Book-of-the-Month Club

Subscription services for ebooks progress to becoming a real experiment


My long-held conviction that broad-based subscriptions for ebooks were not likely to work is partly based on facts that are now changing. It is still by no means a slam dunk that ebooks must go where Spotify has taken digital music and Netflix has taken the digital distribution of TV and movies, but it looks more likely today than it did six months ago. Still, looks could be deceiving.

The core of subscription economics is to pay less to the content supplier than they earn other ways to give you some headroom to create a value proposition for consumers. That’s how Spotify and Netflix work. That’s how Book-of-the-Month Club works.

And what happens over time with subscription services is that the power of “brand” passes from the individual titles (and authors) to the subscription service itself. In order to attract customers, a subscription offer depends on recognizable branded product to bring people in. But, over time, the value shifts. Eventually, a subscriber-reader can become used to choosing from what the service offers and will either not know about, skip, or accept purchasing the occasional book s/he wants outside the service if it isn’t offered inside. (A varient of this reality is playing out now in the Amazon-Hachette dispute, where Amazon’s brand power, including people who have a subscription to PRIME free freight, makes any particular publishers’ books subordinate to the seller’s brand with the consumer.)

None of this is particularly startling or insightful. Every agent for a big author knows it. Until very recently, that has meant that big publishers did not put the big books from big authors into these services. When the first shoe — the HarperCollins shoe — dropped and the second biggest trade publisher (and by far the largest of the four majors who trail Penguin Random House) went into Oyster and Scribd several months ago, I should have taken on board that the perception of agents must be changing. Now, with S&S having joined them, and with major authors included in the offerings from both companies, it is clear that agents are withdrawing their objections.

There are three reasons for this.

One is that the incumbents in the book business are circling the wagons against the dominance of book retailing’s most powerful brand: Amazon. As the market share of and customer loyalty to the industry’s biggest player grows, other dangers — such as those posed by subscription services if they mature — look relatively less onerous.

The second is that publishers and agents love the opportunity to establish that if subscription services want to “play” in publishing, they’ll have to pay for each ebook on a purchase deal. That is: the subscription services are establishing their “model”. And the publishers and authors are also establishing theirs!

The last is that the two big current subscription efforts are disdaining the fundamental economics to get their services started. The current model, as outlined by S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy in a letter to agents announcing her house’s participation, is that the service buys a copy of the book at “full price” when a “a certain threshold of reading has been surpassed for a given title”. But her letter also suggests that authors make even more money on these sales than they do on normal sales, which implies that Scribd and Oyster are paying more than 70 percent of the retail price for the privilege of using these books. (I have heard a range of numbers for where the threshhold of use to trigger payment is, from 10% to 40%, but I have no idea what it is and how it might differ among publishers.) Whether they’re paying 70% of retail or more, that means that it would take no more than two full-priced S&S or HarperCollins (assuming they have the same deal) titles a month to cost the service more than the revenue from a full-freight subscriber. And if the subscriber came through iOS, Apple’s 30% cut off the top would mean that even one major publisher ebook being read in a month will likely put the service in a deficit position.

Even when the purchase model is favorable, which this one appears not to be, it has been generally understood that the viability of a subscription model depends on what is called “breakage” or “health club economics” to succeed. They count on the expectation that relatively few subscribers will read and trigger payments on two, three, four books a month compared to many who will read one or less than one, or who will choose from among books (like public domain titles) that cost the services less or nothing.

The first of the subscription services for books — Safari — used a model that is much safer for the services because it assures cost stability, assigning a percentage of the revenue as a pool to compensate publishers rather than guaranteeing a purchase for every read as Scribd and Oyster are doing. I expect the purchase model to be very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. But persuading the big players to come in depended on getting away from the safe “pool” model and purchasing the ebook anew for each new user.

A huge danger for the subscription services is the likelihood that subscriptions will be shared within families (let alone within dormitories!) That could drive up the average use per subscriber very quickly if it isn’t controlled.

Only now, with two of the Big Five in the game, giving the services about a third of the most commercial backlist titles in publishing, can they really find out whether the price-and-cost model they’ve set up will work to give them a profit. (It is important to note that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster only put backlist titles into the services, so the most attractive commercial titles, which are new, are not part of the offer. This also means that all shoppers and purchasers of new titles will continue to use the stand-alone purchase model.)

I’m sure Scribd and Oyster have data and analytical skills that I don’t have. But, intuitively, this seems like a tough proposition. Subcription services are attractive to consumers because they’re bargains. If you normally read a single ebook or month or fewer, the $8.99 monthly subscription charge would not seem attractive. But if you read an ebook or two a month or more, the services will likely lose money on you.

Meanwhile, there are two players currently sitting on the sidelines that could really disrupt the subscription incumbents (which also include Spain-based 24Symbols, which has been around much longer than Scribd and Oyster but which hasn’t succeeded so far at bringing in the big publishers and the big books.)

There are rumors that Amazon is already canvassing for participants to deliver a subscription service of their own. Of course, they really already have one. Their PRIME subscription offer, for which the headline attraction is free shipping of hard goods, also includes access to the “Kindle Owners Lending Library”, which is effectively a broad-based ebook subscription service with some limitations and a far less robust title selection than Scribd and Oyster. Amazon could find ways to expand that. Will they match the implied compensation from Scribd and Oyster and pay more than the 70 percent which is the current standard for sales by agency publishers (which, therefore, becomes the basis for royalties to big authors)? One would suspect they would want something in return for that: exclusives, perhaps, or earlier access to the titles than Scribd and Oyster have.

