Blio

Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

1. eBookstore alternatives to the established players.

2. Enabling social connections among readers of books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off


When Larry Kirshbaum, the longtime head of TimeWarner Publishing (purchased right after he left in 2007 by Hachette and now the company called Hachette Book Group USA) joined Amazon many people thought — I among them — that Amazon was about to become a threat to take big titles away from the major publishers and, by doing so, also put pressure on competing retailers who would either have to buy from Amazon or do without major books.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal spells out just how futile have been Amazon’s efforts so far to upend the Big Six. Their two biggest headline acquisitions — a celebrity bio from actress Penny Marshall and the latest from bestselling non-fiction writer Tim Ferriss — are achieving paltry sales outside Amazon as measured by BookScan.

Michael Cader does some deeper digging to suggest that the high-profile books are not the place to be looking for the successes in Amazon’s publishing. They’re publishing lots of genre fiction and buying up some backlists.

Yet, I can’t believe that the high-profile output from the New York office meets Amazon’s original expectations or Kirshbaum’s. If they miscalculated the impact they could make, maybe it was for the same reason I did. An abrupt slowdown in ebook switchover took hold at about the same moment the Kirshbaum era at Amazon began. Big publishers are reporting that ebook sales are now approaching 30% of their revenue, which is about a 50% increase from what they said last year. That follows several years when ebook uptake increased by 100% or more.

(It is important to note here that the reported figures are a percentage of all revenue. Many titles are not “ebookable”: they’re illustrated books or little kids’ books and, if they have ebook equivalents at all, they don’t sell nearly that percentage. So the digital sales of immersive reading would constitute a somewhat higher percentage than that.)

Amazon as a publisher has advantages and disadvantages against more traditional competitors. They have the advantages of direct customer contact, which pay off in two ways. They can send you an email pitching a book as the logical next one to the one you just read; general publishers can’t do that. And, as the publisher, they have more margin to either pay the author more or charge the customer less, which, either way, increases an author’s revenue through online channels.

But their disadvantages are also significant. For most books, and particularly non-fiction (as both of which the high-profile releases the Wall Street Journal wrote about are), more than half of the sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. Despite their attempt to secure that exposure by a licensing deal with Houghton Harcourt, the resistance to Amazon from Barnes & Noble and many independent stores and mass merchants has curtailed that distribution.

Apparently Amazon led at least some people to believe with their success on the recent Barry Eisler book that they could sell more copies through their own channels than big publishers could through the entire network. The claim that they had outsold all his previous NY Times bestsellers was made to literary agents in a letter that also cited other great successes, all with genre fiction. Without questioning anybody’s numbers, I was skeptical about the significance of the relative Eisler sales because, it seemed to me, whatever they could do for Eisler (whom they published) they could do for any other book they wanted to, whether they published it or not. So it seems illogical to me that they would somehow magically sell more than the whole trade combined on a book because they were publishing it.  It seems apparent that Amazon isn’t succeeding at persuading agents that the Eisler case, even if it is as portrayed, is replicable.

I saw reports of bitter comments from Tim Ferriss, complaining about Barnes & Noble’s apparently-effective boycott of their competitor’s publishing program. Maybe he would be doing that even if Amazon is selling more than his conventional publishers did before. But I doubt it.

This is not a final answer. Amazon’s share of the trade market — ebooks and online print combined — is still growing and shows no sign of abating. Most publishers would still report that Amazon is their fastest-growing account.

But shelf space erosion — a metric with no reliable index anywhere — seems to have slowed down. That means that, at the moment, we have a more stable book trade than we’ve had for at least five years. It is smaller, but it is more stable. In the US at least, our market of three big ebook players (Amazon, B&N, Apple) and two sturdy and persistent upstarts (Kobo and Google) is still welcoming some new entrants. Zola eBooks, promising some interesting merchandising innovations, and Bookish — the repeatedly postponed effort from three major publishers — are expected to join the fray soon. Sony and Copia and Blio are still trying to gain traction, but they’re also still here.

Amazon definitely has the most advantages. Their Kindle ecosystem is still the best-functioning, deepest in title selection, and benefits in numerous ways from having more readers and selling more ebooks (and books, for that matter) than anybody else. The growth in their genre title base that Cader points out increases their market share of dedicated genre readers, who read other things too. They have the most self-published titles and the best ecosystem for self-published authors to make money. And the big title growth enables them to build subscription or subscription-like capabilities like KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) which do take customers out of the game for everybody else.

