Brian Murray

Publisher margins today may be enviable, but it will be a big challenge to keep them that way


The major publishers have apparently worked themselves into a very strong commercial position at the moment with the transition to ebooks. I say “apparently” because the data that gives the most recent rise to that understanding — a presentation by HarperCollins of the current economics — is somewhat incomplete.

What Michael Cader reported in Publishers Lunch on June 4 — about which agent Brian Defiore commented on the Aardvark blog the same day — is that HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray had laid out the standard revenue and cost structure for hardcovers versus ebooks for shareholders. What it showed very starkly is that:

1. (Even though) revenues (the top line) for ebooks are lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;

2. (And) royalties for ebooks are also lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;

3. (Still) unit margins for publishers net of manufacturing, distribution, returns, and royalty costs are considerably higher for ebooks than for hardcovers.

So the authors working on the contractual rates make less per unit on the ebooks than they do on hardcovers and the publishers make more. The joker in that last sentence is “working on the contractual rates”.

The biggest authors don’t, and that’s how this situation has been allowed to happen.

The savviest agents for the biggest authors don’t negotiate contracts in the same way the rest of the world does. They figure out in concert with the publisher how many copies they think the book should sell (big authors with long track records are somewhat more predictable than the rest of the universe, which is one more reason their books are so desirable to the publishers) and get an advance that is equal to a startlingly high percentage of the revenue that sales level would produce.

The advance is not expected to earn out (and, believe me, with advances calculated this way, they almost never do). That means the royalty rates are irrelevant. So they can have their star authors sign the boilerplate contract, permitting the publisher to say — almost truthfully — that they don’t pay more than 15% of cover price royalty on print or more than 25% of net royalty on ebooks (among other things).

So Murray’s chart is accurate, except that it doesn’t cover the commercial reality — even though it reflects the actual contracts — for all the biggest books.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, the chart being out in the open, there’s an adverse reaction from beyond the agent community to what looks very much like big publishers improving their financial position at the expense of authors. What other reaction could there possibly be? The Authors Guild is upset and blogger-reporter Porter Anderson catches some additional commentary from Defiore.

At the same time, publishers are doing battle on the other side of their business, with retailers looking to increase their margins as well. This is not just about Amazon. They dominate online sales and are indispensable for that reason. But Barnes & Noble is nearly as dominant in terrestrial retail and have apparently been engaged in a dispute with Simon & Schuster for months which has reduced the presence of S&S’s books in their stores. The just-announced financial results for B&N make it very clear that they’d be motivated to be extremely covetous of any additional margin they can squeeze out of their trading partners.

When ebooks started to become commercially important, which we date to the launch of the Amazon Kindle in the fourth quarter of 2007, publishers faced the challenge of reducing overheads required for print publishing as the demand for print declined. Quite aside from what was (and is) the unpredictability of the rate of the change, this is not an easy challenge. The printing you’re ordering may be smaller, but you still need to set type, design a book, and order a printing. The number of copies you’re shipping and processing as returns might be smaller, but most big publishers owned their own warehouses so it wasn’t a simple matter to reduce the cost of that component either.

In fact, it would appear that returns may have declined more than print sales have, and even more drastically as a percentage of overall sales since ebooks don’t get returned at all. All of this has been good for publisher profitability. In fact, seeing the data we see now, one might wonder whether the publishers were being self-destructive when they went through great gyrations (including everything that landed them in the lawsuit Apple just finished for them all alone and which was expensive for them to settle) to preserve print sales at the expense of ebooks. They tried windowing — withholding the ebook from the market for a while — and then, famously since the DoJ involvement, maintaining somewhat higher prices on ebooks at retail.

But, of course, they weren’t being self-destructive. As I’ve written repeatedly, putting books on shelves is the publisher’s primary value proposition; as the need for that declines in importance, so do they. The bigger margins of the current environment will be extremely difficult to maintain. Agents for the big authors will be looking for an even higher percentage of the projected revenue as it shifts to digital. Since advances from publishers for other-than-the-biggest titles are also declining, those next-tier authors will find self-publishing or publishing with smaller houses that pay lower advances but higher ebook royalties an increasingly tempting alternative. Most of all, the biggest retailers will keep pushing for more margin. And most publishers won’t have the stomach for the lengthy fight S&S has undertaken (particularly since there is no evidence, yet, that S&S will prevail in the argument).

The big publishers who are reinvesting their current margins to develop the value proposition that will be important in the future — and that’s “digital marketing at scale” — might still be able to prosper as the transition progresses. But their trading partners on both sides — authors and retailers — will be relentless at chipping away at any “excess” margin they perceive. Michael Cader has pointed out that Amazon, making a margin of less than 1% of sales, has little reason to be sympathetic to publishers complaining about how hard it is to achieve double-digit margins. Barnes & Noble will need more margin from publishers every year to keep stores open in the face of declining sales.

Authors will be tempted to try something other than the old-style deal in direct proportion to two factors: how much the sales move online and how effective they can be at getting the word out on their books on their own digital backs. The first factor is out of the publishers’ control (and difficult to predict); the second means that the most desirable authors below the very top tier will become the hardest to retain.

I offered the advice some time ago that publishers should raise their author royalties as insulation against being hit up for margin by the retailers. At the time, one major publisher CEO said to me that there was merit in the advice I was giving, but it was “pretty hard to make changes like that with the DoJ in your shorts”. So perhaps we’ll see some overt moves to raise that 25% ebook royalty rate sometime soon since the DoJ problem seems to be in the past.

