Harlequin

Now HERE is an experiment that looks like it worked and is worthy of replication


The new opportunity to publish a book without printed inventory has been popularized primarily by self-publishing authors and by new fledgling publishing enterprises like Entangled and Byliner following in the footsteps of earlier pioneers like eReads and Ellora’s Cave and, more recently, Open Road. This changes the economics of publishing substantially, taking a very large part of the risk out of it and decreasing a publisher’s dependence on hundreds of stores to individually agree to commit their own capital resources to display printed copies.

There have been some experiments with no-inventory publishing from the major houses, all in genres. Last year, HarperCollins launched HarperTeen Impulse and Random House launched the digital-only imprints Loveswept, Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt. And Harlequin had preceded them early in 2009 with Carina Press. In fact, these digital innovations have already given rise to what I believe is premature concern from some agents that publishers will carry this “no printing” thing too far!

Much of the promised innovation has been around publishing shorter works, works that might not have lent themselves to printed versions anyway, but they also were a way to reach out to self-published authors. Now Italy’s RCS Libri has come up with a really imaginative use of no-inventory publishing — also in a genre — as a way to test not only the appeal of a new author’s work but also the ability of fledgling authors to promote it. The concept appears to have succeeded commercially on its first attempt; it will be interesting to see whether it can be replicated by RCS Libri and by other publishers in other countries.

RCS Libri  set up a new publishing arm called “Rizzoli Lab”, a new imprint dedicated to experiments in digital. For the first effort of Rizzoli Lab, they came up with a really nifty idea. It is a series of books called You Crime, by which RCS Libri is creating a new kind of collaboration they call “co-publishing”, by which they mean that they are combining the efforts of a publisher with the efforts authors provide as self-publishers.

You Crime has four published ebooks from Rizzoli Lab, each with four short crime stories within. Four of the sixteen stories, one in each book, are written by well known Italian crime writers. The other three stories in each book are by fledgling writers, whom the Rizzoli editors found by looking at submissions but then examining the authors’ presences on the Internet. They obviously have huge numbers of people who wish to publish with them. In addition to judging the writing quality of submissions and limiting to one genre (only crime: no romance, no fantasy), they tried to evaluate the authors’ attitude toward digital and their past experience with self-publishing. They refer to what they did as “digital editorial selection”. Since RCS Libri is investing in the entire initiative (and marketing of the series, but not author marketing) they wanted to be sure they had good content to offer to the readers and strong marketing efforts to let them know it was there. Of course, their editors knew how to judge quality content. What was new was the evaluation of the fledgling authors’ digital marketing potential.

According to Marcello Vena, the digital head at RCS Libri under whose leadership this has all happened, the established authors participated in the project at least partly because it provided interim exposure to the public between their major books. Of course, everybody got royalties and the established authors got a bigger share.

The twelve fledgling authors were charged with driving traffic, awareness, and sales of the book their work appeared in. Meanwhile, RCS Libri worked with the powerful national newspaper in their corporate family, Corriere della Sera, to promote the You Crime series generically and run its web site.

As it turned out, all four books in the You Crime series sold quite well. They all made the top 50 (among over 4,000 titles) for Rizzoli throughout the entire Italian ebook market (including in the Kindle store). RCS Libri promoted the series as a competition, like X-Factor. The fledgling authors were expected to add their title-promotion efforts to the series branding done by Rizzoli and Corriere della Sera. And now at least some of those writers will have their own full-length novels published by Rizzoli, having been introduced to the reading public through this vehicle.

Vena calls this new form of publishing “co-publishing”, where an established publisher effectively partners with aspiring writers, bringing established writers into the project to help with their content and their brands. He sees the authors and publisher as “co-responsible” for driving readers to the book.

I don’t know whether the competitive X-Factor aspect of this or the “co-publishing” label are the key elements. Of course, they might be. But, regardless of that, the concept of using established writers to entice sampling of new writers is definitely a very cool idea, and doing this in a “digital-first” publishing paradigm, seriously reducing investment risk, makes complete sense.

Obviously, we want to see this work again before we leap to the conclusion that it will work every time, or even regularly, but having four successes out of four and a large number of fledgling writers picked up for full-novel treatment is a powerful statement on behalf of an imaginative experiment. I think we should expect to see this tried again in other markets. And before too long.

Of course, we are putting together a panel including RCS Libri at Digital Book World 2014 to talk about “no inventory publishing”. That’s one of several pieces of programming we will have around “new models”. We’ll also feature leading innovative publishers and suppliers talking about subscriptions, new direct sales channels, agile content publishing models, and new product forms for non-narrative content. Register by November 8 for the best rate. 

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More on atomization: why the new publishers are coming


The most recent post here laid out a future for trade publishing that will be less and less about traditional publishers and more and more about non-traditional publishers delivering books into the marketplace without the financing or “approval” of a profit-seeking publisher. That’s a radical change from the industry we’ve seen grow over the past 100 years when book sales in retail stores of all kinds have been the primary revenue source for publishers and authors.

Obviously, the likelihood of what that post predicts coming to pass is dependent on the validity of the argument that a substantial amount of commercially viable publishing will take place without the funding of the commercial trade publishers. Of course, “commercial viability” is a function of the publisher’s objectives; the new book publishing entities have ways to win that aren’t just about the profit they make publishing their books.

Books have a mystique and symbolic power, for a reason. For three centuries, they have been at the center of high-value communication of stories, information, and ideas. The number of entities that generate content that fits that description is far larger than the number of book publishers, and includes entities that wouldn’t be thought of as publishers of any kind at all.

Because delivering a book requires managing a huge variety of details and because selling one effectively has always needed a multi-faceted organization and an investment in inventory, until recently only companies dedicated to the business of books could effectively publish them.

Not anymore.

Because of ebooks and digital distribution, it is now possible for any content packaged as an ebook — if marketed effectively to its target audience — to find its readers (or to be found by them). The big publishers of today are all grappling with how to re-connect with their readers in an information universe that has been redefined. Meanwhile, the networks by which they have always connected with readers in the past — bookstores and mass merchants and even libraries — are becoming less and less relevant as readers increasingly read on devices and find what they’ll read through their online interactions.

But where there are challenges and painful adjustments in store for the biggest publishers, there is vast new opportunity for just about every other enterprise that connects to a lot of people and knows something about what those people want to know. And companies are increasingly figuring that out.

Jeremy Greenfield is the editor of the Digital Book World website; we partner with DBW to deliver their annual conference. Long before the post last week “predicting” that entities that aren’t book publishers would become book publishers, Jeremy had been keeping a list of them. It’s impressive. When we asked Jeremy what was on his list, he sent us this note:

Most recently, Scientific American launched a series of ebooks. American Express Publishing launched an ebook line with Vook. The Atlantic began to publish its own ebooks. USA Today published USA Tomorrow, a collection of expert predictions about the future of America. Harlequin and Cosmopolitan magazine inked a deal to publish several ebooks a month together. Newsweek/Daily Beast entered into a partnership with Vook to publish ebooks. Playboy launched a series of shorts for the Kindle, the Washington Post announced an e-book program, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade publication focused on the higher education field, launched an e-book business. Other notable companies to jump into the space are magazine publishers Conde Nast and Hearst and NBC News, a division of NBC Universal. And the Wall Street Journal has recently rejuvenated its e-book program.

In addition to these, we know of more: the New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston GlobeTED Books, Esquire, the Guardian, Wharton Business School, the US Army, Provincetown Public Library, the Saturday Evening Post, Xiamen Bluebird Cartoon Company of China, cartoon-producer Fred Seibert creating Frederator Books, and Scott Rudin and Barry Diller’s Brightline, and many others.

