David Houle

Don’t blame Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter for the fact that technology changes behavior


In the past week, we have seen the Louis C.K. rant against smart phones, the Jonathan Franzen deep intellectual swipe at what Amazon is doing to the world of publishing, and I had an exchange with a very dear old friend who does email (his wife doesn’t), but can’t handle texting or Facebook. Or thinks he can’t.

I remember about four years ago telling a family member of mine that it had gotten to the point that not having a cell phone was anti-social. I am quite sure that people who don’t have cell phones or Facebook accounts miss out on communication they’d have been glad to get. And by being outside communication streams that are increasingly ubiquitous, they actually place an unintended burden on people around them to keep them informed.

Futurist David Houle has pointed out that eighty years ago some people would refuse to get a telephone because a) people could just call you on it and intrude into your private space and b) people would know where you lived by looking you up in the phone book. These things were true (although eventually we got to “unlisted numbers”), but so were a lot of other things that were benefits. I was thinking about my friend who won’t do texting or Facebook. Hey, they’re just means of communication! Do you want me to mail you a letter to find out if you want to have dinner next Saturday night?

When the first means of electronic communication arrived, telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse had the prescience to make the first message he sent be “what hath God wrought?” Indeed, progress in electronic communication changes the world in ways that prior generations would have expected were possible only from God.

Yes, we have entered a world where all of us are connected to the entire planet all the time, except at the moments we specifically choose not to be (leaving the cell phone in a drawer or turning off all audible signals from it). This is as good a thing for each of us as we make it. But we are also increasingly depending on everybody else to be connected this way too.

Many of us announce our most important life events (and some insignificant ones too) on Facebook. That keeps our friends and family apprised of marriages, illnesses, births, and political opinions without us having to send out cards and make sure we have all the up-to-date addresses. Many of us (me not yet among them…) can use Twitter effectively to get the most up-to-date information about a breaking news event. (No self-respecting journalist could be without this capability today, I suspect. Certainly any journalist who knows how to use Twitter has an advantage over any who doesn’t.)

About 15 years ago the CEO of a major publishing house, a person with a reputation for digital forward-thinking, told me he was questioning whether everybody in his shop ought to have email! (After all, people with email are tempted to have communication that isn’t necessarily about their job. He was okay with internal electronic communication on a closed system.) It seems like every technological change faces skepticism because every technological change brings along a set of possibilities for behavior that needs to be controlled.

But, this being a blog about publishing, I’m most interested in rebutting Franzen’s suggestion that Amazon is somehow bad for reading, or bad for reading good books. (I agree with him that Amazon makes things harder for publishers, but that’s not the same thing.)

First of all, let’s not blame Amazon for two things: being really good at what they do and the natural impact of network effects. The “network effect” is that the more people are on a network, the more valuable it is to each person on it. In the first two decades or so of the 20th century, phone companies could only reach their own subscribers. A person who wanted to reach all their friends in an area might have to have several phones with different companies. Most wouldn’t, so even with a phone, communication was minimized. Gradually, the “roads got paved” and the phone systems were knit together.

You know one of the things that resulted from that? Reform politicians who were outside the central city finally became competitive with the urban machines, who could communicate easily without phones because they were in close geographical proximity in the center of town. (Thanks for this fact to my late friend, Professor Richard C. Wade, who invented the field of urban history.) It is also true that over time many kids wasted countless hours talking to each other on the phone. I know because I was one of them in the 1950s and 1960s during my adolescence when all my friends were available through them. I would have been outside getting fresh air 40 or 50 years earlier. Oh, those terrible telephones!

Amazon and Facebook and Twitter have more value than any possible competitors because they have more people actively engaged with them every single day. B&N can’t compete with Amazon around reader reviews because it has far fewer of them. Amazon tells you that X people out of Y found this review helpful. You need numbers to do that. Only one person in many writes a review. Only one person in many reads any posted review. And only one person in many bothers to post that they found a review helpful. That’s one in many cubed. The denominator is one enormous number. Amazon’s book customer traffic is probably 10 times or more what BN.com’s is. So it is possible for Amazon, and for nobody else, to tell you that X out of Y found this review helpful with meaningful numbers. (Even if Jonathan Franzen and others aren’t impressed with the provenance of the reviews. And even if some of the reviews have been deliberately gamed.)

Meanwhile, New York Times book reviews are available to far more people than they were before Amazon came into being and through the same computers that bring in Amazon. And when Jonathan Franzen writes his piece for The Guardian, far more people (including me and anybody who clicks the link I provided above) will read it than would have when there was only print. And anybody interested in the new book of his that he is promoting can just click a bit more, probably to Amazon, and buy it.

This is bad?

It is true that Amazon is the pointed spear of change in the world of communication (although they are not alone). From the moment they made a massive database of books available online, they challenged the core proposition of bookstores and the biggest ones with the biggest selections were the most challenged. It isn’t really Amazon’s fault that buying books online is so attractive to so many people, it is the nature of the beasts: the book choice beast and the Internet database beast.

But Amazon takes advantage of this opportunity better than anybody else. This is where their superior execution comes in. I am very close to somebody who vastly prefers to buy her books from Barnes & Noble for reasons that would probably appeal to Jonathan Franzen. But, over many years, she has found that their search engine just doesn’t work effectively. So she finds what she wants at Amazon and then goes over to BN.com to purchase it! Most people won’t do that; they’ll just buy where it is easiest to shop. Is it Amazon’s fault that they’re cleaning BN’s online clock through a better service?

