Doubleday

Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses


One of the things my father, Leonard Shatzkin, taught me when I was first learning about book publishing a half-century ago was that “all publishing houses are started with an editorial inspiration”. What he meant by that is that what motivated somebody to start a book publisher was an idea about what to publish. That might be somebody who just believed in their own taste; it might be something like Bennett Cerf’s idea of a “Modern Library” of compendia organized by author; it might even be Sir Allen Lane’s insight that the public wanted cheaper paperback books. But Dad’s point was that publishing entrepreneurs were motivated by the ideas for books, not by a better idea for production efficiency or marketing or sales innovation.

In fact, those other functions were just requirements to enable somebody to pursue their vision or their passion and their fortune through their judgment about what content or presentation form would gain commercial success.

My father’s seminal insight was that sales coverage really mattered. When he recommended, on the basis of careful analysis of the sales attributable to rep efforts, that Doubleday build a 35-rep force in 1955, publishers normally had fewer than a dozen “men” (as they were, and were called, back then) in the field. The quantum leap in relative sales coverage that Doubleday gained by such a dramatic sales force expansion established them as a power in publishing for decades to come.

Over the first couple of decades of my time in the business — the 1960s and 1970s — the sales department grew in importance and influence. It became clear that the tools for the sales department — primarily the catalog, the book’s jacket, and a summary of sales points and endorsements that might be on a “title information sheet” that the sales reps used — were critical factors in a book’s success.

There was only very rarely a “marketing” department back then. There was a “publicity” function, aimed primarily at getting book reviews. There was often a “sales promotion” function, which prepared materials for sales reps, like catalogs. There might be an art department, which did the jackets. And there was probably an “advertising manager”, responsible for the very limited advertising budget spent by the house. Management of coop advertising, the ads usually placed locally by retail accounts that were partly supported by the publishers, was another function managed differently in different houses.

But the idea that all of this, and more, might be pulled together as something called “marketing” — which, depending on one’s point of view, was either also in charge of sales or alternatively, viewed as a function that existed in support of sales — didn’t really arise until the 1980s. Before that, the power of the editors was tempered a bit by the opinions and needs of the sales department, but marketing was a support function, not a driver.

In the past decade, things have really changed.

While it is probably still true that picking the “right books” is the single most critical set of decisions influencing the success of publishers, it is increasingly true that a house’s ability to get those books depends on their ability to market them. As the distribution network for print shrinks, the ebook distribution network tends to rely on pull at least as much as on push. The retailers of ebooks want every book they can get in their store — there is no “cost” of inventory like there is with physical — so the initiative to connect between publisher and retailer comes from both directions now. That means the large sales force as a differentiator in distribution clout is not nearly as powerful as it was. Being able to market books better is what a house increasingly finds itself compelled to claim it can do.

In the past, the large sales force and the core elements that they worked with — catalog, jacket, and consolidated and summarized title information — were how a house delivered sales to an author. Today the distinctions among houses on that basis are relatively trivial. But new techniques — managing the opportunities through social networks, using Google and other online ads, keeping books and authors optimized for search through the right metadata, expanding audiences through the analysis of the psychographics, demographics, and behavior of known fans and connections — are still evolving.

Not only are they not all “learned” yet, the environment in which digital marketing operates is still changing daily. What worked two years ago might not work now. What works now might not work a year from now. Facebook hardly mattered five years ago; Twitter hardly mattered two years ago. Pinterest matters for some books now but not for most. Publishers using their own proprietary databases of consumer names with ever-increasing knowledge of how to influence each individual in them are still rare but that will probably become a universal requirement.

So marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.

Fifty years ago, editors just picked the books and the sales department had to sell them. Thirty years ago, editors picked the books, but checked in with the sales departments about what they thought about them first. Ten years from now, marketing departments (or the marketing “function”) will be telling editors that the audiences the house can touch need or want a book on this subject or filling that need. Osprey and some other vertical publishers are already anticipating this notion by making editorial decisions in consultation with their online audiences.

Publishing houses went from being editorially-driven in my father’s prime to sales-driven in mine. Those that didn’t make that transition, expanding their sales forces and learning to reach more accounts with their books than their competitors, fell by the wayside. The new transition is to being marketing-driven. Those that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age.

A very smart and purposeful young woman named Iris Blasi, then a recently-minted Princeton graduate, worked for me for a few years a decade ago. She left because she wanted to be an editor and she had a couple of stops doing that, briefly at Random House and then working for a friend named Philip Turner in an editorial division at Sterling. From there Iris developed digital marketing chops working for Hilsinger-Mendelson and Open Road. She’s just taken a job at Pegasus Books, a small publisher in Manhattan, heading up marketing but doubling as an acquiring editor. I think many publishers will come to see the benefits of marketing-led acquisition in the years to come. Congratulations to Pegasus and Iris for breaking ground where I think many will follow.

Many of the topics touched on in the post will be covered at the Marketing Conference on September 26, a co-production of Publishers Launch Conferences and Digital Book World, with the help and guidance of former Penguin and Random House digital marketer Peter McCarthy. We’ve got two bang-up panels to close with — one on the new requirement of collaboration between editorial and marketing within a house and then in turn between the house and the author, and the other on how digital marketing changes how we must view and manage staff time allocations, timing, and budgeting. These panels will frame conversations that will continue in this industry for a very long time to come as the transition this post sketches out becomes tangible.

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Vendor-managed inventory: why it is more important than ever


The idea of vendor-managed inventory has never become particularly popular in the book business, despite a few experiments over the years where it was implemented with great success. (And despite the fact that I was pushing for it back in 1997 and 1998.) But as the book business overall declines, with the print book business leading the slide and that portion of the print book business which takes place in retail stores falling off at an alarming rate, it is time for the industry to think about it again.

In fact, VMI for the book business began with the ID wholesalers and mass-market paperbacks right after World War II. The IDs — the initials stood for “independent distributors” — managed the distribution of magazines and newspapers at newsstands and other accounts within their geographical territory. The retailers had no interest in deciding how many copies of LIFE they got in relation to Ladies Home Journal; the ID made that determination. And since only the torn off covers were necessary for confirmation of a “return”, the “bulk” cost of distribution was in putting the copies in, not taking back the overage. And because newspapers and magazines had a disciplined frequency, it was obvious that you had to clear out yesterday’s, or last week’s, or last month’s to make room for the next issue.

When the first mass-market paperback publishers started their activity right after World War II, providing books for, among others, returning servicemen who had access to special servicemen’s editions of paperbacks (in a program created by the polymath Philip Van Doren Stern, a Civil War historian and friend of my father’s) they helped the jobbers along by having monthly lists. They also were comfortable with a book only having a one-month shelf life and having the stripped covers serve as evidence the book hadn’t been sold.

For quite some time, the initial allocations to the ID wholesalers (the local rack jobbers were called “Independent Distributors”) were really determined by the paperback publishers. Eventually, that freedom to put books into distribution choked the system, but there were a lot of other causes of the bloat. By the 1960s, many bookstores were carrying paperbacks and many other big outlets were served “direct” by the publishers, leaving the IDs with the least productive accounts. But VMI, even without any system and very little in the way of restraints on the publishers, was responsible for the explosive growth of mass-market paperbacks in the two decades following World War II.

In the late 1950s, Leonard Shatzkin, my father, introduced The Doubleday Merchandising Plan, which was VMI for bookstores on Doubleday books. For stores that agreed to the plan, reps reported the store’s inventory back to headquarters of Doubleday books rather than sending an order. Then a team posted the inventories, calculated the sales, and followed rules to generate an order of books to the store. Sales mushroomed, particularly of the backlist, and returns and cost of sales plummeted. Doubleday was launched into the top tier of publishing companies.

In a much more modest way, a distributor that my father owned called Two Continents introduced a VMI plan in the 1970s. Even with a very thin list and no cachet, we (I was the Marketing Director) were able to get 500 stores on the Plan in a year. We achieved similarly dramatic results, but from a much more modest base.