Of course, all of these are content-producing entities; many of them are even print-content producers. But it simply wasn’t in their power to decide to become book publishers until the world changed.

Three companies which started out with content-generation ideas of their own — Vook, Byliner, and Atavist — are frequent partners for these new publishers, as are existing publishers from Big Six players to Perseus’s Constellation, Ingram, new ebook publishers Open RoadDiversion and Rosetta, and other companies like INscribe and PressBooks. (Not all of these have gotten into this game yet, but they certainly all will.) These companies are serving the first wave of fledgling publishers and the aspirants so far have been content-generating companies.

Some of those we’ll soon see wouldn’t think of themselves as content creators. Before long, I’d expect to see every museum, every historical society, every consulting firm and law firm and accounting firm joining the party.

For example, a law firm of our acquaintance sent us a notice last year that key members of their team had put together a “White Paper” about changes in trademark law. I called the partner there that I knew and asked “why don’t you publish it as an ebook?” He said, “I don’t know.”

Another attorney to whom I told the story patiently explained to me that intellectual property like this was created to be given away to lure clients to the firm and impress them. Why, I was asked, should we publish it as ebook? What would we gain?

That’s pretty simple. Somebody will go to Amazon and search “trademark law”. You want to come up! And, in fact, you could price your White Paper at $100. It wouldn’t be great for sales, but you’d get the discovery benefit and you’d be putting a marketplace value on what you’re giving away for free. You win twice.

The next wave will be everybody else: every brand with a following, a meaning, a reputation, a website. The next group will need editorial services which presents a whole new set of opportunities for writers, agents, and, especially, packagers. And it will present an opportunity for me to elaborate more on atomization in another post.

Of course, we’ve got this subject covered at our upcoming Publishers Launch Conference at BEA on May 29. The program is starting to take shape, and we’ll have a panel called “Outsiders: New Book Publishing Operations from Media and Content Companies”. Steve Kobrin of Wharton Digital Press, Alison Uncles of the Toronto Star, and David Wilk, just appointed the publisher of Frederator Books, will be speaking on it. Each of their programs is quite different from the others, as are their objectives. But all of them are heading up businesses that would scarcely have been conceivable five years ago.

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Two new initiatives to ponder as we end the year


Two announcements made in the last two weeks caught our attention.

One was Simon & Schuster’s deal with Author Solutions, creating a new Archway Editions publishing imprint. This was the third such major deal with a publisher for ASI, following similar arrangements forged with romance publisher Harlequin and Christian publisher Thomas Nelson (now owned by HarperCollins).

The other was Publishers Lunch’s deal with Random House, creating the new online bookstore-lite, Bookateria. This was the second such major deal with a heavily-trafficked website for Random House, following a similar arrangement forged with the political site, Politico.

Of the two, the S&S-ASI connection offers less obvious benefits. ASI has apparently built a remarkably efficient engine to get a book delivered from a manuscript. And every publisher has many times more authors knocking at their door than they could possibly consider publishing. And many of them will never find a publisher so would be good candidates for self-publishing services.

But there are both ethical and practical commercial challenges to converting author aspirants who come looking for a deal to customers willing to buy self-publishing services. ASI seems to have persuaded publishers that the conversion works enough of the time to make the connection between publishers and ASI worth making. Let’s remember that the Harlequin and Nelson deals preceded both the acquisition of ASI by Pearson and the deal announced last week with S&S. Presumably, S&S and Pearson knew something about the results from those prior deals and were proceeding with some evidence that using a known publisher as a front door for self-publishers was an idea that works.

On the other hand, neither Nelson nor Harlequin has trumpeted the results of their ASI deal and authors may notice that the legions of successful self-publishers (John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, and more than a few others) seems bereft of ASI clients.

There are more questions than answers generated by these deals so far. It appears that the publishers really have nothing to do with their new customers aside from bringing them into the tent. (S&S says in the press release that they’ll be watching the sales of Archway books to see what authors it might want to sign for the house. But isn’t that what every big publisher should be doing across the self-publishing landscape right now?) Will the association with self-publishing damage the core publishing brands? Will the publishers feel some ownership of the self-publishers from whom they profit? Will real synergies develop between the publishers and their ASI connections, or will this remain largely a branding trick?

While all of that remains to be seen, if the ASI-publisher connections deliver revenue to publishers with little or no effort on their part, other publishers will be open to doing the same thing. The question is whether they do.

It is not difficult to discern the value delivered by the collaboration between Publishers Lunch and Random House to deliver Bookateria, a search-and-shopping experience with a Publishers Lunch perspective. It gives Lunch an easy way to deliver real convenience and value to its audience and modestly monetize it at the same time. And it further tests and proves the concept Random House first demonstrated with Politico. By delivering the tech around a pretty complete catalog of available books able to be monetized through affiliate relationships, Random House has created a “product” that any web site with substantial traffic can benefit from in the way Lunch now will.

Publishers Lunch, because it is constantly reporting book news, has more opportunities than the average site to link to purchase pages for a book it is mentioning. It regularly refers to various and sundry lists of award winners and top sellers and it makes nothing but great sense for them to make purchase of these books easy (and make a little money at the same time.)

It may be (and I’m not on the inside of any of these deals; aside from our partnership in Publishers Launch Conferences, Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch runs his businesses and I run mine) that Publishers Lunch is taking a more active role in merchandising books than Politico is. That would make sense. Books are PL’s business, and they have to both be thoughtful and appear thoughtful about how they present them. And since this capability is probably at least as much about providing utility to site visitors as it is about increasing revenue, the merchandising would want to reflect the site’s knowledge and point of view.

I have long believed that book and ebook distribution would ultimately follow the web’s innate tendency to verticalize audiences. Why wouldn’t you buy your political books or sports books or knitting books where you learn about them and be guided more by recommendations of “domain experts” than “book experts”?

I had visualized this verticalization working out from a publisher, which would use its content to attract audiences which it would then monetize many ways, including by selling them books and ebooks of its own and from other publishers. To varying degrees, this is what I saw unfolding with Hay House, F+W Media, Osprey, and Harlequin with the most highly-developed Big House example being Tor Books inside of Macmillan.

Some new propositions — notable among them being the still-promised book retailer Zola and the distributed sales “apps” from Impelsys and Ganxy — were built around the understanding that book curation was most effectively done by the experts and communities functioning in any domain and it made sense to deliver a way for them to enable their own ecommerce for the content they suggested or reported on to their audiences.

But it is in a trade publisher’s DNA to work with aggregators and intermediaries (which is what bookstores, mass merchants, libraries, wholesalers, and special sales outlets are). Random House applied the same vision of distributed and vertical curation but decided that they didn’t need to offer the entire ecommerce solution to execute on it.

So Politico and Publishers Lunch — and, one presumes, more to follow — use Random House to provide their catalog and metadata and some level of curation and they all rely on the existing retail network to complete the transactions and do the fulfillment. Random House and their partners (presumably) share affiliate revenues from the retailers, not the “full margin” on the content sales.

This could be viewed as a bit klunky from the customer’s perspective and it definitely will be for some. You wouldn’t be “shopping” and then “checking out” as two discrete and serial experiences. Each “buy” decision would take you to a retailer choice and then deep-link you to the purchase page for that book at the retailer you choose. Anybody who wants to purchase multiple titles would definitely find this less convenient than just shopping on a retailer’s site.

But if the retailer were delivering the curation and information that Politico or Publishers Lunch is offering in the area of vertical interest, then the customer would probably do their multiple-title shopping at the retailer anyway. The Random House-powered strategy is more opportunistic than that. It’s more about facilitating impulse purchasing than attracting a shopper.