I spoke this past week with the communications director at a think tank who has their publishing arm reporting to him. He’s new to the world of books. He reports that his team keeps portraying Amazon as the enemy; from his perspective, they are “the answer”. Yes, he’s worried about whether their increasing hegemony over the book-buying public could ultimately result in some nasty cuts to his margins. In fact, probably they will. Amazon is likely the most profitable account for almost every publisher because their sales are massive and their returns are minimal. Some publishers report that even their demands for co-op spending are less onerous than Barnes & Noble’s. Of course, they will probably push the envelope over time and claw back more of that margin from publishers. Most retailers would.

In fact, Amazon can sometimes use network effects and its capability to execute (all of which could be summed up as “scale”) to improve its margins by creating new business that nobody else can. They may have done that with their new Matchbook program, which offers a print-and-ebook bundle. Perhaps Barnes & Noble could have done this (and perhaps at some point they will), but only publishers with a very large direct-to-consumer business could execute this themselves.

Amazon is probably smart enough not to want a world in which, as Franzen fears, they publish everything that isn’t self-published by an author. They know they benefit from the investments publishers make and they’re probably even detached enough to know they benefit from books being in the marketplace because they’re supported by sales Amazon doesn’t have the breadth to make. And let’s remember that book sales are probably down to a low double-digit percentage of Amazon’s business. They have bigger fish to fry than building their market share or their margin at the expense of publishers.

Here’s another historical perspective to ponder which I believe is analogous. In the first half of the 19th century, many of the bestselling writers in the US were poets. One big reason why was a low level of literacy. Books were read aloud by the person who could read to the others who couldn’t. That was an environment that favored poetry over prose.

But then came the crusade for universal public education and improvements in transportation that boosted it along. By the latter part of the 19th century, poets had yielded to novelists and, in fact, poetry has declined in commercial popularity pretty much ever since.

So we can say that universal public education was a dagger to the heart of poetry’s commercial advantage. In some people’s minds, that might be a good reason to reconsider it. The arguments against the natural effects of digital communication, selectively finding perhaps-true negatives and dwelling on them, strike me the same way.

We have two great shows running this coming Thursday, September 26, being staged by Michael Cader’s and my Publishers Launch Conference in conjunction with the team at Digital Book World. The Marketing Conference is a collaborative effort with Peter McCarthy, who is rapidly gaining recognition as the industry’s leading thinker about books and digital marketing. The Services Expo is three mini-conferences that will help publishers find the service providers they need to help with tech on editorial/production, digital asset distribution, and rights and royalties. The Services show is priced low so that you can attend just one of the three mini-conferences if you want and still get a very fair deal. I’m co-moderating the Marketing Conference with Pete and I can assure you that it will be amazing. If you have any time left on your calendar on Thursday and you’re near NYC, you’ll be glad if you spend some of it with us.

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Unbundling in the book business: the fourth big trend


A few weeks ago, I wrote that there are three big forces driving the future of publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization.

I was wrong. I had forgotten my own blogpost from last September when I identified another trend that belongs with the first three: “unbundling”. The book business, in the trade segment I follow most closely but in every other segment as well, is seeing its value proposition becoming unbundled in a number of ways.

Up until very recently, a trade publisher controlled just about every aspect of a book’s publication. The indispensible parts of the value publishers offered were two: the advance against royalties that often provided essential financing to enable the writer to create the manuscript and the network of relationships and infrastructure that put books on shelves for consumers to find and buy them.

Because the publisher was taking both a capital and reputational risk with every book published, it was natural that it would handle all the supporting steps: developmental and copy-editing, marketing and publicity, design and manufacturing. The publisher would commission the artwork for the book’s cover and determine what was the best foot forward on flap copy.

Until the turn of the 21st century, it was the exceptional author who had any kind of “platform” that could be employed for the book’s marketing: something like a TV show or newspaper column or fame achieved some other way that could be a springboard for promoting the book. In the cases where those opportunities existed, publishers recognized that the book was being “piggybacked” onto something that had its own commercial purpose and was not subject to the wishes or timetables of a book’s publisher.

What changed before the publishing business changed is that many of us have some sort of platform now, as in “a way to reach an audience”. And, although my platform isn’t comparable to Rush Limbaugh’s or Jay Leno’s, it is, indeed, mine all mine and I can do what I want with it. Many other people have platforms of their own that are far more powerful than mine.

It could be said that publishers themselves began the unbundling process as they got authors to use their platforms to market their books. With the advent of ebooks and driven by the CreateSpace services offered by Amazon, it became possible for any author to publish his or her own book and those with a platform, or even just building one, no longer had to get the assent of a publisher to put their book into the market.

My friend, futurist David Houle (whose new book “Entering the Shift Age” has been published by Sourcebooks), was frustrated in 2007 with his inability to connect with a publisher for his predictive thinking. He was just starting his blog, “Evolution Shift” and it didn’t have enough history or audience to persuade any publisher he found to put out his companion book, “The Shift Age”. So he did it himself, through Amazon, even before there was a Kindle. Over the years, David has sold about 7,000 copies of his book, many through Amazon but many more through his own public appearances as a speaker. (And what he’s made per copy is far more than what he’d have made in a publishing deal.)

