David Wilk

“Scale” is a theme everybody in publishing needs to be thinking about, so we’ve made it the focus of our next Publishers Launch Conference


The overarching theme of our upcoming Publishers Launch Conference at BookExpo America on May 29 is “scale”. I thank my PLC partner, Michael Cader, for urging that we label that as a core concern worthy of being the centerpiece for a day’s discussion. (With that nudge, I identified “scale”, along with “verticalization” and “atomization”, as one of the three big forces driving publishing change in the current era of transition.)

We’re covering “scale” from many angles on May 29.

The program will kick off with a presentation from Pete McCarthy, formerly a digital marketing strategist at Random House, about moving beyond our standard understanding of “industry data” — what we learn about the industry in the aggregate from BookStats and Bowker and others — to mining and analyzing the massive amounts of public data about readers: who they are and where they are. The data we care about, and that can really help us, isn’t labeled “book publishing data” but is far more useful and actionable than much of what we try to decipher meaning from that is tagged that way.

The requirements of scale threaten to really change the business of literary agents. Since the rise of agents as intermediaries between publishers and authors in the 1950s and 1960s, it has always been possible for agents to operate as very tiny operations. Single-agent offices have never been terribly unusual, and agents could run a successful business with a handful of prosperous clients, or even just one! The unusual convention in publishing by which the buyer (the publisher) customarily pays for the lunch at which the seller (the agent) learns about the buyer’s likes and priorities has been a symbol of the viability of this highly decentralized world.

But those times are changing. The opportunities for self-publishing and the requirements for authors to be self-promoters have placed new demands on literary agency offices. It is often no longer sufficient to have knowledge of acquiring editors and what they want and a network of foreign co-agents who can help place projects in other languages and territories. Agencies large and small are adding self-publishing services, which can include capabilities as mundane as getting cover art designed and as sophisticated as distribution to a global network of ebook retailers. This adds the potential for “conflict” for the agents. In some cases, agencies have chosen a course that might present a choice for an author between a publisher’s deal and their agent’s deal.

These changes and the challenges they present will be discussed by three agents — Brian DeFiore of DeFiore and Company, Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media Group, and Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management — in a conversation that will be moderated by Michael Cader.

We will have presentations from three publishers about how they are employing scale. David Nussbaum of F+W Media (owners of our Digital Book World partners) will talk about how they support a variety of vertical businesses with central services providing ecommerce and event management that make it possible for all their communities to benefit from a wider variety of offerings and capabilities. Ken Michaels of Hachette will describe some of his company’s solutions to knotty challenges like digital marketing and metadata quality that they are then making available industry-wide as SaaS offerings. And Jeff Abraham of Random House will be talking about their efforts to utilize scale in a new publishing environment, to drive efficiency and reach in the supply chain and to reach consumers more effectively via their marketing programs.

Ben Evans of Enders Analysis studies big companies that operate at scale far beyond our industry but whose activities very much affect us: namely Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. His presentation will focus on how their strategies and activities influence the environment for the publishing industry, with insights as to how publishers can surf the waves of these giants’ activities rather than be overwhelmed by them.

As publishers have rethought their organizations in the past several years, the words “business development” have popped up in publishing job titles, which they never had before. We’ll have four publishers talking about what “business development” means to them: Peter Balis of John Wiley, Andrea Fleck-Nisbet of Workman, Adam Silverman of HarperCollins, and Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster, in a panel conversation moderated by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.

Brian Napack was President of Macmillan for several years; he’s now an investor at Providence Equity Partners. In a conversation with Michael Cader, Napack will discuss how he views the importance of scale as an investor and how his views have evolved since he was an operator in one of the large companies that might be challenged by the scale of even larger competitors.

The changes in publishing and the provision of services have also enabled publishing with less organization or investment and by the application of scale created outside publishing to new publishing enterprises. A panel of new publishers with roots outside the industry: Jennifer Day of the Chicago Tribune, Steve Kobrin of Wharton Digital Press, Alison Uncles of the Toronto Star/Star Dispatches, and David Wilk of Frederator Books will talk about how their organizations publish in ways that wouldn’t have been possible or even conceivable a few short years ago on a panel that will be moderated by longtime Harper executive and digital pioneer Carolyn Pittis.

Dan Lubart of Iobyte Solutions has been tracking ebook sales data for years and has been providing the data and analysis behind the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Lubart will present insights from “behind” the bestseller list data, including a deeper dive into the trends relating to ebook pricing. The ebook bestseller lists have been the evidence of strong challenges to the publishers who operate with scale on their side, as an increasing number of self-published authors have seen their work rise to the very top of the charts.

Our conference will also tackle the special problems facing illustrated book publishing. The success of ebooks has been pretty much confined to narrative reading made reflowable on devices of any screen size. No formula or format has yet proven to work commercially for illustrated books. We’ll address that question from two angles.

Ron Martinez of Aerbook is the best thinker we know around the question of making creative complex ebooks and apps more efficiently. His company has developed its own tool, Aerbook Maker, to address that challenge. But Ron is also knowledgeable about and respectful of other efforts, including tools from Apple and Inkling, that reduce the cost of experimentation for illustrated book publishers looking for ways to deliver an appealing and commercially viable digital version of their content. He will kick off our discussion of the challenges for illustrated book publishing by reviewing the tools and best practices for lower-cost experimentation. And in his quest to improve the margins for illustrated book publishers delivering virtual versions, he has also worked out what might be a marketing and distribution tool that can improve the equation from the revenue side.

Ron will be followed by a panel of illustrated book publishers talking about how they plan to thrive in an environment where the virtual solution hasn’t arrived and the store environment is becoming more challenging. Joseph Craven of the Quarto Group, Tim Greco of Dorling Kindersley, Lindy Humphreys of Abrams, and Mary Ann Naples of Rodale will discuss these issues in a panel moderated by Lauren Shakely, who faced these challenges herself as the longtime publisher at Crown Illustrated.

Our normal practice at Publishers Launch Conferences, which this review of our planned show spells out, is to put the smartest and most articulate players really dealing with the challenges of digital change in the spotlight to talk about what they’re doing and what they’re facing. This has the virtue of showcasing real solutions to real problems.

Frankly, our view is that very few of the outside disruptors, often tech- and private equity-centric start-ups providing “solutions” to the problems as they perceive them, have gained much traction or added much value. We’ll get more perspective on that from our “business development” panel, who are the ones in their companies charged with interacting with the aspirants, but we stick to the belief that there is more to be gained by watching what the established publishing players and the biggest companies in technology are doing than in tracking the theories spawned by industry outsiders who think their insights will change our world.

But we recognize a weakness to our approach. There are some things the established players just can’t discuss. We can’t expect Random House and Penguin — or their biggest competitors — to talk about what the merger of the two biggest publishers will mean to the marketplace. We can’t expect publishers who must trade with Amazon and Barnes & Noble to discuss the impact of their unique marketplace power — one in online sales and one in brick-and-mortar — on publishers’ margins. We can’t expect agents and publishers to talk candidly about when and whether established authors might be willing to eschew their bookstore sales in favor of higher margins on their online sales through a direct tie to Amazon.