And when you stop and think about it for just a minute, you realize that conversion is likely to be much higher by offering customers a choice of their favorite retailers than it would be if you were signing them up to a new account with a retailer (web site) they hadn’t purchased from before. This is true even in the case of Publishers Lunch, which has credit card numbers for a large number of its most regular visitors because they’re members of Publishers Marketplace. It would be even more of a barrier to making a purchase at Politico and other non-membership sites.

One veteran publishing marketer told me that conversion on clickthroughs to Amazon were very high in his experience, ranging from 8% to 17%. He really doubted whether any fledgling retailer could achieve anything like that rate of conversion.

That constitutes evidence that the revenue achievable as an affiliate could well be higher than what could be gained executing the sales and keeping “full margin”, which brings along with it full responsibility for maintaining an infrastructure and providing customer service. None of that is necessary working as an affiliate.

There is a superficial similarity to these two initiatives. Both involve a company offering tech at scale to help another company monetize its existing network in ways that it doesn’t now. How effective that monetization really will be is still an open question. But it would appear that the ASI service to publishers entirely depends on that: aside from whatever revenue it can yield, there’s no other real benefit to the publisher and, in fact, it could confuse or cheapen the perception of their core business.

The Random House offer to websites, on the other hand, has all sorts of “soft” value. The partnering web site unambiguously offers a service to its site visitors by enabling rapid purchase of relevant content encountered while pursuing their vertical interest. Selling content and earning revenue is only one way to win; they also benefit from more traffic and more stickiness, the inevitable by-products of improving the value being offered any site’s visitors.

What is also interesting to contemplate about the Random House-powered distributed curation is what its potential impact will be on the retail network. Enabling the content purchaser to choose her retailer would, one assumes, distribute the sales from their site in pretty much the same proportions as the market had already.

On the other hand, it might also make it easier for consumers to switch. It could dilute the advantage Amazon has built through their usually superior (compared to other retailers) curation and presentation. It would make it much easier for a supporter of independent bookstores to make the choice to buy from them. (The choices presented are obviously flexible. Politico offers “Politics and Prose” bookstore, an indie based in Washington that specializes in political books. Bookateria instead offers Indiebound, the ABA’s way of sending you to an independent retailer.)

One more observation. There have been two retailers expected to make their appearance anytime now for the last six months: the big publisher-created Bookish and the previously-mentioned Zola Books. The rumors about both of them say that they are having a really hard time making the metadata we have in our industry work well enough to execute on ecommerce. Obviously, Random House had to overcome that same problem to deliver their proposition (although perhaps the bar was a bit lower since they execute sales as an affiliate rather than transacting themselves). An informational page for Bookateria makes it clear that metadata improvement will be an ongoing work-in-progress.

As the other big publishers look at what Random House is doing and wonder if they should be doing the same, they might want to rethink the digital aphorism that anything, once done, can be replicated in half the time and for half the cost. Even if that’s true, starting now to replicate the Random House capability could take a year or more; this is not something that Random House dreamed up last week. In a year, Random House could pick off a number of very desirable large sites and improve their metadata organization even further. I don’t think any competitor who takes this concept seriously will be able to afford to wait for proven success or failure to start developing if they want to be in this game.

NPR did a great job of choosing four minutes of me to sound wise on All Things Considered as part of a publishing roundup. Or you can read a summary of my bit instead of listening to it. We start with the Random House and Penguin merger and meander a bit from there.

This is the last post for the fourth calendar year of The Shatzkin Files. Our annual rhythm is that our quietest week of the year (this one) is followed rapidly by our most intense: the 7-1/2 days of conference programming in four days on the calendar that comprise Digital Book World  2014 and the two Publishers Launch events that bookend it. 

Happy New Year to all my readers, and especially the many of you who take the time to add to the conversation here in the comment string. Double-especially to those of you who dispense your wisdom in concise doses.

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Business models are changing; trial and error will ensue


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Subscription models seem to me to be for ebook niches, not a general offer


Another fledgling ebook retailing venture came through our office this month touting a subscription proposition. I told the entrepeneur “I’m skeptical of the subscription model for ebooks,” and he said, “I know”.

We had a great chat, but I’m still skeptical. When I say that, I mean I’m skeptical that a general offering subscription model can work.

There certainly is a logic to subscriptions, particularly for those who think the book business should learn from other content businesses. Cable TV really started with subscription and then only later moved to pay-per-view, which is more like the ebook sales model (but not exactly). We have Netflix for movies and TV, Audible for audiobooks, and a host of services for music, the most successful of which seems to be Spotify.

I have a Spotify subscription, even though I don’t use it much. Perhaps foolishly, I’m comfortable spending $119.88 a year (which is what $9.99 a month comes out to) to have access to just about any song I might ever want to hear instantly when the urge (or suggestion) to hear it arises. (Spotify very seldom disappoints me by not having the song.) And that’s even though most of my listening needs are satisfied with the 6,000 or so songs I have in my iTunes repository of which the best 1,000 are on my phone.

Spotify was cited by the entrepreneur I met as a motivation for him to start his ebook subscription business. As he correctly pointed out, “sharing a playlist” with a fellow Spotify subscriber enables them to immediately — with no additional cost or friction — “consume” that music. Sharing an iTunes playlist with somebody just leads them to having to make purchases which, quite aside from the money, put time and (a considerable) effort between receiving the playlist and enjoying it.

So, it is posited, this logic should apply to books. With a host of very explainable exceptions, I’m not sure it does, at least not anytime soon.

I’m fresh off a speech in Washington about what the DoJ doesn’t understand about publishing. The answer, if boiled down to a single word, would be “granularity”.

According to the MPAA, North American movie releases for 2007, 2008 and 2009, were 609, 633 and 558 respectively. There are foreign films and perhaps some below-the-radar indie films that must be added to that number to reckon what’s being made available, but it gives you an order of magnitude.

The Big Six publishers average more than 3,500 titles a year each. And there is far more production of titles beyond the Big Six in publishing than there is production of movies beyond the Hollywood studios. It would be very conservative to estimate that there are 100,000 new professionally-produced book titles a year intended for consumers. (Many more are published for professionals or as school or college texts and were you to add in self-published ebooks, which sometimes reach big audiences, they would multiply that number.)

Commercial releases of music would fall in between movies and books in number, but much closer to movies.

That’s the short answer as to why most people share music and movie experiences with far more friends and acquaintances than book experiences. It is also the short answer to why people outside the book business just can’t grasp it; each one of those books is a separate creative and commercial endeavor, down to having its own contract, its own development path and schedule, and its own marketing requirements.

(It also helps explain why many people who use libraries for some of their reading don’t use it for all. No library will have all the books a voracious patron would want to read.)

In the days before Amazon.com and digital books, there were two kinds of subscription services that worked for consumer books.

Book clubs offered price deals and curation (help with selection) but it was the price deals that really attracted members. Before ubiquitous bookstores (which arrived in the 1980s), Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild got the highest-profile books distributed to consumers who would have had a hard time getting to them (as well as those near bookstores who just wanted the convenience of mail delivery.) As bookstores spread, the Clubs found that “niche clubs” (around mysteries, science fiction, or subjects like gardening) were apparently more profitable than the big general interest clubs. (“Apparently” is a highly operative word, but the explanation of that will wait for another day.)

The other subscription concept that worked was the “continuity series”. The market leader there was Time-Life Books. These books were about a particular subject (World War II, say) and they were “packaged” specifically for the series and not available in stores. Continuity relied on the combination of intense subject interest and the “collection” mentality: somebody who started collecting the series didn’t want to have holes in their collection.

