Hachette

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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Amazon’s clarifications always come when I’m on the road


Amazon’s recent brief “clarification” calls for some brief annotation, which is all I can give it while I’m traveling this week. The material below that is not bolded is the complete statement Amazon has just issued. The bolded paragraphs preceded by [MS] are my annotations.

With this update, we’re providing specific information about Amazon’s objectives.

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

[MS] “Unjustifiably high” is an opinion, not a fact. Everyone is welcome to their opinion, but everyone is welcome to not share it as well. Publishers pay money for the right to exploit copyrights and their “opinion” on pricing should be at least as important as anybody else’s. Agency publishers had a lot of experience with higher ebook prices that couldn’t be discounted before the DoJ stepped in and they apparently disagree.

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

[MS] This elasticity measurement considers only sales of ebooks at Amazon. What is the impact on print book sales when the ebook price goes up and ebook sales go down? What is the impact on the bookstore distribution network when ebook prices go up and ebook sales go down? It would be commercially irresponsible of publishers not to consider those effects as well.

The important thing to note here is that at the lower price, total revenue increases 16%. This is good for all the parties involved:

* The customer is paying 33% less.

* The author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. And that 74% increase in copies sold makes it much more likely that the title will make it onto the national bestseller lists. (Any author who’s trying to get on one of the national bestseller lists should insist to their publisher that their e-book be priced at $9.99 or lower.)

* Likewise, the higher total revenue generated at $9.99 is also good for the publisher and the retailer. At $9.99, even though the customer is paying less, the total pie is bigger and there is more to share amongst the parties.

[MS] The publisher also benefits from bestseller list effects and is not likely to ignore them. The total ebook pie is bigger for that title; whether the total pie is bigger depends on a) the impact on print sales for that title and b) the total marketplace impact.

Keep in mind that books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

[MS] It is true that ebooks live in a world where they compete with other media. It is also true that the they live in a world which includes print, also an important component of a publisher’s and an author’s economic world. This analysis is very short on measurements of the impact on print sales of lower ebook prices.

So, at $9.99, the total pie is bigger – how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35% should go to the author, 35% to the publisher and 30% to Amazon. Is 30% reasonable? Yes. In fact, the 30% share of total revenue is what Hachette forced us to take in 2010 when they illegally colluded with their competitors to raise e-book prices. We had no problem with the 30% — we did have a big problem with the price increases.

[MS] It is good to hear that Amazon accepts a 30% share for retailers as reasonable. Will they now extend terms reflecting that to all the non Big-Five publishers who are trapped in “hybrid” terms, giving 50% or more in wholesale discounts to Amazon for ebooks? Of all the points raised by Amazon in this document, this is the most consequential in terms of commercial impact.

Is it Amazon’s position that all e-books should be $9.99 or less? No, we accept that there will be legitimate reasons for a small number of specialized titles to be above $9.99.

[MS] Which titles are those? How about the academic and professional title universe that never operated on trade discounts until Amazon forced them into the trade discount world recently? The economics of those segments of the book industry are being devastated by trying to put them into the trade paradigm where they never belonged and never intended to be. It would be helpful if Amazon addressed with more specificity which titles they mean here and whether the differences in pricing that would apply to those titles might also suggest a difference in terms within the supply chain as well.

One more note on our proposal for how the total revenue should be shared. While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.

We hope this information on our objectives is helpful.

[MS] And I hope the same for these annotations.

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Subscriptions are in the news this week


Subscriptions for ebooks are certainly in the news this week. Amazon just announced their Kindle Unlimited offering, taking its place beside Oyster and Scribd as a “one price for all you can eat” Netflix- or Spotify-for-ebooks program. And the Book Industry Study Group has released a lengthy and fact-filled report from Ted Hill and Kate Lara covering subscriptions across publishing segments.

It is hard to quarrel with the report’s contention that “subscriptions are here to stay”. The report makes clear, and documents extensively, that there are a great variety of ways subscriptions can be offered and that tools making it easier to manage them are becoming cheaper, better, and more ubiquitous. The report suggests that subscriptions could occur for as narrow an offering as one author’s works. As technology enables subscription offers to be economically viable with less and less revenue, the tendency for more and more publishers to want to “own” their customers, combined with the tendency for publishers to build up their intellectual property inventory in an audience-centric (vertical) way, either organically or by acquisition, it is easy to see how they could proliferate.

When I have expressed skepticism in the past about the commercial viability — or commercial importance — of subscription services, my intention was (is) to confine my skepticism to broad-based services like KU, Oyster, and Scribd. In other segments, the viability of the model is obvious. Safari has operated successfully for a decade-and-a-half. Journal publishers figured out in the 1990s that selling annual access to the whole catalog of their publications, including backlist, was an opportunity presented by digital delivery because of the value of being able to search across the catalog. The science-fiction publisher Baen has had an apparently successful subscription offering for years. And patron-driven acquisition, which the BISG report calls a form of subscription (loose defining, to be sure), allows a publisher’s whole catalog to be exposed to a library’s patron base with purchase decisions to follow (rather than patrons only being able to see what a library had already bought) just makes sense for everybody.

But the consumer ebook business is a different animal and it is far from obvious (to me) that a model can be constructed that will satisfy all the stakeholders and provide profits for the model owner. But the pieces are certainly in place for us to find out.

It is clear from the catalogs presented by KU, Oyster, and Scribd that the jury on subscriptions is still out because big publishers are still reluctant to participate. No Big Five house has put books into Kindle Unlimited. Only HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster are (as yet) participating with Oyster and Scribd. Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Hachette have — so far — held out. What those houses do in the next few months will tell us a lot about how likely the concept of the broad-based ebook subscription is to succeed in the future.

The BISG report surmises, and I agree, that only PRH could possibly deliver a general subscription offer on their own. I “predicted” some time ago that they would. A top Random House strategist tried to set me straight on that some months ago. This person asked the rhetorical question: “why would we want to turn $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers?” Last week, an even more senior executive, recalling that s/he had read this speculation from me told me directly and assertively, “we aren’t going to do that.” (Random House executive Madeline McIntosh is quoted in the Hill-Lara report issued by BISG saying “Many people who are buying our books today are spending more than they would with a subscription.  If that amount starts to dip, then subscription services will become more interesting to us.”)

These people are straight shooters. I believe them when they describe their current intentions. But what if Scribd and Oyster and KU build big subscriber bases? And what if those subscriber bases tend to buy fewer books outside the subscription offering? It is in a publisher’s DNA to push books into any channel that will take them. They have resisted the subscription offers so far because they don’t want to empower an aggregating intermediary the way Amazon is now empowered (which is why KU has the hardest time pulling big publisher books into its aggregation) to beat them down on terms. This is good forward thinking if staying out stops the subscription services from reaching viability. But what if it doesn’t? How long can publishers refuse to participate in revenue opportunities for their books and authors?

The offers (as we understand them) by Scribd and Oyster, and in other ways by Amazon, have been very generous. Scribd and Oyster are apparently paying 80% of the cover price (to the big agency publishers; others don’t get that deal) once a book is deemed “bought”, which requires a threshold amount of the book — often suggested to be 10% for the Big Houses, which is where Amazon put the bar for Kindle Direct Publishing authors within Kindle Unlimited — has been perused by the subscriber. (Not everybody gets that deal either.) 