As their share of the market grows — as long as it continues to grow — their argument to authors to cast their lot with them gets stronger.

But, for now, it would seem that B&N definitely did the right thing for their own good by boycotting Amazon’s titles. And, for now, it would seem that most of the authors Amazon will get for their general list will be those who are annoyed at the publishing establishment like Konrath and Eisler or curious about working with a tech-oriented publisher like Ferriss.

Authors who want bookstore exposure or to maximize their total sales across the US bookselling universe will remain hard to persuade for the forseeable future. But probably a little less so with each passing day.

I note with sadness the passing of Senator George McGovern. I am proud to have worked on all three of his presidential campaigns: 1968 at the Democratic National Convention working for Pierre Salinger, two years on the 1972 campaign, and a weekend in New Hampshire trying to light a fire in 1984.

What motivated us to join Senator McGovern was primarily his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his personal and political appeal went far beyond that. He was extraordinarily decent and straightforward. In my stretch of two years working for him in the early 70s, it was remarkable how consistently he took issue positions we young idealists could be proud of. A poorly-vetted choice for vice-president will always be part of the explanation for why he was crushed, but my friend Professor Wade — one of McGovern’s top strategists — told me years ago that it was the assassination attempt that crippled George Wallace that actually was responsible for the defeat. 

Nixon had won the 1968 election with a little over 40% of the vote. Wallace had taken a share in the high teens. The McGovern planning from the beginning assumed a similar race in 1972. When Wallace was eliminated by the assassination attempt, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” made him the heir to the Wallace vote and a landslide victory.

In the end, of course, it was Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who went to jail and his administration that ended in disgrace. McGovern was always gracious and never bitterBut, as a country, we’ve never spent enough time contemplating how different things could have been if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot in 1968 or if McGovern had won in 1972.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Somebody please tell me the path to survival for the illustrated book business


My eye was caught at the end of last week by a story in The Bookseller that acknowledged that ebooks just haven’t worked for illustrated books. It appears that the publishers of illustrated books they spoke to for the piece think that situation is temporary. The Managing Director of Thames & Hudson, Jamie Camplin, is quoted as saying “you have to make a very clear distinction between the situation now and the situation in five years time.” And Dorling Kindersley CEO John Duhigg emphasized that his team is being kept up to date with digital workflows and innovations, so they can “be there with the right product at the right time.”

But maybe, except for an opportunity that will arise here and there, for illustrated book publishers trying to exploit the same creative development across both print and digital, there won’t ever be a “right time”. There certainly is no guarantee there will be.

Duhigg characterized what he called “the black and white digital business” (but which I think would more accurately be described as “the immersive reading digital business”) as “flowing along” while admitting it is “very different” for the companies with “fully-illustrated lists”.

That’s accurate. Expecting that to change could well be wishful thinking.

Illustrated books in printed form depend on bookstores more than novels and biographies do. If the value in a book is in its visual presentation, then you might want to look at it before buying it, and the view you’d get of it online might not be doing justice to what you’d see if you held the book in your hands.

Camplin sees that optimistically. He has an aggressively modernist view of what will happen with novels. “I don’t see why print should survive at all for fiction, beyond the odd bibliophile” which he apparently believes could open up more bookstore display space for illustrated books.

But if the buyers of Patterson and Evanovich and 50 Shades of Gray aren’t visiting bookstores to make those purchases anymore, will there be any traffic to look at the illustrated books, however prominently they are displayed?

This problem has been nagging at me for a while. Books are illustrated for two reasons: beauty or explanatory purpose, more the latter than the former. When they’re illustrated to better explain, such as showing you how to knit a stitch or make a candle or a piece of jewelry, wouldn’t a video be a better option most of the time? If the illustration is a map, isn’t it likely that being able to manage overlays digitally (for the movement of the weather or the troops on the battlefield or the adjustment of borders over time) will deliver more clarity than whatever stills were in the book?

Of course, these things can be done by book publishers for the digital versions. But they require creating or licensing and then integrating new content assets and rethinking and redesigning the presentation. And that’s not even accounting for the work involved in adjusting the content to multiple screen sizes, a problem that just keeps getting more challenging as more different tablet and phone screen sizes are introduced.

One major publisher I know really endeavors to make ebooks of all their new title output, which includes some imprints that do a lot of illustrated books. Like everybody else, they frequently see ebook sales of 50% and more of their fiction, and 25% or more on immersive-reading non-fiction. But the illustrated books are in the single-digit percentages most of the time, with some of the more successful categories in the very low double-digits.

