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The Digital Book World program this year covers the waterfront of the digital transition for book publishing


(This is a longer-than-usual Shatzkin Files post reviewing the topics and speakers for the 26 breakout sessions at DBW 2015. It serves as a checklist of “things to think about right now” for book publishers living through the experience of digital change. The entire program is here. We decided not to link to each and every speaker.)

The main stage speakers get most of the promotional attention leading up to Digital Book World. That’s just good marketing because there are many important names. Some have written big books (in addition to many other things they’ve done) like Ken Auletta, Seth Godin, and Walter Isaacson. We have a number of CEOs on the main stage as well, including Brian Murray of HarperCollins, who has just been named PW’s “Person of the Year”.

But half of Digital Book World is the six breakout session slots, at which attendees select from several choices. I take some pride in saying that we’re requiring some of the toughest decisions our attendees will have to make in 2015 very early in the year when they decide for each slot which session to attend and which ones they have to skip.

What we tried to do was to schedule things so that our “tracks” — two or more sessions on marketing, data, global, transformation, kids/education, technology, and new business models — are set up to allow people to attend all the sessions in that track. But there is overlap, of course.

“Marketing” is definitely the marquee subject for DBW 2015. We have seven sessions under that heading. On the first day we have a conversation about the skill sets required for marketing today, chaired by my Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy and featuring Jeff Dodes of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Hannah Harlow of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Since two of the panelists are recent imports from outside publishing, presumably hired precisely because they had skill sets that publishing training wouldn’t have produced, this group is bound to help all publishing marketers identify what they need to bring on board.

That will be followed by a session on Smarter Video Marketing, which will be chaired by Intelligent Television founder Peter Kaufman, leading a discussion among video marketers Scott Mebus of Fast Company, Sue Fleming of Simon & Schuster,  Heidi Vincent of National Geographic Books, and John Clinton of Penguin Random House. In a world where authors are making their own videos and YouTube is the second leading search engine, this is a topic that suddenly needs to be on everybody’s radar.

The third marketing track session on Day One is on mobile marketing. Since tracking data is now showing that people now do more searching on mobile devices than on PCs, making sure books are optimized for mobile discovery has rapidly become essential. Thad McIlroy, a consultant with a long history in publishing, did a report on mobile for Digital Book World and will present some of his findings to kick off the session. Then he will lead a discussion including Nathan Maharaj of Kobo, Kristin Fassler of Penguin Random House, and CJ Alvarado of Snippet, a reading app that has been specializing in creating mobile reading experiences for branded authors/musicians /personalities, to detail how publishers and retailers are responding to this new reality.

Also related to marketing and also running on Monday, we’ve set up a break-out session for Joe Pulizzi, head of the Content Marketing Institute, who will have done a presentation on the main stage. Content marketing is something publishers need to learn from. Certainly all the techniques that are employed by non-publishers to market themselves with content created for a marketing purpose should be employed by publishers who have tons of content available for marketing. Pulizzi knows all the tricks and will have talked about many of them from the main stage. The breakout session will give attendees that want to learn more, and ask questions, an opportunity to do that.

The marketing track continues on DBW’s second day. One session, being moderated by my Idea Logical colleague, Jess Johns, will examine case studies of successful marketing campaigns. We’re featuring representatives from two of the platforms publishers can work with for marketing: Ashleigh Gardner of content platform Wattpad and Alex White from marketing data aggregator Next Big Book. They’ll each be joined by a publisher who has worked with them (about to be announced). Wattpad and Next Big Book, along with their publisher partner, will walk through what they’ve done in marketing that would have been impossible to imagine a couple of years ago.

Also on Day 2, we’ll be examining the new world of digital paid media. This has been a big challenge for publishers. Digital media is apparently cheap; you can do marketing that matters for hundreds of dollars in “media” cost, it doesn’t require thousands. But there’s also a lot of work and management involved to using digital media right. We were glad to get digital marketers from three leading publishers, Alyson Forbes from Hachette, Caitlin Friedman from Scholastic and Christine Hung from Penguin Random House as well as Tom Thompson from Verso Advertising. This session will be moderated by Heather Myers of Spark No. 9.

A marketing topic that has become top-of-mind for many publishing marketers is “price promotion”. A business has been built around it for the ebook business called BookBub, and its founder and CEO Josh Schanker will be on our panel discussing it. He’ll be joined by Matthew Cavnar of Vook, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Nathan Maharaj of Kobo. We went for three retailers and service providers here because publisher experience with price promotion is still pretty limited, although the ebook pioneers at Open Road are an exception. Laura Hazard Owen of GigaOm will moderate this session.

Our data conversation begins on the main stage on the second morning of DBW with data scientist Hilary Mason, the CEO and Founder of Fast Forward labs. She started looking at Big Data at Bit.ly, the link-shortening and -tracking service. Mason is going to look at data across a content set that is the only one more granular than books: the content on the web. Her presentation will help us all understand how to interpret audiences for very small portions of the available content. Because we expect her presentation, like Pulizzi’s on Day One, to generate lots of questions, we also gave her a breakout session to facilitate questions and further explanations. DBW sponsor LibreDigital, which has a new offering to help their client publishers turn data into business intelligence, will help Hilary manage the Q&A.

Our panel on “Authors Facing the Industry” will be prefaced by two presentations.. Judith Curr, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Publishing Group, will have done a main stage presentation on the choice “self-publish or be published” that authors face. Then the breakout session will begin with a short presentation from Queens College Professor Dana Beth Weinberg of DBW’s annual “author survey”, giving a data-grounded underpinning to the panel discussion that will follow. Bianca D’Arc, an extremely successful writer of paranormal sci-fi and fantasy romance (and a former chemist), will be joined by two non-fiction writers for this conversation. Both David Vinjamuri, a marketing professor, and Rick Chapman, a computer programmer, have marketed their books themselves because they make more money doing it that way to their highly-targeted audiences. The panel will be moderated by Jane Friedman, one of the industry’s thought leaders about self-publishing.

The data we’ve never had before that is just beginning to be appreciated is the subject of our “How People Read” panel. It has become obvious that the platform owners know more about how consumers “behave in the wild” around reading than publishers do. Multiple device use, response to free samples, whether people read more than one book at a time, and how fast they read various books are all clear to those who serve up the ebooks, as well as differences in behavior that are geographically based, including uptake of English-language ebook reading. In a panel which will be moderated by Chris Kennealley of Copyright Clearance Center, Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Jared Friedman of Scribd, and David Burleigh of Overdrive will share data insights their companies have gained by seeing many consumers of many genres in many contexts. Evan Schnittman, who had senior executive positions with Oxford and Bloomsbury and most recently with Hachette, will be moderating.

Of course, that last session is not just about “data”, it is also about “global”, which is another track at DBW 2015 with two sessions on Day Two.

The first of these, moderated by BISG Executive Director Len Vlahos, is on “Global Publishing Tactics”, designed to help publishers know what to do to sell outside their home territory. Speakers from three companies that provide global ebook distribution — Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct, Marcus Woodburn of Ingram, and Amanda Edmonds of Google — will talk about what it takes to make your ebooks discoverable and get them purchased outside your home market. All of these entities distribute to just about every market in the world on behalf of a wide variety of publishers large and small. They see what works in metadata, pricing, and marketing, and they know what doesn’t. They are in a unique position to help publishers hoping to expand their global sales know what it will take to do that.

Our other dedicated global track session is the “Global Market Spotlight”, which will help our US- and English-centric audience understand the opportunities in four of the biggest emerging digital markets. It will feature local experts Carlo Carrenho from Brazil, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair speaking about Germany, Marcello Vena from Italy, and Simon Dunlop of Bookmate, the ebook subscription service from Russia. Following a general introduction about how to look at new markets from Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct, each of them will talk about how both online and ebooks are taking hold in their market, what local competitors are doing (and there is a very interesting ebook competitor coming from Germany), and what the prospects are for English-language sales in their market. This session will give very directed advice to publishers trying to get sales in four of the most promising new digital territories in the world.

Education is a subject on the agenda for trade publishers because how their books will get to students is undergoing dramatic change they’ll need to understand.

College textbook publishing has been remade in the past decade. In a panel moderated by veteran industry executive Joe Esposito, we will have the four giants of college textbook publishing talk about what that has meant in each of their shops. Simon Allen of Macmillan, Ken Brooks of McGraw-Hill, Clancy Marshall of Pearson, and Paul Labay of Wiley will discuss how their businesses have changed over the past few years, and why. Each of the biggest college publishers has changed their organizational structure, their workflows, and even their products themselves in the past decade, sometimes responding to and sometimes anticipating the changes taking place in the market. All of them have essentially switched from selling textbooks to selling learning platforms. Publishers that sell content into the college market will want to understand the new platforms these players have created and how outside content will now make its way to this market.

The school market is also undergoing extreme change. Partly spurred by the new Common Core standards but also by the fact that digital devices are increasingly integrated into the lives of today’s youth, the classroom experience is being changed dramatically. Neal Goff, who has had senior executive positions in several companies, most recently My Weekly Reader, and who is currently consulting with Highlights, will moderate the discussion about the changing K-12 environment. Three companies with very different perspectives on the market will participate. Chris Palma of Google will describe the operating system that works on the district, building, and classroom level that Google is making available free to school systems, achieving remarkable penetration very quickly. Of course, Google also provides hardware (Chromebooks) and content (through Google Play). Neil Jaffe is the CEO of Booksource, which has been providing print and digital content to schools for many years and sees a continuing need to provide both in the future. And Erica Lazzaro speaks for Overdrive, the company that has dominated the ebook library lending business and is making its way in the school market through its penetration of school libraries. They each have a unique view of how this market is changing. Publishers who sell books read by K-12 students will find this session invaluable.

It is becoming increasingly understood that “gamification” is a way to engage a lot of people who might choose non-reading content, particularly potential readers among the young. Our panel on this subject includes two publishers that are using gamifying to create more engaged “readers”. Keith Fretz will speak for Scholastic, which has made this work more than once already, most notably with “39 Clues”. He is being joined by Greg Ferguson of Full Fathom Five, a collaboration created by James Frey among HarperCollins, Fox, and Google’s Niantic Labs. Another way to employ gamification to engage younger readers is being employed by panelist Thomas Leliveld of Blloon, a subscription ebook service that uses “virtual money” both to reward its users and for them to use to pay for what they read. Also on the panel will be Sara Ittelson, Director of Business Development at Knewton, an adaptive learning company that has developed a platform to personalize educational content and which has lots of data showing how students engage with educational content across ages. This session is moderated by publishing attorney Dev Chatillon.