Both models were pretty much blown out of the water by online book purchasing which suddenly made every book available for home delivery to everybody everywhere.

In specific niches, subscription models can work very well. The granddaddy of them on the digital side is Safari Books Online, originally conceived and built by O’Reilly in partnership with Pearson. Safari serves a community of programmers and has a huge collection of instructional and reference books which they can use on the job. Most users of these books dip in and out of them, rather than reading them straight through. And they frequently like the idea of checking out what several books might say about a problem they’re tackling.

Safari pioneered the model of dividing the publishers’ share of the subscription fees by metering usage. The more your book is viewed, the more money you get from the pot. And since users of Safari will almost always find the answers they need within the service, leaving your book out means it won’t be found and used. Since at least some of the time Safari usage could lead to a sale of the book itself (even if not very often for most books), that discovery element is lost along with any Safari-generated revenue if the book isn’t included in the database. A publisher should feel pretty confident that they aren’t losing many sales being inside Safari.

(The model that looks like “all you want for a price” to the purchaser and like “pay per use” to the content owner in even purer form than Safari does it is the deal offered by Recorded Books for its digital downloading service for audiobooks to libraries. There are other subscription models in the library space; it is a distraction to the point of this post to get into them which is why they’re not covered here.)

O’Reilly saw at the beginning that their books alone wouldn’t be the strongest subscription offer so they were open to participation by others from the very beginning. Safari is exceptional in at least three ways: they are bigger than one publisher; they are built on a professional user base; and they deliver value primarily through chunks, not end-to-end reads.

But if a publisher is strong in a niche, a subscription service can work for them too: Baen Books (science fiction) and Harlequin (romance) are two niche publishers who have sold subscriptions successfully. (In fact, Harlequin recognizes sub-niches, further segmenting their audience for better subscription targeting.) The Osprey-owned sci-fi house, Angry Robot, offers subscriptions. eBooks by subscription are also part of the model for Dzanc, which does more literary books (fiction and non-fiction; they’re really less niche-y, except for “quality”) and it will be interesting if they can make the “quality” paradigm work the way “romance” and “science fiction” do.

Sourcebooks is a general trade publisher, but they have a robust romance list. They’re trying to establish a club and community called “Discover a New Love” which operates more like the old BOMC: subscribers can choose one of four featured titles each month in addition to getting other benefits from discounts on other books to early looks at some titles.

Subscriptions are offered in the children’s ebook area as well. Disney Digital Books has a monthly subscription service, as does Sesame Street eBooks. In both cases, the model is browser-based delivery rather than downloads.

F+W Media is a publisher that works across many verticals (niches). They had two big head starts. One is simply being vertical. They have audiences that are defined by their interest, which has been the key to making a subscription offer work in the book business. The other is that they were once publishers of magazines and operators of book clubs, so they have experience with direct customer contact and managing those relationships. They also had a lot of names. And F+W is managing subscription offerings for many things other than ebooks.

Most of F+W’s communities have been non-fiction (subject-specific) and they offer subscriptions for content in art, writing, and design. But they are also venturing into the romance market now and their Crimson Romance offer is an “all you can read” model. Baen introduces the wrinkle of releasing a novel in stages to subscribers, like a serial.

And we note in the recent reminder that the TED conferences started doing ebooks (sort of: only within an iOS app) that a subscription model is part of their thinking too. Once again: in a niche. The app that enables them to manage subscriptions is powered by The Atavist, which is another attempt to build a following for a publisher distinguishing itself by its content choices, like TED or Dzanc, rather than around already-established consumer clustering (romance, sci-fi, or a topic like writing or design.)

It is worth noting that there are “all you can eat” subscription offers and ones that are limited but which offer discounts on further purchases. That variation exists in other media too. Spotify is one price for everything; Audible and Netflix meter your use and you can pay more if you consume more.

There’s a pretty strong pattern here to the subscription offers we see.

They’re usually done by publishers. (Safari isn’t a publisher anymore, but it was started by publishers.) That means they’re working with the publishers’ margins (bigger than an aggregator’s margins). Controlling the product flow means they can make good use of intereaction with their audience, learning through data and conversation what they should be doing next. And, most important of all: from a product offer point-of-view, they’re focused.

They’re precisely the opposite of Spotify or Netflix or Audible who all want every single song, movie or TV show, or audiobook they can lay their hands on.

So, what about a more general model for ebooks?

It hasn’t happened yet and I don’t think it will anytime soon, despite the ambitions of my recent visitor. The challenges of putting together the title base for one are daunting and, as I hope this post makes clear, so is providing and demonstrating persuasive value.

I can see only one player that might be able to pull off a more general subscription offering in the near term. (You can guess who that is.) The “whys” of that will be the topic of a future post.

One thing that is pretty certain is that when there are many publishers offering subscriptions in their niches (and someday there will be), they’ll each be powered by a Cloud-based service of one kind or another. None will be asking the IT department to create the software to handle it.

I will admit that I haven’t programmed anything specific about “subscriptions” into the “Book Publishing in the Cloud” program we’re running on July 26, but if that’s what any attendee wants to find out, they’ll have a great opportunity at our “Conversations with an Expert” session to get the answers. Almost all of the speakers will be available during structured chat time, as well as representatives from the great companies that are sponsoring the event. 

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There’s no level playing field without agency pricing, and not in the way you think


In the 1990s, Bernie Rath was the head of the American Booksellers Association. (Bernie was not a popular man across the industry. Lawsuits about trading practices that troubled publishers really began with him.) He pushed the idea that publishers should stop printing prices on the books. Bernie’s logic was very simple. He pointed out that you paid more for a shirt or a couch if it was sold to you by a vendor in a high-rent location rather than one in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. He thought it was essential that the retailer be able to set prices so they could raise them if necessary to adjust to things like their rent. Otherwise, Bernie argued, books wouldn’t be sold in the best locations. Bernie thought the price having been printed on the book was what prevented the retailer from charging the “right” price for their sales venue.

My father (who always loved a rabble-rouser) was a friend of Bernie’s and saw merit in this argument. This was one time Dad and I didn’t agree, and I still think I am right on this.

In those pre-Amazon days, it was sometimes necessary for a publisher to sell a book directly to an end consumer. People who couldn’t find the book they wanted or a store that would order if for them (not uncommon for most of the 20th century) would, in desperation, contact the publisher. And the publisher would sell them the book. The publisher would sell at full retail price plus postage and handling. They didn’t seek that business; they didn’t actually want that business. But when it came their way, they extracted the maximum revenue from it. And in doing so, they kept stores from being unhappy with them because, after all, the customer would only buy at those prices from the publisher (and put up with the service issues dealing with a company that didn’t think much about individual consumers) if they felt they had no alternative.

The basis of my disagreement was equally simple. Whether or not it was printed on the book, there was, indeed, a publisher’s retail price. And anybody who wanted to find out what it was could do so by asking the publisher or ordering from them. That meant that any store routinely charging more than that would get found out. Even before Twitter, word could get around fast about something like that and it would create suspicion about every book in their store, including books they might be selling below publisher’s list. So, in fact, they couldn’t really charge more just because the publisher didn’t give them away with a printed price.

In addition, the publisher printing the price on the book benefited the store two ways. If the price was deemed high by the consumer, the printed price made it clear the retailer was not to blame. And if the retailer ate into his/her margin to sell it cheaper, the customer could see very clearly that the merchant had done the clientele a favor.

As we know, successful publishers unlearn old behavior very slowly. So it has taken some time for the big general houses to shed their prejudice against selling direct to end customers even though, in the digital age, it is actually essential that they do so.

Why?

