Diversion Books

New publishing companies are starting that are much leaner than their established competitors


“It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.” — David G. Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, quoted in The New York Times on September 24, 2012.

The magazine business isn’t the book business, but…

For the better part of two decades, many people have seen the potential quandary the digital transition posed to big successful full-service publishing organizations. If distribution no longer requires scale, what does that mean to the companies that not only succeeded by creating distribution at scale, but which also are largely locked in to their high-cost, high-maintenence infrastructures?

This was one of my concerns when I delivered my “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech at BookExpo in 2007. When bookstores go away, I figured, it would become absolutely necessary but would be very hard for publishers working across audiences to adjust to being multi-niche. And it seemed to me that the big organizations built to deal with thousands of dispersed retail outlets at scale would be far too expensive to maintain when the outlets weren’t there. And stepping down the overhead level wouldn’t be easy.

There’s no shortage of understanding of this challenge. All big publishers are looking for new ways to apply scale to gathering names, analyzing data, improving discovery, social marketing, and creating partnerships with others that can provide audience reach.

Several companies have built business strategies around the expectation that traditional publishing organizations are going to have to get smaller and change the way they staff their print value chain. Among the biggest players, Donnelley, Ingram, Perseus, and even Random House fit that description: offering a variety of ways for publishers to offload everything except the functions that are absolutely core to publishing: editorial selection and development, rights management, and marketing.

The companies that offer the print value chain solutions also have digital services, of course, but they have competitors in that space that specialize in providing what demands scale for digital publishing. The competitors tend to start their service offerings further up the workflow than those that started by focusing on scalable distribution. Two new partnerships announced last week suggest the emergence of new commercial models for publishing.

The big eye-catching announcement was that Barry Diller and Scott Rudin, both with Hollywood roots, are putting substantial investment — announced as $10 million, but they could certainly add more when and if they want to — behind a new commercial trade house called Brightline to be led by publishing veteran Frances Coady. Brightline will partner and build its books with The Atavist.

Perhaps less noticed, but pointing in a similar direction, is that agent and entrepreneur Jason Allen Ashlock has set up a new niche publishing imprint to do crime and suspense books, working on the PressBooks platform created by Hugh McGuire.

The publishing ambitions here are quite different, but the point they make about the direction of publishing’s future are very much the same.

Diller and Rudin backing Coady would appear to be poised to compete with major publishers for major books. You don’t put $10 million into play as your initial investment to sign up a bunch of previously self-published or genre fiction authors. And The Atavist’s bookbuilding capability was built with a Hollywood consciousness in mind. They have not only designed what they do so that it rather elegantly accommodates links (allowing them to be made either very obvious or very unobtrusive), The Atavist always envisioned that its own publishing of serious topical non-fiction would have a potential cinematic or TV iteration. Their standard contractual agreement cuts them in on those rights which it was very much in their vision to reserve for themselves and develop.

This is not to imply that Brightline will need in any way to depend on The Atavist’s original commercial vision or contracts; they will certainly have their ideas about both.

Ashlock’s ambitions, at least initially, appear to be more modest. As the proprietor of a young and developing literary agency, he would need to acquire titles that don’t have the kind of advance-against-royalties requirement that Brightline would feel comfortable with. So he’s announced his publishing enterprise, called Rogue Reader, which will do “crime fiction”, apparently only one title per month and also apparently previously little-known or unknown writers.

The message here is that we see a similar answer coming from the opposite ends of the continuum of investment and power of what the genesis of a successful future publisher might look like. Both an ambitious well-funded highly-commercial list headed by a publishing veteran and fledgling authors publishing in a niche under the direction of a young entrepreneur with much less seasoning are being launched on new publishing platforms which have copious capabilities to do digital publishing efficiently. These new publishers can treat the diminishing print-in-store marketplace as a bit of an afterthought because there are more and more sources from which to purchase those capabilities for as long as they are needed.

And since the need for those capabilities is diminishing, and since there are so many companies that own them and can’t suddenly not own them, the chances are that the cost of obtaining those capabilities from somebody else is likely to just keep going down.

