“Fifty Shades of Gray”

Barnes & Noble and managing the digital transition


We keep making the case that the split that matters when trying to foretell the future of the book business (and everybody in it) is not “print” versus “digital”, but “bought online” versus “bought in stores”.

Of all the major retailers, only Barnes & Noble has a stake in all four of the meaningful transaction streams for trade books: print in stores, devices in stores, print online, and ebooks. (All devices are available online.) Amazon has no store presence. Kobo has a minimal store presence through independent retailers but has no print business. Apple has no store presence for content at all and doesn’t sell print online. And Google seems to only tangentially deal with any of the non-digital content businesses.

In fact, B&N is in a fifth “segment”: college bookstores. That segment was the only one that showed revenue growth in their latest reporting, although even in that segment same store sales showed a slight decline. College textbooks having been slow to move to digital has helped preserve that business, but it would be a weak bet to expect that to last forever, or even for many more years.

What this means is that Amazon, Kobo, and Apple are firmly planted in parts of the business that are growing. Kobo and Apple only sell ebooks and Amazon sells print too, but, in general, the migration to online buying and ebook consumption is going to continue so the sales taking place in the environments in which they operate will continue to grow. Whatever their share, they will be taking it from a bigger and bigger pie.

B&N, on the other hand, gets most of its sales from print in stores. That is the component of the sales which is declining and bound to continue to decline. That means that B&N, uniquely, has the challenge of keeping its customers as they switch their mode of buying and consuming books.

The retailer announced their latest quarterly results this week and, at least superficially, they are not encouraging. Sales of devices are down. Sales of digital content are down. Sales of print in stores and online are down. The company points out that book sales in general took a hit because the two most recent book sales phenomena, “Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades of Gray” are running out of steam and haven’t been replaced by The Next Big Thing(s) yet. But in the absence of sales information about print and ebooks from Amazon (which data is normally well-masked in their overall reporting), we have no basis for comparison. And comparison is what we need to know how B&N is doing and what their future holds.

In other words, are Amazon’s online and ebook sales declining because of the lack of a replacement for “Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades”? Or is B&N not only losing sales, but also losing share as the market migrates from stores (their strength) to online (Amazon’s strength)?

There really is no “industry” data to help us get at an answer to that. For a few years in the prior decade, Idea Logical did some sales data analysis work for a number of publishers large and small. Each publisher gets clear reporting of its sales in a granular-enough way to examine this. Of their B&N sales, they know what is digital and what is print, and they know what is sold in stores and what is sold by BN.com. At the time that we were doing this work, which ended before ebooks became a significant portion of the commerce, it appeared that Amazon sold about 10 times as many books across most lists than BN.com did. (Of course, at that time at least, B&N stores sold more than Amazon.)

Barnes & Noble is in a unique position. Every other player is looking to capture customers migrating from old patterns to new ones, whether switching from buying print in stores to buying it online (Amazon) or switching from reading print to reading ebooks. Only B&N is trying to keep customers who came to them for print in stores.

In 2010 and 2011, it appeared they were doing very well at just that, selling lots of Nook devices in their stores. It appeared that there were a large number of heavy book readers who had been unwilling to jump to digital. Perhaps they wanted to see and touch the devices first. Perhaps they wanted to see that many friends and family of theirs had made the leap before they would. Or perhaps they just wanted their trusted book vendor, Barnes & Noble, to offer them the ebook opportunity.

The anecdata suggested (there was no clear objective data to prove) that, following the launch of Nook in the Fall of 2009, B&N’s format shot up pretty quickly to a market share in the neighborhood of 20-25%, with Apple (initially) taking about 10% with the iBookstore. Amazon’s Kindle declined from more than 90% of the market to around 60%.

Then some things changed in the marketplace. The DoJ suit effectively ended publisher-set pricing. Apple took the direct link to the bookstore off all the iOS apps except their own. And tablets and phones increased their share of the ebook market in relation to dedicated ereaders. Again, relying on anecdata where no industry data exists, reports suggest that the B&N/Nook share has declined, Apple’s iBookstore has risen, and Amazon has perhaps come back a bit. (Amazon, Apple, and Kobo have a much bigger global footprint than B&N, although that probably doesn’t matter much in the US market.) Certainly, the numbers from B&N reporting that digital content sales have declined in real terms strongly suggests a reduction in their US market share. Overall digital content sales have almost certainly not declined.

It is beyond B&N’s power — or anybody else’s — to do much to affect overall consumer behavior. People will buy and read in the way that the current combination of price, convenience, and technology motivate them to. In the abstract, it would seem that a company that has a foot in all the markets would have a better chance to capture people switching buying or reading modes than a company with a more limited offering. It would seem that way, but it isn’t working out that way. B&N has to figure out how to make their ubiquity work in their favor which, except for a year or two around the debut of the Nook, they haven’t managed to do yet.

The facts tell us that Barnes & Noble failed years ago to make its store customers into online customers. They’ve been sharing customers with Amazon since Amazon began. Indeed, the skill sets a corporation needs to run a successful online business aren’t the same as they are to run a chain of physical stores. But it can be done: the office supply retailer Staples is the second-largest online retailer in the US. I think if I were at B&N I’d be asking somebody up there how they did it.

BN.com has been the weak link in the Barnes & Noble chain since they launched it under joint ownership with Bertelsmann. When the company was run by strong merchants, they didn’t pay close attention to it. For the past few years, the company has been run by an ebook-focused management and they didn’t improve it. In both cases, BN.com’s success was secondary to another agenda. It is ironic that the current management, rooted in finance and operations, seems to have focused on this core — perhaps existential — strategic problem, with improvements in BN.com promised shortly.

Another aspect of the B&N reporting was that major shareholder and Chairman Leonard Riggio announced that he is “suspending” his interest in buying the stores. Whether that is an indication that he’s less confident of their future than he was before or whether, as the announcement says, he just feels that B&N as a company needs to concentrate on making the Nook-and-store combination work more effectively, is not something anybody but he and his closest advisors know for sure.

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Business models are changing; trial and error will ensue


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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