I’ve felt for a long time that what authors (agents) should work toward is a fixed amount-per-copy-sold as an ebook royalty and just get out of the percentages business on ebooks, which, as we know, can have their prices change on a frequent basis. I know that would be resisted by the publishers, but it makes a lot of sense.

But the current state of affairs says pretty emphatically what I’ve felt all along: the incumbent management of the big publishers is damn smart and has managed a very tricky transition extremely effectively. Where they’ve brought things as of today is an impressive feat, even if it will be almost impossible to sustain.

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Further ruminations about the complex notion of scale in publishing


Our May 29 conference is built around the theme of “scale” in our business, which means something different than it did a very short time ago. Usually “using scale” means “employing the competitive advantages of size” but it can also be leveraging efficiency; the key beneficial characteristic of scale is that unit costs decline with increased activity.

In times past in publishing, the advantages of scale included lower printing costs (bigger companies doing more volume get better prices); lower warehousing and systems cost (because operations almost always get cheaper on a unit basis as they get bigger); and more revenue for each unit sold (because bigger publishers with better lists could get retailer and wholesaler customers to buy at slightly lower discounts).

All of these scale advantages were centered around what has been the core capability of a book publisher: to put books in sight and in reach of consumers on retail shelves. For the better part of the past 100 years, the publisher who could do that more effectively than its competitors had a significant advantage in the marketplace.

But with more and more of the business of customers finding and buying books shifting away from stores, those scale advantages are both reversing in reality and diminishing in importance. Publishers who had built great systems, efficient warehouses, and a nonpareil sales network find them managing less and less “throughput.” That means that less of their business is taking place in their scale-advantaged activities, but it also means the price of maintaining them is going up on a unit basis.

That’s why you see the two Big Six publishers who have invested most heavily in their scalable activities — Random House and Hachette — most active in competing with Ingram and Perseus (two companies far more dedicated to providing services) pursuing distribution clients. They can offer the benefits of their scale pricing to clients and, at the same time, preserve those benefits for themselves as the print-to-store segment of their business diminishes.

The shift in the business to online discovery and purchase would, at first glance, seem to have a leveling effect. Scale in reaching customers that used to require big publishing operations are now largely offered by Amazon, Apple, and Google. When you “searched” for a book in stores (whether you knew you were searching for that specific book or not), you might find it there and you might not. And you were ever so much more likely to find it if the publisher had a stack of copies in the front than if they had one spine-out copy in a store section. Those distinctions aren’t nearly as determinant of whether you’ll find a book at Amazon, or have it suggested to you by Google.

So the smartest big companies have focused on where scale can benefit them in the new context. Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, made the point to me over a year ago that his company was advantaged because they were launching books by the dozen into the marketplace every week, and each one gave them an additional opportunity to learn about search optimization, customer reactions, and how various tools from Facebook to Pinterest worked to boost awareness and sales. He was confident that the volume of activity they engaged in provided its own scale advantage.

As former Random House marketing strategist Pete McCarthy will make exceedingly clear in his introductory remarks at our May 29 show (and will amplify considerably at the Marketing show we’ll hold on September 26 just about to be announced), publishers can and should plan and execute all their marketing efforts in a holistic way to keep learning both about the components of the marketplace environment and about individual consumers. And, yes, the bigger companies will have a definite scale advantage in doing that.

But in our increasingly unbundled book business, “scale” — unit costs going down with increased activity — can be applied to niches with precision.

Companies like Hay House and Harvard Common Press and even F+W Media are relatively tiny compared to Random House (even before the Penguin acquisition) or HarperCollins or Hachette, but their focus on specific audiences means they may learn more on a niche-by-niche, or even customer-by-customer, basis than the big guys do.

I keep being amazed at what my longtime clients at Vogue Knitting can do on the back of a relatively small-circulation magazine brand in a niche market, including staging phenomenally successful and profitable live events that will ultimately dwarf the returns from their book publishing efforts (and augment them at the same time). But they can truly apply the scale they have reaching the audience of people who knit and want to know more about it. Nobody can do it as effectively as they can.

(I’ve told this story before. An agent told me several years ago that he had sold a mind-body-spirit title to Random House and that they sold 12,000 copies. He sold the author’s second book to Hay House, a MBS publisher, and they sold 200,000 copies. At that time, I believe Hay House had about one million email addresses of MBS-interested people. They undoubtedly have many more now. That’s people that you can mail to free; scale doesn’t come more starkly presented than that. For MBS scale, Hay House is the 800 pound gorilla.)

What we’re beginning to see repeatedly is that scale can be provided from a position outside publishing. One of our panels on May 29 is of new publishers that work from a base outside the publishing business. Two major daily newspapers (the Chicago Tribune and the Toronto Star), a kids’ animation studio (Frederator), and a business school (Wharton) all have publishing programs. They’re built on their own scale, and they have cost-effectiveness both on the content creation side and the audience-reaching side of the spectrum of publishing activity provided by their existing activities.

Publishers have watched Amazon come into the publishing business employing their scale. They’re now seeing Google do the same thing. Google’s entrance is in a self-created game niche, apparently far less threatening than Amazon’s far-reaching multi-genre plus general publishing approach to signing up titles many publishers might also be competing for. (How long before Apple decides to publish some books?)

