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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Much as I like Hugh Howey, I disagree with just about all of this recent post of his


I need to say couple of things at the outset here. The first is that I really like and admire Hugh Howey and the fact that I disagree with almost every paragraph of this post of his shouldn’t suggest that I don’t. That’s not snark or irony; it is sincere. I think it is both noble and natural for people to defend the entities and circumstances that make possible their commercial success and it is just human nature that those who have benefited from a paradigm reflexively want to defend it. I only wish that Hugh would exhibit the same respect for that tendency when it is exhibited by authors who have done well with publishers.

The other is that I don’t see the “Amazon versus the publishing establishment” battle as a moral choice, just a tug of war between competing business interests. (There are societal questions at stake, which some might see as moral choices, but the companies involved are doing what is best for them and then arguing afterwards that it is also better for society.) When I wrote what I intended to be a balanced piece about the Amazon-Hachette battle, it brought out the troops from the indie author militia in the comment string to call me to task and accuse me of many things, including being a defender of the people who pay me (although my overall revenues from Big Five publishers is actually pretty paltry with not one active consulting client among them for well over two years). I expect this post will do the same, which I find an unpleasant prospect. On the other hand, I’m sorta stubborn about saying the things I believe nobody else is saying…

I am not trying to “make a case” here for anybody: not for the publishers and obviously not for Amazon. All I am trying to accomplish is to call out what I see as the almost certainly unintended bias in the arguments as Hugh frames them. I continue to believe that self-publishing is a useful tool that most authors should employ at one time or another but that, still almost all of the time, an author who is offered a publishing deal from a major house willing to pay an aggressive advance is better off to take it than go it alone. (If you’re not offered a substantial advance, the calculus shifts, but there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing that is not described in much detail in this post, even though Hugh Howey knows much better than I do how much work it is!) And I think that generalized advice to authors to eschew publishers in a world where print still matters and stores still matter remains, as of today, unwise. That may well change in the future, but it hasn’t changed yet.

In this post, everything preceded by [HH] was written and posted by Hugh Howey. Everything preceded by [MS] is my response. I have left nothing out from Hugh’s original post.

[HH] A few weeks ago, I speculated that Hachette might be fighting Amazon for the power to price e-books where they saw fit, or what is known as Agency pricing. That speculation was confirmed this week in a slide from Hachette’s presentation to investors:

HachetteLivre-Investor-Slide

So, no more need to speculate over what this kerfuffle is about. Hachette is strong-arming Amazon and harming its authors because they want to dictate price to a retailer, something not done practically anywhere else in the goods market. It’s something US publishers don’t even do to brick and mortar booksellers. It’s just something they want to be able to do to Amazon.

[MS] Uh, yes. It is something they want to do in the market for ebooks that they don’t need to do for print. And it is something they want to do to the entity that controls 60% of their ebook sales, which no print bookseller does. And you’d be forgiven if you got the impression from this that Hachette only wanted to control the price Amazon sells at, not the price everybody sells at, keeping it the same across retailers. It does matter how you frame things…

[HH] The biggest problem with Hachette’s strategy is that Hachette knows absolutely nothing about retail pricing. That’s not their job. It’s not their area of expertise. They don’t sell enough product direct to consumers to understand what price will maximize their earnings. Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple have that data, not Hachette.

[MS] But what Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple know is not how to maximize Hachette’s or Hachette’s authors’ “earnings”, however they get divided between author and publisher. What they know is how to maximize their earnings and, mainly, their market share. And only Amazon and B&N have any picture of how the interaction between ebook prices and print sales works, which deeply affects an author’s and publisher’s earnings. None of the other ebook retailers have a clue about that, and Amazon doesn’t know how bookstore sales are affected (and it would be their objective to have them affected negatively, wouldn’t it?)

[HH] Beyond their ignorance of pricing strategy, Hachette also has a strong bias toward print books. Their existing relationships with major brick and mortar retailers gets in the way of their e-book pricing. This has been confirmed by my own publishers, who have admitted privately that they would like to experiment with digital pricing but don’t want to upset print book retailers. This puts their pricing strategy at odds with their investors’ needs, their authors’ needs, even their own profitability. In sum, they are making irrational decisions with their pricing philosophy. Hachette is making the same mistake that many publishers make, which is to think that harming Amazon somehow helps themselves.

[MS] Publishers are trying to keep a print book physical distribution infrastructure alive. That’s not irrational. It is rational. And it is the crux of the difference in objectives between a publisher’s strategy and Amazon’s strategy. The more bookstores fade, the better it is for Amazon and the worse it is for publishers. This is a problem you could have read about on this blog a long time ago.

[HH] The same presentation by Hachette to investors stressed the importance of DRM and the need to fight piracy. The presentation had very little to say about authors, which would be like an oil company giving a report to prospective investors and not discussing how its current wells are performing, the proven reserves it has on-hand, and what they are doing to discover new sources of oil. You know . . . the product they make their money from. Little is also said in the presentation about readers, possibly because Hachette doesn’t know who their readers are. Again, this is a presentation to investors by a company that doesn’t know its customers. Because they have too long relied on and been beholden to middleman distributors.

[MS] I’d substitute “leveraged” for “relied on and been beholden to” in the sentence that concludes that paragraph. Up until very recently, there was no efficient means or mechanism for publishers to sell directly to readers. Their “customers” were bookstores, and they understood them very well. And all the big publishers I know are investing in learning more about who are their readers. This graf begins with the complaint that authors aren’t acknowledged by publishers and ends with the complaint that publishers don’t know their readers. And the cherry on top is a biased characterization of the value and role of brick and mortar retailers. I guess the oil company reference is just to associate bad people with each other, but it otherwise seems gratuitous. The important and relevant point is that we’re still waiting for the first major author to say “no” to a publisher. It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

[HH] DRM, piracy, and high e-book prices are not what a publisher should be fighting for and bragging to its investors about. Many consumers aren’t even aware that Amazon isn’t the source of their e-book DRM. Publishers (and self-published authors) opt in or opt out of DRM as they see fit. Those of us who think about the paying customer first and foremost opt out, and we are rewarded with their repeat business and their advocacy. Those of us who don’t fret over piracy invest our time where it can actually achieve something. Publishers need to adopt these same policies with all haste. More importantly, they need to stop ripping off their authors and their customers when it comes to digital pricing.

[MS] Recent data suggests pretty strongly that taking down pirate copies increases sales. But the efficacy of DRM is a good debatable point and it shouldn’t be in a paragraph that concludes with a gratuitous slam at big publisher pricing and royalties, which have nothing to do with DRM.

[HH] We know publishers are ripping off artists and readers when it comes to e-books. Harpercollins released this slide one year ago this month:

Harper-NewsCorp-Profitability

As author Michael Sullivan broke down in this damning blog post, it shows publishers making $7.87 on a $14.99 e-book while the author only gets $2.62. For a hardback that costs twice as much at $27.99, the publisher makes $5.67 to the author’s $4.20. What used to be a fair split is now aggressive and indefensible as publishers make more money on a cheaper product while the author makes far less. Publishers are ripping off readers and writers as they shift to digital, and they are getting away with it. They are even winning the PR campaign against Amazon, a company that has fought for lower prices for its customers and higher pay for its authors.