Amazon presumes the right to include books in Kindle Unlimited from its wholesale trading partners (everybody but the Big Five), but it considers the ebook “sold” when it is cracked, a far more generous interpretation of when a book has been consumed. (Nor is that deal for everybody. For authors and pubs participating in KU via KDP Select, the threshold for a “sale” is 10% like Oyster. Then they are compensated from the “KDP Select Global Fund”.) The introduction of KU and the various terms around it have been met by initial grumbling in Amazon’s indie author community, according to both Publishers Lunch and Hugh Howey.

Agents will be seeing what the subscription revenues mean to their clients. It will be harder for them to get a handle on whether those subscription services are cannibalizing regular per-copy sales, but they will have ample information from which to form opinions about that as well.

Part of what holds back the big publishers from participation in subscriptions is a fear that agents share. Today Scribd and Oyster offer 80 percent of cover price, and Amazon pays the minute an ebook is opened, because that’s what they have to do to get books in their service. And the books in the service are what bring in the subscribers.

But if one of these services has a million members three years from now, each individual book won’t be quite as important anymore. Just as Amazon can get along without maximizing their sales of Hachette books today, the subscription owners will see a different, and lower, value for each book and each publisher then. Amazon gambles today that the customers of theirs who don’t find the Hachette book they’re looking for will often just buy something else rather than go shop somewhere else. Their own subscription lock-in, PRIME, shifts the odds in their favor there.

Amazon will be in this game to stay. Offering Kindle Unlimited is relatively painless for them. They have the books and they have the audience; it is just another way to keep their customers loyal. The big questions for the industry are whether Oyster and Scribd succeed in taking a substantial number of single-purchase customers out of the market and, if they can, whether they have a sustainable model with the prices they charge customers and the way they compensate publishers.

If what they have works for them, then all publishers will eventually have to play. That will mean that HarperCollins and S&S will be joined by Hachette and Macmillan. And despite what their executives tell me today, I’d bet a steak dinner that Penguin Random House will see more opportunity and less risk in creating their own service than in joining one of the existing ones. In fact, a Penguin Random House “backlist only” subscription offer today would constitute the most robust commercial assortment in the marketplace if it existed.

It has seemed to me for a long time, and I said in a public forum over a year ago, that all the Big Five (and others) should immediately create a subscription service for kids’ books. Parents want their kids to be able to “shop” without actually delegating to them the decisions to spend money; many would love a service of this kind, even if it were publisher-specific. As the support services Hill and Lara describe get cheaper and better and better known, perhaps that will start to happen.

We will cover subscriptions at Digital Book World with a panel chaired by Ted Hill. Scribd and Oyster have already agreed to participate.

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It is hard for publishers to apply even Harvard B School advice in their struggle with Amazon


Harvard Business Review published an article recently by Benjamin Edelman called “Mastering the Intermediaries” which gives advice to businesses trying to avoid some of the consequences of audience aggregation and control by an intermediary. The article was aimed at restaurants who don’t want their fate controlled by Open Table or travel companies who don’t want to be beholden to Expedia. The advice offered is, of course, scholarly and thoughtful. It seemed worth examining whether it might have any value to publishers suffering the growing consequences of so much of their customer base coming to them through a single online retailer.

The author presents four strategies to help businesses reduce their dependence on powerful platforms.

The first suggestion: exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.

The author cites the fact that American Airlines’ strong coverage of key routes made its presence on the travel website Kayak indispensable to Kayak’s value proposition. As a result, AA negotiated a better deal than Kayak offered others or than others could get.

Despite some suggestions in the late 1990s that publishers set up their own Amazon (which they subsequently half-heartedly tried to do with no success) and a couple of moves to cut Amazon off by minor publishers that were minimally dependent on trade sales, this tactic has never really been possible for publishers on the print side. Amazon began life by acquiring all its product from wholesalers — primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor — before they switched some and ultimately most of its sourcing to publishers to get better margin. But the publishers can’t cut off the wholesalers without seriously damaging their business and their relationships with other accounts, and the wholesalers won’t cut off Amazon. So for printed books, still extremely important and until just a couple of years ago the dominant format, this strategy is not worth much to publishers.

However, the strategy was and is employable for ebooks, which are sold via contractual sufferance from agency publishers, even if the sourcing is (sometimes, not typically by Amazon) through an aggregator. That was the implied threat when Macmillan CEO John Sargent went to Seattle in the now-famous episode in 2010 to tell them that ebooks would only be available on agency terms. Amazon briefly expressed its displeasure by pulling the buy buttons off of Macmillan’s print books. (Publishers can’t cut them off from print availability, but they can cut publishers off from print sales!) In the meantime, Amazon’s share of the big publishers’ ebook sales has settled somewhat north of 60 percent, and those Kindle customers are very hard to access except through Amazon. This is considerably more share than Kayak had when American Airlines threatened their boycott.

In fact, it is likely that Amazon could live without any of the Big Five’s books for a period of time, except for Penguin Random House, which is about the size of the other four big publishers combined. The chances are that PRH’s size will prevent Amazon from treating them the way they are now treating Hachette. And the massive share that Amazon has of both print and ebook sales makes it extremely difficult for Hachette, or any other big house except PRH and possibly HarperCollins, to sustain an ebook boycott (with consequent print book sales reductions) for any significant length of time. In other words, for publishers dealing with Amazon, this horse has left the barn.

Where it has not yet left the barn is with the ebook subscription services, and for them many publishers actually appear to be following the strategy being suggested here. Only two of the big houses have put titles into Scribd and Oyster, and it appears that they got extremely favorable sales and payment terms in order to do so. Indeed, these fledgling subscription offerings must have the big houses’ branded books to have a compelling consumer proposition.

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

The HBS piece cites the complaints that eBay was giving search prominence to suppliers who advertised on the site forcing a reversal of the policy.

Although the search algorithms on powerful platforms are ostensibly geared only to give the customer what they’re most likely to want, it is probably generally understood that these results are jiggered to favor the platform’s interest. It is not surprising that Google has underwritten White Papers from UCLA professor Eugene Volokh and from Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defending that conduct. Volokh argues that the first amendment prevents the government from interfering with search results and Bork says nobody is harmed if Google favors its own interests.

Could we apply that same logic to Amazon? How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

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?

This is the kind of an argument that can arouse the government which, so far, has shown scarcely more interest in Amazon’s dominance of book commerce than they would if they dominated the commerce in soft drinks or lawn fertilizer. Can they be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented? We don’t know, but we do know that Hachette sent lawyers to Washington early in the Obama Administration to call attention to Amazon’s growing marketplace power and their willingness to use it. That apparently had no affect (unless, in some perverse way, it contributed to the government’s interest in pursuing the “collusion” case).

There could certainly be some consumer blowback to the gaming of search results by a platform, perhaps including Amazon. The Harvard article says Google changed algorithms that seemed to be burying Yelp because consumer sentiment, partly measurable in search queries, showed dissatisfaction among the public. But in the absence of an aroused government, it would seem unlikely that this suggestion will do publishers large or small much good.

It is definitely worth noting here that Hachette authors are involved in just such an effort right now over the current Hachette-Amazon dispute. (And Amazon authors, also often called “indie authors”, are pushing back in the other direction.) There is a difference of opinion about how much this is “hurting” Amazon or whether it will push them to a quicker resolution of the dispute; I’m not sure anybody will ever know the answer to that.