We are getting closer to the day when all a publisher really will need to “own” is the ability to acquire and develop good books and ways to reach the core audience for them persuasively and inexpensively. Diller and Rudin, with their Hollywood roots, certainly have access to many of the great story-creators and storytellers. Through connections to lots of people with marketing platforms plus the extensive network of connections through Diller’s IAC collection of web properties, they also have the capabilities to promote them.

Could any publisher build scaled web marketing capabilities more effectively than IAC? Diller’s team seems to be figuring they can rent everything else besides the core capabilities and be competitive. I think that’s right.

Ashlock doesn’t have their reach, but by sticking to “crime fiction” he thinks he can build a community around what he’ll do that will enable effective and efficient marketing. And as an agent, he’s in a good position to recruit good projects, although he will deal with the conflicts involved in turning somebody who comes to him as a literary agent seeking a publishing deal with another house into his own author. The ethics of this question have been hotly debated. One prior experimenter of this type — agent Scott Waxman who started ebook publisher Diversion Books — seems to have given up agenting in favor of being a fulltime ebook publisher. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Ashlock.

Both Brightline and Rogue Reader will undoubtedly be building out their development. We can expect them both to announce soon how they’ll handle putting books in stores. One would imagine that the business development teams at all the companies with big distribution capabilities are knocking on Brightline’s door. One book a month isn’t necessarily as attractive and publishers won’t want to encourage agents to become competing publishers, but I would imagine Rogue Reader will be able to find more than one company with these capabilities willing to answer their phone calls as well.

Rebecca Smart, the CEO of Osprey, was at our office last week let our friend Hannah Johnson of Publishing Perspectives capture a couple of minutes of video about what she’ll be discussing at Publishers Launch Frankfurt on October 8. It’s a quick example of the out-of-the-box thinking which will be coming from 18 different presentations at our 10:30-6:30 event. 

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Publishers adding value on the marketing side


Obviously my day job, consulting, informs a lot of what goes into The Shatzkin Files. I guess it is just as obvious that I can’t quote everybody who tells me something or attribute everything I want to write about to a specific company or individual. I don’t make a living writing this blog and I wouldn’t make a living at all if people in the industry couldn’t trust me to keep their confidences.

But once in a while people inside competitive companies tell me things that they want the world of publishing to know about what they’re doing. That’s happened twice this week and, in both cases, publishers were making it very clear that they are doing things that will add real value to authors’ marketing efforts, things that no self-publishing author could do for themselves. Self-publishing authors could be wrong, but a read through the comment string of a recent post here makes it clear that they don’t much believe publishers add value in marketing.

On Monday, I was talking to Fritz Foy, the senior VP for Digital Publishing and Strategic Technology at Macmillan. My mission was to recruit speakers from Macmillan for Digital Book World. The conversation turned to the question of “collecting names” for marketing purposes. I had learned previously that Macmillan really has a company-wide effort to do that. That’s something I have advocated. I thought it was so important that I went to the unusual (for me) effort of learning some fundamentals of direct contact management and writing about them on the blog 14 months ago. But Macmillan is the only company I’m aware of that makes email address capture an objective across the company, although we see pockets of name-gathering activity in other majors.

Fritz emphasized that collecting names wasn’t the only priority. Using them, using them well, and tracking what happened when they used them were the keys. (I was reminded, as I was again by the next conversation I’ll describe, of the adage “you can’t improve what you don’t measure”.) To demonstrate, he pulled some October numbers from tor.com, which one would assume, based on the relatively longstanding tor.com effort, probably constitutes the company’s biggest single pool of email addresses.

And they had a lot of them, enough to have sent over 650,000 emails to their lists in the month of October. That’s impressive. But what’s positively stunning is that more than 30% of those emails got opened (that’s more than 200,000) and more than 20% of those clicked through: took the action that Macmillan asked them to take in the email. That’s in the neighborhood of 40,000 actions.

Now the actions were, for the most part, to get free access to more content. (Only 15% of the mailings were purely “marketing”.) They weren’t selling anything. But what Fritz was demonstrating was the growth of what I call “investment marketing”: marketing that produces a result that makes subsequent marketing efforts cheaper or more productive. These tor.com numbers are going to grow, inexorably. Another indication of how solid Macmillan’s lists are is that only 0.1% unsubscribed!

