Frommer’s

Publishers are reshaping themselves


It was reported last week that Hyperion plans to sell off its “backlist” to focus its attention on new titles it will develop in conjunction with its corporate cousins at Disney and ABC. This follows Wiley’s selling a lot of the most bookstore-dependent parts of its list, including the sale of Frommer’s Guides to Google, in 2012.

I believe these transactions are the front end of a trend I first anticipated in a post about four years ago. 

Publishers are going to find it increasingly compelling to reconfigure their inventory of title offerings around their most current thinking about their marketplace. Both Wiley and Hyperion are moving away from a “general” trade model. They’re moving away from publishing books for which their primary revenue dependence would be on bookstores and their primary marketing dependence on the book review media.

Wiley is actually returning to its professional roots. I did a lot of consulting at Wiley in the late 1980s when they were building out their trade presence. Although they were very disciplined about sticking to specific subjects where they had special marketing capabilities or subject expertise, they became increasingly “trade-y” over time. They built a powerful organization to sell to the book trade which reduced the need for them to be as focused on core subjects as they were when they were first building their trade capabilities. But the core of the company — its heart and soul and its DNA — always remained primarily professional. (Wiley also has a college textbook list, but it is a much smaller part of their business than professional books and journals.)

That means that Wiley would view the diminution of bookstore shelf space with more equanimity than a straight trade house, like one of the Big Six (soon to be Big Five) would. They would see themselves readily able to move away from a shrinking business segment that was never “core” for them anyway.

Hyperion is a straight trade house. Unlike Wiley, they don’t have a direct-to-user business or the big library revenue that a professional publisher does. But what Hyperion does have is a close relationship with sister companies Disney and ABC. Those relationships make possible partnerships which don’t change the sales and distribution challenge, but have a huge impact on the marketing opportunities. Hyperion is increasingly able to publish titles that have a strong public awareness component built on the back of TV or movies.

But Hyperion is a straight trade house without a lot of fixed overheads. They have outsourced the heavy requirements of sales and distribution, currently to Hachette. So they can sell off their backlist, even if it amounts to a substantial chunk of their sales, without having to worry about reorganizing their sales force or underutilizing their physical plant. They have apparently decided to become a different, more focused, kind of publishing house, not so much committed to “publishing books” that can make money from whatever source as they are to being the book publishing arm responsible for building out the brands and franchises their corporation invests in for movies and TV.

Both Hyperion and Wiley are showing us what the publisher of the near future is going to look like. They will be more focused. They will be shedding overheads so they can expand or shrink their offerings more readily to respond to opportunities and circumstances. They will be less dependant on the trade bookstore and book review trade networks. And Hyperion’s decision says something more about the future that Wiley’s doesn’t: book publishing will increasingly be an activity operating in tandem with or in service of other objectives of the owning organization. (There is a parallel here in retailing, where Amazon and Google and Apple fit this description, and Kobo and Barnes & Noble do not.)

There may also be a message here about the relative importance of backlist. When digital first started to happen, it seemed like the backlist might be the biggest beneficiary. After all, stores had limited shelf space and online merchants can “carry” all the books they want, particularly if there is no pre-purchased inventory required. (There isn’t for ebooks and there increasingly isn’t for printed books either, which can be purchased from wholesalers for next day delivery, even if they are printed on demand!)

But it turns out that the current state-of-the-art for merchandising and presentation of books online is not very helpful to backlist. Most retailers return a limited number of books (10 or 20) per screen to any query. Customers have limited patience for refreshing screens, so the number of titles an online purchaser “browses through” is far fewer than the number that would catch the same eyes in an equivalent amount of time in a store. This appears to be pushing sales more and more to newer books and books on bestseller lists.

This problem of concentration will probably just get worse as mobile devices become more ubiquitous and the shopping takes places on ever-smaller screens.

It isn’t clear yet to what extent publishers’ marketing practices could be responsible for the consumers’ bent to purchase from the top titles or whether changes in how publishers market could ameliorate it. But it does mean that marketing backlist is its own challenge and not sufficiently addressed, as it was in years past, by sales reps or store systems just keeping in stock what has been selling.

It is now necessary for publishers to communicate directly with consumer audiences to be effective marketers. At the same time, it is now possible for publishers to do the core work of reaching the trade without big fixed overheads. The combination of those two things will motivate changes in how publishers view the value of both their backlists and their publishing programs. What Wiley and Hyperion have done shows what kind of conclusions publishing today allows them to come to.

