Books as brands and the opportunities to sell book-branded merchandise

There’s a lot in this post that anticipates conversations we will have at Digital Book World 2016, coming up March 7-9 at the New York Hilton. “Transformation” will be an important theme at that event and nothing says “transformation” more than revenue sources you didn’t used to have.

It was really 20 years ago that it first occurred to me that “content marketing” would, at least in part, replace “marketing content”. Or at least partly replace selling content. As the world progressed, so did my understanding of how this would play out, and I saw that publishing would increasingly be done by entities extending their brand or their audience reach. I called that the “atomization” of publishing and have written about it for a few years.

But the way it worked out, thanks to an Amazon far more powerful than I envisaged in the 1990s, is that publishers don’t actually sell their content direct to consumers very often. Their primary job — their primary responsibility to the authors they sign up — is to get the content sold by whatever means possible. Publishers have mostly learned that trying to take sales away from Amazon to make them directly costs far more in lost sales than it gains in even ostensibly improved margin. (And, in fact, the margin does not improve most of the time even if the share retained of the selling cost rises, because the cost of serving customers exceeds the cost of having Amazon do it for you.)

So an idea that briefly seemed right to me in the 1990s — that publishers would use their content as a springboard to market other things — never materialized. And what’s happened is mostly the other way around: people who sell other things are creating content, sometimes competing with publishers, to bring in customers for their primary products.

The world that I envisioned back then has played out somewhat in vertical publishing. F+W has been building on its book and magazine audiences to sell other things, including live events, for nearly a decade. Rodale will be launching online courses this month. They also do “summits”, which are several days long, built around the authority of a book and author, and which are free events out of which products are created from the content that attendees can purchase.

The general trade publishers are trying some of this too. Macmillan has sold mugs and t-shirts through Tor.com and other sites it controls that did “fairly well, but nothing earthshattering”.

HarperCollins has been a bit more aggressive. A scale email channel – their Bookperk bargain newsletter (which was just grown by acquisition last week) – allows them to effectively promote all sorts of things, from e-book bargains to discounts on print front list to event tickets to just fun things, like a chance to win Notorious RBG temporary tattoos. Combining some of that, they have done two virtual pop-up stores – one for Father’s Day and one last Christmas – where they sold signed editions and non-books like Roxane Gay “Bad Feminist” t-shirts and Agatha Christie tote bags.

But the publishers mostly have the limitation we pointed out at the top that cramps their ability to sell non-book items: they don’t actually sell very many books or ebooks themselves either. So their content marketing efforts are not routinely building toward a transactional relationship with the audiences they touch. That means that “upsells” are not about “putting another item in the shopping cart”. They’re about getting a customer to use a shopping cart with them for perhaps the first time. That’s much harder.

The full potential to sell “other stuff” is now being demonstrated through the “custom book” play from Sourcebooks called “Put Me in the Story”. There are other personalized books — like those offered by Quarto (This Is Your Cookbook), Chronicle (“I See Me” children’s books, which are custom books based on Chronicle titles), or the global sensation for kids called “Lost My Name”. But PMITS is different because it works with highly-established children’s book brands and delivers personalized versions of them. So PMITS sees itself from the git-go as a brand enhancement and extension, making a new revenue stream available for the publishers (and authors and illustrators) of the books they build on.

Like the other personalized book creators, PMITS does have a shopping cart; they do have a transactional relationship with their customers.

So when they look at non-book gift products, the book again is central, as it is for their core offer. Like with the book, there’s a royalty payment tied for non-book product that’s directly derived from books and it’s another whole new revenue stream for many authors and illustrators. From Sourcebooks’ perspective, this is what they were trying to do from the beginning. The personalized books add a revenue stream, and now personalized gifts add another revenue stream. (Chronicle also sells chotchkes like stuffed animals that “go with the books” but they are not evidently deeply into doing branded chotchkes, creating extra value for commodity items around the book’s fame.)

Put Me in the Story uses the book’s brand as the key asset distinguishing their non-book products to create companion gifts.

For example, they used the artwork from their own bestselling “I Love You So” Marianne Richmond book to create personalized gifts including puzzles, wall art and placemats. They’re now beginning to expand their offerings to include many other product types including nightlights, backpacks and ornaments (that last actually in beta just in the last two weeks). Last month, they had a bestseller with a Halloween Scare book and its corresponding Trick or Treat bag.