If I were an author (or agent) looking for a sci-fi publisher, it would impress me that Macmillan has lists that get a 30% open rate. It would make me feel they could do things to promote my book that another publisher without those lists couldn’t do. I don’t know what the growth rate is on those lists, but most things (sales, device penetration, self-publishing) in the digital publishing world have been more than doubling each year and these could well be too.

The key point to take on board here is that tor.com is a flagship; Macmillan is doing this across their company. They are building other verticals as well. If other publishers aren’t systematically taking names, getting email permissions, and testing what can be done with them, Macmillan will build up marketing capabilities that it will get increasingly expensive to compete against.

There is little doubt that Amazon’s author-recruitment efforts for their imprints include the promise to mail to known buyers in the author’s genre. They almost certainly can send more than 600,000 emails in a month for many books and genres. But can they get a 30% open rate and a 20% clickthrough?

And Amazon, a retailer, can’t get trapped into just pushing the books it signs up when their consumer brand, and their sales, depend on offering full range of selection of available titles across publishers’ lists. That conflict is compounded as they sign up more and more titles as proprietary. (But it will also be ameliorated if the titles they sign are higher profile than they’ve been so far.)

The day may not be far off when agents are going to be asking publishers “how many emails can you send in support of this book on publication day?” If I were in Amazon’s shoes, I’d be pushing that question. It looks like Macmillan is methodically building the ability to provide an answer.

But not everybody with a modern view of marketing agrees with me (and Macmillan) about the importance of name-gathering, which brings us to the second conversation this week.

We got a call from Open Road Integrated Media asking us to come down to their shop and learn a bit about what they’re doing. Open Road is an ebook publishing company founded by former Harper CEO Jane Friedman which has been an annoyance to the big publishers. Jane has been in the business for more than four decades in high positions at major houses (at Random House before Harper). She knows the agents and she knows how the game of signing up content works.

So she moved against the establishment by offering a standard deal of a 50% share of ebook revenues, when the major publishers are holding the line at 25%. (Open Road’s deal includes the ability to recoup one-half the digitization cost before paying what we usually call royalties but which they call “profit share”. ORIM says that comes to less than $500 per title. Open Road pays no advances.) She used her understanding of the ambiguities in legacy publishing contracts to sign up backlists from both living authors and estates, including Willam Styron, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, Alice Walker, and others.

Those have been the headlines about Open Road and that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of their proposition. Without any other knowledge of their economics — their ability to raise money, their burn rate, their sales — I was skeptical about the sustainability of their model, if it rested primarily on paying 50% for what others were paying 25% for and gathering high-quality backlist of titles not nailed down already for ebooks, which is a limited resource.

It turns out they have a lot more going for them than that. But they don’t gather names.

Open Road’s head marketer is Rachel Chou, who worked with Jane Friedman at Harper. Jane and Rachel, and former Scholastic CEO Barbara Marcus, who is an advisor to Open Road on children’s and YA acquisitions, made the point that Open Road is a marketing company. That’s what they do. And their bullpen with about a dozen people in cubicles working away is just about exclusively devoted to marketing. Except that, in their eyes, marketing and sales and author relations are all the same thing to them, and they see a workflow built around that perception as a key differentiator.

In fact, they see the consolidation of functions in their shop as a significant competitive advantage. In the ebook world, marketing and sales are so closely related that it is hard to see how to parse them. That’s partly because the promotions by ebook retailers could be the single most important marketing component (a point made emphatically by Diversion Books’ Scott Waxman at our eBooks for Everyone Else shows in New York and San Francisco), but it is also because all marketing efforts at Open Road are aimed at driving sales to the ebook retailers. (Their widgets all have buy buttons for the full range of retailer choices.)

But that’s not where the competitive advantage of their structure comes into play.

Rachel spelled that out. One of the major retailers came to them in the past few weeks with a big sales opportunity. They could place 15 Open Road titles in a major promotion that would sell a lot of books. One catch: they needed the titles cleared for the promotion within 24 hours.