But Michael Cader and I have informed opinions on these subjects and neither of us is looking for a job in the industry beyond the one we already have, which is, from our different perches and platforms, to call them as we see them. So we’re going to engage in a 30-minute 1-on-1 discussion of the topics we think it would be hard for the speakers we recruit to discuss as candidly as we will.

I think our discussion will be a highlight of what will be a stimulating day. Frankly, I’m looking forward to all of it. Join us if you possibly can.

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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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Business models are changing; trial and error will ensue


The announcement late last week that Random House is starting three digital-first imprints was just the most recent example showing that publishers are exploring new business models. Just days earlier we got news of the partnership between Simon & Schuster and Author Solutions making S&S the third major publisher — preceded by Christian publishing titan Thomas Nelson and dominant romance publisher Harlequin — to put their name to an offering in the “author services” sector.

One might say that S&S is the first of the Big Six to take such a big step in this direction, except that Pearson, Penguin’s parent company, actually bought Author Solutions a couple of months ago and HarperCollins bought Thomas Nelson last year. So, in fact, three of the Big Six are now involved with author services and it is four out of six if you remember the other recent big news, that Penguin and Random House are merging. (And that’s not counting more modest initiatives like HarperCollins’s “Authonomy” or Penguin’s “Book Country”.)

I remember being on a panel in Canada a few years ago with Carolyn Pittis, the very smart digital pioneer from HarperCollins, who referred to the way most publishers did business — buying the right to exploit copyrights and then monetizing them — as one possible business model for a publisher’s organization. She explicitly mentioned “author services” as another one. That was before her company had launched Authonomy, a couple of years before “Book Country”. In other words, big publishers have been thinking for a while about “author-pays” models (just as the professional publishers have).

This really all follows the lead of Amazon, which has made a practice for years of selling a la carte every component of its own value chain. I was just reading an ebook called “The Amazon Economy” published by The Financial Times (an example of a non-book publisher adjusting its own business model to include being a book publisher, about which more on another day) that suggested that Amazon actually makes more money making its infrastructure available to others than it does using it to sell stuff.

In other words, there is potentially profit in deconstructing one’s value chain and selling access to it in pieces.

In a sense, publishers have known this for a long time. They’ve made the part of their operation that handles things after the books exist: warehousing, distribution, credit and collection, and sales available to other publishers for years. Some publishers, like Random House, have built distribution into a significant business with its own management structure within the corporation. Perseus, which as a publisher is itself a roll-up of a number of smaller houses, has built a distribution service that has more than 300 clients. Ingram, whose core wholesaling operation combined with the Lightning subsidiary they built in the 1990s to provide print-on-demand and later digital services, has a comparable publisher distribution offering.

But what Author Solutions — and a host of less robust (and largely cheaper) competitors — has shown is that there is also very widespread demand for the services that precede the actual delivery of books ready for sale.

I have no way except inference to know how Nelson and Harlequin are doing with their author services offering powered by Author Solutions, but the fact that Penguin parent Pearson bought them and S&S has now done this deal certainly suggests that ASI has a good story to tell. Of course, they are market leaders because they make money, and they make money by having good margins. And the prices announced for the services for the Archway initiative — ASI’s project with S&S — are higher than those services could be purchased for elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they won’t sell lots of aspiring authors on using them.

This is all very logical, but also very tricky. Most publishers — at least until very recently — would have thought about the services they sold in a distribution bundle as “commodities”, widely available and highly comparable. It is true that any of the major publishers, many minor ones, and distributors even beyond Ingram and Perseus can deliver the core capabilities: active accounts with all the major retailers, the ability to transact with them and collect the money, and placement of the messages of availability throughout the supply chain. Obviously, they all strive to do these things better than the next guy and to justify charging a point or two more because they’re better at it.

But further up the value chain the publishers’ pride and belief in a qualitative difference between what they have and what the next guy has is much greater. Publishers generally believe in their editors and marketers more than they believe in their sales forces and warehouses. (Buddies of mine in sales 20 years ago used to say, with conscious irony, that there were two kinds of books: editorial successes and sales and marketing failures.) They see their time and bandwidth as precious. They are far more reluctant to make that time available for rent and, in fact, it would appear that all three of the big publisher deals with Author Solutions rely on ASI to provide those capabilities. They’re not coming from the publishers themselves.

All of this sidesteps another important component of successful publishing: the coordination of all these activities. Successful publishing is the result of a lot of very small decisions: in editing, in presentation (both the book itself and the metadata, like catalog copy and press releases, that support it), and, increasingly, in the SEO tags and signals about “placement” that are included in the book’s digital file or marketing metadata. In the digital age, these things can change over time. Every day’s news — about UN votes or Pentagon sex scandals or anything else — could call for a change in the metadata around a book published a month or a year ago to make it more likely to be shown by the search engine queries being placed today.

(The FT ebook on Amazon, which I recommend, makes it clear that Amazon also sells “coordination” on the retail side as an extremely important, and apparently much-appreciated, value-add.)

Indeed, whether to put more effort into a book or stop paying attention to it is — or should be — based on an analysis of sales and search trends, as well as more old-style measures like the reviews it is getting.

In the old pre-internet days, publishing books was like launching rockets. Most crashed to the earth, some went into orbit. But the publisher’s efforts — most of the time — were limited to the launch. Then the marketing team could move on. This was not a way of doing business that was appealing to authors, but it was consistent with the realities of the marketplace. The big book chains wouldn’t keep a title in stock if its sales appeal wasn’t evident at the cash register within 90 days. Without copies of a title in the stores, there was no point to the publisher pushing it.

That’s something that has changed dramatically in the digital age. With some titles and genres achieving half their sales through ebooks or online bookselling, there is no longer a time limit on marketing effectiveness. In what is a subject we will certainly explore at a future conference, this must be causing traffic jams in publishers’ marketing departments. They can no longer be counting on the older titles making way and clearing marketers’ schedules to work on newer ones.

Open Road is a digital-only publisher that works primarily, but not exclusively, with backlist. (Recently they seem also to be specializing in books brought in from offshore publishers and in helping illustrated book publishers break into ebooks.) What impressed me when I met with them a year ago was that they didn’t distinguish between “frontlist” and “backlist”. They marketed to the calendar and the events and holidays everybody was thinking about, not to the newness of their books. I believe this actually brought increased relevance to their marketing. Obviously, this was also making a virtue of necessity because they didn’t have a flow of “new” books to tout. But it also capitalized on the new situation: that the books don’t suddenly become largely unavailable because retailers throw them off the shelves.

A by-product of the extended sales life of books is that it makes it easier for publishers to cluster them for marketing purposes. Now four books on a similar topic can be pushed in unison, even if they were published months or even years apart. Open Road has made ample use of that reality.

These are challenges and opportunities that compel publishers to rethink the organization of their marketing departments and the deployment of their marketing resources. It is an opportunity for a publisher to extend its value to an author if it pushes an author’s book six months or a year later when a related title hits the marketplace or a news event makes an older book newly relevant. Since authors are increasingly able to do some useful things on their own behalf to capitalize on these opportunities, they will be increasingly impatient with publishers that quit on their books too soon..

