Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player

Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same. If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business. Verticalization may work, as it has seemed to for Allromanceebooks but just being “indie-curated” wasn’t enough for Books on Board, a pretty longtime player that expired last year. (So far, Diesel, a comparable indie, is hanging in there.)

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

Apple opened their ebook store because they thought they had a suitable device for book consumption (the iPad), but they also had experience with selling content before (iTunes). They also see potential for iPads in the school and university markets, so they have developed technology to enable more complex books — the kind that haven’t been successful commercially yet — to be developed for their platform. Establishing their devices and the iOS ecosystem in the education market would be a big win for them.

Google recognized over a decade ago that books, being repositories of information that contained the best response to many searches, were a world they wanted to be in. With their growing position in devices — the Nexus 7 phone and Chromebook computers — and as the developers of the Android ecosystem that competes with iOS in the app market, there are many ways that being in the ebook business complements other endeavors, including, perhaps, competing with Apple and iOS in the schools.

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

Of course, ebooks definitely complement Barnes & Noble’s core business. You have a pretty obvious deficiency if you run a bookstore and don’t sell ebooks, so everybody manages to do it somehow or other. Among the mistakes Borders is accused of having made before they disappeared was turning their ebook business over to Kobo. Doubts about the future of Waterstones in the UK include whether it was wise to turn their ebook business over to Amazon. If Barnes & Noble didn’t have Nook, they’d have to make a deal with whoever did have Nook, or with somebody else.

I’m sure Apple or Kobo or Google would be just delighted to have their ebooks integrated into Barnes & Noble’s suite of offerings, and probably Amazon would too, although they would almost certainly never be asked. All of them have shown interest in affiliating with indie stores, with Google having gone in and out, Kobo now trying hard with them, and, even Amazon, which can’t penetrate indies effectively with their own published books now offering them an affiliate program to sell Kindle ebooks called Amazon Source. But surely all of them would jump at the chance to expand their distribution to Barnes & Noble customers.

It is likely that B&N believes that the Nook business can only be truly successful if they keep investing in improved devices and create a global presence. That may be true, but it also might be that Nook can be a useful adjunct to their store business without continually adding devices or creating a presence outside the US where there are no B&N stores. More and more people are comfortable reading on multi-function devices through apps. Maybe B&N could profitably hold on to a core Nook audience by emphasizing synergies with the stores more (bundling print and ebooks, like Amazon does with its Matchbook initiative and as has been tried on a smaller scale by some publishers, would be one such way) and not worrying so much about making Nook competitive with the other ebook retailers as a stand-alone business.

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.) Kobo has made it a pillar of their strategy to find brick-and-mortar partners all over the world.

On a global basis outside the English-language world, the ebook business is still in its infancy. But it is hard to see how any player without a strong English-language presence could develop the scale to compete with those who have it. Every nation and language will have local bookstore players who have “first claim” on the book-readers in their locality. Some might harbor ambitions to also own their local ebook business, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks cannibalize bookstore shelf space. But the cost in cash and time of doing it, combined with the competitive advantage of having English-language books in the offering no matter what language your target market reads, will make a build-it-yourself strategy increasingly unattractive. So it would seem that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo are positioned to grow organically and partner ubiquitously. And it will require some seriously disruptive event, like Walmart buying Barnes & Noble, to break the hold that quartet will have on the global ebook market over the next decade.

A potential disruptive development which this piece ignores is the possibility that ebooks become largely a subscription business over the next decade. I have two overarching thoughts on that.

One is that the book-by-book purchasing habit is sufficiently ingrained that it will not be changed drastically around ebooks in the next ten years. I have no idea what percentage of the ebook market is now subscription, but I think it is safe to say “far less than 1%”. So my instinct is that it would take wild success for it to get to as much as 10% in the next ten years.

The other thing to remember is that any ebook retailer can always develop a subscription offering. Amazon effectively started already that with Kindle Owners Lending Library. You can be sure that if Oyster or 24Symbols starts gathering a substantial share of the market, all of the Big Four as we see them here will find a way to compete for that segment. (It is considerably harder to go the other way around; it is much less likely that Oyster or 24Symbols will open regular stores.)

So whether subscription grows faster or not, the giants of ebook retailing will remain the same.


How much time and effort should established publishers be spending on startups?

We are now in a period replete with startups that want to be the disruption in publishing. We see a lot of them in our office. Part of our business involves helping startups find relevance and contacts within the established publishing community.

There are three areas in particular which the startups seem to think the publishing business needs their help with, if the frequency with which we hear about propositions in these spaces is any guide. They can overlap.

1. eBookstore alternatives to the established players.

2. Enabling social connections among readers of books.

3. Subscription services that will deliver books for a fixed monthly cost.

I wrote about the subscription services a while ago when one of the fledglings came into our office. They were well advanced in their planning and tech development. I asked them if they had spoken to any literary agents. They said “no”.

Presumably they have done so since then and have found out that big shot literary agents are very skeptical about the value of subscription propositions for big shot authors. In fact, they are (in their own enlightened self-interest) downright hostile to the idea. That makes smart trade publishers, who are highly dependent on literary agents, also hostile to the idea.

When it comes to selling subscriptions to a general audience, Amazon (and probably only Amazon) can do it without the biggest books. Maybe down the road Penguin Random House can do it because they’ll be the publishers of more than half the bestsellers. O’Reilly, with Safari, has demonstrated that subscription can work in niches, and we’d expect to see more of that in the future. But there’s a damn good reason why no Safari service has cropped up for general reading; it’s a bad commercial model for the copyright holders of the biggest commercial books.

Attention: entrepreneurs with this idea. The reason it isn’t happening has nothing to do with failures of imagination or tech competence by the legacy players.

The “social reading” play also attracts entrepreneurs and, apparently, some funding. I think there are two generic failures of understanding that drive this interest. One is the sheer granularity of the book business. The vast number of titles there is to choose from means that the percentage of overlapping titles in the reading lists of unconnected people is going to be very low. Therefore the value of shared notes and annotations or “in-book” conversations is low as well.

Enabling this kind of shared reading experience can make sense to a class of students or an organized reading group. But it takes a really vast community to deliver value in shared book conversations to many people. And let’s remember that both Amazon and Kobo offer social tools already. If they become important, they’ll build out more. The fact that they haven’t to date is not a reflection of their inadequacy; it is a reflection of how much the people selling lots of ebooks and observing real customer behavior think these capabilities matter.

Several years ago, when they were starting up, I was consulting to Copia, which built social tools right into the reading software as their distinctive feature from the beginning. As a skeptic about the value of social reading (we’re all prisoners of our own experience and preferences, and I have precious little personal interest in “sharing” my reading experiences), I suggested that the key for them was to work in niches: to recruit users who would have common interests and therefore better-than-average chances of being interested in the same books. I think they’ve moved in that direction, but the suggestion was counterintuitive to them at the time. How do you get to be bigger by targeting a smaller audience?

Many of the social plays require the simplicity of DRM-free files to make their proposition work. That just makes it harder for them to get commercial titles into their ecosystem. Or impossible.

Copia is also a competitor in the ebookstore category. There are a lot of them, despite the fact that there are market leaders with advantages it is hard to see how to overcome. The global market leaders are Amazon and Apple. The global runners-up are Google and Kobo. All four of these companies have extremely deep pockets and all except Kobo have other ways — besides selling ebooks — to amortize their investment in audiences. In the US, B&N has managed to make Nook a strong competitor, but it is still very much an open question whether they can do the same internationally without the store footprint they have here and without the funding capabilities of their competitors.