This is in the US — two years or more after the launch of the iPad and Nook Color and nearly a year after the launch of the Kindle Fire. Poor sales of illustrated ebooks can no longer be attributed to a lack of devices that can deliver them effectively.

And the ubiquity of these highly-capable devices brings its own new set of headaches. We were discussing the recent Bowker reporting that more people are reading ebooks on multi-function devices than on dedicated e-ink readers with our favorite expert on reading habit data, Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. He concurs and says that, as a result, the ebook consumption per reader threatens to go down.

Hildick-Smith points out that the tablet is a sea change in the history of content and consumption. Up until now, each content form had its own delivery mechanism. Records and cassettes and even MP3s were delivered through devices made just for them, just like the programming on TV and radio. Books on Kindles and Nooks replicated that paradigm. When you turned on your Kindle, you were as buried in your book as you were when it was in paper.

This is no longer true. If the book you’re reading on an iPad or Kindle Fire or Nexus 7 gets boring or you get tired of it, you can switch to a movie, The New York Times, your favorite song, or Angry Birds with the same device. Or the chime on your iPhone will ring taking you out of your book to answer an email.

For the publisher of novels, this means the book is competing with other media that would accomplish a different purpose. For the publisher of illustrated books, the book also must compete with media accomplishing the same purpose (how many new instructional videos of knitting stitches or jewelry-making techniques are posted to YouTube every day?) But they can’t do it for the same price, because that price is free.

So the illustrated book publisher not only has to learn how to make videos (a skill they were never previously required to possess), they also have to come up with a business model that enables their videos to be part of a priced commercial product, competing with legions of them that are free. And they have to finance a substantial creative component that isn’t contributing value to the print version at all.

We know our industry is changing radically. Different business models are challenged in different ways. Most of our time on this blog, perhaps too much of it, is spent contemplating how that affects the biggest publishers and the biggest books. There’s a reason for that. Big books have always driven the consumer book business and that seems to be more true than ever, not less.

But the challenge for — very specifically — “general illustrated book publishing” seems much more severe. The big publishers I’ve talked to apparently see that. Nobody has been explicit about it, but it sure feels like they can see a profitable path to navigate digital change with immersive reading books but not with illustrated ones.

I’ve also talked to mostly-illustrated publishers. Nobody says “you’re wrong, Mike. This is how we’re going to continue succeeding using our content-development skills, marketing capabilities, and talent network when bookstore shelf space is insignificant.” A couple of them have said “I don’t agree” without specifics. Most admit that they see the problem but haven’t yet figured out a solution.

There may not be one.

Camplin of Thames & Hudson is quoted at the end of The Bookseller piece saying, “I think it’s sort of a waste of money to assume the market is there [at the moment]; however, it would be foolish to say it will be this way forever.”

It might be equally foolish to say, or bet, that it won’t.

Of course, there is one strategy that can work: a vertical one. If you’re using illustrated book output to build a community of the interested, then you’ll presumably be able to sell them other things (software, live events, databases, services) when illustrated books are past their sell-by date. That’s the Osprey and F+W strategy and you can see sense in it because books are only part, and almost certainly a diminishing percentage, of their sales portfolio.

In fact, it is companies like these that might use technology like Ron Martinez’s Aerbook Maker tools and be able to use their books as a springboard to digital products with commercial value. They’ll probably also want to discover fotoLibra’s “advanceImages” scheme for micropayment of royalties instead of advance licensing fees for photographs. What Aerbook and fotoLibra offer can reduce the cost of creating an illustrated or enhanced ebook by 80%. That would certainly help.

It’s been obvious to me for a long time that managing the cost side of enhanced ebook creation is critical, which is why I was a sucker for the original Blio pitch in December of 2009.

For any publisher who claims a vertical strategy is their solution, the metrics to track are the sales they make of things other than books and the sales they make outside of bookstores. That is: track what is sustainable and has the potential to grow, not what is bound to shrink.

Relevant piece of anecdata: I remember being told by somebody at Wiley a couple of years ago that a large portfolio of photographs added measurable revenue on their travel sites. For very little cost, they could make a selection of photographs available for browsing. People clicked through them pulling up a new ad each time they did. That’s the “illustrated book publishing” of the future, but it starts with having the audience.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“A Global Perspective on Digital Change” will be our first show in London


The first Publishers Launch Conferences show outside the United States, “A Global Perspective on Digital Change”, will be at the Congress Centre in central London on June 21, with the Publishers Association serving as our partners in putting on the event. We also owe special thanks to the PA’s group of Digital Directors, who were extremely generous with their time and insight. If you can be in London that day, you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than with us.