These cuts to the commercial publishers’ share of the market are coming from literally thousands of directions. Each is a relative pinprick, but cumulatively they could lead to a lot of bleeding. Will the “scale” that a big publisher can bring to marketing from the experience they have with thousands of titles from across the interest universe provide a proposition that gets them into the game for the biggest commercial-potential books that can be produced by this new myriad of players? If there is truly scalable marketing activity, it should only become more efficient by adding relevant titles to its activity base. That would seem like the modern publishing equivalent of the perpetual motion machine.

I’m not smart enough to know if that’s possible, but I don’t think we’d even be asking the question if bookstores had the share they had five years ago.

A dramatic demonstration of the opportunities that can be provided by scale occurred yesterday, when Amazon announced its new initiative “Kindle Worlds” around fan fiction. Fan fiction has existed in a commercial box; because it depends on using characters invented and owned elsewhere, it couldn’t be sold. But the all time record bestseller “50 Shades of Gray”, liberated by rewriting away from the “Twilight” characters that spawned it, showed the powerful commercial possibilities in the genre.

So Amazon is applying scale to create a whole new commercial enterprise. First, they are licensing the rights to material fans can turn into their own stories, starting with properties from Alloy Entertainment but clearly planning to build out from there. Then Amazon will sell (and own copyright) in the output, using its huge audience as a commercial launching pad and paying royalties to all the stakeholders. Everybody in the game wins: the originators, the fans who create the fiction, the fans who buy and read the fiction, and, of course, Amazon.

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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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Full-service publishers are rethinking what they can offer


At lunch a few months ago, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, expressed dissatisfaction with the term “legacy” to describe the publishers who had been successful since before the digital revolution began. For one thing, he felt that sounded too much like “the past”. “We need to come up with a different term,” was his assessment and he suggested that perhaps “full-service” was more apt.

I find I keep coming back to “full service” as an accurate description of the publisher’s relationship to an author. That’s what the long-established publishers have evolved to be.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that publishing organizations were deliberately created as service organizations for authors. They weren’t. In fact, as we shall see, the service component of a publisher’s DNA was developed in service to other publishers.

My Dad, Leonard Shatzkin, pointed out to me 40 years ago that all trade book publishing companies were started with an “editorial inspiration”: an idea of what they would publish. Sometimes that was a highly personal selection dictated by an individual’s taste, such as by so many of the great company and imprint names: Scribners, Knopf, Farrar and Straus and Giroux, for examples. Random House was begun on the idea of the Modern Library series; Simon & Schuster was started to do crossword puzzle books.

That is: people had the idea that they knew what books would sell and built a company around finding them, developing them, and bringing them to market.

And the development and delivery to the market required building up a repertoire of capabilities that comprised a full-service offering.

The publisher would find a manuscript or the idea for one and then provide everything that was necessary — albeit largely by engaging and coordinating the activities of other contractors or companies — to make the manuscript or idea commercially productive for the author and themselves.

The list of these services describes the publishing value chain. It includes:

select the project (and assume a financial risk, sometimes relieving the author of any);

guide its editorial development (although the work is mostly done by the contracted author or packager);

execute the delivery of the content into transactable and consumable forms (which used to mean “printed books” but now also means as ebooks, apps, or web-viewable content);

put it into the world in a way that it will be found and bought (which used to mean “put it in a catalog widely distributed to opinion-makers or buyers” but now largely means “manage metadata”);

publicize and market it;

build awareness and demand among the people at libraries and bookstores and other distribution channels who can buy it;

process the orders;

manufacture and warehouse the actual books or files or other packaged product;

deliver;

collect;

and, along the way, sell rights to exploit the intellectual property in other forms and markets, including other languages.

It has long been customary for publishers to unbundle the components of their service offering. The most common form of unbundling is through “distribution deals” by which one publisher takes on some of the most scaleable activities on behalf of other smaller ones. It has reached the point where almost every publisher is either a distributor or a distributee. Many are depending on a third party, quite often a competing publisher, for warehousing, shipping, and billing and perhaps sales or even manufacturing. All the big ones and many others, along with a few companies dedicated to distribution, are providing that batch of services. It is not unheard of for one publisher to do both: offering distribution services to a smaller competitor while they are in turn actually being distributed by somebody larger than they.

An assumption which influenced the way things developed was that the key to competitive advantage for a publisher was in the selection and editorial development of books and in their marketing and publicity, which emerged organically from their editorial efforts. All the other functions were necessary, but were not where many editorially-conceived businesses wanted to put their attention or monopolize their own capabilities.

About 15 years ago, working on VISTA’s “Publishing in the 21st Century” program, I learned the concept of “parity functions” in an enterprise. They were defined as things which can’t give you much competitive advantage by doing them well but which can destroy your business if you screw them up. This led to the conclusion that these things were often best laid off on somebody else who specialized in them, leaving the publisher greater ability to focus on the things which truly and meaningfully differentiated them from competitors.

Another driving force here was the way that bigger and smaller publishers look at costs and scale. If you’re very big, it is attractive to handle parity functions as fixed costs: to own your own warehouse, have a salaried sales force, and to invest in having state-of-the-art systems that do exactly what you want them to do. If you’re smaller, you often can’t afford to own these things anyhow and, on a smaller base, fluctuations in sales could suddenly render those fixed costs much too high for commercial success.