Yet, others, including Copia, keep trying. Baker & Taylor has Blio, which looked early on like a player for illustrated ebooks. Two problems: the flexible tool set they originally promised failed to materialize in the manner they first projected. And the sales of illustrated ebooks are not very good anyway. Joe Regal’s Zola Books has been trying to gain traction, with a variety of propositions including decentralized curation and exclusive content.

Three big US publishers have launched Bookish, which is presumably more a discovery mechanism than a bookstore, but which will have to attract traffic to be of much use as either.

And then there’s Inkling, which has developed tools to make complex ebooks (they seem, quite sensibly, to be more focused on school and college textbooks than on illustrated trade books) and is pairing that with a “store” which would appear by the deals they offer to be an important monetization element in their planning.

With whatever are the limitations of my understanding or imagination, I can’t see success in the cards for any of these adventures in retailing, social, or subscription (Inkling’s product-building tools are different and could have longterm value.)

All of this wraps into a larger question: how much time, money, and bandwidth should commercial publishers be spending on startups?

That subject is of great interest to the investment community, which has been frustrated by what they see as publishers’ lack of engagement with startups or interest in disruptive technologies. One angel investor we know tells us that a need to work with publishers is a real deterrent to raising money from technology investors.

But does that mean the publishers are wrong not to be embracing startups more than they do?

Javier Celaya, a Spain-based consultant to publishers on digital change, recently conducted a survey about this subject. What the detail of Celaya’s investigation seems to show is that investment in startups takes place in the educational sphere, but not in trade. That would make sense. After all, trade publishers deliver books to be consumed by a wide variety of people for an equally dispersed set of motivations. But in education, the “book” needs to fit into an ecosystem, a platform. Educational publishers recognize the possibility of controlling the platform, if they have the right tools to offer. That makes it sensible for Pearson and Cengage and McGraw-Hill and Macmillan to make investments in technologies that might give them that platform advantage.

(We’ve observed that “platforms” aside from those of the big retailers are becoming important in the juvie publishing world.)

I had an exchange with Javier Celaya about his survey after he posted it. To my skepticism that investing in startups made sense for trade publishers, Celaya pointed out that an investment in Goodreads would have been much more fruitful than the massive effort and investment three big publishers made to start Bookish.

That’s true. It is also true that no publisher that missed finding Goodreads in the first year or two or three of its existence would have been much handicapped in making good use of it whenever they did discover it. And it is not clear that owning a chunk of it would give a publisher any great advantages in using it over what they can achieve anyway. It is also not yet clear how successful Goodreads will be monetarily (although it has clearly managed to recruit an audience large enough to be valuable as a marketing engine).

If I were making policy for a publishing house, I would discourage spending any time with a social or subscription proposition that didn’t clearly have a “niche” strategy. And I’d allow the investment of only the minimum of effort in a fledgling ebookstore. Publishers do need to be able to provide their metadata and put titles up for sale easily (Ingram or others can help with that if they don’t want to serve each little ebook retailer themselves) and they should do that. But the odds of any new ebook retailer making much of a dent in the market are so long that conversations about it are most likely to just be a waste of time.

Of course, I’d also have a list of “tech we’re looking for”: ways to streamline metadata enhancement and improve creation workflows would probably make the list. The startups who came with a promise to solve a previously-identified need would certainly be welcome and experimentation might well be called for. But not investment.


Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off

When Larry Kirshbaum, the longtime head of TimeWarner Publishing (purchased right after he left in 2007 by Hachette and now the company called Hachette Book Group USA) joined Amazon many people thought — I among them — that Amazon was about to become a threat to take big titles away from the major publishers and, by doing so, also put pressure on competing retailers who would either have to buy from Amazon or do without major books.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal spells out just how futile have been Amazon’s efforts so far to upend the Big Six. Their two biggest headline acquisitions — a celebrity bio from actress Penny Marshall and the latest from bestselling non-fiction writer Tim Ferriss — are achieving paltry sales outside Amazon as measured by BookScan.

Michael Cader does some deeper digging to suggest that the high-profile books are not the place to be looking for the successes in Amazon’s publishing. They’re publishing lots of genre fiction and buying up some backlists.

Yet, I can’t believe that the high-profile output from the New York office meets Amazon’s original expectations or Kirshbaum’s. If they miscalculated the impact they could make, maybe it was for the same reason I did. An abrupt slowdown in ebook switchover took hold at about the same moment the Kirshbaum era at Amazon began. Big publishers are reporting that ebook sales are now approaching 30% of their revenue, which is about a 50% increase from what they said last year. That follows several years when ebook uptake increased by 100% or more.

(It is important to note here that the reported figures are a percentage of all revenue. Many titles are not “ebookable”: they’re illustrated books or little kids’ books and, if they have ebook equivalents at all, they don’t sell nearly that percentage. So the digital sales of immersive reading would constitute a somewhat higher percentage than that.)

Amazon as a publisher has advantages and disadvantages against more traditional competitors. They have the advantages of direct customer contact, which pay off in two ways. They can send you an email pitching a book as the logical next one to the one you just read; general publishers can’t do that. And, as the publisher, they have more margin to either pay the author more or charge the customer less, which, either way, increases an author’s revenue through online channels.

But their disadvantages are also significant. For most books, and particularly non-fiction (as both of which the high-profile releases the Wall Street Journal wrote about are), more than half of the sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. Despite their attempt to secure that exposure by a licensing deal with Houghton Harcourt, the resistance to Amazon from Barnes & Noble and many independent stores and mass merchants has curtailed that distribution.

Apparently Amazon led at least some people to believe with their success on the recent Barry Eisler book that they could sell more copies through their own channels than big publishers could through the entire network. The claim that they had outsold all his previous NY Times bestsellers was made to literary agents in a letter that also cited other great successes, all with genre fiction. Without questioning anybody’s numbers, I was skeptical about the significance of the relative Eisler sales because, it seemed to me, whatever they could do for Eisler (whom they published) they could do for any other book they wanted to, whether they published it or not. So it seems illogical to me that they would somehow magically sell more than the whole trade combined on a book because they were publishing it.  It seems apparent that Amazon isn’t succeeding at persuading agents that the Eisler case, even if it is as portrayed, is replicable.

I saw reports of bitter comments from Tim Ferriss, complaining about Barnes & Noble’s apparently-effective boycott of their competitor’s publishing program. Maybe he would be doing that even if Amazon is selling more than his conventional publishers did before. But I doubt it.

This is not a final answer. Amazon’s share of the trade market — ebooks and online print combined — is still growing and shows no sign of abating. Most publishers would still report that Amazon is their fastest-growing account.

But shelf space erosion — a metric with no reliable index anywhere — seems to have slowed down. That means that, at the moment, we have a more stable book trade than we’ve had for at least five years. It is smaller, but it is more stable. In the US at least, our market of three big ebook players (Amazon, B&N, Apple) and two sturdy and persistent upstarts (Kobo and Google) is still welcoming some new entrants. Zola eBooks, promising some interesting merchandising innovations, and Bookish — the repeatedly postponed effort from three major publishers — are expected to join the fray soon. Sony and Copia and Blio are still trying to gain traction, but they’re also still here.

Amazon definitely has the most advantages. Their Kindle ecosystem is still the best-functioning, deepest in title selection, and benefits in numerous ways from having more readers and selling more ebooks (and books, for that matter) than anybody else. The growth in their genre title base that Cader points out increases their market share of dedicated genre readers, who read other things too. They have the most self-published titles and the best ecosystem for self-published authors to make money. And the big title growth enables them to build subscription or subscription-like capabilities like KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) which do take customers out of the game for everybody else.