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

As the piece explains, when MovieTickets was on the verge of dominating phone and online ticketing, Regal Entertainment and two other large theater chains formed Fandango.

Unfortunately, this is a strategy that simply won’t work as an antidote to Amazon. In fact, trying it, which publishers have, demonstrates a failure to understand the source of Amazon’s power in the marketplace.

Amazon’s strategy is in plain sight and is the title of the best and most recent book about them: Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”. Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin. Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental. This is one of the reasons, perhaps even the principal one, why they operate their book retailing on margins so thin that the incumbent book retailers can’t match them. After all, B&N can’t make up the margin shortfalls created by offering books cheaply by selling that same customer a lawnmower. Nor do they benefit from additional scale provided by selling lawnmowers or cat food or server space.

The fact that Amazon did book retailing in a thorough and sophisticated way as they established their business to become an online Walmart made them different from omni-retailers in the past (going back to departments stores a hundred years ago) who sold some books.

The story has been told on this blog before about Amazon cutting prices more than fifteen years ago to discourage competition coming into the market. Although publishing is a profitable business for them, it is also a strategic component of larger objectives: getting an increasing share of its customers’ purchases across a range of physical products as well as to compete as a streaming content provider across the entire range of digital media.

No enterprise focused primarily on books can compete with that. Amazon takes too many customers off the table before whoever else is competing gets to begin and keeps them for a wide range of reasons. They’ve got the most admirable competitive position conceivable: a first-class operation supported by scale provided by myriad other enterprises, totally wide-ranging and broad knowledge of the details of book retailing, and the financial heft to accept diminished (or even negative) margins from time to time to support strategic objectives.

So, Bookish, the attempt to compete (although that objective was not explicitly stated) forged by three major publishers more than a decade after Ingram’s I2S2 attempt to create a broader base of online retailers, was never a serious threat. (It is now owned by another Regal, Joe Regal, whose Zola Books — an ambitious upstart ebook retailer — bought Bookish, apparently for its recommendation engine, from the publishers.)

This is probably the 20th year in a row, dating from their start in 1995, that Amazon has gained market share for sales of books to consumers. And that’s because consumers are making what for them is the obvious choice for convenience, total selection, and competitive pricing, as well as getting tied into Amazon through their PRIME program. Unless one of the other two tech giants in the bookselling world — Apple or Google — decides to make a dedicated effort to take some of that market share away from Amazon in both print and digital (and neither of them is much interested in print), it is hard to see where a serious competitor can come from.

As of this moment, there is no way for any ebook retailer except Amazon to put DRMed content on a Kindle, which eliminates a big part of the audience from play for any competitive platform.

The fourth suggestion: deal more directly. The article points out that people ordering takeout through online platforms like Foodler and GrubHub have often already chosen their restaurant so that restaurants that deal directly can afford to exit the platform.

As I was working on this post, HarperCollins announced that they have redesigned their website to be consumer-facing which enables them to sell books directly to consumers. They’ve collaborated with their printer-warehouse partner, Donnelley, to handle print book fulfillment and have a white-label version of indie ebook platform Bluefire to deliver ebooks. They promise that authors will be able to use the capability very easily to connect their own web presences and they’re thinking about additional compensation to authors that generate those sales.

This bold move has a hole in it, though, and it is one that publishers so far have no easy way to fill. All the non-Amazon platforms use Adobe DRM, which HarperCollins/Bluefire supports, so they can put your ebook on a Nook or Kobo device with copy-protection. Of course, they have their own “reader”, which can be loaded with ease on most web-capable devices and can apparently also be squeezed onto a Kindle Fire. But, because HarperCollins wants to continue to use DRM protection for the content, they won’t be able to sell directly to users of Kindle devices that are dedicated e-readers.

Although publishers have certainly encouraged that competition to Amazon which exists, their direct efforts have for the most part been limited to cultivating direct interaction with the end user audience to influence awareness and selection. Many smaller publishers are willing to sell direct without DRM and other large publishers sell direct in a more restrained way, but this seems to be the first concerted effort by a major player to drive direct sales.

It will be interesting to watch the pricing interaction between Harper and Amazon and whether Harper can come up with “specials” (bonus content, some connection to the author, bundling) that Amazon or another retailer can’t match. Competing on price is the retailer’s first instinct, but for publishers competing with Amazon on price is a fool’s errand, fraught with the potential for retaliation in many ways (including that “discounts” from publishers, the retailers’ margin, is presumably based on the publisher’s price. What does “publisher’s price” mean if they sell for less?)

But HarperCollins doesn’t need to get a big volume of direct sales for this to be a worthwhile initiative for them. I’d expect it to be copied. Any sales they can get directly increase their power in the marketplace.

There is one other initiative we’re aware of that can perhaps help publishers disintermediate Amazon for direct sales. That’s Aerbook, which widgetizes a book or promotional material for a book so that it can be “displayed” in any environment. Aerbook’s widgets can contain the capabilities for transacting or for referring the transaction to a retailer, Amazon or anybody else. Putting the awareness of the book directly into the social and commercial streams can be a big tool for authors and publishers. But even Aerbook can’t put a DRMed file on a Kindle. They offer a version of “social DRM” — essentially “marking” the ebook in a way that identifies its owner — which can be loaded onto the Kindle. But big publishers and big authors have apparently not yet come to a comfort level with that solution; perhaps the need to get to the Kindle customer directly and the experience Aerbook develops with their method will encourage a more open mind on that question over time.

So, it would seem, the best thinking presented by Harvard Business Review for how producers and service providers can dodge platforms trying to lock in their audiences has precious little that can be usefully applied by publishers to escape the grip of Amazon. Having taken about half the retail book market over the two decades of their existence, they have given themselves a reputation, tools, and momentum that will make it very hard to stop them from eating into the other half substantially in the years to come.

The fact that competing with Amazon is difficult doesn’t stop smart people from trying to figure out how it might be done. A group of publishing thinkers are holding a 2-day brainstorming session at the end of this month to come up with ideas. Two of them, Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon, will be presenting at a session at Digital Book World in January called “Blue Sky in the ebook future”, which will include thoughts on how to improve the narrative ebook itself from Peter Meyers and somebody not yet chosen to speak about complex ebooks.

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Much as I like Hugh Howey, I disagree with just about all of this recent post of his


I need to say couple of things at the outset here. The first is that I really like and admire Hugh Howey and the fact that I disagree with almost every paragraph of this post of his shouldn’t suggest that I don’t. That’s not snark or irony; it is sincere. I think it is both noble and natural for people to defend the entities and circumstances that make possible their commercial success and it is just human nature that those who have benefited from a paradigm reflexively want to defend it. I only wish that Hugh would exhibit the same respect for that tendency when it is exhibited by authors who have done well with publishers.