It is therefore more attractive to smaller entities to have these costs become variable costs, a percentage of sales or activity, that go up when sales go up but, most importantly, that also go down if sales go down. And the larger entity, by pumping more volume through their fixed-cost capabilities, subsidizes its own overheads and improves the profitability and stability of its business.

One of the things that is challenging the big publishers — the full-service publishers — today is that the unbundling of their, ahem, legacy full-service offering has accelerated. You need scale to cover the buyers and bill and ship to thousands of independent accounts. If you’re mainly focused on the top accounts — which today means Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor for most general trade publishers — you might feel you can do it as well or better yourself with one dedicated person of your own.

And if you’re willing to confine your selling universe to sales that can be made online — print or digital — you can eliminate the need for a huge swath of the full-service offering. Obviously, you give up a lot of potential sales with that strategy. But the percentage of the market that can be reached that way, combined with the redivision of revenue enabled by cutting the publisher out of the chain, has made this a commercially viable option for some authors and a path to discovery for others.

So the consolidation of business in a smaller number of critical accounts as well as the shifting of business increasingly to online sales channels has been a challenge for some time that larger publishers and distributors like Perseus and Ingram have been dealing with.

But now the need for services and the potential for unbundling is moving further up the value chain. The first instances of this have been seen through the stream of publishing efforts coming directly from authors and content-driven businesses like newspapers, magazines, and websites.

To the extent that the new service requirements are for editorial development help and marketing, it gets complicated for the full-service publishers to deal with. The objective of organization design for large publishers for years has been to consolidate the functions that were amenable to scale and to “keep small” the more creative functions. So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.

That means they are not designed to be scaleable and they’re not amenable to getting work from the outside. It’s much less of an imposition for somebody in a corporate business development role to ask a sales rep to pitch a book that had origins outside the house than it is to assign one to an editor in an imprint. The former is routine and the latter is extremely complicated.

But what does this mean? Should publishers have editorial services for rent? Should they try to scale and use technology to handle editiorial functions — certainly proofreading and copy-editing but ultimately, perhaps, developmental editing — as a commodity to assure themselves a competitive advantage on cost base the way they do now for distribution? Should publishers try to scale digital marketing? Should they have teams that can map out and execute publishing programs for major brands?

The way Murray sees it, a major publisher applies a synthesis of market intelligence and skills that can only be delivered by publishing at scale. He believes that monitoring across markets and marketing channels along with sophisticated and integrated analysis of how they interact provide an unmatchable set of services.

The scale challenge for trade publishers to collaborate with what I’m envisioning will be an exploding number of potential partners is to find ways to deliver the value of the synthesized pool of knowledge and experience efficiently to smaller units of creativity and marketing.

There is plenty of evidence that publishers are thinking along these lines. The most obvious recent event suggesting it is Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions. Penguin had shown prior interest in the author services market by creating Book Country, a community and commercial assistance site for genre fiction authors. Penguin suddenly has real scale in the self-publishing market. They have tools nobody else has now to explore where services for the masses provide efficiencies for the professional and how the expertise of the professionals can add value to the long tail.

There are initiatives that stretch the previous constraints of the publisher’s value chain that I know about in other big companies, and undoubtedly a good deal more that I don’t know about. Random House has a bookstore curation capability that they’ve coupled with editorial development in a deal with Politico that could be a prototype. Hachette has developed some software tools for sales and marketing that they’re making available as SaaS to the industry. Macmillan has a division that is developing educational platforms that might become global paths to locked-in student readers. Scholastic has a new platform for kids reading called Storia that involves teachers and parents that they’d hope to make an industry standard. Penguin has a full-time operative in Hollywood forging connections with projects that can spawn licensing deals. Random House has both film and television production initiatives.

These developments are very encouraging. One of the reasons that Amazon has been so successful in our business is that our business is not the only thing they do. One of the elements of genius they have applied ubiquitously is that every capability they build for themselves has additional value if it can be delivered unbundled as well. Publishers were comfortable with that idea for the relatively low-value things that they do long before they ever heard of Amazon. It is a good time to think along the same lines for functions which formerly seemed closer to the core.

Speaking of which, many of publishing’s most creative executives will be speaking as “Publishing Innovators” at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on Monday, October 8, 10:30-6:30, on the grounds of the Book Fair. 

We did a free webinar with a taste of the Frankfurt conference last week and it’s archived and available and worth a listen. Michael Cader and I were joined by Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Marcello Vena of RCS Libri.

Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, Helmut Pesch of Lubbe,  Rebecca Smart of Osprey, Anthony Forbes Watson of Pan Macmillan, Ken Michaels of Hachette, Stephen Page of Faber, and Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (as well as Joyce and Vena) will all be talking about initiatives in their shops that you won’t find (yet) going on much elsewhere. And that’s just part of the program. There is a ton of other useful information — about developments in the Spanish language, the BRIC countries, the strategies of tech giants and how they affect publishing, and much more — that will make this the most useful single jam-packed day of digital change information you’ll have ever experienced. We hope to see you there.

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The ebook marketplace is a long way from settled


When we put on conferences, we sometimes book speakers because of who they are, or who their company is, but we also do our best to make sure the content of their presentation will be useful to our audience. So I had booked Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of the British ebook startup Anobii, to speak at last January’s Digital Book World 2012 some months before the event for two reasons. For one, I had met Matteo at our Pub Launch London conference last June and he impressed me. And, in addition, his social-network-conscious ebook retailing operation has three major houses — Penguin, HarperCollins, and Random House — as investors.

