Dell

Peering into the future and seeing more value in the Random Penguin merger


So now in addition to the Random House and Penguin merger that is being reviewed by governments far and wide, we have the news that HarperCollins is exploring a tie-up with Simon & Schuster in a deal that hasn’t been made yet. That leaves Hachette and Macmillan, among the so-called Big Six, still on the outside as the general trade publishing behemoths rearrange themselves for whatever is the next stage of book publishing’s existence.

I am not sure we really need an “explanation” for what is the resumption of a perfectly natural phenomenon. Big publishers have been merging with each other for several decades in a process that suddenly stopped after Bertelsmann acquired Random House (to add to its holding of Bantam Doubleday Dell) in 1998. We didn’t know it at the time, but that concluded a long string of mergers that had recently included Penguin’s acquisition of Putnam-Berkley, but which stretched back to the 1970s when pursuit of the paperback-hardover synergy had driven Viking and Penguin; Doubleday and Dell; and Random House-Ballantine and Fawcett into each other’s arms.

(Perhaps HarperCollins should get credit for the resumption of the era of consolidation. Their acquisition of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, combined with their holding of Zondervan, created a powerful position in one of publishing’s biggest vertical markets shortly before Penguin and Random House announced their plans.)

But consequential events always get an explanation, whether they deserve one or not, and this merger appears to many to be driven by consolidation among the retail intermediaries and the rational concern — amply documented by recent experience — that the retailers would use their leverage to press for more and more margin. This is complicated by the fact that both of the dominant retailers — Amazon in the online world and Barnes & Noble in the brick-and-mortar space — have small publishing operations of their own that are always available to put additional pressure on publishers at the originating end of the value chain.

There is an important asymmetry to take note of here. The retailers publish and are always a threat to acquire manuscripts directly and cut the publishers out but the publishers, particularly the biggest ones, don’t do retail and there is no obvious path for them to enter retailing in any significant way. (That last sentence was written with full cognizance that we await the debut of Bookish, which is an attempt by three of the Big Six to enter retailing in a significant way. Maybe when concrete plans for it are announced there will be some reasons provided to amend that thought.)

In my opinion, the dominant position that Amazon holds in online retailing and that B&N owns in shops are impregnable on their own terms in ways that the positions of each of the big publishers are not.

The threat to Barnes & Noble is that bookstores will become unsustainable: that a retailer trying to exist at scale with books as its primary product offering will, because of ebooks and online purchasing of print, simply become unviable. The threat to Amazon is more nuanced and more distant. One can imagine a world developing where content retailing evolves into niches by subject or tastemaker. But that world is not around the corner (an environment toxic to bookstore chains appears to be much closer) and it would be far easier to imagine how Amazon could adapt to niche online retailing than to see B&N adapting to deliver retail book selections that are only viable at a fraction of their current size.

(I consulted to them a decade ago and suggested that to no interest. They were shutting down their mall stores at the time and the idea seemed totally counterintuitive.  I’ve also written about it.)

I saw recent data (sorry, can’t remember where…) suggesting that something like 38% of the book business is now done online, taking both ebooks and sales of print into account. This seems to be confirmed by a chart built on BookStats data by reporter Laura Owen of PaidContent, if you take “institutional sales” out of the equation and assume that wholesalers sold books to online and store retailers as well as libraries.

Whatever the percentage is, it is almost certainly higher for immersive reading than for illustrated or reference books because immersive works for ebooks and the others mostly don’t. So it would appear that something like 60% of the book business is still a bricks-and-mortar game, with the number being somewhat lower for straight text and higher for illustrated.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the big publishers are still extremely powerful. The 60% sold at retailers is what they’re uniquely skilled at getting and what Amazon is uniquely challenged to penetrate.

But the one thing we know for sure is that the shift to online purchasing — while it has slowed down — will continue to progress for a long time. The increased ubiquity of devices; the always-larger selection from an online merchant; the increase in availability of appealing and useful content that is either too short or too specialized for print; the steadily increasing cost and hassle of shopping by car rather than by computer; the natural results of birth, death, and demography; and the increase in online word-of-mouth and recommendation sources are among the many factors that assure that.

As the percentage of a publishers’ sales that are made through retail stores decreases, the cost of covering them increases. This has already become an issue as the big publishers view their overheads and come to the conclusion that they can’t afford to pay ebook royalties greater than 25% of receipts. Surely, some of the cost basis they see driving that necessity are really print-based (creation and distribution), which makes them calculate what’s affordable differently than a more new-fangled publisher that is planning primarily on digital and online distribution.

The publishers who are merging or thinking about merging are not doing so out of immediate desperation. The financial reports we see from trade publishers are not frightening. Top line sales are challenged — there is little or no growth — but margins have been maintained through the seismic marketplace shifts of the past few years and the pace of change is slowing. So it is probably preparing for a world a few years off that drives publishers to merge today. What will that world look like?