[MS] I agree that ebook royalties should be higher. But, in fact, only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty. The others negotiated an advance that effectively paid them far more than that. And guaranteed it before the book hit the marketplace. Publishers are making a massive PR error not raising the “standard” royalty since they effectively pay much more than that now, but the authors signing contracts with them know the truth.

[HH] Let me repeat: Publishers are waging a war here for higher prices and lower royalties. $14.99 is their ideal price for an e-book that costs nothing to print, warehouse, or ship. That’s twice what mass market paperbacks used to cost, which is what they are replacing. Reminds you of how cheaper-to-produce CDs suddenly cost twice as much as cassettes simply because they were new, doesn’t it?

[MS] Now, who’s not paying attention to authors? Right, it cost nothing to print, warehouse, or ship an ebook. But it cost something to create. And for many, if not most, publisher-published books, the publisher gave the author a substantial payment before publication. Focusing on the price without considering the value is the grossest form of “ignoring the author”. And the $14.99 price is more like the equivalent of the hardback; most publishers I know charge much less for the ebook when it is being published against a printed version that’s a paperback. And, in fact, they often charge less than $14.99 when the print edition available is a hardcover!

[HH] Publishers are also colluding with one another to offer lockstep digital e-book royalties of 25%, which is indefensible. Their every actions, when it comes to DRM, to pricing, to selling direct, to offering abusive services like Author Solutions, screams to anyone with ears that they don’t care about the writers and they don’t care about the readers. It doesn’t matter what they say, it matters what they do. And what they do is charge as much as they can get away with and take as much of the split as they possibly can. And they work with their competitors and against their retail partners to pull it off.

[MS] Publishers live in a competitive marketplace in general but nowhere more than when it comes to signing authors. The 25% hasn’t moved, but every book that is signed based on a competitive situation (one agent told me that’s at least 2/3 of them; one big publisher believes they compete for 95% of what they sign) is getting an advance that is calculated on a much higher percentage than the “standard”. So they “care” about the writers. If “caring about readers” is only demonstrated by low prices, then I’d say “Hugh has a point.” The problem is that the point is in direct conflict with “caring about the writers”, whose revenue is directly related to what readers pay (with only one exception: unearned advances paid by publishers).

[HH] Their own authors defend them, partly because they don’t spend any time investigating or understanding the business in which they are engaged. One Hachette author — a good friend of mine — said something to me the other day that made me realize they don’t understand how their books are ordered by retailers or delivered by the publisher. I suppose it’s okay to write books and not worry about the rest of the business, but this same author and friend had much to say about the Amazon/Hachette dispute, but without the basic understanding of how the relationship between those two companies works. Part of the blame for not knowing falls to publishers, who keep authors at bay and away from the business aspects of publishing. It was one of my primary complaints in that old blog post. Publishers need to embrace authors as business partners, and any author who hopes to make a career at this needs to be at least a little curious about how the industry works.

[MS] This slam at Howey’s fellow authors is both uncharacteristic of him and beneath him. The Hachette authors are doing precisely the same thing Howey is doing: defending their biggest source of revenue. What’s so surprising about that? And let’s not get too worked up about what people do and don’t understand. This piece demonstrates very little understanding of the economics of brick-and-mortar and the overall effort to sustain it as long as possible.

[HH] So we can see in their own slides that publishers do not have the best interests of their artists and consumers at heart. What about Amazon? Here we have a company that forsakes profits in order to pass along the savings to: A) Readers in the form of lower prices and to: B) Authors in the form of higher pay. That’s what we know today based on their actions. Of course, some interpret Amazon’s behavior as: “Once they are big enough, Amazon will gouge customers and take advantage of authors.” If you press on numbers, you might hear that Amazon will raise e-book prices to $12.99 one day and pay authors a miserly 25% of gross. Both of which are better than what publishers offer right now.

[MS] The pricing and split speculation is a pure straw horse. We know that what Amazon does today that pleases Howey also serves their larger strategic interests: growing market share and building the installed base of Kindle users. It’s nice when interests align. But what happens when they align tells you nothing about what will happen when they don’t. The recent changes that reduced author splits from Amazon-owned Audible shouldn’t be ignored in a paragraph like this one. (Emphasis here: I don’t think Amazon was wrong or immoral to have done this, but I think those making the argument that worrying about terms changing in the future is silly should at least acknowledge what has already happened!)

[HH] This bears repeating: The very worst that Amazon might do, in some hypothetical future, according to their fiercest critics, is still better than what publishers brag to their investors about doing today.

[MS] And this bears repeating. It’s a straw horse. The argument is attributed to these unidentified “fiercest critics” because it a straw horse. Pure speculation. Who knows what is the “the very worst that Amazon might do”?

[HH] Instead of operating under the hope that publishers will improve their business practices in the future and that Amazon will reverse course and start harming writers and readers once they gain more market share, why aren’t we condemning publishers for being the problem right now while celebrating Amazon for all they are doing to expand reading habits and to provide for artists? Why?

[MS] Simple answer. Because many authors are still being very well paid and well served by publishers. That’s why.

[HH] I think two reasons: The first is that we equate publishers to bookstores and Amazon to the loss of bookstores, and we all love bookstores. This is fallacious reasoning, though. Online shopping has impacted all of retail. These changes were inevitable, and they are the result of consumer choice. How those changes played out could have been publishers colluding with a distributor to price digital works higher than their paper counterparts. That would have been bad. Amazon leading those changes with their pricing philosophy has been good.

[MS] Much of this is true. Online shopping is inevitable; the pressure on brick-and-mortar is inevitable. And we all love bookstores, even though they don’t “map” into the future very well. But it is really disingenuous to just forget that Amazon benefits by brick stores going down faster and has discounted print books as aggressively as possible as well, which has contributed to the brick-and-mortar stores decline. I’m not demonizing Amazon over this; everybody has to run their own business and they run theirs very well. But let’s not pretend that altruism is all that is working here, or that changing circumstances couldn’t change Amazon’s pricing philosophy.

[HH] The second reason for the anti-Amazon bias is that some see Amazon as the giant and little old publishers as the underdog. That’s also wrong. The publishing and bookselling arm of Amazon is likely smaller than the combined earnings of the Big 5 publishers. Amazon makes a pittance on every e-book sold, while the Big 5 make out like bandits. Also, to say that these wings of Amazon’s operations are owned by a larger entity is to ignore that the same is true for the major publishing houses. If anything, Amazon is the clear upstart and underdog here. They are new to the market, rapidly innovating, blacklisted by brick and mortar retailers, setting up shop away from the established players, and ganged up on in an illegal manner.

[MS] No question Amazon gets “ganged up on”. We have two book businesses now: Amazon and everybody else. Everybody else includes publishers and retailers and wholesalers and agents and established authors. Amazon’s decision to “make a pittance” on certain products, including some ebooks, is tactical, not altruistic. I have to admit that characterizing Amazon as an “underdog” does activate the “gag reflex”. If this doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, I’m not sure what would. Let’s be clear and real: Amazon and Hachette are both leveraging their respective negotiating positions as best they can. It’s called business. (And,, from where I sit, it looks Amazon is in the stronger position, not Hachette. I’m not sure by what measurement Amazon could be considered the underdog here; I haven’t read any other analysis that makes that claim.)