Of course, Amazon (or Google or Kobo or Nook or Apple) would have an automatic advantage over the subscription incumbents if they decided to compete with them. Because they already sell all the books, they could sell you the books you wanted that weren’t in the service as part of a single offer.

The other future player of consequence is Penguin Random House, which by itself has well-known commercial titles that exceed in number what the services would have even if they signed up one more of the remaining big publishers. Hachette’s chief marketing and sales officer, Evan Schnittman, is quoted by the Wall Street Journal saying that this model is “not for us”. That leaves Macmillan, but even if Scribd and Oyster get them, PRH could have the most attractive title base on offer all by itself.

When I speculated some time ago about the opportunity PRH had to do this, one of their executives set me straight about why they wouldn’t. What I was told was that PRH was not thrilled by the idea of turning $500 and $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers. Of course, that calculus changes for them if others are succeeding at doing that, and those new $100/year customers are then one step further removed from buying PRH books.

If PRH did this, they’d have one big decision to make: do they attempt to include the biggest titles from the rest of publishing in their offering or not. They’d already be starting with the most attractive title selection, but the Scribd and Oyster assortments would be competitive. If they went for some of the rest — even if only the top 10 percent of the rest — PRH could present a noticeably more attractive selection than Scribd or Oyster.

Would other publishers go in with them? I’d say, “probably”, because they can’t afford not to have their biggest books exposed to all possible substantial audiences, and PRH would almost certainly have the biggest subscription audience.

Would Penguin Random House want them? I’d say, “probably” again. It would stamp their offering as by far the best, and they’d still be advantaged dealing with authors because they’d be the only publisher not paying a third party to get the subscription revenue.

If “fear of Amazon” is the factor that made big agents relent in their opposition to subscription, would they also support joining an Amazon subscription service? That’s a trickier call, but as noted above, Amazon would have the capability to sweeten their offer to make it more compelling if that’s what they had to do.

But the main thing that works in favor of participation, now that the dam may have broken, is the psychology of trade publishing. Every big trade publisher has grown to be what they are today by selling their publications through intermediaries. Bookstores and then Amazon became the “gatekeepers”, owners of the customers. There was a symbiotic relationship: the retailers depended on publishers to deliver products to please their consumers and the publishers depended on the retailers to merchandise their offerings and manage the transactions. Access to a retailer’s customers first depended on getting your offerings into their store and then on having them be seen by the largest possible number of the store’s customers. That meant front tables and face-out display in the physical world; it means the right screen real estate, recommendations, and response to search terms in the virtual one.

That’s why the current hegemonies of Barnes & Noble and Amazon are so disconcerting to publishers. And that’s why the potential control of customer access by Scribd or Oyster might now look more like counterweight than threat.

Of course, it is also possible that the price-and-payment models Scribd and Oyster have begun with will prove unsustainable and that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — and their authors — will simply be the beneficiaries of a short-term bonanza financed by money that took a flyer that didn’t pay off. (And they’re not done taking those flyers.) That seems to me at least as likely as an outcome as these broad subscription offers becoming a permanent part of the bookselling landscape.

A lot going on around our place, so we haven’t had the time to switch away from what has become the horrendous service from Feedburner distributing The Shatzkin Files to its email subscribers. This one from last week on Amazon and Hachette (which is also linked to above) never was sent. (Of course, as I write this, who knows if this one will be or not?) It was written before the latest escalation where Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from Hachette book, a nasty blow that makes getting books on the bestseller list the week they come out very much harder. A lot has been written on this subject, but I think it still delivers some consideration of what it all means that hasn’t been picked up anywhere else.

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It is not news to publishers that they have to engage directly with their readers


Since the merger that has created Penguin Random House, there has been precious little speculation (except by me, as far as I can tell) about what this new behemoth in trade book publishing could do to exploit their scale in new and innovative ways.

Their scale advantage is huge. PRH has something in the neighborhood of half the commercial trade books published, bestsellers and below. (You see numbers as low as 25% for this and most of the time estimates put it around 40%.) For several decades, the big US book clubs — Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild — demonstrated that having about half the books was “enough” for very large numbers of people to feel comfortable that their choices of what to read from within that group of titles would be sufficient for most of their needs.

My initial hunches, still totally unrealized, were that PRH would launch a subscription service with just their own books and, through the use of vendor-managed inventory, create exclusive channels of store distribution that wouldn’t be available to any of their competitors. (One senior executive from a competitor to whom I described this scenario said candidly, “we’d make our best books available to them for their proprietary channel if it were the only way for us to get the distribution”.)

One PRH executive kindly explained to me the company’s inherent resistance to the subscription model, which would seem to appeal most to the heaviest readers looking for a bargain. As the largest player in the market, PRH isn’t looking to reduce the spending by the people who are the biggest sources of industry revenue, which a successful subscription offer would inevitably do. (That subscription model, or “Netflix for ebooks”, is complex in ways that are often ignored, but which Joe Esposito spells out very clearly.) Of course, that doesn’t mean the company wouldn’t consider it in an environment where subscription services were taking a big part of the audience (certainly not the case yet, but watch what happens if Scribd or Oyster or Entitle or the new Rooster succeed). It does seem to say that they won’t be pioneers in this field. And there is no sign yet that they’re taking up my idea to use VMI to create their own bookstores, either.