You could call it “education” or you could call it “tech” (another one of our tracks), but either way DBW attendees will learn about some important new propositions on our Publishers Launchpad session on ed-tech. Our Launchpad sessions are moderated by Robin Warner, a tech investor through her role as Managing Director of Dasilva & Phillips. Launchpad seeks to feature companies that many won’t yet have heard about, but we think they should. Johnjoe Farragher, CEO and Founder of Defined Learning has a new approach to mapping skills to curriculum for the K-12 market. Neal Shenoy, CEO of Speakaboos, will explain his subscription platform for digital picture books which is pedagogically designed to promote education. And Jason Singer, CEO of Curriculet, will explain how his company provides a rental model combined with enabling teachers to annotate and structure the student experience. All of these companies effectively become “gatekeepers” for trade content in schools, making their models very important for publishers who want their books delivered to K-12 students to understand.

The other Launchpad session, also moderated by Robin Warner, is more clearly “tech”-centric. Kevin Franco, the CEO of Enthrill, will talk about how his company “makes ebooks physical” by the use of cards with codes, which is now being trialed in Wal-mart in Canada. Peter Hudson of BitLit enables publishers to provide a free or discounted ebook to people who own a print copy and, along the way, has also developed a really nifty technology that will identify the books on anybody’s shelf from a picture (which they call a “shelfie”). Andrew Dorward of BookGenie451, will explain how his company uses semantic search to make books more discoverable. Beni Rachmanov of DBW sponsor iShook, which has a social ebook reading platform for readers, authors, and publishers, will also present at this session.

Following the Launchpad session, we have our techiest session, moderated by my personal “go-to” guy for understanding tech development in book publishing, Bill Kasdorf, Vice-President at Apex Content Solutions. Bill’s panel’s topic is what might be thought of publishing tech’s “magic bullet”: HTML 5, a format that enables the nirvana of “write-once, use-many-ways” content creation. With the need to manage both print and digital formats and with digital now being rendered on what seems like an infinite variety of screens, the need for publishers to make use of this technology has never been greater. The panelists will include Bill McCoy, head of the International Digital Publishing Forum, and publisher practitioners Phil Madans and Dave Cramer of Hachette Book Group USA, Paul Belfanti of Pearson, and Sanders Kleinfeld of O’Reilly.

Because DBW is relentlessly “practical”, we don’t program much that is far from the current commercial mainstream. An exception this year is our “Blue Sky in the eBook World” panel, which will feature three perspectives that are clearly pushing the envelope beyond where we are today. Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon have been convening a lot of industry thinkers around the invention of a new kind of bookstore, the publishers’ “dream” to compete with Amazon. They’ll be describing what they and their co-brainstormers have come up with. Peter Meyers, until recently at Citia, is author of “Breaking the Page” and the industry’s leading thinker about how straight-text ebooks can be improved. He’ll put forth his thoughts on that. Paul Cameron is the CEO of Booktracks, a company which puts sound tracks to ebooks and has evidence that the music along with the text improves recall and comprehension. All of these propositions are not (yet) commercially employed, but for DBW attendees who might be looking for the big things AFTER the next big thing, this is the session that will talk about those possibilities. This session is moderated by Professor John B. Thompson, author of “Books in the Digital Age” and “Merchants of Culture”.

Although what the educational publishers are doing might also qualify, we have a track dedicated to “transformation” that has three distinct groups of panelists, each demonstrating how radical change can occur in different ways.

The session on “building the trade publisher of the future” focuses on companies that are remaking themselves from what they were before. Carolyn Pittis, now Managing Director of Welman Digital and formerly on the cutting edge of change management with HarperCollins for over two decades, will moderate. We are proud to be the first industry event to host Daniel Houghton, the new CEO of Lonely Planet, a several-decades old travel book publisher, founded as an upstart, and now rethinking its publishing role in a very challenging travel book market. Lucas Wittman is at ReganArts, Judith Regan’s start-up venture which has an entirely different literary character than the art book publisher she’s working within, Phaidon. Andrea Fleck-Nisbet of Workman is in a company that has just reorganized to be better positioned for change. And Sara Domville, President of F+W (owners of Digital Book World), will describe the experience of turning a “book and magazine publisher” into a “content and commerce company” with a diminishing footprint in print and a growing dependence on ecommerce.

We aren’t neglecting publishing start-ups that are really entirely new propositions as well. Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners will moderate a session bringing together a few of them. Liz Pelletier is the publisher of Entangled, a publisher with new economics that rewards the service providers that support authors as partners in the projects they work on. Georgia McBride is the proprietor of Georgia McBride Media Group, a lean publishing start-up that is developing its properties for multiple media, not just books, taking advantage of her background in music and Hollywood. Jason Pinter of Polis Books is a bestselling thriller writer and has worked for a number of publishers (St. Martin’s, RH, Grove Atlantic, Warner Books) before he founded this digital-first genre book publisher with high author royalties (beginning at 40% of net) against advances. And Atria executive Peter Borland heads up an in-house start-up, Keywords Press, which seeks to leverage YouTube fame into bestsellers with the nurturing of an experienced publishing team.

But it isn’t just book publishers and entrepreneurs who are capitalizing on the digital transition. Former DBW.com editor Jeremy Greenfield, now with The Street, will moderate a session of media companies using digital as an opportunity to change their business models. Sometimes ebooks are very important to this effort and sometimes not so much so. The speakers in this session are Mike Perlis, the President of Forbes, Lynda Hammes, the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine, Jay Lauf, President and Publisher, Quartz (The Atlantic), and Kerry Dyer, Publisher and Chief Advertising Officer of U.S. News & World Report. The tactics being employed by these three media companies to take advantage of their content and their audiences are harbingers of what all non-book media will be thinking about and doing in the years to come. Publishers can find new collaborators in their ranks, or they’ll be facing these entities as new competitors.

The sessions in the track we call “transformation” are also really about “new business models”. But we have two sessions that are more strictly about publishers exploring new business models.

One of these is on “publishers selling direct”, something that made very little sense for any but the nichiest publishers before the digital era. Dominique Raccah, the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, pointed out to me that I needed that session (she surely was right!) and will appear on it. She’ll be joined by Eve Bridge from F+W Media, Mary Cummings of Diversion, and Chantal Restivo-Alessi of HarperCollins, the biggest of the publishers to aggressively pursue the direct sales option. The panel will be moderated by industry consultant David Wilk.

Publishers are also exploring new business models with their attention to “verticals”, audience-centric marketing that sticks to a topic in ways that might ultimately allow selling things other than books. This is also a big subject for DBW’s owner, F+W Media, and Phil Sexton, who runs their Writer’s Digest community, will speak about it. Mary Ann Naples, SVP and Publisher at Rodale, Adrian Norman, VP Marketing and New Products at Simon & Schuster, and Eric Shanfelt, Senior VP, eMedia, of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, show us that both specialist and general trade publishers are investing in building these enduring audience connections. Ed Nowatka of Publishing Perspectives moderates this conversation.

There are two panels that will be among the best-attended of all, but which don’t fit comfortably under any of the track headings.

Probably the two most-discussed digital change issues in 2014 have been subscriptions for ebooks and Amazon. We’re pleased to have breakout sessions on each that should really shed some new light on topics that have already been the subject of much conversation.

The subscription conversation will be moderated by Ted Hill, who co-authored a White Paper on subscription for Book Industry Study Group early in 2014 which has looked increasingly prescient as the year has gone along. The session will begin with a brief presentation by Jonathan Stolper of Nielsen Bookscan, who will deliver data from Nielsen’s recent research into subscription sales. Hill will be joined by the two biggest players in ebook subscription, Matt Shatz of Oyster and Andrew Weinstein of Scribd, to describe how their companies have fared building this new model in 2014. He will also have two publishers with books in those services, Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster and Steve Zacharius of Kensington, to talk about how it is going from the publishers’ point of view. As a bonus, Zacharius also has real sales experience with Amazon’s new subscription service, Kindle Unlimited. This will be most people’s first opportunity to get a wide-ranging view of how the subscription model is really working in the marketplace for the subscription services and the publishers themselves.

And, finally, we’ll have an Amazon conversation that is extremely timely against the backdrop of a year when contentious relationships between Amazon and their publisher-suppliers became a matter of public record. Our discussion is on the subject “Can Amazon Be Constrained? And Should They Be?” and it is moderated by Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, a journalist with several decades of experience tracking both media and tech. (Auletta will be appearing earlier that day on the main stage.) He will be talking with Barry Lynn, a scholar at the New America Foundation, who has recently proposed that Amazon be investigated for anti-trust; journalist Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, who has expressed skepticism about whether the anti-trust rubric fits; and Amazon and indie author Barry Eisler, who has been a full-throated supporter of Amazon’s position against the major publishers. No conference has ever presented such a balanced and provocative conversation about Amazon before; we’re proud it is taking place on the DBW stage.

So there’s a lot to choose from at DBW 2015. We probably won’t settle all the questions around where book publishing is going in the future, but we’re certainly providing engaged conversation about the issues that matter most. And remember after you read this: the highest-profile speakers are mostly not mentioned. We’ll talk about them in a later post about what’s taking place on the main stage.

PS: The last Early Bird discount for Digital Book World expires on Monday, December 15. Save money by registering now!

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Penguin Random House does its competitors a favor by walking away from subscription


I sometimes feel like I’m the only guy in town (NYC, but I’d include London too) contemplating out loud how Penguin Random House might use its position as by far the biggest commercial trade publisher to make life a bit more difficult for its competitors, which in the first instance means the Following Four: HarperCollins (which is much bigger than the other three), Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan.

What I mean, of course, is that PRH could use its position to either improve its margins in relation to everybody else or to create proprietary distribution. Either way, it would expand its ability to make money on books, fueling further its ability to outbid rivals for attractive properties. That’s why, when I looked at the Amazon agreement with Hachette and Simon & Schuster and the story of those negotiations, I thought first about whether they would tempt PRH to push for a better deal with Amazon than its rivals got.

The two most “obvious” opportunities for them to me, one of which appears to be anything but obvious to the people running PRH, are to build PRH-only general bookstores inside other retailers using VMI (vendor-managed inventory) and to start a PRH-only subscription service. They’ve never commented so I could hear it on my suggestion of the former; they continue to make it abundantly clear that they don’t share my opinion about the latter.