A couple of weeks before DBW 2012, we got on the phone with Matteo to learn what he wanted to talk about. That’s when he told me he’d call for publishers to give up DRM because, as he saw it, their doing so was the only way he could compete for Kindle customers. As a conference organizer and promoter, I was instantly aware that he was handing us a major news break: a retailer partly owned by three Big Six publishers was calling for the end of DRM! There was some gallows humor on the call about how Matteo would bring his CV (curriculum vitae, which the Brits use more freqently than the American “resume”) along to New York.

But, of course, Matteo wouldn’t have been doing something like that without the knowledge of his owners. So it was not a stretch to draw the inference that three major publishers didn’t mind floating a trial balloon, or perhaps what they were thinking was that it would be good if Amazon knew they’d seriously consider this.

His presentation created a stir, as we knew it would.

But Pottermore created an even bigger stir when they demonstrated how to execute on the “no DRM” strategy, including how to position the big retailers in that context. As we all know now, the threat that Pottermore might be able to load Kindles with Potter books (by selling DRM-free; it would be hard if not impossible for an outside vendor to crack Kindle’s proprietary DRM to load “protected” content on it) persuaded Amazon to play ball. They send Potter ebook buyers over to Pottermore’s site to register and pay and then are willing to take the customer back to load a DRMd ebook file on their Kindle. (Meanwhile, Pottermore enables also loading a Nook file, an iBooks file, and even provides a non-DRMd epub file for more general use, all for the same single purchase.)

Back in the early days of ebooks, which was not a hundred years ago but actually about five, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, invested in the company that became LibreDigital (now owned by Donnelley) because he had a vision that publishers should deliver their own ebook files. Murray’s concern at the time was about piracy and file control. Whatever it was, the ebook retailers (mostly Amazon back then) shot the idea down. No way were they going to trust a publisher, any publisher, to provide service at the level their consumers had been taught to expect from them. So the model we’ve lived with until Pottermore has been that each retailer has its own copy of the publishers’ ebooks, and they serve their customers and account to the publishers for what was sold.

Pottermore pointed the way back to Murray’s original vision.

A few weeks later, Macmillan announced that one segment of its company, tor.com, was going DRM-free, although not jumping into the full Pottermore model of serving the content themselves. (One Macmillan executive told me that they’ve been selling the books of anti-DRM crusader Cory Doctorow without protection for years, including through Amazon.)

Fritz Foy, the Macmillan EVP who oversees digital, is speaking about the DRM decision at our Publishers Launch BEA event on June 4.

Last Friday, the next round in this battle was fired. Berlucchi published a post calling on all the big publishers to copy the Pottermore model, and do it now.

How this will play out depends a bit on what happens with the DRM-free experiments now begun at Pottermore and about to start at Macmillan. If sales of their books collapse under the weight of ubiquitous piracy as a result, it would stop this kind of experimentation dead in its tracks.

It would also surprise a lot of people, including me.

If the net destructive impact on sales is too trivial to be measured compared with the DRMd status quo, then we are bound to see this practice spread, and quickly. And then all the biggest publishers could be compelled to return to Murray’s several-years-old vision with Pottermore’s execution template.

The question for the first publisher that wants to try this will be whether the power of a Big Six publisher to compel Amazon to play along is as great as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise. It’s a really scary thing for them to do. After all, Rowling had zero digital revenue to protect and zero responsibility to anybody else for delivering it. All the major publishers have triple digit millions of dollars of Kindle revenue at stake and thousands of authors counting on them to deliver it.

But with Barnes & Noble now funded (by Microsoft) for battle for the next several years and Kobo and Apple committed to the fight as well, there’s a serious question as to whether Amazon would feel as comfortable going forward without one of the Big Six’s ebooks the way they have been willing to work without those from IPG.

In January 2010, John Sargent and Macmillan had a confrontation with Amazon and the retailing giant was forced to back down. The concessions that Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (and he was, incidentally, recruited to that job from his position as Chief Digital Officer at HarperCollins) extracted from them are nothing short of stunning, but understandable if one considers what the impact of a Harry Potter ebook launch without the titles being available through Amazon would have been. (Oh, the headlines that would have generated!!!)

It’s easy for me to say, because I have nothing at stake, but I think Berlucchi is right. The big publishers can make this happen; it would change the game. I have trouble seeing any potential fly in the ointment for them except whatever would be the dangers of DRM-free. And that should be ascertained pretty well in the next few months.

There are still plenty of twists and turns to come in the evolving ebook marketplace.

It is important to remember that DRM isn’t Amazon’s only advantage or even their principal advantage. I’m not an Amazon fanboy (have you noticed?) and I read on an iPhone, but I buy most of my ebooks from the Kindle store because they offer the best shopping experience I’ve found.

However that (the shopping experience) isn’t a permanent advantage. The Kindle format and DRM are, as long as publishers feel DRM is essential.

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What’s the greater fear for publishers? Amazon or piracy?


Pottermore changed the game this morning. Congratulations to Charlie Redmayne, their CEO.

The “aha” moment for me was when somebody on a listserv mentioned they’d bought Kindle editions of the seven Harry Potter books which, it had been announced, were available only from the Pottermore site.

Penny drops. First thought: Hnh? How did that happen?

Then the news came that Amazon was referring people off its site to Pottermore to buy the Kindle editions of Harry Potter ebooks. (It turns out that Barnes & Noble is doing the same.) There they register themselves and then can buy the ebooks.