[HH] I’ll go one step further and state something both outrageous and obvious: If the Big 5 had gotten together twenty years ago and DREAMED UP an ideal business partnership, one that would increase their distribution, provide excellent customer service to their readers, improve the livelihood of their authors, keep their backlists viable and books from going out of print, reduce their 50% return rate from bookstores to 4%, provide next-day and even same-day delivery, all while only costing them 30% instead of the 45% they lose to bookstores, they couldn’t have done better than what Amazon did for them.

[MS] Lots of truth in this paragraph, up to a point. Publishers (and authors) have benefited for years from Amazon’s willingness to sell books for almost no margin and by the shift from the less-efficient sales in stores to the more-efficient sales online. I spelled out clearly in my Amazon-Hachette post that Amazon has been the most profitable print account for most trade publishers for a long time. And I am happy to give them the full credit they deserve for making the commitment necessary to make the ebook business happen. That doesn’t change the reality that as their market share grows, we can see a concentration that changes what has been a good thing into a threat. For everybody else in the book business: those who are aware of it and those who are not.

[HH] Soak that in. Publishers should have engineered Amazon from the ground-up. A company that invests in distribution networks for their products rather than pocketing profits. And instead of celebrating all the hundreds of benefits, like pre-orders and customer reviews and the savings on print runs and returns that Amazon’s algorithms provide, they are trying to figure out how to put their best resource out of business. It boggles the mind. Like those authors who fear Amazon might take royalties away tomorrow, so are happy to give up those royalties today, publishers are siding with companies that are hurting them today out of fear of their greatest ally getting even more market share tomorrow. And readers and writers are the victims of this illogical behavior.

[MS] The unreality in the suggestion that publishers are trying to put Amazon out of business is mindboggling. I have cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believe Hugh Howey believes what he says. On the other hand, I can’t believe he believes that! Any publisher that thought this was possible would be deluded. The idea that it is some sort of deliberate strategy to put Amazon out of business is as far from the world we actually live in as the world of Hugh’s novels is.

[HH] What is the solution? As a writer, the solution is to retain ownership of your rights. This has never been more important than it is today. E-book royalty rates are going to move to 50% of net. I know from some insiders that this is already happening for top-name authors and hot new acquisitions. Selling your manuscript now for half of what it will be worth in the very near future is a bad move. It takes years for books to come to market with a traditional publisher. If that is your publishing goal, exercise a bit more patience. Hold on to that manuscript (or self-publish it) while you write the next. Let the market come to you.

[MS] This advice ignores the fact that a large number of authors got an advance that already pre-paid them for the royalties they could conceivably have earned by doing their own self-publishing when the publishers’ sales died. (Those “insiders” referred to are almost certainly talking about how the ebook component is calculated for advances paid to big authors, not a change in the contractual percentage.) Howey is conflating agreeing to a “half of what it should be” digital royalty with “selling your manuscript for half of what it will be worth” in the future. They’re not the same thing. I guess it’s just part of the campaign to find that first big author who turns down a publishing deal to do it themselves instead. To read this post, you’d never know we haven’t had one yet! (I thought we had one three years ago, but the one author who really threatened to do it changed his mind and signed a publishing deal with Amazon instead.)

[HH] The other option is to embrace a smaller press that has more flexibility. Online print book sales and e-book adoption have helped level the playing field for small publishers. They are becoming more viable every single day. These are the true Davids. They now have the tools and ability to see their works sell to a wide audience and win awards. I put them as the second best option behind self-publishing, and I include Amazon’s imprints in this category. They offer higher royalty rates and terms similar to small presses, though some have grumbled lately that Amazon’s imprints are becoming more and more like the Big 5, so watch what you sign.

[MS] I’m always happy to see smaller presses succeed, but they have a hard time competing against the Big Five, mainly because of Amazon. They are forced (by Amazon) to sell their ebooks on “wholesale” terms, which means giving much more of the retail price they set to the supply chain. This leaves them two choices. They can set a reasonable retail price (like an Agency price) and get nearly 30% less revenue than an Agency publisher. Or they can set an artificially high price and hope the retailer will discount from it. So even if they give the author a higher percentage of ebook sales, the net might not be higher. It is hard to succeed in today’s environment as a small press, not easy.

[HH] For readers, keep doing what you’re doing. Self-publishing and small presses are booming because you care about great stories, not where they come from. You are the disruptive force in this industry, and I say that with every ounce of love I can muster. Keep disrupting by doing what you do best: Read. Write reviews. Share your enthusiasm. Infect others. Spread the joy of this greatest of pastimes. And we will trust that those who cater to your needs and to the needs of the artists you admire will be the ones who come out on top. All others will need to change their ways or perish. If they do the former, let’s cheer for them. If they persist in the latter, let’s not be sad to see them go.

[MS] I am not happy to see anybody go. The desire to make villains out of the industry establishment is the most unattractive trait of what should be a hero class: intrepid authors who forge ahead without institutional support to make success happen. There is no doubt that Amazon has made that opportunity possible for most of them and it is easy to understand why anybody who has profited from the infrastructure Amazon created would celebrate it and want to see it grow. But author success has been achieved in a wide variety of ways and the way Hugh Howey has done it is still very much the exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions from unusual cases. And I think it is an iron rule of nature that it is dangerous to generalize from one’s own personal experience.

I see from a subsequent post of Hugh’s that he will be in Toronto this week at Book Summit, as will I. I hope we’ll have a chance to have a Diet Coke and talk about this while we’re up there. My Logical Marketing Agency partner Pete McCarthy and I are kicking off the show on Tuesday morning. I always love visiting Toronto.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking book marketing where the book readers are likely to be


Digital marketers who want to sell books are increasingly turning to the virtual places where readers cluster. This includes marketing through the major social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.), using the data mining tools available to target within those networks, as well as marketing in niches and online communities of readers (in some cases publishers are even building vertical communities themselves). Publishers are also increasingly turning to book- and reading-focused social sites to get the word out about their books. These vehicles carry an additional bonus in the digital age: they’re global and give publishers a one-stop opportunity to reach markets beyond their natural national audiences.

Goodreads, recently acquired by Amazon, has built a network of book-oriented conversation. Now with 19 million members, they have been for the past few years trying to show publishers how to use the platform as a marketing tool. This was, of course, their original reason for being. They have overtly built a site around books and conversation about books. Since the book business routinely deals in “comps” — books that are like the book I’m trying to sell you — Goodreads has a firm foundation from which to sell publishers marketing services. They’ve been doing that for some time.

What is not clear is whether that business will be reined in by their new corporate owners in any way. Amazon’s prior history doesn’t demonstrate great interest in marketing that isn’t Amazon-centric. And we know that big publishers are generically nervous about Amazon and not inclined to spend any more promotional money than an already aggressive large account with lots of coop buckets already squeezes out of them.

Whatever the extent to which Goodreads maintains its mission as a marketing vehicle for publishers to reach book audiences regardless of where they shop (and, as of this writing, the B&N link is actually above the Amazon link in their drop-down menu of “online stores”), publishers are bound to be looking for alternatives to work with as well. We think we see two of them emerging, although neither of them started out in life aimed at being a marketer of books available to publishers.