A NY-based executive of PRH told me a year ago that I had the subscription thing all wrong. From PRH’s perspective, it is unwise to offer a service and pricing plan that seems designed to give substantial discounts to your very best customers: those who buy and read many books. This is not a crazy perspective. If PRH sells about half the commercial books, then, on average, they get half the sales from these heavy book readers. Why would they want to help them reduce their book spending?

Last week, Tom Weldon, the CEO of PRH in the UK, issued an emphatic dismissal of the subscription idea. Weldon was speaking with Bookseller editor Philip Jones at the British digital publishing event, Futurebook. And The Bookseller reported it.

Weldon said: “We have two problems with subscription. We are not convinced it is what readers want. ‘Eat everything you can’ isn’t a reader’s mindset. In music or film you might want 10,000 songs or films, but I don’t think you want 10,000 books.”

Weldon also said the company did not “understand the business model”, and who made money. But he acknowledged that subscription could work “in certain markets around the world in emerging economies where access to books and bookshops is extremely limited”.

Nobody has more respect for the intellect and professionalism throughout Penguin Random House than I do, and that certainly includes Tom Weldon, whom I had the opportunity to meet once over a business lunch. But in this case, and assuming (as I do) that Weldon is speaking for his colleagues as well as himself, they seem just about 100 percent wrong. (And, of course, it is obvious that there are people in the home office at Bertelsmann who also don’t agree with him, since they power the German ebook subscription service, Skoobe.)

Weldon is absolutely right that the consumer case for a reading subscription is not as powerful as it is for subscriptions to music or video. Particularly when comparing with music, the point that having access to many thousands of choices all the time is not nearly as valuable for books is totally correct.

But making the leap from that that “it is not what readers want” is a totally unproductive generalization. SOME readers want it, and Oyster, Scribd, and Amazon (as well as 24Symbols, Bookmate, and others) are signing them up. The Oyster and Scribd subscribers will have HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster books to choose from but none from PRH. It won’t take a data scientist to prove that PRH will lose market share among those readers to competitors.

Perhaps Oyster and Scribd will fail. Is PRH essentially predicting that? Is PRH counting on that? Are they assuming that’s what will happen? It would certainly seem from the combination of their non-participation and Weldon’s remarks that they are. (Of course, it is also possible that Harper and S&S also think the subscription services will fail, but they don’t mind getting some revenue for themselves and their authors in the meantime.)

But it is the second objection that is most mystifying. Weldon is saying he doesn’t get the business model, which reinforces the idea that he doesn’t believe in it and expects the big subscription services to fail. But that is not an explanation for why Random House wouldn’t do this themselves. By definition, if a publisher starts a subscription offering for its own books, it is not the same business model as a third party offering it. There is one fewer entity feeding at the same trough. Oyster has to make enough money for themselves and for the publishers and authors whose works they peddle. Random House would only have to make sure their authors were whole, or maybe a little better than whole, and they could keep the rest.

Cutting out the intermediary supply chain, there’s a lot of vig in there for PRH to be able to give consumers a reason to subscribe to a service that provides only PRH books without costing authors a penny.

The joker in the deck, of course, which Oyster and Scribd would only be too glad to point out, is the customer acquisition cost. But even if PRH didn’t want to recruit subscribers for such a service by promoting it on the books themselves — certainly the most efficient and direct way to reach their customers — out of concern for how it would be received by the retailers selling their books, it has all sorts of ways to get the word out about what should be a bargain for many of their readers. Penguin Random House has been building its database for direct customer contact for years. It can reach literally millions of readers virtually free, and in many cases would know the names of their favorite authors which is nice ammo for the subject line of an email to get it opened and read. And it also has millions of page views through author sites, both those PRH controls and those where an author could be recruited to help.

And unlike the other services. PRH wouldn’t have to maintain a whole apparatus to make deals to bring in the content; they’re already doing that! Presuming they could make the right white label deal to manage the subscription service, they wouldn’t really have a “critical mass” issue either. And instead of being on the outside looking in as the extant subscription services sign up readers they could only get access to by putting their books into somebody else’s proprietary platform, they’d be building their own unique distribution that nobody else would have.

And, frankly, a service offering all of Penguin Random House’s books, whether they put in the new ones or not, would deliver a selection at least comparable and perhaps superior to any existing subscription service.

Why they’d simply dismiss this idea is very hard to understand.

Reading tea leaves, I have gotten the impression that PRH is preparing a licensing program to make its content available for use in schools, another very disruptive thing they could do by themselves that could only be effective for their competitors in combination with each other somehow. Maybe my tea leaf reading is wrong; we’ll see if that comes down the pike in the coming months or not. Of course, this kind of subscription licensing is completely different, and they could well believe that the customers do want this and that the business model makes sense.

It has seemed to me for some time that all of the Big Five houses could peddle a subscription service for kids ebooks that would be a reliable generator of cash flow and customer acquisition as well. Many parents would love to be able to let their young kids take the iPad in hand and “buy” books, as long as they weren’t actually spending any money. The big houses all have extensive juvie publishing programs. Each one could offer a subscription service that would keep many kids amused for months. It could be a “totally cool” 6th (or 5th or 8th) birthday present. While it is true that there are others competing for the kids’ market, any of the Big Five could pull something like this together very inexpensively and, over time, build a customer base that would be both proprietary and lucrative.

With the number of ebook subscription services for consumers proliferating, surely the tech to try this out on a smaller scale is getting cheaper and more accessible. In fact, if Weldon is right, and the subscription business model is wrong, then maybe even Oyster or Scribd will want to build a service provision model into their next pivot. And if they succeed, imitators in many ways will follow.

Subscription is here as a tool to sell ebooks that any publisher totally ignores at its peril. And whether it ultimately becomes a significant channel for general trade ebooks or not, it will be tried in many forms and many ebooks will be moved that way in the years to come.

We have a great panel discussion on subscriptions at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. It will be moderated by Ted Hill, who co-authored a BISG study on subscriptions earlier in 2014 that is looking increasingly prescient. Ted will have both Oyster and Scribd on the panel along with two publishers providing them with books, Simon & Schuster and Kensington. Kensington, being a non-agency publisher with no choice in the matter, is also a provider to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. The discussion will be prefaced by a quick presentation from Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper around what Bookscan has learned about the reading patterns in subscription services. This should be a very informative discussion.

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Amazon and Hachette have settled so there will be no big bang change in the publishing business model


It looks like Big Publishing will maintain its grip, which the most zealous of the indie author militia refer to as a “cartel”, on major authors and big books for another several years. What looked from the outside (where we all are if we’re not involved in the negotiations) to have been an attempt by Amazon to largely reset the terms of trade between publishers and the world’s dominant book retailer appears to have been postponed for a few years.

We don’t know — or certainly I don’t know — precisely what Amazon wanted from Hachette in the negotiations that became a public spat last Spring. All we know is that whatever they asked for (or demanded) was sufficiently onerous to make Hachette take an enormous amount of pain to resist it. The standoff held for six months.

The standoff wasn’t pain-free for Amazon either, although it certainly didn’t have nearly an equivalent commercial impact. Amazon could have expected when the dispute started that Hachette authors would pressure their publisher to settle. They could also have expected public attention to focus on Amazon “fighting for lower prices”. Neither of these things happened and, in fact, Amazon was demonized for their tactics by some pretty high-profile writers. And, although it was almost certainly unrelated to the impact of the Hachette fight, Amazon themselves had some tough financial reporting to weather during this period.

In any case, there was no way Amazon could use the same set of tactics they used on Hachette with another publisher at the same time, and it would appear they didn’t try. Simon & Schuster and Amazon came to a deal last month which both sides suggest they’re pleased with. When that deal was announced, it seemed likely to me that anything S&S would accept, Hachette probably would too (and would have at any point). With the announcement yesterday that Hachette and Amazon have now come to terms, and with the wording of the deal announcement being so similar (but not precisely the same) to what was said when the S&S deal was announced, it would appear that surmise has been justified.

Where the announcements diverge is that it was suggested that S&S has ceded Amazon some limited rights to “discount” from the publisher-set pricing but that suggestion was absent from the Hachette announcement. The more limited the discounting allowed, of course, the more the new arrangement constitutes “agency as it was intended to be”. But forbidding discounting is a double-edged sword. It “protects” print-in-bookstores from price competition from ebooks, but it also potentially disadvantages those price-protected books in the ebook market against other ebooks.

(Of course, an agency publisher can lower prices themselves, but if they do it that way, they reduce their share and the retailer’s share proportionately. If they “allow” discounting, the retailer does it entirely out of their part of the sale price.)

I would now expect that Macmillan, which is about the same size as Hachette and Simon & Schuster, will be offered and will accept a similar deal and probably so will HarperCollins, although they are more than twice the size of these others. How each of these houses will view “strict” agency versus “looser” agency is an open question.

But Penguin Random House is in a different position. Now that it has been demonstrated that Amazon’s most muscular tactics didn’t bring Hachette to heel, why wouldn’t PRH, which is several times the size of Hachette, look for a contract that gives them some real separation from the rest of the pack either in terms of their margins or to get more aggressive with discounting through publishers’ biggest account? Let’s remember that Random House originally outflanked the others tactically in 2010 by sticking with wholesale when everybody else went to agency, putting their ebooks in a price-advantaged position and scoring millions in extra sales as a result.

The overall direction of the book market continues to tilt toward Amazon. Although the dual shifts to ebooks from print and to purchasing of print online rather than in bookstores have slowed down sharply in the past couple of years, the chances are those trends have not yet run their course. It is not a guarantee that those shifts will continue to grow Amazon’s market share but they certainly favor them. It would seem somewhat more likely that Kindle will suffer some competitive erosion as multi-function devices gain more of the ebook share than the online bookstore will, but the chances are that both will continue to grow their share. And, at the same time, the self-published share of the market will continue to grow, mostly to Amazon’s advantage, and so will the impact of other Amazon initiatives including their lending library and subscription service.

The reset ambitions that might have been somewhat premature in 2014 may be achievable in 2018.

But a lot can happen between now and then. Four years is a long time. Four years ago, Random House was still gaming the agency system and Nook was gaining market share by leaps and bounds. Four years before that, there was really no ebook business at all.

