Three words of wisdom: standards, rights, & data

The Book Industry Study Group’s annual membership meeting on Friday concluded with a panel discussion among four industry executives who have leadership roles in the group. They are also four of the sharpest minds in publishing and they all had provocative things to say. Recollection of detail is not my strongest suit and I didn’t take any notes, but all of them said things that stuck with me and which struck me as ideas that deserve more attention than they get.

Dominique Raccah, the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, made the now-obvious (but new to me that morning) point that we are going to have to streamline generating metadata in multiple languages to take advantage of emerging global markets.

Maureen McMahon, the CEO of Kaplan, which serves a very targeted audience, recalled that five years ago she was able to track her very discrete list of competitors and closely calculate her market share. But as an information-provider, she now finds competitors can pop up from anywhere.

Ken Michaels, just appointed President of Hachette Book Group USA, reminded us that 70% of the sales are still print. He said that we need to stop talking about digital as if digital is all there is; that just as media and consumer habits are converging so must the approach publishers take to running their business. He stressed building workflows around content, not product, so you can curate and compose once for all formats, and incorporating digital as a way of life, even in publicity and marketing, rather than having any stand-alone digital workflows. In other words, it is time to integrate digital, not treat it as a thing apart.

All great insights, but what I really took to heart was some simple wisdom from Tom Turvey of Google. Turvey is spending a lot of time outside the US these days, as Google Play opens in markets across the globe. He reminds us that we are way ahead of everybody else in digital change. That means that potential markets abroad are only in their earliest stages of development. He sees that the publishers in those markets –and we as well — need to concentrate on three things: standards, rights, and data.

Standards, rights, and data. These are the three elements which can restrain digital growth, or propel it. They’d also serve as a good short summary of BISG’s agenda. Turvey took the opportunity to say that every country needs a BISG, but not every country has one.

Standards, of course, are a community endeavor. It is not for any one publishing player to create standards on their own for everybody else. If you’re powerful enough, like Amazon, it might be in your best interest not to throw yourself wholeheartedly into participation in standards that make it easier for others to compete with you. But, as publishers well know, insufficient standards can cost a lot of money, rendering content for different screens or even subtly different applications of epub or Adobe.

The challenges with rights are, first, having them, and second, making sure a file’s metadata spells them out clearly. One of the the first rules I learned when I came into publishing decades ago was “acquire rights broadly, license rights narrowly”. That is practice which was unambiguously the wisest commercial course until our current and developing age of digital delivery. Now agents (or publishers) having licensed rights “narrowly” can cause books not to be available to customers who would be happy to buy them when they easily could be doing so.

Data is a combination of an industry problem and an individual publisher challenge. The digital age is presenting us all with new metrics if we can gather and use them: from websites and Twitter and Facebook, as well as from publishers’ sales. We are beginning to learn what marketing and social activities move the sales needle and we’re finding it isn’t necessarily the same for different kinds of books. BISG and AAP have joined forces to deliver BookStats, the most rational and accurate book industry sales data we’ve ever had in the US and perhaps the most accurate industry data in the world. Tara Catogge of Readerlink Distribution Services did an eye-opening presentation of what that database can do earlier in the show, but we’re still at the earliest stages of learning how best to use it and we’re as blind as we’ve ever been everywhere else.

Standards, rights, and data. Publishers could benefit by reviewing their practices and progress in all three areas at a senior level on a regular basis. My hunch is that some, including the ones who joined Turvey on that stage, already do.

Two of those BISG panelists, Raccah and Michaels, are among the “innvoators” presenting at our Publishers Launch Conference next Monday, 10:30-6:30, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Dominique will be talking about two new initiatives from Sourcebooks and Ken will be explaining the value of SaaS — software as a service — to modern publishing IT departments, including some tools his team at Hachette has developed and are making available to the industry. Pub Launch Frankfurt will also feature a presentation from Noah Genner, who runs Book Net Canada — their version of BISG — about a survey of Canadian book consumers they’ve just done: more about data.