But PRH UK — echoing what was said to me by RH US CEO Markus Dohle some years ago — has now announced it is becoming a consumer-focused publisher. Hannah Telfer, who was made “group director, consumer and digital development” in January, says discoverability depends on “building a direct relationship with consumers”. And she claims “our scale” is a key enabler of doing this “properly”. This is refreshing, since most of the industry thinking about how they would use scale seems to be more about consolidating warehouses than getting smarter about talking to consumers.

One article in The Bookseller details staff changes and initiatives around this goal. (And another expresses some skepticism about whether their plans are adequate to the task. That second piece suggests they need to think about selling direct, a recommendation I have expressed some reservations about.) On the one hand, the first article suggests some really broad, company-wide objectives, including “the potential for Penguin Random House to be a cultural and entertainment powerhouse; a home for all audiences”. At their recent sales conference. CEO Tom Weldon described the opportunity for PRH “to create the blueprint for a publisher brand as a consumer brand and, in doing so, capture the attention of the world for the stories, ideas and writing that matters”. That sounds like one big brand.

At the same time, there was clear acknowledgment of the importance of what we call “verticality”, or “audience-centricity”. An “audience segmentation project” was announced. So was cross-imprint attention to specific subjects, with “cookery” and “crime” cited. One tool that it is clear Penguin Random House has and will use is called Bookmarks, described as “the Random House readers’ panel”. New plans call for it to “become a PRH resource, giving all parts of the business access to over 3,500 readers through surveys and focus groups”.

Of course, the more different ways the company wants to use that panel, the more difficult it will be to get meaningful data from it. In fact, it would seem that what is really called for is an ongoing “panelization” process, by which new people are being added all the time to a number of panels that can answer questions about different communities of interest. One panel can’t serve all purposes.

This brings two topics into bold relief that have not historically been part of a book publisher’s thinking or skill sets.

1. It calls for new and nuanced thinking about brands.

2. It calls for a multi-faceted plan for engagement with individual consumers.

Advice directing publishers to think about branding for consumers is plentiful these days. Since I first started thinking and writing about publishing and brands, something disruptive occurred which I wasn’t thinking about at the time: self-publishing. My original notion was that the challenge was establishing brands with clear vertical, audience-centric identities. Probably the best example of doing that successfully in the big US houses has been Macmillan’s establishing of Tor as a brand for science fiction and tor.com as a destination site for science fiction devotees. It is well over two years since I wrote about tor.com having hundreds of thousands of email addresses that they could address with promotions that got very high open rates.

Tor.com gives Macmillan’s science fiction list a clear label of not-self-publishing. But outside Tor, for their general list, Macmillan uses many imprint names. A novel might be published as St. Martin’s, Holt, Farrar Straus, or Thomas Dunne Books (among others), each of which probably has “meaning” to buyers at major accounts, big libraries, and major book reviewers, but which means precious little to the general public. Does the average person know those names better than they know, let’s say, Thomas & Mercer (the new imprint of Amazon) or Mike & Martha Books (a name I just made up)?

(Please note that Macmillan is being used here for illustrative purposes; every major house has the same issues with imprint brands that are really intended as B2B signals, not for the consumer.)

But ultimately, it is important for Macmillan, and for every publisher, to stamp “major publisher” on their books to let the public know “this is from a long-standing and established book publisher” on the assumption, which I would share, that people who don’t know the names would still trust an institution rather than a self-interested individual to “pick” their books.

(Obviously, most people choose their books because of the author, the subject matter, a recommendation from a friend, or even based on some combination of the cover, the description, and the price. How much of the audience would be influenced by knowing that a major publisher was behind the book? We don’t know that, and we don’t know whether that number will grow or shrink based on the always-increasing output of self-published material that has not gone through a publisher’s editing and formatting rigor. And, by the way, doing aggressive branding means the publishers need to pay even more attention to their editing and formatting. Each instance of an inferior branded product hitting the marketplace will weaken the value of the brand.)

So here’s the rule about branding. Each major house should pick one name that is an umbrella. It goes on every book to establish the company as a major source of quality literature, enjoyable reading, and book-packaged information.Trying to target more precisely than that should be the job of the “imprint” brand under the umbrella brand. And that brand should be vertical, identifying subject or audience. That’s Tor in the Macmillan example above. Note that right now Macmillan is not a brand being used by any of the US companies in the Macmillan family.

The plan for engagement with consumers is much more complicated and has many components. One is simply collecting email addresses and permissions to ping people and then utilizing them. Turning almost all the marketing efforts you can into components of an email-gathering machine is a big part of this. This is a game everybody should be playing: all the retailers, all the publishers, and all the authors. We know from recent assignments at our digital marketing business that the smartest literary agents are figuring out how to help their authors do this. We can’t be far from the day when an agent will routinely ask a publisher “how many relevant email names do you have to promote my author’s next book to?”

But email lists, as the PRH UK statements suggest, are just one aspect of consumer engagement. And the statements from PRH also implicitly claim that a much bigger company has advantages in pursuing it. Aside from their ability to analyze existing email addresses among their signups or that they find through other means (hitting their web sites, self-identified in social media) to understand and reach audiences better, large companies can create special interest verticals to pull traffic (driving email signups) and give themselves a range of promotional opportunities. We see Simon & Schuster doing a lot of that kind of work. I’ve become a daily fan of “250 Words”, an email from their new business book web vertical that summarizes the core proposition of a business book every day. Whether that, or other vertical efforts of this type the house is trying, can turn into a remunerative web community or even a good place to get a book launched, is still an open question. But it is the kind of experiment that could produce a launching pad that could really help S&S with business books.