Two Continents was undone by the loss of some distribution clients. The Doubleday plan was undermined by reps who convinced headquarters years after my father left that their stores would be more comfortable if they wrote the Plan orders rather than letting them be calculated at headquarters. And the rise of computerized record-keeping systems for inventory and national wholesalers who could replenish stock quickly improved inventory performance, and store profitability, without VMI. Although our client West Broadway Book Distribution has successfully operated VMI in specialty retail for more than a decade, and Random House has worked some version of VMI at Barnes & Noble for the past several years, the technique has hardly been considered by the book trade for a long time.

It is time for that to change. What can foster the change is a recognition about VMI that is readily apparent in West Broadway’s implementations in non-bookstores, but would not have been so obvious to the bookstores using Doubleday’s or Two Continents’ services.

From the publisher’s perspective, the requirement that there be a title-by-title, book-by-book buying function in the store in order for the store to stock books purely and simply reduces the number of stores that can stock books. The removal of that barrier was the key achievement of the ID wholesalers racking paperbacks after World War II. Suddenly there were thousands of points of sale that didn’t require a buyer.

From the store’s perspective, buying — and managing the supply chain to support the buying decisions — is expensive. VERY expensive. Books are hard to buy. New ones are coming all the time; the number of publishers from which they come (and who are the primary sources of information about the books, even if you could “source” them from wholesalers at a slight margin sacrifice for operational simplicity) is huge; the shelf life of any particular title is undeterminable; and the sales in any one outlet are very hard to read.

Consider this data provided by a friend who owns a pretty substantial bookstore.

Looking at the store’s records for a month, 65% of the units sold were singles: one copy of a title. Only 35% were of books that sold 2 or more. (I didn’t ask the question, but that would suggest that 80-90 percent of the titles that sold any copies sold only one.)

Then, the following month, once again 65% of the units sold were singles. But only 20-30 percent of them were the same books as had sold as singles the prior month. Upwards of 70% of them were different titles. And upwards of 70% of the ones that sold one the prior month didn’t sell at all.

To further underscore how slowly book inventory moves, another report they do shows that more than 80% of the titles in the store do not sell a single copy in any particular month. So it is no surprise that an analysis of books from a major publisher that promotes heavily showed that more than half the new titles they receive from that publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the store, which would include the promotion around publication date!

These data points demonstrate another compelling reason for VMI. When a store sells none of 80% of its titles in a month, and of the ones they do sell 80% of those sell one unit, they clearly need information about what is going on in other stores to know which ones to keep or reorder and which ones to return. Above the Treeline is an inventory service which provides its stores with broader sales data to address that issue, but the information is not as granular or as susceptible to analysis as what a publisher or aggregator could do with VMI.

Partly because of the high cost of buying and a supporting supply chain that a book outlet requires, publishers will see shelf space for books drop faster than retail demand. (The closure of Borders, which wiped out a big portion of the shelf space, is part of what is behind the recent good sales reports from many independents.) At the same time, retailers of all things will be under increased pressure to find more sales as the Internet — often, but not always, Amazon — keeps eating into their market.

This all adds up to VMI to me. We’ll see over the next couple of years whether industry players come to the same conclusion.

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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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Learned (or figured out) at BEA 2012


BookExpo America, trade publishing’s industry-wide gathering, just completed what must be considered another successful year at Javits Center last week. Attendance was pretty much what it had been last year and the lines for autographs on the convention floor certainly gave off the feeling of enthusiasm and excitement that publishers want to see.

Convention roundups are best delivered by people like Laura Hazard Owen and my Publishers Launch partner, Michael Cader, who make a real effort to take in the breadth of what is going on. I, on the other hand, have my meetings and chats with friends that seem to fill up the days so my impression of the overall is just that: an impression. An ad hoc impression.

One thing that seems pretty clear is that my forecast for the future of BEA from 2009 was unduly pesssimistic. I like to get to what I think is the heart of the matter, but in this case I was overly simplistic. I got it right that bookstores would continue to decline but I got it wrong to think that would doom BEA within three or four years. Although other retailers stock books more than they used to, there are nowhere near the number of opportunities for publishers to talk to customers that there were even in 2009. But publishers are that much more interested in talking to any source of shelf space that they can and, in fact, non-book retailers often aren’t hit by the field sales forces.

So there continues to be sufficient reason for publishers to exhibit to keep them coming (albeit with smaller stands and less staff than the big guys used to bring). And that brings a whole slew of other players, including the ever evolving set of companies with digital propositions looking to get the attention of publishers large and small.

Aside from our Publishers Launch conference, which made lots of news and was an altogether satisfying event from an organizer’s perspective with a number of really fabulous presentations, I had a handful of takeaways from BEA 2012.

1. Metadata is still a mess. For a BEA panel outside Publishers Launch, we reunited the incredibly engaging team of Newlin and Toolan to discuss metadata. Bill Newlin of Avalon, a division of Perseus, and Fran Toolan, the “Chief Igniter” (CEO) of Firebrand Technologies, know it all about metadata and are both passionate and extremely entertaining in discussing it. I heard from somebody who saw the session or talked to them afterwards that they might be getting bored with presenting on the subject. I checked in with Bill afterwards and he said he just had to freshen up the presentation; it remained important and he wouldn’t stop.

Then I talked to Karina Luke, who had spoken about metadata for us in London last year when she was at Penguin and who now is in charge of Book Industry Communication (BIC), the BISG equivalent in the UK which has, among its responsibilities, the monitoring of industry complicance with metadata standards and certifying publishers for competence. “Is this really still a problem?” I asked her. “Yes.” “Even among the big publishers? Don’t they have it all straight?” “No.”

Since metadata has, as Karina makes clear, literally replaced catalogs and sales reps as the most important and mission-critical source of information about a publisher’s books, this is a bit shocking. We had Jonathan Nowell of Bookscan do a presentation at Pub Launch Frankfurt last year which demonstrated pretty emphatically the relationship between metadata and sales. He’s repeated the presentation, first for us at Digital Book World, and then under other auspices. Apparently not enough publishers have seen it.

2. Still, nobody reports selling illustrated books effectively as ebooks. I have asked the question over and over of every illustrated book publisher I know. One Big Six house that is doing ebooks for all the titles in one of their divisions with a lot of illustrated titles, told me that most of the time sales of the digital edition are in the single digit percentages of the total sale. Very successful illustrated ebooks might do 15% of the print sale. For immersive reading, that percentage is a big multiple of that.

Illustrated books as ebooks have not yet demonstrated that they will work in the marketplace.

3. Still, nobody reports a formula that can deliver repeated commercial success with enhanced ebooks. We all know about a few instances that have worked, but, so far, no publisher has come up with a formula to make enhanced ebooks commercially sound propositions.

We introduced Ron Martinez’s “Aerbook Maker”, a cloud-based technology that makes it easy to build complex ebooks and apps and cuts the cost of doing so dramatically. Martinez’s technology will definitely reduce the cost of experimentation and allow a lot more titles to hit the marketplace. Maybe that can jump-start a business both by making the costs go down and by making it easier for the creative people, including the author, to engage with the technology.

There certainly isn’t a business yet.

4. Publishers still haven’t focused on creating rights databases (which I identified as the biggest problem of the decade over a year ago.) This is a knotty problem for publishers. Sales of books are, in general, flat or down. Sales of rights, particularly in small bits and pieces (chunks), are going up. But without rights databases, the cost of those transactions can often eat the all revenue.

Exactly what to do is an extremely complex problem for any house to tackle and requires some high-level consideration, planning, and resource allocation. But I think it is obvious that the correction must begin with properly databasing the rights in current contracts as they are signed. Even this is apparently not happening yet in most places, according to the “support” industry that would help publishers change this.

Meanwhile, the “in” baskets in the permissions departments will continue to be piled higher and the number of unattended=to opportunities that might have been really remunerative or helped with the marketing of the book will be a subject to be considered at some future time.