Since Houle published “The Shift Age” several years ago, an industry has grown around offering services for publishing. This is referred to as the “author services” business. The core offerings are to take the creator’s file (in Word or InDesign) and make it accessible in various ebook formats at the front end and then to interact with ebook retailers (delivering the file and capturing the sales information and the revenue) at the other end. The services offered by the retailers themselves (and you can get this help from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) don’t push the ebook out to other ebook retailers. Amazon is the only one to offer a companion print option.

The first mover on these services in the ebook age outside the retailers was Smashwords. They’ve been joined by a host of others. Author Solutions, acquired about a year ago by Penguin, rolled up a number of companies that offered these services in the print-only world that existed before Kindle. They have all come to recognize that publishers provide more than the essential services at each end of the publishing process; they also provide editing and packaging and marketing services in the middle. So these have popped up as discrete offerings — “unbundled” — both through the complete service providers and as stand-alones.

Now there’s an aggregator of the stand-alone service providers, BiblioCrunch, which features a host of freelancers that any author can access. Another fledgling, NetMinds, which has made some news lately by publishing Nolan Bushnell’s book, makes provision of expert services in many categories a part of its model.

This unbundling effect plays out in interesting ways. When Hugh Howey sold the rights to his smash success “Wool” to Random House UK (before he had a US publisher), they worked with Howey and did some editing, including creating an additional chapter, for their edition. Howey took that component of Random House’s work and was able to make it available for the print edition he licensed in the US to Simon & Schuster and then incorporated it into the ebook version he sold himself.

All of this evidence that the publishers’ proposition is being unbundled leads to two strategic observations.

As the services game shifts from “authors” to “entities” (what I call atomization and of which there are new examples just about every single day), there is a critical job description missing from the service offerings. That job is “publisher”. The publisher makes the overall decisions about the editorial, production, and marketing resources that are committed to each book.

In the author services environment, this role can often be useful but would not be missed in many circumstances. There is no “what to publish” decision; the author has a book. There are very limited “resource allocation” decisions because the available resources to allocate are the author’s own.

But as entities of all kind take over from authors as the primary providers of books outside the industry itself, the role of publisher becomes critical. Decisions will need to be made.

There are 26 categories of helper available in BiblioCrunch. “Publisher” is not one of them.

I met last week in Los Angeles with a team of producers and development executives who are acting on an idea I have pushed: that Hollywood can become an important center for fiction book publishing. They have a core resource of thousands of great stories developed in the hopes that they will become a movie that ultimately doesn’t get funded, or as they say out there, “green-lighted”. This team has over 100 projects that are candidates for their book publishing efforts, but they can’t just “do them all”. They have to set up a company, pay to turn scripts into novels (or, at least, narrative stories), and put them into ebook and probably also print book formats. So, they asked me, which ones would you do first?

I said, “I wouldn’t ask me. I’d ask a publisher.” I named two very good and experienced ones immediately who are currently unemployed. These people have vast experience with all the decisions that are required: which stories are most saleable as books, what length the books should be, what style they should be written in, and how they should be titled, packaged, and promoted.

This necessity is even more evident when one thinks about non-fiction entities that might become publishers. If every museum, library, and department of a university is “a publisher waiting to happen” (and I believe all of them are), how could any of them proceed without a publisher?

If you were trying to get a museum started on becoming a book publisher, you’d begin with a discovery process that asked key questions. Who comes to the museum and what do you know about them? Who comes to the museum’s web site and what do you know about them? What IP do you already own that could be publishable as books? What good IP could you lay your hands on if you would publish it as a book? What is your relationship to sources of IP and marketing, like academic institutions, not-for-profits, or other museums? If you asked supporters of your museum for money to fund a publishing program, would they give it to you?

What the publishing program should be in response to the answers to those questions is something only a publisher has real experience figuring out. The publisher is the first service the entity needs. Renting a publisher takes precedence over renting an editor or a cover artist.

Ingram Publisher Services had a great success with a wildly expensive ($625) cookbook series (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Perhaps lost in the reporting of that story is the fact that Myhrvold’s first stop was to engage Bruce Harris, the former Publisher of Harmony Books and a former Random House sales executive. Harris has “publisher” in his DNA, and he undoubtedly shaped key decisions, probably including engaging Ingram in the first place, let alone directing their activites, that were instrumental to the success of the project.

So the first strategic point is that hiring all the services without hiring a publisher is like having a football team without a quarterback.

The second strategic observation is that the industry itself, but particularly the trade component of it, is also being unbundled. Disparate efforts that bookstores aggregated and welded together are now coming apart.

Here I’m not thinking about the value chain for each book, which is overseen by the publisher, but the value chain for the industry, which includes the supply chain. Although there have always been some vertical bookstores — in New York City until a few years ago they ranged from specialists in architecture to specialists in mysteries — most books were sold in general bookstores that sold everything. As publishers are forced to reach readers in different ways than they used to, the subject of a book, and the consistency of audience appeal within a publisher’s list, becomes a key to its marketing in ways it never was.

But ebooks are creating another distinction, between books that are meant to be read from start to finish and all other books: art books, illustrated instruction, references, and compendia. Narrative writing, particularly fiction, works as ebooks. The others don’t. That increasingly encourages publishers who depend primarily on narrative reading to stick to it and to not publish books of other kinds.

It is also creating a differentiated distribution problem for publishers, depending on their output. Publishers of novels and narrative non-fiction are seeing the decline in their print book sales compensated for by increases in their ebook sales. They have a new challenge reaching the audiences and making them aware of their books, but their problem isn’t exacerbated by the format change. Many of their readers simply switch over from print to digital on whatever device they want to use and one-color straight text printing enables reducing the print runs without costs getting completely out of line.