We’re still putting the finishing touches on what will be a one-day conference packed with illuminating conversation, but we can tell you quite a bit about it already. We aim to deliver strategic, practical, and focused discussion of near-term issues and opportunities. This won’t be a showcase for cool products or a venue to debate what the future might look like some day. We’re examining essential issues — ebook “export” opportunities; what happens to territorial rights; hiring and retraining to meet today’s challenges; revamping publishing systems for a dual print and digital paradigm; getting “found” on digital shelves — that publishing professionals should focus on now to thrive in the days to come.

The UK market is in between the US and the rest of the world in its migration from print to digital reading. Kindle and iPad sales really took off last Christmas and, while ebook penetration may be a fourth or less of what it is in the US, it has grown enough to be disruptive and to generate a consensus acceptance that very substantial change in the industry is inevitable.

On the one hand, my PLC partner Michael Cader and I have followed the developments in the US very closely so we have some firsthand experience with some aspects of what the UK trade is going through. On the other hand, we know history won’t repeat itself precisely. There are important differences in the markets and there is a substantial group of companies with experience and capabilities developed in the North American market that can hit the ground running in Britain or anywhere else in the world. That alone will make everybody else’s experience different than what happened in the US.

In order to be sure we were talking with the UK industry, not at it, we took some preparatory steps. In February, we put a large number of ideas for panels and topics up on Survey Monkey and invited 70 players in the UK book trade to express their opinions on them. In five days, 40 of the people responded.

Then we followed up by spending three days in London meeting with about 50 people to discuss our ideas and theirs. Our partners at the PA provided invaluable assistance, hosting our conversations and inviting us to join a regular meeting of the Digital Directors to get the insights of the most knowledgable people in the UK market. Those conversations were crucial in helping us focus properly on topics and in locating some key sources of insight. Frankly, despite our long experience working with the British publishing community (I have visited London on business three or four times a year for 35 years), putting this conference together would have been impossible without the help we got.

But because of that help, I think we’ll be presenting the UK publishing community with a lot of very useful discussion that hasn’t taken place at the many prior gatherings that have discussed book publishers and digital change.

One topic that we identified very early is the opportunity we see for publishers in Britain and Ireland to sell into the US market now without payng for a distributor infrastructure or taking an inventory risk. When we started to explore this topic, we learned that, of course, people are definitely starting to plan for it. Some are starting to exploit it. This was something we thought should be happening below the radar, and it is.

This is a peculiar opportunity, because it might be more important for independent UK publishers large and small than it is for the biggest global players. We’re still filling out the panel for this one, but we have Helen Kogan of Kogan Page, an independent whose company was already working in the US market (and therefore has some helpful experience to pass along) but who is seeing the expanded opportunity presented by digital, and Jean Harrington of Maverick House Publishers in Dublin. Jean is also President of Publishing Ireland and we invited her to join this particular conversation for a reason. The Irish diaspora in the US has a particularly strong identity with the old country and we expect books of Irish history and Irish fiction will find a substantial additional market through ebook sales in America.

We’re working on adding another British publisher and an agent to that dialogue.

Another topic arose out of a conversation that longtime UK consultant Mark Bide and I had while we were at Tools of Change in New York in February. How long will it be, I wondered, before half of UK sales are digital? Mark said he wasn’t sure about the timing, but he was sure that the publishers’ systems, overhead allocations, staffing, and infrastructure would require a lot of adjustment to be ready for that day. That’s a good conference topic, we thought.

Then, in our conversations at the PA 10 weeks ago, Anthony Forbes Watson, the MD of Pan Macmillan, told us he had charged his team with thinking through the question exactly as we had defined it. Anthony wants to know “what does 50% ebooks look like? What do we have to do to be ready for it?” The next day we talked to James Long of Pan Mac who told us that, yes, he was actually the person in the company with the primary responsibility for thinking this question through.

We decided the best frame for this conversation was “thinking about the future.” James, as he will tell us on June 21, is largely focused on what Pan Mac needs to do in systems development and integration, workflow changes, and skills development to be ready for a 50% digital world.

But there are two other aspects of preparing for the future we felt could be illuminated by other panelists we recruited.