The other is that I don’t see the “Amazon versus the publishing establishment” battle as a moral choice, just a tug of war between competing business interests. (There are societal questions at stake, which some might see as moral choices, but the companies involved are doing what is best for them and then arguing afterwards that it is also better for society.) When I wrote what I intended to be a balanced piece about the Amazon-Hachette battle, it brought out the troops from the indie author militia in the comment string to call me to task and accuse me of many things, including being a defender of the people who pay me (although my overall revenues from Big Five publishers is actually pretty paltry with not one active consulting client among them for well over two years). I expect this post will do the same, which I find an unpleasant prospect. On the other hand, I’m sorta stubborn about saying the things I believe nobody else is saying…

I am not trying to “make a case” here for anybody: not for the publishers and obviously not for Amazon. All I am trying to accomplish is to call out what I see as the almost certainly unintended bias in the arguments as Hugh frames them. I continue to believe that self-publishing is a useful tool that most authors should employ at one time or another but that, still almost all of the time, an author who is offered a publishing deal from a major house willing to pay an aggressive advance is better off to take it than go it alone. (If you’re not offered a substantial advance, the calculus shifts, but there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing that is not described in much detail in this post, even though Hugh Howey knows much better than I do how much work it is!) And I think that generalized advice to authors to eschew publishers in a world where print still matters and stores still matter remains, as of today, unwise. That may well change in the future, but it hasn’t changed yet.

In this post, everything preceded by [HH] was written and posted by Hugh Howey. Everything preceded by [MS] is my response. I have left nothing out from Hugh’s original post.

[HH] A few weeks ago, I speculated that Hachette might be fighting Amazon for the power to price e-books where they saw fit, or what is known as Agency pricing. That speculation was confirmed this week in a slide from Hachette’s presentation to investors:

HachetteLivre-Investor-Slide

So, no more need to speculate over what this kerfuffle is about. Hachette is strong-arming Amazon and harming its authors because they want to dictate price to a retailer, something not done practically anywhere else in the goods market. It’s something US publishers don’t even do to brick and mortar booksellers. It’s just something they want to be able to do to Amazon.

[MS] Uh, yes. It is something they want to do in the market for ebooks that they don’t need to do for print. And it is something they want to do to the entity that controls 60% of their ebook sales, which no print bookseller does. And you’d be forgiven if you got the impression from this that Hachette only wanted to control the price Amazon sells at, not the price everybody sells at, keeping it the same across retailers. It does matter how you frame things…

[HH] The biggest problem with Hachette’s strategy is that Hachette knows absolutely nothing about retail pricing. That’s not their job. It’s not their area of expertise. They don’t sell enough product direct to consumers to understand what price will maximize their earnings. Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple have that data, not Hachette.

[MS] But what Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple know is not how to maximize Hachette’s or Hachette’s authors’ “earnings”, however they get divided between author and publisher. What they know is how to maximize their earnings and, mainly, their market share. And only Amazon and B&N have any picture of how the interaction between ebook prices and print sales works, which deeply affects an author’s and publisher’s earnings. None of the other ebook retailers have a clue about that, and Amazon doesn’t know how bookstore sales are affected (and it would be their objective to have them affected negatively, wouldn’t it?)

[HH] Beyond their ignorance of pricing strategy, Hachette also has a strong bias toward print books. Their existing relationships with major brick and mortar retailers gets in the way of their e-book pricing. This has been confirmed by my own publishers, who have admitted privately that they would like to experiment with digital pricing but don’t want to upset print book retailers. This puts their pricing strategy at odds with their investors’ needs, their authors’ needs, even their own profitability. In sum, they are making irrational decisions with their pricing philosophy. Hachette is making the same mistake that many publishers make, which is to think that harming Amazon somehow helps themselves.

[MS] Publishers are trying to keep a print book physical distribution infrastructure alive. That’s not irrational. It is rational. And it is the crux of the difference in objectives between a publisher’s strategy and Amazon’s strategy. The more bookstores fade, the better it is for Amazon and the worse it is for publishers. This is a problem you could have read about on this blog a long time ago.

[HH] The same presentation by Hachette to investors stressed the importance of DRM and the need to fight piracy. The presentation had very little to say about authors, which would be like an oil company giving a report to prospective investors and not discussing how its current wells are performing, the proven reserves it has on-hand, and what they are doing to discover new sources of oil. You know . . . the product they make their money from. Little is also said in the presentation about readers, possibly because Hachette doesn’t know who their readers are. Again, this is a presentation to investors by a company that doesn’t know its customers. Because they have too long relied on and been beholden to middleman distributors.

[MS] I’d substitute “leveraged” for “relied on and been beholden to” in the sentence that concludes that paragraph. Up until very recently, there was no efficient means or mechanism for publishers to sell directly to readers. Their “customers” were bookstores, and they understood them very well. And all the big publishers I know are investing in learning more about who are their readers. This graf begins with the complaint that authors aren’t acknowledged by publishers and ends with the complaint that publishers don’t know their readers. And the cherry on top is a biased characterization of the value and role of brick and mortar retailers. I guess the oil company reference is just to associate bad people with each other, but it otherwise seems gratuitous. The important and relevant point is that we’re still waiting for the first major author to say “no” to a publisher. It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

[HH] DRM, piracy, and high e-book prices are not what a publisher should be fighting for and bragging to its investors about. Many consumers aren’t even aware that Amazon isn’t the source of their e-book DRM. Publishers (and self-published authors) opt in or opt out of DRM as they see fit. Those of us who think about the paying customer first and foremost opt out, and we are rewarded with their repeat business and their advocacy. Those of us who don’t fret over piracy invest our time where it can actually achieve something. Publishers need to adopt these same policies with all haste. More importantly, they need to stop ripping off their authors and their customers when it comes to digital pricing.

[MS] Recent data suggests pretty strongly that taking down pirate copies increases sales. But the efficacy of DRM is a good debatable point and it shouldn’t be in a paragraph that concludes with a gratuitous slam at big publisher pricing and royalties, which have nothing to do with DRM.

[HH] We know publishers are ripping off artists and readers when it comes to e-books. Harpercollins released this slide one year ago this month:

Harper-NewsCorp-Profitability

As author Michael Sullivan broke down in this damning blog post, it shows publishers making $7.87 on a $14.99 e-book while the author only gets $2.62. For a hardback that costs twice as much at $27.99, the publisher makes $5.67 to the author’s $4.20. What used to be a fair split is now aggressive and indefensible as publishers make more money on a cheaper product while the author makes far less. Publishers are ripping off readers and writers as they shift to digital, and they are getting away with it. They are even winning the PR campaign against Amazon, a company that has fought for lower prices for its customers and higher pay for its authors.

[MS] I agree that ebook royalties should be higher. But, in fact, only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty. The others negotiated an advance that effectively paid them far more than that. And guaranteed it before the book hit the marketplace. Publishers are making a massive PR error not raising the “standard” royalty since they effectively pay much more than that now, but the authors signing contracts with them know the truth.

[HH] Let me repeat: Publishers are waging a war here for higher prices and lower royalties. $14.99 is their ideal price for an e-book that costs nothing to print, warehouse, or ship. That’s twice what mass market paperbacks used to cost, which is what they are replacing. Reminds you of how cheaper-to-produce CDs suddenly cost twice as much as cassettes simply because they were new, doesn’t it?

[MS] Now, who’s not paying attention to authors? Right, it cost nothing to print, warehouse, or ship an ebook. But it cost something to create. And for many, if not most, publisher-published books, the publisher gave the author a substantial payment before publication. Focusing on the price without considering the value is the grossest form of “ignoring the author”. And the $14.99 price is more like the equivalent of the hardback; most publishers I know charge much less for the ebook when it is being published against a printed version that’s a paperback. And, in fact, they often charge less than $14.99 when the print edition available is a hardcover!