We touched on the notion that creating dynamic panels of consumers to tell you things — things you can ask all the time — is also a real value. We are aware of a niche magazine which routinely uses Twitter to ask its readers for opinions about various things, like what angle to take on a story. They get very fast responses that way. We know that Osprey, the military history publisher, routinely asks its audience for opinions when they are choosing among subjects for development of a book. (And it is relevant to note that Random House UK has hired Osprey’s energetic and visionary CEO, Rebecca Smart, to run their Ebury imprint. That’s another way to employ scale: hire away the best smaller-company executive talent!)

A good approach for a big house that can harvest large numbers of email addresses would be to routinely ask consumers whether they would like to be polled about questions that will guide the house’s publishing and marketing strategies. Doing that would give them fresh names all the time. What Osprey does with their specialist audience could become routine practice to a house with a big enough email list. Consumers could be asked about whether a topic is a good one to sign up before the house makes a commitment. They could also be asked about packaging and pricing. And if that kind of interaction were built into the house’s practice, over time they’d learn when consumer opinions are a good guide to follow and when they’re not (because they won’t always be!)

We are in the earliest days of big publishers changing from near-total dependence on intermediaries to reach their markets to having direct relationships with consumers. For now, most houses are pretty quiet about what they’re doing, partly because they think they’re inventing something and partly because they don’t know how well any of this will work. But relative silence shouldn’t be interpreted as relative inaction or inattention. It isn’t news to the big publishers that they need to talk to audiences directly. Penguin Random House has advantages of size relative to the others in the Big Five, but the rest of them have advantages of size relative to everybody else.

Note to readers: because of glitches and fiddling not worth detailing, the last two posts didn’t go out through our normal email distribution (which makes some people refer to this blog as my “newsletter”!) If you didn’t receive posts entitled “Getting Mark Coker Right This Time…” and “Sometimes One More Calculation…” they are linked here for your convenience.

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Peering into the future and seeing more value in the Random Penguin merger


So now in addition to the Random House and Penguin merger that is being reviewed by governments far and wide, we have the news that HarperCollins is exploring a tie-up with Simon & Schuster in a deal that hasn’t been made yet. That leaves Hachette and Macmillan, among the so-called Big Six, still on the outside as the general trade publishing behemoths rearrange themselves for whatever is the next stage of book publishing’s existence.

I am not sure we really need an “explanation” for what is the resumption of a perfectly natural phenomenon. Big publishers have been merging with each other for several decades in a process that suddenly stopped after Bertelsmann acquired Random House (to add to its holding of Bantam Doubleday Dell) in 1998. We didn’t know it at the time, but that concluded a long string of mergers that had recently included Penguin’s acquisition of Putnam-Berkley, but which stretched back to the 1970s when pursuit of the paperback-hardover synergy had driven Viking and Penguin; Doubleday and Dell; and Random House-Ballantine and Fawcett into each other’s arms.

(Perhaps HarperCollins should get credit for the resumption of the era of consolidation. Their acquisition of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, combined with their holding of Zondervan, created a powerful position in one of publishing’s biggest vertical markets shortly before Penguin and Random House announced their plans.)

But consequential events always get an explanation, whether they deserve one or not, and this merger appears to many to be driven by consolidation among the retail intermediaries and the rational concern — amply documented by recent experience — that the retailers would use their leverage to press for more and more margin. This is complicated by the fact that both of the dominant retailers — Amazon in the online world and Barnes & Noble in the brick-and-mortar space — have small publishing operations of their own that are always available to put additional pressure on publishers at the originating end of the value chain.

There is an important asymmetry to take note of here. The retailers publish and are always a threat to acquire manuscripts directly and cut the publishers out but the publishers, particularly the biggest ones, don’t do retail and there is no obvious path for them to enter retailing in any significant way. (That last sentence was written with full cognizance that we await the debut of Bookish, which is an attempt by three of the Big Six to enter retailing in a significant way. Maybe when concrete plans for it are announced there will be some reasons provided to amend that thought.)

In my opinion, the dominant position that Amazon holds in online retailing and that B&N owns in shops are impregnable on their own terms in ways that the positions of each of the big publishers are not.

The threat to Barnes & Noble is that bookstores will become unsustainable: that a retailer trying to exist at scale with books as its primary product offering will, because of ebooks and online purchasing of print, simply become unviable. The threat to Amazon is more nuanced and more distant. One can imagine a world developing where content retailing evolves into niches by subject or tastemaker. But that world is not around the corner (an environment toxic to bookstore chains appears to be much closer) and it would be far easier to imagine how Amazon could adapt to niche online retailing than to see B&N adapting to deliver retail book selections that are only viable at a fraction of their current size.

(I consulted to them a decade ago and suggested that to no interest. They were shutting down their mall stores at the time and the idea seemed totally counterintuitive.  I’ve also written about it.)

I saw recent data (sorry, can’t remember where…) suggesting that something like 38% of the book business is now done online, taking both ebooks and sales of print into account. This seems to be confirmed by a chart built on BookStats data by reporter Laura Owen of PaidContent, if you take “institutional sales” out of the equation and assume that wholesalers sold books to online and store retailers as well as libraries.