Wattpad is a Canada-based startup that is a reading and writing community. It preceded Penguin’s “Book Country” , started with social reading of public domain titles, and doesn’t have Book Country’s overtly commercial focus, nor its stated emphasis on genre fiction (although, perhaps inevitably, Wattpad’s strongest areas are YA, paranormal, romance, and fantasy), but the sites are similar in that they give aspiring writers the opportunity to have their work commented upon by a community of other aspiring writers. Wattpad has grown to over 10 million users. And it is a very active and engaged community. They publish stats suggesting that that users spend an extraordinary amount of time on their site, something like half-an-hour, twice-a day. And they have attracted such luminaries as Margaret Atwood to post content on the site.

There are already several examples of aspiring authors who have published on Wattpad, built audiences, developed their stories, and gotten a book deal including Beth ReeksAbigail Gibbs, and Brittany Geragotelis. And PW just did a piece on up-and-comer Nikki Kelly.

With its large number of highly-engaged readers and a track record of being successful promoters for undiscovered talent, Wattpad has recently started to call attention to the opportunity for publishers to market to its audience. It is now encouraging publishers to connect with its audience by posting teaser or attention-getting content in advance of the launch of a book. Random House, Scholastic, and Macmillan (for Amanda Hocking) have already taken advantage of this.

A similar opportunity is now also being seen by Scribd. Scribd is a repository of documents. It is often used as a “convenience”: a place to post court decisions or company reports or anything somebody wants to make accessible to a broad audience. In its early days, Scribd was seen as a pirate-enabler, but it has aggressively worked with publishers to make sure unauthorized copyrighted content is taken down. Meanwhile, it has built a vast treasure-trove of documents from 200 countries in 70 languages and is getting 10 million unique visitors a month.

That’s a lot of people looking at a lot of documents, giving Scribd a lot of knowledge about who they are and what else they might like to read.

Our view is that the marketing opportunities through all three of these companies should be understood by publishers. It is early days for all three of them, really, but as marketing entities Wattpad and Scribd are really just getting started. Some things have been “proven” to work at Goodreads, but, really, all three of them are like jungles still being hacked through with superhighway travel still in the forseeable future, but not around the corner.

There’s quite a bit of marketing activity by US-based publishers on Goodreads; it’s beginning to happen on Wattpad and it is a gleam in the eye at Scribd. But they all have big numbers of readers paying attention to their site and they’re all looking for ways to make themselves more valuable. It looks like Wattpad and Scribd are seeing the possibility that marketing for publishers could be a very significant revenue-generator, if not their principal one. (Goodreads started out with that hope.)

Painful aspects of the digital transition — the diminution of bookstore shelf space and the reduction of room for book marketing in the established press — are just beginning to bite in markets outside the English-speaking world. With all three of these communities teeming with non-English-speaking members, they all become tools publishers around the world will need to know about.

And that’s why we have them all speaking at our Publishers Launch Conference at Frankfurt, focused on what meaningful marketing reach they can offer to publishers outside the US. As conference programmers, we look for those win-win situations where what the presenter wants the audience to know is information they will find immediately useful. For our Frankfurt conference audience, which last year had c-level executives from 25 countries, this would appear to be a bull’s-eye.

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How the ebook evolution might get started in other places


The organizers of the Buenos Aires Book Fair, which will run for the next few weeks, invited me to speak at an opening session of their event last Friday. They left the topic completely up to me. What I offered to do, which the organizers liked, was to review the history of the past 20 years of digital change in the US and in the English language which has brought us to this point. The presumption is that understanding how it happened to us will help them understand what is going to happen in their market, in other Spanish-speaking markets, and in other countries and other languages.

The underlying premise of my talk, which was delivered formally at a Book Fair opening event last Friday and informally to other gatherings they scheduled for me — of students, of young editors, and of some publishing executives — and in a meeting consulting with about 20 employees of one publishing house, was that what happened in the US and then elsewhere in English was unique and would not be replicated in the same way in other languages and territories. What I had identified as the unique characteristics of the US market were:

Three hundred million people with one language, one currency, one commercial set of rules.

A powerful player (Amazon) able to change both publisher behavior (twisting arms to have them provide more titles as ebooks) and consumer habits (getting them to consider what started as an expensive device — a $400 Kindle) with their marketplace power.

Indeed, no other market has those two elements. In fact, in many markets, including all of the players I talked to in Latin America, Amazon is not seen as a really signficant factor.

In addition to the conditions that made the US market unique, I stated two additional assumptions which drew little objection from my audiences in Buenos Aires.

At some point — whether it is five years from now or 20 years from now — the world’s book publishing markets will look very similar. That is, the effects we see in the US — patterns of ebook uptake and the consequently devastating effects on bookstores — will somehow be replicated in other markets.

Both because the unique market characteristics of the US don’t exist elsewhere and because the market already made in the US has created global players and infrastructure that weren’t here when the ebook revolution caught hold, we need to expect that it will be a different path to the future in other places from what we saw in the US. The markets will not be made by the inherent marketplace scale and by Amazon, as ours was.

I thought some things we’ve seen constituted “universal” lessons worth taking on board. We’ve seen ebooks consistently work commercially for narrative reading and not for any other kinds of books. We haven’t seen “enhancements”, like video or interactivity, pay off in bigger sales or in making it easier to command higher prices. I suggested they should expect the same, and the people I spoke with agreed. They should also expect that the product competition from outside the commercial publishing community, which we’ve seen so far primarily from self-published authors, will drive down the prices for books from established authors as it has in our market.

But the more I probed, looking for what would make the market, the more I ended up in blind alleys. There is no online purchasing market anywhere in Latin America to compare with ours. That’s why Amazon hasn’t gained a strong foothold. Kobo’s strategy of working through local booksellers — an alliance has been formed in Brazil and they are clearly looking for partners elsewhere — apparently hasn’t made much of a dent either. One publisher said Apple sales were “promising”, but they’re still “insignificant”.

The reality underlying all this futility is the relative dearth of credit card use. In the US, we have had about three generations of ubiquitous credit card use. They are second nature to us. And the online purchasing world — Amazon in particular — would never have achieved the position they have if that weren’t true.

Well, it isn’t true in Latin America.

There is no way to make an ebook market, which must be an online market, without a payment mechanism. And the one we have in the US isn’t set up to work in Argentina, Brazil, or the rest of Latin America (or, for that matter, in many other parts of the world).

Of course, the cell phone carriers, who do send a bill and collect money from the masses in all these countries where credit card use is limited, had figured that out a long time ago. Nokia and others have been dancing around this opportunity for years. Txtr, a Germany-based ebook play, targets the cell phone companies as its path to the market. Txtr is building an inventory of titles and has come up with an ultra-low-cost ereading device called beagle to jumpstart their market. In doing that, they show that they learned something from Google’s experience, where ebook sales only started to grow when the Nexus7 tablet, which is tied to Google, made its way into the market.

All the conversation led me to come up with my own version of an “answer”; I don’t know if anybody else has made this suggestion but the small bit of conversation I was able to have between having this thought and leaving Buenos Aires didn’t uncover evidence that anybody else had.