Perseus, a US company whose Constellation division that provides digital services to smaller publishers is a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, is one of several companies in the world (Ingram in the US is another; so might Random House be in the US and the UK) that are investing in warehouses and print book distribution capabilities at precisely the time many publishers are disinvesting in them, precisely because they know that most publishers will have to disinvest in them. They’re trying to be there for publishers who want to dispose of fixed cost overheads for the shrinking print book market. We put Rick Joyce of Perseus into this conversation to cover the sensitive topic of consolidation on the physical side (a subject that Dominic Myers, the MD of Waterstone’s, famously put on the UK publishing community’s agenda a couple of months ago.)

Copyright Clearance Center, the US RRO which is also a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, has steadily called our attention to another industry-wide challenge: the need to manage rights more effectively and on a more granular level to take advantage of emerging opportunities to license chunks and fragments for apps, ebooks, and web sites. We thought that the voice for this topic in London should be local, and we were pleased that Sara Faulder, head of the Publishers Licensing Society, agreed to join this conversation.

Mark Bide has agreed to moderate this group in what I think will be a dialogue about publishers and the digital future unlike any the audience will have heard before. (Except, that is, if they are at our Publishers Launch BEA show on May 25, where we’ll have a different version of this conversation, one more focused on export and rights sales than infrastructure, but also covering the change we’ll see to selling more and more fragments.)

We’re not above stealing our own ideas and giving them a local spin. One panel that was extraordinarily successful at Digital Book World last January was one we describe in shorthand as “new skill sets”. It’s about capabilities publishers need to get that they don’t have and it is about process and workflow changes and the use of cross-functional teams as well as hiring in or training people with new skills. Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins did that panel for us in New York in January and is reprising it at our BEA show. In London, he’ll be joined by Juan Lopez-Valcarel of Pearson and Jacks Thomas, the CEO of Midas Public Relations, on a panel moderated by Jo Howard of Mosaic Search & Selection Ltd. One of the key elements in the New York discussion of this, which we expect will arise again in London, is “when is it best to hire in the skills and when is it better to retrain the people I already have?” This is a subject every publisher needs to be thinking about that isn’t discussed in public very often.

We’ll have three of the top digital leaders of UK houses — George Walkley of Hachette, David Roth-ey of HarperCollins, and Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan — joining Michael and me for a dialogue about the big companies who have cut their teeth on the US market and are now taking their capabilities worldwide, starting in the UK. We’ll be talking about Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Ingram, and Overdrive (the six clearly-declared and clearly-capable global ebook players) as well as Sony, aspirants like Copia and Blio, and US titan Barnes & Noble (which has shown no clear signs of global interest yet.) It looks to us like there is only one UK player with a global perspective, still-tiny cell phone provider Mobcast, but we’ll be learning from our panelists whether there are others we should be considering. And our audience will learn more about the North American companies which are bound to be a big part of the local market’s ebook life in the years to come.

We’ve reached a time when “metadata” is an important subject to discuss, no matter how dry or back room it has seemed. We were fortunate to get Graham Bell of EDItEUR to moderate a dialogue about this for us. He’s recruited Jon Windus of Nielsen and Karina Luke of Penguin to discuss it with him. We’re now looking for a retailer to join them. The condition of metadata in the marketplace is not good enough in enough places yet. This is costing publishers sales. This panel will explain why that is and what every publisher should do to make sure this isn’t a huge hole in the side of their boat as online sales, print and digital, grow and the impact of metadata grows right along with them.

We are also going to have a discussion of the future of territorial rights. Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury, a well-known skeptic about them, and David Miller, an agent with Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd., have agreed to participate. We’re looking for a full-throated defender of the current territorial regime to join them in what will be more of a conversation than a debate. We wonder whether territorial rights make as much sense in a 50% ebook world as they do in the 5% ebook world we might now be in. The agent’s voice in this conversation might be the most important one because, after all, they decide whether the deals are acceptable or not.

One thing that the territorial rights dialogue will certainly entertain is what we should expect to see in terms of author initiatives. That topic is bound to come up in two other discussions as well. There’s one we’re now calling “experiments, best practices, and out of the box thinking” which is really about innovation. But we are going to focus on innovation in business models and practices and innovation in marketing, not on product innovation. We are still working on putting this group together, but we were very impressed with our preliminary conversations with two of the panelists.

Marc Gascoigne is at Angry Robot, a sci-fi imprint started by HarperCollins and then bought by Osprey. Angry Robot’s better mousetrap is its community focus; Gascoigne will make the case that doing that right (which many publishers say they want to do) requires that everybody, and that means every editor and everybody else, communicate directly with the audience. It is hard to see putting that across in many established trade houses.