Whatever the percentage is, it is almost certainly higher for immersive reading than for illustrated or reference books because immersive works for ebooks and the others mostly don’t. So it would appear that something like 60% of the book business is still a bricks-and-mortar game, with the number being somewhat lower for straight text and higher for illustrated.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the big publishers are still extremely powerful. The 60% sold at retailers is what they’re uniquely skilled at getting and what Amazon is uniquely challenged to penetrate.

But the one thing we know for sure is that the shift to online purchasing — while it has slowed down — will continue to progress for a long time. The increased ubiquity of devices; the always-larger selection from an online merchant; the increase in availability of appealing and useful content that is either too short or too specialized for print; the steadily increasing cost and hassle of shopping by car rather than by computer; the natural results of birth, death, and demography; and the increase in online word-of-mouth and recommendation sources are among the many factors that assure that.

As the percentage of a publishers’ sales that are made through retail stores decreases, the cost of covering them increases. This has already become an issue as the big publishers view their overheads and come to the conclusion that they can’t afford to pay ebook royalties greater than 25% of receipts. Surely, some of the cost basis they see driving that necessity are really print-based (creation and distribution), which makes them calculate what’s affordable differently than a more new-fangled publisher that is planning primarily on digital and online distribution.

The publishers who are merging or thinking about merging are not doing so out of immediate desperation. The financial reports we see from trade publishers are not frightening. Top line sales are challenged — there is little or no growth — but margins have been maintained through the seismic marketplace shifts of the past few years and the pace of change is slowing. So it is probably preparing for a world a few years off that drives publishers to merge today. What will that world look like?

The world of publishing we’re going to see five or ten years from now will probably look quite different. Even if store sales only decline 10% a year against the industry total, what is a 60% share today will be about a third after five years have passed and below 20% in ten. Those are sales well worth having, of course, but they’ll be a lot more expensive to get. And if I were predicting rather than just speculating, I’d expect the erosion of retail sales to be a bit faster than that.

My expectation is that freestanding bookstores will be less and less common, and smaller book sections in other retailers (the way they’re in mass merchants today) will proliferate. We already see this in “specialty” retail: stores stock books that fit alongside their other product offerings. But as bookstores get scarcer, it will probably begin to make sense for general book selections — bestsellers, classics, and the cream of popular categories like cooking and current affairs — to be offered by other merchants. Part of the reason that doesn’t happen now is that it is too hard for the retailer not in the book business to do. A representative selection either requires dealing with many publishers or buying from a wholesaler. And the wholesalers are working on tight margins, not allowing them much room to offer expensive services (like inventory management) unless they really cut into the store’s margin.

But you don’t have to have every book — or even every bestseller — to deliver a compelling consumer offering. Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild proved that half a century ago when they competed for the general book club market. They demanded exclusives on the bestsellers, so they tended to split them. And they each had enough to pull a very large audience.

Well, the combination of Random House and Penguin has damn near half the bestsellers too. And Random House, at least, has already developed vendor-management capabilities that they can apply at the store level. So as the bookstores disappear from town after town, a Random Penguin combination (they really ought to call it that!) becomes able to offer any local retailer a selection of books that will look pretty good to the average consumer.

In addition, they’ll find that the combined lists give them a great head start on having enough titles to deliver retailers other vertical selections — cooking, crafts, home improvement — that their VMI skills will also help them serve.

Right now the challenge Amazon is having is that they’re trying to publish with a grip on no more than half the market. That’s great, as far as it goes, because that’s where they have a real margin advantage when they cut the publisher out of the chain. But because there is so much Amazon fear-and-loathing around the rest of the industry, they’re not able to build out beyond their proprietary position. (See the recent frustrations expressed by their author, Tim Ferriss, to appreciate how that’s working out in the market today.)

But if Amazon could reach 75% of the market — that is, if store purchasing declined below 25% of the total, which is in the cards for the next ten years — leverage would be reversed. (I’m eliding the format and proprietary reader device issues around ebooks here, but I’m guessing they’ll mostly go away in the next five or ten years.) Then Amazon wouldn’t want or need distribution to the stores or other online outlets. In fact, chances are they’d see it in their best interests to withhold those titles from other retailers and use them as tools to compel shopping with Amazon.

(This would not be a peculiar selfishness of Amazon if they did it. I remember well the battles my friends at Sterling had when they were first acquired by Barnes & Noble trying to convince their new owners that it was necessary to distribute the books as broadly as possible or they would start finding it impossible to sign new titles. B&N’s instinct was to want what they published available only from their stores, an instinct they acted on with SparkNotes.)

But if I’m right about where Random Penguin might go, they could play this same game. As the cost of running book departments increases as a percentage of sales, as they surely will as sales in stores decline, the mass merchants will diminish their presence. If Random Penguin has half the bestsellers, they will be able to use VMI to build secondary locations to keep their print books available. Those locations will be theirs and theirs alone. Maybe they’ll only be making 10% or 15% of the total sales this way, but those sales will be unavailable to other publishers (unless they go through RP at diminished margins.)

The proprietary distribution will give RP an advantaged position signing up the biggest books. In time, they might even have enough of the biggest books to pursue one of the current active fantasies of Amazon and a bunch of entrepreneurs: creating a value proposition for big authors that will enable a subscription library with headline titles. And that would be another proprietary distribution channel that this next generation of scale might make possible.