[HH] Publishers are also colluding with one another to offer lockstep digital e-book royalties of 25%, which is indefensible. Their every actions, when it comes to DRM, to pricing, to selling direct, to offering abusive services like Author Solutions, screams to anyone with ears that they don’t care about the writers and they don’t care about the readers. It doesn’t matter what they say, it matters what they do. And what they do is charge as much as they can get away with and take as much of the split as they possibly can. And they work with their competitors and against their retail partners to pull it off.

[MS] Publishers live in a competitive marketplace in general but nowhere more than when it comes to signing authors. The 25% hasn’t moved, but every book that is signed based on a competitive situation (one agent told me that’s at least 2/3 of them; one big publisher believes they compete for 95% of what they sign) is getting an advance that is calculated on a much higher percentage than the “standard”. So they “care” about the writers. If “caring about readers” is only demonstrated by low prices, then I’d say “Hugh has a point.” The problem is that the point is in direct conflict with “caring about the writers”, whose revenue is directly related to what readers pay (with only one exception: unearned advances paid by publishers).

[HH] Their own authors defend them, partly because they don’t spend any time investigating or understanding the business in which they are engaged. One Hachette author — a good friend of mine — said something to me the other day that made me realize they don’t understand how their books are ordered by retailers or delivered by the publisher. I suppose it’s okay to write books and not worry about the rest of the business, but this same author and friend had much to say about the Amazon/Hachette dispute, but without the basic understanding of how the relationship between those two companies works. Part of the blame for not knowing falls to publishers, who keep authors at bay and away from the business aspects of publishing. It was one of my primary complaints in that old blog post. Publishers need to embrace authors as business partners, and any author who hopes to make a career at this needs to be at least a little curious about how the industry works.

[MS] This slam at Howey’s fellow authors is both uncharacteristic of him and beneath him. The Hachette authors are doing precisely the same thing Howey is doing: defending their biggest source of revenue. What’s so surprising about that? And let’s not get too worked up about what people do and don’t understand. This piece demonstrates very little understanding of the economics of brick-and-mortar and the overall effort to sustain it as long as possible.

[HH] So we can see in their own slides that publishers do not have the best interests of their artists and consumers at heart. What about Amazon? Here we have a company that forsakes profits in order to pass along the savings to: A) Readers in the form of lower prices and to: B) Authors in the form of higher pay. That’s what we know today based on their actions. Of course, some interpret Amazon’s behavior as: “Once they are big enough, Amazon will gouge customers and take advantage of authors.” If you press on numbers, you might hear that Amazon will raise e-book prices to $12.99 one day and pay authors a miserly 25% of gross. Both of which are better than what publishers offer right now.

[MS] The pricing and split speculation is a pure straw horse. We know that what Amazon does today that pleases Howey also serves their larger strategic interests: growing market share and building the installed base of Kindle users. It’s nice when interests align. But what happens when they align tells you nothing about what will happen when they don’t. The recent changes that reduced author splits from Amazon-owned Audible shouldn’t be ignored in a paragraph like this one. (Emphasis here: I don’t think Amazon was wrong or immoral to have done this, but I think those making the argument that worrying about terms changing in the future is silly should at least acknowledge what has already happened!)

[HH] This bears repeating: The very worst that Amazon might do, in some hypothetical future, according to their fiercest critics, is still better than what publishers brag to their investors about doing today.

[MS] And this bears repeating. It’s a straw horse. The argument is attributed to these unidentified “fiercest critics” because it a straw horse. Pure speculation. Who knows what is the “the very worst that Amazon might do”?

[HH] Instead of operating under the hope that publishers will improve their business practices in the future and that Amazon will reverse course and start harming writers and readers once they gain more market share, why aren’t we condemning publishers for being the problem right now while celebrating Amazon for all they are doing to expand reading habits and to provide for artists? Why?

[MS] Simple answer. Because many authors are still being very well paid and well served by publishers. That’s why.

[HH] I think two reasons: The first is that we equate publishers to bookstores and Amazon to the loss of bookstores, and we all love bookstores. This is fallacious reasoning, though. Online shopping has impacted all of retail. These changes were inevitable, and they are the result of consumer choice. How those changes played out could have been publishers colluding with a distributor to price digital works higher than their paper counterparts. That would have been bad. Amazon leading those changes with their pricing philosophy has been good.

[MS] Much of this is true. Online shopping is inevitable; the pressure on brick-and-mortar is inevitable. And we all love bookstores, even though they don’t “map” into the future very well. But it is really disingenuous to just forget that Amazon benefits by brick stores going down faster and has discounted print books as aggressively as possible as well, which has contributed to the brick-and-mortar stores decline. I’m not demonizing Amazon over this; everybody has to run their own business and they run theirs very well. But let’s not pretend that altruism is all that is working here, or that changing circumstances couldn’t change Amazon’s pricing philosophy.

[HH] The second reason for the anti-Amazon bias is that some see Amazon as the giant and little old publishers as the underdog. That’s also wrong. The publishing and bookselling arm of Amazon is likely smaller than the combined earnings of the Big 5 publishers. Amazon makes a pittance on every e-book sold, while the Big 5 make out like bandits. Also, to say that these wings of Amazon’s operations are owned by a larger entity is to ignore that the same is true for the major publishing houses. If anything, Amazon is the clear upstart and underdog here. They are new to the market, rapidly innovating, blacklisted by brick and mortar retailers, setting up shop away from the established players, and ganged up on in an illegal manner.

[MS] No question Amazon gets “ganged up on”. We have two book businesses now: Amazon and everybody else. Everybody else includes publishers and retailers and wholesalers and agents and established authors. Amazon’s decision to “make a pittance” on certain products, including some ebooks, is tactical, not altruistic. I have to admit that characterizing Amazon as an “underdog” does activate the “gag reflex”. If this doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, I’m not sure what would. Let’s be clear and real: Amazon and Hachette are both leveraging their respective negotiating positions as best they can. It’s called business. (And,, from where I sit, it looks Amazon is in the stronger position, not Hachette. I’m not sure by what measurement Amazon could be considered the underdog here; I haven’t read any other analysis that makes that claim.)

[HH] I’ll go one step further and state something both outrageous and obvious: If the Big 5 had gotten together twenty years ago and DREAMED UP an ideal business partnership, one that would increase their distribution, provide excellent customer service to their readers, improve the livelihood of their authors, keep their backlists viable and books from going out of print, reduce their 50% return rate from bookstores to 4%, provide next-day and even same-day delivery, all while only costing them 30% instead of the 45% they lose to bookstores, they couldn’t have done better than what Amazon did for them.

[MS] Lots of truth in this paragraph, up to a point. Publishers (and authors) have benefited for years from Amazon’s willingness to sell books for almost no margin and by the shift from the less-efficient sales in stores to the more-efficient sales online. I spelled out clearly in my Amazon-Hachette post that Amazon has been the most profitable print account for most trade publishers for a long time. And I am happy to give them the full credit they deserve for making the commitment necessary to make the ebook business happen. That doesn’t change the reality that as their market share grows, we can see a concentration that changes what has been a good thing into a threat. For everybody else in the book business: those who are aware of it and those who are not.