Richard Mollet of the PA will moderate the conversation with the innovators.

Also on that panel will be Peter Cox, an agent with Redhammer. Cox is changing his own business model (providing more in the way of services to his authors, but charging them more for it and looking to represent fewer authors, not more) but he’s effectively changing the author-publisher relationship as well by making the author an active marketer and community gatherer. He’ll have examples and he’ll have ideas that will challenge the thinking of many publishers and agents in the audience.

The last panel of our day is intended as a Grand Finale. Michael Cader and I will sit with Stephen Page of Faber, Rebecca Smart of Osprey, John Makinson of Penguin, and agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. We’ll get their take on the speed of the ebook takeup and its consequences.

How will British publishers cope in a market that may soon have no full-line bookstore chain? How will the industry cope with the rise of self-publishing? Is there any real danger of a consolidated English-language world in which London becomes subsidiary to New York? Or, in some companies, might it be vice-versa? Will both agents and publishers be changing the core business models which have prevailed for the past century over the next few years?

What excites me about the last panel — aside from the sheer smarts and savvy of the people we got to join us — is the diversity of their perspectives. The publishers run companies of different sizes and with very different approaches to building their publishing lists. The agent joining us has gained a reputation as one of the most digitally savvy players in the UK market. Michael and I thrive on spirited conversations with very smart people; we think we’re going to finish the day very stimulated and with big smiles on our faces.

And we think our audience will too.

Of course, before we get to London, we’ll be running our “eBooks Go Global” show aimed at international visitors and their trading partners at BEA. At that show, we’re particularly excited about two panels we won’t be doing in London. One is with a few booksellers already working with the new Google Ebooks capability reporting on how it is functioning for them. The other takes a slightly different approach to the “selling in the US” opportunity. Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, which has aggregated about ten times as many ebooks in Spanish as most people in Spanish markets will tell you exists, will open a lot of foreign publishers’ eyes to the possibilities that exist for them in the US market. We’ll also have a chat with Barry Eisler, the author who turned down half-a-million bucks to self-publish. And that’s not all. Tickets still available… And tickets still available for London as well.

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But what if it gets really easy to deliver apps or enhanced ebooks?


This is an unusually brief post today, but some worthy observations don’t require long explanations.

I wrote nearly 18 months ago about my concern that publishers’ interest in enhanced ebooks would bring on a repeat of the commercially disastrous CD-Rom era of the mid-1990s. Of course, since the CD-Rom era, a lot has changed.

* The opportunities in linking and multiple media have been explored every conceivable way through the web.

* The number of devices on which people can readily consume enhanced content has exploded.

* A number of tools have been announced that can enable one person working alone, even without much technical expertise, to put an enhanced product together, if they have the digital assets and the rights to use them.

The tools are really in the news lately. Vook, the start-up that has been pioneering video integration into ebooks, has a tool kit being trialed called Mother Vook. Packager Charlie Melcher has a new initiative called Push Pop which promises transmedia authoring tools for Apple’s iOS. And I see on the web a new company called Yapper, for “your app maker”, that looks like Smashwords on steroids.

There are also tool sets operating at a more sophisticated level, but still making development more efficient. Touch Press has just applied its capabilities — which, among other things, enable them to make objects “spin” to be viewed from all sides — to a third iPad app called “Gems and Jewels”. (They had previously done “The Elements” and “The Solar System”.) We’re working with a developer in New York on some sports encyclopedia apps that make use of their proprietary system development to convert large databases to app presentations very efficiently.

A question that will probably rise in importance is whether the system that enables you to make an app for the iOS operating system will also get you to epub or HTML5. That’s one the “do-it-yourself” system developers will also have to answer.

(It might be worth observing parenthetically — which is why I’m doing it that way — that we see Apple developing the huge monopoly position on apps that Amazon has selling independently-published ebooks through the Kindle platform. While it almost always makes sense to distribute content as broadly as you can to amortize the investment in intellectual creativity, Kindle gets you so much of the ebook market and Apple so much of the app market that the effort-reward ratio to doing the rest can only make sense if there’s very little effort required.

(A companion parenthetical observation is that iPad apps with no iPhone-size counterpart are another sign that the creation tools aren’t powerful enough. I know you can’t recreate “The Elements” as it is done for the iPad on an iPhone screen, but you certainly have, within what was done, the makings of a terrific alternative fitted to the form.)