Selling stuff beyond the books themselves has been on the PMITS road map all along and was launched in a “beta” mode a year ago for holiday season 2014. They’re now working to scale it with new content partners and merchandise so they can create some unique gift bundles with books as the foundation.

The customization capability inherent in PMITS is not actually the most important piece that enables them to sell non-book chotchkes. The requirements are the direct customer relationship with the reader and the licensing relationship with the owner of the book. Sourcebooks has created both with Put Me In the Story. Any publisher with a strong ecommerce business would have the pieces in hand for their own books (as Chronicle is now demonstrating). One could see the value and the opportunity here for a big book retailer, but the effort required to create the licensing relationships necessary would be substantial. (Of course, a big book retailer that owned its own content would have an advantage here. And we can think of one…)

An important principle is being established here. A book creates a brand. There are many things people want — beer mugs and scarves and t-shirts among them — that have greater consumer value if they are branded. Put Me In the Story has made that abundantly clear.

Note that Digital Book World, the biggest global discussion of how digital is changing the publishing business, has moved from the January slot it occupied for its first six years to March 7-9, 2016 at the New York Hilton. In addition to the “transformation” theme, this year we have a strong focus on the tech companies that are affecting publishing’s world. How do Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google strategies and initiatives affect publishers and authors? Our program is loaded with experts on that. 

Digital change may have seemed to slow down, but Digital Book World is still covering aspects of it that none of us know well enough yet. You’ll want to be there. The first Early Bird deadline expires at the end of the day on Monday, November 9. To get your best price, sign up through Publishers Marketplace by then.


What Oyster going down demonstrates is not mostly about the viability of ebook subscriptions

The news that the general ebook subscription offering Oyster is throwing in the towel was not really a surprise. The business model they were forced to adopt for the biggest publishers — paying full price for each use of a book with a threshold trigger at considerably less than a complete read while, at the same time, offering consumers a monthly subscription price that barely covered the sale of one book, let alone two — was inevitably unprofitable. Their only hope was that they’d build a large enough audience fast enough that publishers would become in some way dependent on it (if not the revenue it produced) and agree to different terms.

It would be a mistake to interpret Oyster’s demise as clear evidence that “subscriptions for ebooks don’t work”. Obviously, they can. Safari has been a successful and profitable business for nearly two decades. The Spain-based 24Symbols has been operating an ebook subscription business, mostly outside the US and mostly not in English, for too many years to be running exclusively on spec VC money. Scribd has very publicly (and a bit clumsily, in my opinion) adjusted their subscription business model to accommodate what were unprofitable segments in romance ebooks and audiobooks, but the inference would be that for other segments the business model is working just fine. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which is sui generis because they control so many of the parts, including deciding more or less unilaterally how much they’ll pay for much of the content.

What seemed obvious to many of us from the beginning, though, was that a stand-alone subscription offer for general trade books could not possibly work in the current commercial environment. The Big Five publishers control the lion’s share of the commercial books that any general service would need. All of those publishers operate on “agency” terms, which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a subscription service to pull those books in unless the publisher allows it. The terms that the publishers would participate in the subscriptions required, which were, apparently, full payment for the book after a token amount was “read” by a subscriber, combined with a limited number of titles offered (no frontlist), made the subscription offer inherently unprofitable.

The publishers see the general subscription offers as risky business for books that are currently selling well a la carte. Not only would they threaten those sales, they threaten to convert readers from a la carte buying to going through the subscription service. To publishers, this just looked like another potential Amazon: an intermediary that would control reader eyeballs and have increasing clout to rewrite the terms of sale.

So they only participated in a limited way. Penguin Random House (the biggest, and in shouting distance of half of the most commercial books all by themselves) and Hachette Book Group did not even experiment with the non-Amazon subscriptions. HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, and to a lesser extent Macmillan, participate in a limited way. Multiple motivations drove the participation that did take place. The primary goad, probably, was to simply oppose Amazon. Having customers nested anyplace except the behemoth in Seattle can look like a good idea to most publishers. But another was to collect at least some of that VC money poured into an unlikely-to-work business model before it was exhausted. And because the publishers got to decide which books to include, they could choose backlist titles that weren’t generating much revenue anyway and which might benefit from “discovery” within the subscription service.