The world of publishing we’re going to see five or ten years from now will probably look quite different. Even if store sales only decline 10% a year against the industry total, what is a 60% share today will be about a third after five years have passed and below 20% in ten. Those are sales well worth having, of course, but they’ll be a lot more expensive to get. And if I were predicting rather than just speculating, I’d expect the erosion of retail sales to be a bit faster than that.

My expectation is that freestanding bookstores will be less and less common, and smaller book sections in other retailers (the way they’re in mass merchants today) will proliferate. We already see this in “specialty” retail: stores stock books that fit alongside their other product offerings. But as bookstores get scarcer, it will probably begin to make sense for general book selections — bestsellers, classics, and the cream of popular categories like cooking and current affairs — to be offered by other merchants. Part of the reason that doesn’t happen now is that it is too hard for the retailer not in the book business to do. A representative selection either requires dealing with many publishers or buying from a wholesaler. And the wholesalers are working on tight margins, not allowing them much room to offer expensive services (like inventory management) unless they really cut into the store’s margin.

But you don’t have to have every book — or even every bestseller — to deliver a compelling consumer offering. Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild proved that half a century ago when they competed for the general book club market. They demanded exclusives on the bestsellers, so they tended to split them. And they each had enough to pull a very large audience.

Well, the combination of Random House and Penguin has damn near half the bestsellers too. And Random House, at least, has already developed vendor-management capabilities that they can apply at the store level. So as the bookstores disappear from town after town, a Random Penguin combination (they really ought to call it that!) becomes able to offer any local retailer a selection of books that will look pretty good to the average consumer.

In addition, they’ll find that the combined lists give them a great head start on having enough titles to deliver retailers other vertical selections — cooking, crafts, home improvement — that their VMI skills will also help them serve.

Right now the challenge Amazon is having is that they’re trying to publish with a grip on no more than half the market. That’s great, as far as it goes, because that’s where they have a real margin advantage when they cut the publisher out of the chain. But because there is so much Amazon fear-and-loathing around the rest of the industry, they’re not able to build out beyond their proprietary position. (See the recent frustrations expressed by their author, Tim Ferriss, to appreciate how that’s working out in the market today.)

But if Amazon could reach 75% of the market — that is, if store purchasing declined below 25% of the total, which is in the cards for the next ten years — leverage would be reversed. (I’m eliding the format and proprietary reader device issues around ebooks here, but I’m guessing they’ll mostly go away in the next five or ten years.) Then Amazon wouldn’t want or need distribution to the stores or other online outlets. In fact, chances are they’d see it in their best interests to withhold those titles from other retailers and use them as tools to compel shopping with Amazon.

(This would not be a peculiar selfishness of Amazon if they did it. I remember well the battles my friends at Sterling had when they were first acquired by Barnes & Noble trying to convince their new owners that it was necessary to distribute the books as broadly as possible or they would start finding it impossible to sign new titles. B&N’s instinct was to want what they published available only from their stores, an instinct they acted on with SparkNotes.)

But if I’m right about where Random Penguin might go, they could play this same game. As the cost of running book departments increases as a percentage of sales, as they surely will as sales in stores decline, the mass merchants will diminish their presence. If Random Penguin has half the bestsellers, they will be able to use VMI to build secondary locations to keep their print books available. Those locations will be theirs and theirs alone. Maybe they’ll only be making 10% or 15% of the total sales this way, but those sales will be unavailable to other publishers (unless they go through RP at diminished margins.)

The proprietary distribution will give RP an advantaged position signing up the biggest books. In time, they might even have enough of the biggest books to pursue one of the current active fantasies of Amazon and a bunch of entrepreneurs: creating a value proposition for big authors that will enable a subscription library with headline titles. And that would be another proprietary distribution channel that this next generation of scale might make possible.

The resistance of the bookstores to doing anything that helps Amazon will make it difficult for Amazon the publisher to build a general trade list of bestsellers until a much bigger chunk of the market has moved online. Barnes & Noble, which had a chance to become the one dominant trade publisher if they’d played their Sterling card differently, seems not to be interested in that role. So it will be one or two of the incumbents that will be left standing ten years from now managing the most commercial titles in the marketplace. The odds are very good that one of them will be Random Penguin.

I (usually) resist the temptation to make political observations on the blog, because that’s not what people come here for. But I have to make an exception because I think one of the most important points to be made about the results of November 6 has not been made anywhere else. And it is, ultimately, a non-partisan point.

Among the many reasons that President Obama convincingly defeated Governor Romney was the superior execution of the Obama campaign around data and operations. They were simply better analysts and managers and they executed better than the Romney campaign.

So can we please put to rest the notion that “getting rich” or “running a business” is a proxy for “management skill”? The most frequently-offered argument from Romney was “I’m a successful businessman so therefore I can run things better than this guy who is community-organizer-turned-public-official.” Actually, Governor, you couldn’t. You didn’t.

The last presidents we had with business experience were (working backwards) George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren Harding. There is no historical evidence in there that shows that business success correlates with the ability to run the United States government. Or even, as we’ve just been shown, an effective national campaign.

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