Should be great times coming for the small number of players in trade publishing’s M&A world.

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Hats off to Amazon


When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.

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Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, BN.com has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.

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Some brief comment on news items from this week


Wiley announced a few months ago that they wanted to sell some of their most consumer-oriented lines of books (although, as Cader makes clear, what they announced they wanted to sell constituted only about 20% of the sales volume of the division that houses these titles.) The first sale under that initiative was announced this week: Google bought the Frommer’s travel books for a price apparently somewhere between $23 million and $25 million.

Google had previously purchased the Zagat’s guide business, and the Frommer’s acquisition was (properly) seen as part of Google’s effort to ratchet up its content for travel and for local searches. Attention has been focused on whether they would continue to publish the books (they say they will for now, but plan to reassess) and whether this means publishers should now worry that Google will become a competitor.

Another common, and accurate, observation is that this transfer signals a shift to a different monetization model for content, from selling packaged bundles like books (or ebooks) to delivering nuggets of information at the point of need.

But there’s one relevant observation I haven’t seen, at least so far. Wiley’s Frommer’s travel line is one of two, to my knowledge, that has created a real B2B content-selling business. (The other one is Random House’s Fodor’s travel line.) Indeed, the New York Times, in their story about the transaction concluded with this:

Google also declined to comment on what will happen with companies that have worked with Frommer’s to show its reviews, including Kayak and The New York Times, which licenses destination-related content from Frommer’s for its Web site on an annual basis.

There are two possibilities here and I don’t know Google well enough to predict with confidence which one is right. One is that they like the model of licensing content to websites, will continue it with Frommer’s, and will learn from it to extend it to other businesses somehow. The other — which intuitively seems less likely — is that they are happy with their already-developed model of being the key aggregator of dispersed content and would prefer that this content be found through general search or through the many tools they provide sites to provide customized Google search on their sites. If that’s the case, perhaps they’d unplug those deals as contracts allow.

If the former is true, Google might create opportunities for other companies to syndicate content without building the infrastructure to do it. If the latter is the strategy, then an opening just got created for one or more of the other travel brands to pitch Kayak and The New York Times and all other Frommer’s customers on replacement content. So there will be a few players watching developments here very closely (or maybe they already know the answer).

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Also this week, Royalty Share CEO (and attorney) Bob Kohn filed an additional brief for Judge Cote to consider before she rules on the DoJ settlement with Hachette, Harper, and Simon & Schuster. Kohn’s brief is full of new information for those of us who aren’t lawyers (and perhaps for many who are who haven’t done as much homework as he has!)

New to me from reading Kohn’s paper:

1. Apparently, the law, as defined by the same court where this case is now (the 2d Circuit) in a ruling in 1981, defines pricing below marginal cost as “predatory pricing”, which is “presumptively illegal”.

2. Kohn interprets the Sherman Act to allow conduct that results in raising “illegally-low” prices.

3. The DoJ’s finding that Amazon’s pricing wasn’t predatory because the ebook unit was “consistently profitable” was inconsistent with the Court’s ruling in 1981.

And, for good measure, Kohn wants DoJ to turn over to the court (the linked article contains the whole Kohn brief) the evidence that led them to that conclusion. (I’m sure the whole industry would like to see that!)

Kohn is also urging the Judge to hold a hearing before ruling. He argues that to determine if the settlement “is in the public interest, it would be perverse if this decision were made without a public hearing.”

I find it hard to quarrel with his logic. I leave it to the lawyers to argue about his legal citations.

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OK, this one isn’t really from this week. But here is a survey of published authors from the UK, which I discovered this week and found to be very interesting. Seems like they got something over 300 responses (as of these results) with most coming from authors who were published by big houses.

Most seemed quite happy with the development of their book: the editing, the cover, the presentation. They were less enthusiastic about the marketing efforts they saw on their behalf. But, all in all, I thought it spoke to pretty high satisfaction with the publishers, particularly when you consider the highly disproportionate effort the big publishers put into a very small number of books whose authors are mostly getting very large advances and whom I doubt would take time for a survey like this.

What I found really interesting, and counterintuitive, is that of those authors who expressed an opinion about whether they’d have a publisher in 5-10 years, they thought by about 4-to-1 that they would. But asked if they’d have an agent in that time span, the margin was only 2-to-1 that they would.

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