(Carolyn Reidy, the CEO at Simon & Schuster, tipped to this in her talk last week at the BISG Annual Meeting where she specifically mentioned the value of the discovery S&S has seen take place in the subscription platforms.)

But not all the subscription services were equal. The established Safari was in a market niche, serving mostly B2B customers in technology companies. (They have recently gone to an expanded offering because Boeing and Microsoft techies don’t just need books about programming; they’re also parents and cooks and gardeners so general-interest non-fiction can appeal to them. But that’s not the foundation of Safari’s business and they’re not trying to push fiction.) Scribd had a foundation business as a sort-of “YouTube for documents” that the ebook subscription business both built on and enhanced. For Amazon, Kindle Unlimited just gave them another way to transact with the ebook customer and it gave them another outlet for their exclusive Kindle content.

Only Oyster and another pretty-much simultaneous startup, Entitle (which had a proposition more like a book club than a straight subscription service), were trying to make the alternative ebook revenue stream into a stand-alone business. Entitle went down before Oyster. Librify, another variation on the theme, was acquired by Scribd.

So the failure of Oyster is actually another demonstration of a “new” reality about book publishing, except it is not so new. Book publishing — and book retailing — are no longer stand-alone businesses. Publishing and bookselling are functions, and they can be quite complementary to other businesses. And as adjuncts to other businesses, they don’t actually have to be profitable to be valuable. What that means is that entities trying to make them profitable — or, worse, requiring them to be profitable to survive — are at a stark competitive disadvantage.

Amazon is the past master at making this reality obvious. Remember that they started as a “book retailer” and nothing else. They leaned on Ingram’s Oregon warehouse to enable their business model, which was to take an order for a book and accept payment, then procure the book from Ingram and send it to the customer, and then a little later pay Ingram’s bill. This positive cash-flow model was so brilliant that Ingram could have readily enabled lots of copycats, and they formed a division called Ingram Internet Support Services to do just that. So Amazon killed that idea by cutting their prices to no-margin levels and discouraged anybody else from getting into the game. That was in the late 1990s.

They could do that because the financial community had already accepted Amazon’s strategy of using books to build a customer base and to measure future business prospects by LCV — the “lifetime customer value” of the people they did business with. And it became clear pretty rapidly that they could sell book readers other things so no- or low-margin sales were simply customer acquisition tactics. This was a game Barnes & Noble and Borders couldn’t play.

Now book and ebook sales are almost certainly no more than a single-digit percentage of Amazon’s total revenue. Kindle Unlimited, like their publishing enterprises and self-publishing offerings, are small parts of a powerful organization that has many ways to win with every customer they recruit.

Scribd is not as powerful as Amazon, but they began with a network of content creators and content consumers. That gave them a marketing advantage over Oyster — not every customer had to be acquired at high cost since many potential customers were already “in the tent”. But it also gave them some stability. Eyebrows were raised recently when Scribd put the brakes on the lending of romance books and audiobooks. But tweaking the business model for those verticals simultaneously leaves open that the model is actually working in other niches.

We can see this playing out in a much more limited way in Barnes & Noble stores, where books are being replaced on shelves by toys and games. But that’s not likely to be enough diversification to matter in the long run. It is certainly not going to get B&N where Amazon is, where far more than nine out of every ten dollars comes from something other than books. And Barnes & Noble is nowhere near a point Amazon has reached: where the profit from book sales is incidental if they keep bringing in new customers and also keeps them loyal.

The story on Oyster, still incomplete as of now, is that a lot of their management team is on its way to Google, which, in effect, “bought” the company to get them. Google seems to be trying hard to make sure we don’t think they bought Oyster’s business, they just bought Oyster’s staff. Obviously, Google fits the description of a company with many other interests in which books can play a part. In the beginning, that was all about search. Now it is also about the Android ecosystem and media sales in general. An ebook subscription business, or even a content subscription business, could make sense in Google’s world. But it would be a relatively small play for them. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that they have something other than a mere “book subscription service” in mind for that Oyster staff to work on. Smarter observers than I seem to believe that the personnel Google recruited give them knowledge about Oyster’s mobile reading and discovery technology. Of course, that’s core information for Google.

Similarly, Apple, which now has subscription service for music, might also consider doing one for books — or for all media — at iOS at some point. They don’t have one of Amazon’s advantages — a big stable of intellectual property they control — but they are all about creating an ecosystem that people stay in and don’t leave. Book subscriptions could enhance that.