[HH] Soak that in. Publishers should have engineered Amazon from the ground-up. A company that invests in distribution networks for their products rather than pocketing profits. And instead of celebrating all the hundreds of benefits, like pre-orders and customer reviews and the savings on print runs and returns that Amazon’s algorithms provide, they are trying to figure out how to put their best resource out of business. It boggles the mind. Like those authors who fear Amazon might take royalties away tomorrow, so are happy to give up those royalties today, publishers are siding with companies that are hurting them today out of fear of their greatest ally getting even more market share tomorrow. And readers and writers are the victims of this illogical behavior.

[MS] The unreality in the suggestion that publishers are trying to put Amazon out of business is mindboggling. I have cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believe Hugh Howey believes what he says. On the other hand, I can’t believe he believes that! Any publisher that thought this was possible would be deluded. The idea that it is some sort of deliberate strategy to put Amazon out of business is as far from the world we actually live in as the world of Hugh’s novels is.

[HH] What is the solution? As a writer, the solution is to retain ownership of your rights. This has never been more important than it is today. E-book royalty rates are going to move to 50% of net. I know from some insiders that this is already happening for top-name authors and hot new acquisitions. Selling your manuscript now for half of what it will be worth in the very near future is a bad move. It takes years for books to come to market with a traditional publisher. If that is your publishing goal, exercise a bit more patience. Hold on to that manuscript (or self-publish it) while you write the next. Let the market come to you.

[MS] This advice ignores the fact that a large number of authors got an advance that already pre-paid them for the royalties they could conceivably have earned by doing their own self-publishing when the publishers’ sales died. (Those “insiders” referred to are almost certainly talking about how the ebook component is calculated for advances paid to big authors, not a change in the contractual percentage.) Howey is conflating agreeing to a “half of what it should be” digital royalty with “selling your manuscript for half of what it will be worth” in the future. They’re not the same thing. I guess it’s just part of the campaign to find that first big author who turns down a publishing deal to do it themselves instead. To read this post, you’d never know we haven’t had one yet! (I thought we had one three years ago, but the one author who really threatened to do it changed his mind and signed a publishing deal with Amazon instead.)

[HH] The other option is to embrace a smaller press that has more flexibility. Online print book sales and e-book adoption have helped level the playing field for small publishers. They are becoming more viable every single day. These are the true Davids. They now have the tools and ability to see their works sell to a wide audience and win awards. I put them as the second best option behind self-publishing, and I include Amazon’s imprints in this category. They offer higher royalty rates and terms similar to small presses, though some have grumbled lately that Amazon’s imprints are becoming more and more like the Big 5, so watch what you sign.

[MS] I’m always happy to see smaller presses succeed, but they have a hard time competing against the Big Five, mainly because of Amazon. They are forced (by Amazon) to sell their ebooks on “wholesale” terms, which means giving much more of the retail price they set to the supply chain. This leaves them two choices. They can set a reasonable retail price (like an Agency price) and get nearly 30% less revenue than an Agency publisher. Or they can set an artificially high price and hope the retailer will discount from it. So even if they give the author a higher percentage of ebook sales, the net might not be higher. It is hard to succeed in today’s environment as a small press, not easy.

[HH] For readers, keep doing what you’re doing. Self-publishing and small presses are booming because you care about great stories, not where they come from. You are the disruptive force in this industry, and I say that with every ounce of love I can muster. Keep disrupting by doing what you do best: Read. Write reviews. Share your enthusiasm. Infect others. Spread the joy of this greatest of pastimes. And we will trust that those who cater to your needs and to the needs of the artists you admire will be the ones who come out on top. All others will need to change their ways or perish. If they do the former, let’s cheer for them. If they persist in the latter, let’s not be sad to see them go.

[MS] I am not happy to see anybody go. The desire to make villains out of the industry establishment is the most unattractive trait of what should be a hero class: intrepid authors who forge ahead without institutional support to make success happen. There is no doubt that Amazon has made that opportunity possible for most of them and it is easy to understand why anybody who has profited from the infrastructure Amazon created would celebrate it and want to see it grow. But author success has been achieved in a wide variety of ways and the way Hugh Howey has done it is still very much the exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions from unusual cases. And I think it is an iron rule of nature that it is dangerous to generalize from one’s own personal experience.

I see from a subsequent post of Hugh’s that he will be in Toronto this week at Book Summit, as will I. I hope we’ll have a chance to have a Diet Coke and talk about this while we’re up there. My Logical Marketing Agency partner Pete McCarthy and I are kicking off the show on Tuesday morning. I always love visiting Toronto.

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Subscription services for ebooks progress to becoming a real experiment


My long-held conviction that broad-based subscriptions for ebooks were not likely to work is partly based on facts that are now changing. It is still by no means a slam dunk that ebooks must go where Spotify has taken digital music and Netflix has taken the digital distribution of TV and movies, but it looks more likely today than it did six months ago. Still, looks could be deceiving.

The core of subscription economics is to pay less to the content supplier than they earn other ways to give you some headroom to create a value proposition for consumers. That’s how Spotify and Netflix work. That’s how Book-of-the-Month Club works.

And what happens over time with subscription services is that the power of “brand” passes from the individual titles (and authors) to the subscription service itself. In order to attract customers, a subscription offer depends on recognizable branded product to bring people in. But, over time, the value shifts. Eventually, a subscriber-reader can become used to choosing from what the service offers and will either not know about, skip, or accept purchasing the occasional book s/he wants outside the service if it isn’t offered inside. (A varient of this reality is playing out now in the Amazon-Hachette dispute, where Amazon’s brand power, including people who have a subscription to PRIME free freight, makes any particular publishers’ books subordinate to the seller’s brand with the consumer.)

None of this is particularly startling or insightful. Every agent for a big author knows it. Until very recently, that has meant that big publishers did not put the big books from big authors into these services. When the first shoe — the HarperCollins shoe — dropped and the second biggest trade publisher (and by far the largest of the four majors who trail Penguin Random House) went into Oyster and Scribd several months ago, I should have taken on board that the perception of agents must be changing. Now, with S&S having joined them, and with major authors included in the offerings from both companies, it is clear that agents are withdrawing their objections.

There are three reasons for this.

One is that the incumbents in the book business are circling the wagons against the dominance of book retailing’s most powerful brand: Amazon. As the market share of and customer loyalty to the industry’s biggest player grows, other dangers — such as those posed by subscription services if they mature — look relatively less onerous.

The second is that publishers and agents love the opportunity to establish that if subscription services want to “play” in publishing, they’ll have to pay for each ebook on a purchase deal. That is: the subscription services are establishing their “model”. And the publishers and authors are also establishing theirs!

The last is that the two big current subscription efforts are disdaining the fundamental economics to get their services started. The current model, as outlined by S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy in a letter to agents announcing her house’s participation, is that the service buys a copy of the book at “full price” when a “a certain threshold of reading has been surpassed for a given title”. But her letter also suggests that authors make even more money on these sales than they do on normal sales, which implies that Scribd and Oyster are paying more than 70 percent of the retail price for the privilege of using these books. (I have heard a range of numbers for where the threshhold of use to trigger payment is, from 10% to 40%, but I have no idea what it is and how it might differ among publishers.) Whether they’re paying 70% of retail or more, that means that it would take no more than two full-priced S&S or HarperCollins (assuming they have the same deal) titles a month to cost the service more than the revenue from a full-freight subscriber. And if the subscriber came through iOS, Apple’s 30% cut off the top would mean that even one major publisher ebook being read in a month will likely put the service in a deficit position.