But that’s not true for publishers of other books. As bookstores close and readers switch to digital formats, they face existential questions. They can’t suffer the print run reductions readily. They can’t just make a digital version by copying the print. And, if they did, it won’t sell.

Some illustrated book publishers have robust distribution outside the bookstores, to museums or gift shops, for example. In some cases, the book trade was already a diminishing share of their business before the ebook revolution happened.

But the impact of digital change on publishers that used to all depend together on a healthy bookstore network is very highly variable. Their fates were joined. They’re now being unbundled.

Although the organizing theme of our Pub Launch BEA conference is “scale”, the other trends definitely get their moment. Ken Michaels of Hachette will talk about tools his company has developed that are being unbundled and delivered as services to other publishers. And the particular challenge of the illustrated book publishers as they lose the ability to piggyback on bestseller traffic in bookstores is the subject of the final chunk of the day’s programming. First, Ron Martinez of Aerbook will survey the new tools available to make putting an illustrated book into digital form cheaper and more effective. Then a panel of illustrated book publishers — Joseph Craven (Quarto Group), Tim Greco (Dorling Kindersley), Lindy Humphreys (Abrams), and Mary Ann Naples (Rodale) — will talk about how they are adjusting to the new retailing environment unbundling is creating in a panel discussion moderated by former Crown Illustrated publisher Lauren Shakely.

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Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January


Blog posts have been scarcer for the past couple of months because I’ve been so engaged with a major responsibility: putting together what amounts to 7-1/2 days of conference programming that will be presented on four days next month in New York City.

As most readers of this blog probably know, we’re responsible for the programming of the two-day extravaganza that is Digital Book World. DBW 2013 — taking place on January 16 and 17 at the Hilton New York Hotel — will be the fourth iteration of the event, which aims to explore the commercial challenges facing trade publishing in the digital transition. DBW is not about technology per se; it is about the business problems publishers must cope with in an age of technological change.

DBW’s main two days are divided between morning plenary programming — all 1500+ people in one big room — and afternoon breakouts. We’ll have up to five simultaneous breakout sessions in each of three slots each day. So we have what amounts to 4-1/2 days of programming in the breakouts plus one on the main stage.

Because people really do come from all over the world to attend DBW, we were delighted to agree when they asked us at Publishers Launch Conferences (the conference business I own with Michael Cader) to add a show on each side of theirs to build out a week of programming. (The team at DBW itself are also putting together some pre-conference workshops that will run on Tuesday.)

So on Tuesday, January 15, we’ll do our second annual “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” conference at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium (put together with the invaluable assistance of our Conference Chair and close friend, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners). And on Friday, January 18, we’re presenting (in conjunction with the DBW team) a new program called “Authors Launch“, a full day of marketing advice for publisher-published authors. (Self-published authors are welcome and will learn a lot, but the program is framed for authors who are working with publishers, not looking for ways to avoid them.)

Programming the “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” show revealed what we think will be the most important theme in the children’s book space for the next few years: the development of  digital “platforms” that, like subscription offerings (which some, but not all of them, clearly are), will “capture” consumers and make them much less likely to get ebooks and other digital media from outside of it. The list of platform aspirants in this space is long and varied: Storia from Scholastic; RRKidz from Reading Rainbow (the TV show brand); Poptropica from Pearson (which launched Wimpy Kid before it was a book); Magic Town; Disney; Capstone; and Brain Hive. All of them are presenting, as well as NOOK, which, like Amazon Kindle, has announced parental controls on its platform that encourage parents to manage their kids’ reading experience there.

There are other big issues in children’s publishing, particularly the creation of original IP by publishers so they can better exploit the licensing opportunities that follow in the wake of successful kids’ books. We’ll have data presentations from Bowker and from Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex to help our audience understand how kids books are found and selected outside the bookstore in today’s environment.

But we know that the digital discovery and purchase routines will be markedly affected by the platforms as they establish themselves. Publishers are faced with an interesting conundrum. They can’t reach the audiences that are loyal to a platform without going through the platform. But it is the presence of many publishers’ books that strengthens the attraction of the platform and, once it gains critical mass, the value of the content to it (and probably what it will be willing to pay for the content) is reduced. So publishers licensing content to these platforms may be strengthening beasts that will ultimately eat them. I think the roundtable conversation Lorraine and I will lead at the end of the day, which will include publishers Karen Lotz of Candlewick, Barbara Marcus of Random House, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, will have interesting things to say about that paradox.

We’ve developed some “traditions” in the four years we’ve been doing Digital Book World. As we’ve done the past two years, the plenary sessions will open on Tuesday with the “CEOs’ view of the future” panel organized and moderated by David Nussbaum, the CEO of DBW’s owner F+W Media and the man who really dreamed up the idea of this conference. David will be joined this year by Marcus Leaver of Quarto, Karen Lotz of Candlewick, and Gary Gentel of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Michael Cader and I will — as we have every year at DBW — moderate a panel to close the plenaries, “looking back and looking forward” with agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House; Harper’s new Chief Digital Officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, and Osprey CEO Rebecca Smart.