Assuming that Macmillan and HarperCollins make a deal similar to what Hachette and S&S have done, the big publishers have little to fear from their biggest trading partner for the next few years. But how they’ll cope with their biggest competitor, particularly if PRH gains either additional margin or greater flexibility around discounting compared to the others, might move to the top of their list of concerns.

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Krugman cites a fact that fit what I posited as a theory


In a Shatzkin Files blog about the Amazon-Hachette dispute that I posted on July 15, I wrote this:

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

My scenario was hypothetical and published at a time when the meme in place was that Amazon chose what it recommended to you totally by neutral algorithms which simply tried to discern what you would want to have promoted to you. (After all, that’s how you make the most sales.)

Now, Paul Krugman of The New York Times has published an op-ed on Amazon, arguing that it is time for the government to look at whether they are operating as a monopsony — a market player with the concentrated power to bully the suppliers into lower and lower prices — where he has cited an example first reported by The Times’s “Bits” blog (on September 30, well after my post) very much like the one I dreamed up. But this is real.

From Krugman:

Specifically, the penalty Amazon is imposing on Hachette books is bad in itself, but there’s also a curious selectivity in the way that penalty has been applied. Last month the Times’s Bits blog documented the case of two Hachette books receiving very different treatment. One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh.

It is definitely not the government’s job to step into commercial disputes to save big publishers. But if, as Krugman argues (with far more knowledge than I, so I will leave it to more informed people to support or dispute the claim) the marketplace power Amazon is wielding for books is comparable to what Rockefeller’s Standard Oil did for oil a 100 years and more ago, then they apparently would have the legal justification to intercede in the public interest. (To my limited knowledge, no anti-trust laws that were on the books then that would have enabled the government to intervene have been repealed since.)

Perhaps monopsony behavior that relentlessly pushes down the revenues of publishers and their authors is legal or not a legitimate government interest. Perhaps Michael Tamblyn’s recent series of tweets about what Amazon’s “true” intent would be toward indie authors in the end is incorrect and, whether or not it is, perhaps it is not something the government need be concerned about.

But elevating books that favor your political friends — even when you’re fighting their publisher — and burying political books that promote ideas you don’t like is not something that society can comfortably accept from a retailer that is the principal book retailer in the country. (No other retailer has ever had comparable market share so this “problem” has never arisen as a public interest question ever before.) Whether they like it or not, Amazon (like Google) has virtually become a public utility, providing a service most of us depend upon to be objective and catering primarily to the interest of the individuals it serves, not its own.

The problem with Amazon’s market share isn’t just commercial, it is political. It is a legitimate topic of public concern. If Hachette chooses not to publish a book, even for political reasons, there are four other mammoth publishers and hundreds if not thousands of others that can bring it to the public. If Amazon chooses to bury a title, half the book buyers will not see it when they’re shopping for books. In my opinion, that’s not good for our democracy. I think this is a much more important question than how the pie is divided among author, publisher, and retailer.

Like Krugman, I shop at Amazon (not PRIME, like he is, but most of my books are read on the Kindle reader on my iPhone) and I admire the fabulous execution and customer service they provide. Their position of power wasn’t stolen, it was earned. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a special responsibility to be the book recommender for more than half the book purchases and allowing that to be used for one entity’s political and social preferences is potentially a very dangerous thing.

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Frankfurt is still vast, but it seems to be getting smaller


I’ve spent more than half-a-year of my life in Frankfurt, one week at a time. My first Fair was 1976 so this would have been my 39th if I attended them all. I think I missed two, so that’s 37. I love it and I get enormous commercial benefit from it. I can’t understand people who are in our business who don’t; it attracts the top executives from just about every publishing company in the world.

But, like just about everything in our business, it is affected by the digital revolution.

It stands to reason that gatherings of publishing people (or any other kind, really) that require travel time and expense should diminish in a world where email and Skype and Google Hangouts are a normal part of everyday life. But the venerable events just keep going on. It was more than five years ago that I wondered how long BEA could last. They have an extreme challenge because BEA’s DNA is that it is for publishers to show their wares to bookstores, and the number of bookstores has dropped precipitously for years. And London Book Fair, despite venue issues over the years which have them moving again next year, seemed from my visit last April still to be going strong.

The concerns I expressed five years ago that BEA might disappear have, so far, proven unfounded. Good show management that has brought in other players ranging from bloggers to meetings of BISG and IDPF, digital publishing’s trade association, have, at the very least, postponed what seemed to me to be inevitable. Of course, they have their own venue change to navigate and it will be a tougher one because they’re leaving NYC for Chicago in 2016. That is going to be extremely disruptive.

Frankfurt is an entirely different beast. It is really two mega-events that stretch over five exhibit days: Wednesday through Sunday. Set-up day is Tuesday, so it is really a week-long commitment. For the global book trade, and specifically for those of us in the English-speaking world that are the dominant players in worldwide publishing, it is a unique opportunity to trade rights face-to-face, on metaphorical steroids. Books published in English can have anywhere from zero to a dozen or more foreign language editions which, cumulatively, can bring in very significant revenues. What Frankfurt has done for us for years is provide an efficient venue for those deals to get made.

For German publishers, however, Frankfurt is also an opportunity to meet the public. For the non-German exhibitors and attendees, this is mostly a nuisance but a minor one because the English-language hall has been as far as is geographically possible in the Messegelende (which is about a dozen Javits- or McCormick Place-sized buildings on a vast campus connected by buses and moving walkways; 5-7 minute walks from one meeting to the next can be minimized by experienced fairgoers’ planning, but are unavoidable) from the hall which houses the Germans. (Art book, sci-tech, and other language publishers are a lot closer.)

Global companies use Frankfurt as an opportunity to hold global meetings. I could see on the meeting signboard at my hotel that Hachette and Quarto had meeting rooms booked for the day before the Fair opened from 9 to 5. These are senior management meetings that bring the heads of various regions into the same room; the rights directors and acquiring editors who will be working hard at the Fair aren’t necessarily part of those conversations. This is built into the travel rhythms of the big global companies. And the CEOs are often not fully occupied at the Fair itself. I don’t know if it is part of Frankfurt’s marketing plan to help facilitate these global meetings, but it should be. It cements the commitment of the biggest companies to that spot on the calendar.

(By the way, the global meetings combined with the long-in-advance planning publishers do for Frankfurt make it particularly challenging to run a successful conference ahead of the Fair. Michael Cader and I had a Publishers Launch event for three years — we didn’t do it this year — and both recruiting speakers and gathering an audience was harder than it has been for any other event we’ve done. People schedule their Frankfurt time tightly, and in advance, so you have to have powerful programming posted well before the event to compel people to plan to take a full day of Frankfurt time to attend.)

But it was really obvious this year that Frankfurt — at least that part of it which is about English-language publishers buying and selling with non-English markets — is shrinking.

I stay at the (now Meridien) ParkHotel, which has the Casablanca Bar off the lobby. It has, for years, been the main hangout for the Brits at Frankfurt and, in years past, you could hardly get through the lobby to your room on Tuesday night, Wednesday night, or Thursday night. This year, the crowd hardly spilled out of the bar at all.

But what was really stark was the empty Halle 8 (this year for the last time, the English-language hall) on Friday. Up until about ten years ago, Frankfurt ran through Monday morning and Sunday was the last “real” day of action. My pal Charlie Nurnberg of Sterling was always the last big US executive there working; he always made deals there on Sunday. The biggest big shots had all gone home, and Charlie made himself accessible to lots of smaller players, who were delighted to sell to (or buy from) Sterling. The important point is that there were people for him to meet that day to do business with. Powerful people went home early, but lots of business was still being done.

People hated staying through Monday so the Fair in one recent year relented and eliminated the Monday, and Sunday became the last day. Pretty rapidly, Sunday became a desolate day. This was so much the case that in the past couple of years I’ve managed to persuade Gwyn Headley of fotoLibra, my British pal with whom I share a stand and then — most years — drive back to London, that we could leave on Saturday afternoon and get back to London on Sunday evening, rather than doing it all 24 hours later.

Doing this requires some arranging. The story is that you get “fined” if you abandon your stand early. (I have seen lots of deserted stands over the years and I haven’t actually met anybody who admitted to having been fined. But I have friends who work for the Frankfurt Book Fair, I have partnered with them on conferences — I know them — and they all insist to me that it is true, so I take it seriously. I never yet left not wanting to have my stand again next year so I figure they can enforce the fine.) To avoid that problem, you hire a local young person to sit at your stand. They can’t do any business for you, of course, but they prevent you from being fined. This year doing that cost me 180 Euros. It’s worth it to get back to London a day earlier.

In the past few years since Monday was eliminated, Saturday became quieter but Friday continued to be kinetic and active. It was well known that the top execs, particularly the British ones, left after Thursday, but top editors and marketers were there in force through Friday. Not this year. Friday was the new Saturday. My Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy and I had a dozen meetings or more each day on Wednesday and Thursday. I had three on Friday. I had none on Saturday. We made a wisely efficient decision having Pete go home on Friday morning. (Frankly, his time is much more valuable than mine.)

You could have rolled a bowling ball down just about any aisle in Halle 8 on Friday and not broken any legs.

This is not really surprising. Global rights trading used to be an annual event, particularly for illustrated book packagers and publishers who had bulky samples and boards that needed to be seen for decisions to get made. Now it is a continuous effort with PDFs easily moved around the world in milliseconds. And that’s on top of the fact that there are fewer and fewer illustrated books and a consequent reduction in illustrated book packagers and publishers.

Next year the English-language publishers move from Halle 8 to Halle 6. On one hand, this takes us closer to the rest of the Fair and we do a lot of business with Europeans who will be more proximate as a result. It moves the English-language publishing world closer to the kids’ books publishing world (and they overlap, of course) and that’s good. But it also takes us from a hall where we’re all on one floor to one with a smaller footprint where we have to navigate three floors. Going up and down escalators only might pad time between meetings by three minutes or five, but when you’re scheduling a sit-down every 30 minutes (as many of us do, at least on Wednesday and Thursday), that can mean reducing the productive time by 15 percent or more.

And while it puts us considerably closer to the tram stop that can take us into the Fair, it also puts the German public which uses that same tram that much closer to us as well. This is going to be particularly disruptive to the b-to-b trade business on Saturday and Sunday.