As their share of the market grows — as long as it continues to grow — their argument to authors to cast their lot with them gets stronger.

But, for now, it would seem that B&N definitely did the right thing for their own good by boycotting Amazon’s titles. And, for now, it would seem that most of the authors Amazon will get for their general list will be those who are annoyed at the publishing establishment like Konrath and Eisler or curious about working with a tech-oriented publisher like Ferriss.

Authors who want bookstore exposure or to maximize their total sales across the US bookselling universe will remain hard to persuade for the forseeable future. But probably a little less so with each passing day.

I note with sadness the passing of Senator George McGovern. I am proud to have worked on all three of his presidential campaigns: 1968 at the Democratic National Convention working for Pierre Salinger, two years on the 1972 campaign, and a weekend in New Hampshire trying to light a fire in 1984.

What motivated us to join Senator McGovern was primarily his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his personal and political appeal went far beyond that. He was extraordinarily decent and straightforward. In my stretch of two years working for him in the early 70s, it was remarkable how consistently he took issue positions we young idealists could be proud of. A poorly-vetted choice for vice-president will always be part of the explanation for why he was crushed, but my friend Professor Wade — one of McGovern’s top strategists — told me years ago that it was the assassination attempt that crippled George Wallace that actually was responsible for the defeat. 

Nixon had won the 1968 election with a little over 40% of the vote. Wallace had taken a share in the high teens. The McGovern planning from the beginning assumed a similar race in 1972. When Wallace was eliminated by the assassination attempt, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” made him the heir to the Wallace vote and a landslide victory.

In the end, of course, it was Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who went to jail and his administration that ended in disgrace. McGovern was always gracious and never bitterBut, as a country, we’ve never spent enough time contemplating how different things could have been if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot in 1968 or if McGovern had won in 1972.


Competing with Amazon is not an easy thing to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it being right doesn’t make it so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kobo’s new deals propel them into the top tier of global ebook competitors

The week I spend each year at the Frankfurt Book Fair is always the most stimulating week of my professional year. The concentration of the best thinkers and most powerful people in publishing always seems to lead me to a new burst of understanding about our global publishing world, particularly in these times of rapid change.

I saw one Big Six CEO who noted that I had said last week that I expected the US publishers to be living in an 80% ebook world pretty soon although the global head of another of the Big Six companies had just stated the belief that the switchover to digital would stop, or slow down significantly, at 40%. I respectfully disagree, but will save that argument for another post. The one I talked to, who chuckled about the wide disparity in these two predictions, didn’t express an opinion about which of us was right, but the implications of the two predictions are so different that it behooves the people running the biggest companies to at least consider mine, even if they believe his.

I also talked to a business development executive for one of the tech companies that has been converting backlists from print and pdf to epub. He made the point that his business remains robust but moves around the world as new markets discover serially that they need to get their intellectual property into digital form. We agreed that those of us who make a living on the digital transition — and that certainly includes me at the moment (what are you reading this blog for?) — have a few more years ahead of us before we’ll have to figure out how to make a living on the new reality (if we need to keep making a living when it arrives…)

With the deals announced at Frankfurt by Kobo with the English retailer WHSmith and the French retailer Fnac along with the quickening pace of store openings by Apple and Amazon, the future shape of the ebook retailing landscape has been more clearly defined. It looks to me like we’ll have three principal global players that will be active in every market — they being Amazon, Apple, and Kobo — plus perhaps a local contender in each market as well. Barnes & Noble has played the latter role extremely successfully so far in the United States; Waterstone’s will attempt the same in the UK starting next Spring; there is local competition in Germany; and certainly there will be in many other countries as the ebook revolution laps at their shores. Google, being Google, will not go away, but they will remain a relatively marginal player unless and until they put considerably more energy into their solution and into promoting what they have.

The Kobo deals are the game-clarifiers, if not game-changers. A sage observer of the digital scene stopped at my stand here in Frankfurt to discuss the WHSmith-Kobo arrangement with me and he wondered whether this was the best deal for both sides. Should Kobo have been trying harder to make a deal with Waterstone’s? Is it wise for WHSmith to be making a deal where they sell the devices but connect them to a Kobo-branded store?

But that, of course, is the key to the deal. The economics of the devices don’t work unless you also can sell the ebooks to go into them. (That’s the answer to all the geniuses who think Barnes & Noble is being thick not implementing an international rollout of the Nook!) Neither WHSmith nor Fnac is principally a book retailer: books are just another product line in stores that sell other things and have a broader identity. By selling a reader attached to an ebook store that serves customers well, they buy themselves relevance to the book consumer during the transition and extend their lives as booksellers. They demonstrate recognition that building and maintaining a ebook store is not a trivial undertaking and, in the face of several global competitors, not something they want to undertake from their position as a country-specific, and more general, retailer.

By tying up with Kobo, both WHSmith and Fnac can get into the market with ereading devices at about the same time as Amazon brings in the Kindle. And WHSmith launching for Christmas 2011 should be terrifying Waterstone’s, which will be months behind with devices and almost certainly delivering a less consumer-friendly store off the bat than the experienced Kobo offering will be.

Barnes & Noble has achieved startling success at establishing a strong second-place position in the US ebook market, but their situation may prove to be unique. First of all, they’re in the biggest single ebook market (by value, even though poorer markets may pass them sometime sooner in units) we’re likely to see for a decade or more. Second, they are a very serious book retailer that has built strong relationships among book publishers worldwide over many years. And third, their execution was nearly flawless. Even with their precedent as an example, there is no guarantee that Waterstone’s, or anybody else, can pull off what they did in another market.

So if it is a global game and you have to be a global player to be competitive, as well as a “whole ecosystem” game that requires devices attached to a well-stocked and well-presented econtent retailing environment to succeed, we can see the steep uphill fight to be waged by the other players trying to compete with Amazon, Apple, and Kobo, whether they be Google, Copia, Sony, Baker & Taylor’s Blio, or the new entrants financed by publisher collaboration: Anobii in the UK and Bookish in the US.

All other things being equal, I can see a global ebook marketplace that some years from now is 90-95% controlled by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and a local player in each country, with Google getting most of the rest. Google may punch above its weight on the long tail because discovery of the obscure or highly niched content might be their forte; one scholarly publisher told me at Frankfurt that he is already seeing some real growth in his Google sales, which no trade publisher has said in my earshot yet.

But all other things may not remain equal. One informed member of the European digerati told me he believes that the European Competition Commission may outlaw the agency model in the European Union. Were that to happen, that would tilt the playing field substantially toward Amazon. It is ironic that the biggest, strongest, and most deep-pocketed competitor for global ebook sales could be handed an enormous competitive advantage by bureaucrats ostensibly trying to foster a competitive marketplace. Publishers may have deficiencies in their understanding of the digital transition, but it would appear that the government bureaucracies the world over might be far more confused than the publishers are.

I’m posting this before I leave the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday afternoon, European time. I won’t have the opportunity to respond to any comments until at least Monday night London time. I drive with a friend and the charming little hotel we stay at in Monschau doesn’t have wifi and I don’t have the digital dexterity (with “digital” in this case referring to “fingers”) to do lengthy replies on my iPhone.