There are things the author just can’t do. They can’t adjust the book’s metadata and add tags. They can’t push for or buy promotional screen placement from the retailers when somebody else’s new book makes them suddenly relevant again. Authors also don’t have the benefit of arriving at marketing best practices and rules of thumb by examining performance data across various groupings of titles: large title sets, categorized sets, comparable-selling sets, and others. They’re counting on the publishers to do that.

The publisher’s role in coordinating and managing a myriad of details has always been one of its principal value-adds and it can be even more so in the digital age. But only if they actually do it, and there’s precious little indication that they intend to do it for the titles they’re being paid for.

Jane Friedman (the blogger and expert advisor to writers, not the CEO of Open Road) points out that her alma mater, Writers Digest, and Hay House — the vertical publisher in mind-body-spirit that has done so well interacting with their reading audience — also did ASI deals. She points out that the big successes we all know about among self-published authors — John Locke, Joe Konrath, and Amanda Hocking being the headline names — didn’t go through ASI. Jane takes issue with the ASI promise to help publishers “monetize unpublished manuscripts”. It’s hard to dispute that publishers who are primarily in business to pay authors to publish them could be walking a fine line having a business model right alongside that charges authors for services that are unlikely to lead to them making money.

On the other hand, Random House has made an emphatic statement about the value legitimate publishers can bring with the success of “Fifty Shades of Gray”, originally a self-published story and now, very much thanks to the biggest publisher, the biggest commercial success of all time. No self-published book has come close and it will be a very long time before one does. I see their digital-first imprints (which they are not the first to launch, but seem to be the first promoting aggressively to the self-publishing diaspora) as a step toward a different business model that recognizes the new commercial realities of publishing. It enables lower-investment publishing — the authors in these digital-first imprints are unlikely to receive advances at levels commensurate with most Random House books — and perhaps they’ll get less editing attention too. Marketing is simplified by the fact that print isn’t involved and therefore retail stores aren’t either. So the threshold for profitability is much lower and, as we have learned, they can still decide to give any book in these new imprints the “full treatment” — print copies stacked up in stores — later on if they want to.

It is too early to judge whether the tie-up between publishing houses and author services offers will produce value on all sides. All these publishers now have or will have, at the very least, a stable of self-published authors that are contributing margin to them and in which they have a financial stake (even if they didn’t have to invest to get it). There is definitely inherent conflict between trying to make the most money one can from an author hiring publishing services and recruiting authors and books that will be commercially successful.

But publishers still know how to make books with commercial potential sell better than mere civilians do. Whether ASI and their partner publishers can find the formula that makes the promise inherent in a publisher’s brand productive for authors that hire services under it is a question that will be answered in the months to come.

Having more companies trying to figure it out certainly improves the odds that somebody will (and ASI has every interest in spreading best practices as they emerge). And more and more cheaper services for those aspects of self-publishing that really are commodities means that ASI and all its partners are going to have to demonstrate convincingly that they can add effective marketing to their offering mix if they’re going to be around ten years from now.

Michael Cader and I are doing our first Authors Launch show, in partnership with our friends at Digital Book World, on Friday, January 18, the day after the 2-day DBW 2013 will end. The question of where the line gets drawn between publisher efforts and author efforts is a major topic. We have a great roster of experts to serve as faculty: the aforementioned Jane Friedman, along with Porter Anderson, Jason Allen Ashlock, Dan Blank, ex-Random House marketer Pete McCarthy, co-authors Randy Susan Meyers and M.J. Rose, Meryl Moss, and David Wilk. Among the publishers speaking will be Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Matt Schwartz of Random House. This is a conference really intended for published authors rather than self-published, but it will teach skills and insights for any author willing to invest time and effort to sell their book.

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Publishers Launch conference at BEA will cover a wide range of digital change issues


What are the important topics to discuss today concerning publishing and digital change? I think we’ve got most of them covered at Publishers Launch BEA, the one-day conference we’ll stage at the Javits Center next Monday, June 4.

Our all-day event has sixteen distinct presentations and panels. There may be a topic of interest to somebody somewhere that we won’t cover, but we’re definitely not missing much.

The day will begin with a review of recent industry developments from Publishers Launch co-founder Michael Cader. As I write this, the news of the moment is “Waterstones will sell Kindles”. That event, and others that may follow between now and then, will be put into context by the man who prepares our daily Publishers Lunch. Michael likes to point out the topics we spend more time discussing than they’re worth. Those observations are always amusing and insightful.

We’ve noticed that cloud solutions — commonly called SaaS, “software as a service” — are becoming increasingly important in the operations at publishing houses. We think the topic is so important, in fact, that we’ve scheduled an all day conference called “Book Publishing in the Cloud” for July 26 in New York. Ken Michaels, the COO of Hachette Book Group USA, is a big proponent of SaaS and believes it could change the way we work, together and separately, as an industry. He’ll kick off our conference describing what he sees as the opportunity for publishers represented by cloud solutions.

Then a panel of four publishers will talk about a very much related subject: how publishing houses are remaking their processes and workflows to respond to the demands of the digital age. Publishing veteran David Wilk will chair that panel, which will include Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks, Sara Domville of F+W Media, Joe Mangan of Perseus, and Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins. All of these companies are doing some very basic things quite differently than they did only a couple of years ago and these executives will discuss how things have changed, how hard it was to change, and what benefits have come to them because they did change.

We like to feature short conversations with industry players who have a unique view. One of these is Molly Barton, who is the global digital director for Penguin. Molly is the only digital head I know today who started out inside the publishing house as an acquiring editor. Now she has a view of digital change around the world from the top of one of the world’s biggest book publishing empires and within an even larger publishing company that has many digital irons in the fire. I’ll have an onstage conversation with Molly, and we’ll cover a wide range of topics from DRM to enhancement to whatever might have arisen earlier that morning.

After Molly, we’ll move to a new feature of Publishers Launch Conferences: the Publishers Launchpad sessions. Launchpad is our slot for introducing new products and services. When we debuted it at Digital Book World last January, we were pleased to recruit a consulting client of my Idea Logical Company, Linda Holliday of Semi-Linear, to moderate the sessions. On June 4, Linda’s own new product will be the kickoff Launchpad subject.

And Linda’s new product, Citia, has as its objective nothing less than reinventing the presentation of high-concept non-fiction in the digital age. It is a shamelessly ambitious undertaking, literally deconstructing and then reconstructing the ideas in a book. The debut Citia title will be “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly, from Penguin, the house of the previous speaker, Molly Barton. Barton is one of the biggest fans of the new Citia presentation of material. Michael Cader will interview Linda and they’ll show you how the complex ideas we previously could only access through narrative text and illustrations can be rethought and made clearer with what I call, for simplicity, “Cliff’s Notes for the Digital Age” but which is really much more than that.

Then Linda will bring on two other new propositions as part of the Launchpad session. Both of them are new SaaS services to make ebooks.

The simpler proposition is from Hugh McGuire and is called Pressbooks. It is a free XML ebook-making tool built on WordPress that enables users to produce epub and PDF files on the web.

The other tool is called Aerbook Maker, created by Ron Martinez of Invention Arts. Aerbook makes enhanced ebooks and both HTLM5 and native apps. It is a tool that allows mixing in audio and video and interactive elements without advanced programming skills.