Perhaps the revolution has reached an evolutionary stage

The dizzying pace at which US consumers were switching from print to digital couldn’t last forever. Based on the numbers being published by the AAP, with a huge assist in interpretation by Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, it seems that the slowdown has become very noticeable in the past 12 months.

Between late 2007 when the Kindle came out and late 2011, ebook sales doubled or more every year. Since September 2011, during which Cader reckoned sales were double the year before, the monthly numbers are showing much lower (and declining) year-on-year growth. The April numbers showed only a 37% increase from the year before.

I’ve been pondering this question about when ebooks uptake would slow down for a long time. In March of 2010, 17 months ago, I wrote that my hunch was that the switchover “won’t start slowing down until ebook sales are 20-25% of what a publisher expects on a new title.” And I guessed that would occur before the presidential election of 2012. That feels reasonably consistent with what appears to have happened.

Cader also cites reports from Penguin and Simon & Schuster to document the slowdown. Penguin says ebook sales growth was about 33% in the first half of 2012. And Lunch reports that Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, told them she expects about 30% growth in ebook sales during 2012. That would almost certainly constitute their (or anybody else’s) fastest-growing sales channel, but it sure isn’t the annual doubling and tripling (or more) we had seen for several years.

A couple of weeks earlier, Cader dissected the BookStats reporting of publisher sales numbers. As longtime readers of this blog know, what I think is the important metric to watch is “store sales versus online sales”, rather than “print versus electronic”. Store sales are all print, but online sales are not all electronic. The reason I think the channel distinction is more important than the format distinction is because scale is far more useful to deal with retail stores than it is to deal with any online account. The reasons are two: inventory and logistics.

BookStats reports that publisher-direct sales to online retailers — this includes both print and digital, but does not include sales that went through the wholesalers — were about 35% of the total of sales to store and online retailers combined. Online is said to have risen about 35% in the past year and brick stores have declined about 12.6%. My rough math says that the combined total of the two was pretty close to equivalent — down about one percent. Since ebook sales are rising and ebooks are generally cheaper than print books, this passes for “flat”.

The other thing to pay attention to is the difference in ebook sales by type of book. Based on anecdotal evidence, I believe that genre and commercial fiction sales might be approaching half ebook already. (BookStats reports that unit sales of all fiction are currently 64% print and 34% digital.) Narrative non-fiction is about half that. Illustrated books of all kinds are slivers of that.

There are many things we don’t know.

We don’t know how much of the sales growth decline in the past year is due to the publishers’ success at driving up ebook prices. To the extent that’s the cause, we might see the pattern change again when (as I expect) the DoJ settlement is approved and the shackles come off Amazon’s pricing policies.

We don’t know how much of the sales growth decline in the past year might be due to the consumer switchover from dedicated ereaders to multi-function devices that offer them other media and games — and email for that matter — to compete with books. To the extent that’s the cause, the slowdown trend might well be extended because it is likely that a lot of people will switch from eink readers to multi-function devices as those devices continue to get cheaper.

We don’t know to what extent store traffic is affected by the continuing shift of bestsellers, particularly in fiction, to digital consumption. In the short run, there is probably a positive impact on the display space and sales opportunities for illustrated books and children’s books. But, in the longer run, how many stores can survive if the bestseller business continues to move away from them?

We don’t know whether mass merchants will continue to see books as worthy of their shelf space. They sell a lot of genre fiction, which is the most challenged by inexpensive independently-published (and not all of those are self-published) ebooks. And they can switch square footage from one thing to another at great speed and with no sentimentality at all.

But, all in all, the slowdown we’ve seen is good news for the legacy publishing establishment and it will be better news if the trend continues. Anything that slows the decline in brick store market share and the rise in Amazon’s buys time for big publishers and competing retailers to adjust their infrastructures and build new business models that are more effective for the future.

Unfortunately for them, the denouement of this round of DoJ activity is about to give things a sharp shove in the other direction.