It takes three components to make an ebook market:

1. A device to read the ebooks on. That could be a laptop or desktop computer or dedicated ereading device, but it is most likely to be a smart phone or a tablet.

2. A store: a merchandised selection of ebooks that can be shopped through browsing and searching that is compatible with the device.

3. A payment mechanism.

In the US, we really didn’t think about the payment mechanism. For many other places in the world, that’s a very tricky part.

Txtr is trying to deliver the missing pieces to the solution to the telcos, right down to delivering a very inexpensive device that can be the reader if the cell phone is not.

What occurred to me, and I’m wondering whether it is being developed by anybody else, is what I think would be an even better — as in more likely to build a market quickly — solution. What I’m imagining is that a device manufacturer (or more than one, but if one, preferably one that makes both smart phones and tablets) teams up with a cell phone company (to do the billing) and persuades the ebook retailers — Amazon, Google, B&N, Kobo — to accept payment through the phone company. Then that hardware manufacturer has a fabulous value proposition to help them sell their devices and the ebook market has a choice of the best retailers with the best selections of ebooks already aggregated.

Actually, persuading one retailer will persuade them all. If Samsung were pushing a tablet and smartphone and got any of the major ebook retailers to go for the proposition, the others would surely have to follow. And, in fact, it would make sense for either Apple or Google to do this when they sell apps in credit-card-challenged markets as well.

Another complication in some places — particularly Brazil and Argentina at the moment — is created by complex regulations that make the sale of hardware manufactured outside their country either impossible to get or extremely expensive. Although that’s a problem that extends beyond the book business, it is much more likely to be solved by a multi-function device-maker than for one dedicated only to ebook consumption.

It is interesting to think about Apple’s position here. The other big ebook retailing operations already provide apps for both iOS and Android devices as a matter of course. The iBookstore, however, is a Mac-only play. If the solution I’m envisioning were to roll out around the world — and one can imagine a company like Samsung making such a thing happen — would that continue to be the wisest play for the Apple-owned ebook retailer? I think not, but one can only imagine how intense the internal discussions around that point could be.

Today (April 30) is the last day to get the Early Bird pricing for our next Publishers Launch Conference, which will be at BEA on May 29. The theme for this event is “scale”, a fairly obvious topic of great importance that we don’t believe has been a central focus for a digital change event before. We’ll have agents talking about it as well as presentations from three publishers — F+W Media, Hachette, and Random House — who are applying it in very different ways. We’ll have Brian Napack presenting the investor’s view of its importance. We’ll have a presentation on the current state of more complex ebook- and app-making from Ron Martinez, followed by a panel of publishers considering the future of the illustrated book. And Michael Cader and I will discuss the topic of scale in circumstances that most executives won’t (or can’t) in public, like how it is applied by Amazon and how it might be used by the new Penguin Random House.

 
See pricing information and registration options on the PLC site for more details. You may register either through our dedicated Launch BEA registration link, or via the main BEA registration page where you can sign up for BEA itself and other events at the same time.

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Ideas about the future of bookselling


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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The ebook marketplace is about to change…a lot


Now that the DoJ’s response to the public comments has made it overwhelmingly likely that the settlement it negotiated with Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster will be accepted by the Court, it is time to contemplate the changes we’ll see in the ebook marketplace in the next couple of months.

The settlement requires the three affected publishers to inform retailers working under agency agreements that they can be released from them. Ten days is alloted from the time of the Court’s acceptance for that to take place. Then the retailers have 30 days to terminate their agreement and then the publishers have 30 days from receiving that notice to actually end it.

So the process could be almost instantaneous, if the publishers served notice immediately, the retailers responded immediately, and the publishers reacted to the response immediately. Or it could take as long as 70 days from the Court judgment, if everybody used the entire time alloted by the judgment.

Assuming that Amazon acts with competence and alacrity in its own interests (and I’d expect nothing less), the entire process could take no more than 40-45 days with them. (Each retailer can be on its own clock.) That should liberate Amazon from most pricing constraints on the three settling defendants’ books by the middle of September.

There’s a bit of confusion in the settlement language here. In the same paragraph, IV-B, that lays out the 10-day, 30-day, and 30-day requirements as described above, it also says that 30 days after “entry of the Final Judgment” (the starting gun for everything), the Settling Defendants take “each step” required to terminate or not renew or extend the agreement. Or maybe the language makes sense to a lawyer but I’m just confused. It seems like they’re asking for results before the first 30-day period would have expired.

The settlement, which ostensibly does not eliminate agency agreements (although it clearly eviscerates them), requires that any new agreements not allow publishers to dictate final sale prices by the retailers, except to cap them (in an unwieldly way we’ll consider below in more detail) and also disallows any “most favored nation” (MFN) clauses protecting any retailer from the impact of other retailers’ pricing decisions. These restrictions are specified to last for two years for each retailer, starting from the date the old agreement’s price-controlling clauses are mooted, whether by the agreement being terminated or by the publisher notifying the retailer, in writing, that the offending clauses will not be enforced.

It is back to the drawing board for new agreements. Ostensibly they can be “agency” agreements by which the publisher sets a price and pays a commission for sales based on that price. But since agency agreements were actually attractive because they achieved what is now deemed illegal price parity across the marketplace, these publishers must be rethinking the efficacy of the model. I would be.

So new contracts will be needed between the three settling publishers and all the retailers. And they’ll need to be crafted, negotiated, and signed within a maximum 70-day window.

Anybody responsible for this who remembers what a combination marathon-and-sprint these negotiations were in 2010 won’t be planning any 2-week vacations over the next few months.

There is one big fat joker in the settlement. The publishers are allowed to negotiate agreements limiting the retailers from discounting from the publishers’ (now) suggested prices. The settlement allows the publisher to prohibit discounts on their books which in the aggregate over one year exceed the margin the retailer has earned on those books.

In principle, that isn’t complicated. Retailer A sells ebooks with a retail value of $1 million in a year and would earn $300,000 in commissions. They have to charge customers at least $700,000 for those ebooks, or they’d be in violation of a contract that the settlement allows the publishers to negotiate.

In practice, monitoring and enforcing that might be a nightmare. It requires either reporting or tracking of ebook sales and the prices at which they’re transacted which is far more robust than what has been required or done so far. But even with perfect data, it’s still extremely difficult to assure compliance, particularly if a retailer is inclined to “spend” its whole allotment of discount margin. The wording of the settlement would seem to require allowing discounting that exceeded the margin earned over the course of the year, as long as the cumulative discounts were under the stipulated cap at the end.

What that also means is that retailers can’t work with price-matching bots alone. It isn’t sufficient for Retailer A to monitor Retailer B’s pricing and automate meeting or beating it because Retailers A and B aren’t selling the same quantities of each publisher’s other books and therefore don’t have the same “budget” for discounting. This is a game of three-dimensional tic-tac-toe. The retailers have to watch each other and, at the same time, watch how their discounting to consumers stacks up against the allowances they are earning through above-cost sales for each of the three settling publishers.

And the publishers need to watch the sales of each of the retailers, presuming they are provided with data they don’t now get to allow it, to make sure each one is staying under its cap.