Among the presenters on the main stage who will be unlike what our audiences usually hear at a digital publishing conference will be Teddy Goff, the digital director for the Obama campaign, who will talk about targeting and marketing techniques that might serve us well in the publishing world; Ben Evans of Enders Analysis in London, who will tell us how publishing fits into the strategies of the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) that he tracks regularly*; ex-Macmillan president and now private equity investor Brian Napack, talking with Michael Cader about the investment climate in publishing; and Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing from Carnegie-Mellon, talking about a study he and his colleagues have done on the real commercial impact of piracy.

(We’ve also scheduled a breakout session for Teddy Goff so he can talk more about the Obama campaign for those in attendance who want to learn more of its lessons to apply.)

We’re also delighted to have gotten Robert Oeste, Senior Programmer and Analyst from Johns Hopkins University Press, to deliver his wonderfully insightful, entertaining, and informative presentation on XML, the subject so many of us in publishing need to understand better than we do. And we will after he’s done. (We’re also giving Oeste a break-out slot to talk about metadata which I’ll bet a lot of our audience will choose to attend after they’ve heard him on XML.)

(*Late edit: Ben Evans had to cancel.)

Some authors have had remarkable success without help from publishers in the past year, but few or none more than Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool”, who has just signed a groundbreaking print-only deal for the US with Simon & Schuster. His dystopian futurist novel has sold hundreds of thousands of self-published ebook copies and rights all over the world and to Hollywood. We’ll have a chat with Howey about how he did it and we’ll be joined by his agent, Kristin Nelson, for that dialogue. Kristin will stick around to join a panel of other agents (Jay Mandel of William Morris Endeavor, Steve Axelrod, and Jane Dystel from Dystel & Goderich) to talk about “Straddling the Models”: authors who work with publishers but are also doing some things on their own.

We will have several panels addressing the challenges of discovery and discoverability from different angles. One called “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap” teams Patrick Brown of Goodreads with three publishing marketers — Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, and Rachel Chou of Open Road — and is chaired by Peter Hildick-Smith. That will focus on what publishers can do with metadata and digital marketing to make it more likely their titles will get “found”. Barbara Genco of Library Journal will share data on library patron behaviors and then helm a panel discussion with Baker & Taylor, 3M, Darien Public Library, and Random House exploring the role of libraries in driving book discovery and sales. Another session called “Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable” introduces three new propositions from Matt MacInnis of Inkling, Linda Holliday of Citia, and Patricia Payton of Bowker, along with SEO expert Gary Price of INFODocket. Publishing veteran Neal Goff (who is also the proud father of Obama’s digital director) will moderate that one. MacInnis, Holliday, and Payton offer services that will help publishers improve the search for their books. Price will talk knowledgeably about how the search engines will react to these stimuli.

We’re covering new business model experimentation (with Evan Ratliff of The Atavist, Brendan Cahill of Nature Share, Todd McGarity of Hachette, and Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks) where publishers discuss ways to generate revenue that are not the old-fashioned ones. We’ll underscore the point that we’re about changes caused by technology rather than being about technology with our “Changing Retail Marketplace” panel, featuring publishers and wholesalers talking about the growth of special sales (through retailers that aren’t bookstores and other non-retail channels).

The future for illustrated books will be discussed by a panel with a big stake in how it goes: John Donatich of Yale University Press, Michael Jacobs of Abrams, Marcus Leaver of Quarto, and JP Leventhal of Black Dog & Leventhal. Two publishers who have invested in Hollywood — Brendan Dineen of Macmillan and Pete Harris of Penguin — will talk about the synergies between publishing and the movies with consultant Swanna McNair of Creative Conduit.

We will have major US publishers and Ingram talking about exports: developments in the export market for books — print and digital. And we’ll have some non-US publishers joining Tina Pohlman of Open Road and Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble talking about imports: non-US publishers using the digital transition to get a foothold in the US market.

One session I think has been needed but never done before is called “Clearing the Path” and it is about eliminating the obstacles to global ebook sales. That one will start with a presentation by Nathan Maharaj and Ashleigh Gardner of Kobo where they will enumerate all the contractual and procedural reasons why ebooks are just not available for sale in markets they could reach. And then Kobo will join a panel conversation with Joe Mangan of Perseus and agent Brian Defiore to talk about why those barriers exist and what might be done in the future to remove them.

Oh, yes, there’s much much more: audience-centric (what I call “vertical”) publishing; the changing role of editors; the evolving author-publisher relationship; and a conversation about the “gamification” of children’s books. David Houle, the futurist and Sourcebook author who wowed the DBW 2012 audience, will return with his Sourcebooks editor, Stephanie Bowen, to discuss their version of “agile” publishing: getting audience feedback to chunks before publishing a whole book.

We will also do some stuff that is more purely “tech”. We have a panel on “Evolving Standards and Formats” discussing the costs and benefits of EPUB3 adoption, which will be moderated by Bill McCoy of IDPF. Our frequent collaborator Ted Hill will lead a discussion about “The New Publishing IT Department”. Bill Kasdorf of Apex will moderate a discussion about “Cross-Platform Challenges and Opportunities” which is about delivering content to new channels.

But purely tech is the exception at Digital Book World, not the rule.

And purely tech won’t show up at all at Authors Launch on Friday, January 18, the day after Digital Book World.

Authors Launch is what we think is the first all-day marketing seminar aimed squarely at authors with a publisher, not authors trying to work without one. It is pretty universally taken as a given that authors can do more than they ever have before to promote themselves and their books and that publishers should expect and encourage them to do that. But, beyond that, there is very little consensus. What should the publisher do and what should the author do? That question is going to be addressed, in many different ways, throughout the day.