Then, before lunch (aren’t you hungry already?), we’ll have our agents panel. Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent will moderate a great agent group that includes Laura Dail of Laura Daily Literary Agency, Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, and Jennifer Weltz of The Jean V. Naggar Agency. They’ll be discussing both the changes in the business of agenting and the dynamic negotiating climate with the publishers. We’ll learn what they’re thinking about managing their digital backlist and what new skill sets they think their authors will be demanding of them.

Kelly Gallagher of Bowker will kick things off after lunch with with the latest report from their new Global eBook Monitor (GeM), a global look at ebook uptake around the world. Gallagher will feature “country level data” to a degree that hasn’t previously been revealed. We’re looking forward to it.

One key premise about digital change is that the world is getting smaller and publishers will find it easier to sell books, particularly ebooks, in territories other than their own. Our panel called “Sales Across the Borders — Import” will look at the increased penetration of ebooks from abroad, particularly in languages other than English. I’ll moderate a group of three panelists: Patricia Arancibia, Editorial Director, International Digital Content, for Barnes & Noble, consultant Javier Celaya from Spain, and Spanish publisher Blanca Rosa Roca of Roca Editorial. Blanca Rosa is doing some very innovative things to get her books into the US market in both Spanish and English. (She’s just created an English language ebook publisher called Barcelona eBooks and forged a partnership with Open Road for marketing and distribution.) Javier consults to companies throughout Europe and will report on how publishers, particularly in Spain, Italy, and France, are viewing this opportunity. And Patricia wrangles content for B&N to sell from all over the world. There are very few people, if indeed there is anybody, who knows more about this subject than she does. One wrinkle on this topic is that other-language publishers are now translating their own books into English to hit the English-speaking ebook market. One thing we’ll want to learn from our panelists is how commonplace they expect to see that practice become.

The complementary panel, which will be moderated by longtime sales executive Jack Perry, is “Sales Across the Borders — Export”. For this one we’ve gathered three experienced export sales executives: Chris Dufault of Random House, David Wolfson of HarperCollins, and Dan Vidra, who has just this month left Simon & Schuster to work for the new German-based (but global and multi-language) ebook platform, textr. They’ll be joined by David Cully, the President Retail Markets/EVP Merchandising for Baker & Taylor, the US wholesaler that has long been a global leader helping US publishers sell their books abroad. This panel will tell us what markets are showing the most promise for US publishers, how the sales growth of ebooks is affecting the sales of print, and how the growth of export might be impacting the related business of selling foreign translation rights. (We’ll be able to cross-check what they say with what the agents will have told us a couple of hours before.)

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo is always a popular speaker at publishing events because he shares interesting data. This time we’ve asked Michael to focus on what Kobo has learned from its recent experience in new markets, particularly the UK and France where Kobo tied up with major retailers. What we’ll want to know for non-English markets particularly is how powerful the draw of wide title selection in English is. Will ebookstores in other countries really expand the sale of our books in English around the world? Tamblyn will certainly get us started on answering that question.

Our final chunk of programming in the afternoon is all about change.

Fritz Foy is Macmillan’s EVP for digital. Macmillan made news a couple of weeks ago when they announced that they would be going DRM-free with their Tom Doherty Associates imprints including Tor, Forge and other related sci fi and fantasy imprints. We immediately called him and got him to agree to talk about that on the program. Foy is going to do a presentation that recaps Macmillan’s thinking about this question, which he says goes back several years. Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the anti-DRM crusader who is one of Tor’s key authors, Macmillan had already experimented with it. Foy promises us there will be surprises and at least one news announcement coming from his presentation. We’ll be surprised right along with you when we find out what it is.

Phil Ollila of Ingram Content Group accepted our challenge to comb their sales data for clues about how bookstores and other retailers have been changing their stocking decisions in recent years. The short summary of Ollila’s findings, which are summarized in an article he did for our conference book (all Publishers Launch Conferences have a printed conference book!), suggest that fiction is down, some surprising categories are up, and that what publishers can expect is more titles in more different stores with fewer sales per store per title.

We’ll have a bit of a change of pace with a presentation by David Steinberger, the one who is Founder and CEO of the Comixology platform. (There is another David Steinberger, of course, who is the CEO of Perseus.) Comics constitute a very big global business that operates in silos by language and by country. Will it stay that way? Will the rights and cultural issues that have kept the market from globalizing continue to do so in the digital age? As the creator of the most successful comics-selling platform in the US and a man with an eye for the world stage, Steinberger is in a unique position to speculate on the answers. And perhaps we’ll get some insight about how other highly-illustrated genres with strong localized content — travel and food come to mind — might change because of the digital transition.

There is a growing consensus in the industry around two points that would have been controversial only two or three years ago. One is that bookstores are declining rapidly and will, unfortunately and in the not-too-distant future, atrophy to the point that they are a subsidiary channel for book sales, not the primary one. The other point is that the marketing exposure that books get in retail stores is a critical component of their early exposure, leading to the “discovery” by consumers that is the key to getting commercial traction. Our last two sessions of the day will focus on that challenge.

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex has been conducting studies of book purchasers for a decade, including careful tracking of how they learned about the books they bought and read. Peter is one of the greatest champions of the bookstore’s role in discovery, and perhaps the leading skeptic that search engine optimization and social network marketing can be an adequate substitute. In this presentation, Peter will make his case thoroughly backed with data from the years of research his company has done.

Then Peter will join our final panel of the day, one focused on “The Future of Book Discovery.” Two publishers that are doing a lot of work in this area, Amanda Close of Random House and Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Scott Stein, who heads up the book coverage for USA Today, will be part of that discussion, which will be moderated by Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center. One of Hildick-Smith’s key points is that there is a Catch-22: if you don’t know something about a book, you’re not likely to search for it. And unless somebody gets the ball rolling for a book, there’s nobody to comment on Facebook or Twitter to get you started that way. The publishers on the panel and the overseer of one of America’s most widely read book pages will talk about their efforts to build something new that will tell us about books the way window displays and stacks and face-out displays have for years.

After that, Cader and I will wrap up the day. Very briefly. We’ll all be very happily exhausted!

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What smaller publishers, agents, and authors need to know about ebook publishing


As the shift from a print-centric book world to a digital one accelerates, more and more digital publishers are creating themselves.

The biggest publishers, with the resources of sophisticated IT departments to guide them, have been in the game for years now and paying serious attention since the Kindle was launched by Amazon late in 2007. But as the market has grown, so has the ecosystem. And while three years ago it was possible to reach the lion’s share of the ebook market through one retailer, Amazon, on a device that really could only handle books of straight narrative text, we now have a dizzying array of options to reach the consumer on a variety of devices and with product packages that are as complicated as you want to make them.

Free or very inexpensive service offerings through web interfaces suggest to every publisher of any size, every literary agent, and every aspiring author “you can do this” and, the implication is, “effectively and without too much help”. Indeed, services like Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) service, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!, and service providers Smashwords and BookBaby, offer the possibility of creating an ebook from your document and distributing it through most ebook retailers, enabled for almost all devices, for almost no cash commitment.

