has no apparent interest in print. Google appears to have hit on a broader variation of the Kobo strategy, making alliances with physical retailers by offering a combination of its power in search and a same-day delivery capability called Google Shopping Express — competing with Amazon Prime — that retailers in a single vertical couldn’t deliver for themselves.

Under that rubric, Google is now allied with Barnes & Noble. But I see this as an initiative with the accent on the wrong syllable. The combined companies’ offering is only of real value applied to the small number of book purchases for which same day delivery adds substantial utility (and for which the digital version — always delivered instantly — doesn’t constitute an adequate solution for the need for speed). They are further limited by the books available in the particular B&N store plugged into the program in each locality and each store carries far fewer titles than the chain does as a whole. So the number of books customers will need delivered with that alacrity will be further reduced by the imperfect match between the demand and what’s available. Even if this program steals a high percentage of the same-day demand sales from Amazon, I’m not sure how much it would shift market shares. And with Amazon also offering rapid delivery and probably around a greater number of titles, it is not a given that the new offering from Google and B&N will steal much market share at all.

That doesn’t make it a bad move. The sales and visibility are incremental pluses for Barnes & Noble. Google’s new Google Shopping Express has a business model into which B&N fits very nicely. Books are a nice-to-have additional product line to offer within that service, designed to compete with Amazon’s growing same-day goods delivery. This is a fight between two behemoths that is much larger than the book business (as it has to be to interest them). B&N has a role to play, but it is a supporting position, not a lead.

From where I sit, this offering from Google and B&N doesn’t look like a game-charger for the book business. Nothing about it would seem to threaten Amazon’s overall (and still growing) hegemony in book retail. The migration of sales from print to digital and from stores to online has clearly slowed down, perhaps even plateaued, in the past year or two but few are those who believe those trends are permanently over.

Google is on a right track with Google Shopping Express; people who buy physical goods use Google search to find them and see Google ads when they do. But going after the smallest corner of the print book business — those books on which 6-hour delivery presents a very big advantage over 24-hour delivery — is not going to bend the curve much on Amazon’s future, even if it provides some marginal benefit to B&N and Google.

But there is a different combination that could give Amazon a real headache. There are two companies that together could deliver print and digital, just about anywhere in the world with competitive delivery speed, with discovery capability that would rival Amazon’s as well. Between them, they really have almost all the capabilities and infrastructure required already in place.

One of those companies is, of course, Google.

The other is Ingram, the book business’s biggest US wholesaler and, through its present activities already providing global digital and print distribution as well as print-on-demand. Ingram is positioned to deliver any book in any form anywhere extremely efficiently. They also have a robust and accurate database of book metadata which, if combined with Google’s data and search mastery (and capabilities that match Amazon’s “Search Inside” offering as well), could challenge Amazon effectively as a “best first place to look” for any information about books.

What Google needs to take on board to make the strategic leap to explore a partnership like this is that most book consumers read both print and digital and probably will for some time to come. It will get harder and harder to compete with Amazon without a print-and-digital offering; you can’t be fully effective with either one unless you do both.

And it would help if Google saw the book business as distinctly different from the other media businesses that with books constitute Google Play. The differences play to and can enhance Google’s core strength. Book marketing is almost infinitely granular, because the number of possible motivations to buy a book are so great in number. Rarely do you buy music or video because of where your next vacation will be or because you want to put a new roof on your house or change careers. Associating specific book suggestions to discerned interests and motivations is the key to effective book marketing in the digital environment. And the insights about any individual by analyzing their book search also can tell you what else they may be looking for. Nobody does those things better than Google. They have limited impact on the ability to suggest music or movies, but enormous value in selecting what books to feature to any particular customer at any particular time and what else they can be sold after they’ve bought a book.