Another catch that is characteristic of the ebook world: this was a price promotion that required clearing the participation of each book with its agent. That’s 15 agents. Rachel and her team of marketers, who have the agents of the Open Road ebooks on their own speed-dials, got the job done and got all 15 books into the promotion.

Moving that fast would be a non-starter in any significant publishing house. Whether the opportunity came in through sales or marketing, neither team would own the agent relationships. I believe in most houses it would be necessary to have the agent calls made by the editor who had signed the book. Certainly, the editor would have to be consulted before anybody from marketing or sales could make such a call. And that round of communication, which would include explaining the promotion opportunity to each of the affected editors, would never be attempted within a 24-hour window. Realistically, 24 days would be a challenge.

Open Road is organized differently than legacy publishers because there is so much they don’t have to do! There is very little in the way of a production department (there is a person who creates their covers and Pablo Defendini, who was a key player building Macmillan’s tor.com, is their “interactive producer”.) There is no sales department. There is no inventory management. Everybody works in a room that is dominated by a wall with a 2-month marketing calendar, listing all the events and anniversaries they might promote around. They have 75% or 80% of their company dedicated to marketing, which everybody — including all the big publishers who have expressed an opinion to me — agrees is the prime responsibility of the book publisher in the digital era.

But, even within that, Open Road is organized for efficiency and speed based on the realities of the value chain for ebooks. Their marketers are assigned books which “fit together”, so they are consistently going back to the same blogs and websites for promotion. They can develop relationships. They’re not really a “vertical” publisher (by genre or by topic) but they do have multiple titles from the same author, which helps.

To be fair, the other major publishers are reorganizing themselves constantly into more marketing-focused and less bureaucratic organizations. Just this past week, Simon & Schuster announced organizational changes which effectively shift resources from physical store sales to online marketing (which is admittedly an oversimplification.) The big companies all have great leadership and they’re well aware that they have to change. And I know for sure there are plenty of initiatives I haven’t heard about because the houses feel there’s competitive advantage to keeping them quiet. In fact, Rachel Chou told me about newsletters that are published readers at HarperCollins were getting open rates when she was there a couple of years ago that were even higher than Fritz’s tor.com numbers in October!

Open Road’s team would point to other distinctions between them and other publishers. (They not only claim to be different from the legacy print publishers, they don’t recognize any of the other ebook publishers as true competitors either.) They do extensive video interviews with every author (or a descendant in the case of a deceased author) which creates a rich library of video content. It’s a point of pride with ORIM that these are not fodder for video trailers, but give them real editorial material that can be made into solid programming, often combining video from several authors thematically into “mashups”. They distribute that video aggressively and claim they’ve now reached the point where they’re a recognized B2B brand by some digital media and bloggers who come to the Open Road website, unbidden, to pick up video. Of course, all the video is tagged so the Open Road marketers can track its placement, downloads, and any clickthroughs that result to the retailers.

And that leads us to metrics. Open Road is relentless about data and analytics. They make the point that they can test different covers or tag lines on Facebook or in other media and have answers within hours about what works best. The Open Road team believes that the big houses don’t give their marketers the kind of tools ORIM has to measure the impact of campaigns and that their competitors’ corporate structures don’t enable fast changes in the pitch or the artwork based on data.

These may not be sustainable advantages. Tools can be provided. Workflows can be changed to permit faster responses when that’s necessary. The established houses can raise their royalty rates. How fast things will change in the big houses is an open question (and the answer is different for every house), but it is undeniable that the decision-making structures that worked for print books readily accepted time lags that are a real handicap in the evolving ebook world.

Jane Friedman and her team claim that there is a marketing plan for every book for every quarter! (They admit there’s some ganging there; a bunch of different books might be part of the same Mother’s Day effort.) Whether that is scaleable and replicable when they are ten times their current size (approximately 1400 titles) is another question. But it is certainly a point of differentiation today.

Open Road doesn’t sell direct, only through intermediaries. And they eschew name and email address capture of end users, preferring to rely on the combination of the viral distribution of content and their always-developing relationships with bloggers and websites.

Both Macmillan and Open Road are doing things that no big trade house could have imagined five years ago. Macmillan is applying scale; Open Road is applying the speed and flexibility enabled by a smaller organization. But both of them are employing what I’d call “investment marketing”: doing things on behalf of their books that build their capabilities to do more on behalf of subsequent books. I think that’s the key for publishers who want to give authors and agents convincing reasons to publish with them in the future.