Is it really that simple? One suspects not, since literary agencies are creating ebook publishers (for example: The Scott Waxman Agency’s Diversion) and baskets of services (for example: The Knight Agency in Atlanta) and consulting to help their authors. And a bit further upstream, ebook distribution companies (for example: MintRight) and ebook-first publishers (for examples: Open RoadRosetta, and the granddaddy of them all, Richard Curtis’s e-Reads) are creating more alternatives, sometimes propositions explicitly addressed to the agents. If publishing ebooks to all channels were really a simple matter of uploading a file, it would hardly seem necessary to build all this infrastructure.

We know that small publishers, literary agents, and authors are becoming publishers at an astounding rate. Two years ago when I was trying to organize a panel of literary agents to talk about working with authors on a charge-for-services basis instead of a share-the-royalties basis, it was hard to get volunteers to discuss new models. Two weeks ago, a major agent outside New York said to me, “we all have to think about it now; we have no choice.”

In short, it isn’t just the big publishers who are compelled to develop a digital strategy to adjust their businesses to changing times. Their smaller competitors, the agents they depend on to deliver their content, and even the authors that have always just depended on the publishers to handle the business of getting a book from a manuscript to a purchase, are all assessing the new landscape. They are considering what new approaches might reduce or eliminate their need for a publisher, or at least reduce the publisher’s share of the take.

Although the correct strategy for any entity would depend on the factors that prevail in each case, there are things it would seem that everybody entering this arena needs to know and understand.

First of all, what are all the things publishers do to get from manuscript to sale, are all the steps necessary, and what do they cost? Developmental editing, copy-editing, mark-up for design, creating metadata: these are all things publishers do routinely. Are they critical for every book? Would a purchaser-reader notice if a publishing newbie left any of them out? Will the services that promise to make and distribute an ebook without a cash investment do these things well?

The ebooks themselves have gotten increasingly complicated. The ebook standard epub (used for just about every ebook not intended for the Kindle ecosystem) has risen to the challenge posed by apps to be able to accommodate color and video and audio and software elements. Everybody who knows that “you get what you pay for” expects complicated ebooks to take more effort and money to create than ebooks of straight narrative text. But what constitutes “complex”? And how much more money does that additional effort cost the publisher that wants to deliver an ebook more complicated than just simple text?

Marketing ebooks also requires a whole new set of knowledge and skills. The key to all ebook marketing is the accompanying metadata: coding that travels along with the file specifying its core bibliographic information and price, but which can also tell a retailer or a search engine much more than that. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of delivering metadata that makes the book more likely to be found in response to various searches and queries; that’s yet another set of understandings new ebook publishers have to acquire.

That is just the beginning of what is possible (and therefore necessary) in ebook marketing. Sample chapters can be given away. Web sites can be invoked as partners.

And authors and publishers can, and therefore must, engage in “social network marketing”: using Twitter and Facebook and commenting in high-profile streams to catch attention and gain credibility with core audiences for the books. This is more knowledge to acquire.

Any new publisher will need to understand the paths to market. Yes, Amazon gets more than half of the US ebook sales and Barnes & Noble gets half of the rest. But it isn’t that way on every book, ignoring the others leaves a big chunk of the market unexploited, and things are changing quickly. Amazon’s market share has dropped by a huge percentage in the past two years.) OverDrive is the primary path to libraries. Ingram aggregates many independent stores. Baker & Taylor is opening up markets among mass merchants. Kobo is as important in Canada as B&N is in the US and works in markets all over the world. Google has the ebook ecosystem making the most serious penetration of independent book retailers. Sony is about to introduce new devices that could increase their importance. And Apple is doing its best to dominate sales to its own device holders, who constitute a large wedge of the ebook customer pie.

One can go to all of these channels directly but there are also a slew of services to handle what is the increasingly complex job of delivering to and administering the multiple channels. Perseus Constellation, Ingram Digital, INscribe DigitalLibreDigital (just bought by Donnelley), and Bookmasters as well as the automated services like Smashwords, BookBaby, and MintRight we mentioned above, and others offer service packages to do that and to help with the creation and marketing needs as well.

As we said at the top, nowhere is the change in publishing greater than in the agent community. What has been a stable business model for generations is now, suddenly, changing. There seem to be as many new models and approaches as there are literary agencies. That adds another thing that all of the fledging epublishers — some of which are agents, others being small publishers and authors — need to know about and understand. The relationships among authors, agents, and publishers are getting much more complicated and everybody needs to spend some time thinking that through and discussing what it means.

If all this strikes you as a set of topics worthy of a day’s discussion, we’re in agreement. We think it is too. And that’s why our new Publishers Launch Conferences partnership with Michael Cader is delivering a day-long event called “eBooks for Everyone Else” in New York (in conjunction with The Center for Publishing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies) on Monday, September 26 and in San Francisco (co-located with F+W Media’s new StoryWorld conference) on Wednesday, November 2.

Not only do we have an expert-packed lineup to deliver the information, we’ve carved out time for our attendees to get their own specific questions answered by the experts and by the providers of many of the services that are part of the new ecosystem. If the business of ebook publishing is part of your future strategy, you’re bound to get the knowledge and make the connections you need at eBooks for Everyone Else.

Among the leading service providers who will participate in eBooks for Everyone Else in New York and be available for “speed-dating” conversations with attendees are our global sponsors Copyright Clearance Center, Constellation, and Bowker, as well as supporting sponsors Ingram Content Group, INscribe Digital, B&N’s PubIt!, Kobo, and BookBaby. (Kobo and PubIt! will be speaking from the main stage as well.)

Our New York show features an all-star lineup of literary agents including Jane Dystel, Robert Gottlieb, Sloan Harris, and Scott Waxman. We have a distinguished group of publishing veterans — including Jack Perry and David Wilk, Smashwords founder Mark Coker, Renee Register, Iris Blasi, Rich Fahle, Ron Martinez, and Joshua Tallent — who will present advice and insight to help you develop a comprehensive ebook strategy. Most of them will be available at the breaks and alongside the speed-dating sessions to lead small group discussions and answer your questions about creating, marketing, and distributing your ebooks. (The San Francisco roster is slightly different, but just as powerful.)

Michael Cader and I will be moderating all the day’s activities, asking questions, and helping to put an enormous volume of facts into a strategic context for an audience with a staggering array of choices as to how to proceed with ebook publishing.

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Supply chain analysis could get even more important as store sales diminish


The necessity for publishers to reduce their hard-copy operating costs, the reality that smaller as well as fewer bookstores are inevitable, and the overall question of shrinking shelf space are topics we have explored before.  But it is intrinsically difficult for those of us who have been in the book business for decades to envision life without a robust bookstore channel. The current unfortunate news about Borders suggests that it won’t require a great imagination for very much longer.

One thing that has changed considerably in the last 20 years is the huge increase in information available to publishers about what is going on in the supply chain: that is, they can track the books between their own warehouse and the end consumer purchase. The Big Kahuna of information, of course, is provided by BookScan, based on cash register capture of data as books are sold at outlets all over the country. BookScan not only lets its subscribers see the activity on their own books; it gives everybody a view of every book in the industry.