A Google-Ingram partnership would not only start with every capability necessary to compete with Amazon as a global bookseller, they would have some additional Secret Sauce as well. Google and Ingram wouldn’t actually have to make money on the combined retailing component because they make money other ways that are associated with it. Google would be adding incremental search and ad placement opportunities. Ingram would be benefiting as a wholesaler providing all the print books and many of the ebooks the new “store” sells. They could make nearly nothing from the new retailing operation, just like Amazon does with its book retailing operation, and still have the enterprise return a profit for their engagement.

A joint digital retailing enterprise to sell books and ebooks from Google and Ingram is the only possibility I can see on the horizon that would save the legacy publishing business from being entirely subject to Amazon’s inexorably growing marketplace power. It is almost certain that Ingram — part of the book business Amazon is so successfully disrupting — sees this very clearly. (Full disclosure seldom necessary in this space: Ingram has been a client of The Idea Logical Company for many years.) Being a hero to the book business may be a less immediate objective for Google, but making life a bit more difficult for Amazon almost certainly is. Nothing they could do would create more challenges for Amazon than a partnership with Ingram to create an all-media store that sells both physical and digital versions of everything, including and especially books.

Since I posted my last piece, triggered by Amazon’s invoking of Orwell and Streitfeld’s accusation that they got him wrong, two conflicting posts have arisen. I’m indebted to Hugh Howey for pointing out that apparently Orwell really did want to destroy cheap paperbacks but Orwell’s estate takes a different view. In fact, I don’t think which side got it right is particularly germane to the arguments I was making. The Orwell connection made a cute hook, but it is not really an essential part of either side’s story.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inevitable consequences follow from the new hierarchy of power among publishers


The current very public battle over trading terms taking place between Hachette Book Group and Amazon has brought forth surprisingly few recollections by those reporting it (an exception here) of a similar fight last summer between Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble.

This is publishing’s near-term future. The two most powerful channels that deliver books to consumers — one dominant in online transactions and one dominant in physical store presence — are determined to wrest more margin, which ultimately also means more pricing control, from their publisher trading partners.

The B&N dispute becoming public was a first for them. The only prior disputes between a publisher and a trading partner that had ever leaked beyond the buyer-and-seller that I can recall involved Amazon, and they were rare. The first was when Amazon took the buy buttons off Macmillan books in 2010. That was a vain attempt to stop the industry from going to agency pricing and it lasted only a few days. They pulled back so quickly from that effort that I concluded that their famous customer-centricity made punishing publishers in ways that were evident to their shoppers (which this one, which also became public, really was not) something they’d decided was not in their best interests.

Drawing that conclusion was apparently a mistake.

What B&N did with S&S, apparently, was simply to stock less of what the publisher was selling and to deny them promotional opportunities. That’s not obvious in a retail store. Books that aren’t there, or which aren’t there in quantity, are not apparent. Bookstores can be out of any particular book at any time without surprising anybody and it would take a uniquely aware book consumer to notice that something new and hot wasn’t displayed as prominently as would be expected.

But Amazon’s action against Hachette was much more visible. Marking Hachette books, which include titles from many very prominent authors, available only with substantial delivery delays, was bound to be noticed by customers and by the industry at large. And, on top of that, pushing customers to consider alternatives to Hachette authors based on price is particularly inflammatory. Authors have reacted publicly. One also has to believe that there must be a substantial overlap between Prime customers, Amazon’s best, and readers of the illustrious Hachette author list, led by James Patterson for fiction and Malcolm Gladwell for non-fiction. But Amazon felt the fight was worth whatever pain they inflicted on their best customers.

I had thought the immediate catalyst for this conflict was that Hachette was the first publisher negotiating a new deal to replace the court-imposed agreements following the agency collusion case. Apparently that is not the case. Nobody is telling me what Hachette is trying to achieve in these negotiations. One would expect that print book margin, ebook margin (often affected by various co-op fees), and ebook pricing flexibility are probably the key moving parts in the negotiation.