We’ll do a panel on “investment marketing” at Digital Book World in January. Of course, Open Road and Macmillan will be on it. So will F+W Media, a vertical publisher (investment marketing is much more natural for vertial publishers) and we expect to add one more Big Six house which is doing interesting things in this regard.

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True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare


Getting ready for our eBooks for Everyone Else conferences, I discovered an author named Bob Mayer who impressed me with his self-publishing zeal and apparent success. Bob has written lots of military fiction, science fiction, even a romance novel, and some non-fiction: dozens of books over the years for major publishers. Most of it was mass-market, most of it reverted relatively easily and Bob systematically secured those rights reversions for years.

He caught my attention with the bare bones of his story. He started putting his work up as ebooks in January, when he sold a few hundred books. By July he had more than 40 titles available and was selling a total of over 100,000 units a month. I had long wanted to put an author before my conference audiences who had achieved self-publishing success to talk about how s/he’d done it.

Joe Konrath and, more recently, John Locke had politely turned me down. I booked a 1-on-1 conversation with Barry Eisler at our Publishers Launch Conference at BEA right after he announced his decision to turn down a 6-figure advance to self-publish. Alas (for this objective of mine), the morning of the event Barry signed a contract with Amazon to do his next book with them. Although he has self-published some short fiction. Eisler’s story became that he is an Amazon-published author, not a self-published author. That’s a good story and we had a good session on-stage that the conference audience benefited from, but it was not a a self-publishing report from an author who truly did it on his or her own.

(Eisler’s wife, the literary agent Laura Rennert, reported at eBEE in San Francisco that Amazon is succeeding very well with Eisler’s current book, The Detachment — which I read and enjoyed — and that his substantial advance has already been earned out.)

So I was pleased to learn with a phone call that, not only was Mayer an enagaging talker, but that he was willing to make the journey from his home in Seattle to San Francisco to discuss his success with a conference audience.

But what became clear when I had a further conversation with Mayer the day before our conference, buttressed by what was said by many other participants at the event, is that the Hocking-Konrath-Locke story — an author managing all the pieces of their publishing program and and achieving a totally private success — is a Dodo bird. Unless we consolidate down to an only-Amazon ebook world, which, despite Amazon’s best efforts, doesn’t seem likely anytime soon but would undoubtedly create a whole new rule book if it ever arrived, the work and expertise required for successful publishing will lead inexorably to one of two results.

Either an author will get help to publish their own material — a distributor like Constellation or Ingram or a publisher — or they’ll find what they built to serve themselves would be better and less-expensively maintained with the work of additional authors to go along with their own. There’s enough work and expertise involved in what had first seemed to many such a simple process that it requires building a bit of a machine to do it. And once a machine is built, it is just wasteful to leave it idling between the works generated by any one writer.

This point was made by Mayer when he told me that he is now recruiting other authors to publish. He started out by finding a partner to handle the technology component and mechanics of his efforts. In his already-substantial experience in less than a year, he has learned that proper editing is essential, as are eye-catching covers, as is the right metadata. He told me and our audience that a single complaint from a reader to Amazon about a typo in one’s book can result in the ebook being taken down for a required correction. He has learned, as others have, that maximizing revenue requires changing and re-changing your prices, which is more work.

Bob says he has even fixed plot errors that were pointed out by Kindle readers.

(Another view of this aggressiveness to satisfy customers was offered to me by a Big Six executive a few months ago when he related the story of a book published by his house that had been taken down. There the “culprit” was vernacular language that was interpreted by a reader as poorly copy-edited grammar. There was nothing wrong with the ebook, but one reader thinking there was resulted in a takedown that cost everybody sales for several days until the ebook could be put back up!)

Bob says books can disappear from major retail sites for no apparent reason as well. He says that anybody who believes that ebook publishing is like “sending the book to a printer, after which you can forget about working on it” is mistaken.

And he believes that any author whose work is good and wants to take a self-publishing route would be wise to cede a percentage of sales to him, or somebody else, who has learned what he has and equipped themselves to prepare books properly for sale and manage them after they’re launched.

