Financial Times

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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One brave publishing executive speaks out on ebook pricing, and we comment


When I did my two recent posts on ebook pricing — first one proposing “debut pricing” and then one taking it back as not viable — I got a note from a major company CEO saying that, of course, no publisher could discuss pricing with me because of anti-trust concerns. At the same time, I have been trying to staff a panel for Digital Book World on ebook pricing and was told by one of my Board of Advisors, who is from another of the big companies, that I shouldn’t expect any publisher to be able to discuss that issue.

So it was mildly refreshing to see that Arnaud Nourry, the global CEO for Hachette Books, expressed some pretty strong opinions about ebook pricing to the Financial Times in an interview. Nourry said publicly what I have only heard expressed privately before: that the aggressive pricing by ebook retailers (led by Amazon) where they actually sold ebooks at a loss could come to no good end.

On Amazon’s current policy of selling many high-profile new releases at $9.99, FT quoted Nourry as saying: “That cannot last . . . Amazon is not in the business of losing money. So, one day, they are going to come to the publishers and say: ‘by the way, we are cutting the price we pay’. If that happens, after paying the authors, there will be nothing left for the publishers.”

Nourry also expresses concern about the reported one million public domain titles that Google is releasing as free ebooks. Although the article is wrong in its reporting that Amazon charges $9.99 “for all its e-books in the US” (Michael Cader has reported several times that many are higher than that and, of course, many are also lower), we can understand Nourry’s expressed concern that “all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99.”

I agree with Nourry’s characterization of the present condition as unhealthy and threatening, but I think things look a little better for him and his fellow large publishers than his comments would suggest. And as powerful as Amazon’s position in, there is reason to believe it is at a high-water mark in the ebook marketplace and that, at the very moment Barnes & Noble is stepping up, the conditions are perfect for a competitor.

The downward pressure on ebook prices has been apparent for some time. I reported that John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, said at a panel discussion for agents (I was one of the panelists) several months ago that maintaining ebook margins was the key strategic concern for publishers over the next few years. Since Sargent made that statement, very shortly after the announcement of Kindle 2 and Kindle DX, we’ve had a reported surge in ebook sales, a host of new reader and retailer announcements, and the further entrenchment of the epub standard. These, combined with B&N’s entry into the market, are good news for publishers.

Epub is probably the publishers’ best defense against Amazon and the Kindle. With all other device manufacturers able to coalesce around a non-Amazon standard, we have a situation analogous to the VHS-Beta conflict of the 1980s and the Mac-Windows duke-out of the late 80s and early 90s. On one side, we have a standard that remains closed to enable “control” (Beta, Mac, Kindle.) On the other side, we have a wide-open standard to enable multi-player use (VHS, Windows, Epub.) In the two cases we know about because they are historical, the consensus was that the “loser” of the numbers race (Beta and Mac) provided a superior technological performance. Kindle does not seem to have even that element in its favor. Whether you use something larger that does e-ink (Kindle, Sony Reader) or something you’re carrying anyway that is backlit (the iPhone or any other smartphone) is a matter of personal preference. But does anybody doubt that a world full of hardware creators will soon make a device that is similar but demonstrably better than the Kindle?

Right now, Amazon has a huge head start on the narrative-reading consumer ebook market. By putting Kindles into the hands of (estimates are) 1 to 1.5 million of the heaviest book consumers, they jump-started ebook uptake and grabbed a huge lead in sales. Anecdotal information gathered from publishers and agents suggests to me that, right now, 70% of the ebook sales for most titles offered in Kindle and epub are Kindle. And a lot are still sold as pdf.

But Google just put a huge thumb on the scale by making one million public domain titles available in epub for free! Those can’t be read on a Kindle without a little bit of technological bridge-building. On the one hand, if Amazon makes that bridge-building transparent and shows that it is easy for people to load epub titles on the Kindle, they compromise the whole Kindle business model. But the perception of choice — and the relative number of titles that will show up under any consumer’s search — is attacking what has been one of Kindle’s greatest advantages: a bigger title selection.

Amazon made what looked from here like a major concession last winter when they released an iPhone app for Kindle. I am hesitant to read too much into my own behavior, but that was the catalyst for me to give my Kindle to my wife and do all my reading on my iPhone. So it was easy for me to switch over to B&N when they came back into the marketplace a month or two ago. And, you know what? The shopping experience is just as good as Kindle. My wife may buy Kindle books again, but I won’t. (The Kindle on iPhone mimics the worst fault of Kindle’s presentation on the device itself: it only presents justified lines, no ragged right!)

Of course, all this means that the blades and razors strategy is going too. When Sony launched the reader, it looked for all the world like they figured they’d make their money selling the books. That was Palm’s idea too nearly a decade ago. Amazon blew them away because they were real booksellers, which they parlayed into both more title availability (they had the contacts) and a better presentation.

It will be a big surprise to me if B&N and Indigo’s Shortcovers don’t rapidly become the dominant horizontal purveyors of epub-formatted titles. And every web site and blogger will sell ebooks in their niche (why not?) which will include offerings that might not make the full-line distribution system. The next question is how long it will take Amazon to start selling epub titles as aggressively as they sell Kindle and print books. Or make Kindle transparently epub-compliant, which amounts to the same thing. They’ll need to do one of the other to protect their overall franchise, but it might mean the end of a meteoric Kindle era (remember the Commodore 64?) when they do.

Oh, and one note on all that to Mr. Nourry. If I’m right about the overall situation, don’t worry about Amazon telling you they need more margin. Because they’re going to need your titles fully as much as you need their sales. Expect to start seeing movement on this first from the smaller publishers, some of which report that they have been pushed into relatively low-margin deals by Amazon. There will be competition among epub vendors; they’ll all want to have the biggest number of titles (and accept the challenge of curating and presenting that.) If you can get higher revenues by 25% or more in one channel, might you be tempted to try to “force” consumers to buy it there by withholding from the lower margin channel? You’d surely be tempted.

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