“A Global Perspective on Digital Change” will be our first show in London

The first Publishers Launch Conferences show outside the United States, “A Global Perspective on Digital Change”, will be at the Congress Centre in central London on June 21, with the Publishers Association serving as our partners in putting on the event. We also owe special thanks to the PA’s group of Digital Directors, who were extremely generous with their time and insight. If you can be in London that day, you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than with us.

We’re still putting the finishing touches on what will be a one-day conference packed with illuminating conversation, but we can tell you quite a bit about it already. We aim to deliver strategic, practical, and focused discussion of near-term issues and opportunities. This won’t be a showcase for cool products or a venue to debate what the future might look like some day. We’re examining essential issues — ebook “export” opportunities; what happens to territorial rights; hiring and retraining to meet today’s challenges; revamping publishing systems for a dual print and digital paradigm; getting “found” on digital shelves — that publishing professionals should focus on now to thrive in the days to come.

The UK market is in between the US and the rest of the world in its migration from print to digital reading. Kindle and iPad sales really took off last Christmas and, while ebook penetration may be a fourth or less of what it is in the US, it has grown enough to be disruptive and to generate a consensus acceptance that very substantial change in the industry is inevitable.

On the one hand, my PLC partner Michael Cader and I have followed the developments in the US very closely so we have some firsthand experience with some aspects of what the UK trade is going through. On the other hand, we know history won’t repeat itself precisely. There are important differences in the markets and there is a substantial group of companies with experience and capabilities developed in the North American market that can hit the ground running in Britain or anywhere else in the world. That alone will make everybody else’s experience different than what happened in the US.

In order to be sure we were talking with the UK industry, not at it, we took some preparatory steps. In February, we put a large number of ideas for panels and topics up on Survey Monkey and invited 70 players in the UK book trade to express their opinions on them. In five days, 40 of the people responded.

Then we followed up by spending three days in London meeting with about 50 people to discuss our ideas and theirs. Our partners at the PA provided invaluable assistance, hosting our conversations and inviting us to join a regular meeting of the Digital Directors to get the insights of the most knowledgable people in the UK market. Those conversations were crucial in helping us focus properly on topics and in locating some key sources of insight. Frankly, despite our long experience working with the British publishing community (I have visited London on business three or four times a year for 35 years), putting this conference together would have been impossible without the help we got.

But because of that help, I think we’ll be presenting the UK publishing community with a lot of very useful discussion that hasn’t taken place at the many prior gatherings that have discussed book publishers and digital change.

One topic that we identified very early is the opportunity we see for publishers in Britain and Ireland to sell into the US market now without payng for a distributor infrastructure or taking an inventory risk. When we started to explore this topic, we learned that, of course, people are definitely starting to plan for it. Some are starting to exploit it. This was something we thought should be happening below the radar, and it is.

This is a peculiar opportunity, because it might be more important for independent UK publishers large and small than it is for the biggest global players. We’re still filling out the panel for this one, but we have Helen Kogan of Kogan Page, an independent whose company was already working in the US market (and therefore has some helpful experience to pass along) but who is seeing the expanded opportunity presented by digital, and Jean Harrington of Maverick House Publishers in Dublin. Jean is also President of Publishing Ireland and we invited her to join this particular conversation for a reason. The Irish diaspora in the US has a particularly strong identity with the old country and we expect books of Irish history and Irish fiction will find a substantial additional market through ebook sales in America.

We’re working on adding another British publisher and an agent to that dialogue.

Another topic arose out of a conversation that longtime UK consultant Mark Bide and I had while we were at Tools of Change in New York in February. How long will it be, I wondered, before half of UK sales are digital? Mark said he wasn’t sure about the timing, but he was sure that the publishers’ systems, overhead allocations, staffing, and infrastructure would require a lot of adjustment to be ready for that day. That’s a good conference topic, we thought.

Then, in our conversations at the PA 10 weeks ago, Anthony Forbes Watson, the MD of Pan Macmillan, told us he had charged his team with thinking through the question exactly as we had defined it. Anthony wants to know “what does 50% ebooks look like? What do we have to do to be ready for it?” The next day we talked to James Long of Pan Mac who told us that, yes, he was actually the person in the company with the primary responsibility for thinking this question through.

We decided the best frame for this conversation was “thinking about the future.” James, as he will tell us on June 21, is largely focused on what Pan Mac needs to do in systems development and integration, workflow changes, and skills development to be ready for a 50% digital world.

But there are two other aspects of preparing for the future we felt could be illuminated by other panelists we recruited.

Perseus, a US company whose Constellation division that provides digital services to smaller publishers is a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, is one of several companies in the world (Ingram in the US is another; so might Random House be in the US and the UK) that are investing in warehouses and print book distribution capabilities at precisely the time many publishers are disinvesting in them, precisely because they know that most publishers will have to disinvest in them. They’re trying to be there for publishers who want to dispose of fixed cost overheads for the shrinking print book market. We put Rick Joyce of Perseus into this conversation to cover the sensitive topic of consolidation on the physical side (a subject that Dominic Myers, the MD of Waterstone’s, famously put on the UK publishing community’s agenda a couple of months ago.)

Copyright Clearance Center, the US RRO which is also a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, has steadily called our attention to another industry-wide challenge: the need to manage rights more effectively and on a more granular level to take advantage of emerging opportunities to license chunks and fragments for apps, ebooks, and web sites. We thought that the voice for this topic in London should be local, and we were pleased that Sara Faulder, head of the Publishers Licensing Society, agreed to join this conversation.

Mark Bide has agreed to moderate this group in what I think will be a dialogue about publishers and the digital future unlike any the audience will have heard before. (Except, that is, if they are at our Publishers Launch BEA show on May 25, where we’ll have a different version of this conversation, one more focused on export and rights sales than infrastructure, but also covering the change we’ll see to selling more and more fragments.)

We’re not above stealing our own ideas and giving them a local spin. One panel that was extraordinarily successful at Digital Book World last January was one we describe in shorthand as “new skill sets”. It’s about capabilities publishers need to get that they don’t have and it is about process and workflow changes and the use of cross-functional teams as well as hiring in or training people with new skills. Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins did that panel for us in New York in January and is reprising it at our BEA show. In London, he’ll be joined by Juan Lopez-Valcarel of Pearson and Jacks Thomas, the CEO of Midas Public Relations, on a panel moderated by Jo Howard of Mosaic Search & Selection Ltd. One of the key elements in the New York discussion of this, which we expect will arise again in London, is “when is it best to hire in the skills and when is it better to retrain the people I already have?” This is a subject every publisher needs to be thinking about that isn’t discussed in public very often.

We’ll have three of the top digital leaders of UK houses — George Walkley of Hachette, David Roth-ey of HarperCollins, and Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan — joining Michael and me for a dialogue about the big companies who have cut their teeth on the US market and are now taking their capabilities worldwide, starting in the UK. We’ll be talking about Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Ingram, and Overdrive (the six clearly-declared and clearly-capable global ebook players) as well as Sony, aspirants like Copia and Blio, and US titan Barnes & Noble (which has shown no clear signs of global interest yet.) It looks to us like there is only one UK player with a global perspective, still-tiny cell phone provider Mobcast, but we’ll be learning from our panelists whether there are others we should be considering. And our audience will learn more about the North American companies which are bound to be a big part of the local market’s ebook life in the years to come.

We’ve reached a time when “metadata” is an important subject to discuss, no matter how dry or back room it has seemed. We were fortunate to get Graham Bell of EDItEUR to moderate a dialogue about this for us. He’s recruited Jon Windus of Nielsen and Karina Luke of Penguin to discuss it with him. We’re now looking for a retailer to join them. The condition of metadata in the marketplace is not good enough in enough places yet. This is costing publishers sales. This panel will explain why that is and what every publisher should do to make sure this isn’t a huge hole in the side of their boat as online sales, print and digital, grow and the impact of metadata grows right along with them.