This is establishing ever so much more clearly that publishers are right when they say there’s a role for them in an ebook world. Amazon itself makes that clear by the difference in the deals it offers self-published authors and authors it signs for its imprints. Although authors will continue to self-publish, the debate that matters in the future is what the basket of services will be that authors require and what will be the right price for them. The lines are drawn for that discussion and the opinions are really all over the lot.

There are ebook publishers — the granddaddies eReads and Rosetta, Scott Waxman’s Diversion Books, and the giant in the space: Open Road — who are saying the “right” ebook division between author and publisher is 50-50. (We should make clear that this is the division of the revenue obtained from the retailer or “sales agent”, which would normally be 65-70% of the selling price or 50% of a publishers suggested list which could be discounted, depending on what kind of sales arrangement is in place.) Smashwords, an entirely automated service, and BookMasters, a service provider, provide distribution for 15% of the take. Two agents speaking on our panel in San Francisco, Deidre Knight and Laura Rennert, are capping their agency’s take at 15% of the revenue as well, as they walk the ethical line that is perceived by some to require that they make no more money self-publishing an author than they would selling the rights to a publisher.

Then there are many other service offerings with prices that fall in between 15% and 50%.

Amazon’s rules offer some insight on this. If you work with them through their KDP service, you get 70% (if you set your price within their accepted bands). But, as Mayer and others at our conference made clear, through KDP you can’t even purchase any special merchandising or promotion. But if you are published by Amazon’s imprints, the take is cut in half and the author gets 35% of retail, but you get lots of promotion by positioning. (Deals are private, and the details of Eisler’s deal have not been revealed, but the presumption would be that he earned out his rumored six-figure advance from Amazon at the 35% rate.) Thirty-five percent matches what a 50-50 publisher could deliver if they had an agency-like deal with the retailer.

Amazon agreements also come with the requirement that you participate in their other programs, including library lending in cooperation with OverDrive and, presumably, the new subscription program they have just announed. (It appears they chose not to include all KDP titles in the subscription program; there are only 5,000 titles announced for that initiative and since we know that Smashwords has nearly 100,000 titles, it is likely that KDP has more than that. On the other hand, late reporting by Publishers Lunch on Thursday spells out that Amazon will simply “buy” copies of any non-agency titles it wants to lend. That means they make one purchase for each loan, so it is expensive for them, but it demonstrates again that only publishers with agency arrangements have control of their distribution and how their books might be used to strengthen any one distributor’s ecosystem.)

The comparisons get complicated, but, if a conventional publisher is providing the full range of services that our speakers said is needed to maximize sales: good covers, changing covers, dynamic pricing, constantly improved metadata, monitoring to catch glitch take-downs, as well as developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, the author wouldn’t be doing badly at all to get 35% of the consumer’s dollar for an ebook. Throw in real print book distribution and sales and the royalties and marketing from that, plus a publisher’s core marketing effort (being part of a “legitimate” list gets attention from reviewers, bloggers, library collection development, and other places that matter), and, perhaps, some dedicated marketing as well, and it can be a relatively profitable exercise for an author to be with a publisher for even less than that.

When agency publishers pay 25% royalties, they are giving the author 17.5% of the paying customer’s dollar. Everybody will draw their own lines, deal by deal, but that doesn’t strike me as totally crazy as long as print sales remain more than half the total and the publisher is paying an advance that carries with it some risk that the actual royalty paid will be higher than what the contract stipulates.

That’s a moving target, of course, I personally don’t expect print sales to remain at half the total very much longer. But if major publishers were paying 50% royalty on a 70% agency sale, they’d be matching the 35% Amazon pays the authors it publishes. Amazon can do much more to promote on Amazon (which panelists at eBEE said is what really moves the needle); but publishers make noise in a lot of other places Amazon (yet) doesn’t. Presumably Open Road and Diversion and eReads and other 50-50 ebook publishers can’t match the agency terms with Amazon (they can get 70% through KDP, but that comes with pricing restraints and required agreement to those other deals we discussed earlier), so only the Big Six, who can apply agency across all accounts, can offer a comparable deal with a manageable percentage payout.