But as valuable as the BookScan data can be to discern trends and the performance of competiton and potential competion in the marketplace, it has real limitations as well. Knowing the sales without knowing the inventory is like knowing the number of hits a batter had without knowing how many times the batter came to the plate or knowing how many games a team won but not knowing how many games they played. Some books that are scoring low in BookScan’s data never had a chance: there weren’t enough copies in stores to enable a robust sale. And some books that are scoring high in Bookscan’s data are not going to be profitable because the number of distributed copies that won’t sell (and which will end up back in the publisher’s possession) is higher than the number that do.

Over a decade ago, pioneered by Barnes & Noble and Ingram, the biggest retailers and wholesalers started to provide publishers with data about how their inventory was performing for that trading partner. This data had the advantage of being far more complete and analyzable, but a publisher could only look at their own books’ performance. Because BookScan presented summary global sales numbers and everybody’s books, the BookScan reporting was what tended to be of interest across a company: to editors and marketers and top executives. But the more granular view of a company’s own inventory provided by the individual account reports was pure gold for the sales department and for the then-emerging supply chain management function.

When we first started helping publishers mine these reports in the early part of the decade, the practice at most publishing houses was for somebody in the sales department to look at the weekly spreadsheets, extract whatever insight they could, and then throw them out when the next week’s reports arrived. We were handed an assignment by our friend Charlie Nurnberg, then VP and Director of Sales at then-independent publisher Sterling. (It is a pure coincidence that Charlie’s name never appeared in the blog until my last post and now he’s in two consecutive ones!)

Charlie said, “for years we had 1000 titles on our backlist. I got the B&N green bar report (there was a time when all computer reports were green bar reports) each week and went over it with a fine-tooth comb and I knew everything that was going on. Now we have 5000 titles on the backlist, I have delegated the coverage of B&N to two people, and I know things are falling between cracks. Can you help me get a handle on it?”

To respond to this request, we did two simple things. First we databased the reports, so we could look at data across a longer period than one week at a time. (For fast-moving titles, a week in a chain can tell you a lot, although it certainly can’t give you trending insight that multiple weeks give. For slower-moving titles, a week’s sales might tell you almost nothing at all.)

The second thing we did was to contruct some simple metrics, so we could sort the reports by something other than the total inventory and total sales for stores and distribution centers that B&N provided. There were two key things we looked at right off the bat: the percentage of the week’s store-on-sale inventory that had sold and the percentage of the book’s stock that was kept in the distribution center. The first trick was to look for books that had a high percentage sellthrough but a relatively low number of copies on sale in stores. Presumably putting more copies out in stores would increase sales to everybody’s advantage. The second trick was to find the books which had a high percentage of inventory in the distribution center. Those books, we felt, were in greater danger of being returned. In general, publishers prefer to keep excess inventory in their warehouse.

These weekly Flash Reports quickly proved to be very valuable. The first day I showed them to Charlie and his team, we sorted the warehouse percentage in descending order. The two books at the top had 5000 copies each in stock, all of them in the warehouse! It turns out those books had been there for three months. There was a flaw in the B&N system — repaired almost immediately as a result of this discovery — that allowed a bulk purchase to be made by a buyer but didn’t require a distribution plan for the books. Sales management at the publishers, focused on looking at books in descending order of sales (which is what Sterling and just about everybody else did with those reports), might never notice that books sitting in the warehouse and not distributed to stores were also reported in the same spreadsheet.

This tool for discovery was well-received by Sterling, but it was also well-received by B&N. Their very enlightened inventory management team understood that having publishers doing sound analysis of the data they provided could be helpful to them. After all, the books sitting in the warehouse were painful to B&N as well to Sterling; that inventory investment was on their balance sheet (and, as it turned out, these particular books had been purchased on a “no returns” basis!)

In time, the business of doing sales data analysis grew for us. In addition to the weekly Flash Reports, we designed Stock Turn Reports to enable meaningful analysis of slower-moving backlist. We started computing the overall stock turn for a publishers’ books by store section, which was necessary to really decide whether a title’s stock turn was good or bad. Turning 1.3 might be nowhere good enough in fiction, but it might be heroic in philosophy or poetry. All of this analysis began to demonstrate the realities of bookstore economics to the sales reps and it got them thinking the way the store buyers do, where stock turn is a critical metric.

It wasn’t long before other publishers were using what we called the Supply Chain Tracker service and asking us to provide the same insight from the data provided by other accounts. Soon we were doing similar analysis for data from Borders, Books-A-Million, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Amazon. For publishers using us across accounts, we were also able to provide a much wider view of how their inventory was performing. We built spreadsheets showing what the percentage sellthrough was across retailers and across wholesalers and distribution centers. This information helped our clients match the growth and shrinkage of inventory across all accounts to respond to rising, and then usually declining, sales of a title.

We discovered a great opportunity in cross-account exception reporting. We’d look for the books that sold well in Borders but were under-represented at B&N and, of course, the larger number of titles that were the opposite: selling well in B&N but not well represented at Borders. That, and the stark differences in stock turn and percentage sellthrough between the two chains, would have told a perceptive sales director many years ago to expect the problems the Borders chain faces today.

At its peak, about four or five years ago, we were delivering Supply Chain Tracker reports to quite a few publishers, including Hachette, Harcourt, Chronicle, and Motorbooks. We did tutorials on our techniques for several major publishers, among them S&S, HarperCollins, Penguin, Perseus, and Scholastic. And B&N supported our efforts to teach the analytical techniques to university presses, including Harvard, Yale, California, and Chicago.

David Young learned what we were doing when he was running Little Brown UK and soon we found ourselves applying our techniques to data provided to them by Waterstone’s. When TimeWarner was sold to Hachette, our efforts were spread further around the Hachette UK companies and, at one time, we were doing Waterstone’s reports for four different Hachette divisions in London.

But, over time, big companies saw the importance of this kind of supply chain analysis and they brought it inhouse and, in many cases, extended it. That wasn’t good for Supply Chain Tracker, but it was the right thing for those companies to do for themselves. We stopped doing this work for US clients two years ago; we’ve just had our last two British clients take the function in-house. So for the first time in eight years, sales data analysis is no longer part of what we do.

The level of sophistication of inventory management in the supply chain by big publishers has taken a huge leap in the time since we started doing this work. I think we provided some impetus for that leap. This analysis will, paradoxically, be of increasing commercial value as brick-and-mortar sales decline in the years to come. Getting inventory levels right in years of relatively stable print sales was a key to profitability. Getting inventories and printings right in the period of print sales decline we face for the forseeable future will be a key to survival.

I wear with pride the fact that nobody else programming a conference on “digital change in publishing” has chosen to feature agents — both their challenges and their opinions —  the way we do on the program at Digital Book World. But we’re also covering the topic of this post. We’ve put together a panel of very experienced sales executives (Jaci Updike from Random House, Michael Selleck from Simon & Schuster, Alison Lazarus from Macmillan, and Rich Freese from National Book Network and moderated by David Wilk, who has years of trade sales experience) to talk about the evolution of the sales department. Find that on somebody else’s digital change program! And good luck to the trade publisher who rides into the future without agents and managing down the print and physical supply chain top of mind.