But the central point I’d take away from this is not that subscription failed, but that a pure book business play failed. One obvious question that provokes is when we will see some signs of synergy between Kobo and their owners at Rakuten, who presumably have Amazon-type ambitions but haven’t seemed to use their ebook business to help pursue them.

And what is true of book retail is also true of book publishing, as we observed in this space quite some time ago. Both publishing and book retailing will increasingly become complements to larger enterprises and decreasingly be stand-alone activities that business can dedicate themselves to for profit.

The New York Times this morning has a front-page article essentially reporting that the ebook surge is over, at least for now, and the print business appears stable. This is great news for publishers if the trend is real. Unfortunately, there were a few important points either elided or ignored that might have undercut the narrative.

One is that, while publishers report ebook sales as a percentage of total book sales steady or slightly declining, Amazon says (and Russell Grandinetti was quoted in the article) their ebook sales are going up. Assuming all this is true, is the difference perhaps sales migrating away from publishers (which sales would be reported by the AAP stats they rely on) and moving to cheaper indie titles available only through Amazon (which sales would not)?

Another is that publishers are raising prices on ebooks and making the price rises stick because of Agency. Is all the sales resistance created by higher prices resulting in print sales, or is some of it causing the book to be rejected for something cheaper? In other words, might total sales for many titles be less than publishers would have looked for before? (At least one agent tells me this is the case.)

And another is that the indie bookstore resurgence has occurred in the years following Borders’s demise and the shifting of the product mix in Barnes & Noble. It is worth asking whether the indies are temporary beneficiaries of a sudden shelf space deficiency or whether we’re really seeing not only an increase in print reading, but a renewed interest by book readers to go to stores to buy the print. That question isn’t posed in this piece.


The big global publishers are integrating across both territories and languages

Since I posted this two days ago, one of the Big Five CEOs pointed out some things I missed that are important. These are addressed in a post-script at the bottom. Subscribers to the blog would have received the original post without the “correction”. My apologies.

The announcement this week that John Sargent has apparently moved up another notch in the global Holtzbrinck hierarchy reminds us that the cross-border and now cross-language integration of the publishing giants, a very complex undertaking, continues to develop. Sargent was already the global “trade” head for the company, which suggested that integration of the publishing strategy and operations across Macmillan (Holtzbrinck’s trade division) companies was already an important priority. Now he is EVP of the entire global entity.

This follows an announcement a few months ago by HarperCollins that it was appointing digital head Chantal Restivo-Alessi to be EVP, International, to oversee the publishing through Harper’s growing foreign language capabilities.

Until very recently, just publishing simultaneously in a coordinated way across English language companies located in different countries was a seldom-attempted challenge. HarperCollins and Holtzbrinck seem to be shooting right past that hurdle and are setting themselves up to publish in multiple languages in a coordinated way, which is a much heavier lift.

The publishers who are doing this are seeing at least two things that motivate them.

One is that selling books is considerably more profitable for publishers than selling rights. This fact has been behind the creation of the global trade publishing behemoths in the English language. Until things began to change in the 1970s, there really were no trans-national book publishing companies. Since then, acquisitions have given us five big global trade book publishing houses. The only American-owned one, Simon & Schuster, and the French-owned one, Hachette, seem to have the least integrated global English trade presences. Simon & Schuster just has less in the way of foreign-based assets. Both Hachette and Penguin Random House have a federated structure by which the local companies report up to the parent, not to a global trade head. Macmillan and HarperCollins have both been more aggressive about integrating their international English publishing efforts.

And now both of them appear to be interested in extending that integration beyond their English-language companies.

The logic behind this kind of integration is both clear and unassailable. In the Internet age, as we’ve seen for a long time, there really is no such thing as “local” publication anymore. Anything announced anywhere is heard everywhere. And it actually requires active controls to stop anything that is available anywhere from also being available everywhere. Because English is so widely known beyond native English-speakers, the English language editions of new high-profile books sell in many countries for which the first language is not English. This has become a new factor in placing non-English rights.