Amazon is demonstrating what they see as the value of securing the loyalty of digital book consumers for its ecosystem by their willingness to pay full wholesale price for an ebook that will then get lent once, as well as their penchant for pricing for sale well below their cost. The evidence that agency pricing is the only wall between a multi-channel ebook business and a single-retailer monopoly continues to grow. But as long as print in stores matters, and it will for a while longer, the Big Six have a legitimate commercial argument to defend ebook royalties between 25 and 50 percent. After that, everybody except Amazon will be hoping that that the Nook, Kobo, Google, and Sony market share is enough to keep it essential to an author to cover them all. And that means of discovery and merchandising will emerge that are a meaningful alternative to what is provided by the world’s biggest virtual retailer.

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Agents have to do it, but their new service offerings change the publishing ecosystem


Agents work for authors and sell books (mostly) to big general trade publishers, but there’s really a partnership at work there. Nearly all the books big publishers buy, and almost without exception those for which big money is paid, come to them from agents. There’s a symbiotic dependency between them.

Publishers depend on agents to sort through the possibilities to discover new talent, develop proposals to a professional level, and handhold and cajole the author through the lengthy process of actually delivering the manuscript a contract calls for. Agents live in a world where the big publishers are really the only source of substantial revenue.

So they have lunch a lot to discuss what amount to joint efforts. I don’t know if it is unique to publishing, but our industry’s convention that the buyer (the publishing editor) pays for the seller’s (the agent’s) lunch must be very unusual. By constantly monitoring what the editors are looking for and are inclined to buy and each house’s current frame of mind of what will work and what won’t, agents get the information that, in turn, directs them to what will sell. What will “sell”, to an agent, means what people who are personally known will want to buy. It doesn’t require the agent to think in terms of what the public will buy; that’s the publisher’s job. The agent’s job is to deliver what the publishers have decided is commercially viable.

There is, in general, a great deal of mutual respect here. Obviously, there is a point where the partnership becomes adversarial: publishers want to pay as little as they can for books and agents want to get as much as they can. But, in general, these competing interests are resolved in ways consistent with the need both sides have to continue working together in the future. There are only six very large houses and only a small handful of others that can occasionally play at that level. And while the agent community is somewhat less consolidated (you can be a very successful agent with only one or two big clients; you can’t be a very successful big publisher with only one or two big authors), both sides do each deal knowing there will be a next deal they’ll want to do with each other coming along soon.

This symbiosis is important to remember when we consider that one of the big publishers’ defenses against disintermediation is their ability to curate, to filter. There is a school of thought (which is an attractive one to publishers thinking about their role in the increasingly digital world of books) that when content choices become more plentiful, reliable branded filters become more valuable. All sides recognize that the principal brand value lies with the author. I am increasingly coming to the view that the big publisher name — Random House or Simon & Schuster — also communicates “value” to the consumer, although it doesn’t describe the potential reading experience with anything like the specificity that the author name does. The agent name, of course, means nothing at all to the public. So the publisher is essentially getting credit for a filtering process for which they are the last step after agents have done a lot of weeding out before them.

Two years ago, when we were organizing the first Digital Book World conference, we foresaw that ebooks would lead to much cheaper and more accessible self-publishing opportunities that some authors, at least, would be keen to explore. When we started to organize a panel on the subject, we learned that the rules of the AAR (which is, effectively, the agents’ trade association, although it doesn’t act as such in many ways because of its highly independent-minded membership and the potential for restraint-of-trade violations) were interpreted by many to mean that agents could neither set up publishing operations nor charge authors for services. In that ancient time, very few agents would openly discuss the possibility of working with authors in anything but the time-honored way of selling their proposals to publishers on commission.

But times have changed. A quick check of recent news and announcements in our office turned up nine agencies with announced digital propositions. These range from Waxman Literary Agency’s Diversion Books, an ebook publisher, to the Ed Victor Agency’s Bedford Square Books publishing arm working through Open Road, to, in most cases, consulting services for the agency’s clients on ebook development and distribution.