But the details don’t really matter. What is important to understand is how, with one exception, the power has passed from the publishers who control the distribution of copyrighted material to the retailers who control the customers. In the past, the pain for the retailer living without ready access to the most commercial books was much greater than the pain for the publisher without ready access to one retailer’s customers. Not any more.

But there is that one exception: Penguin Random House.

One former executive from a big house in a private conversation attributed the fact that PRH doesn’t ever seem to be subject to Amazon’s bullying to the fact that PRH’s second-ranking executive, Madeline McIntosh, had a brief interlude as an Amazon executive between her former and present tenures at PRH.

But I doubt that’s the answer. There’s a simpler one. PRH is too big to bully and nobody else is.

Roughly speaking, PRH has 40-50 percent of the commercial trade books (very few of which are not published by the Big Five). The other four houses divide the rest, with HarperCollins substantially bigger than the other three: Hachette, S&S, and Macmillan. The high-profile books that people would expect to find readily available break down along the same lines, so approximately 50% PRH, 20% HC, and 10% for each of the other three. That means that punishing HC the way Amazon is now doing with Hachette or that B&N did with S&S is about twice as painful in disappointed customers, and punishing PRH would be five times more painful. I suspect that will be the difference between doing it and not doing it.

In the ebook world, where the author royalty is normally a percentage of the publisher’s receipts, giving more margin to channel partners directly affects the authors’ cut. In the print world, most contracts with big publishers are still based on the publisher’s suggested retail price, so the impact is cushioned. But any change that reduces publisher margins is likely to have an impact on authors sooner or later, leaving less in the pot for advances or promotion. I thought a couple of years ago that perhaps it was unwise for publishers to keep so much margin rather than giving it to authors because it made them a fatter target.

Of course, both Amazon and B&N have plenty of reasons to feel justified in pressing for more margin. Amazon, with its low returns, has historically been many publishers’ most profitable account. B&N knows that their stores are “showrooms”, driving sales at Amazon as well as in their own stores. Amazon has no reason to want to be the most profitable account for publishers on the back of their own investments, efficiency, and customer loyalty. B&N wants the publishers to pay for the value they reap from being on B&N shelves that is not resulting in B&N sales.

And both companies have ample reasons to feel financial pressure of their own. Amazon is historically unprofitable and riding a stock price that depends on confidence in their future that they both must continue to justify and maintain a healthy fear of losing. B&N is dominating a shrinking sector and its own vaunted supply chain efficiencies are bound to diminish as both the number of stores and the sales per store continue to decline. Neither of them feel they can afford to subsidize publishers. Both are perfectly comfortable using their marketplace leverage.

So the squeeze on Penguin Random House’s most immediate competitors — the houses I call the Following Four — will continue to tighten. (As will, of course, the squeeze against their less-direct competitors among small and mid-sized publishers.) It seems inevitable that a margin gap between what PRH earns on sales to the industry’s biggest customers and what the others get will grow with every new round of negotiations on terms. I have thought for some time that PRH would create an advantage in proprietary distribution that, combined with its bigger-than-all-others checkbook, would enable them to pluck authors away one by one. Now we see the likelihood of another, more immediate advantage: better margin on every sale from what are already the industry’s biggest accounts.

Over the past decade, we have seen online sales consolidate in one big account and bookstore shelf space consolidate in another. Unless something changes the negotiating climate, the next ten years is going to see similar consolidation on the publishing side.

Amazon is a global company and the tactic of pushing for more margin is not confined to the US. And being the “Penguin Random House of Sweden”, which Bonniers is, apparently does not insulate them from facing the same tactics Hachette is currently coping with.

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Wondering whether printed books will outlast printed money, or football


When you’re trying to figure out what will happen in the book publishing business in the years to come, any prediction depends on how things work out that are beyond the control of the business, and sometimes well outside it. This will be increasingly the case if the book business, in what has remained a fairly lonely expectation of mine, is increasingly the domain of people who aren’t publishing or selling books as a primary commercial activity, but as an adjunct or complement to some other principal objective.