(I recall now that my wife, Martha Moran, increased sales by some huge multiple in the 15 months she was doing special sales for Crown in the late 1970s. Her singular innovation was to create a set of form letters that allowed her to answer every request within a couple of days. The impact was immediate. It might well be the same when some publisher creates such a policy for its Rights and Permissions requests.)

5. The problems that distributors are facing with ebooks in the public library market are being duplicated in the K-12 library market. People in that space tell us that they suffer from the same concerns on the part of publishers that keep some players out of the public library market. Is there any way to offer ebooks in school libraries that won’t cannibalize sales of multiple copies in school settings? That’s as much a conundrum as the public library one, but it gets a lot less attention from the public or the publishers.

6. The slowdown in ebook share growth got a bit of conversation. Did I believe it was real? Sure, it is. And it is probably a very natural state of things. Before ebook reader prices plummeted, which they have really done in the past year or two, the readers only made real economic sense to people who read a lot of books. The first mover advantage Amazon gained with Kindle (which was the first device that was easy to load and also hooked up to a lot of titles) was huge because they self-selected the heaviest readers with their pricing. I’ve never seen figures that would prove it, but I’ll bet Nook also has found that ebooks sold per new device is declining from what they saw at first.

Another reason for this, besides the bias of heavy readers to be early adopters, is that so many devices being sold now are replacements. There is a tendency to “load up” on a new device. That’s not necessary on a replacement, particularly a replacement within the same retail ecosystem. So device sales have lost their power as a leading indicator of ebook share growth.

7. The most stimulating and exciting conversation I had at BEA was with Marcello Vena, the director of digital business at RCS Libri, a large book publishing group that owns Rizzoli and Fabbri Editori. RCS Libri is part of RCS Mediagroup, one of the largest EU media holding companies. They own a lot of media businesses including newspapers, magazines, radio, and online advertising.

RCS Libri is doing a large number of innovative things with ebooks, both illustrated and straight text. They’ve done an illustrated ebook on museums that has been a huge success in Italy and will be delivered in English by Rizzoli. They’re starting two new vertical imprints dedicated to genre series in Italian: Rizzoli Max for thrillers from Rizzoli and Fabbri Editori Life for romance novels from Fabbri Editori. All titles will be issued simulaneously as inexpensive hardcovers and ebooks starting this week. The initial list of the thriller series includes a book by my favorite self-published author, John Locke.

RCS is thinking globally and also innovating locally, including in the way they manage promotional pricing of their digital products online. Of course, what’s stimulating for me will probably be stimulating for an audience as well, so I’ve booked Marcello Vena to speak at the Publishers Launch Conference in Frankfurt on October 8.

I turned 65 during BEA. People older than I am are getting harder to find at industry events. But I really enjoyed seeing two of them at BEA.

Martin Levin is in his 90s. He went to law school after he retired from his publishing career, which concluded after he was chairman of Times Mirror Publishing, which then owned Abrams and New American Library. For the past two decades he has done M&A with the law firm Cowan, Liebowitz, and Latman. Martin greeted me with a big smile saying how happy he was that my career has gone so well. But he pointed out, accurately, “you’re not nearly as smart as your father.” Then he recalled some of Dad’s accomplishments, including putting in a vendor-managed inventory program at Doubleday in the 1950s.

Joe Friedman was a new sales rep at Doubleday when that program was instituted. He went on to a career leading sales at Penguin and then working for the ABA. He’s 76 now and hasn’t been in the business for a decade or more. He came in to Manhattan from Long Island on two separate days just “to see if anybody remembers” who he is. I was glad to see him. I wish I’d gotten his email address. I hope he found a few others with whom to discuss old times.

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Random House maintaining a big field force while the industry wisdom is to cut


I was brought up to believe in the virtues of a large field sales force. One of Dad’s early successes in his career as Director of Research at Doubleday was when he analyzed sales rep effectiveness to advise the company about the optimum number of reps to keep when they combined sales forces that had 10 and 14 members, respectively. The company expected him to come up with a number between 10 and 14, or, perhaps, between 14 and 24. His careful analysis of the impact of reps calling on stores led him to recommend that the new sales force consist of 35!

This decision was contrary to the contemporary practice and reasoning of all other publishers.

And very quickly thereafter, Doubleday concluded that taking orders was not the most important function for the rep. Influencing display, store merchandising, and sales clerk awareness of Doubleday titles were where they came to believe the big wins were.

A lot has changed since then, of course, including the ubiquity of computerized inventory management tools, very fast service nationwide from well-stocked wholesalers, and the growth, and then decline, of bookstore chains. But, most of all, we have gone from a country where the number of bookstores was organically increasing to one where it is, clearly, organically diminishing.

Is a large field sales force still a good idea? Dad died 10 years ago, but I am pretty sure he would think it was. He’d be very pleased to see what Random House is doing. They are maintaining a force of well over 100 reps in the field (among several different sales organizations with defined product or account specialties) while everybody else is cutting, usually from a much smaller base. They are, as he did, operating contrary to the contemporary practice and reasoning of all other publishers.

We’ve tried to get at the question of sales force deployment before but I had clearly not focused sufficiently on Random House. We had a session at Digital Book World in 2011 about it and Jaci Updike of Random House (who, as you will see, was a key actor in all this) was on the panel. But the Random House initiative we’ll be talking about below was only in development then. The story that was told at that session, and in industry news reports from time to time, was that the combination of field realities (fewer stores) and new capabilities (like electronic catalogs created by some houses and the industry electronic catalog Edelweiss) made it possible to cover the retailers with fewer reps. Not only that, sales conferences — a very expensive exercise that requires enormous travel expense to bring reps together — were sometimes being replaced by videos of editors pitching their books. The videos, unlike the reps, travel for free.

What made me want to learn more about what was going on at Random House was a conversation I had two weeks ago with another Big Six executive who wondered what they were doing. That person was aware of cuts at their own company and at others, but not at Random House. It seemed impossible that the biggest publisher in town could be cutting sales force and nobody else knew about it; those dismissed reps would be out looking for jobs and knocking on all the competitors’ doors. What was going on there?

I got the chance to ask the question of a friend on Random House’s corporate strat team a few days later. I was told that, indeed, Random House senior executive Madeline McIntosh and the adult sales director who had been on the DBW panel, Jaci Updike, had been redefining the role of the sales rep, broadening the responsibilities so that they remained productive and could be retained in large numbers even with fewer stores. Not only that, but they were proud of what they were doing and were happy to talk about it.

So last Friday I sat down with Updike for an hour and learned about the project that Random House calls “Rep 3.0″.

Whenever you learn about a company innovating, a recurring theme is “it requires support from the top” and that is true here. Jaci’s first reference, when asked “where does this come from?” was to the support the sales reorganization has gotten from CEO Markus Dohle. In his most recent end of year note, he specifically cited the work that Random House’s field reps do. (Updike also pointed out that she’s not the only sales executive leading this. She made it clear that Joan Demayo, leading the children’s sales organization, is doing the same thing.)

There is a belief in Random House, not necessarily documented and perhaps impossible to document, that half of sales come from word of mouth. They are also convinced that their field force is a primary tool to generate the dialogues that sell books. With Updike heading adult sales, they had a leader who had started out as a sales rep at Random House 22 years ago — after working in a bookstore before that — and who was their first Director of Independent Bookselling.

Jaci lived through many shrinkings of the Random House sales force in the 1990s and earlier in this century. But starting about three years ago, they started to disassociate the sales rep’s work from billings and look hard at what reps do “in the community”. Reps already did staff presentations in stores and connected to local media and to libraries. This was behavior that grew organically, but Jaci believes that Random House was unusual in that they encouraged it. If you’re stretched thin trying to cover all the accounts, it is harder to be supportive of what appear to be extra-curricular activities.

But three years ago, with Madeline McIntosh, Jaci’s predecessor in her current job, now running sales and all related operations, they embarked on their Rep 3.0 program. A core element of this was to reorganize the workflow of the rep’s job, using such tools as iPads and electronic catalogs, to make order-generation take less time and free up time for other activities. And those new activities, presenting to libraries and corporations as well as to bookstore staffs, became part of what the company expected their reps to do.