This is, by far, the biggest concession that has been wrested from Amazon since John Sargent faced them down over the buy buttons on Macmillan print books on that January weekend in 2010 following the Thursday when Sargent flew out to Seattle to tell them Macmillan was going to the agency model.

In January at Digital Book World, in what turned out to be a prescient presentation, Matteo Berlucchi of Anobii (an ebook retailer based in the UK that is partly owned by three major publishers) observed that only by eliminating DRM could he sell to Kindle customers. He pleaded with publishers to do that.

Now Redmayne, who until November was working for HarperCollins, has demonstrated the truth in what Berlucchi said.

Back in about 2007, HarperCollins was instrumental in turning LibreDigital into an ebook delivery platform. At the time, Brian Murray, Harper’s CEO, articulated the vision that the publisher would just serve all the ebooks to customers, with no need to entrust retailers with digital copies. I believe one of the stated motivations was to reduce piracy by reducing the number of points of distribution of files. The idea was shut down pretty quickly because Amazon and other retailers wouldn’t go along. They would have said, and it would have been a reasonable point, that they had to control the service levels to their customers.

Redmayne and Pottermore have now demonstrated that if you will live with the anti-piracy protection of watermarking, rather than insisting on a digital hammerlock through DRM, you can gain extraordinary leverage.

Without DRM, as Berlucchi explained, anybody can sell ebooks that can be read on a Kindle. Once Pottermore decided they could live without DRM, they faced Amazon with a very difficult choice. The ebooks were going to go on Kindle devices whether Amazon wanted them there or not. Either they could ignore them or they could play along. I am sure the “play along” deal includes compensation to Amazon for the sales they refer (as it does B&N and, according to a quote from Redmayne, other distribution relations and affiliations will be enabled going forward.)

In other words, in a refreshing change from recent history, the content owner was able to present Amazon with a “take it or leave it” proposition. They decided to “take it”. They were wise. The game was changing either way.

The $64 million question is how the Big Six executives and strategists are viewing these developments. There is no author in the world with the power of J.K. Rowling to do this; she’s the Beatles. But, how about a big publisher? What would happen if Random House or HarperCollins (or one or more of the other four) told Amazon, “we’re taking off the DRM and we’re going to serve all our ebooks ourselves; you’re welcome to continue to sell our books on a referral basis”?

Could this change the strategy for Bookish going forward?

Obviously, this tactic won’t work if it is done by a publisher without tons of bestsellers and must-have backlist. In fact, it could generate a huge advantage for big publishers, assuming they can pull it off and smaller ones can’t.

I’ve been posing two questions in recent posts. “When does Amazon’s share growth stop?” and “Who’s left standing when it does?”

I put a new one at the top of this post. If publishers can overcome their fear of piracy, they will have, as Matteo Berlucchi proposed and Charlie Redmayne has just demonstrated, an enormous weapon to fight Amazon.

One entity that will definitely be “left standing” is Pottermore. And they’ll have the names of the people that were referred over to them by Amazon.

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The ebook windowing controversy has subtext


It took me a couple of days of pondering this to come to my current understanding of it, but I now think that Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster and David Young of Hachette Book Group, since joined by Brian Murray of HarperCollins, are not really fighting a battle to rescue hardcover books from price perception issues caused by inexpensive ebooks. What this is really about is wresting control of their ebook destinies back from Amazon.

I first — mistakenly — focused on the economics of the decision announced by Reidy and Young through the Wall Street Journal to withhold ebook editions from the market for a few months on major new releases. I was not the only blogger or analyst to see it that way. The purpose stated explicitly by Reidy to the Wall Street Journal was to protect the hardcover sales from being cannibalized by very inexpensive ebooks. This sounded like a very dubious calculation to me; I just couldn’t see very many people saying to themselves, “I’d have bought the ebook right now if it were available right now, particularly for those cheap ebook prices, but I just can’t wait to read this new book, so I’ll pay extra to read it sooner in a format which isn’t the one I prefer.”

But, reflecting on this, I realized: “I know Carolyn and David are smart people. They wouldn’t flub this math!”

So I thought a little harder. The subtext should have been more obvious.

The penny dropped for me when HarperCollins announced a similar policy. That’s three of the Big Six, three of the publishers that deliver all the high-profile big books to the industry. Publishers Lunch reports today that Macmillan has delayed some books and will continue to look at that strategy, that Penguin might do it from time to time but “not systematically” and, so far, no word from Random House. Random House is particularly interesting since their new key executive decision-maker, Madeline McIntosh, just returned to them from Amazon.

We know something else that matters: agents must, for the most part, be supporting this. The three houses that already announced are (like the others) agent-sensitive and in touch with them all the time. And no agent has stood up yet and protested. There’s an easy answer for any that do; no publisher has announced this as a policy covering all their books. “You don’t want a delay on your author, Ms Agent? If it’s what you’d like, we’ll put that ebook out simultaneously.”

In fact, Reidy hinted at this. She said there was one S&S author who asked to not be included in the list of withheld titles. She didn’t say how they handled it, but big houses don’t generally fight with big authors.

If all of the Big Six, or even just those who have announced this delay policy, stick to their guns then the ebook world may have lost a driver of converts from print. It may be that Amazon has, at least temporarily, lost an important sales tool to move Kindle devices. And, regardless of how this plays out from here, the power of the major author brands — through their publishers today and through their agents forever — to influence the course of development of the ebook market has been so clearly established that I (and other analysts as well) are not likely to miss the point again anytime soon.