Until the Internet really “arrived” two decades ago, the rights-trading activity could take time and it didn’t matter, even within the English-speaking world. I remember about 20 years ago when my friend George Gibson discovered the bestseller phenomenon “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. He published it in the US and it became a big bestseller. But even though it was a story that took place in England, it took him a year or more to make a sale to a UK-based publisher. (When he did, “Longitude” went on to one of the longest-runs of all time on the UK bestseller lists.)

A story like that would be very unlikely today. Gibson owned those rights to sell. The chances are the search traffic numbers alone would have accelerated the process of finding a buyer. Or else the US publisher, even a tiny one like Walker, where Gibson was at the time, would have released the ebook for global distribution and made some sort of deal for print to be made available as well.

Because the marketing of each and every book starts with the enthusiasm of an acquiring editor, and because each new deal an agent can negotiate is a new opportunity to get a publisher to overpay, both agents and publishers were comfortable with the process as it has always been. Relatively few of the high-profile agented books are even sold for “world English”, let alone with rights beyond the English language. Just like publishers’ value is directly related to the number of accounts through which they find customers for a book, an agent’s value is directly related to the number of deals they can make for each property.

If an author can get the reach they need through Amazon alone, then it is hard to accept a royalty from a publisher of a third or less of what Amazon will pay directly. Amazon, the publishers, and the author community are all very aware of this. It is one of the two main reasons why publishers try so hard to shift share away from Amazon. (The other, of course, is that the bigger Amazon’s share of the market, the more leverage it gives them to push for a bigger share of each sale.)

And if we see a trend where one publishing deal gets an author just about all their revenue, it will also be harder for authors to accept paying a full 15 percent agent’s commission to get it, particularly once the author becomes a global brand. (And the big brand authors are precisely the ones whose books will benefit the most from a coordinated global publishing effort.)

The structural impediments to publishing this way are not trivial. It will be a very long time — not in the working careers of any of today’s executives — before coordinated global publishing is important for any but the biggest books on the list. Most titles that each of the local companies puts out will be territorially constrained, as they have always been.

But it will, indeed, be the biggest ones — probably fewer than five percent of the titles that could earn half the revenue — that the coordinated efforts will affect. These are the books that every big global house needs to sustain itself.

Nielsen, through its Books & Consumer data service, is able to create individual author profiles for approximately 350 authors: those with substantial enough sales to enable digging down into the demographics of their book buyers and getting useful information with granularity. I’d guess those profiles will make popular reading as the publishers develop their global capability, particularly since Nielsen is also tracking across both countries and languages. And those 350 authors are almost certainly among the 500 top candidates for this type of treatment.

Sargent and Restivo-Alessi are blazing a new trail. Integration of publishing efforts this way will affect advances, royalties, workflows, and marketing strategies. They will effectively create “new propositions” to put in front of the biggest authors in the world. Penguin Random House and Hachette, because of their internal structures and S&S, because of its relative US-centricity, will be challenged to keep up. (Until their internal structures change, of course, or until they make some other adjustment. Which they will.)

Agents for the biggest authors in the world will be hearing the new pitch. On the one hand, they’ll be looking at opportunities to do record-breaking contracts. On the other hand, they’ll be doing what used to be two, three, four, or more deals in one and, in the long run, probably making at least some of their authors wonder whether they should have to pay that same hefty commission the next time around. When an author in this category asks for a fee reduction to continue the relationship, I suspect that most of the time, they’ll get it.

Of course, working in multiple languages and territories is something Amazon can also do very well. But they will probably stay out of this competition, at least at the beginning, because it will be a high-advance environment and Amazon has shown no taste for that as a strategy.

Nonetheless, the signs are that the ecosystem at the top of the commercial pyramid is going to have some new distinguishing characteristics. It has been noted many times in many places by many people that the economy the Internet creates favors the winners and exacerbates power law distribution. This is about to become another example.


And now the postscript.

In fact, the “structural” differences are not as dramatic as the post describes them, although there are differences and, indeed, HarperCollins and Macmillan are best-positioned to offer and execute on global multi-language and multi-territory deals than the others.

Markus Dohle is the CEO of Penguin Random House. He has the same “authority” as Murray and Sargent do. But Random House has always been highly “federated”, with a lot of power in the imprints. That makes coordination across territories that much more challenging, as does the fact that PRH is twice the size of HarperCollins and six times the size of the other three. Being of a “certain” size is necessary to make global publishing possible, but the larger you are beyond the minimum required, the harder is coordination. It could even be that smaller global publishers — there aren’t many, but Quarto is one example and Bloomsbury another — could execute on this concept even better than the Big Five. On the other hand, smaller publishers won’t compete for the massive books like those of the 350 authors that Nielsen tracks.