Implementing this strategy required that they make some changes in philosophy and approach that would seem counterintuitive to most sales executives.

They no longer compensate reps based on the sales they generate. Reps are compensated, as are many at Random House, on the overall company performance.

They encourage blogging and speaking engagements without corporate control of the messaging. In fact, they’re quite comfortable if the books their reps talk about aren’t all Random House books. This comes from their conviction that their community-building exercises won’t be taken seriously if they’re seen as shilling for their own stuff. On the other hand, they’re sure their own stuff benefits the most.

And they’ve invested in supply chain in general, seeing the connection between improving the tech in the reps’ hands, the speed of shipment from the warehouse, and the development of such capabilities as vendor-managed inventory, as worth the effort even in an era when the number of bookstores is getting smaller.

The community-building, non-bookstore efforts by the reps get very ambitious. There are Random House reps organizing “retreats” with authors where readers pay to join the group. These bring in attendeees from far afield, including from other countries who want to participate in the discussion about books. The attendees are not book sellers, primarily, although a bookseller is always involved. They are book readers, book lovers. But Random House doesn’t see this as a brand-building exercise. Updike believes that a part of what makes this all work is that the reps are “credible”; they’re not just pushing Random House books.

“We don’t touch what they do with their blogs,” Updike says. “We don’t influence. We don’t suggest.” It is the independent view the reps offer that “makes efforts like this work”, in her opinion.

With these new marketing practices largely arising from reps’ creativity and initiative and then being spread as “best practices” throughout the sales force, the company-wide sales meetings remain very important and Random House continues to run them twice a year.

So Random House sustains an investment in covering field accounts that none of their competitors appear to believe is sustainable, and they do it employing very unconventional techniques that are hard to measure. Is it working? Do they believe it is working?

Updike was convincing on this subject, even while she rejected as somewhat inflated a colleague’s report that independent store sales were measured as “up 40%” in February. (Like her reps increasing their credibility by not limiting their discussions to Random House books, Jaci’s willingness to discount what she thinks is an inflated measurement of their success reinforced her credbility with me!)

She figures some of that 40% increase was simply a shift of sales from wholesalers to direct because Random House had a few-month program of 2-day-shipment that ran through February. But she also knows that “POS was up” and she believes “our in-stock position was better than other publishers. We were in stock on a lot of hot titles when others were not; that was part of it.” And even with Borders closing, which we all know put wind in the backs of many independents, the 15% increase in indie store sales she thinks is the accurate number, is a very impressive feat in these times.

Random House figures that its “army of marketers”, which is how Updike now sees her sales organization, is helping them sell more books, build more titles from obscurity to success, and is thus giving them an edge winning over agents as well. This is a strategy not likely to be duplicated by any of their competitors. It will be interesting to see how clear a competitive advantage it can deliver them, and for how long.

Here’s another family anecdote that brings all this home. In 1975 I was working for my father, running sales at Two Continents. He had met a young sales director at Frederick Fell named Charlie Nurnberg. “Go meet him, Mike,” my father said. “You’ll learn things.”

I did, and I did, starting with the very first conversation we had when Charlie explained to me that if the permission line when somebody excerpted your book included a price and an address, you’d get orders.

In any era before the current one, the executive who got me started on this investigation by wondering aloud what was going on at Random House would have just picked up the phone and taken somebody there out to lunch to find out. “What are you guys doing about sales force deployment?” would not, in and of itself, have been seen as a “price-fixing” or “combination in restraint of trade” question.

But the reason why they don’t act that way today became very publicly evident yesterday, with the announcement of the DOJ suit against Apple and five publishers and the settlement agreed to by three of them. Publishers can’t talk to each other about the industry anymore. Aside from many other things, this means publishing just isn’t as much fun as it used to be anymore. (Even as I write this, I can hear the ridicule that statement will inspire in some quarters.)

I want to let the dust settle for a couple of days while people smarter about this than I am make clear what the legal papers actually say and what the timetables are for changes to become effective before I try to spell out some things it might mean.

This will certainly make for a lot of interesting conversation starting this weekend at the London Book Fair.

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Extending the life of bookstores is critical, but devilishly difficult


I’ll admit that I would have thought a few years ago that by the time we got to the point when more than a third of unit sales for major houses had gone digital — and perhaps more than half for fiction — that the future shape of the book business would be discernible. But, at least according to what I learned from one Big Six house last week, we have reached that level of ebook uptake and despite that, the business still looks very much as it has. It seems impossible to me that it will stay that way.

Here are a few bits of information that came onto my radar last week.

One Big Six executive told me that ebook sales in their shop had reached the mid-30s as a percentage of units sold. That broke down to about 50% of fiction units and 25% of non-fiction.

Nonetheless, that same executive noted a real slowdown in the rate of ebook growth. This is to be expected as the base of sales grows, of course, but it slowed down faster than this house expected. They had seen a 120% increase in ebook units in 2010 and figured they’d see an 80% growth in 2011; it came in at 60%. In short, the rate of increase was cut in half.

These numbers gave this particular executive reason to believe that print demand was begining to stabilize and that it was reasonable to assume that 50% print units might persist into the future, with commensurate new stability for brick-and-mortar stores. I have since been told that a leading executive at another of the Big Six houses shares the same expectation, or hope. Perhaps they all do.

On the other hand…

Another publisher, substantial but not Big Six, has seen much more explosive growth continuing in ebooks and, for that publisher, unit sales for fiction have already gone to well beyond 50% digital.

A paper by the accountants-consultants at Deloitte in the UK, reported in the Guardian, predicts a decline of 40% in all brick-and-mortar stores over the next five years. That’s because books are not the only item for which sales are migrating from brick stores to online. We’ve already learned that books are among the items most susceptible to online purchasing for a myriad of obvious and well-established reasons. We also know that buying public in the US is at least as receptive to online purchasing as the British.

I’ve written time after time after time about the diminishing retail network for books and its potential impact. I have always seen this as existential for big trade houses, whose distinguishing value proposition for authors remains their ability to put books on retail shelves. (There are other things that matter, but I’d argue that all of them put together don’t equal that.) Publishing printed books is a complex endeavor best done by a large organization that can perform its various functions — warehousing, shipping, billing, commissioning the manufacturing, sales representation, and contact with marketing megaphones — at scale.

A proliferation of online marketing channels with real influence could once again challenge the under-resourced (authors working alone or smaller publishers) or otherwise-preoccupied (Amazon) who are trying to substitute for what the big publishers do. So far, the platforms that matter (to the extent they do…more on that below) have been limited in number, Facebook being the most prominent one. (One sales executive said to me yesterday, “Facebook isn’t a platform. It’s a requirement.”) If Tumblr becomes really important and Pinterest really were the next Facebook and, over time,  online influencers become as dispersed as our 20th century media world was, it opens up opportunity for big organizations to add value that smaller ones can’t.

So even if the Big Six optimists are wrong that their business proposition will be preserved by a slowing switch from print to digital (and, with no more knowledge than they have, my intuition against their intuition, I wouldn’t bet a dime that they’re right), perhaps we’re heading for a world where any author in her right mind would want a publisher to cover all the digital marketing bases, with the help of technology and dedicated staff, rather than trying to do it herself.

Nobody’s predicted that yet that I’m aware of, but let me be the first on the block to acknowledge the possibility.

The future of bookstores and the future of publishers if the bookstores diminish much futher in importance should be one of the most important topics on the minds of all stakeholders in the book business. We’re going to try two different ways to explore it at our next Publishers Launch Conference, taking place at BookExpo on June 4. Both of them involve one of the distinguishing features of our events: delivering insightful data about our industry that is not delivered by other industry conferences.