The Frankfurt Book Fair will remain an indispensable stop for the global publishing community, but it might have a real battle on its hands trying to remain a five-day event. I don’t have 37 more Frankfurts to go, but I think I’ll see more changes in publisher behavior around it before I’m done than I’ve seen since I started attending.

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Print book retailing economics and ebook retailing economics have almost nothing in common


There has been a lot of conversation lately about the differences between wholesale pricing and agency pricing for ebooks and about what constitutes a “fair” division of revenue between publishers and retailers. Since the economics of bookstores have been generally misunderstood for years, it is not surprising that the understanding of what changes make sense as we switch to digital have also been misunderstood. A better grounding in the print book economic realities might enable a more informed discussion of what makes sense for digital.

Here are a couple of points about book economics that I learned at my Daddy’s knee.

1. The investment in inventory is the single biggest capital requirement for a bookstore.

2. Given that the ability to invest in inventory is limited, the speed at which inventory “turns” (a measurement of how long a retailer has to hold stock before it sells) is a much more powerful determinant of a store’s total gross margin, and therefore its profit, than the margin it earns on each sale (the difference between what it pays for the inventory and what it is sold for).

In simple shorthand, that means that a retail store selling books can improve its profit more easily by more closely matching what it buys to what it sells than it can by squeezing more margin out of its suppliers. It also means that a publisher can do more for a store’s profitability by shipping quickly and allowing smaller orders at workable discounts (which make it easier to match supply to demand) and offering delayed billing than it can by offering extra points of discount (which is what added margin is called in the book business). The additional benefit of employing this understanding is that margin division is a zero-sum game, but increased inventory efficiency is actually synergistic: both the publisher and the retailer benefit from it.

This reality about bookstore economics explains the value to the supply chain of wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. By offering the ability to combine orders across publishers and giving rapid, often next-day, delivery, the wholesalers enable stores to gain much more inventory efficiency at a relatively trivial reduction in margin. (Where the publishers’ “deal” is sometimes better than the wholesalers’ in a meaningful way is that publishers will often allow a longer period before demanding payment. Inventory “investment” only really begins when the books the store received are paid for.)

So, in fact, there is very little similarity between the economics of retailing print and retailing ebooks. The tech infrastructure for selling is not a trivial investment, and DRM — including customer service — is a significant expense that ebook retailers deal with that bookstores do not. The print retailer has to build a customer-friendly location and invest in (presumably knowledgeable) clerks. How those costs of doing business compare is a complicated question that changes over time as the tech gets cheaper and the cost of physical locations — driven by ever-higher real estate values in the attractive neighborhoods where bookstores tend to thrive — goes up.

But the things that change aren’t nearly as important as the things that don’t.

The stock turn of an ebook retailer is infinity. There is zero inventory investment.

Publishers first had to deal with the question of what the bookstore’s margin should be on ebooks back in the late 1990s when Palm Digital and Microsoft created the first reflowable ebook platforms. Prior to that we had PDFs, which delivered — in the current jargon — “fixed page layout” ebooks which didn’t adjust the number of words per screen to the screen size. At that time, the ebook retailers were inclined to sell at publishers’ “list prices” and publishers tended to price ebooks at about the same level as print.

But nobody paid a lot of attention because the sales and revenue were de minimus. Since Palm had the most hand-held digital assistants (Palm Pilots) in circulation back at the turn of the century and because (as we have clearly learned since) portability is one of the big drivers of ereading, Palm’s ebooks were the best-selling format. But Palm decided not to enable widespread distribution of their ebook format; they sold the ebooks themselves through a controlled vendor (originally called Peanut Press and then Palm Digital).

In fact, the mobi format that Kindle uses today was developed at the time as a bridging format, able to be read on both Microsoft and Palm devices. This was before the creation of the epub format used by everybody except Kindle today. When Amazon bought Mobi, it was apparently to prevent any other retailer from building a real ebook business selling to what was then the “entire” ebook market. B&N’s one-time exit from ebooks was because they could sell only to Microsoft and not to Palm devices, which meant they had the smaller piece of what was a very small market. Amazon apparently figured then that they’d enter the market when they were ready, but they wanted to prevent B&N from building a foothold in it before then.

I’d argue that the biggest mistake B&N made in the history of ebook evolution was not buying Mobi before Amazon did.

So it became “established” that ebooks would be sold on a similar basis to print books with discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent off publisher-set retail. It should have been no surprise to anybody that once “real” retailers — not software companies like Microsoft and Palm — took the reins, they’d give away a lot of that margin to go after market share. That’s what real retailers do; it’s in their DNA.

In fact, the first wave of discounting of print in the 1980s by the Crown Bookstores chain followed very quickly behind increases in publishers’ discounts to stores from the low 40s to 46 percent and up. Most people never noticed that; others think there’s no connection. It always seemed to me that the increased publisher discounts and the discounting to consumers were linked.

In the early days of ebooks, the volumes were so low and the tech was still under development, so the significant margin the publishers offered — and the retailers employed — might have been necessary to have any ebook retailing at all. As time passes, the fixed retailing costs get lower and the customer service costs also tend to get lower.

Once a real retailer, Amazon, got into the ebook business, deep discounts off publisher prices had to follow, and they did. The move to agency pricing had purposes beyond the principal one, which was to remove pricing as a weapon from the retail competition arsenal. It also put publishers on a path to set realistic retail prices for consumers and to reduce the notional share given to the sales intermediary from around 50 percent to 30 percent.

There’s reason to believe that even 30 percent is too high, given the plunging cost structure for retail and the economic reality of infinite turn on inventory investment. A senior Random House executive told me during the period they were not in agency (the first year it existed) that part of the reason they stayed out is that the 30 percent figure Apple wanted and the other publishers agreed to seemed “too high”. As it turned out, Random House came in a year later and accepted the 30 percent. They said at the time it was because indie bookstores were attracted to ebook retailing by the assured 30 percent margin and fixed retail prices, and Random House always wants to support independent retailers.

It was always curious to me that the preference of all the other retailers except those who can use the book business as a loss leader — Amazon, for sure, and perhaps Google —  for publisher-set retail prices never made its way into the discussion of the publisher motivation at the time, nor to Judge Cote’s reasoning, nor to the arguments which have taken place about it since.

Ebook pricing today is very confused. Apparently, many of the retailers will accept wholesale terms at a lot less than 50 percent, although this is not widely known and, indeed, isn’t even really confirmable. Discounts of print to bookstores were published, standard terms. That’s not the case with ebooks (because they’re not really sales, they’re licenses, no matter what anybody says, and they are individually negotiated contracts, the terms of which are kept private). Nobody outside Amazon really knows what margin Amazon actually takes from ebook sales; it is certainly true that most of the ebooks are discounted from whatever prices publishers “suggest”. (And sometimes those publisher-set prices may be inflated, particularly if the publisher is selling at a bookstore-like 50 percent discount.) Perhaps they only really take the 30 percent that they get from agency publishers and that they take from individual authors in KDP and that they have said in their arguments with Hachette is the “right” share for a retailer.

We actually still don’t know what the “right” or “fair” margin is for retailers of ebooks. Random House had some idea of that in 2010 when they were holding out and they seemed to think “less than 30 percent”. Comparing ebook retailing economics to print book retailing economics only tells us that physical retailers of print need a lot more to have a viable business. Dad also taught me is that the reason publishers give stores a discount off the publishers’ retail price — which should be the price a publisher would sell the book at if a member of the public came directly to them — is to give stores the margin they need to operate. Because publishers want there to be stores. First purposes may have been forgotten in course of the digital transition.

There is programming relevant to this post at Digital Book World 2015 in addition to the main-stage appearance of Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti main-with Michael Cader and me. We have a great panel discussion on “price promotion” with Josh Schanker of BookBub, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Matt Cavner of Vook. And “Blue Sky in the Ebook World” where a panel of visionaries will talk about what is over the horizon for ebook retailing, rethinking simple ebooks, making complex ebooks, and creating ebooks with soundtracks. Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen Book’s talk about how the profile of what sells in print has changed will enlighten around this topic as well.

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The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out


Once again this morning we wake up to a piece by David Streitfeld in The New York Times about Authors United and their ongoing effort to discredit Amazon. The message coming loud and clear from the legacy publishing establishment is that Amazon doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, the value that agents, publishers, and chain and independent bookstores bring to authors and readers and, by extension, to society as a whole. The challenge they face in this ongoing discussion is that many of those values — multiple (agent, publisher, bookseller) levels of curation, investments in quality editing, giving worthy authors the financing to do the creative work that must take place well before the IP will generate any revenue — are pretty esoteric and hard for most people to relate to. And they apply to a small and possibly diminishing number of writers.

The critical services publishers provide are marketing and distribution and those functions, as we all know, are undergoing change and revision as part of the digital disruption. And because they are rapidly changing, there is even greater-than-usual variability to how well these things are done across publishers and, within publishers, across their imprints and lists. Indeed, many authors at legacy houses are not enamored of their publishing experience, but the ones who are defending the publishers are also defending something of their own.

What is equally loud and clear from Amazon’s own statements and those of their supporters (including many authors who would be less well known and less well off today if Amazon hadn’t built the tools and market share they have over the past several years), is that the legacy industry doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, that commercial publishing was built on an ecosystem which is rapidly being dismantled and will ultimately be irrelevant. And they point out that what is replacing what came before delivers much lower-priced ebooks (print is another matter) to consumers and a substantially larger portion of the revenue to the authors than published contract splits would give them. (The fact is that those splits are irrelevant more than 80 percent of the time for the most commercial books because big agents get big authors advances larger than what they “earn”, but that’s another story.) The authors that work in the new paradigm also gain unprecedented control of their professional lives: publishing when they want to, pricing and changing prices as they want to, and playing with marketing opportunities (bundling print-and-digital, entering subscription services) or not, as they and they alone decide.

The fact that both options are commercially viable today means we might actually now be living in a golden moment for authors. Publishers are certainly aware that a brand-name author has a truly workable self-publishing option (although, frankly, the biggest surprise to me so far is that basically no major author has taken it, which is objective evidence that the execs running the big houses are navigating at least some aspects of the digital transition very well). And Amazon started paying authors 70% when publishers switched to agency and extracted 70% for themselves, a connection that seems not to have been made by much of the publisher-bashing commentariat.