The Authors Launch program covers developing an author brand, author involvement and support for their book’s launch, basic information about keyword search and SEO, use of metrics and analysis, a primer on media training, when and how to hire a publicist or other help, and a special session on making the best use of Goodreads. We’ll cover “audience-centric” marketing, teaching authors to think about their “vertical” — their market — and understand it.

The faculty for Authors Launch includes the most talented marketers and publicists helping authors today: Dan Blank, co-authors MJ Rose and Randy Susan Meyers, journalist Porter Anderson, David Wilk, Meryl Moss, Lucinda Blumenfeld, agent Jason Allen Ashlock, and former Random House digital marketer Pete McCarthy.

We have assembled a group of publishers and an agent to discuss how an author should select the best places to invest their time from the staggering array of choices. (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etcetera.) That panel will include agent Jennifer Weltz of The Naggar Agency as well as Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Kate Stark of Penguin. Matt Schwartz, VP, Director of Digital Marketing and Strategy for the Random House Publishing Group, will conduct the session on metrics.

A feature of both our Kids show on Tuesday and the Author show on Friday are opportunities for the audience to interact with the presenters in smaller groups so each person can get his or her own questions answered. At Kids we’ll do that at lunchtime, seating many of our presenters at tables with a sign carrying their name so our attendees can sit with them and engage. At Authors Launch, we’ll be conducting rounds of workshops, crafted so that the authors can get help in their own vertical (genre fiction, literary fiction, topical non-fiction, juvies, and so forth), and on the topics of greatest need for them.

We are sure the week of January 15-18 will prove to be an energizing and stimulating one for all of us living in the book publishing world. We hope you’ll join us.

Digital Book World Week | January 15-18, 2013

Children’s Publishing Goes Digital | Tuesday, January 15, McGraw-Hill Auditorium
DBW Pre-Conference Workshops | Tuesday, January 15, Hilton New York Hotel
Digital Book World Conference + Expo | January 16-17, Hilton New York Hotel
Authors Launch | Friday, January 18, Hilton New York Hotel

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I came home from the Charleston Conference with a couple of new thoughts


One great benefit of stepping outside your own world — which for me is the world of general trade publishing — is that you can get a jolt of perspective when you do. It really took only a few minutes of listening to Annette Thomas, the global head of professional and college publishing for Macmillan, at the Charleston Conference to underscore an important point. Thomas was talking about how Macmillan had to solve the problem of linking together content that was delivered in journal articles with that delivered in books, a format distinction she correctly saw made no sense to somebody who just wanted the information regardless of the form in which it was initially delivered.

In professional and academic publishing, it is pretty much a requirement to understand the context of all content. Any observation, discovery, or opinion needs to be connected to the other knowledge and information that relates to it to have validity. Scholarship and professional knowledge all live in a world where the total body of relevant information is the key to understanding the value of any new contribution. (And, indeed, the creators of any new contribution are carefully placing their work in the context of all that came before it.)

This is not true for trade publishing, where — more often than not — each book being read is judged and appreciated for what exists between its own covers.

This brings me to two observations about how publishing is changing and how trade publishers need to think differently that are relevant and have not been said to death (if, in fact, they’ve been said by anybody else at all.)

We often observe that book publishing is many businesses, by which we usually mean that academic or professional or college textbook publishing has little to do with “trade”. But it is also true that trade publishing is many businesses. Even within fiction, the publishing skills and markets for genres like romance and science fiction are quite different than for literary fiction.

But non-fiction is even more diverse. And some of it has a lot to learn from professional publishing.

What the top professional publishers will tell you is that the challenge for them is to deliver content within the workflow. That means that accountants or construction engineers are trying to get particular things done and what they look to publishers to do is to help them accomplish their tasks. That means software. And the content they need should be provided within that workflow so they have the knowledge they’re looking for when they want to apply it.

Well, some consumer publishing also addresses content needs that arise in a workflow. Consumers of gardening books, knitting books, and cookbooks are all using the knowledge they present within a workflow context.

What that means to me is that we’re not far away from these tasks being addressed by workflow tools: apps. Your gardening app, for example, will help define your challenge. It will ask you questions. How big is your front yard? How big is your back yard? How much sun do they get? How much time do you have to spend with this? Do you want flowers, shrubs, or vegetables?

Then the app will tell you, “Mike, it’s March 15, dig a hole.” “Mike it’s April 10, drop a seed in the hole.” “Mike it’s April 28 and we see it hasn’t rained in your neighborhood for a week. Water your garden.” Etcetera.

When that day comes, the publisher with the really terrific gardening book better hope they’ve made a good licensing deal with the owner of the app. Power will have shifted.

(One example of what the future may bring a lot more of are the Audubon Mobile Field Guides, which were done by Green Mountain Digital. These are region-specific species guides that contain reference content, maps, bird calls, etc. and provide real time access to bird sightings. Brendan Cahill of Green Mountain will speak on a “new business models” panel at Digital Book World.)

If I were a publisher of books that address a challenge that is actually handled through a workflow, I’d start now trying to be the licensor, not the licensee.

And that brings me to the second observation.

When you read self-published books (and I do: some of the big bestsellers anyway), you become aware by omission of what a publishers would do to improve them. The lack of copy-editing and proofreading is often what is most apparent, but more acute readers also see the deficiencies in development that good editors correct before a book goes to press.