I don’t know how good the enhanced ebook and app creation tools are…yet. (Other people will judge that and tell me.) There have been announcements like what we’re hearing from Vook and Push Pop before that didn’t deliver or haven’t yet, going back to the beginning of ebook time in the early 1990s. There was fairly recent buzz that disappeared about Zinio Fusion. There was a Google App Inventor for Android ballyhooed last year, but that hasn’t been heard from lately. In fact, robust tools were part of the early promise of Blio, which got us very excited 18 months ago, but they have failed to gain traction along with the rest of the Blio platform. The “so easy anybody can do it” promise hasn’t been really fulfilled yet.

But I know the tools will get great eventually. And that might be soon.

When they do it will mean that anybody can make a media- and link-rich ebook; just add intellect.

That’s a trend I’m not sure works in favor of big publishers who are looking for opportunities to apply scale. These tools, if they work, undermine scale by reducing the need for tech wizardry in product creation. Of course, editorial wizardry is still required.

There’s one more trend I expect to see over the next couple of years: a marked increase in the number of ebooks created from what was originally illustrated book content. Some of those books integrated visual images for practical purposes, to illustrate how to tie a tie or cut a piece of wood, or as the images do in the print version of “The Elements”. For some books, “coffee table books”, the illustrations are the featured content.

In either case, the ebooks of 2007-2011 weren’t really suitable for them; in the next couple of years, publishers will be learning how to make appealing digital products with intellectual property like that.

This will be a process of trial, feedback, and improvement on an industry-wide level as we all learn what people actually like, do, and value. But there will be skill development on a highly individualized basis as people develop and express their editorial “touch” for integrating the elements, managing them through Mother Vook, Push Pop, Yapper, Blio, or one of the next dozen competitors that arise.

Will small entrepreneurial publishers develop and relate to these resources best, or big ones? In the next couple of years, I think we’ll find out.

We have one segment of our “eBooks Go Global” show at BEA that will explore the strategy and approach to investing in enhancement, another that looks at what skill sets publishers need to find or get, and yet another featuring publishers managing their digital publishing without much in the way of internal tech resources. And we’ve just added a short demo from Charlie Melcher to show us the tools he’s about to deliver. Here’s the registration link.

On this Thursday, May 5, we’ll be taking part in BISG’s annual Making Information Pay conference. We worked closely with BISG’s Scott Lubeck in putting together this year’s show, which is called “Constructing the 21st Century Publishing Enterprise.” There will be a keynote by Hachette COO Ken Michaels and important presentations on discovery within the context of the semantic web. We’re delivering a presentation jointly with Heather Reid of CCC and David Marlin of Metacomet about what we’ve learned from talking to publishers and service providers about rights databases. Rights databases, like the other topics at MIP and like the topics discussed in the body of this post, will be moving from a peripheral position to center stage in the very near future.

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Introducing the North American Big Six


There’s a new Big Six in town. Or maybe not “in town.” But “on the planet.”

The Big Six is a term commonly used to collectively designate the behemoths of US trade publishing: Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan. Although there are other large players, some of whom occasionally can compete with these companies for seven-figure authors, the lion’s share of the biggest author brands are published by one of these six houses.

But from the perspective of publishers or booksellers outside the United States, there is a new North American Big Six. These are the companies that have direct relationships with publishers — all of them that matter in the US (with one noteworthy exception) and, increasingly, those that matter overseas as well — to secure the rights to distribute ebook files wherever in the world the publishers have rights.

Why does this Big Six matter so much? Because as dedicated ereaders and tablets and smartphones that can effectively serve as ereaders gain increased market penetration anywhere, the appetite for ebook content will grow proportionately. In languages other than English, the number of published books currently in epub — and therefore deliverable as reflowable ebooks — is paltry compared to what we have. It will take a long time for the publishers in most countries to make enough content ready to satisfy that growing hunger in their local markets.

And the Big Six companies have the infrastructure, and, most importantly, the rights, to satisfy that appetite everywhere.

Three of the North American Big Six are well known and would be immediately identified just about anywhere. Although Amazon, Apple, and Google have not yet opened their ebook “stores” in every country in the world that can buy ebooks, it won’t be long before they will. These three global giants all derive more revenue from outside the book business than they do from ebooks (and only Amazon, of the three, has any commercial interest in selling books except for ebooks.) But they are past (Amazon), present (Apple), and future (Google) game-changers: companies that have such an enormous presence that their entry into any area, certanly including ebooks, causes every other player in the market to sit up and take notice.