We are also going to have a discussion of the future of territorial rights. Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury, a well-known skeptic about them, and David Miller, an agent with Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd., have agreed to participate. We’re looking for a full-throated defender of the current territorial regime to join them in what will be more of a conversation than a debate. We wonder whether territorial rights make as much sense in a 50% ebook world as they do in the 5% ebook world we might now be in. The agent’s voice in this conversation might be the most important one because, after all, they decide whether the deals are acceptable or not.

One thing that the territorial rights dialogue will certainly entertain is what we should expect to see in terms of author initiatives. That topic is bound to come up in two other discussions as well. There’s one we’re now calling “experiments, best practices, and out of the box thinking” which is really about innovation. But we are going to focus on innovation in business models and practices and innovation in marketing, not on product innovation. We are still working on putting this group together, but we were very impressed with our preliminary conversations with two of the panelists.

Marc Gascoigne is at Angry Robot, a sci-fi imprint started by HarperCollins and then bought by Osprey. Angry Robot’s better mousetrap is its community focus; Gascoigne will make the case that doing that right (which many publishers say they want to do) requires that everybody, and that means every editor and everybody else, communicate directly with the audience. It is hard to see putting that across in many established trade houses.

Richard Mollet of the PA will moderate the conversation with the innovators.

Also on that panel will be Peter Cox, an agent with Redhammer. Cox is changing his own business model (providing more in the way of services to his authors, but charging them more for it and looking to represent fewer authors, not more) but he’s effectively changing the author-publisher relationship as well by making the author an active marketer and community gatherer. He’ll have examples and he’ll have ideas that will challenge the thinking of many publishers and agents in the audience.

The last panel of our day is intended as a Grand Finale. Michael Cader and I will sit with Stephen Page of Faber, Rebecca Smart of Osprey, John Makinson of Penguin, and agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. We’ll get their take on the speed of the ebook takeup and its consequences.

How will British publishers cope in a market that may soon have no full-line bookstore chain? How will the industry cope with the rise of self-publishing? Is there any real danger of a consolidated English-language world in which London becomes subsidiary to New York? Or, in some companies, might it be vice-versa? Will both agents and publishers be changing the core business models which have prevailed for the past century over the next few years?

What excites me about the last panel — aside from the sheer smarts and savvy of the people we got to join us — is the diversity of their perspectives. The publishers run companies of different sizes and with very different approaches to building their publishing lists. The agent joining us has gained a reputation as one of the most digitally savvy players in the UK market. Michael and I thrive on spirited conversations with very smart people; we think we’re going to finish the day very stimulated and with big smiles on our faces.

And we think our audience will too.

Of course, before we get to London, we’ll be running our “eBooks Go Global” show aimed at international visitors and their trading partners at BEA. At that show, we’re particularly excited about two panels we won’t be doing in London. One is with a few booksellers already working with the new Google Ebooks capability reporting on how it is functioning for them. The other takes a slightly different approach to the “selling in the US” opportunity. Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, which has aggregated about ten times as many ebooks in Spanish as most people in Spanish markets will tell you exists, will open a lot of foreign publishers’ eyes to the possibilities that exist for them in the US market. We’ll also have a chat with Barry Eisler, the author who turned down half-a-million bucks to self-publish. And that’s not all. Tickets still available… And tickets still available for London as well.

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The old publishing value chain got twisted a bit last week

Although the value chain in trade publishing for the last century has, for the most part, kept retailers between publishers and consumers and kept publishers between retailers and authors, that has never been 100% true. Doubleday covered the whole value chain in the 1950s, when it not only owned the Doubleday Book Shops and the Literary Guild book clubs, it also owned printing plants. In the early 1960s, the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company bought (and eventually renamed itself) Macmillan (and that’s the old Macmillan that became part of Simon & Schuster in the 1980s, not the new Macmillan which was what the renamed Holtzbrinck group became a few years ago) and they also bought the Brentano’s bookstore chain.

I sold books to both Brentano’s and Doubleday in the 1970s and I don’t recall it ever being an issue that they had publisher ownership. Of course, that was before trade publishing consolidated into anything remotely resembling a Big Six.

After those two chains were sold in the 1980s (and I’m going to admit that I forget whether Walden which became Borders or Dalton which became Barnes & Noble bought each of them), in a period of two decades when publishers and book retailers grew enormously, the neatness of the division between the publisher’s role and the retailer’s was mostly respected. A number of retailers — notably B&N and Borders, but suppliers to the mass merchants as well — bought bargain books directly from packagers during that period, but joint ownership of significant publishing and retailing capabilities was, temporarily, suspended.

But Barnes & Noble was particularly aggressive at direct sourcing of book content and around the turn of the century announced the goal that 10% of their volume should come from directly-sourced product. To further that objective, in late 2002, B&N outbid several other companies (including at least one very large publisher) for the independent niche publisher, Sterling. Immediately, Borders stopped buying Sterling books and Barnes & Noble started stocking a lot more of them than they had in the past.

Meanwhile, the Internet was forcing everybody to rethink the paradigm. Even before the Kindle was launched in November, 2007, Amazon was encouraging authors to “publish” with them directly. All they could offer was the connection to the vast majority of online consumers — no print runs, no presence in any brick stores — but this could still be attractive and productive for some authors. My friend and client, David Houle, a futurist who blogs at Evolution Shift, published his “Shift Age” book with Amazon before Kindle and has sold thousands of copies, many of them at his own speeches. He’s very happy earning about $7 on every sale of a $17 book. No publisher was going to offer him as much as a third of that per copy.

As online sales grew, and then were further fueled by ebook sales starting in late 2007, it became increasingly obvious to many that publishers would have to start selling direct themselves. Some did. Harlequin has done so for years. F+W Media, one of the most aggressive publishers employing a vertical community strategy, announced a year ago that they would use Ingram to sell their books as well as those of their competitors to their direct audiences. Macmillan announced a similar plan for science fiction through, although that idea has apparently never been implemented.

Part of what has discouraged the big publishers from selling direct is the threat of retaliation by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, both of which are much happier if the customer contact for big books is through them, thank you very much. Since both companies really exercise direct influence on many consumers, big publishers are inclined to respect their concerns.

To a certain extent.

And then we had the events of last week.

Amazon, which had previously established imprints for author-direct publishing and for translations of foreign works and had created a relationship with Houghton Harcourt to address their prior inability to get brick store distribution for books they owned, announced a new romance imprint called Montlake Romances. (Personally, I thought it was a bit strange that they announced it with just one book coming this Fall, rather than 10 books coming next week!) That put them squarely into the publishing business in a new way, and one could only imagine that the mystery shoe and thriller shoe and sci-fi shoe will be soon to drop.

In the same vein, Barnes & Noble has a program called Pub It! to enable authors to by-pass publishers and earn bigger royalties. They also still own Sterling, which gives them in-house the distribution capabilities that Amazon had to team with Houghton Harcourt to get. And with Sterling they also have the entire infrastructure in place to deal with authors and their care and feeding which could constitute competitive advantage when the gloves come off chasing brand-name authors.

So both of the giant retailers are looking more and more like publishers.

But it turns out the publishers were cooking something up too. On Friday, we learned about a new business called Bookish, which will be the “new digital destination for readers.” In its announcement release, Bookish promises to use content and software tools to promote discussion and discovery around books and to answer the reader’s question: “what book should I read next?”