We can’t make too many assumptions here. The settlement rules allow a publisher to negotiate a discounting cap based on total margin, but they don’t require a retailer to agree to it. And there is no acceptable punishment specified for a retailer breaking the cap, so that will have to be worked out in the negotiations about to take place (if they haven’t already started).

One thing the DoJ was completely right about is that the whole agency idea breaks down if it isn’t applied across most of the Big Six. Random House demonstrated that for the first year of agency when they stayed out and reaped an immediate double bonanza. By sticking with their wholesale pricing model (by which the retailer gets 50% off a wildly unrealistic ebook price that would be almost impossible to sell very many copies at), they got more money for each copy sold than they would have under agency (by which the retailer only gets 30% but of a much lower, realistic, selling price). And, at the same time, Random House ebooks benefited from the aggressive discounting (led by Amazon but matched by other ebook retailers) at which their high-profile titles, alone among the Big Six competitive set, were offered to the consumer.

In fact, it was made clear by Apple to the publishers when they were recruited for the iBookstore that the store would only open if at least four of them signed on. Apple was probably thinking that without having a critical mass of top-flight titles, their store would have no appeal and not be worth operating. What publishers may have been thinking about is that if were a lot of Big Six titles being discounted because they weren’t covered by agency rules, the ones that weren’t would be at a tremendous competitive disadvantage.

It seems that the necessity for concerted action to make agency work is a core element of DoJ’s thinking that collusion was required to implement it. But the specific allegations of collusion (the Picholine meeting that took place long before anybody was thinking about agency or an Apple bookstore and the various instances where publishers are alleged to have told each other whether they were in or out of the program) seem very weak, particularly when you acknowledge that they all knew “four or no store”.

Something that one comes away with from reading the settlement language is that we might see some very different terms in the replacement contracts. DoJ’s suspicions were aroused by the great similarity among the agency contracts and they seem to be asking that they not look so similar when they are renegotiated.

This could drive any number of changes. Publishers could return to a wholesale model. Publishers could try to change the agency commission, now uniformly fixed at 30%. It even seems like publishers are being told that the commissions don’t have to be uniform across retailers (although negotiating different terms would seem to violate the spirit of the Robinson-Patman Law that a previous generation of publishers grew up believing required them to give the same terms to all like sellers. There is a R-P exception for contractual relationships, however.)

In fact, there is language in the settlement agreement which seems aimed at stopping publishers from even revealing the details of these agreement in case one of their competitors could find out. (One might assume an agent with clients at more than one house would be able to figure out the commercial terms from their royalty statements. Actually, one would assume that a responsible agent wouldn’t be waiting for a royalty statement to find out.)

So the settling publishers have to negotiate new deals. The other agency publishers (Macmillan and Penguin who are fighting the legal battle and didn’t settle and Random House, enjoying one more big delayed benefit from having stayed out initially which is that the collusion argument certainly can’t be stretched to cover them) will have to rethink their pricing as they see what happens in the changed marketplace.

It is a safe prediction that one of the stories of Christmas 2012 will be the extent to which the agency publishers dropped prices from what they were permitted to charge to meet competition, driven by Amazon.

Remember that the permissible discounting constraint is an annual number. There are any number of strategies Amazon could pursue (and I wouldn’t presume to be smarter than they’ll be about choosing the right one), but if they chose to press their opportunity to the max this Christmas, they could cut prices to the bone — way below “cost” — and figure to make up the margin in the 9 months that will remain the first year of the contract.

Whatever they do, the agency publishers will have to respond in their pricing too.

It’s an equally safe prediction that a consequence of that will be that fledgling authors living at the lower price points will lose market share. That will not be obvious and nobody will actually notice.

Of course, B&N and Kobo also have to figure out a pricing strategy and a means to execute it.

Apple has to completely rethink what it will do as a retailer because publisher price-setting has been severely crippled and they never seemed to want to do it themselves.

And I have to think again about whether my conviction that publishers need to sell direct to the end consumer stands up in a world where Amazon is free to turn its pricing guns on any competitor and make them look like extortionists no matter what price they charge consumers for their ebooks.

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Paying authors more might be the best economics for publishers in the long run


If you imagine the publisher’s business as one that divides most of the consumer’s dollar between two core stakeholders in the supply chain — the retailer and the author — you’d have a pretty accurate picture. The publishers, at least theoretically, decide what the retailer’s “working margin” will be with their discounts and agency agreements. And they decide what the author’s share of the proceeds will be by the advances and royalty rates they offer and agree on through their contracts.

These are the essential, and basically non-substitutable, trading partners for a publisher. They can choose a different printer or publicity firm without changing the character of their business or their economics. But the author relationships are existential and defining and the intermediaries who reach the public and enable the consumer transaction are indispensible.

Plenty has been written, by me and others, about the challenges trade publishers face due to the decline of shelf space for books. But, in some ways, it looks at the moment like those (also including me) who have said that publishers are in big trouble as bookstores decline are mistaken. Sales in stores are declining and sales of print books are declining but total sales, including ebooks, are holding pretty firm and the big publishers are reporting pretty healthy results. So if declining bookstore shelf space, which we have clearly seen over the past few years, doesn’t weaken trade publishers’ commercial performance, what will?

I have written before about asking my friend and sometimes-collaborator Mark Bide a similar question about another segment of publishing. As a John Wiley stockholder, I was worrying 15 years ago about their reliance on journals for their revenues and profits. We thought way back then that journals were likely candidates for disintermediation. After all, the university pays the professor’s salary to write the journal article that the publisher gets for free and then monetizes by charging the same university’s library for a subscription to the journal. Even in the early days of the web, we could see the potential for professors to post their own articles and for peer review to be crowd-sourced, delivering the IP to the academic community faster and saving universities a boatload of dough.

At the time Mark said the thing to watch was whether the publishers stopped getting the submissions. If the professors didn’t need the journals, they’d stop getting the raw material that feeds the whole engine.

So far, it hasn’t happened (and I still own the stock). Despite lots of open source academic publishing, the journals remain important brands in their fields and the professors want the journal publication as a credential. (In books we know that lots of people read the book and have no idea who the publisher was. In journals it is the opposite: more people will know the professor published in the journal than will read the article.) The business has changed and library budgets grow considerably more challenged, but most of the journals, including Wiley’s, remain highly profitable and highly desirable to the authors.

In fact, Mark identifed the point of vulnerability for trade publishers. If the stores and other intermediaries they rely on go away, they have to find other ways to sell their books. That’s a challenge, no doubt.

But if the authors don’t play along, they have nothing to sell. Making deals with authors is the publishers’ price of admission to the game.

As the central player whose contracts and sales terms manage the distribution of revenues throughout the supply chain, how publishers view the commerce of our business is central to how it operates. This has, historically, been challenging. The activity of publishing is complicated and its economics are complicated.

A couple of months ago, Michael Cader pointed out to me that the big publishers were making a serious tactical error in the way they were accounting for sales under the agency arrangement. (Quick reminder: under agency, the publisher is considered the “seller”, not the retailer. The publisher sets the price which the retailer can’t change and pays the retailer, or sales “agent”, a fixed 30% of the set price paid by the consumer.) Publishers simply imitated their convention from the wholesale terms transactions they’d always done before. They book as revenue the 70% they keep of the sale, not the full price the consumer pays (and which, if they did, would make the 30% paid to the retailer a “cost of sale” like printing or shipping is in the physical world or like DRM costs might be in the digital world).