So this is really about the agents and publishers trying to take control of ebook pricing, and value perception, back from Amazon. Some further evidence of that comes from the reaction of Len Riggio, Chairman of Amazon competitor Barnes & Noble (vendors of Kindle competitor Nook) who is reported in the Journal piece to be quite comfortable with this tactic, which the Journal characterizes as “in keeping with the long-held practice of issuing paperback editions after the initial hardcover.”

If the other biggest bookseller, which also has a dedicated ereader and an aggressive attitude toward consumer pricing, seems okay with this idea, it strengthens my belief that it is about controlling Amazon, not about controlling ebook pricing. The desirability of restraining Amazon is certainly something the big publishers and Barnes & Noble can agree on.

If the big houses can do this, they can do much more than this. They can sell ebooks direct off their own web sites. (That’s not doable for Kindle at the moment, but they’re eschewing Kindle sales for a time with this strategy anyway.) They can put ebooks into some channels (let’s say ScrollMotion, or the new Baker & Taylor Blio platform) and not others. They can’t tell a retailer what to charge for what they sell them (until somebody figures out how Apple and Bose manage to enforce price maintenance, apparently legally, but without the added complication of a wholesale-supply network), but they can deny a retailer whose policies about anything they don’t like direct access to their content.

How will Amazon respond to this? That is the big question. Their first reaction is to cut the price of the Sarah Palin book, which had been withheld, from their $9.99 point to $7.99. That’s not a conciliatory gesture, but it is a costly one!

Therein lies the irony that is scaring the hell out of the publishers. Amazon pays (approximately, I am not privy to the actual deals) half of the publisher’s suggested retail for these ebooks and then is selling the $9.99 or cheaper ones at a loss on every unit. From Amazon’s perspective, that makes complete sense. They build market share for the Kindle and they build a lot of customer loyalty. And they could even be doing this and still be making a positive margin contribution across all the content they sell for Kindle, even with the losses on the biggest books selling the most units.

So the publishers (and authors) actually benefit from Amazon’s policy; they sell more units and have more margin to share between them on each than they do on the print book.

But publishers don’t trust Amazon to keep things that way. From their perspective, Amazon is building a consumer expectation of an under-$10 price point while they are building up their audience of captive Kindle consumers. How long can it be, publishers figure, before Amazon says “sorry, now you have to sell me these for under ten dollars”?

The most-frequently ridiculed quote in the Journal article from Reidy points to that irony. The Journal quotes her saying, “with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.” Taken literally, this remark leads to the ridicule that she’s shafting a market where sales are booming. But the subtext is that if publishers can slow down the growth of the Kindle installed base, it will give time for other technologies to catch up and create a more diverse marketplace, which is better for publishers.

There are two important aspects of this that will play out later. One is that what the publishers can do to Amazon today, the authors can do to the publishers tomorrow. If the publishers could sell the ebooks of big books successfully from their sites, then the big authors could also sell them directly without a publisher. The other is that this is a “last gasp” of a “static product” publishing economy. Big moneymakers ten years from now won’t often come from just selling the same content over and over again, but will more often come from content that triggers a more extended interaction. The most future-oriented thinkers are already past this battle, although there’s still a lot of fighting left to be done.

Does the war escalate from here? Do the publishers take their displeasure at Kindle pricing policies and Amazon’s apparent determination to promulgate cheap books to the next level, putting ebooks out in other formats and not Kindle?

And does Amazon, which has shown its willingness in the past to suppress the sale of print books, using its power to control the “buy” button”  to retaliate against policies it doesn’t like, fight back even harder than the Palin pricing decision indicates?

And if Amazon does fight back, do the publishers who aren’t executing this policy (Penguin is tentative and Random House is silent) benefit at the expense of those who are creating this window?

Will authors and agents (and let’s recall that a dozen agents were guests of Amazon out in Seattle a couple of weeks ago; one wonders that have been in any way a prelude to all of this) support the publishers in this policy which, after all, is costing both publishers and authors sales in the short run?

It is hard to imagine this battle ending peacefully anytime soon.

I am so glad that we have some panels at Digital Book World with agents on them and two panels on ebooks — one on pricing and one on windowing — that have both agents and publishers on them. This is one of those conversations about publishing’s future that makes no sense if you don’t include agents in the conversation and DBW is the first major conference on digital change in publishing to do that.

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Fleshing out The Times’s ebook story of May 17


I love and value The New York Times. But I have to admit that every time they write about something I know a lot about, it makes me wonder whether they’re complete and accurate when they write about the things I don’t know a lot about.

There’s nothing wildly inaccurate in Motoko Rich’s “Week in Review” article of May 17 headlined “Steal This Book (for $9.99)”, but there sure is a lot left out. And more that is misinterpreted.

We start out with an eye-catching but pretty phony premise: that author David Baldacci took it on the chin from his reading public because Amazon briefly priced his new $27.99 list hardcover for $15 instead of $9.99. In sadly typical fashion, a few posts from protesting readers become an undocumented “hundreds more” who have joined an “informal boycott” of “digital books priced at more than $9.99.”

Most customers for most products understand that the retailer sets the price they pay. For those who think they know more about the publishing business and think beyond the retailer, they would know the publisher sets the suggested retail price (which is one reason it is to the bookseller’s advantage that publishers have traditionally printed that price on the book itself so the publisher can take some of the blame.) I won’t say there is nobody in the world that wouldn’t blame Baldacci (or any author) for his book’s price, but that would be an ignorant and relatively rare reaction that shouldn’t be suggested as a widespread fact in any story’s lead, particularly not in The Times.