Because the business of publishing digital books delivered online is entirely different than the business of publishing printed books sold through intermediaries. This was not instinctively understood by most publishers, particularly by big horizontal (not subject- or audience-focused) publishers.

But by now every publisher has learned that they have to gather names for direct customer contact. When Markus Dohle, Random House’s CEO, told me that Random House had to become an effective B2C marketer two years ago, it was a visionary statement. Now it is a common understanding.

One Big Six house told us last week that they had something over 6 million email addresses they had permission to mail to right now. And they get very decent open rates and very tiny unsubscribes. That’s not enough of a customer base to live without intermediaries, but it is a healthy start.

When you’re selling digital downloads, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be emailing with people and not executing the transactions and satisfying the demand you’re creating. And, not incidentally, pocketing more than 40% more margin.

Of course, there are vertical publishers (like Harlequin and Ellora’s Cave and Baen Books in fiction, F+W Media in various enthusiast segments) which have already built strong direct selling operations. The key to that for them is the consistency of their offering which enables creating a community. And Harlequin and Ellora’s Cave and Baen all had direct ebook customer bases before Amazon even got started with ebooks in a big way.

The Big Six and other large publishers didn’t have that head start. They’ll be trying to begin now, building on name gathering they’ve done mostly over the past two or three years.

So selling individual titles one by one, which is what Amazon does (mostly) and which the publishers would like to be able to do as they build audiences, is a doomed exercise if the price in the marketplace isn’t fixed for that kind for that kind of transaction. If the publisher sells at the full price they’ve established, Amazon will use their power to control price to undercut the publisher and make them look foolish to their audience. If the publisher discounts, Amazon can always discount more.

But if the publisher discounts, they face another problem. Amazon (and every other retailer) would say, with ample justification, “the retail price my discount and margin should be based on is the price you sell it for.” If “publisher’s retail price” means anything, it must mean that! Just like when publishers didn’t sell direct in the all-print world before online happened, the price the publisher says is the retail price is what intermediaries would expect to see them sell the book for.

There are ways around this. A publisher can create content they don’t put into general circulation that is available only directly from them. A publisher can perhaps sell a DRM-free version of a book exclusively from its own site. The agency agreements as Apple apparently wanted them (because, without actually having seen one, it is how I understand them to be) are very inflexible in terms of allowing promotions, so bundling and even subscription programs can be difficult under today’s contracts with agency-priced books.

But if the publisher can’t control the price of the book across resellers, then there is ultimately only one general publisher that will be able to sell direct, and that’s the one with enough names in its database to live without any other resellers.

We’d have rules that set it up so that Amazon can disintermediate the publishers, but the publishers can’t disintermediate them.

If that were the principal outcome of the Department of Justice’s action, it would certainly qualify as “highly ironic”.

I’ll write soon about the great show we have coming up at Publishers Launch BEA on June 4. I also look forward to speaking at the Book Summit at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on Thursday, June 21. Their overall topic is about “discovery in the age of abundance” but I’m likely to mix other topics into my talk, including the one that is in this post. I am also speaking at George Washington University’s “Ethics and Publishing Conference” on July 9 (no link available yet). Since they’re interested in the litigation around agency, the topic of this post is likely to arise there as well.

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One takeaway from Digital Book World that is not to be missed


I think just about everybody has fun at Digital Book World, but it is hard to have more fun there than I do. It’s damn near a year of work coming together over a couple of days with dozens of smart speakers making me personally look good for putting them on the program. So they work hard and satisfy the audience and I get congratulated. What could be better (for me) than that?

(OK, I did do a little bit of work. Besides emceeing the show and co-hosting the final panel, I delivered opening remarks trying to set the stage.)

There were a lot of great takeaways this year. Perhaps the biggest news was the final presentation before the wrap-up panel Michael Cader and I hosted. That was by Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of Anobii, a UK-based ebook retailer that has substantial investment from Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins. Matteo didn’t exactly “call for the end” of DRM, but he certainly described a better world without it. And the main point he made was, “I want to sell to Kindle customers and the only way I can do that is if we get rid of DRM.” The combination of the message and the messenger made this the most newsworthy presentation of the show, I thought.

But the factoid that most grabbed me was delivered on the previous day as part of the data developed by AllRomanceebooks.com about the romance readers market. Very superficially, the point being made was also about DRM, but that’s actually a distraction. There was a much larger point buried within.

All Romance is a specialized ebook retailer. To serve the romance reader community more effectively, they’ve built out the BISAC taxonomy for romance, adding more categories. And they’ve added a metadata element called “flames” which basically measure the frequency and explicitness of the sex scenes in any particular book.

The romance world, particularly among the cognescenti in it, is a very anti-DRM environment. And an outfit like All Romance, which has no “device lock-in” working for them — essentially everything they sell gets “side-loaded” somehow, and DRM can often make that more challenging — is right in step with their community sentiment. So the survey contained questions trying to get at the audience attitude about DRM.

There were two relevant stats that I recall. One is that only about 20% of even All Romance’s readers really resist books with DRM. That is to say: 80% don’t. But the factoid that grabbed me is that 96% (that’s not a typo: ninety-six percent) of the ebooks they sell do not have DRM.

All Romance also reports that 91% of the titles they have available are protected by DRM. That makes sense, since all the titles from all the Big Six publishers and all the titles from Harlequin except those from their new digital-first imprint, Carina, have DRM.

What this means is that the nine percent of All Romance’s offerings that do not have DRM are selling 96% of their units overall. And since only 20% of their customers find DRM as a strong deterrent to sales, that means those fledglings are outselling all the majors for other reasons.

This provokes two very important lines of inquiry to me, and neither of them have anything to do with DRM.

The first one would be top of mind to me if I were a major publisher. What are these books that are selling like hotcakes? Why are these books selling like hotcakes? Why can’t we publish these books that are selling like hotcakes?

It is a virtual certainty that a lot more romance ebooks are sold through the “traditional” channels like the Kindle and Nook and Kobo stores than through All Romance. But they have a market big enough to get 6,000 respondants to a survey in a couple of weeks so they’re definitely serving a big clientele. They’ve obviously aggregated an audience that is buying a lot of books that major publishers are missing. Some of this is due to price, undoubtedly, since the All Romance stats also showed robust sales at price points below where the majors are usually most comfortable. Some of it could be attributed to a raunchier title selection being compiled by the smaller upstart title selection (remember All Romance’s “flame” ratings.) Some of it might be loyalty to authors who could be signed up by majors with the right offers.

But if 24 out of every 25 books being sold by a pretty damn big specialist retailer to the biggest ebook genre that I competed in were outside of my immediate competitive set (which, for the Big Six, is basically each other and Harlequin), I’d want to know more about the details of that. And I’d also be asking All Romance what I could do to get more sales from their audience. I have a feeling they’d say that better metadata, more sex (within the pages of the books, that is), and lower prices are all more important than stripping off the DRM, but it’s s conversation the big publishers should be having with them.

The second question that the data provokes to me is whether this phenomenon — all these successful books outside the purview of the major houses — is a unique characteristic of romance books. I don’t know if there’s an All Mystery ebooks vendor or an All Thrillers ebook vendor or even an All Sci-Fi ebook vendor (I’ll bet we’ll find out from our comment string after this is posted!!!) but, if there is, it would be interesting to find out if this is true there too.

These are the immediate questions All Romance’s appearance put in the front of my mind. I think they show another aspect of verticalization. As a vertical retailer, they invent new metadata elements that really help them merchandise to their audience. What that suggests is an opportunity for an All History or All Politics retailer as well; enhancing metadata might be even more valuable for non-fiction subjects than it is for specialized fiction.