Even when the purchase model is favorable, which this one appears not to be, it has been generally understood that the viability of a subscription model depends on what is called “breakage” or “health club economics” to succeed. They count on the expectation that relatively few subscribers will read and trigger payments on two, three, four books a month compared to many who will read one or less than one, or who will choose from among books (like public domain titles) that cost the services less or nothing.

The first of the subscription services for books — Safari — used a model that is much safer for the services because it assures cost stability, assigning a percentage of the revenue as a pool to compensate publishers rather than guaranteeing a purchase for every read as Scribd and Oyster are doing. I expect the purchase model to be very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. But persuading the big players to come in depended on getting away from the safe “pool” model and purchasing the ebook anew for each new user.

A huge danger for the subscription services is the likelihood that subscriptions will be shared within families (let alone within dormitories!) That could drive up the average use per subscriber very quickly if it isn’t controlled.

Only now, with two of the Big Five in the game, giving the services about a third of the most commercial backlist titles in publishing, can they really find out whether the price-and-cost model they’ve set up will work to give them a profit. (It is important to note that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster only put backlist titles into the services, so the most attractive commercial titles, which are new, are not part of the offer. This also means that all shoppers and purchasers of new titles will continue to use the stand-alone purchase model.)

I’m sure Scribd and Oyster have data and analytical skills that I don’t have. But, intuitively, this seems like a tough proposition. Subcription services are attractive to consumers because they’re bargains. If you normally read a single ebook or month or fewer, the $8.99 monthly subscription charge would not seem attractive. But if you read an ebook or two a month or more, the services will likely lose money on you.

Meanwhile, there are two players currently sitting on the sidelines that could really disrupt the subscription incumbents (which also include Spain-based 24Symbols, which has been around much longer than Scribd and Oyster but which hasn’t succeeded so far at bringing in the big publishers and the big books.)

There are rumors that Amazon is already canvassing for participants to deliver a subscription service of their own. Of course, they really already have one. Their PRIME subscription offer, for which the headline attraction is free shipping of hard goods, also includes access to the “Kindle Owners Lending Library”, which is effectively a broad-based ebook subscription service with some limitations and a far less robust title selection than Scribd and Oyster. Amazon could find ways to expand that. Will they match the implied compensation from Scribd and Oyster and pay more than the 70 percent which is the current standard for sales by agency publishers (which, therefore, becomes the basis for royalties to big authors)? One would suspect they would want something in return for that: exclusives, perhaps, or earlier access to the titles than Scribd and Oyster have.

Of course, Amazon (or Google or Kobo or Nook or Apple) would have an automatic advantage over the subscription incumbents if they decided to compete with them. Because they already sell all the books, they could sell you the books you wanted that weren’t in the service as part of a single offer.

The other future player of consequence is Penguin Random House, which by itself has well-known commercial titles that exceed in number what the services would have even if they signed up one more of the remaining big publishers. Hachette’s chief marketing and sales officer, Evan Schnittman, is quoted by the Wall Street Journal saying that this model is “not for us”. That leaves Macmillan, but even if Scribd and Oyster get them, PRH could have the most attractive title base on offer all by itself.

When I speculated some time ago about the opportunity PRH had to do this, one of their executives set me straight about why they wouldn’t. What I was told was that PRH was not thrilled by the idea of turning $500 and $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers. Of course, that calculus changes for them if others are succeeding at doing that, and those new $100/year customers are then one step further removed from buying PRH books.

If PRH did this, they’d have one big decision to make: do they attempt to include the biggest titles from the rest of publishing in their offering or not. They’d already be starting with the most attractive title selection, but the Scribd and Oyster assortments would be competitive. If they went for some of the rest — even if only the top 10 percent of the rest — PRH could present a noticeably more attractive selection than Scribd or Oyster.

Would other publishers go in with them? I’d say, “probably”, because they can’t afford not to have their biggest books exposed to all possible substantial audiences, and PRH would almost certainly have the biggest subscription audience.

Would Penguin Random House want them? I’d say, “probably” again. It would stamp their offering as by far the best, and they’d still be advantaged dealing with authors because they’d be the only publisher not paying a third party to get the subscription revenue.

If “fear of Amazon” is the factor that made big agents relent in their opposition to subscription, would they also support joining an Amazon subscription service? That’s a trickier call, but as noted above, Amazon would have the capability to sweeten their offer to make it more compelling if that’s what they had to do.

But the main thing that works in favor of participation, now that the dam may have broken, is the psychology of trade publishing. Every big trade publisher has grown to be what they are today by selling their publications through intermediaries. Bookstores and then Amazon became the “gatekeepers”, owners of the customers. There was a symbiotic relationship: the retailers depended on publishers to deliver products to please their consumers and the publishers depended on the retailers to merchandise their offerings and manage the transactions. Access to a retailer’s customers first depended on getting your offerings into their store and then on having them be seen by the largest possible number of the store’s customers. That meant front tables and face-out display in the physical world; it means the right screen real estate, recommendations, and response to search terms in the virtual one.

That’s why the current hegemonies of Barnes & Noble and Amazon are so disconcerting to publishers. And that’s why the potential control of customer access by Scribd or Oyster might now look more like counterweight than threat.

Of course, it is also possible that the price-and-payment models Scribd and Oyster have begun with will prove unsustainable and that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — and their authors — will simply be the beneficiaries of a short-term bonanza financed by money that took a flyer that didn’t pay off. (And they’re not done taking those flyers.) That seems to me at least as likely as an outcome as these broad subscription offers becoming a permanent part of the bookselling landscape.

A lot going on around our place, so we haven’t had the time to switch away from what has become the horrendous service from Feedburner distributing The Shatzkin Files to its email subscribers. This one from last week on Amazon and Hachette (which is also linked to above) never was sent. (Of course, as I write this, who knows if this one will be or not?) It was written before the latest escalation where Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from Hachette book, a nasty blow that makes getting books on the bestseller list the week they come out very much harder. A lot has been written on this subject, but I think it still delivers some consideration of what it all means that hasn’t been picked up anywhere else.

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7 starter principles for digital book marketing learned from Peter McCarthy


Times are changing in publishing and publishers know it. Almost every publisher recognizes that their value to authors, and therefore their future, is dependent on their ability to deliver effective marketing at scale. In this day and age, that means digital marketing, which also has the characteristic of being “data-driven” marketing. And not only is that a science that is really less than 10 years old, it is changing all the time. Ten years ago many of the most important components of digital marketing for books today — Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads — barely existed or hadn’t been born yet. They certainly didn’t matter.

Publishers can’t address their digital marketing challenge by simply spending more because the choices in digital marketing are endless. They have to be smart about what they do. Which means they have to be smart about something for which there is little established wisdom and no deep experience inside of publishing houses.