The resistance of the bookstores to doing anything that helps Amazon will make it difficult for Amazon the publisher to build a general trade list of bestsellers until a much bigger chunk of the market has moved online. Barnes & Noble, which had a chance to become the one dominant trade publisher if they’d played their Sterling card differently, seems not to be interested in that role. So it will be one or two of the incumbents that will be left standing ten years from now managing the most commercial titles in the marketplace. The odds are very good that one of them will be Random Penguin.

I (usually) resist the temptation to make political observations on the blog, because that’s not what people come here for. But I have to make an exception because I think one of the most important points to be made about the results of November 6 has not been made anywhere else. And it is, ultimately, a non-partisan point.

Among the many reasons that President Obama convincingly defeated Governor Romney was the superior execution of the Obama campaign around data and operations. They were simply better analysts and managers and they executed better than the Romney campaign.

So can we please put to rest the notion that “getting rich” or “running a business” is a proxy for “management skill”? The most frequently-offered argument from Romney was “I’m a successful businessman so therefore I can run things better than this guy who is community-organizer-turned-public-official.” Actually, Governor, you couldn’t. You didn’t.

The last presidents we had with business experience were (working backwards) George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren Harding. There is no historical evidence in there that shows that business success correlates with the ability to run the United States government. Or even, as we’ve just been shown, an effective national campaign.

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Subscription models seem to me to be for ebook niches, not a general offer


Another fledgling ebook retailing venture came through our office this month touting a subscription proposition. I told the entrepeneur “I’m skeptical of the subscription model for ebooks,” and he said, “I know”.

We had a great chat, but I’m still skeptical. When I say that, I mean I’m skeptical that a general offering subscription model can work.

There certainly is a logic to subscriptions, particularly for those who think the book business should learn from other content businesses. Cable TV really started with subscription and then only later moved to pay-per-view, which is more like the ebook sales model (but not exactly). We have Netflix for movies and TV, Audible for audiobooks, and a host of services for music, the most successful of which seems to be Spotify.

I have a Spotify subscription, even though I don’t use it much. Perhaps foolishly, I’m comfortable spending $119.88 a year (which is what $9.99 a month comes out to) to have access to just about any song I might ever want to hear instantly when the urge (or suggestion) to hear it arises. (Spotify very seldom disappoints me by not having the song.) And that’s even though most of my listening needs are satisfied with the 6,000 or so songs I have in my iTunes repository of which the best 1,000 are on my phone.

Spotify was cited by the entrepreneur I met as a motivation for him to start his ebook subscription business. As he correctly pointed out, “sharing a playlist” with a fellow Spotify subscriber enables them to immediately — with no additional cost or friction — “consume” that music. Sharing an iTunes playlist with somebody just leads them to having to make purchases which, quite aside from the money, put time and (a considerable) effort between receiving the playlist and enjoying it.

So, it is posited, this logic should apply to books. With a host of very explainable exceptions, I’m not sure it does, at least not anytime soon.

I’m fresh off a speech in Washington about what the DoJ doesn’t understand about publishing. The answer, if boiled down to a single word, would be “granularity”.

According to the MPAA, North American movie releases for 2007, 2008 and 2009, were 609, 633 and 558 respectively. There are foreign films and perhaps some below-the-radar indie films that must be added to that number to reckon what’s being made available, but it gives you an order of magnitude.

The Big Six publishers average more than 3,500 titles a year each. And there is far more production of titles beyond the Big Six in publishing than there is production of movies beyond the Hollywood studios. It would be very conservative to estimate that there are 100,000 new professionally-produced book titles a year intended for consumers. (Many more are published for professionals or as school or college texts and were you to add in self-published ebooks, which sometimes reach big audiences, they would multiply that number.)

Commercial releases of music would fall in between movies and books in number, but much closer to movies.

That’s the short answer as to why most people share music and movie experiences with far more friends and acquaintances than book experiences. It is also the short answer to why people outside the book business just can’t grasp it; each one of those books is a separate creative and commercial endeavor, down to having its own contract, its own development path and schedule, and its own marketing requirements.

(It also helps explain why many people who use libraries for some of their reading don’t use it for all. No library will have all the books a voracious patron would want to read.)

In the days before Amazon.com and digital books, there were two kinds of subscription services that worked for consumer books.

Book clubs offered price deals and curation (help with selection) but it was the price deals that really attracted members. Before ubiquitous bookstores (which arrived in the 1980s), Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild got the highest-profile books distributed to consumers who would have had a hard time getting to them (as well as those near bookstores who just wanted the convenience of mail delivery.) As bookstores spread, the Clubs found that “niche clubs” (around mysteries, science fiction, or subjects like gardening) were apparently more profitable than the big general interest clubs. (“Apparently” is a highly operative word, but the explanation of that will wait for another day.)

The other subscription concept that worked was the “continuity series”. The market leader there was Time-Life Books. These books were about a particular subject (World War II, say) and they were “packaged” specifically for the series and not available in stores. Continuity relied on the combination of intense subject interest and the “collection” mentality: somebody who started collecting the series didn’t want to have holes in their collection.

Both models were pretty much blown out of the water by online book purchasing which suddenly made every book available for home delivery to everybody everywhere.