This past Sunday’s New York Times tackled the question of disruptive change in the world in general with a graphic report created by Claire Cain Miller and Chi Birmingham, based on the predictions of a panel of expert technologists and futurists. They asked four questions:

What far-off technology will be commonplace in a decade? Among the suggestions were that we’d see thousands of drones, chips implantable in humans that would deliver access to all one’s devices, and personalized medicines crafted to your specific DNA.

What industry will tech put out of business next? Among those predicted to meet their demise were higher education, the auto industry from drivers to mechanics, airline pilots, and consumer banking.

What technology will seem antiquated in a decade? The nominees here included email, computer keyboards, chargers, keys, and cash!

What is the next issue to undergo a sea change in social acceptance? Future targets from currently acceptable endeavors include football, factory animal farming, and ubiquitous recording and surveillance.

That’s quite an agenda for the next ten years.

There is logic behind all these predictions and the list of those contributing thoughts is stellar, but I daresay few of them are based on data as much as on insight. There’s no data to predict the end of wired charging or banks, or even to predict that football will become massively scorned. But there are straws in the wind for all of them.

So it is when we think about the future of publishing. There are things we simply can’t know for sure, subjects about which a range of outcomes over the next ten years is certainly possible, that will have a profound effect on what book publishing will look like — as an industry and more broadly as an activity — in ten years.

Here are some of the key questions, to which I’m quite convinced nobody can be sure of the answers, that will affect what publishing will look like ten years from now.

How persistent an activity is immersive long-form reading? There are all sorts of threats to it. Perhaps it is needed more than ever as an escape from the ever-more-intrusive demands of connected daily life, but it is also undermined by the accelerating pace of everything else. It is hard to discern this because each person’s personal reading patterns change over a lifetime. We’ve always sold more books to older people than younger ones, with exceptions for cultural phenomena that sweep through the young (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight). Long-form reading has always been required in schools, but as humanities increasingly take a back seat to more “practical” education, can we count on that continuing? It seems hard to build a case that long-form reading won’t be reduced per capita because of the ready availability of so much else and an increasing societal tendency toward short attention spans. (And that last is my impression, not one I can defend with data.)

As my generation is replaced with digital natives, a decline in the market for novels would seem to be a very likely consequence. Or, at least, novels as we know them now.

How persistent is the demand for printed books for long-form reading? The ebook revolution is in its seventh year, if dated from the launch of the Kindle, which was when explosive growth began. Over the past year or two, the explosive growth has stopped and there is the belief in some quarters that many consumers are still expressing a preference for printed books for long-form reading over digital ones. That’s probably true. A recent Harris Survey of Internet-connected adults said that 46% exclusively read print books and only 6% only read ebooks. The remaining 48% are pretty evenly divided among those who read more print, those who read more ebooks, and those who read about the same number of each.

My hunch, again offered without the support of meaningful data (because there would be none), is that ebooks will continue to take share from print for long-form reading, in fits and starts, but inexorably. The logic behind that conjecture is simple and two-fold. One side of it is that the print book experience won’t improve and the ebook experience will. With the first blush of fascination with “enhancing” ebooks by the insertion of distractions passing and real enhancements (the static dictionaries improved into author-built glossaries, improved bookmarking and page-flipping navigation, excerpt-sharing enabled) bound to become more common, there will become more and more reasons to prefer the digital version. (Even the killer app of print — the ability to write notes or underline — will ultimately be digitally-enabled in a ubiquitous way.) The other reason is that the proliferation of (mostly ebook) titles in the marketplace, hand in hand with diminishing shelf space for (mostly printed) books in stores, will increasingly drive online purchasing, which favors ebooks over print.

It wouldn’t take a big change year-to-year for the numbers of exclusive print readers and exclusive ebook readers to be reversed over the next decade with half continuing to do some of each. Since each reader shifting her preference from print to digital further undercuts the support for shelf space, you have (depending on your point of view) a virtuous circle driving ebook growth or a vicious cycle working against print. And against stores.