The other seven on our list right now are The Knight Agency, BookEnds, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, McDermid Agency, Levine Greenberg, Curtis Brown UK, and Andrea Brown Literary Agency. There are certainly some we’ve missed. And there will undoubtedly be more in the weeks to come.

The Knight Agency did a really nice job of laying out the suite of services they’re going to provide through their offering. It’s very impressive, including content editing, line and copyeditor referrals, ISBN number assignment, copyright registration, cover copy, cover design and consultation, file conversions to ePub and mobi, uploading files to major retailers, dynamic pricing, metadata, search engine optimization, marketing plans, subsidiary rights, royalty tracking and payments, oversight of existing contracts and obligations, and, down the road, arranging for print publication through POD or other means.

But what really surprised me was that the Knight Agency says they are absorbing all costs except copy-editing and working for 15% of the revenue. The range of services they are offering, even without the copy-editing (which can be anywhere from $500 to $3000 or more, depending on the length and complexity of the manuscript), requires real humans to spend real time doing the work. They seem to be offering to design the cover at their expense, which is a value of anywhere from $200 to $2000. The Knight Agency is undertaking a substantial investment in each book that will be done in this program and, if I’m reading them right, will only get that money back at 15 cents on the revenue dollar before they earn any profit.

That’s a commitment! And even though the service is being offered only to existing clients of the agency (at least for now), it’s an impressive one.

So with that context, I’d offer a few observations.

I don’t know what other agents have planned, but Knight has definitely thrown down a marker that other agencies will be highly challenged to match. (Of course, the first thing to see is how well Knight can do against their own checklist!)

Many of the agents, but not Waxman with Diversion, are specifying that their services are only for existing agency clients. That’s a good way of putting a toe in the water and it’s a good way to minimize the concern of publishers. But it’s not likely to last as the policy for any of them that do this kind of work successfully. If their ebook publishing services actually work and the business is shifting in that direction, why would you turn down an opportunity that came from outside the client base. Why would you turn down the opportunity to offer the same suite of services to all the clients of some other agency that doesn’t want to build this themselves? (That’s an opportunity almost certain to arise for all of them.)

Publishers are also working on self-publishing services. Distributors have been noodling for some time about packaging these services for agents. Knight has promised to do a lot, including a substantial per-book investment, for 15% of the revenue. Are any of these other players now going back to the drawing board to reconsider their pricing? I would think so.

How everybody is going to feel about these agent service offerings is going to depend a lot on how they’re used. To the extent that they are used as leverage by authors with big backlists to push publishers to higher ebook royalties, the big houses won’t be pleased with them. But if they turn out primarily to be “farm systems”, giving exposure and building awareness for an author who can then “graduate” to a “real” publishing deal, everybody might be all smiles. If that’s what happens, these services become something like the new digital world’s equivalent of an agent getting an author to write a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine or to start blogging to build a following: a career-building step that leads to a major house. If that ends up being the prevailing effect, everybody will be smiling.

Let’s remember that Amanda Hocking went from self-publishing to a major publisher deal and that Barry Eisler decided that taking Amazon’s offer to publish him was more appealing that truly doing it himself.

Perhaps for as long as five or ten years, the print component will remain an important part of any book’s total revenue potential. None of these agents can do much to help there (although a distributor could.) Even if what Knight offers turns out to be high quality across the range of services and what they’re offering to cover out of their pocket versus what they’re planning to take in revenue is sustainable (hard to say from here), they’re still going to want to sell lots of books to publishers. Will this service offering help them or hurt them in that regard? Will publishers see them as developing competition? Or will the commercial proposition of each book on offer remain the key element of each negotiation?

We’ve come a long way in the past two years, from a time when many agents thought getting involved with self-publishing was a non-starter to a moment now when, in the words of one agent I spoke to last week, “none of us has any choice” but to provide digital publishing advice or capabilities to their clients. The next two years will probably bring much more change than that.

We’re putting together a new Publishers Launch Conferences show called eBooks for Everyone Else for both New York (on September 26) and San Francisco (on November 2). More details will be announced shortly. “Everyone else” is anybody without an IT department, and we always knew agents would be an important part of our audience (along with authors and small- and midsized-publishers) and our program. Looks like that show will be very well timed.

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