All of the current industry data reporting, including the recent effort called BookStats put together by the AAP, BISG, and Bowker, are unable to isolate sales and inventory in stores by type of book. To plan future publishing programs (and to sign up books this month and next), publishers need to understand with some level of granularity whether it is true that stores are shifting their buying (and selling) from immersive reading to illustrated books and, if so, which illustrated books. Among the reasons that the industry stats fail to capture this properly is that they don’t look beyond the sales publishers make to wholesalers to find out what happened with the books the wholesalers bought.

But the wholesalers know whether the book they just sold went to a brick store, a library, an online store, or an individual. We’ve been fortunate to get Phil Ollila of the Ingram Content Group to examine his company’s records to give us a more detailed and granular understanding of what is really happening in the retail marketplace. Are bookstores really stocking fewer novels and more illustrated books? Is the proportion of sales made online versus in stores changing at different speeds for straight immersive books and illustrated books? Ingram is mining its data to come up with answers to those questions. Ollila will report some findings at our conference.

We will also have a data-rich and sobering presentation from Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. Hildick-Smith and his team have been surveying book consumers on a quarterly basis for nearly a decade. Their work is high-level and expensive and is normally only available to the big companies that can afford to subscribe. But Hildick-Smith sees a crisis ahead for the industry in his data, and he cares enough about our collective future to want to sound an alarm. He’ll be doing that our June 4 event.

And what he sees and documents is the critical role bookstores play in consumer discovery of new books and authors. He demonstrates with data and logic that SEO and social media are totally inadequate substitutes. Hildick-Smith thinks a future without bookstores will be very different than the present. He makes the case that author brands established in the bookstore era will be largely unchallenged when the bookstore ladder gets pulled up and future authors can’t climb it. And he believes that publishers don’t appreciate that all measures, even desperate measures, are called for to preserve the brick store base as long as possible.

When you start trying to figure out how publishers could do that, you appreciate very quickly that you’re tackling a very challenging problem.

Six decades ago, long before there was any bookstore crisis, my father, Leonard Shatzkin, then at Doubleday, recognized that bookstores were the publishers’ lifeblood. He didn’t see the logic in giving bigger discounts to wholesalers than to retailers. After all, wholesalers primarily put their books in warehouses waiting for orders that publishers’ marketing efforts and a book’s inherent appeal create while retailers put them on shelves in front of customers, stimulating demand. His solution, implemented ever-so-briefly, was to eliminate the wholesalers’ discount differential and offer them the same terms as retailers.

Unfortunately, this is a story about which I didn’t capture all the details while Dad was around to give them to me. I know that the wholesalers went ballistic and demanded meetings with Doubleday management (presumably including Dad, who implemented policies like this from the relative safety of the “Research Department”, not from the front lines of the Sales Department.) The policy was reversed and the wholesale discount was restored.

But I can personally attest to the enduring bad feelings this initiative engendered. In 1974, around two decades after the failed experiment, I was working for Dad selling books for Two Continents. As the top sales guy, it was my role to introduce the company to Bookazine, a wholesaler that then occupied a warehouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Bill Epstein was the owner of Bookazine and, when he met me, all of the anger from that Doubleday discount change came to the surface, as if he’d been waiting 20 years to complain about it again.

The day has perhaps come again when publishers will want to consider offering the highest discount incentive for placing a book on a retail store shelf. (The idea exists in the world of commerce: it is called a “retail display allowance”, although the concept would need to be extended to favor all retail display, not just favored positioning.) This would be a devilishly difficult policy to design and implement to avoid alienating the wholesalers the way my Dad did. (There is no way a policy like this would be well-received by Amazon.) But after publishers hear Peter Hildick-Smith at Pub Launch BEA, it is bound to strike some, at least, as an idea well worth considering.

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The expected changes in the book business favor Amazon’s share growth


This post is the second that is contemplating two big questions facing the publishing industry:

When will the growth in Amazon’s share of the consumer book business stop?

Who will be left standing when it does?

Amazon applies pressure and generates angst among publishers from two directions. As they grow to be 30% or more of many publishers’ business, they are in a position to push to improve their margins at publishers’ expense. And they do, indeed, push.

At the same time, they are both offering authors attractive opportunities to self-publish and wielding a checkbook to build their own publishing program. Both threaten to constrict publishers’ access to the ultimate source of all their revenue, the output of authors looking for a path to readers. And even when Amazon doesn’t sign a book they go after, they could well be pushing up the price a publisher has to pay to get it.

This pincer maneuver is really unprecedented in its power, even though elements of it have existed before.

Joint ownership of publishing and book retailing is definitely not new; it has been a part of the industry for my entire 50 years in it. My first book publishing job was on the sales floor of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue in 1962. My dad was a publisher. He was a vice-president of a company then called Crowell-Collier, which bought the first Macmillan in the early 1960s, eventually changed the corporate name to Macmillan, and was then purchased by Simon & Schuster in 1994. None of these entities have anything to do with the company now called Macmillan, which took its name from the British company the owning Holtzbrinck family had also acquired.

Anyhow, when Crowell-Collier bought Brentano’s, Leonard Shatzkin became the responsible corporate executive. He had gone to Crowell-Collier from Doubleday, which also owned bookstores. Across the street from Brentano’s was the Scribner Bookstore, owned by Charles Scribner’s Sons. They were the publishers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among others. (Scribners exists today as an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)

And, of course, it has only been about 10 years since book retailing giant Barnes & Noble expanded its proprietary publishing program by purchasing independent niche publisher Sterling. That doesn’t appear to have worked out particularly well for them; they are apparently having trouble selling Sterling today, even at a fraction of the price they paid for it.

And, in fact, Amazon’s publishing efforts haven’t been particularly disruptive to publishers so far. Their big “gets” to date are Tim Ferriss and Deepak Chopra, two big authors who are unusual because their pattern has been to write for different publishers rather than having a lengthy run at one particular house. The very biggest names, which would be fiction authors, have not yet been enticed to make the jump, although Jackie Collins created a stir last week with some self-publishing plans that don’t have entirely to do with Amazon. It has been nearly a year since Amazon signed former Time Warner Books head Larry Kirshbaum to lead their attempt to woo big trade authors. That was very concerning to the big houses but, so far, the sky has definitely not fallen.

Whether we will really see profound changes that justify the questions that head this series of pieces or whether this turns out to be a totally baseless bout of nervousness by the established players depends on what happens in the overall marketplace in the next few years.

The percentage of a publisher’s business that Amazon represents is largely channel-dependent. If ebook sales go up overall, then Amazon’s share will probably go up. If purchasing shifts from brick stores to online, then Amazon’s share will certainly go up. If print sales in brick stores hold their ground, then Amazon’s sales won’t rise.

I think you’d have to look hard to find a credible voice making the case that print sales in stores will hold their ground. To the extent there is a debate, it revolves around how fast those sales will decline.

AAP says we’ve seen double-digit declines of print sales in 2011 over what they were in 2010. They say print revenue was down 17.5% in adult hardcover and 15.6% in adult paperback.

Forrester’s survey of publishing executives finds few expecting such a big decline in the coming year, but then, few expected such a steep decline last year. Forrester’s own prediction is for sudden drops. I would agree that sales will tend to decline in “step-increments”, as players exit the game. Borders may be responsible for a lot of the loss we saw in 2011. There wouldn’t seem to be any shelf space loss that great on the immediate horizon, but we do see B&N reducing both the number of stores and the percentage of shelf space within them devoted to books and there are many predicting that books might lose their appeal to the mass merchants as well. They are fully capable of substituting other merchandise for books and making that switch very quickly whenever they decide it should happen.

My own expectation is that over the next five years we’ll see the share of sales that are ebooks more than double. (This should be seen as a startlingly conservative prediction, since that number has doubled annually for the past five years!) That would put ebook unit sales at about 65% for commercial immersive reading. (I’m grossing up the 20% of revenue number the big houses are reporting because ebooks produce less revenue than print hardcovers and because many titles in the print revenue base aren’t in the ebook revenue base.)