In Hachette’s case, Arnaud Nourry in France holds a position above all the companies as well. All the English-language Hachette publishers report to him, as well as others. But since the biggest books have their biggest share of sales in English, and because Hachette too has given great autonomy to the local companies, it is still likely that they would find it difficult to engineer the kind of coordination we’d expect to see from Harper and Macmillan in the relatively near future.

And, finally, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster is also a global head, but the company doesn’t have nearly the resources across languages and countries that the other four do.

Since I’m adding this post-script, I will also report that a couple of significant agents pushed back at me on Twitter, saying that they were very skeptical of the potential for big company coordinated synergy across the world. They’re saying they’ll be hard to convince. But, then, so did the original piece.

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The publishing world is changing, but there is one big dog that has not yet barked

Recent data seem to show that, for the publishers, the growth in the retail ebook market has slowed down or stopped (at least for the moment), while Amazon’s ebook sales apparently continue to grow. The share of the market controlled by the publishing establishment — the Big Five publishers and others — is starting to be slowly eroded. This does not yet suggest that an author’s best bet is to go out on his/her own and we may be a very long way from that. But it does suggest that life may get increasingly difficult for publishers.

The headline data we saw last week is that Hachette’s ebook sales went down last year. All their sales declined, but ebooks fell faster and the percentage of their business in ebooks is diminishing. How much that has to do with their war last year with Amazon over terms is not clear.

What we’re also seeing and hearing is that publishers might have boxed themselves in with their return to agency pricing. When publishers first “raised prices” by instituting agency pricing for ebooks in 2010, they saw no reduction in ebook sales, which continued to grow. Michael Cader’s analysis (can’t find it in print, but he told it to me) was that publishers may have misread the real impact of price increases because they raised them in a growing market. The number of ebook readers was increasing every day, so those who were put off by the high prices were outnumbered by the new entrants who just wanted to read their books digitally on their shiny new devices.

Whatever is the reason, the anecdotal reports I’m getting suggest that the price increases aren’t being so easily swallowed in the current round of Agency pricing. Amazon may not care about ending discounting from those prices because they don’t need to or want to, but it would appear that the new deals won’t let them. They certainly don’t have the flexibility to do so that they did before Agency came to the marketplace. So the sometimes startlingly high publisher-set prices are prevailing. And, aside from the Hachette numbers that were reported, we’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher agency prices are activated.

Hugh Howey told me this was happening in a private exchange three months ago. I didn’t believe him. I do now.

We continue to see a shift in market share. Amazon’s share continues to grow, as does Apple’s. Nook’s share continues to shrink. Google and Kobo are harder to read, but both are smaller than the others anyway.

But this is not a zero-sum game and it isn’t simple. It’s Rubik’s Cube complicated.

Some of the change in the market could be due to subscription services taking a chunk of ebook consumption out of the by-the-book retail market. Although Scribd and Oyster appear to have very small market shares, Scribd was so “successful” with some readers that they had to cut back their romance offering; it was apparently costing them too much to provide all the books their romance subscribers could read.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited may be having a bigger impact on the overall market. In all these cases, it is the public understanding that the subscription services are “purchasing” the ebooks from the established publishers. (Kindle’s own authors are compensated with a “by the page read” division of a pot that Amazon arbitrarily decides.) But the Big Five aren’t participating in KU and they aren’t putting their new books — the biggest sellers with the highest prices — into the subscription services. So all the reader bandwidth and revenue going through those services might be coming out of the big players’ and big books’ share.

Our friends at Ingram told me another piece of anecdata which may also be at play. They keep track of the number of SKUs that sell 100 copies or fewer and those that sell 10,000 copies or more. The aggregate sales of the former group is growing; the aggregate sales of the latter group is not. What that suggests is that the sales of books that are not really commercial are taking share away from those that are, whether those that are come from publishers or indie authors like Hugh Howey. Whether that particular change is yet impactful, it is inexorable.