There was an article about Amazon by Brad Stone in this week’s issue of Bloomberg Business Week in which I was quoted about Larry Kirshbaum, the former head of Time Warner Book Group (now Hachette) and currently the head of a new Amazon imprint whose mission it is to recruit mainstream authors to be published by the retailer. Many of Larry’s former colleagues and counterparts at big publishers take this decision of his to join Amazon extremely personally and it is reflected in what they say they now feel about Larry himself. That was reflected in my quote which says that Larry “has gone from one of the most well-liked people in publishing to the one of the most reviled.”

I want to make clear that I was not expressing my personal opinion. I still very much like Larry Kirshbaum and I’m a bit embarrassed to be quoted (even accurately) characterizing the feeling about him in these terms. The people running big NY houses see Amazon as a bare-knuckled competitor. With their responsibility for the continued success and viability of their own enterprises and the threat Amazon poses in that regard, contentiousness is built into the interaction and competition between Amazon and the big publishers. I believe my quote accurately reflected the degree to which that is transferred to personal feelings, even for somebody whom so many people have known and liked for years. Although I well understand the feelings my quote described, this is one case where I wish I hadn’t been so candid.

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Can big publishers compete if the coin of the realm is “names”?


In a conversation earlier this week I learned that the big Hollywood talent agencies have come to the recognition that “audience aggregation”, a component of what I have been calling a “vertical” strategy, needs to be incorporated into their thinking going forward. This was signaled very strongly recently when longtime publisher Steve Ross took his fledgling business offering self-publishing advice to authors with him to the Abrams Artists Agency where he set up a new department for them to represent authors rights to publishers.

What does that mean? It means that the celebrities will start increasingly try to “own” their audiences: to gather them in networks, bind them with various content offers like newsletters or other material from the person they “know”, and sell them stuff. The people managing the careers of movie stars are seeing the writing on the wall. The intermediary structure that connected the stars to their public — studios, producers, theatrical distribution — is suffering the pain of all media: declining prices for content because of the increase in supply and consumption habits changing because of more and more quality screens and digital delivery.

Many authors, of course, are trying to do the same thing. They have web pages; they collect the names of those who want to keep in touch with them; and they are, increasingly, selling them stuff. Sometimes the stuff is content (with a way blazed by Joe Konrath and his successful conversion from published author to self-publishing author, so far almost exclusively through Amazon) and now, thanks to Open Sky, they could be selling anything at all.

So the authors and the movie stars are getting ready for the day when they have to bring real live customer contact to the party if they want to be invited. But the big publishers are lagging behind here. Why? One reason is that the big accounts appear to have intimidated them from selling direct to consumers.

This is the kind of thing you don’t know for sure from the outside. Conversations between publishers and their top accounts, like conversations between publishers and the agents for their top authors, are private and closely guarded. But it has been anecdotally reported in the past that Barnes & Noble is not happy if publishers sell to consumers. And I’ve also heard that Amazon has told publishers that if they charge any price lower than the suggested retail in a direct sale, Amazon will consider that lower price to be the basis of their discounts, not the suggested retail.

That threat effectively prevents any publisher from selling direct unless they operate on the agency model and have eliminated price competition in the marketplace. (Of course, under the agency model, all sales are considered sales by the publisher, except, of course, that they don’t have the names or the customer relationship!)

In a business that is built on the leverage of intermediary trading partners who aggregate customers, which trade publishing is, very few are in a position to gratuitously annoy the two most powerful levers they have.

So the publishers have been reluctant to be seen to be selling direct. This concern also applies, for the same reason, to the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Both depend on bookstore business for their survival and it is, perhaps, an enlightened position not to compete with their core customers so neither company sells directly. But it is very constraining. Baker & Taylor really needs a full-line store to sell their BLIO ebook platform, but they can’t do it themselves. And Ingram — our client but we have not discussed this question with them at all — serves publisher clients as a DAD and as an ebook wholesaler who could use a retailing capability; but it is a very longstanding Ingram policy not to compete with their bookseller customers.

That’s the context in which LibreDigital announced their new SkyShelf service last week. SkyShelf is a direct-to-consumer ebook sales capability for the publishers LibreDigital serves as a digital distributor, but it gives them a certain amount of “deniability” or distance from it.

In my opinion, the big publishers must face some very critical questions fraught with customer relationship management challenges.

On the one hand, publishers — all publishers — must start forming direct relationships with end users. They have no choice. Authors are doing it. The retailers are doing it. The Hollywood stars and politicians and ballplayers they want to write books for them are doing it. Part of what the publisher wants to get paid for is marketing. When the most important marketing asset for any book is the number of likely-interested people who can be emailed about its publication, publishers without any names to offer will have a harder time selling their value.

Publishers who do have names on file — from Digital Book World owners F+W Media to Hay House to Harlequin and including others that grow in number every day — are already benefiting. They’re selling more copies expending less marketing money and they’ve got something important to offer authors looking for a publisher.

But it is hard to collect names and build a relationship with an audience if you don’t sell things to them. That’s one place that big publishers are really stuck at the moment. That’s why LibreDigital built SkyShelf to help them out. At the same time they put their competitor Ingram in a ticklish spot because it is hard for them to offer a similar service for the same reason that publishers need the help!

At the same time, the big retailers are pushing their way up the value chain into the publishers’ territory. Amazon has had self-publishing capability that is aimed at authors for a long time. Barnes & Noble invested in iUniverse, one of the first self-publishing start-ups (now part of Author Solutions), over a decade ago. Now B&N has delivered a suite of services called “PubIt” to compete with Amazon’s offering for authors.

Amazon has such a large share of the online print and ebook businesses that, with the publisher disintermediated and the author able to take a much larger share, they can credibly make the argument that a branded author — or one that otherwise does her own promotion and marketing — can make as much money through them alone as through a publisher serving the entire market.

It is more difficult and expensive for Barnes & Noble to leverage their store shelves for self-published authors but, to the extent they can, it will be a very attractive lure. I’d be very surprised if they’re not thinking about how to do that. Borders did a deal with self-publisher Lulu a couple of years and a couple of management changes ago. How long will it be before they revitalize that arrangement and add more competition for the authors’ attention?

The names of people potentially interested in a book who can be contacted for free will be the most important coin of the publishing realm in a short time; in some cases, it is already. There are publishers who are emailing to millions of names every month right now, but none of them are the biggest publishers. If gathering names is not a major priority at any publishing house, it surely should be. It’s mission-critical; it’s about survival. Seen in that light, it must certainly be worth some tough negotiating with major accounts if that’s what publishers have to do to make it happen.

This post was provoked by new information, about what the Hollywood agents are doing and about the launch of SkyShelf. But we’ve been pounding this drum of direct contact for some time. We did a pair of posts (here and here) with the help of direct response expert Neal Goff a few weeks ago trying to push publishers in this same direction. Those posts were about how. This one is about why.

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Publishers, brands, and the change to b2c


I’ve been in the book business for a long time, more than 48 years since my first job on the sales floor of Brentano’s bookstore. For over 37 years it has been my fulltime occupation. My father started his career in books just before I was born, so I have been meeting publishing people more or less since I was in the cradle. And it isn’t that big a business. So, over the years, I’ve gotten to know many people in the industry.

But I hadn’t met Markus Dohle, the relatively new CEO of Random House, until we had lunch last month. He proved to be a very sharp, informal, and relaxed companion, very open with his opinions and observations and very straightforward. And since his prior experience was outside trade publishing (the reason I’d never previously met him), he brings a completely fresh personal perspective to the business.