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The sales paradigm needs to change


One of the functions of this blog is to predict important changes in the business just a bit before they happen. We think we were a bit ahead of the curve in seeing the ebook acceleration and in seeing the likely pressure on bookstore shelf space. Today it would seem that the next great pressure point in publishing houses is going to be the sales departments. In the next couple of years they will probably change more than they have in the last half-century.

When I first became aware of how the publishing business worked in the 1960s, the field reps (referred to frequently then as “the men”) were the key connection between the publishers and the market. The closest thing there were to national chains in the early 1960s were department store buying groups who seemed to all be clustered in tiny little offices on 42nd Street in the block just west of 5th Avenue. The local department stores — Marshall Fields in Chicago, Rich’s in Atlanta, Halle Brothers in Cleveland, were big and important accounts.

Because the reps were the key to getting books into the hands of readers, everything revolved around passing information and excitement to them and through them. Thus were publishing “seasons” necessary to group the books, organize them into catalogs, and to prepare sales materials (tip sheets, jackets, blads for illustrated books) in an orderly way. This pretty much required that publishing lists be frozen some weeks before the sales conferences which themselves were a couple of months before the first books on the list would ship.

Today the field reps are probably responsible for anywhere from 5-to-15 percent of a house’s sales. The major accounts: Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Ingram for everybody (and the mass merchants like Costco, Target, and Wal-mart for the biggest players) are now at least 70% of the business, often more. These customers are almost always covered by national account staffs, not by field reps.

National account sales almost never work with catalogs or seasons; they work by months. Each national account has its own rules and regulations governing when they need to know about a particular month’s books. Whether sales calls occur monthly or less frequently, the structure of the presentation is around each month’s deliveries, not around seasonal catalogs.

It seems transparent that the shift in sales resources has not kept pace with the shift in sales channels. The ratio of national account business versus field business has gone from what was probably about 50-50 20 years ago to 80-20 now. But field forces haven’t shrunk by anything like that proportion. The fact that 80% of the business is now season- and catalog-free hasn’t changed the procedure in most houses of building marketing around seasons and catalogs.

I checked in with a couple of veteran salespeople to confirm my notion that the structure of publishers’ sales organizations hasn’t changed as much as the structure of the account base. One of them made a couple of important points. He posited that field sales force reductions had been slow to happen because the field reps are highly visible in the industry. Outspoken independent stores, which have a public profile larger than their sales, want to be called on and complain if they’re not. Publishers in the houses who are fighting for attention for their books don’t like to see fewer reps selling more and more titles.

This same sales veteran also underscored that both marketing and publicity are living in a similarly restructured world and haven’t changed as much as they should either. He points out that Amazon coverage really calls for marketing talent and thinking, not sales talent and thinking. Sales, as this person sees it, is often about talking an account into taking a chance on stocking a book. Amazon works by algorithms and you can’t talk them into anything. (Furthermore, it doesn’t really cost you any sales if Amazon is out of stock; they’ll source the book from a wholesaler to satisfy the customer. If you’re not on the bookstore shelf, on the other hand, you aren’t going to make a sale.) So the Amazon coverage needs to be about keywords, marketing programs, and metadata. It isn’t about salesmanship, as it is in an independent account, or about navigating a complex supply chain, as it is at a chain or mass merchant.

Experiments have been tried. Ten years ago, Random House tried putting reps into the field specifically to call on the branches of bookstore chains. That has always seemed like a good idea to me: store managers and clerks affect sales; being faced out affects sales; and there’s a lot of display opportunity that is locally controlled. Only a rep calling on a chain branch can affect those things and good merchandising of the books in the store will mean fewer returns. Different chain managements (and some chains have changed their managements the way some people change their shoes) have different attitudes about those calls. Very few actually see the benefit and encourage it. Some quietly discourage it; some try to forbid it. Whether or not Random House continued that effort, it certainly didn’t become widespread.

But as independent bookstores continue to diminish in size and number, publishers need to come up with other things for reps to do to keep them in the field. Calling on chain stores would be one productive thing. Calling on local newspapers to push books or calling on special market (non-bookstore) accounts would be two others. We know of one major publisher that was trying things like that three or four years ago but it apparently didn’t work for them. That same publisher fired a bunch of reps a couple of years ago and shifted a lot of sales coverage to telemarketers.

Catalogs are slowly moving to electronic. Harper started the movement with their own initiative a couple of years ago; now Edelweiss from Above the Treeline is providing an industry solution. But seasonal list planning is still the predominant go-to-market mechanism in our industry.

I just don’t believe the status quo can hold a lot longer. Selling by seasons in the digital age is nutty. Preparing printed catalogs that are out of date before the ink on them dries in the digital age is nutty. And making the entire publishing house’s marketing staff work around sales conferences and list preparation when most of its customers don’t buy that way is beyond nutty. There needs to be a complete re-think of how publishers put books into the marketplace. The divisions of responsibility among national account reps, field reps, telesales reps, marketers, and publicists need to be rethought.

With a new step-increment drop in print book sales almost certain following what we all expect to be an ereader Christmas (and our new biggest sales day: December 25), I think we can expect some very hard thinking around this subject at many publishing houses in the first six months of 2011.

I belatedly realized that this was a very important topic that hadn’t been covered at Digital Book World. It is now. We have a great panel: Rich Freese of National Book Network, Alison Lazarus of Macmillan, and Michael Selleck of Simon & Schuster will discuss the changing role of the publishers’ sales department on a panel moderated by David Wilk, a veteran of trade book sales and distribution. I consider this a prime example of what I’ve tried to make DBW’s distinguishing proposition: discussion of business challenges caused by technology even if the topic itself isn’t primarily about technology.

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The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan


Now I swear all this is true. As everybody knows, a very serious food fight broke out between Amazon and Macmillan late Friday night. All weekend Michael Cader led the way in ferreting out additional useful information and I spent most of today (Sunday) trying to write an analytical blogpost. I got it just about finished in the early afternoon, and the bottom line to what I’d written was “Amazon will not be able to sustain this.”

I decided to hold the post until after going to see Crazy Heart this afternoon and, when I came home, Amazon had already folded. But I had written a post that provided a lot of useful information, even if events had stolen my punchline.

So I’m giving it the once-over to edit it for the reality that Amazon has already announced that they will not continue to boycott Macmillan books.

It is received wisdom in Washington that when you have news you have to release but would prefer to have minimum impact, you release it on Friday afternoon. The latest tiff in the Amazon versus Big Publisher brouhaha went that idea one better; it appears to have broken in the middle of the Friday-to-Saturday night.

About midnight that evening, David Wilk alerted the Brantley list to a VentureBeat post that indicated that Macmillan titles were no longer available at Amazon.

By noon the following day, Brad Stone had posted a further explanation to the NY Times blog.

The VentureBeat post had no clue as to what was going on and even carried a link to a post from author John Scalzi suspecting a “glitch.” But Stone pinned down that the disappearance of the Macmillan titles was, indeed, retaliation for Macmillan’s move to the agency pricing model, first revealed by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch and discussed on this blog last week.