How well do informational illustrated books compete with alternatives? The informational illustrated book business, largely instructional, has not fared well in digital form. While the share of ebooks for immersive reading has generally ranged from 20% to more than 60% depending on the subject or genre, the numbers are a sliver of that for illustrated books. This has put pressure on illustrated book publishers to make the most of stores, to find direct paths to their customers, and to make the most of the global opportunities for print sales. My candidate for a Black Swan here is some industrial-strength attempt to curate the vast amount of video and other Internet-based content into “packaged” competition for books that teach skills. Just as MOOCs are disruptive to colleges and educational publishing (note the prediction in the Times story that higher education would be “put out of business” in the next ten years), the dagger that will prove mortal to much illustrated publishing may already exist.

Visuals and illustrated books and doing the things people use illustrated books to do (knit, garden, decorate a room) are not my personal milieux, as everybody who knows me personally will attest. But I’d suggest there’s a business out there with which I personally promise never to compete — assembling the library and creating the directory of the publicly-available material that would substitute for these books. Somebody’s going to do that in the next ten years. Here’s an example of something that points in the right direction, but I don’t think can solve the problem in the way I’m describing. Other nods to this idea exist in many verticals, albeit most likely in less-cohesive forms — wikiHow, Google searches, YouTube playlists, internet discussion boards and forums — but they really only hint at the solution I’m imagining.

How much of the creation and selling of books spreads beyond the book business? One of the leading Anglo-American CEOs pointed out to me many years ago that the day had passed when he could just call the CEO of his biggest accounts to discuss a problem. Retailing of print books requires Amazon, for whom it might be 10% of their total business and Walmart (is it 1% of theirs?) in the US, supermarkets in the UK. Global retailing of ebooks, with everybody in the publishing business rooting for Barnes & Noble to crack this, is in the hands of four companies — Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Google — all of which employ book retailing as a strategic component of a larger endeavor.

So far, the publisher side of the value chain has not been affected by the same phenomenon, but I think it will be, in a very different and more disparate way. The concept of “content marketing” hasn’t really discovered the book business yet, but it will. Athough there are a handful of exceptions, today they are just the straws in the wind that indicate the possibilities.

I’m sure that in less than five years every multi-million dollar marketing plan will have an ebook component: sometimes free, sometimes freemium, sometimes paid. Over time the businesses that do this work will learn, probably faster than many book publishers, how to use the online discovery mechanisms to drive the attention of relevant consumers. And part of what could be a tsunami of new competition is driven by another reality: anybody who creates content for any other (usually advertising-supported) audience can carve up or recombine or represent their content as a competitive book product. It takes an organization and much more sophisticated expertise around subscription management and advertising for a book publisher to do online magazines (although it is a reasonable thing to try).

Because of self-publishing authors and public domain title miners, the new titles currently flowing into the marketplace are already coming more from non-traditional publishers than from the establishment, creating an ever-growing challenge around discovery and branded authority. If an ebook publishing program becomes a standard component of branding and corporate and consumer marketing over the next ten years, the new competitors to publishing as we’ve known it will be coming from a flood of well-marketed content whose purveyors may not have to make a profit from it. Imagine what happens to fiction publishing if Hollywood figures out that ebooks and marketing them is a far better development tool for a motion picture or TV show than the fourth rewrite of a script!

Ten years is a long time and a long time allows for some pretty radical predictions. Last week I was on a subway platform with hundreds of people, noticing that virtually all of them were looking down at a device in their hands. I was thinking, “my Dad died in 2002, he never saw this. My Mom died in 2007, she never saw this.” Ten years ago, I think few would have predicted that the number of people on a subway platform looking at devices would outnumber those reading newspapers by 50-to-1 or more. Maybe ten years from now we won’t have keys or cash. And maybe there will be very few people reading paper books.

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