One thing Markus said really struck me because I agree with it so wholeheartedly and because I hadn’t ever heard it said so explicitly by any of his counterparts. “We have to change from being a b2b company to b2c over the coming years,” he said. He expanded on this when I asked him whether I could attribute the quote for this piece. (I don’t want to disappoint my readers, but I make a living as a consultant, not a blogger, and my career would be crippled if I couldn’t have a conversation with an executive without a looming fear that whatever s/he said would end up in print. If some readers wonder why the sources of some comments remain anonymous, that’s your answer.)

Markus replied that he was fine being quoted because he was “convinced that publishers have to become more reader oriented in a marketing and trend finding/setting way rather than in a direct to consumer selling way.” I welcome the clarification and believe it is right in its emphasis on marketing over sales even though I think that sales, inevitably, becomes part of what a publisher has to do too. And direct contact with and tracking of individual consumers both seem absolutely essential.

(The politics of this are worth a digression to spell out. For several more years at least, big trade publishers will continue to depend primarily on a retail network to reach readers. Despite the fact that all the big retailers, in their way, compete with publishers to control content at its source, they are universally resentful if publishers compete with them to serve consumers. On the other hand, it is increasingly apparent that the retail network is reducing its size and scope and, unless publishers develop alternate channels to consumers, they’ll be reduced in size and scope as well.)

Although Markus was the first CEO whom I ever heard say explicitly that the shift to b2c was in any way a priority, there is evidence in other houses that the importance of direct consumer contact is on the radar. A senior digital officer at another large house is directing a wide-scale effort to organize their consumer contact names — which he found, as he would have in every other house — to be scattered, unorganized, and largely unusable. Pulling names together is one of a number of “first steps” the big publishers must take to act on Markus’s insight.

But there are other “first steps” that are just as important as rationalizing the contact database for consumers. Two of them are related. One is being committing to owning specific groups (or, in the current parlance: communities) of interest. This is what I refer to as “verticalization” and I have written and spoken about it exhaustively. But the commitment to verticalization, in order to be captured and turned into real equity going forward, must be expressed in branding.

The names of publishing houses and the imprints they create are their brands today. (Authors are brands for consumer marketing purposes, but publishers don’t own those brands: the authors do.) What publishers own really do work in a b2b context. Bookstore buyers, book review editors, and collection developers at libraries can discern meaning from company names and imprints. They work the way brands are supposed to work: as shortcuts to establish expectations. Brand tells an informed buyer to expect high-quality writing in a Knopf book and high-quality reproductions in an Abrams book. Brands will also signal them, before they see a finished package, whether a book is likely to feel overpriced or underpriced, and whether the publisher’s claims for promotion and media are likely to be fulfilled.

But most of these brands mean nothing to consumers. And mere knowledge of a brand doesn’t necessarily tell you what to expect if you buy it. Nor would knowledge necessarily provide you with a motivation to get “closer” to it.

The one consumer brand in publishing that means the most and provides the most equity to its owner is Harlequin. Consumers recognize it and have understandings about quality and price based on it. But because they also know that the Harlequin name means the “romance” genre, and because many romance readers buy and consume dozens, even hundreds, of titles in the genre every year, they have logical reasons to visit Harlequin’s web site repeatedly and to request and open email reminders of new publications from them.

In fact, Harlequin’s brand is so clear and so powerful that they can get people to subscribe to their books. When you think about alternative revenue sources, that might be the Holy Grail. It will certainly help publishers stay on the right track if they focus on creating brands and clusters of books around them that could conceivably deliver customers for a subscription proposition.

The Penguin brand is perhaps equally well-known, but it isn’t nearly as well defined. Penguin Classics certainly have a collective meaning, but many books are published under the Penguin imprint that aren’t classics. And while it is likely that sometimes the purchasing choice between one edition of Robinson Crusoe or Hamlet and another might be influenced by familiarity with the imprint, it is not clear that the “quality” signal is important there (because, after all, the words were set down long before Penguin or its competitors existed) as it is for a new romance novel. And it certainly would be harder for Penguin to attract regular web traffic with its brand or to make sales through an email list of brand adherents.

A brand that is in between these two is “Dummies.” It definitely creates a meaningful shortcut for a consumer; they recognize it and it tells them “this book explains the basics on the subject in a way that requires you to bring almost no knowledge to it for it to be useful.” But because Dummies covers many subjects under the sun, it would be difficult to make use of it for audience-gathering or direct marketing the way Harlequin is employed.

You wouldn’t “subscribe” to new offerings, sight unseen, from either Penguin or Dummies. That means that, in at least one very important way, those brands aren’t as useful as Harlequin. Why? They’re too broad. General Motors wouldn’t ever have sold nearly as many cars if they called all the cars “GMs” to create a megabrand and had lost the distinction between Chevrolet and Cadillac. Trying to create “one big brand” if it captures unrelated content or unrelated audiences could be “one big mistake.”

My own theory is that publishers have to completely re-think their imprints in light of the need to move from b2b to b2c. Imprints at big houses are almost always silos with no discernible b2c meaning. In fact, the names of smaller houses, because smaller houses tend to focus on subject areas, can more readily have meaning to consumers.

In fact, Random House just faced a branding question of exactly this nature and got it right. They had acquired a smaller, subject-dedicated company, Watson Guptill, a couple of years ago and had some overlap between what WG published and what Random House already did within their Clarkson Potter imprint. RH executives engineered a solution by which they preserved the venerable Watson Guptill name for “hardworking” instructional books on art and photography —  WG’s strongest historical categories — and made made Potter Crafts a subimprint of WG. They invested in building the crafts list to triple the previous output of WG. The two thirds to three quarters of the WG list that is not crafts will still be WG imprint books. By making Potter Crafts, which they owned before, a part of Watson Guptill (joining Amphoto, the well-known photo line, and WG’s other subimprints), they might get the best of all branding worlds.

And it is further worth noting that tripling down on title output to become a serious player in a niche is probably a move very few Big Six companies would be making these days, but it is necessary to think that way if you’re serious about making substantial b2c marketing efforts. Building a subscription business would almost certainly imply a growth in title output in any vertical.

Random House’s clarity on how publishers should structure brands to have content-specific meaning is still unusual. (There are other examples: Hachette’s invention of “Springboard”, a brand to do books for baby boomers, is a nod in the same direction.) Publishing Perspectives, the thoughtful online publication operated by the Frankfurt Book Fair, offered a piece on the subject six months ago that was locked into what is still publishing’s more normal b2b way of thinking. The catalyst for the post you are now reading, actually, was their editor Ed Nowatka’s piece with the provocative headline asking “Does a Publisher’s Brand Equity Translate to the Digital Age?” which (with all due respect, of which I have plenty, to Ed) I thought really didn’t address the question. But at least he asked it. I don’t recall ever reading a single piece on the subject of this one: how do what have always been b2b publishers create b2c brands?

In fact, Random House just faced a branding question of exactly this nature and got it exactly right. They had acquired a smaller, subject-dedicated company, Watson Guptill, a couple of years ago and had some overlap between what WG published and what Random House already did within their Clarkson Potter imprint. RH executives engineered a solution by which they preserved the venerable Watson Guptill name for “hardworking” instructional books on art and photography —  WG’s strongest historical categories — and made made Potter Crafts a subimprint of WG. They invested in building the crafts list to triple the previous output of WG. The two thirds to three quarters of the WG list that is not crafts will be WG imprint books. By making Potter Crafts, which they owned before, a part of Watson Guptill (joining Amphoto, the well-known photo line, and WG’s other subimprints), they are making an attempt to get the best of all branding worlds.
Random House’s clarity on how publishers should structure brands to have content-specific meaning is still unusual. (There are other examples: Hachette’s invention of “Springboard”, a brand to do books for baby boomers, is a nod in the same direction.) Publishing Perspectives, the thoughtful online publication operated by the Frankfurt Book Fair, offered a piece on the subject six months ago that was locked into what is still publishing’s more normal b2b way of thinking. The catalyst for the post you are now reading, actually, was their editor Ed Nowatka’s piece with the provocative headline asking “Does a Publisher’s Brand Equity Translate to the Digital Age?” which (with all due respect, of which I have plenty, to Ed) I thought really didn’t address the question.