Sometime late Saturday afternoon, Lunch posted a narrative explaining what was going on and including a paid insertion from Macmillan: a letter from Chairman and CEO John Sargent giving Macmillan’s account of what had transpired.

Which, as many people who care know by now (as I write this on Sunday morning and afternoon) is that Macmillan told Amazon about the new agency model, by which Amazon would actually get ebooks at lower prices than now but also by which Macmillan would set the prices to consumers. Amazon retaliated with what is, more or less, a “nuclear option.” Macmillan books are no longer on sale except through third party vendors (extending the ban to those dealers would open up yet another big can of worms for Amazon and they hardly need any more) and that includes Kindle. Most of the third party vendors are selling used books and no Macmillan books are being transacted directly by Amazon at all.

We have said on this blog, repeatedly, that publishers’ discounts to retailers would have to come down and that the windowing tactic (delaying ebooks from being available when the hardcover first comes out) was all about pricing control and nothing else.

What I want to accomplish in this post is to lay out clearly what is happening and then enumerate some key points about what’s going on: paradoxes and prospects.

Before the Agency Model (like “now”), publishers sell ebooks at about 50 off an often ridiculously high established price (“parity” is common; same price as a hardcover on a new book) to retailers who were setting the prices to the consumer themselves and, following Amazon’s lead, always discounting. The publishers are paying the authors royalties that are frequently 25% of net, which amounts to 12.5% of publisher declared retail. Some publishers pay 15% of retail; Sargent, in a previous letter to agents, indicated a desire to move from 25% of net to 20% of net, which would be 10% of retail.

The proposed Agency Model will have publishers setting a price lower than the established retail they had before but higher than the deep discounts Amazon led retailers to sell at. The publisher intends to  pay 30% of that established price to the retailer and 25% of either the full consumer price or of the 70% “net” (still to be determined) to the author. This means that the retailer will get a higher price from the consumer and a better margin than they realize now (even though a lower percentage of the “established” price). The author’s cut per copy could actually be reduced!

The wholesalers, Ingram and Content Reserve, often get the same discount as publishers. They handle the stores and libraries publishers serve don’t want to deal with directly. So those stores and libraries get less margin than the big ones publishers handle without an intermediary. One thing that was new to me that came out on the Ebook Supply Chain panel at Digital Book World is that publishers insisted on vetting the accounts that would be selling their books to make sure they didn’t violate territorial restrictions. So Ingram (and presumably Content Reserve) has to manage a granular control by title by publisher by account.

It is not at all clear how the Agency and price maintenance protocols get applied through wholesalers. Perhaps this means that smaller accounts and libraries just won’t have the newer titles that will only be released on the Agency basis (assuming that the scenario Sargent describes is what is also followed by other big publishers.)

This is a bizarre paradox, really. Macmillan actually proposed to sell Amazon the ebooks at what is, in effect, a lower wholesale price than Amazon gets now and their enforcement of a retail price puts more margin into Amazon’s pocket on every sale made than they earn now! And Amazon is fighting it.

Sargent’s note makes clear that the discount-off-retail pricing that has existed all along will still be offered, but that newer books wouldn’t be included in that offering. Those would be available only on Agency terms. What is not clear is whether Macmillan intends to continue the Agency terms past the nine-month “window” for new books. We’d guess they will for some accounts.

But that leads to another paradox because publishers unambiguously benefit if retailers sacrifice their own margin and discount when hardcover price maintenance and NY Times Bestseller list rankings are not at stake. Lower prices to consumers sell more copies. Presumably retailers will continue to want to compete on price and will do so when sales terms allow. But what does that do to the publishers’ challenge of “setting” prices for those accounts that want that done across the entire list?

Yet another paradox is the position of the agents. On the one hand, we have seen that many of those representing big authors see the same danger the big publishers do of inexpensive ebooks undercutting valuable hardcover sales and Times Bestseller rankings. On the other hand, publishers lowering established ebook prices and reducing their take from their intermediaries could often mean lower royalties for authors. But not necessarily.

If publishers are paying on “net receipts” (and many are) and if a) retail prices aren’t cut by as much as half (which they often won’t be) and b) if the publisher doesn’t deduct the Agency “commission” from its computation of net (sure to be debated), then the basis of the author’s royalty wouldn’t go down.

Quick summary: if you have a $25 list price ebook on which the author’s royalty is 25% of net, the author is now getting 25% of $12.50, or $3.125. If that book becomes a $15 ebook with a 30% commission, the author would get $3.75 (a nice increase) if the commission is not deducted first and $2.625 if it is (a sharp cut.) Of course, the $25 and $15 prices described here are notional and with different prices (as they say) “your results will vary.” If that notional book had been priced at $30 in hardcover, the author’s share would have been $4.50 and the ebook price change would clearly cost them something on every copy.

Author Charles Stross had a very insightful post on his blog, speaking from the perspective a gored ox (he has books published by Macmillan which have been taken down.) Stross makes clear that Amazon is miffed because their competitive strategy of driving away ebook competition through aggressive discounting will be foiled by publisher price-setting. Stross says:

Amazon are going to fight this one ruthlessly because if the publishers win, it destroys the profitability of their business and pushes prices down.

I’m not sure it “pushes prices down”; I think it actually pushes (ebook) prices up, at least temporarily. But the points Stross makes about Amazon wanting to achieve ebook hegemony and the Agency model being part of the publishers’ plan to beat that back and strengthen other players seem right to me.

We had a lot of this conversation last Spring before Sourcebooks’s windowing move with Bran Hambric, followed by Hachette with True Compass and HarperCollins with Going Rogue, pushed this tussle between Amazon and publishers to the forefront. In his analysis at that time, Cader made the point that publishers were actually helping Amazon undercut other retailers with their “parity” pricing; making the ebook retail the same price as the hardcover print retail. His logic was that the high prices increased Amazon’s advantage over other retailers because they could better afford to sell high-profile titles at a loss than their competition. Meanwhile, the publishers (and authors working on “net”) continue to get higher ebook revenues than the consumer spending would really entitle them to.

My first question when all this arose overnight on Friday was “why Macmillan?” Sargent’s note may have answered that question: because John was in Seattle on Thursday officially delivering Amazon the Agency Model news that we only assume is going to come to them from other publishers as well. One presumes that Amazon thinks that taking such drastic action as this might discourage the other publishers thinking about doing the same thing (and the iPad announcement on Wednesday would lead us to think that four of the remaining five Big Six players are indeed working out the details of a similar consumer-price-controlling sales model.)

And Amazon apparently figured out, as I was writing these words, that the only brand blown to smithereens by the nuclear option would be theirs. It is hard to imagine how extensive the brand damage could have been if Amazon delisted even one more major publisher along with Macmillan for even a couple of weeks. For a brand whose principal attributes are dependability and dedication to the consumer, it would have been catastrophic.

Amazon says now that the boycott is temporary and they were candid about the fact that they have no choice but to yield. They take a swipe at the publishers’ copyright-based “monopoly” on titles. But this was a really bungled response on every level. Amazon deserves credit for being smart enough to walk this thing back within 48 hours. Amazon may have to learn something new for them in the ebook space: how to be one of a number of players, not the only game in town.

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