What was most eye-catching about Bookish was its backing by three of the Big Six: Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster, who have apparently been planning this move for quite some time.

What was downplayed, but perhaps most significant, is that Bookish is trying to straddle the same fence that Google, and, to a lesser extent, Kobo are: being an ally of existing retailers while selling direct to consumers itself.

It really is impossible to speculate intelligently about Bookish’s potential for success. What they’re suggesting they’ll do is reminiscent of Copia and Goodreads and Library Thing, and none of them have yet replaced the marketing power of the brick store, a fact which is front and center in the minds of the trade publishers who depend on that merchandising.

But it will certainly accomplish one thing: giving the big publishers a direct path to the consumer. The hunch here is that if any one of these three big publishers had gone aggressively into direct sales, they would have risked serious retaliation from both of their two biggest customers: Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But it will be hard for them to retaliate against three publishers who, among them, deliver about half the biggest commercial books in the marketplace.

Let’s remember a year ago January when Amazon briefly sought to block agency terms for ebooks by removing buy buttons from Macmillan books when they briefly thought they could stop the plan from being implemented. As quickly as it became clear that the five publishers determined to implement agency would not be deterred from doing so, Amazon retreated. (In fact, they graciously joined Macmillan in compensating authors who might have lost sales during the brief period the buy buttons were inactive.)

And that brings up another important point about Bookish: what it says about the common interests among fierce adversaries, which the trade publishers certainly are. The times call for collaboration among competitors in trade publishing. It is a little bit nuts that several of them are building competing romance, mystery, and science-fiction “communities”, which only leaves the field wide open for a third party to be the biggest aggregator in each of the verticals and also allows much smaller competitors to look comparable on the web. But collaboration models have to withstand anti-trust concerns. Presumably three of the biggest publishers jointly investing in this web venture will.

Whether or not the Bookish team can invent the general book marketing future, or, through competition, spur Amazon and to be more creative about online merchandising, remains to be seen. But this past week certainly gave us further indications that the publishing value chain is being drastically reshaped and that the neat roles we’ve been used to for 100 years have less and less applicability to publishing’s future.

I chuckle when I think about a very smart person from a major house who was telling me just about a year ago, right after agency was implemented, “whew, now I think things can settle down for a while.” Actually, “things” are just getting moved over to the fast track so they can really change. Montlake and Bookish within a day of each other; Barry Eisler (who’s speaking at our “eBooks Go Global” show at BEA on May 25) and Amanda Hocking going in opposite directions within a week or so of each other a couple of months ago; these are significant events but they’re also signs of accelerating change.


Introducing the North American Big Six

There’s a new Big Six in town. Or maybe not “in town.” But “on the planet.”

The Big Six is a term commonly used to collectively designate the behemoths of US trade publishing: Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan. Although there are other large players, some of whom occasionally can compete with these companies for seven-figure authors, the lion’s share of the biggest author brands are published by one of these six houses.

But from the perspective of publishers or booksellers outside the United States, there is a new North American Big Six. These are the companies that have direct relationships with publishers — all of them that matter in the US (with one noteworthy exception) and, increasingly, those that matter overseas as well — to secure the rights to distribute ebook files wherever in the world the publishers have rights.

Why does this Big Six matter so much? Because as dedicated ereaders and tablets and smartphones that can effectively serve as ereaders gain increased market penetration anywhere, the appetite for ebook content will grow proportionately. In languages other than English, the number of published books currently in epub — and therefore deliverable as reflowable ebooks — is paltry compared to what we have. It will take a long time for the publishers in most countries to make enough content ready to satisfy that growing hunger in their local markets.

And the Big Six companies have the infrastructure, and, most importantly, the rights, to satisfy that appetite everywhere.

Three of the North American Big Six are well known and would be immediately identified just about anywhere. Although Amazon, Apple, and Google have not yet opened their ebook “stores” in every country in the world that can buy ebooks, it won’t be long before they will. These three global giants all derive more revenue from outside the book business than they do from ebooks (and only Amazon, of the three, has any commercial interest in selling books except for ebooks.) But they are past (Amazon), present (Apple), and future (Google) game-changers: companies that have such an enormous presence that their entry into any area, certanly including ebooks, causes every other player in the market to sit up and take notice.

There is a fourth player like them, relatively tiny Kobo,.Kobo is also an ebook retailer. Over the past two years, they have been extraordinarily successful at getting publishers to establish direct relationships with them. (I didn’t track this with great precision, but I believe Kobo was the only company besides Amazon to have all the agency publishers on board the day agency selling started last April.) Kobo has “white-labeled”, or powered, an ebook store for Borders in the US and Red Group in Australia (two booksellers who, coincidentally or not, have just filed for bankruptcy protection). Kobo also has, according to their executive, Michael Tamblyn, at Tools of Change, “more than two million registered users.”

All four of these companies will be competing as ebook retailers in every market in the world and in every language in the world. They all start out with a robust aggregation of US-published ebooks. Apple is the laggard here. They don’t carry Random House books yet — the “noteworthy exception” referred to in the third paragraph above — and they have fewer available titles than any of the other three. But Apple comes with its own significant advantages in the form of the wildly popular iPhone and iPad. These devices assure a certain minimum amount of traffic to their iBookstore, even if Apple doesn’t move ahead with in books with the power play they’ve just exercised over subscription sellers of magazines and newspapers. (And so far we have only rumors and stretched intepretations of what they’ve said and done to suggest that they will do that anytime soon.)

Because American hegemony is resented in much of the world, Kobo may have a built-in advantage in international competition against the other three. Kobo is a Canadian company. They are also not disrupting people’s lives or terrifying them by monopolizing online print sales in any market (like Amazon), or by delivering devices designed to capture audiences and wall them off from competitors (like Apple), or by digitizing first and asking permission later (like Google.) All three of the Biggest Three (of the Big Six) have enemies and detractors. Kobo doesn’t.

Kobo doesn’t have their effectively unlimited resourcces either.

There are already retailers active in every country in the world, operating in the local language, who want to be the ebook resellers of choice in their own countries. For them, the other two members of the North American Big Six are potentially critical resources: Ingram and Overdrive.

Ingram is well known throughout the book business worldwide (and is sometimes, and currently, a client of ours.) As the biggest and most innovative wholesaler in the US for four decades, they have built both a customer base and a supplier base all over the world. They’ve been the principal wholesaler of ebooks to US independent ebook retailers since the begining of ebook time. They have deep and strong relationships with every US publisher of any size, rooted in their wholesaling business. They can set any retailer up with a wide selection of US ebook titles.

Ingram’s competitor for the role of delivering English-language (and, ultimately, all non-local language) ebooks to resellers all over the world is Overdrive. Overdrive has been in the digital content business since the 1980s and pioneered ebook distribution to libraries from the dawn of the current ebook era in the late 1990s. They also have a very broad base of publisher suppliers and can, like Ingram, provide an ebook reseller local to any country with a robust selection of other-language ebooks to vend, with an emphasis on those provided by American publishers.

Could any upstarts join the Big Six as credible providers for local competitors to the four global ebook retailers? I see three possibilities.

Barnes & Noble certainly has the relationships with publishers globally to assemble an ebook title selection that can rival anyone’s (and they’ve done it.) They are already the number two ebook reseller in the US market, miles ahead of Apple and Google and Kobo. But, so far, they have continued their brick-and-mortar strategy of sticking to the US market. It seems to me that the economics of their successful Nook family of devices and the ebook store they run would benefit from extending to a global base. But every company has to make choices about resource allocation and focus, and it is hard to quarrel with the success B&N has had competing with Kindle and iPad considering their prior experience with hardware (none). They’ve leveraged their retail presence to do it and they don’t have that resource to employ outside the US.