For a large part of the past year, I have been learning about digital marketing for books from the man whom I will regard as The Master until the day comes when I meet somebody who knows more. He’s Peter McCarthy. Pete started his career with nearly 3 years at The Reader’s Catalog, New York Review of Books, and the Granta family of publications. Reader’s Catalog formed part of the backbone of Bn.com 1.0. Then Pete spent six years at Penguin in the early digital days helping them build a DAM system and put out ebooks for the first time, followed by six years at Random House pioneering their digital marketing efforts.

Pete has made the point repeatedly that much of what he knows, does, and is teaching me is already well understood in the modern world of branding and marketing. The distinctions among psychographics, demographics, and behavior, and their importance in marketing, were new to me but are familiar stuff to people who sell Pepsi or Toyotas. Pete’s really invented something in publishing by looking for comparable products that aren’t other books, but outside publishing they know all about seeking comps that aren’t precisely the same as their own product. The techniques Pete employs to find audiences in people that are like the known audiences for a book are standard tools in consumer marketing outside publishing.

But that doesn’t mean publishers can just hire big digital agencies to help them. It won’t work. Because while publishing can use techniques that sophisticated marketers are using to sell other products in other places, the truly more complex world of books will be hard for them to cope with. And marketing budgets for a title that are rarely five figures, often three figures, and sometimes less than that don’t fit the best agencies’ idea of “workable”, either.

The big agencies would actually have no clue how to deal with thousands of highly differentiated products at the same time, which have some interconnectedness to them (because they’re all books, so Amazon author pages have to be optimized for all of them, for example) but mostly are unrelated. And not knowing that causes lost value two ways:

1. They don’t have techniques to apply mass optimization across hundreds or thousands of highly differentiated “products”, because the work they do doesn’t require it;

2. They don’t have the capacity big publishers need to run hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of campaigns at one time with realtime “budgets” (or “go, no-go” gauges).

So the big agencies wouldn’t know how to deal with a publishing house. The granularity would frustrate them and they’d freight each ISBN (publishing speak for “SKU”) with too much overhead.

That has left most publishers on their own, with service providers delivering some by-title assistance (you can hire somebody to do an author’s tweeting for them), but with the publishers themselves left to sort out how to make maximum use of a book or author’s digital footprint and social media presence to drive sales. And it is not really surprising that Pete McCarthy, having had the opportunity to meet the marketing challenge across thousands of titles and authors and hundreds of genres, topics, and imprints, would have figured out a lot of things that elude the publishers who aren’t digital marketing sophisticates and the digital marketing experts who rarely, if ever, encounter the granularity and product diversity that characterizes book publishing.

I’ve learned a lot from Pete, but I’ll never catch up to him and I won’t even try. He uses more than 100 different digital tools to help him understand followers in various social platforms and who they are. He is using a marketer’s understanding of each individual’s demographics, psychographics, and behavior (and behavior’s subset, intent), to define the groups of people he sees clustering. That, in turn, helps him find groups of people who are similar to the ones who already like the author or the book.

Pete has articulated many principles which make a lot of sense, even to somebody who didn’t know about demographics and psychographics and who has not worked his way through even a handful of “listening” tools, let alone a hundred or more.

1. The digital marketing menu contains nearly an infinite number of items. That results in a tremendous amount of wasted effort spent trying things that a little research would have indicated will never work.

2. The key to making sales is to put the right message in front of the right person at the right time. Research finds the right people; testing finds the right message and the right time.

3. The various tool sets will allow you to profile the “followers” of a book or author in Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn (or by securing an email address) and it will enable you to understand for each of them what kind of following they have. This is critical research to do before you invest effort and time in actual marketing.

4. Another key research element is to carefully pick your nomenclature. Tools can also tell you how common various words and terms are in searches made through Google, Amazon, and other venues. This informs the best choices for metadata tagging, of course, but it could also affect a book’s titling.

Understanding the book and author’s digital connections and the right language to describe the book you’re selling are “foundational” elements; everything flows from them.

5. The whole concept of marketing “budgeting” needs to be rethought. While the trap or danger in digital marketing is its infinite number of possibilities, the opportunity is that the results of efforts are visible and measurable. So everything that is tried should be measured and evaluated, continued it if is working and either altered or terminated if it is not.

This reality collides with the historical practices and commercial realities of publishers, particularly big publishers. Editors, who have to sign up the books and keep agents and authors happy, want to tell agents and authors what their marketing budgets and efforts will be. Whether the book is selling or not, agents and authors don’t want to hear that the marketing spending was cancelled because the efforts weren’t adding value. But a house can’t just add to the budget when something is working and not cancel anything that is not, or they’ll go broke.

6. The whole concept of “time” also needs to be rethought, both “time on the clock” (work people do) and “time on the calendar” — not just how long programs run (as above) but also when they take place in relation to the lifecycle of the book. In the digital era, whether books are well-represented in stores at any moment is not necessarily the key determinant of how well they’ll sell, so pushing a backlist book that might be thinly distributed but which is suddenly timely is perfectly sensible (“the calendar”). And it wasn’t that way five or ten years ago when marketing efforts wouldn’t be extended if books weren’t in the stores. It is also true that the external costs of digital marketing could be very low but a campaign could consume a lot of in-house time (“the clock”) with copy creation, design, and posting.

7. The key to successful digital marketing is to do the research that finds the right messages and targets, test the messages to the targets looking for a defined result, measure the impact, and then adjust the messaging and targeting. Pete calls that “rinse and repeat”. The objective is to find replicable actions that provide results with an ROI that can be continued until the ROI stops.

With Peter McCarthy’s help and in conjunction with Digital Book World, Cader’s and my Publishers Launch Conferences has organized a Modern Book Marketing Conference to lay out the core tenets of digital marketing for publishers. (So we can all learn from Pete McCarthy.) 

After Pete opens the day by introducing his basic approach, we’ll have a panel of top publishing strategists — Rick Joyce of Perseus, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, Matt Litts from the Smithsonian, and Jeff Dodes of St. Martin’s Press — talk about how they apply digital marketing in their companies. Then Murray Izenwasser of Biztegra, a top digital marketing company, will clarify the core principles of using consumer demographic, psychographic, and behavioral data before Susie Sizoler of Penguin covers how publishers can build powerful customer databases and reader insights. Marketers Matt Schwartz of Random House, Rachel Chou of Open Road Integrated Media, and Brad Thomas Parsons of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will  talk about how they promote, including a “lightning round” of commentary about how and when to use the most important venues and tools: Amazon author pages, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and many others.

We will have a round of speed-dating, so attendees can meet with key sponsors and expert speakers in small groups and get their individual questions answered. And we’ll conclude the day with Erica Curtis of Random House on best practices for measuring and analyzing your marketing ROI, and two panels. The first, on “how digital marketing changes budgeting and timing”, will feature case histories from Sourcebooks, Running Press, and at least one other publisher. The second on the new collaboration required among authors and marketers, will feature agent Laura Dail, outside marketer Penny Sansevieri, inside marketer Miriam Parker of Hachette, and an editor still to be selected.

This Marketing Conference is co-located with our Publishing Services Expo, which I described in a previous post, and attendees of the Marketing Conference are welcome to sit in on any part of PSE as well. At the breaks, sponsors and many of the speakers from both events will be available to the audiences for both events.

Full disclosure and a teaser “announcement”: Pete McCarthy and I are forming a digital marketing agency to apply his knowledge on behalf of publishers, authors, and agents. We’ll reveal more details, including our starter assignments, over the next few weeks.

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