Cader spelled out two important benefits that would flow to publishers if they made a different choice of how to account these sales. (He says, and I trust him, that GAAP rules don’t require them to employ the methodology they do.)

One is that that their “top line”, their “total revenue” line, would be higher. That’s critical to foster a helpful perception in the investment community, which worries when they see declining revenues. And if publishers insist on sticking to booking only the 70% they get on the ebook sales as the total revenue, they’re locked into declining revenue for years to come as competition drives down ebook prices (probably) and as ebook sales continue to replace hardcover print sales (for sure).

The other perception publishers are manipulating against their interests is within their negotiating community. Both agents (on behalf of authors) and the big accounts publishers sell through look at the publishers’ margins as a percentage of sales to decide if there’s more there for them to get. Reporting ebook sales as they do, publishers are achieving about 75% margin on ebook sales (because they give 25% of the take to the author.) If they took the full price as the revenue, they’d be achieving 52.5% margin on those sales (although, of course, nothing really changes.)

There are fewer knock-on problems for the publishers when the big accounts move to convert this (apparently excess) margin into changed business terms than if they allow agents to change the author deal. Changes forced by Amazon or Barnes & Noble could conceivably affect only them, depending on how the change in terms were framed.  But were an agent to succeed in pushing up the contractual ebook royalty, that change could affect a whole host of other contracts because of most favored nation clauses. That could mean royalties are suddenly due on contracts that under the previously-negotiated royalties hadn’t earned out their advances.

So we acknowledge that the price of raising contractual ebook royalties could be high. But it still might be worth it. As we will see later, more margin given to accounts achieves no incremental gain for the publishers; more margin to authors does.

There’s one more very big reason for publishers to change their accounting in the way Cader’s insight suggests. Right now, every big publisher’s life is being disrupted by state, federal, and international investigations into the legality of agency selling, which is characterized by some as “price fixing”. The defense is that the publisher, not the retailer, is the seller and it isn’t illogical for somebody selling something to charge the same price to every customer no matter how they reach them.

If “I’m really the seller” is the defense, it would be much more persuasive if the accounting supported that paradigm. As it stands, the accounting contradicts it.

The total situation not only argues for publishers to change their accounting, it also argues for them to give a bigger percentage to authors and to do it now! Doing so would deliver them two important benefits. It would reduce the apparently excess margin that their retail trading partners are noticing and coveting. But — of much greater importance —  it would also reduce the differential between what Amazon (and who knows, perhaps B&N in the future) offers an author and what the publisher offers, making it more difficult for Amazon to lure their authors away with higher royalty terms.

In fact, they might even get some sympathy from Barnes & Noble about having less excess margin to trade if they can make it clear that giving more to authors is keeping them out of Amazon’s clutches, which B&N and all other retailers absolutely need them to do.

Part of what prevents publishers from seeing merit in paying more to authors is their high cognizance of another accounting element they track: unearned advances. Unfortunately, either publishers aren’t looking at that category of expense in the right way or they’re eliding important distinctions when they discuss those unearned advances with agents.

Because all unearned advances are clearly not created equal. All of the biggest authors pile up unearned advances because they are intended to be unearned. When the agent for a megaselling writer sits down with a publisher to negotiate the advance, they are often negotiating around dividing up what they both see (perhaps without explicitly saying so) as the total revenue pie likely from the book. That leads to agreement on the advance against royalties, which divides the revenues at what is effectively much higher per-copy royalties than standard contracts call for.

But then, for reasons of “not establishing precedent” and, perhaps, not kicking in “most favored nation” clauses that could exist in other contracts (all in the publishers’ interest), the actual contract has conventional royalty splits. The book would have to sell a big increment over expectations to “earn out” on conventional royalties. That’s very unlikely because these are deals done with highly established authors where the track record is a good predictor of future performance.

So some of these “unearned” advances were never intended to be earned; they simply measure how much of a premium the publisher was willing to pay to get certain revenues into the fold.

In other words, publishers aren’t trying to manage all unearned advances down, just some of them. And if they don’t make that distinction (and some further nuance to their measurement) when they analyze this, they’re doing themselves a disservice in a number of ways. Right now, one of those ways is that it is persuading them not to pay higher royalties when doing so could well be in their interest, both because it will keep the author away from Amazon and because it leaves less margin on the table for their trading partners to pursue.

Declared royalty rates that are closer to what Amazon can offer are critical for publishers to turn around a PR war for new authors that they have been losing. The focus of a great deal of the author community buzz is around the ebook royalty differential. Disadvantages of self-publishing — the biggest three being the actual financial cost of necessary editing and core marketing (like a cover); the difference in risk between taking those costs versus taking a revenue guarantee in the form of an advance; and the additional marketing and sales a publisher generates (right now largely through the merchandising and additional revenue from print) — are too easy to ignore or elide. The royalty comparison is straightforward and apparently persuasive when it is as stark as it is now.

A 50% ebook royalty from an agency publisher on revenue after agency commissions would match the 35% royalty that Amazon pays when they pay advances and publish. But publishers don’t actually have to reach that number to be offering  a better deal because they offer sales through other channels Amazon currently either doesn’t reach or actually prohibits employing when they pay an advance to publish. It’s just a tough argument to make when they offer half that number.

One more reflection on unearned advances to bend your mind in the other direction, and then we’ll stop. When the publisher sells a copy of a book that has an unearned advance, the cash flow for this month on the book is better, because no payment to the author is triggered. If publishers paid authors higher royalties on ebook sales, they’d have fewer dollars in unearned advances (because books would earn out faster) very quickly. Of course, that’s not “good” for them because it means they have to pay new royalties on those books as they sell. This is just to say reiterate what I said above: publishing economics are complicated. Anytime you hear them oversimplified, like by somebody lumping together all “unearned advances” into a number or a percentage and wielding it like evidence or analysis, have your grains of salt handy.

I make no secret that my view of the world is publisher-centric. I was brought up that way and I’ve spent 50 years learning about the book business with that point of view. And I also make no secret of my high regard for the current leadership of the biggest publishing houses. With all due respect to the executives of my father’s generation and since, the current crop of leaders is the smartest and most thoughtful and innovative group I’ve ever seen in those slots. But (unless I’m missing something, which is, of course, always a possibility…) they all appear to be making the same mistake at the moment. I would sum up the observations from this post with three suggestions for today’s biggest publishers:

1. Change the way you account for ebook sales in the way Michael Cader suggests: call the consumer payment the top line revenue and the payment to the retailer a cost of sale.

2. Recognize that no excess margin will go unpunished. The forces of big author agents and powerful retail channels will assure that. You know there’s a minimum margin you need to survive; in fact there will also be a maximum margin you’ll have any prayer of holding onto.

3. Pay authors more so you can pay retailers less. There will be a direct connection between the two.

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Competing with Amazon is not an easy thing to do


Amazon has three pretty powerful things going for them, and two are entirely their own doing.

