Although it has always seemed sensible for publishers to sell their books (and then ebooks) directly to end users, it has never looked to me like that could be a very big business. In the online environment, your favorite “store” — the one you’re loyal to and perhaps even have an investment in patronizing (which is how I’d characterize Amazon PRIME) — is only a click away. So however you learn about a book (or anything else), it is very easy to switch over to your vendor of choice to make the purchase.
There is a concept called “the fallacy of last click attribution” that is important in digital marketing. You don’t want to assume that the place somebody bought something (the last click) was the place they decided to buy it (attribution). If you’re a marketer, you want to aim your messages where the decision gets made and you need to know if that wasn’t where the purchase was made. You learn quickly that the two are often not the same.
There are a variety of reasons why direct sales are hard for publishers. One is that their best retailer customers — Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, but many others as well — don’t like their turf encroached upon by their suppliers and they have power over their suppliers’ access to customers. They particularly don’t like it if suppliers compete on price.
But it isn’t just publishers who have trouble competing with the online book retailers and ebooks are just as hard as print. On the ebook side, many readers are comfortable with specific platforms — Kindle, Nook, Kobo — and are uncomfortable “side-loading” content into them. And when you get away from the owner of an ecosystem, the complications created by the perceived need for DRM — some ability to either lock up or identify the owner of content that might be “shared” beyond what its license (which is what a purchase of ebooks is) allows — makes things even more complicated.
Because it appears so superficially simple to transact with trusted customers, attempts to enable book and ebook sales by a wide variety of vendors are nearly as old as Amazon itself. In fact, Amazon began life in 1995 leaning almost entirely on Ingram to supply its product and began discounting in earnest when Ingram started to extend the same capability to other retailers through a division called I2S2 (Ingram Internet Support Services) in the late 1990s. The aggressive discounting by Amazon quickly and effectively scared off the terrestrial retailers who might have considered going into online sales.
When one company, a UK-based retailer called The Book Depository, organized itself to fulfill print books efficiently enough to be a potential competitor, Amazon bought them. Nobody else ever really came close. Borders didn’t try, initially turning over its online presence to Amazon. Barnes & Noble partnered with Bertelsmann in the 1990s to create Books Online, which has continued (to this day) as BN.com. But they have not (to date) managed to achieve a synergistic interaction with the stores to give themselves a unique selling proposition. And the Amazon discounting strategy, designed to suck sales away from terrestrial retailers and partly supported by Amazon’s reach well beyond books, was never a comfortable fit for BN. As a result, Amazon has never been threatened as the online bookselling king.
Barnes & Noble dominates physical retail for books; Amazon owns online. One channel is shrinking; the other is growing.
Trying to do retail for print books without a substantial infrastructure is just about impossible, but ebooks are tempting because, at least superficially, those challenges appear to be much smaller. That may have been behind the attempt by three publishers — Penguin (before the Random House merger), Hachette, and Simon & Schuster — to launch Bookish a few years ago. By the time it opened, Bookish was touted as a “recommendation engine”, but its true purpose when it was started was to give its owning publishers a way to reach online consumers in case of an impasse with Amazon. They get points for predicting the impasse, which Hachette famously suffered from during ebook contract negotiations with Amazon in 2014. But the solution wasn’t a solution. Bookish never had the juice to build up a real customer base and probably never could have, regardless of how much its owners would have been willing to invest.
There are currently two noteworthy players in the market enabling any player with a web presence to have an ebookstore selling everybody’s titles. One is Zola Books, which started out two or three years ago promoting itself as a new kind of web bookstore. They were going to let anybody create their own curated collection of books and profit from their curation. And they were going to host unique content from brand name writers that wouldn’t be available anywhere else. It didn’t work, and now Zola, having acquired much of the defunct Bookish’s tech, is trying to be an enabler of online ebookstores for anybody who wants one.
That same idea is the proposition of Hummingbird, an initiative from American West Books, a California-based wholesaler that provides books to leading mass merchants. They have created technology to enable anybody with a web presence to sell ebooks. The company told us that their internal projections suggest that they can capture 3% of the US ebook market in 24 months from their imminent launch. They promise an impressive array of resellers, ranging from major big box retailers (many of which are their customers for books) to major publishers themselves.
There are others in the space, providing white label platforms and other direct sales solutions, including Bookshout, Enthrill, Bluefire, and Impelsys. And there are distributors, etc. who support their clients’ D2C efforts — Firebrand, Donnelly/LibreDigital, Demarque.
Then, yesterday (Tuesday) morning, Ingram announced that they have acquired Aer.io, a technology firm based in San Francisco headed by Ron Martinez. The Ingram-Aer.io combination will probably motivate the owners of Zola and Hummingbird to rethink their strategies. It is motivating me to reconsider whether, indeed, a large number of Net points of purchase for books could change the nature of the marketplace.
Disclosure is appropriate here. Ingram has been a consulting client of ours for many years. In that role, I introduced them to Aerbook, the predecessor to Aer.io, two or three years ago and I knew that Ingram had invested in it. But I didn’t know about the integration the two were working on until literally moments before they announced the merger on Tuesday. It is extremely powerful.
What Martinez and Ingram have built with a simple, elegant set of tools is the ability for anybody — you, me, a bookstore, a charity, a school, an author — to build its own branded and curated content store. You can “stock” it with any items you want from the millions of books and other content items Ingram offers. You can set any prices you want, working with a normal retail margin and paying “by the drink” for the services you need, namely management of the transaction and fulfillment. And while there is certainly “effort” involved in building your selection and merchandising, there are no up-front or recurring charges to discourage anybody from getting into the game.
One of our observations in the past couple of years has been that Amazon’s competitive set is limited because most of their ebook competitors don’t sell print books. It seemed to me that the one chance to restrain their growth — and every publisher and bookseller that is not Amazon would like to do that — was for Google to get serious about promoting and selling print as well as ebooks. But that won’t happen. Google is a digital company and they’re interested in doing all they can with digital media. They don’t want to deal with physical, even — as I suggested — doing it by having Ingram do the heavy lifting.
Whether any publishers or booksellers or other merchants or entities can build a big-and-profitable business selling books using the Aer.io tool remains to be seen. But it would seem that many can build a small-and-not-unprofitable sideline to their current activities and it would be one that would underscore their knowledge, promote their brand, and provide real value to their site visitors and other stakeholders. Thousands of these businesses could be consequential; millions could be game-changing. How many will there be? That’s impossible for me to predict, but the Aer.io proposition is totally scaleable, so the answer depends entirely on how enticing it is for various entities with web traffic and brands to have a bookstore.
And, depending on the uptake here, there will be some strategic conversations taking place around this at Amazon as well. When they have a handful of competitors selling print and ebooks, as they have, price-matching (or price-undercutting) can be an effective, and targeted, strategy. But how do you implement that when there are thousands of competitors, some of which are discounting any particular title and many of which are not? And does the customer care if they’re paying a couple bucks more to buy the book “directly” from their favorite author, particularly if the author offers a hand-signed thank-you note will be sent (separately, of course) to acknowledge every purchase?
How this will play out is something to watch over the next few years but there is at least the potential here for a real change in the game.
We already had John Ingram, Chairman and CEO of the Ingram Content Group slotted as a keynote speaker for Digital Book World 2016 to talk about one of our main themes: “transformation”. More than half of Ingram’s revenues come from businesses they weren’t in 10 years ago. We’ll see how things look as they start to roll out Aer.io, but it would seem likely Aer.io would be an appropriate add to the program as well.
If you haven’t signed up yet for DBW (which runs March 7-9), the Publishers Lunch code gets you the lowest price.