Of the remaining 35% allocated to print, I’d expect half of the sales, at least, to be online. If those numbers are right, then 17.5% of immersive book sales would be in brick stores.

If Amazon remains about 60% of ebook sales and 90% of print books sold online, that would put their share of immersive reading sales at about 50%. And were a book available in Kindle that people knew about and wanted to read and not available in other formats, Amazon could pick up a lot of the ebook sales they would otherwise miss. (Remember, anybody using a Nook or Kobo app as opposed to a Nook or Kobo device could just switch to the Kindle app to read that particular book.) All that is really hard for them to capture is the 17.5% allocated here for print sold in stores. And even the loss of that share wouldn’t be total, since, for any really big book, in-store buyers would buy online if they had to. So they’d be in a position to reach well more than 70%, perhaps even more than 80%, of the market for all books that are principally text. (And those are the books that lead the industry.)

Imagine what that will do for Kirshbaum’s ability to go get big authors. Today an author considering an Amazon publishing deal must figure that half or more of the market is unreachable through that arrangement. No matter how much money Amazon is willing to pay, no matter how much they increase the ebook royalty over the publishers’ offers (which they have ample margin to do), it is a pretty tough sell to get an author to write off more than half the marketplace, particularly the half most visible to the public.

In other words, overall trends are moving things increasingly in Amazon’s direction. Even if nothing changes in the deals offered or resources available to the competitors for author attention in the next five years, Amazon’s position will have grown considerably more powerful. And, in fact, Amazon’s share of publisher sales just about assures that any changes in deals and resources in the meantime will favor Amazon as well.

Of course, there is more to successful publishing than just signing up a book and managing an online audience. Editing and presentation count. A marketing plan that goes beyond just reaching online bookstore customers counts. Rights sales count. And pricing to maximize a particular title’s revenue, not a bookseller’s overall share and customer loyalty, also counts. None of these are things that Amazon’s experience naturally leads them to do. All of them require investment and development of infrastructure and team skills. Will Amazon invest in and perform these functions?

And the more books a publisher does, the more challenging it becomes to manage all these things. Title growth might also challenge Amazon’s marketing resources, such as they are. There are only so many slots on the home page for a category of books to use to feature your own titles. (And there’s a risk of alienating your customers if they think your featuring and recommendations are just shilling for your own books.) There are only so many emails you can send pushing your own books before you lose people’s attention (and perhaps their permission). The special sales and vertical marketing functions that will be increasingly important for publishers are not natural fits at Amazon. Will they do these things?

Of course, we need to remember that while Amazon signs up titles directly, they pressure competitive retailers as well as publishers. There are two approaches Amazon can take in that circumstance and one can imagine them choosing which approach to apply by title.

Either they are a supplier of titles to the rest of the trade, which gives them a different kind of power. Or they withhold what they’ve got from the rest of the trade, which means the Amazon title selection is advantaged over the competition.

You have to excuse publishers if it makes them nervous to think about living in a world where the company through which they get 50% of their sales is also competing with them to sign up titles directly. This is a situation where it is accurate to say that any other player in the ecosystem who is not at least mildly panicked probably doesn’t fully understand what’s going on.

The challenges faced by Amazon as they try to grow as a publisher are not trivial, but neither is the strength they bring to address them. The world five years from now where Amazon is stronger because they can reach 80% of the market rather than somewhat less than 50% is also one where the big players with whom they’re competing for authors are also weaker. In fact, if the number following “Big” isn’t smaller than “6″ by then, I’ll be one very surprised prognosticator.

It’s taken me two posts (here’s the first one) to lay out what I see as the dynamic forces tilting the trade book business toward Amazon. I have at least three more components of this story to consider: how these changes look from each spot in the value chain (author, agent, large and small publisher, retailer, reader); a discussion of the “cultural gap”, which can be traced as much to different objectives as to the lack of shared history, between Amazon and the legacy book business; and a discussion of the Amazon antidotes: what other players in the industry can do, within the constraints of the law and practicality, to slow down or reverse the Amazon share growth before it changes the nature of the industry, and its cast of characters, beyond recognition.

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By one benchmark at least, we are probably halfway through the (r)evolution


A couple of major (Big Six) publishers have acknowledged that ebook revenues for them have passed 20% of their revenues. Of the 80% that remains print, I think it would be conservative to estimate that 20% of that is sold online. That’s an additional 16 percent of their business. Adding those together tells us that, for at least some very major companies, 36 percent of of their sales are being transacted online. That would leave, on average, about 64% of the sales for print sold through brick-and-mortar retail and other more minor channels. ”On average” should not be read as “typical” on a title-by-title basis. It isn’t. For immersive reading, or straight text like novels and biographies, the percentage sold in stores is already almost certainly substantially lower. My hunch, and nobody really keeps these figures (but I think I’ve found a way to get at them, which we’ll try to show at a future Publishers Launch conference) is that it may already be down to 50% print in stores for new titles.

(It adds both confirmation and confusion to note that Bowker’s PubTrack estimated that 30% of the dollars spent on books in 2010 were spent online. But they figured that only 2.2% of the dollars that year were ebooks. My own estimates are based on the picture of things we get from big publishers, who are perhaps more skewed to straight text than the industry as a whole. There are all sorts of explanations that would narrow the apparent differences between what Bowker describes and what I infer from what I know, but they’d require a different piece which, I think, would be less helpful in painting an overall understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going than the one you’re about to read.)

Five years ago, early in 2007, it was a virtual certainty that 80%, and probably much more, of the sales of any trade book that sold a significant number of copies would take place in stores. There were almost no ebook sales. (The Kindle did not make its debut until November 2007; sometimes I feel like I was the only person reading ebooks before the Kindle arrived.)

Five years from now, by the start of 2017, I’d bet that 80% of the sales of any trade book that sells a significant number copies will be transacted online.

And that, even more than the ebook uptake that is a mere component of the store-to-online shift, is the story of our times that matters in trade publishing.

One thing I believe but won’t try to prove (which means “take it on faith”) is that more attention has been paid to the change from print reading to screen reading than to the change from store purchasing to screen purchasing. But the change in purchasing behavior is by far more significant in its affect on the industry than the change in consumption, at least in the medium term.

The shift in the way we consume what is now print may become more important as new presentation forms enabled by digital delivery — making use within the content itself of video, animiaton, links, social connections, and alternative content and navigation paths — are improved and gain commercial traction. (I’d argue that no enhanced or illustrated ebook solution has achieved that so far.)

But being halfway through the change in consumer buying habits in our decade of change has profound implications for all the big players in the publishing value chain. It would appear that publishers in both the US and UK are now accepting that the decline in numbers of bookstores and the shelf space they offer for merchandising is not temporary and not primarily recession-driven. (We heard that said more than once last year and the year before.) It is a fundamental societal shift that is inexorable and which shifts power away from publishers to their trading partners on both sides of them: the authors and the retailers.

In fact, even though the share of the overall business commanded by the brick-and-mortar retailers is declining, even they will, at least in the short term, gain clout with the publishers. The exposure they offer any book they carry will be increasingly appreciated as shelf space diminishes. And for illustrated books, print is really the only proven game in town because there is no digital presentation of such books that has demonstrated enduring viability in the marketplace.

The fact that we are halfway to a complete reversal of the online-offline sales ratio explains some conflicting behavior see in today’s marketplace. It is still true that brick-and-mortar placement is instrumental to building the reputation of a book or an author. And it is widely accepted that only a publisher employing a real infrastructure and customer network (its own or through effective use of a powerful distributor like Perseus or Ingram) can deliver that placement. At the same time, sales through online channels, particularly of ebooks, has reached a level of real commercial significance and those sales can be delivered with a fraction of the organizational capability that the declining model requires.

So we have authors like J.A. Konrath. He is perfectly content to eschew the bookstore exposure in favor of doing it himself. He keeps much fatter margins on the ebook sales, even though he probably has to charge lower prices for the same book than a publisher would. Konrath has argued for a long time that he is thinking of the future. He may be giving up some sales today, he acknowledges, but he believes he’ll be compensated for his foresight as the sales base moves away from bookstores and he has avoided forever paying 50% or 75% of his ebook royalties in an exchange for bookstore sales that will inexorably diminish.