Number one: Amazon is, by far, the most book-industry-focused company that is actually active in endeavors much larger than the book business. Barnes & Noble and Ingram are just as focused, but they really don’t go beyond the book business. Google and Apple are, like Amazon, leveraging their book activities into other areas and vice-versa, but they have nowhere near the presence in the book business that Amazon does. (Kobo, which is focused on the book business but has just been bought by a much larger Internet retailer, is still a bit of a wild card in this regard.)

Number two: Amazon executes. Their hardware and software and platforms and content delivery all work just about perfectly. It seems odd to me that, at this relatively late date in the ebook switchover, Amazon is still the only place I can shop for ebooks and see my choices arrayed by (highly granular) subject with the most recently published books on top. (Note to all competitive retailers: please let me know the minute your shopping experience can offer the same thing!)

Number three: Amazon is the runaway market leader in the only two segments of the book business that are growing — ebooks and the online purchasing of print — and they are cleverly leveraging the leadership position they have to make challenging them even more difficult in the future. Their willingness to take losses on some transactions to grow share, on Kindle devices to lock customers into their ecosystem and on eboooks when they can to emphasize they are the low-cost provider, is supported by the wide array of products, in media and far outside, on which they don’t need to sacrifice margin for competitive advantage.

Amazon’s industry focus is natural, since books is where they started (even though books are now a fraction of their business). Their history gives them the presence and the knowledge to be highly disruptive. They know how to go after authors directly (apparently even more effectively than Barnes & Noble, which has been signing up content on a proprietary basis for well over a decade and actually owns a publishing company). They use price as a weapon to sell books, disadvantage competitive retailers online and in stores, and to lock in customer loyalty for print (with their Prime program) and ebooks (with their proprietary Kindle platform).

Amazon’s execution has been a keystone of their success from the very beginning, from their invention (or at least early use) of a database for “discovery” even larger than their supply capabilities (they wanted the customer to know when a book they wanted was no longer available, so they could choose something else), promise dates for delivery that were almost always met, customer service that aggressively solved every problem, and intuitive navigation and execution that did for online retailing what Apple did with hardware and operating software. And when Amazon decided to do hardware, they might not have made anybody forget Steve Jobs, but they have apparently made his company address the Kindle Fire with a pricing response on their iPad.

But none of this would worry the rest of the publishing ecosystem — publishers, retailers, and agents — if it weren’t for the fact that everything in publishing seems to be flowing downhill toward a future where the vast majority of what people read as books is both found and purchased (and often consumed) online.

Actually, there are two more important components to Amazon’s success: their lack of involvement in the most capital-intensive elements of the legacy book business (press runs and returns as a publisher, brick stores as a retailer) and their brilliance at acquiring companies that might have provided platforms to cause them trouble. There have probably been many of those (and they are very graphically represented here) but I can immediately point to three:

* the acqusition of Mobi ten years ago took the one format that could have united the ebook market, then divided between the Palm and Microsoft formats, out of circulation before some other retailer (specifically: Barnes & Noble) could have served the entire marketplace and perhaps made ebooks accelerate many years before the Kindle;

* the acquisition of Lexcycle which gave them Stanza, an ebook platform that was extremely consumer-friendly and cross-platform, which could have constituted a threat to Kindle’s development when the Amazon format was in its infancy;

* the acquisition of The Book Depository, an global onliner retailer of print that had developed technology and logistics that would have made it a great foundation for competing with Amazon for global book sales, which was done at the very time that three major publishers on each side of the Atlantic were investing in competitive retailing enterprises (Bookish in the US and Anobii in the UK).

The Book Depository acquisition was very well timed, coming as it did just as there are signs that the British public would really prefer to buy its books online, that the French (like the rest of Europe, we’re sure) are beginning to seriously enter the digital book future, and that the Swiss are starting to worry about the decline of their brick book business.

It is natural that any player who has made the bet that brick-and-mortar bookstores have a future would be hostile to Amazon. It is becoming increasingly obvious that technology is enabling Amazon not just to persuade book customers to shop with them, but also to buy from them when they’ve shopped elsewhere.

I am entirely sympathetic with Tim O’Reilly’s admonition that we should “buy where we shop”. Note that Tim made this point almost a decade ago, when the suggestion being made by me (among others) that bookstores were seriously threatened by digital change was dismissed by most people in the industry.

But it being right doesn’t make it so.

Publishers have a valuable proposition to offer authors as long as Amazon is one of a diversified set of paths to the purchasing consumer. In today’s world, where print is still 70% of the sales of even most straight text books and most of the print is still sold in stores, an author who has the opportunity to work with a regular publisher makes real a sacrifice of market exposure to work directly with Amazon. Even if Amazon were to eschew its Kindle-only insistence on ebooks for titles it signs directly through its imprints (and we hear rumors from the deal-making world that they might on a selective basis), Amazon would still have a great challenge getting exposure for one of its titles through brick outlets. (Some research by Laura Hazard Owen documents the difficulty they’ve had with that so far.) And one important thing Amazon hasn’t learned from its experience is how to meter inventory into stores to maximize marketing exposure but keep returns manageable.

But the publishers’ advantage here has a shelf life. For online sales, individual authors are becoming persuaded that Amazon gets them more than the other outlets combined. Barry Eisler has expressed great satisfaction with his Amazon-only sales. Another author, Robert Niles, reports that Amazon far outsells all the other ebook retailers for his self-published work and thinks it is because Amazon promotes the self-published author more effectively.

When you read through this thread from Amazon’s online forum among authors discussing what happens when the retailer picks one of their books for a price promotion, you get a sense of the excitement they generate through the sales they can create with tools which are uniquely at their disposal.

What that probably means is that more and more authors will be available exclusively through Kindle, some because an Amazon imprint signed them and others because they don’t bother to put their books up on other sites for paltry sales. If that happens, Amazon’s natural advantages just grow.

Although Anobii’s founding CEO, Matteo Berlucchi, tells an imaginative and persuasive story about converting the social aspect of books into a commercial proposition (which has been the effort of independent start-up Copia for the past year), I think the challenge for them and for Bookish, the US version of a publisher-sponsored online book retailer, is steep. The problem for them is the same as B&N’s; Amazon brings resources and ammunition to this competition that stem from a much bigger base than the book business alone. They can use books as loss-leaders to sell more movies or computers or groceries. (By the way, this is exactly what brick book retailers coped with competing for bestseller business with mass merchants who could sacrifice margin on books that brought people into their store because they could make it up on other items.)

There is really only one way for publishers to compete with Amazon for authors in the future and that’s to find book customers Amazon doesn’t have, either by working through other retailers or by creating direct publisher-to-customer contact. The percentage of sales which go to Amazon is the single most important barometer of a book publishing company’s future. Of course, every publisher wants to make their Amazon sales grow. Their challenge is to make other sales grow faster.

Of course, the retailers are a critical focus for us at Digital Book World at the Sheraton in New York, January 23-25. We’ll have presentations from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google, Bookish, Anobii, Copia, and from some independent booksellers. We’ll have a panel of players talking about creating new markets, globally and locally. And we’ll have publishers talking about creating communities in genres and in topics, building their capabilities to talk directly to their customers without an intermediary’s help. 

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