While there is a symmetry to the two sides’ dismay about what is appreciated or understood, there is a massive asymmetry here that is hardly, if ever, mentioned. And that asymmetry makes the motivation of the legacy defenders very clear — they’re fighting for their lives — but actually suggests that the “side” fighting them (to the extent that it consists of indie authors) is at least sometimes simultaneously fighting against their own interests.

Those who feel well served on the legacy establishment side have much to fear from Amazon’s continued growth and success. The clear self-interest of all the publishers, agents, and those authors fortunate enough to be continuously “employed” through book contracts — which includes many, and certainly the most recognizable, of the authors in the Authors United effort — who are fighting for Hachette to “win” (which means maintaining the publisher’s share of the sales that flow through Amazon) in the current dispute is obvious, if perhaps insufficiently emphasized or acknowledged.

Cynicism about whether it is really the greater societal “goods” that get so much emphasis in their appeals that are really motivating these authors or whether they’re just protecting their own gravy train is not unreasonable.

Assuming that the publisher-bashing commentariat, who could also be characterized as the “pro-Amazon” advocates, has a healthy number of authors whose revenue is as largely dependent on Amazon as James Patterson’s is on Hachette, one can see the emotional motivations to fight for the home team could be similar. But the practical side of it is precisely opposite. It is obvious that Amazon getting stronger weakens Hachette’s (or HarperCollins’s or Bloomsbury’s or Cambridge University Press’s) ability to pay advances and publish more books, which directly affects various stakeholders and particularly steadily-working authors. But if Hachette “wins” — or if Amazon’s margins on transactions with publishers are not improved — how does this injure the self-publishing authors who are working successfully that way now? Simple logic says that Amazon will treat them best when the possibilities offered by publishers are the best.

Do they really think that Amazon will offer them more if Hachette is weaker? History and logic would suggest the opposite.

In other words, publisher-published authors definitely lose if Amazon gains strength in relation to them. But Amazon-published or KDP authors (and the publisher-bashing seems to come from both flavors) lose nothing if legacy publishing remains strong. They are, allegedly, fighting for the “good” of those authors who are signing “exploitive” publishing contracts, but their own interests are not served.

This asymmetry plays out in another way in the Lee Child exchange on the Konrath blog. Child says, again and again, that he thinks it makes complete sense for authors to exploit the opportunities in KDP if it looks like the best commercial choice for them. Maybe I’ve missed it (and I admit that I am disinclined to read most of the publisher-bashing posts and I certainly don’t make a habit of reading the bloggers who specialize in them), but the message I keep getting from Konrath, Eisler, and Howey is not “choose the course that is best for you based on the choices you have in front of you” but is more like “never sign one of those exploitive publishing contracts!” (Howey tells me he blogs about that “all the time” and cites this post of his. You can decide for yourself what you think, but it seems to me that he is saying “only sign with a publisher after you’ve built yourself up by self-publishing first”.)

The motivation of the authors who spend a great deal of time and energy bashing big publishers has puzzled me before. Because “price-shoppers” are a core audience for indie ebooks, indies actually got a shot in the arm when the publishers and Apple put in agency pricing, which in its original form prohibited even the retailer from taking a loss to bring branded ebook prices down.

There’s no way for an outsider to compile the data to prove this, but the chances are very good that indie author breakthroughs were easier to achieve during the years when the price gap between the majors and the indies was greatest. But most of the voices now demonizing Hachette (and the rest of what is being called the Big Five “cartel”) also bashed agency pricing. I see the benefit to Amazon in that position, but I don’t see how crippling agency pricing helped indie authors.

It is not only Judge Cote’s decision which has changed things since, but also the growing awareness of publishers about the value of temporary price drops, or “daily deals” and services — most prominently BookBub — to amplify the effect of promotional pricing in the marketplace. But how did ending agency pricing benefit independent authors?

Hugh Howey maintains that he is better off if his books and those from the big branded authors are priced the same. Hugh’s a smart guy so maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it, but that makes no sense to me. Except in the luxury goods market, there is virtually no situation where you gain advantage with a higher price than the alternative pitted against you. The bigger the saving you can offer, the more you’ll sell. In fact, Hugh makes that argument himself when he claims that lower ebook prices will raise industry revenue because it makes the ebooks more affordable. It’s fine to argue that the big publishers are dumb not to lower prices and sell more, but, even if it is true and especially if it is true and they pay attention and obey, how does that do him any good? (The answer from Hugh, by the way, is that we’re all better off if all prices are lower.)

I have been persuaded in Howey’s case that he personally rises above self-interest in his industry commentary. Hugh’s a nice guy, a smart guy, and a socially-conscious guy. He and I have had many candid and mutually respectful exchanges. And I read “Wool” and recruited him to speak at Digital Book World long before he was such a celebrity on the anti-publisher side. I believe him when he says “I’ve made more money than I ever imagined I would; I’m grateful; and one benefit of that is I don’t need to be motivated by money in my decisions.”

Howey is a true believer and a crusader who is sincerely convinced that the standard publisher terms for authors are unfair and need to change. He has occasionally expressed skepticism and concern about some of Amazon’s decisions and behavior, particularly around the complex compensation schemes for Kindle authors with their KOLL (lending library) and Kindle Unlimited (subscription) initiatives which buys him a certain amount of credibility. But I still can’t understand why he’s in KU but not Oyster and Scribd and 24Symbols, a set of decisions that strike me as being in Amazon’s commercial interest but not his own. (One possible explanation is that going into additional distributions creates more “work”, but I don’t take that too seriously. Hugh can afford to hire people to do the work, and he does all kinds of other things, like his AuthorEarnings blog, purely to add to industry knowledge. It would add a lot of useful insight if he were in the subscription services and reported on it.)

Perhaps the problem has to do with Amazon’s KDP rules, which apparently require “exclusivity” to be in KU. That is almost certainly not a requirement visited on publishers. If that’s what is stopping Howey, it would be nice if he would say so. Could Amazon be preventing its authors from pursuing revenue opportunities? If that’s true, wouldn’t that belong in any discussion of an author’s choices?

Another persistent Amazon advocate is author Barry Eisler, whom I first encountered during a brief moment when he was going to eschew taking advances and being published by somebody in favor of doing it on his own. (In the end, he became an Amazon-signed author.) When I posed the quandary that is the subject of this piece to Eisler, he referred me to this post of his which I don’t believe addresses the question. You can check out the link and decide for yourself.

Trying really hard to understand this and think imaginatively about it, I can only really come up with two “selfish motivations” that make sense. One — and I think this is the one that is claimed — is that the publisher-bashing is designed to improve life for the victimized authors who choose those deals. Indeed, the content of the anti-publisher rants often includes specific suggestions, or demands: raise the digital royalty, make shorter contracts, pay royalties more often, etc. that are, no doubt, author-friendly. But it does seem a bit weird for people committed to demonizing, weakening, and ridiculing the big publishers to be the ones to tell them what they could do to stay competitive. If publishers accepted the suggestions, of course, perhaps Amazon would be pushed to improve author terms too, but that seems a pretty indirect and distant reward to explain all the time and energy some people expend on this. (Or are they promising to sign with the big publishers if they follow these suggestions? I don’t think so!)

Another conceivable legitimate motivation, of course, is ego. These publisher-bashers have managed to “do it” without them, and continuing a high-profile running criticism of the establishment they outdid and outmaneuvered, particularly when you can get a lot of applause, might be alluring. But even that feels weak to me. If self-aggrandizement were what motivated these people, it would be even more impressive if their frame were “this is hard, but I managed to do it” whereas the message feels much more like “anybody can do this and you’re a bit of a dolt if you don’t.”

None of this constitutes enough of an explanation to satisfy me. I am either missing something in plain sight or I’m not in possession of all the facts. Perhaps the “explanation” that the published authors defending Hachette pursue their selfish interests but that the indie authors who bash Hachette and the others do it out of public-spiritedness, even if their own revenue suffers, does it for you even though it doesn’t for me.

Amazon has a strong case to make for itself. They really made online book retailing work through strategic brilliance and excellence of execution, without being first and against industry entities that should have had competitive advantage. They made ebooks into a thriving business for everybody pretty much singlehandedly, also without being first. They’re entitled to feel that the powerful position they’re in is because of the virtue of their model and execution, and they’re entitled to feel that a different publishing industry than the one they came into is the future they have to work towards, whether or not they want to spell out that vision in full and whether or not the incumbents “get it”.

If every argument being made by the publisher bashing commentariat were coming from Amazon, I’d understand the motivation and factor it in, as I do with Authors United or Hachette when they speak.

But I need to understand a rational motivation to put anybody’s advocacy in context. And it seems to me the very best thing for indie authors is for all the existing publishers to retain their capability to hire authors on that model as much as they can for as long as they can. That’s not the best thing for Amazon, but I really think it is the best thing for authors, and as true for those who do-it-themselves as for those who are published.

A senior Amazon executive, in a meeting we had two or three years ago, complimented me on the fact that I “understand entities acting in their own self-interest.” My response then was, and my feeling now is, “I’m mistrustful when they don’t.”

After I wrote this, I found that blogger Chuck Wendig had asked a similar question, with far less editorial speculation than appears here, in what appears to be an undated, but recent, post. He framed it differently than I do and I’m not sure what I read at his attempt at irony (“why are self-publishers trying to save the Big Five?”) was seen that way by his many respondents. My focus is narrower: this fight is being carried by a handful of very persistent and energetic critics, spending time and energy that one would think takes more motivation than is required simply to  “have an opinion” on this subject one way or the other. “What fuels all this energy and vitriol?” is a different question than “which side are you on in the dispute?” 

Early Bird pricing for Digital Book World 2015 is only open until next Monday. There will be lots of programming that will provide context and insight around all things Amazon. Michael Cader and I will have a half-hour wide-ranging discussion with Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti. Judith Curr, the CEO of Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint, will present her view of  the “publisher-or-self-publishing” choice authors face. An expert on the school and college market, Matthew Greenfield of Rethink Education, will include an assessment of Amazon’s role in his review of what publishers need to know to compete for those sales as things change. Jonathan Nowell, the CEO of Nielsen Book, will use his company’s historical data to look at how the mix of what sells in print has changed since ebooks took off. Media veterans and authors Walter Isaacson and Ken Auletta will let us see the book business alongside other media undergoing technological change, which is necessary for any valid understanding of Amazon. We have a panel of publishers talking about selling direct. Oh, and of course, Founder/President Josh Schanker of BookBub will be on a panel on price promotion! There’s a lot more that is relevant, which you’ll find if you scan the entire program.