Copia and Blio are upstart ebook platforms. The independently-owned Copia has its social component as a unique feature (although Kobo has some pretty cool social stuff and there’s an upstart called Rethink Books with some technology that provides social capabilities around books independent of the ebook platform.) When Blio started, they seemed to offer an opportunity for publishers to enhance their ebooks readily. But the tool set that would enable hasn’t been delivered. Both of these offerings have a distance to travel to catch up with the Big Six, all of which have been in the game a long time and built up a network of suppliers and customers that it is not a trivial challenge to duplicate.

If there’s going to be a Big Seven, my bet would be on B&N.

Right now, publishers and retailers seeing the book tsunami coming closer to their shores will want to focus on the North American Big Six. If I were a publisher in any language, I’d be sure they all had my books. If I were a retailer in any country, I’d be looking at them as possible competitors or collaborators. Understanding who these companies are, what they have to offer, and what they have in mind is going to be an important component of every publisher’s and retailer’s strategic thinking for the foreseeable future.


A modest proposal for book marketing

It’s a pre-holiday week and a busy one following a busy one last week. So time for blogging is limited and, besides, all you readers have presents to wrap.

But there is one subject to ruminate on just a little bit that came up repeatedly during last week’s business. Constance Sayre of Market Partners and I are doing a joint exploration of ebook royalty rates for a presentation at the Digital Book World conference in January. We created a survey to allow agents to tell us anonymously what kind of deals they were striking and we got about 130 responses. (Market Partners’ newsletter, Publishing Trends, has a report in their current issue, released today, on what the agents said and the full data will be released for our attendees at Digital Book World on January 26.) We decided to balance our presentation by giving publishers an opportunity to give their side of the story, also anonymously (except, since we interviewed them, we know who they are. The agents, having responded online and in privacy, can’t be tied back to their answers. Connie and I are good at keeping confidences.)

We spoke to seven CEOs last week, a couple of whom were joined by colleagues who actually do the contract negotiating. What they told us about ebook contracts is what we’ll talk about at Digital Book World.

But just about all of them made an ancillary point and that’s our subject today. The point they made is that the main task ahead of them in the next few years is to completely reinvent book marketing. There was clear acknowledgment across the board of something that has concerned us for some time: that inevitably declining retail shelf space means a commensurate decline in critical merchandising capability.

Changes are definitely occurring. The big publishers are undeniably SEO-conscious, investing real effort thinking about what search terms apply to each book they publish. They’re all experimenting with Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites as well. Various community-building tools, including the very ambitious Copia platform that launched a few weeks ago and the John Ingram-funded start-up Rethink Books and its new Social Book capability, are now being tried out. The established ebook vendors, notably Kobo and Kindle (on my radar screen; I’m sure Nook and Google too), are building social capabilities into their platforms. And the established book discussion networks like Goodreads and LibraryThing are continuing to add participants, books, metadata, and conversation that constitute raw material for marketing the next book from any publisher.

There are two questions big publishers need to be asking about all of this. One is “does it scale?” The other is “does it adequately replace the stack on the front table of a highly-trafficked bookstore as a way to generate attention for a new publication?”

If marketing efforts don’t scale, then a newcomer or a smaller press isn’t handicapped competing against a major. And if the new techniques don’t compensate for the lost front table spaces, then publishers are going to need something more. And effort that doesn’t scale takes time, which costs money. Publishing margins have never been robust enough to allow publishers to increase the percentage of revenue allocated to marketing and remain profitable.

Of course, book retailers share in the difficulty. As much as publishers have depended on retailers to sort the books out into sections and featured areas and to bring the customers into contact with them, the retailers have depended on the publishers to make the public aware that a book exists.

This is a big problem with many aspects to it and this is supposed to be a relatively short pre-holiday post, so I want to drop just two conceptual thoughts on it: one a principle and one a suggestion.

The principle is that “investment marketing” must replace “expensed marketing”. “Expensed marketing” is what publishers have always done: promotion for a single title that has no lasting payoff or value. That’s an ad in the paper or online, a press release that gets picked up and run immediately and has no value next week, or a free copy of the book that might result in a review of that book or, most of the time, result in nothing at all. (Thank goodness that, at least, those review copies can be far less costly to distribute in digital form and for that it is worth mentioning another relatively new service called NetGalley that facilitates distribution of electronic copies for promotional purposes.)

What I’d call “investment marketing” is an effort that yields a result of ongoing value: a batch of email addresses that can be pinged at no cost to promote a future book or a relationship with a web site or a blogger that adds to the promotional arsenal available in the future. This concept is particulary important on the social marketing side, which is labor-intensive.

I was glad to have the concept validated in a conversation with a leading digital marketer that we recruited as a speaker for Digital Book World. She agreed that in order for digital campaigns to make sense, they should be on behalf of a block of books — by an author or on a subject — rather than pushing one title.

This is a sea change for publishers who have always marketed one title at a time. It is particularly important to implement as the distinction between backlist and frontlist for promotion — which was always partly rooted in the reality that backlist might not be available at retail months or years after its initial publication — makes less and less sense.

The suggestion is to attack the search and discovery problem, the browsing problem, the serendipity problem, the substitute for the stack of books problem. Or, maybe we’re better off envisioning this as the “replacing the marketing clout of the book clubs” problem.

Introducing a simple concept: the book shopping or book marketing app.

I would happily pay a subscription fee to somebody who would put into app or ebook form a periodically curated catalog of recently published books on baseball history. I want to see the title, author, precis, table of contents, sample material, publisher selling copy of all kinds, and reviews. I don’t care if the purchase is “in app” or if I can click my way to the landing page for the book at my favorite ebook retailer (and I’m easy: I have four of them!)

I am sure regular fans of romance, sci-fi, historical fiction, business books, popular science, and many other subjects share the same frustrations I do with shopping for ebooks now. Any search you do returns more dirt than diamonds, more chaff than wheat, more noise than signal and, for the subjects nearest and dearest to me, far more books I have either already read or already rejected than that are new and of interest. It would be ever so much easier to have all this information presented in an app or an ebook that I could peruse at my leisure, online or off, and which would have proper navigation rather than a constant struggle with pointless links and back buttons.

I think we’ll see publishers and retailers delivering this, or something like it, before the end of 2011.


How will you win at ebook retailing?

I read all my books on my iPhone and my idiosyncracy is to have different books open in various ebook readers at the same time. This is a drastic change from my lifetime habit of reading one book at a time. I never knew I’d enjoy reading this way because the physical limitations of carrying paper around never encouraged me to consider it.

At the moment, I’m reading “Joe Cronin” by Mark Armour and “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey A. Moore on Google Books; “Washington” by Ron Chernow on the Nook reader (which I see now has lost my place and is forcing me to figure out where the hell I was, which is not a good thing); “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Last Great Pennant Drive” by John Nordell in Kobo; and “The Autobiography of Mark Twain” in Kindle. I have the iBooks reader on the phone but I never shop there because I never saw any particular advantage to the reader and they have distinctly fewer titles to choose from than everybody else.

Now, did you care about the details of that? I’ll bet most of you didn’t, except to the extent that you expect me to make a conceptual point that makes it worth knowing that highly personal detail (which, of course, I will.) My hunch is that most of you would have been just as happy to move on from the first short paragraph above and not require the detail from the second one which, frankly, is not really necessary to make the point. But a few of you are very interested (but please don’t tell me your details; I’m part of the majority.)