If understanding new business models and other new ways for publishers to do their business is important to you, our Publishers Launch Frankfurt event on October 8 should be on your calendar. We are featuring a number of Publishing Innovators from around the world: executives who are inventing those new business models that will enable publishers to thrive in our new digitally-influenced publishing environment.

This conference is worth a post of its own, and it will get it very shortly. But the bottom of this post felt like a good place to point that we are going to feature many outstanding industry- leading publishing executives (and not just from the English-speaking world) who are doing things almost nobody else is. Yet.

And we’ve changed our event time from the normal 9 to 5 to 10:30 to 6:30 to allow people to arrive in Frankfurt on that Monday morning and not miss any of what will be one of the most illuminating events we’ve done.


Extending the life of bookstores is critical, but devilishly difficult

I’ll admit that I would have thought a few years ago that by the time we got to the point when more than a third of unit sales for major houses had gone digital — and perhaps more than half for fiction — that the future shape of the book business would be discernible. But, at least according to what I learned from one Big Six house last week, we have reached that level of ebook uptake and despite that, the business still looks very much as it has. It seems impossible to me that it will stay that way.

Here are a few bits of information that came onto my radar last week.

One Big Six executive told me that ebook sales in their shop had reached the mid-30s as a percentage of units sold. That broke down to about 50% of fiction units and 25% of non-fiction.

Nonetheless, that same executive noted a real slowdown in the rate of ebook growth. This is to be expected as the base of sales grows, of course, but it slowed down faster than this house expected. They had seen a 120% increase in ebook units in 2010 and figured they’d see an 80% growth in 2011; it came in at 60%. In short, the rate of increase was cut in half.

These numbers gave this particular executive reason to believe that print demand was begining to stabilize and that it was reasonable to assume that 50% print units might persist into the future, with commensurate new stability for brick-and-mortar stores. I have since been told that a leading executive at another of the Big Six houses shares the same expectation, or hope. Perhaps they all do.

On the other hand…

Another publisher, substantial but not Big Six, has seen much more explosive growth continuing in ebooks and, for that publisher, unit sales for fiction have already gone to well beyond 50% digital.

A paper by the accountants-consultants at Deloitte in the UK, reported in the Guardian, predicts a decline of 40% in all brick-and-mortar stores over the next five years. That’s because books are not the only item for which sales are migrating from brick stores to online. We’ve already learned that books are among the items most susceptible to online purchasing for a myriad of obvious and well-established reasons. We also know that buying public in the US is at least as receptive to online purchasing as the British.

I’ve written time after time after time about the diminishing retail network for books and its potential impact. I have always seen this as existential for big trade houses, whose distinguishing value proposition for authors remains their ability to put books on retail shelves. (There are other things that matter, but I’d argue that all of them put together don’t equal that.) Publishing printed books is a complex endeavor best done by a large organization that can perform its various functions — warehousing, shipping, billing, commissioning the manufacturing, sales representation, and contact with marketing megaphones — at scale.

A proliferation of online marketing channels with real influence could once again challenge the under-resourced (authors working alone or smaller publishers) or otherwise-preoccupied (Amazon) who are trying to substitute for what the big publishers do. So far, the platforms that matter (to the extent they do…more on that below) have been limited in number, Facebook being the most prominent one. (One sales executive said to me yesterday, “Facebook isn’t a platform. It’s a requirement.”) If Tumblr becomes really important and Pinterest really were the next Facebook and, over time,  online influencers become as dispersed as our 20th century media world was, it opens up opportunity for big organizations to add value that smaller ones can’t.

So even if the Big Six optimists are wrong that their business proposition will be preserved by a slowing switch from print to digital (and, with no more knowledge than they have, my intuition against their intuition, I wouldn’t bet a dime that they’re right), perhaps we’re heading for a world where any author in her right mind would want a publisher to cover all the digital marketing bases, with the help of technology and dedicated staff, rather than trying to do it herself.

Nobody’s predicted that yet that I’m aware of, but let me be the first on the block to acknowledge the possibility.