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Are Amazon exclusives the next big challenge for everybody else in publishing?


Somebody smarter (or more patient about wading through data) than I am could probably figure out how far along this bifurcation is already, but Amazon is doing its very best to build a body of content that is desirable and available from nobody else but them.

This is something you can do when you’re in the neighborhood of 70 percent of ebook sales and already more than half the total sales for many works of fiction, which is where the self-publishing world is strongest. It is not an opportunity that is really available to any other retailer. Apple has given it a try for more complex ebooks for which they provide ebook-building tools and, presumably, offer the most productive distribution environment for complex content. But they’re playing on much less fertile ground and they don’t have anything like the audience share necessary to drive this strategy very far.

It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any other ebook ecosystem could offer benefits that would make it worth skipping Amazon.

Two recent developments call attention to this situation.

David Streitfeld in the New York Times reports that Amazon has held a private by-invitation-only conclave for writers the past four years. I knew about this before because I’m a subscriber to Publishers Lunch and they reported on it about three years ago. (I like to say about my conference business partner Michael Cader, proprietor of Publishers Lunch, that you go to him for the facts and you can come to me for opinions.)

It is a smart and sensible thing for Amazon to do. Amazon has been demonstratively aware of the ability of writers to promote their own books to their audiences but also to promote Kindle Direct Publishing among their peers. Bringing authors in for a private chat to exchange ideas is not only flattering to those invited (a benefit to Amazon in and of itself), it almost certainly also informs them about how to be more successful courting authors in the future. This shouldn’t be viewed pejoratively, although Streitfeld’s piece and a companion blog post seem to position it that way.

The other is Hugh Howey’s very public rumination about whether to go exclusive with Amazon or not, in which Howey wonders out loud whether he should stay exclusive with Amazon beyond a 90-day trial period based on his calculation that his audience (perhaps counterintuitively) goes up while his revenue takes a small hit. I’ve had an off-line exchange with Hugh in which he emphasizes what his post says: he really can’t decide which way to go on this.

(It is worth noting, as Hugh does, that when he makes these decisions, they are only commitments for 90 days at a time. Of course, each time he switches he creates work for himself, either putting up the titles in other venues or taking them down. But he can get the benefits of Amazon exclusivity in 90-day chunks with no commitments beyond the 90 days and go in and out as many times as he likes. Hugh makes what I think is an unhelpful and invalid comparison to the life-of-copyright deals publishers ask for in return for advances against royalties and inventory investments that Amazon and other retailers do not make for self-published authors, but he’s right that it is much easier to make a decision when you only have to live with it for three months.)

His open thought process became the subject of a post by Chris Meadows on Teleread. One thing on Hugh’s mind was whether he needed to help keep alternatives to Amazon viable by contributing his content to their mix. Meadows says “that’s not your problem” and I agree with that. Each writer should be making the publishing decisions that are best for their personal brand and career. The first decision — if a publisher offers them a choice — is whether to take an advance and a deal or whether to self-publish. If they self-publish, they have to decide whether to be exclusively Amazon or go for the widest possible distribution.

The reflexive, intuitive choice is to get the most distribution possible. There are certainly readers who shop exclusively in non-Amazon retail environments. There could even be a growing number of those in light of the recent publicity around the Hachette dispute and the negativity directed at Amazon by Authors United. There are certainly people who make a point to avoid shopping at Amazon or buy from them as little as possible. (I’m even related to some of those people.)

But with Amazon’s enormous market share, their ability to promote both through normal commerce and special exposure like their subscription service Kindle Unlimited, and their willingness to put a thumb on the financial scales (KDP Select authors get higher royalties; they pay bonuses to top sellers and top titles being seen in KU), they can make up for whatever might be lost by eschewing other channels of distribution.

The idea that having content that is not available elsewhere can strengthen a retail offering is not the exclusive province of Amazon. It was a core component of the strategy originally announced by upstart retailer Zola Books.

Amazon has not yet ever suggested that “content only available here” was any important part of their customer-marketing strategy. (Update: I’ve been corrected on this. In fact, they do promote the exclusive content, both in press releases and in their Kindle Unlimited promotion online. They tout “over 500,000 digital titles you won’t find anywhere else”.) The exclusive-or-not conversation has been mostly (should be: largely) confined to their dialogue with authors. In fact, the rest of the publishing world has nudged them in that direction by being resistant to stocking books from Amazon Publishing. If at one time the author recruitment team at Amazon might have hoped to deliver ubiquitous distribution for their books, the path to bookstores was effectively blocked by their brick-and-mortar competitors’ lack of willingness to support their program.

The self-publishing revolution, despite the enthusiasm of its strongest advocates (which definitely include Hugh Howey), has only made small inroads among authors who have the option of a substantial advance from a traditional publisher. For that reason, the pool of authors exclusive to Amazon contains very few that could change a book consumer’s shop-of-choice (except perhaps one time for a particular book they wanted to get).

But if a big earner like Hugh Howey thinks he might be better off accepting Amazon’s standard terms for exclusivity, that’s a dangerous sign for everybody else in the book ecosystem. A traditional publisher still offers brick-and-mortar visibility and revenue that Amazon and any self-publishing effort will not. The transfer of market share from stores to online and from print to digital hasn’t ended. Every point of market share that shifts strengthens Amazon’s proposition for exclusivity and increases the likelihood that a high-visibility author will make the self-publishing leap. The combination of the two — highly branded authors and Amazon exclusivity — is among the most unwelcome inevitabilities the rest of the industry will probably face in the years, if not months, to come.

What is already the case is that Amazon is piling up a repository of content that nobody else has. When that hits a tipping point that starts influencing substantial numbers of consumers is another shoe waiting to drop.

Programming at Digital Book World that is highly relevant to this post will be a presentation by Judith Curr, president of the Atria division of S&S, on the math of the author’s decision whether to go with a publisher or publish on their own. Curr’s division works hard to recruit new authors and, in fact, Peter K. Borland, who heads up Atria’s Keywords Press partnership with UTA to publish books from highly successful “digital influencers” (people with big YouTube audiences, for example), is a participant on a panel of “new publishers” who are making their mark. The other participants on that panel — Entangled and Georgia McBride Media — don’t have Big Five roots.

As we were about to post, a rumor hit the Net of a new Amazon program to recruit more self-published authors. The idea is that submissions of manuscript and cover are given a crowd-sourced review; then the highest-ranked are “considered” for a new kind of Amazon publishing contract. This doesn’t seem to have been “officially” announced, but a conversation with an Amazon person is reported and the source, The Digital Reader, is normally reliable. This initiative would be further evidence that Amazon is using its platform to control the distribution of more and more of what authors generate.

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Big publisher bashing again with fictional facts


The estimable Clay Shirky has written a lengthy piece called “Amazon, Publishers, and Readers” on medium.com saying, essentially, that an Amazon-dominated world would be an improvement over the Big Five “cartel”-dominated world of publishing we have today. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Big Five are not nearly as broad a cartel as Amazon — which reaches way beyond the consumer books they publish — is a monopsony. Amazon touches much more of the book business than the Big Five publishers do. To make his case, Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation to get from his own impression of the current Hachette-Amazon dispute (about which he says “Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact”) to a completely different conclusion.

My complaint with the facts and logic start at the top: with the two paragraphs Shirky uses to set up his argument and establishes the “holier-than” context for his position. He says:

Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.

Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to protect first editions; as long as ebook prices remained high, hardback sales could be protected. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.

Almost every sentence of this is subtly or blatantly wrong.

1. Publishers did not begin selling large numbers of books in digital format in 2007. Amazon started Kindle in late November 2007. Significant sales of ebooks didn’t start to occur until after Christmas and continued to grow rapidly thereafter.

2. Although an uninformed person would be led to infer from reading this that DRM was somehow created for Amazon, in fact DRM was routinely used for ebooks for their entire existence before Kindle. DRM on Kindle continued current practice; DRM was not created for Kindle or at Kindle’s behest.

3. DRM maintains pricing power for content owners as well as hardware vendors. In fact, I’d say it is more for the content owner than for the hardware owner. What it does for the hardware owner, particularly Amazon because they eschew the industry standard Adobe, is lock customers into their ecosystem. Of course, it is that lock-in that Shirky is telling publishers they can overcome by going DRM-free. (This precise antidote to Amazon was offered up by Matteo Berlucchi, then the CEO of Anobii, at a talk we put him on stage to give at Digital Book World in 2012.) In fact, it is not transparent that eliminating DRM would curb Amazon; it might fuel them. How well would the other retailers stand up to Amazon having easy access to their customers? Because that would happen at the same time.

4. Publishers did not believe — let alone “clearly assumed” — they were handing Amazon any sort of consolidated control. Perhaps that was a failure of vision, but it was a justifiable expectation since nobody had succeeded at selling ebooks before Kindle.

5. Amazon’s discounting was entirely at their own expense and was a tactic designed, at least originally, to sell devices and create captive customers. The publishers’ “inflated profits” (if that’s what they were) were not at issue in 2007 or 2008. So Amazon “sided with the customer”, but they also “sided with their own interests”. Some might say that’s not relevant; I think it is. Either way, it should be acknowledged, not elided or ignored.

6. Amazon was partly enabled to give the big discounts to consumers because publishers gave discounts too big to them, foolishly aping the print book business model even though a retailer’s costs drop much more than a publisher’s do with the change to digital. Stock turn is the key profitability metric for retailers. Stock turn on digital books is “infinity”. (I’d note that these are small points in this piece but are really really big points that go ignored in most of the discussions about ebook economics, which are almost always “fails” at understanding the core economics of publishers or retailers.)

7. The reduction in publisher revenue per book sold which resulted from Agency pricing (pejoratively characterized by Shirky as “colluded with Apple” rather than the at-least-equally accurate “using Apple’s established app store business model”) was not due to “Apple’s cut”. “Apple’s cut” was less than “Amazon’s cut” had been under the wholesale model. And, if you doubt that, you should take note that Amazon prefers not to switch to “Apple’s cut” so they don’t allow any but the biggest publishers to sell on the agency model with its lower margin. (Publishers can get 70% of net direct through KDP, but they have to stick to the $2.99-$9.99 price band and are at the mercy of KDP’s terms.)