Where I buy the books is very haphazard. My order of preference for reading (at the moment; it changes and I use them all) is Kobo, Kindle, Google, Nook. Kobo, Kindle, and Nook have built-in dictionaries; press (not tap) on the word and you get a definition and an opportunity to make a note or link out to Google or Wikipedia. The problem for me is that, on the iPhone, I can’t always make this feature work. My personal experience is that the functionality is most reliable on Kobo, and considerably less so on Kindle and B&N, but whether that experience is representative of what others will find with different iPhones, different fingers, and different titles, I don’t know.

Google doesn’t yet offer this capability or even simple dog-earing of pages (which the others all have), but I’ll bet they will have it before long.

None of the platforms delivers perfect performance in my anecdotal and ad hoc experience (and yours might differ). I have had Kobo “lock up” so I had to reboot my phone to get it working again. I just got a rendering of “Mark Twain” from Nook that was a formating disaster on my iPhone. (I told some people at B&N about it; perhaps it is fixed by now. When I asked the publisher, UC Press, I was told the file worked on the Nook device, but I know it didn’t work in Nook on my iPhone. It reads fine on the iPhone in Kindle.) Kindle is frustrating for me because I strongly favor reading ragged right and, as far as I can tell, Kindle always delivers justified pages with no way to turn justification off. I find Google and Kobo deliver the navigation that feels most intuitive to me and the most control of the reading experience. Nook doesn’t seem to have a way for me to lock in the vertical screen, so you can’t read in bed and have the type conform to your head if you lie on your side.

If I think of a book I want when I’m reading another one, I’m most likely to just buy it in the reader I’m in just because I have it open. Thanks to the combination of agency and 24/7 price monitoring, there is unlikely to be any financial advantage to shopping around. If I know exactly which book I want, there’s also no particular distinction among the four for ease of use or speed of transaction.

There is one dynamic that clearly favors Kindle. I own a Kindle device, one I bought in the first week or two they became available. I read many books on it over the first year or so. I gave it to my wife when Kindle made its vast selection available on the iPhone. Martha reads a lot more books than I do; we read relatively few in common. But when I decided I wanted to read Stieg Larsson, she’d already bought it for Kindle so I read it in the Kindle reader (it’s all one account.) And when I bought the new Ken Follett from Nook, she accessed it in New York while I was reading it in Frankfurt by using the iPad that we share (but which neither of us favor for reading books because it is too heavy.)

All of which leads to the conceptual question which I promised above was coming: what’s a retailer to do to create loyalty and lock-in among customers? And in addressing that question we must also keep this in mind: small groups matter.

We will look back and say that it was a relatively small group of early adopters to Kindle that were the key catalysts to profound and accelerating change in book publishing (change which is still in its infancy.) Amazon was in a unique position to deliver a real value proposition to the people who could benefit most from a lightweight reading-only device. And they captured and, for a while, locked in a relatively small group of very heavy readers, because the more books you read the greater is the relative benefit of Kindle, functionally and financially.

There may well come a day when the (relatively) closed file format of the Kindle becomes a handicap to sales but it is hard to see why it would be now, particularly if Amazon delivers on their recent announcement of a browser-based Kindle reader coming shortly. (I should add that I’ve read reports that Google books work fine in a Kindle device through the Kindle web browser. Since my own Kindle is an original, without wifi and with a very slow connection, I’m not in a position to confirm that.) But, for now, Amazon has many millions of happy device owners for whom buying a book any other way is likely to be more trouble than it could possibly be worth.

So, how else does the retailer lock the customers in? Google has tried to sell the value of being the manager of your “locker” where all your books will be available to you all the time, on any device, etc. The idea seems to borrow from the iTunes concept, but this is another example which reminds us that “books ain’t music.” It matters to have all your music in one place. I will never have any reason to need “Washington” and “Joe Cronin” in the same reader but I could listen to a song from 1958 and a song from 1992 consecutively anytime.

So the keys to iTunes were a) enabling you to rip your CDs easily, for which the database of linked metadata was actually the critical feature and b) enabling you to buy any other music you wanted as downloads into the same hosting system. I may be a bit extreme in the disorganization of my reading habits, but I think very few people would require anything like the aggregating capabilities of iTunes for their reading material.

So, how else? Copia (our client for most of the past year, which will be on my iPhone as soon as their iPhone app is available) has a proposition that addresses this, which is to deliver a social network application in conjunction with the reader. If I were on Copia and had all the books I am talking about in their application, you would have been able to see the detail I presented in the second paragraph without my having to say so.

And that takes us to the second point: that small groups matter. Because, clearly, there are people who do care about what others are reading and who want to annotate what they read for others to see. And if I did care about sharing my reading experiences, I would want all my books in Copia. That’s lock-in. And, who knows, maybe I’ll find that sharing information with other baseball history nuts will be worthwhile. (Although I wonder if I’m the only person who finds the subtle underlining in Amazon that will tell you when moused over that “87 people highlighted this passage” both pointless and distracting.)

Locking in a small group is likely to be what Kobo has in mind with the new social reading capabilities they just introduced. They are available right now only in the iPad version of the app, but they “track” your reading for you, give you badges for finishing a book, and easily enable you to broadcast to the world where you are in your latest doorstop. The people who find this compelling, and there are some, will now have a reason to use Kobo and nothing but Kobo, just like the people who own Kindles have a reason to use nothing but Amazon and Copia hopes to gather socially-minded readers who would get less value anywhere else.

I expect that the core capabilities will even out over time. Google will add outbound links to dictionaries and reference sources. All of the platforms will improve the responsiveness of their iPhone app to my stubby fingers. If Kobo’s social statistics prove a draw to consumers, the others will add something similar.

One thing I have found that is really cool about reading on the iPhone is the ability to do a screen grab as a photo, which then allows me to send the photo as an email. There’s a fabulous graph in Robert Reich’s new book “Aftershock” which makes plain as day the fact that the one thing that tanks the American economy is the top 1% of the people getting too much of the national income. I loved being able to grab that chart as a photo and send it around to friends. I think one iPhone screen of content has to be small enough to be legitimate “fair use”. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.)

But what matters most to me is the merchandising and shopping experience, which Kobo has the best so far but not by enough to matter a lot of the time. (And, as I pointed out above, if you know which particular book you want before you shop, they’re all the same and really hard to improve on.) There are many ways the shopping experience can be improved by all of them, but I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post.

So most of the horses are out of the starting gate and Amazon has clearly taken the early lead. But anybody who thinks the race for retailing ebooks is over should contemplate this: we don’t even know yet what distinguishing feature set will win, let alone who’s going to have it in the long run.

I realize this analysis is incomplete. It doesn’t account for stand-alone readers like Liza Daly’s IBIS Reader nor does it account for independent ebook retailers such as the pioneering Diesel Ebooks. It doesn’t cover Sony, which might still have a larger chunk of the market than Kobo (although, if they do, I predict it won’t be for long). Back in the days before Kindle, when I read my ebooks in Palm format on Palm and other PDAs, I shopped at Diesel. I don’t write off anybody’s chances at such an early point in the development of the ereading infrastructure, but I think my iPhone and this post capture the sources that offer the biggest selection of content that would interest me. And I’m reasonably certain that I’m reporting here on the players that serve up the overwhelming majority of the ebooks read in the US, well over 90% and probably closer to 95%.