There is a fourth player like them, relatively tiny Kobo,.Kobo is also an ebook retailer. Over the past two years, they have been extraordinarily successful at getting publishers to establish direct relationships with them. (I didn’t track this with great precision, but I believe Kobo was the only company besides Amazon to have all the agency publishers on board the day agency selling started last April.) Kobo has “white-labeled”, or powered, an ebook store for Borders in the US and Red Group in Australia (two booksellers who, coincidentally or not, have just filed for bankruptcy protection). Kobo also has, according to their executive, Michael Tamblyn, at Tools of Change, “more than two million registered users.”

All four of these companies will be competing as ebook retailers in every market in the world and in every language in the world. They all start out with a robust aggregation of US-published ebooks. Apple is the laggard here. They don’t carry Random House books yet — the “noteworthy exception” referred to in the third paragraph above — and they have fewer available titles than any of the other three. But Apple comes with its own significant advantages in the form of the wildly popular iPhone and iPad. These devices assure a certain minimum amount of traffic to their iBookstore, even if Apple doesn’t move ahead with in books with the power play they’ve just exercised over subscription sellers of magazines and newspapers. (And so far we have only rumors and stretched intepretations of what they’ve said and done to suggest that they will do that anytime soon.)

Because American hegemony is resented in much of the world, Kobo may have a built-in advantage in international competition against the other three. Kobo is a Canadian company. They are also not disrupting people’s lives or terrifying them by monopolizing online print sales in any market (like Amazon), or by delivering devices designed to capture audiences and wall them off from competitors (like Apple), or by digitizing first and asking permission later (like Google.) All three of the Biggest Three (of the Big Six) have enemies and detractors. Kobo doesn’t.

Kobo doesn’t have their effectively unlimited resourcces either.

There are already retailers active in every country in the world, operating in the local language, who want to be the ebook resellers of choice in their own countries. For them, the other two members of the North American Big Six are potentially critical resources: Ingram and Overdrive.

Ingram is well known throughout the book business worldwide (and is sometimes, and currently, a client of ours.) As the biggest and most innovative wholesaler in the US for four decades, they have built both a customer base and a supplier base all over the world. They’ve been the principal wholesaler of ebooks to US independent ebook retailers since the begining of ebook time. They have deep and strong relationships with every US publisher of any size, rooted in their wholesaling business. They can set any retailer up with a wide selection of US ebook titles.

Ingram’s competitor for the role of delivering English-language (and, ultimately, all non-local language) ebooks to resellers all over the world is Overdrive. Overdrive has been in the digital content business since the 1980s and pioneered ebook distribution to libraries from the dawn of the current ebook era in the late 1990s. They also have a very broad base of publisher suppliers and can, like Ingram, provide an ebook reseller local to any country with a robust selection of other-language ebooks to vend, with an emphasis on those provided by American publishers.

Could any upstarts join the Big Six as credible providers for local competitors to the four global ebook retailers? I see three possibilities.

Barnes & Noble certainly has the relationships with publishers globally to assemble an ebook title selection that can rival anyone’s (and they’ve done it.) They are already the number two ebook reseller in the US market, miles ahead of Apple and Google and Kobo. But, so far, they have continued their brick-and-mortar strategy of sticking to the US market. It seems to me that the economics of their successful Nook family of devices and the ebook store they run would benefit from extending to a global base. But every company has to make choices about resource allocation and focus, and it is hard to quarrel with the success B&N has had competing with Kindle and iPad considering their prior experience with hardware (none). They’ve leveraged their retail presence to do it and they don’t have that resource to employ outside the US.

Copia and Blio are upstart ebook platforms. The independently-owned Copia has its social component as a unique feature (although Kobo has some pretty cool social stuff and there’s an upstart called Rethink Books with some technology that provides social capabilities around books independent of the ebook platform.) When Blio started, they seemed to offer an opportunity for publishers to enhance their ebooks readily. But the tool set that would enable hasn’t been delivered. Both of these offerings have a distance to travel to catch up with the Big Six, all of which have been in the game a long time and built up a network of suppliers and customers that it is not a trivial challenge to duplicate.

If there’s going to be a Big Seven, my bet would be on B&N.

Right now, publishers and retailers seeing the book tsunami coming closer to their shores will want to focus on the North American Big Six. If I were a publisher in any language, I’d be sure they all had my books. If I were a retailer in any country, I’d be looking at them as possible competitors or collaborators. Understanding who these companies are, what they have to offer, and what they have in mind is going to be an important component of every publisher’s and retailer’s strategic thinking for the foreseeable future.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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