8. It is misleading to attribute the publishers’ desire to keep “hardbacks” (really, all print) alive as a desire to protect “first editions”. It was primarily a desire to protect the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It should be said that way for accuracy but also to make the motivations of the sides clear. Publishers want to strengthen or maintain bookstores because their ability to reach them is a core competence that keeps them in business. Amazon wants to weaken or eliminate bookstores because it is clearly established that many customers of each bookstore that closes come to them. Another motivation for the publishers was to maintain a diverse ebook ecosystem, which at that time had just added Nook to its ranks and was about to add Apple. It is likely that Amazon’s discounting — thanks to the DoJ’s and court’s actions weakening agency — did as much to weaken Nook as any mistakes made by Barnes & Noble. And let’s not forget that Kobo has also abandoned active marketing in the US ebook market since then as well.

The other piece of Shirky’s screed that is misleading and inaccurate is his history of paperbacks.

Whether you date the beginning of paperbacks in the US to Pocket Books’s founding and Penguin’s establishing itself in the US in 1939 or to the period right after World War II when paperback publishing writ large discovered the magazine distribution system and really took off, there were decades between their arrival on the scene and their consolidation into the larger book business under joint ownership with hardcover houses. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that, to the degree that the ebook disruption is analogous to the paperback disruption, the reaction would be even more extreme on the part of the incumbent establishment dealing with the lightning-quick change that has transpired since ebooks took off in 2008.

And that is quite aside from the fact that the paperback revolution was not 60-to-70 percent controlled by a single account that also controlled a substantial and growing chunk of the rest of the book sales as well. Be that as it may, Shirky is simply factually wrong to say that what happened was that the hardcover houses just bought up the paperback houses and consolidated them into the existing business. The acquisitions took place in both directions. In at least three cases, the paperback house bought the hardcover house (Avon bought Morrow, Penguin bought Viking, and Bantam bought Doubleday) in order to assure themselves a steady supply of good books.

And before the consolidation even began, real troubles had started to develop with the distribution through the magazine ecosystem. Returns were climbing (that is why prices of paperbacks went up) and paperback publishers were finding they needed to sell directly to many accounts, which made them more like the hardcover publishers. And over the couple of decades between the end of World War II and the beginnings of consolidation, almost every “hardcover” house had started doing its own “trade” paperbacks: not rack-sized and sold through the same network that sold hardcover books.

In other words, the analogy is not analogous in many important ways.

It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”.

Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”. It seemed like Shirky himself tried to dismiss that idea near the opening of his piece, when he attacks Steve Coll for writing “about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes”, which Shirky describes as maintaining the current “elites” or seeing Amazon become a “soul-crushing monopoly”. But that is precisely where he ends up. To look at things this way rejects not only what the publishers keep trying to tout as their “added values” (curation and editing, yes, but also marketing, distribution, and rights management) but it also ignores the interests of academic and professional publishing, textbook publishing, bookstores, and a diverse book retailing — and therefore book recommending — ecosystem.

There will be many Hachettes fighting their version of this battle over the next few years. But there will only be one Amazon.

Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.com is joining us for an interview by Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and me at Digital Book World 2015, coming up next January 14-15. 

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Amazon channels Orwell in its latest blast


Anybody who reads Amazon’s latest volley in the Amazon-Hachette war and then David Streitfeld’s takedown of it on the New York Times’s web site will know that Amazon — either deliberately or with striking ignorance — distorted a George Orwell quote to make it appear that he was against low-priced paperbacks when he was actually for them.

This recalls the irrelevant but delicious irony that the one time Amazon exercised its ability to claw back ebooks it had sold was when they discovered that they were selling unauthorized ebooks of Orwell’s “1984”. The right thing to do was exactly what they did: pull back the copyright-violating ebooks and refund the money to the purchasers. This (apparently) one-time event has often been cited as some sort of generic fault with ebooks, as though ebook vendors would make a practice of taking back what they had sold their customers. This was a case where Amazon was villified in some quarters for doing the right thing which simply adds to the irony.

However, the most misleading aspect of the Amazon piece is not the Orwellian treatment of Orwell, but the twisted metaphor in which the low-priced ebook is the low-priced paperback of today’s world. (The analogy was one I wrote about three years ago with, I think somewhat more care for the facts.) Yes, they were both new formats with a lower cost basis that enabled a lower retail price to yield positive margins. And there’s one other striking similarity: they both unleashed a spate of genre fiction to satisfy the demand for the format, largely because the rights to higher-value books were not available for the cheaper format, but also because lower prices attract some readers more than others. But that is where the similarities end.

This argument against Hachette, using authors as proxies and lower-prices-for-consumers as the indisputable public good, once again employs two logical fallacies that are central to their argument that Hachette (and its parent company, invoked to give the appearance of relative equality of size between the combatants, which is still nowhere near the case) is craven and muleheaded and that Amazon is merely engaged in a fight for right.

1. Amazon’s logic is entirely internal to Amazon. It does not attempt to take into account, or even acknowledge, that publishers and their authors are dependent on other channels besides Amazon. And, in fact, the publishers and authors know for sure that the more the sales do concentrate within Amazon, the more their margins will be reduced.

2. The price elasticity statistics they invoke (for the second time in as many public statements), which are also entirely internal to Amazon, are averages. They don’t even offer us a standard deviation so we can get a sense of what share of the measured titles are near the average, let alone a genre- and topic-specific breakdown which would show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that many Hachette books would not achieve the average elasticity rate. See if you can find anybody with an ounce of statistical sophistication who thinks a book by Malcolm Gladwell has the same price elasticity as a romance or sci-fi novel by a relatively unknown author.

The actual history of the paperback in America contains elements of what Amazon claims. It actually begins after World War II, not before (although Penguin began in this country in 1939). During World War II, under the leadership of historian and renaissance man Philip Van Doren Stern, the military made 25 cent paperbacks available to the troops. That introduced the idea to the masses and after the war several mass-market paperback houses started.

They distributed through the magazine distribution network: local wholesalers that “pushed” copies of printed material to newsstands and other intermediaries who took their distribution of copies, displayed them until the next edition of the magazine would come out, and then sent back the covers to get credit for what was not sold. The first paperback books had a similar short shelf life in that distribution environment.

What made the cheap prices possible were several factors:

1. The books themselves were frequently formulaic and short and therefore cheap for the publisher to buy. The universe of titles for the first several years was, aside from classics from the public domain, a different set of titles than those sold by mainline publishers through bookstores.

2. There was no expensive negotiation between publishers and the accounts over an order for each shipment of books. The wholesaler simply decided how many copies each outlet would get and, in the beginning, the wholesaler pretty much distributed what the publisher asked them to. The “check and balance” was that the publisher would get worthless covers back for the unsold books and that was their constraint against oversupplying the system. Over time, that aspect of things broke down and the publisher had to work the wholesalers to get the distributions they wanted.

3. The books themselves were cheaper too: less and cheaper paper and much less expensive binding.

4. The adoption of the magazine system of covers-only for returns created a big saving compared to the trade book practice that required returns of the whole book in saleable condition to get credit.

5. The retailer took a considerably smaller share of the retail price than bookstores got on trade books.

At the same time that the mass-market revolution was beginning, conventional trade publishers also started experimenting with the paperback format. The first extensive foray of this kind was by Doubleday in the early 1950s, when wunderkind Jason Epstein (later the founder of NY Review of Books and still active as one of the founding visionaries behind the Espresso Book Machine) created the Anchor Books line.

My father, Leonard Shatzkin, was Director of Research at Doubleday (today they would call it “New Business Development” or “Change Management”) at the time. He often talked about a sales conference at Bear Mountain where Sid Gross, who headed the Doubleday bookstores, railed against the cheap paperbacks on which the stores couldn’t make any money! So, it was true that the established publishing industry and the upstart paperback business had a period of almost two decades of very separate development.

It took until the 1960s — a decade-and-a-half after the paperback revolution started — before the two businesses really started to coalesce into one. And the process of integrating the two businesses really took another decade-and-a-half, finally concluding in the late 1970s when Penguin acquired Viking, Random House acquired Ballantine and Fawcett, and Bantam started to publish hardcover books.

My own first job in trade publishing was in 1962, working on the sales floor of the brand new, just-opened paperback department of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue. Even then, the two businesses operated separately. The floor of the department had chin-high shelves all around with what we’d call “trade paperbacks” today, arranged by topic. They were mostly academic. On a wall were the racks of mass-market paperbacks and they were organized by publisher. If you wanted to find the paperbacks of a famous author whose rights had gone to a mass-market house, you had to know which house published that author to find the book. (That was good; it made work for sales clerks!)

There was a simple reason for that. The two kinds of paperbacks worked with different economics and distribution protocols. The trade paperbacks were bought like hardcovers; everything that was shipped in was because a buyer for Brentano’s had ordered it. The mass-markets were “rack-jobbed” by the publisher. They sent their own reps in to check stock on a weekly basis and they decided what new books went into the racks and what dead stock was pulled. It was to make the work of the publishers efficient that the mass-markets were grouped by publisher.

The highly successful commercial books that became mass-market paperbacks got there because the hardcover publisher, after it had booked most of the revenue it expected to get for the book, then sold mass-market rights to get another bite of the apple.

Little of this bears much resemblance to what is happening today. Little of this is comparable to the challenges trade publishers face keeping alive a multi-channel distribution system and a printed book market that still accounts for most of the sales for most of the books.

But the most striking difference today is that a single retailer controls so much of the commerce that it can, on its own, influence pricing for the entire industry. The mere fact that one single retailer can try that is itself a signal that we have an imbalance in the value chain that is unprecedented in the history of publishing.

One other aspect of this whole discussion which is mystifying (or revealing) is Amazon’s success getting indie authors to cheer them on as they pound the publishers to lower prices. (The new Amazon statement is made in a letter sent to KDP authors.) This is absolutely indisputably against the interests of the self-published authors themselves, who are much better off if the branded books have higher prices and leave the lower price tiers to them. That seemed obvious to me years ago. Yet, Amazon still successfully invokes the indie author militia to support them as they fight higher prices for the indies’ competition! You will undoubtedly see evidence of that in the comment string for this post (if history is any guide).

The tactic of publishing Michael Pietsch’s name and email address with a clear appeal for the indie authors to flood his inbox is an odious tactic, but, in fairness to Amazon, that odious tactic was initiated by the Authors United advertisement headed by Douglas Preston which gave Bezos’s email address. This is something that both sides should refrain from and, in this case, Amazon didn’t start it.

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