Of course, he gives up advances against royalties too.

On the other hand, we have the author Amanda Hocking who built herself an online sales machine from scratch but yet happily sold her next four books to a publisher. She got significant advances, will now get bookstore exposure she never had before, and, from her perspective, also laid off many of the non-writing tasks of delivering a book to market. Those were tasks she found onerous; she’d rather write. I think she’s right that it is hard to do it oneself and I think it might get harder.

And then, taking a middle-ground position between these two, we have John Locke and Barry Eisler.

Locke was like Hocking. He started from scratch and built a big sales base online. He also was not getting the bookstore sales and exposure he’d get through a publisher. But Locke doesn’t mind the marketing work and he likes controlling his online presentation and pricing. So he made a “distribution deal” with Simon & Schuster for his print, getting the muscle of a real publishing sales and distribution organization working for him on a fee-for-services basis.

Eisler, who had done several books with major houses, turned down an advance from a publisher (ironically, the publisher was St. Martin’s, the same one who signed Hocking) and initially intended to self-publish. Instead, he took a deal with an Amazon imprint. This cuts the baby in half. He gets an advance. He gets the marketing attention of a big organization with unique capabilities. But he does not get bookstore exposure.

The reason all these different approaches actually make sense is that we are still in a period of transition. Konrath is banking on the fact that my analysis is right. From his perspective, he’s giving up bookstore revenue and marketing now because he doesn’t want to be paying forever for what he gets today. The same is true for Locke. Eisler and Hocking are pursuing more immediate benefits. Eisler is betting that Amazon’s direct marketing to consumers they know will propel him further and faster than going back to bookstores for sales yet again. And Hocking is banking on the fact that the bookstores and the publishers’ ability to place books in them will accelerate the growth of her fan base as well as laying off a lot of work she doesn’t want to do on somebody who is willing to fatten her bank account for the privilege.

The transition has another dynamic which is the growth of Amazon’s power in relation to every other player in the value chain. Going back to the stats at the top of the piece, the publisher who is seeing 36% of total sales and perhaps nearer 50% of immersive reading sales taking place online, is also seeing the percentage of their sales through Amazon grow as well. Amazon has about 60% of the ebook sales in the US and perhaps 90% of the online print sales. That would make Amazon (12% of the 20% sold as ebooks and 16% of the 80% print) about 28% of such a publisher’s volume now.

But using an overall number like that understates the reality of Amazon’s dominance. Their share of the sales of straight text books is almost certainly higher (because they sell most of the ebooks), so that share is almost certainly above 30% now. If things proceed as this piece contemplates for the next five years and nothing drastic has happened to change the shares retailers have of the ebook and online print channels, Amazon is likely to be something more than 50% of a big publisher’s business. All they won’t have is the 20% that is brick-and-mortar print, a sliver of online print, and the chunk of the ebook business that is sold by other vendors. And, as now, the percentage sold online will be higher on straight text.

Going from 80 to 90 percent of book sales being made in stores to that same percentage being made online in a decade’s time certainly justifies anybody’s pronouncement of profound and disruptive change. Having a single account that delivers half of publishers’ business — more on many titles — is unprecedented and perhaps unsustainable.

Although what we’ve seen in the past five years looks to me like it points very clearly to what we can expect in the next five years, it is hard to tell whether these realities are being taken on board by the players from whom power is shifting away. (Nobody is going to call me and say “Mike, our business is melting away!” even if that’s what they’re thinking.) I’m pretty sure it is all well understood, and expected, by the player who is seeing the power move in its direction. But they aren’t calling to tell me that either.

The death of the senior John Sargent last week – he was for a time my father’s boss at Doubleday in the 1950s — gave me reason to recall this piece I wrote in the blog’s very early days on Leonard Shatzkin breaking the color line at Doubleday in the 1950s. I didn’t have very many readers then compared to now. I thought it was worth calling my now-much-larger audience’s attention to it, even though it has nothing to do with today’s post. I think many of you will enjoy it.

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Some things that were true about publishing for decades aren’t true anymore


Back when my father, Leonard Shatzkin, was active with significant publishers — the quarter century following World War II — he observed that very few books actually took in less cash than they required. That is not to say that publishers saw most books as “profitable”. Indeed, they didn’t. They placed an overhead charge of 25% or 30% or more on each book so most looked unprofitable. But that didn’t change the fact that the cash expended to publish just about every book was less than the cash it brought back in.

The exceptions were usually attributable to a large commercial error, most commonly paying too much of an advance to the author or printing far more copies than were needed. But, absent that kind of mistake, just about every book brought back somewhat more revenue than it required to publish it.

This led Len to the conclusion that the best strategy for a publisher was to issue as many titles as the organizational structure would allow. That was a lesson he passed along to the next generation of publishing leadership that came under his influence. And the leading proponent of that business philosophy was Tom McCormack, who worked for Len at Doubleday in the late 1950s, then went on to Harper & Row before he ascended to the presidency of then-tiny St. Martin’s Press in 1969. Tom often credited the insight that publishing more books was the path to commercial success as a key component of the enormous growth he piloted at St. Martin’s over three decades.

(I checked in with Tom, who is long-retired as a publishing executive but a very active playwright, about how many books didn’t claw back the cash expended. He told me that his “non-confirmable recollection” is that the percentage that did at least get their money back ranged from 85% to 92%. He recalls “incredulity” from his counterparts in other houses, whom he believes simply couldn’t “wrap their minds around the meaning of the statistic: revenues minus disbursements.” He went on to tell me that this number “seemed effectively irrelevant to them. They had an overriding and deeply flawed notion of something they called title-profitability. They thought they were analyzing the profitability of a title with their ‘p&l’.”)

Despite the apparent immutability of the fact at the time that most titles brought in incremental margin, many publishers who were losing money would come to the opposite conclusion. They would decide they should cut their lists, pay more attention to the titles they published, and create more profits that way. I remember discussing the futility of that approach in the 1980s with my friend and client, Dick McCullough, who was at that time the head of sales at Wiley. When I observed that the publishing graveyard was littered with the bones of publishers who pursued cutting their lists as the path to profits, Dick said of their efforts to cut “yes, and very successfully too”.

I got another lesson about this reality in the late 1980s when a company I consulted to (Proteus Books) sued its distributor (Cherry Lane Music) for a failure of “due skill and competence” in the sales efforts for Proteus Books. One of Proteus’s expert witnesses was Arthur Stiles, who had been Sales Director at several companies, including Doubleday, Lippincott, and Harper & Row. Stiles confirmed that big and competent publishers routinely put out thousands of copies of titles in advance of publication, with extremely few failures in terms of getting the initial placements. He was testifying in a time that was still like what my father experienced: the industry’s title counts were growing, but so were the the number of bookstores in which they could be placed.

Those days are over. And, coupled with the ebook revolution, the implications of that are profound.

A few things happened to change the environment so that it became no longer true that even big publishers could get all the distribution they needed on every title to assure a positive return of cash.

1. The title output of the industry has grown enormously. In the 1960s, the total output of the industry was in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles a year. Now it is something more than 30 times that number published traditionally, with a multiple of that number being self-published. Each new book is competing against more new titles every two weeks than a book fifty years ago would have competed against in a year!

2. Nothing published ever dies. Fifty years ago, stores were smaller and, while there’s no easy way for me to measure this, I’d guess that the active backlist across publishers was probably no more than 25,000 titles. Superstore growth in the 1980s, the efficiency of Ingram as a national wholesaler, and computer systems that helped stores track their inventory and sales fueled backlist expansion. Even in the early 1990s, the total of truly competitive titles was probably in the low six figures. But then came Amazon’s unlimited shelf space and Ingram’s Lightning Print to deliver one copy at a time, and, even before ebooks, the competitive set of available titles had probably jumped to seven figures.