The future of bookstores and the future of publishers if the bookstores diminish much futher in importance should be one of the most important topics on the minds of all stakeholders in the book business. We’re going to try two different ways to explore it at our next Publishers Launch Conference, taking place at BookExpo on June 4. Both of them involve one of the distinguishing features of our events: delivering insightful data about our industry that is not delivered by other industry conferences.

All of the current industry data reporting, including the recent effort called BookStats put together by the AAP, BISG, and Bowker, are unable to isolate sales and inventory in stores by type of book. To plan future publishing programs (and to sign up books this month and next), publishers need to understand with some level of granularity whether it is true that stores are shifting their buying (and selling) from immersive reading to illustrated books and, if so, which illustrated books. Among the reasons that the industry stats fail to capture this properly is that they don’t look beyond the sales publishers make to wholesalers to find out what happened with the books the wholesalers bought.

But the wholesalers know whether the book they just sold went to a brick store, a library, an online store, or an individual. We’ve been fortunate to get Phil Ollila of the Ingram Content Group to examine his company’s records to give us a more detailed and granular understanding of what is really happening in the retail marketplace. Are bookstores really stocking fewer novels and more illustrated books? Is the proportion of sales made online versus in stores changing at different speeds for straight immersive books and illustrated books? Ingram is mining its data to come up with answers to those questions. Ollila will report some findings at our conference.

We will also have a data-rich and sobering presentation from Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. Hildick-Smith and his team have been surveying book consumers on a quarterly basis for nearly a decade. Their work is high-level and expensive and is normally only available to the big companies that can afford to subscribe. But Hildick-Smith sees a crisis ahead for the industry in his data, and he cares enough about our collective future to want to sound an alarm. He’ll be doing that our June 4 event.

And what he sees and documents is the critical role bookstores play in consumer discovery of new books and authors. He demonstrates with data and logic that SEO and social media are totally inadequate substitutes. Hildick-Smith thinks a future without bookstores will be very different than the present. He makes the case that author brands established in the bookstore era will be largely unchallenged when the bookstore ladder gets pulled up and future authors can’t climb it. And he believes that publishers don’t appreciate that all measures, even desperate measures, are called for to preserve the brick store base as long as possible.

When you start trying to figure out how publishers could do that, you appreciate very quickly that you’re tackling a very challenging problem.

Six decades ago, long before there was any bookstore crisis, my father, Leonard Shatzkin, then at Doubleday, recognized that bookstores were the publishers’ lifeblood. He didn’t see the logic in giving bigger discounts to wholesalers than to retailers. After all, wholesalers primarily put their books in warehouses waiting for orders that publishers’ marketing efforts and a book’s inherent appeal create while retailers put them on shelves in front of customers, stimulating demand. His solution, implemented ever-so-briefly, was to eliminate the wholesalers’ discount differential and offer them the same terms as retailers.

Unfortunately, this is a story about which I didn’t capture all the details while Dad was around to give them to me. I know that the wholesalers went ballistic and demanded meetings with Doubleday management (presumably including Dad, who implemented policies like this from the relative safety of the “Research Department”, not from the front lines of the Sales Department.) The policy was reversed and the wholesale discount was restored.

But I can personally attest to the enduring bad feelings this initiative engendered. In 1974, around two decades after the failed experiment, I was working for Dad selling books for Two Continents. As the top sales guy, it was my role to introduce the company to Bookazine, a wholesaler that then occupied a warehouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Bill Epstein was the owner of Bookazine and, when he met me, all of the anger from that Doubleday discount change came to the surface, as if he’d been waiting 20 years to complain about it again.

The day has perhaps come again when publishers will want to consider offering the highest discount incentive for placing a book on a retail store shelf. (The idea exists in the world of commerce: it is called a “retail display allowance”, although the concept would need to be extended to favor all retail display, not just favored positioning.) This would be a devilishly difficult policy to design and implement to avoid alienating the wholesalers the way my Dad did. (There is no way a policy like this would be well-received by Amazon.) But after publishers hear Peter Hildick-Smith at Pub Launch BEA, it is bound to strike some, at least, as an idea well worth considering.