Rich does a superficial analysis of the economics. She is accurate in saying that Amazon is taking a per-unit loss on many titles in the Kindle store because doing so a)  helps them sell more devices and b) helps them “lock in” their Kindle audience. And she accurately reports the publisher’s fear — and the common-sense likelihood — that Amazon will, at some point, insist that publishers bring the prices they charge Amazon into line with what Amazon is charging the consumer. The choice for publishers then would be painful: either give up a growing army of Kindle owners as customers for a book or lower prices to a point that would make ebook margins a fraction of the print book margins they are replacing.

From that point on, we need to add facts and nuance that the article didn’t cover, and we have to discourage one pretty peculiar suggestion that is floated as though serious from a professor of economics.

What the article misses is that, because of the iPhone and App Store — and similar environments that will soon surround the Google Android phones and Blackberries, as well as just about all smart phones from just about all carriers — Amazon has already had to adjust its strategy in ways that will wean people off of their devices! A month or two ago, Amazon distributed a Kindle reader for the iPhone. That meant that Kindle owners could immediately access their entire Kindle library through their iPhone as well as their Kindle. There are two serious consequences of that action:

1. It exposes people who had formed the Kindle habit to reading on a different device, the iPhone. And, if they get an iPhone reading habit, then Kindle is no longer the only game in town. There are at least three other formats (Stanza, Scrollmotion, and eReader) that work just fine on the iPhone and we can be sure there will be more, just as we can be sure that what works on the iPhone will soon have to work on most, if not all, other smart phones.

2. It “unlocks” the content from being chained to a single device. That means that one “copy” of an electronic book can now be read by two people simultaneously: one on a Kindle and one on an iPhone. 

How does this work in practice? Here’s one man’s true story. I bought a Kindle in December 2007. I read on it almost exclusively until Kindle released their iPhone app. Then I started reading on the iPhone because I was reading the same book on two devices. That was in February. Last week I gave my Kindle to my wife and I am reading on the iPhone exclusively. But I’m not reading Kindle exclusively anymore. I have four books open in the four different readers I referred to above. And my wife is working her way through many of the 40 or 50 books I had purchased on the Kindle for myself over the past year. And when she buys a book (I just introduced her, ironically, to David Baldacci), I can read it too.

So this article misses the importance of the iPhone, and its strategic importance particularly in relation to Amazon and Kindle.

The second big thing the article misses is the sheer complexity of the ebook supply chain. There is this proliferation of formats and points of distribution. There is the fact, that Rich mentioned, that Barnes & Noble has bought Fictionwise (a big ebook retailer) and therefore now owns eReader, Fictionwise’s ebook platform. B&N has been the Sleeping Giant of the ebook space: the biggest brick-and-mortar book retailer, probably still the biggest player in the consumer book business, but not a participant in ebooks. The purchases they made were mentioned, but the strategic implications were not. B&N is rumored to be launching their own reader this Fall. Whether or not they do that, they are certainly going to be doing something to compete in the ebook space. That’s potentially a signficant counterweight to Amazon, but it isn’t mentioned in this article.

And if the looming problem for publishers with ebooks is their margins (and I think we can agree on that), then why not mention the ultimate solutions: publishers selling digital downloads directly to consumers and, at the same time, reducing the discounts off retail (the margins) offered to intermediaries? Rich does a nice job of enumerating how the publishers’ cost structure changes with ebooks; she neglects to mention that the costs for retailers evaporate as well when they don’t have to invest in inventory or handle physical goods (and handle many physical goods twice — purchase and return — without any revenue to show for it!)

The proliferation of ereading delivery options is not only not spelled out in this piece, its absence is magnified in importance by the article’s close. Some anecdotal evidence is introduced to suggest that lower prices might increase book purchases. Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, is quoted as saying “if the overall market is bigger, then we should be O.K.”

Then Rich concludes with the punch line that sales might rise not just because of lower prices but also because of the ease of purchase. So we conclude with a former book editor who, after buying the first of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series and finishing it at 1 am, bought “the next installment on her Kindle from her bedroom”. Well, here’s my conclusion. She could have done the same thing from many different online locations and in many different formats using her phone. I think the Times should tell you that.

Oh, yes, the professor. Professor Fiona Scott Morton of Yale did entertain a market coming from Apple, based on the new Kindle-sized tablet they are reputed to be about to introduce. Morton says: “then the book publisher of Obama’s next book can say, ‘O.K., which of you is going to offer us the best deal?'”

Uh, probably not. That’s not how publishing works. Publishers don’t put their books up for bid between Barnes & Noble and Borders, and they won’t between Amazon and Apple, either. But what is true is that B&N and Borders are aware of their “market share” on major books, and neither wants to be without a book the other is successfully selling. That, ultimately, is the publishers’ protection against pressure from Amazon. Kindle got where it is largely by offering the best selection of any ereading platform. It is in the retailer’s DNA to try to get some exclusive product, but it is in the publisher’s DNA to put everything they have in front of the consumer in every way they can.

May 28 at 11 am: “Stay Ahead of the Shift”, at the Javits Center. A 20-years out view provides a context for viewing the changes we are likely to see along the way, and what publishers should do about it. 

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