Because major publishers tend to spend a fair amount of money acquiring most of the titles they do and — correctly or not — see it is a major expense (drain on overheads) to publish each and every title, they tend to be careful about making sure each book is really ready for prime time before they print it. That means there is almost always some editorial input from somebody with commercial responsibility (the acquiring editor or somebody who works for the AE) but there is also certainly professional copy-editing and proofreading of every single book. My highly anecdotal view of self-published books is that for them there is no such guarantee.

I have advocated previously that big publishers should see the value of branding their work as “professional”, which I believe argues for minimizing the number of brands they ask consumers to remember. Nuanced brands make sense in a B2B world (for buyers and reviewers) but are likely to just confuse or be ignored by consumers. But as more and more self-published material makes its way to the public and even onto bestseller lists, the reading public (at least those of us who care about grammar, syntax, and punctuation) might be well served by branding that says, in effect, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread by professionals”.

But now I’m seeing that thinking isn’t granular enough. If a publisher adopted that suggestion, they’d be locking themselves into maintaining those high quality standards across everything they do. In the long run, is that the right idea?

I’m beginning to think it isn’t. As we see increasingly that self-published material can reach extremely large audiences, it will probably become important before long for the established publishers to be able to test titles in the marketplace without doing the full editorial job on them. In fact, if Sourcebook’s “agile publishing model” (by which a non-fiction book by my friend and client, futurist David Houle, is being released in ebook chunks for audience feedback before being assembled into a “final” published version that will also be printed) were to gain traction and be used more broadly, it would almost certainly mean that parts of the editing job should be bumped back to the end (or else would have to be done twice).

When the big publishers float through the looking glass and realize that they are really wasting their clout and resources if they don’t crank up to do many more titles than they do now (which they haven’t yet, but I believe they will; and I think Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions is the first sign of recognition of that reality by a major house), they’ll see that not all the books they’ll want to publish in the future can get the same full-on treatment that they give to all the books they publish now. They’ll want to be able to publish an author’s short non-fiction ebook about the topic of their novel — because the author wants them to — without giving it thousands of dollars worth of editorial development its revenue forecasts wouldn’t justify. The solution might be to create secondary brands, or it might be about “badging” each book with the amount of editorial attention it actually got. But one signal of quality might not fit all books.

One remarkable facet of my Charleston trip was something I’m quite sure would never happen to me in New York. I had the same cab driver coming in from the airport on Wednesday and then going back out again on Thursday! I also managed to take off from LaGuardia before the nor’easter hit and come back the following evening after it had come through. I saw a little evidence of what was reported to me was “a blizzard” that I’m not sorry I missed.

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Hats off to Amazon


When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.

********

Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, BN.com has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.

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We’re getting SaaS-y, going Hollywood, and starting to plan Digital Book World 2013


It is hard to believe that we’re starting to plan the fourth annual Digital Book World conference, which will be held January 16-17, 2013 at the Hilton in New York City. But we are.

The first DBW was held in 2010. Planning for it began the June before when David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media called me to say “we think there can be a better conference than any we’ve been to about digital change in publishing.” They challenged me to come up with an approach and to take on programming the event.

What I hit upon then as a differentiating proposition was to make Digital Book World focus on the business issues created by digital change in trade book publishing. We wouldn’t focus on tech, per se. We wouldn’t focus on how digital change would affect publishers who didn’t rely primarily on bookstores to reach their customers. It has long been my belief that general trade publishers would be the most challenged by the digital transition because their core proposition, their key value-add, was putting books into bookstores.

That’s worked for us very well. Not only have we had three very successful DBWs, I believe we have really helped focus the conversation about the digital transition. When we booked agents to speak at DBW 2010, it was the first time they had been featured at an industry event on digital change. Of course, the agents’ role — and the nature of their organizations — has changed as much as publishers and booksellers have in recent years. We’ve looked at the globalizing impact of the digital transition, how bookstores are coping with it, how publishers’ relationships with libraries are changing, and, repeatedly, how digital change is affecting trade publishers’ organizations, staffing, and workflows.

Then in 2012, Michael Cader and I formed Publishers Launch Conferences because, as big and sprawling and complete as DBW is (and with 30 different breakout sessions plus a ton of plenary programming, 150 or more speakers, and about 2000 attendees, it is definitely the biggest conversation about digital change for trade publishers held anywhere on the planet), we can’t cover everything there and we need interim conversations throughout the year.

As it happens, PLC is letting us focus on subsets of the broader conversation — one might call them “verticals” — that require a deeper dive. Last year we used that capability to deliver “eBooks for Everyone Else”, the primer for ebook publishing without an IT department, in New York and San Francisco and a half-day show dedicated to children’s book publishing in Frankfurt. Both of these ultimately enriched DBW itself; we made “eBEE” a breakout track and did our own full day Pub Launch standalone on children’s book publishing as a co-located event at DBW 2012.

We have two exciting vertical shows lined up for Pub Launch 2013 that will definitely spawn programming for DBW tracks.

“Publishing in the Cloud”, which we’ll stage on July 26 at Baruch on 25th and Lexington in Manhattan, is about SaaS (“Software as a Service”) for publishing. We think SaaS is starting to change publishing practices, workflows, and the IT departments themselves. SaaS will mean a totally different deployment of technology resources for big publishers and enable capabilities that were previously out of reach for smaller publishers.