3. Bookstore shelf space is declining. Nobody who has been reading this blog needs much elaboration on that point.

What that means is that a list-cutting therapy that McCullough and I saw in the 1980s as suicidal and which McCormack explained repeatedly was folly is no longer crazy. (Oh, how I wish my dear departed Dad was around to discuss this with!) And the new conjecture in this blogpost is that the day might come when a publisher with an extensive backlist might decide that the most profitable path would be to hardly publish any new titles at all!

The portfolio of any longstanding publisher today contains a lot of backlist which is pure profitable gold in the ebook era. Contracts often give publishers the rights to a book for the life of copyright if they continue to sell it. (I’ll confess here that there is a caveat to this point coming up in an italicized postscript below.) So a major publisher doing $600 million and up (of which there are six), almost certainly has triple-digit millions of sales in its backlist, which is increasingly shifting to digital. Even the most sober industry observers are seeing revenues exceeding 50% from ebooks in the next two or three years, which would mean that substantially more than half the units of these books are selling electronically.

So, let’s say you’ve got a company doing a billion dollars in annual revenue and barely eeking out a profit or perhaps even losing money. With a strategy of continuing to publish what you own as ebooks, you can see digital backlist revenue of $150 million, decaying by 10% a year, with gross margins giving you $100 million or more in cash flow. Offloading all the print operations for which you own rights to a distributor or competitor will provide incremental revenue as well. (You only need help for the offline print sales. Getting the online sales requires no operational capability.) You’d then need a minimal organization to do some marketing (not a lot), sign up and put out some additional titles that would be chosen for being risk-free (not a lot), and to handle the administration and royalty processing for your thousands of contracts. Five or ten million ought to cover those costs very handily.

Of course, the other thing you could do is sell your rights to that backlist. But I think it would require somebody to overpay in relation to your net discounted cash flow to make that attractive because the costs of keeping it all for yourself would be so minimal.

One hopes that today’s publishers are looking at the simple statistic Len and Tom authored: revenues minus disbursements by title. No doubt today’s biggest publishers are looking carefully at the performance of their copyrights in a way that sorts the new titles from the backlist. But doing so is only useful if they’re apportioning their costs properly across the title base. If they are, what is described in this post will be evident if and when it is true. In the meantime, careful focus on new title acquisitions and accepting that the healthiest way to manage for the future might be to reduce the commitment to new title development will have to replace the clear truths that guided smart publishing strategy for previous generations.

The history and analysis are all valid, but there is one big monkey wrench in this scenario I’ve sketched. There is a provision in the 1978 copyright law that allows authors to reclaim rights to their books after 35 years. Titles published in 1978 become eligible for reversion, called “recapture” apparently, starting in 2013. (With logic that is ironically typical of what Congress does when it touches copyright law, older titles are on a slower track for liberation.) Agents are planning for this; publishers will have to deal with it. I am given to understand that publishers can only retain these books for life of copyright by, in effect, reacquiring them. (Should be lots of fun!)

So, in fact, the backlist attrition might be faster than 10% (but it might not, because ebooks may create more readers for backlist than we had before as well.)

It is also true that many publishers have already been moving in the direction I suggest: pruning their new title counts and being particularly cautious with midlist. Of course, there was a conviction by many that list-pruning was a good strategy even before it actually was a good strategy, but the execution of it has been much more rigorous over the past decade.

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Data helps us understand ebook pricing impacts


My new buddy and client over at iobyte, Dan Lubart, inspired a post last week about Amazon’s new Sunshine promotion because he documented its impact on their bestseller list.

Since then he’s put up two new posts that are only worth reading if you care at all about the effect of price on today’s ebook market. I think that includes most of us.

There is legitimate debate about how bestseller lists should be organized in the ebook age. I pointed out last winter that it really wasn’t tenable for ebook lists to keep score on unit sales only when the price range extended from 99 cents to $19.99. And, in fact, that kind of price variation has already led to clever authors and publishers gaming the system: lowering prices to get on bestseller lists and then raising them to capitalize on the additional discovery that takes place once they’re on. My suggestion was that the grading be on “price times units”.

Those who like that idea quickly see that this is similar to how movies work; they report the box office receipts, not the number of tickets sold. Those who don’t like the idea say that what a bestseller list is supposed to communicate is what books are being read by the most people.

Dan’s two most recent posts illuminate how this question plays out in the real marketplace.

In the first, he appears to have discovered that Barnes & Noble may have arbitrarily decided that an ebook priced at $2.99 or less won’t be placed in the top 125 of their bestsellers. This conclusion is based on convincing circumstantial evidence. What Dan first noticed was that only one book in the Sunshine promotion, and then two, had hit the Nook bestseller list. Watching those books, he saw one, “My Horizontal Life”, fall from rank number 1 to rank number 127 in one day.

That’s beyond a statistical anomaly. That’s damn near an impossibility, unless the rules of the game were changed.

So Dan checked further and found that all the inexpensive ebooks had dropped below rank 125, but that they were dominant from 126 to 200.

Since I’m the guy who pointed out a few months ago that lumping 99 cent ebooks with $19.99 ebooks was mixing apples and broccoli, I think it is fine that Barnes & Noble has taken this additional curatorial step. The New York Times makes it clear that its ebook bestseller list does not “actively track” a variety of titles including those that are self-published. I think it is fair to say that neither has a “transparent” methodology. But putting their thumb on the scale might be delivering a more useful result for the users of their lists.

I found Dan’s next post even more revealing about the nature of the ebook marketplace, particularly at Amazon.

What he showed, through analysis of the price of the titles and their rankings, was that the disruptive effect on the bestseller list of the Sunshine promotion was very brief. It lasted about a week. Seeing this recalled a story my Dad once told me and therein lies the explanation.

In the 1950s, Doubleday tried an experiment of putting books into supermarkets. What they found, repeatedly, was that the books sold well the first week and then sales collapsed.

The explanation for this was very simple. Bookstores see their customers — even most of their best customers — relatively infrequently. But supermarkets see their customers weekly or even more often. So a display of books is quickly seen by just about all who might be interested. They either buy something or they don’t. But after a week, everybody who visits that store has seen it and, unless the choice of books the next time they pass it is very obviously different, they will have no need to shop from it again. (By the way, this is a reason to create automatic title rotation by not assigning one title per pocket, but that’s a different subject than we’re discussing in this post.)

What Dan’s Amazon data would suggest is that the low-priced shopping cohort is a herd that responds quickly. When Amazon announced their Sunshine promotion, the most avid low-price buyers shopped it immediately and made their purchases. That created the spike in low-priced bestsellers which we acknowledged in our prior post.

But in the second week, with the same selection of books in the Sunshine promotion, that effect virtually disappeared. The low-price shoppers had done their purchasing from that selection. The normal buying patterns on the site reasserted themselves on the list. What one can see from Dan’s data is that the highest-priced band of ebooks took a real hit in ranking during the first week of the Sunshine promotion but in the second week the impact was much reduced and the lowest-priced books were apparently taking share only from the next band up. The highest-priced band had totally regained its pre-promotion share of the list.

Dan always reminds me that “ranking” and “sales” are not the same thing. It is possible that the Sunshine promotion elevated the spotlighted inexpensive books without reducing the sales of the books knocked down or off the list. In fact, I am one who believes that the purchasers of low-priced books are really a different group of people, for the most part, than those who buy the higher-priced books.

But since those bestsellers definitely lost the discoverability created by their presence on or high up on the list, it would open up a whole new set of questions if they got the same sales without what most of us assume is the important lift to discovery provided by bestseller ranking.

The ebook world is rapidly shifting and changing. With the pool of ebook consumers continuing to grow quickly, the buying patterns are bound to be temporary. The next batch of ebook customers might be more price-sensitive or less; they might respond to a price promotion as quickly as the Kindle customers did to Sunshine in the future or they might get slower. But what Dan Lubart is making clear is that the impact of price promotion is visible, if you have the right tools to look.

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