In specific niches, subscription models can work very well. The granddaddy of them on the digital side is Safari Books Online, originally conceived and built by O’Reilly in partnership with Pearson. Safari serves a community of programmers and has a huge collection of instructional and reference books which they can use on the job. Most users of these books dip in and out of them, rather than reading them straight through. And they frequently like the idea of checking out what several books might say about a problem they’re tackling.

Safari pioneered the model of dividing the publishers’ share of the subscription fees by metering usage. The more your book is viewed, the more money you get from the pot. And since users of Safari will almost always find the answers they need within the service, leaving your book out means it won’t be found and used. Since at least some of the time Safari usage could lead to a sale of the book itself (even if not very often for most books), that discovery element is lost along with any Safari-generated revenue if the book isn’t included in the database. A publisher should feel pretty confident that they aren’t losing many sales being inside Safari.

(The model that looks like “all you want for a price” to the purchaser and like “pay per use” to the content owner in even purer form than Safari does it is the deal offered by Recorded Books for its digital downloading service for audiobooks to libraries. There are other subscription models in the library space; it is a distraction to the point of this post to get into them which is why they’re not covered here.)

O’Reilly saw at the beginning that their books alone wouldn’t be the strongest subscription offer so they were open to participation by others from the very beginning. Safari is exceptional in at least three ways: they are bigger than one publisher; they are built on a professional user base; and they deliver value primarily through chunks, not end-to-end reads.

But if a publisher is strong in a niche, a subscription service can work for them too: Baen Books (science fiction) and Harlequin (romance) are two niche publishers who have sold subscriptions successfully. (In fact, Harlequin recognizes sub-niches, further segmenting their audience for better subscription targeting.) The Osprey-owned sci-fi house, Angry Robot, offers subscriptions. eBooks by subscription are also part of the model for Dzanc, which does more literary books (fiction and non-fiction; they’re really less niche-y, except for “quality”) and it will be interesting if they can make the “quality” paradigm work the way “romance” and “science fiction” do.

Sourcebooks is a general trade publisher, but they have a robust romance list. They’re trying to establish a club and community called “Discover a New Love” which operates more like the old BOMC: subscribers can choose one of four featured titles each month in addition to getting other benefits from discounts on other books to early looks at some titles.

Subscriptions are offered in the children’s ebook area as well. Disney Digital Books has a monthly subscription service, as does Sesame Street eBooks. In both cases, the model is browser-based delivery rather than downloads.

F+W Media is a publisher that works across many verticals (niches). They had two big head starts. One is simply being vertical. They have audiences that are defined by their interest, which has been the key to making a subscription offer work in the book business. The other is that they were once publishers of magazines and operators of book clubs, so they have experience with direct customer contact and managing those relationships. They also had a lot of names. And F+W is managing subscription offerings for many things other than ebooks.

Most of F+W’s communities have been non-fiction (subject-specific) and they offer subscriptions for content in art, writing, and design. But they are also venturing into the romance market now and their Crimson Romance offer is an “all you can read” model. Baen introduces the wrinkle of releasing a novel in stages to subscribers, like a serial.

And we note in the recent reminder that the TED conferences started doing ebooks (sort of: only within an iOS app) that a subscription model is part of their thinking too. Once again: in a niche. The app that enables them to manage subscriptions is powered by The Atavist, which is another attempt to build a following for a publisher distinguishing itself by its content choices, like TED or Dzanc, rather than around already-established consumer clustering (romance, sci-fi, or a topic like writing or design.)

It is worth noting that there are “all you can eat” subscription offers and ones that are limited but which offer discounts on further purchases. That variation exists in other media too. Spotify is one price for everything; Audible and Netflix meter your use and you can pay more if you consume more.

There’s a pretty strong pattern here to the subscription offers we see.

They’re usually done by publishers. (Safari isn’t a publisher anymore, but it was started by publishers.) That means they’re working with the publishers’ margins (bigger than an aggregator’s margins). Controlling the product flow means they can make good use of intereaction with their audience, learning through data and conversation what they should be doing next. And, most important of all: from a product offer point-of-view, they’re focused.

They’re precisely the opposite of Spotify or Netflix or Audible who all want every single song, movie or TV show, or audiobook they can lay their hands on.

So, what about a more general model for ebooks?

It hasn’t happened yet and I don’t think it will anytime soon, despite the ambitions of my recent visitor. The challenges of putting together the title base for one are daunting and, as I hope this post makes clear, so is providing and demonstrating persuasive value.

I can see only one player that might be able to pull off a more general subscription offering in the near term. (You can guess who that is.) The “whys” of that will be the topic of a future post.

One thing that is pretty certain is that when there are many publishers offering subscriptions in their niches (and someday there will be), they’ll each be powered by a Cloud-based service of one kind or another. None will be asking the IT department to create the software to handle it.

I will admit that I haven’t programmed anything specific about “subscriptions” into the “Book Publishing in the Cloud” program we’re running on July 26, but if that’s what any attendee wants to find out, they’ll have a great opportunity at our “Conversations with an Expert” session to get the answers. Almost all of the speakers will be available during structured chat time, as well as representatives from the great companies that are sponsoring the event. 

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My advice is not always easy to follow, but sometimes it proves right anyway


I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by a journalist who was working on a story about publishers and digital change. He was building something around my “Stay Ahead of the Shift” speech from last year’s Book Expo.

“I was impressed by that speech,” he said. “You were very prescriptive about what publishers should do. So my first question for you is whether anything has changed since that speech?”