Although almost all the from-stage presentations at “Cloud” will be by publishers who are using SaaS services, the suppliers will be there too. They’ll meet the delegates at their sponsor tables during breaks and will also participate in “speed-dating” sessions, where the attendees meet sponsors and the speakers in small groups that enable exchanges about the very specific challenges attendees come to the conference to have addressed.

“Publishers Launch Hollywood”, which will take place on October 22 at the Hollywood Renaisssance, will be the first conference event specifically designed to introduce the movie and TV communities to the new opportunities created by digital publishing. Networks, studios, producers, screenwriters, and agents in LA all control properties that would make books that can sell and can now be delivered at a nominal cost. We know of one major studio about to announce a program to sell 300 “classic” scripts as ebooks. NBC, the one major network not already affiliated with a publisher (CBS has S&S, ABC has Hyperion, and Fox has HarperCollins) has started its own ebook publishing operation. These initiatives are the tip of an opportunity iceberg and we plan to bring that message to Hollywood and deliver the information about all the new ways that exist for film and TV properties to generate more fame and more revenue that are now readily available.

Both SaaS and publishing’s Hollywood connection will find their way to the DBW program for next January. They join a list of topics we think are moving up on the agenda for publishers and that we’ll want to cover pretty thoroughly at DBW 2013..

Digital is making the world smaller. That creates opportunity for US publishers to sell more abroad and opportunity for foreign publishers to sell more here. We will feature more on export, more on import, and more conversation with international publishers in general next January. (There’s quite a bit of this on our PLC BEA show, which will take place on June 4.)

Pretty clearly, DRM (digital rights management) is an element in transition in our dymanic ebook world. We’d say that conversation began in earnest at DBW 2012 when Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of ebookseller Anobii, made his plea to eliminate DRM as a way to combat Kindle lock-in. Now Pottermore is selling DRM-free ebooks, getting heretofore inconceivable concessions from Amazon and other ebook retailers as a result, and Macmillan has just announced that their Tor.com division will make the same switch in the next two months. The future of DRM, and, more to the point for us, the impact on piracy and on the overall marketplace, will be front and center at DBW 2013.

Discovery is a topic that has been on our minds for some time, but it is getting increasingly crucial as bookstores decline. Discovery is about metadata, of course, and that’s a subject we’ve covered at DBW before (and will again.) Many social reading and sharing options are being developed. Whether these give publishers and authors the tools they need to propel a book to the level of awareness necessary to get sales and word-of-mouth rolling is something we’ll definitely be trying to learn more about at DBW 2013.

The importance of brand and community is increasingly obvious. I’ve been thinking about a whole conference on verticals (which we’ll probably do as a Publishers Launch event in 2013), but we’ll start that process at DBW 2013. The best example we know of a multi-niche publisher is F+W Media, the owners of DBW. I think 2013 may be their time for a more featured role in the programming. Under the same heading, we take note of name-gathering efforts at several major houses. How names get gathered, how they get segmented and used, and what difference it is making to increase sales and reduce marketing costs will be a prime topic at DBW 2013, particularly now that Pottermore has shown us a whole new way name-gathering efforts might work.

As the traditional paths to market (bookstores) atrophy and sales of books prove more difficult to get, alternate revenue opportunities are going to grow in importance. We know of some. For one thing, international markets are more accessible. There are also new business propositions like Semi-Linear “citia” apps for high-concept non-fiction and Yummly for recipes and food content that offer publishers licensing revenues. And publishers may learn that some of their future dollars will come to them in pennies. Micro-transactions enabled by Copyright Clearance Center (a Publishers Launch global sponsor, but also the purveyors of Rightslink, a capability we think publishers will increasingly find indispensable as a rights marketing tool) and AcademicPub, among others, will likely deserve a real airing by DBW 2013.

We’re also seeing new models developing inside and outside of publishing houses and we’ll be putting examinations of them on the program too. Late last year, Penguin launched Book Country (a portal to help fledgling writers improve their work and get to market) and Sourcebooks is pioneering an “agile” publishing model with futurist David Houle (a hit with our DBW 2012 audience whom we’ll probably bring back in 2013.) Sourcebooks and F+W are also trying subscriptions, a model pioneered by O’Reilly with Safari a decade ago. To the extent that DRM fades, experimentation is further enabled. New models will be an important topic by next January.

We’ll also be gathering data from any source we can and as we have at all DBWs past. Self-publishing is a subject that is bound to get coverage beyond Book Country; I’d love to assemble a panel of self-publishing authors that have turned down major deals (and have really done it themselves instead, not signed with Amazon as their publishers!) And, of course, ebook pricing will be a topic we’ll figure out a way to cover even though most of the retailer and publisher players feel highly constrained talking about it.

The digital transition won’t last forever. Transitions don’t. At some point, the transition is over and we’re into a new world. But if one prediction for eight months from now is safe, I think it would be that we’ll still be in a state of flux next January, with a year away as hard to predict then as it was last January. Digital Book World every January and Publishers Launch Conferences throughout the year still have a lot more value to deliver.

What I want from writing this piece are suggestions for what we should cover at DBW. What do you think the burning issues will be in publishing’s digital transition by next January? We’ll be convening the DBW Conference Council at the end of June to discuss this question, but we’d love to be further informed by your thoughts by then. Comments are fine; sending us emails (to [email protected]) is fine; making suggestions to us when you see us at other shows is also fine. But please tell us what you think.

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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 Tor.com, 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 BN.com 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.

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