This is a subject that has been on my mind for a long time. I wrote a post 18 months ago about an imprint started at another house that I considered to be, similarly, the product of the same b2b thinking that characterizes the Publishing Perspectives piece. And about a year ago, I stressed the importance for publishers of building b2c brands going forward.

I believe Markus’s insight is the necessary first step that others haven’t yet taken and, whether or not it started with Markus, the awareness of the need for consumer focus certainly helped Random House make sensible decisions to exploit the brand equity in the WG name they had acquired. Once publishers accept that being consumer-focused is essential to their long-term survival, it follows logically (although not automatically or instantaneously) that they need to think about discrete audiences on more than a book-by-book basis; that they need to gather those audiences on web sites and in mailing lists; that they need to publish books that satisfy them repeatedly, not occasionally; and that all these efforts will make more sense if each separate audience has a brand facing them with real meaning. We’re seeing that from the big publishers right now in genres; they are trying to build science fiction and romance communities and branding them. Random House built a vertical in travel earlier in the decade, developing business models out of a critical mass of content that went beyond simply selling books. That, and the efforts at Random and other big houses to build communities around genres, is a start. But a lot more development of this kind is going to be needed to replace the marketing clout being lost as the old channels to consumers wither in the months and years to come.

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A roadmap for the future: 6 suggestions for today’s publishers that many can’t follow


I had occasion during this past week to speak at the global strategic meeting of Harlequin. Often when I am asked to speak, even internally to publishers, I am explicit told “we want you to scare the hell out of them.” Since I think of myself as a pretty unthreatening guy, I’m always a bit disconcerted by the reality that I’m doing that. But, of course, my core message is not very comforting to most people in the legacy publishing business. (And, I hasten to say, Harlequin never made that suggestion, nor, as this post should make clear, is it really relevant in their case.)

The message is scary for most because the essence of what I’m saying is that publishers over the next decade or two will have to change the way they think about how they deliver value. Their core asset base will shift from being the intellectual property they own or develop to the audiences they command. Publishers with vertical content offerings have a big head start to making that adjustment and general trade publishers hardly know what to make of the message at all.

I think my argument is pretty simple. It has two principal components.

I posit that the price of content must go down because of the laws of supply and demand. Even though digital delivery does actually increase “demand” (because people can consume more media if they have the means to do so always at hand), it increases supply much more. You used to need a publisher to spend some money and to commit an organization to get content into “supply”. Now you just need an internet connection. So I see downward pressure on the selling price of content going far into the future. This does not mean that eventually all content will be free, but it does mean that everybody will consume more and more free content and, therefore, be generally less willing to pay money for content to augment what is free.

The second component of my argument is that audiences for content will be (mostly)  aligned around interests. I call that “vertical”. The most successful legacy consumer media, including all of the biggest book publishers, tried to satisfy a wide range of interests, which I call “horizontal”.

I put those two things together and I say that getting from today (selling content) to tomorrow (selling audiences) depends on using today’s asset to build tomorrow’s. This might sound like something close to insanity if you’re Random House or Simon & Schuster or Penguin. It can make a lot of sense to you if you’re F+W Media or Hay House or Chelsea Green or Cool Springs Press. It seemed to make total sense to the people at Harlequin.

To prepare for the Harlequin conversation, I made a list of “most important things to think about” for them going forward. Here it is. If you’re really a vertical publisher, it should be a useful road map. To the extent that makes no sense at all, it indicates that your company is locked into competition for a pool of revenue and sales opportunity that will shrink, slowly for a while, but only for a while.

1. Use content as bait. When you make the leap that the eyeballs you own are the key to future monetization, not the copyrights you own, then you readily see the value of exploiting the content to attract eyeballs. This means many different things in different contexts, and, of course, the content-selling model still provides most of the cash and will for quite a while, but this is a key principle to apply. The free and freemium strategies you use will be different if your objective is to build a loyal community than if  you have the more immediate objective of selling something on the back of the giveaway.

2. Be sensitive to low-overhead competition and be prepared to imitate their new models. We’re heading for the day — actually we’re already in it — when it won’t take a big organization to reach a lot of book readers. (We’ll be transacting half our book purchases online in the next couple of years.) When companies smaller than yours are offering cheaper products with different delivery models — subscription, print-on-demand, whatever — watch them closely and try what they’re doing so you understand it. (Of course, Harlequin was already very much onto this idea. They just launched their own low-price imprint, Carina Press.)

3. Grow! Acquire competitors, or coopt them. Once you’ve defined the audiences you are going after, you have defined the way in which you will seek “scale”. If somebody else is going for the same audience you are, you want first to hope they don’t see it as an audience-acquisition play (and most publishers don’t yet.) While you’re fortunate enough to have competitors who are still focused primarily on monetizing IP, they’ll want to work with you if you have access to an audience that might buy their IP. Then you can use their content as bait to attract eyeballs for your community.

4. Find multiple ways to engage your audience. For community-building, it is not nearly sufficient to deliver product offers online. You have to figure out ways to make your community come to you; you have to figure out ways that members of the community can create value for each other. A key metric for you is how frequently you touch each member of your audience (or, even better, how frequently they touch you). The number of people absolutely guaranteed to open an email you send them will be an important measure of the health of your asset base.

5. Sell everybody else’s ebooks (the recent F+W and Ingram proposition). Almost nobody in your community gives a damn about which books are yours and which are somebody else’s. They want entertainment or information or to solve a problem; if you’re serving them as a community you don’t win by cutting them off from what they want because somebody else published it. A complete (but curated) ebook offering is a first step in the right direction. Ultimately, of course, you want to offer all the print books and all the other “stuff” that is relevant to the community, information-based or just plain products. That’s part of your monetization potential.

6. Build multiple brands with meaning. There are a very small number of companies whose name itself has true consumer meaning as a brand. (In fact, Harlequin is the leading one.) But if you can appeal to a community, you have an oppotunity to build a brand. Brands are shortcuts for consumers; they orient us as to what to expect in products or services, including social cred, quality, and  price. For as long as we have robust print delivery (and I think that might be as little as another five years), we have an opportunity to deliver URLs to people offline. That’s not as “efficient” as delivering them online (where the recipient can immediately click through) but it offers the chance to reach a lot of people who might not be online explorers. (I don’t want to give away Harlequin’s trade secrets here, but I was taken aback to hear how many senior citizens are in their audience; people who might well not be available to be pinged online.) But don’t use a book to push people to promote a generic web site where they’ll arrive and say “why am I here?” Deliver them to something relevant, something that will entice them to come back; a site you can, in good faith, urge the reader of a book to visit with the expectation that it will extend the engagement between you and your reader, to your mutual benefit.

When I deliver this message to the general trade community: publishers, authors, agents, retailers, the reaction is often a blank stare. That’s understandable; getting from a horizontal trade publisher to becoming one that “owns audiences” is a long and winding road. It is a totally rational decision to say, “that’s not the business I’m in; I’ll stick with what I’m doing until I’m the last one standing.” But there were no blank stares from the people at Harlequin. They know they have a large and loyal audience that cares about their brand. Even if the game changes from IP to eyeballs, they can readily see how they can still play.

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