“No,” I said.

“Well then, would you say that trade publishers are doing any of the things you suggested? Have they taken your suggestions on board?”

“No,” I said.

“What would they say, then, about the assessment you offered? If I put you and a major trade player on a stage together to discuss the content of that speech, where would they say you went wrong?”

“They wouldn’t,” I said. “They’d probably say I was right and that they’re doing what I suggested. But they’re not.”

We moved along and talked about how the world is indeed, as I said, moving to vertical. We talked about publishers like Hay House and F+W and others that have extensive email lists of book purchasers that they can target directly, and inexpensively, every time they publish a new book. These are advantages and marketing capabilities that the big general publishers don’t have.

After we’d been talking for a while, the journalist had a last question. “Can you suggest any top executives you think I should talk to for this story?”

I suggested one that I thought was interested in pushing out the company point of view. Didn’t work. “I’ve been trying to get to that person for a week and my calls aren’t being returned,” said the journalist.

Then I mentioned another. “Oh, yes,” I was told. “I talk to that person very regularly.”

“A very smart person,” I said. The journalist agreed.

“So take this on board,” I said. “We’re talking about somebody who is a friend of mine. We’re talking about somebody who understands everything I say very well, but who isn’t implementing it. What does that tell you?”

It tells me that big companies are in the business of acquiring rights, creating products called books, and selling them. They have numbers to meet every quarter. They can’t start switching over their businesses from a model based on selling products to a model based on owning communities just because Mike Shatzkin says that’s the future.

I thought back to two pieces of advice I dispensed over a decade ago. In about 1999, executives at Book-of-the-Month Club paid me a modest sum for a quick-and-dirty strategic assessment. My advice anticipated my later thinking, even before I had learned to articulate the concept of “vertical.” What I told them is “book clubs don’t map into the 21st century. Communities of interest do. So you have to take your hunting and fishing book club and turn it into a hunting and fishing community.”

“How would we monetize that?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll have to figure that out.”

So they said “thank you very much” and moved on. They apparently made the (perfectly rational) decision to keep extracting cash from the book clubs until they couldn’t anymore and then sell them, if they could. If you owned a blacksmith shop in 1910, you might not want to invest in developing an auto mechanic’s capabilities just because you could see it coming. You might want to just pull out your blacksmith profits and go into another line of work. Or put the money in a bank.

At about the same time, the owners of the Atlantic Monthly magazine asked me for thoughts about a web strategy. “What are you most known for?” I asked.

“Publishing great writing,” they said.

“And who are your top competitors?” I asked.

“The New Yorker and Harper’s,” they replied.

“Then my advice would be to partner with the two of them and create a web community dedicated to great writing.” That advice also went no further.

Looking back on both of those recommendations, I recognize how hard it would have been to follow them. But imagine there were a Hunting and Fishing community that had been built on the backs of the hundreds of thousands of names BOMC had a decade ago. Think you could sell some red checkered jackets and fishing tackle through it now?

And in this age of diminishing reviewers and proliferating content requiring evaluation for consumers of quality literature, do you think my Atlantic-New Yorker-Harper combo community would have some real power today that could be turned into money? I do.

I see the big publishers developing vertical presences in the few areas where they have enough of a content flow to attempt it: books for kids and teens and the genres, particularly romance and science fiction. And they’re leaving just about all the others to upstarts who are slowly and methodically building their presences in cooking (book publisher Harvard Common Press and web sites like Cookstr and Serious Eats), mind body spirit (Hay House), sustainable living (Chelsea Green), crafts (F+W and C & T, among others) and the list will just continue to get longer.

General trade publishers will soon find themselves handicapped trying to sell anything except the most challenging books: the sure-to-be-big ones that cost a fortune to sign and the fiction, memoirs, hot current topics, and other writing that is the most expensive to promote book by book. And they’re remaining dependent on a very fragile chain of intermediaries.

Just as BOMC pursued a strategy that eschewed converting book clubs to communities in favor of squeezing every penny out of the old model, it is also rational for today’s big publishers to pursue a “last man standing” strategy. It will be a very long time before major authors don’t sell lots of print books and they’re going to need a strong organization to print those books and put them on the shelves that are out there. They need a strong organization. But do they need six?

Aside from “last standing”, the other alternative to my “multi-niche development” suggestion is to convert from a rights-acquiring publisher to a service organization. HarperCollins seems to be at least exploring the development of that alternative.

We have had remarkable stability among big publishers since Bertelsmann acquired Random House in 1999. There are reasons for the owners of every one of today’s players to sustain their present operations for the greater good of the larger organization. But would a 10% reduction in the number of bookstores in the US change their mind? How about a 25% reduction? How many years do you think it will be before we find out?

I’d say no more than five, and it could be two.

I am addressing UK publishers at the Annual General Meeting of the Publishers Association at the end of April. I’m taking another look at the Shift speech to try to re-cast the advice for trade publishers to make it more “followable.” One thing for them is to start thinking about the day when they can sell ebooks globally and, in effect, get distribution in the US market without going through a US publisher. On the one hand, why should they care, since they’re all global companies anyway? On the other hand, we know they do care because the UK publishers have been on a pretty successful crusade to convert Europe from an open market where US and UK editions compete to one that is closed to US entries. I suspect that as ebooks grow to and past a quarter of sales over the next few years, UK publishers will be able to see the virtue in a less rigid territorial regime.

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