The reduction in ebook sales of hot new titles could be starting to affect future deals — one agent told me unambiguously that it is visible — which would be the next step in the indie vision of how publishers disappear. Publishers base their advances on revenue expectations, which, for ebooks, might now be diminishing. If authors can’t get the same big advance as they did before, might they prefer to go it alone and take the bigger share of ebook revenues they can (still) get with a do-it-yourself approach? Obviously, for some, as the equation shifts, that could happen.

But, at the same time, we’re seeing print book sales, and — at least for the moment — print book retail shelf space, holding their own. As long as that’s true, publishers still have a vital role to play. As long as the proposition “we put books on shelves” has value, so do publishers.

In fact, Ingram (not Amazon) offers the complete suite of services a publisher needs to provide, as does Perseus, whose distribution business Ingram tried to acquire in the 3-way deal with Hachette that went sour about a year ago. Both of them can get a book printed, offset in a print run or on-demand. They warehouse and bill and collect. They have a sales force. They do business with all the retail outlets that every publisher does. And they offer all those capabilities on a marginal cost basis. (The big publishers offer a similar suite of services, but generally are less interested in smaller players that Ingram and Perseus are happy to serve.) Whether you publish one book, 100 books, or have a long list, all you need is the rights to the book and the cash to pay your costs and you can buy the logistical capability to match any publisher.

But you won’t have two things that really matter:

the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;

the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.

For big author brands, the “sure to sell” component might well be in place, but the marketing complications, and the risk (because a lot of inventory could be involved) would not be trivial.

What this means for the future of publishers, or for what will constitute the best business decision for authors, is not obvious. Everybody trying to make money in the future from the books they write will suffer from the problem the data Ingram cites points to: the increasing share of the readers’ attention that will be taken by books not published with serious commercial intent. If publishers lower their prices to compete more effectively with indie-published books and the subscription offers, their revenue will go down but so will the indies’, who will lose some of the benefits they now gain from their pricing advantage.

It is sometimes suggested that publishers need to move out of Manhattan to be competitive, but, in fact, there are many ways to reconfigure aside from that. The service offerings from Ingram and Perseus (and others: one example is that Donnelley also offers publishers the ability to convert manufacturing management and warehousing overheads to variable costs) allow publishers to get leaner and more focused on their core missions of identifying, developing, and marketing content.

What is definitely true is that the share of the reading market held by commercially-minded publishers (not just commercial “for profits”, but also university presses) will diminish as both successful self-published authors and hundreds of thousands of others who don’t succeed (and maybe don’t even care) take their content to market on their own.

The university and academic presses, of course, have a defining characteristic that might well protect them. They require certified knowledge to underpin their books. (Whether you’re publishing about accounting or brain surgery, you need validated authority that will be an insuperable barrier for independent publishing.)

This is not a death-knell for anybody. This is a changing world for everybody. Of the current household names, only Amazon and Ingram are structurally positioned to grow quite naturally in a shrinking overall market. (The publishers can grow by acquiring each other, and PRH and HarperCollins would seem to be in the best position to take advantage of that.) Amazon will sell an increasing share of the books; Ingram will provide more and more services to more and more publishers while they remain the biggest supplier to everybody besides Amazon that sells books. (Perseus can also expand its distribution business.) The roster of publishers will continue to consolidate, as it has been doing pretty relentlessly (except for a recent decade of relative stability which seems to have now unleashed a more recent stage of more extreme consolidation) for at least 40 years. But as long as print is sold in stores and, after that, as long as half of the books are sold by somebody other than Amazon, there will be a need for publishers that most authors will be delighted to allow compensation for.

Let’s remember that there is a very big dog that has not barked. No major author of recurring bestsellers has stepped up to take charge of his or her own output. It is bound to happen someday, and if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been sure it would have happened by now. Five years ago I would also have figured that one of the big publishers by 2025 would be a version of United Artists, several major authors organized to share an organization and create their own brand. There have been no signs of that yet either. Indie publishing is still growing and it seems that established publishing is at a standstill. But we’re still many years — most likely a decade or more — from any real changing of the guard.

I don’t see myself as a sophisticated reader or analyst of fiction. But I want to offer the opinion that “Go Set A Watchman”, the controversial new release from “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, is a very worthwhile book. And, by my reading, both the story and the Atticus Finch character fit perfectly well with what we read in “Mockingbird”. What changed most between the two books was the circumstances of the south. “Mockingbird” takes place in a time of unquestioned white dominance. “Watchman” takes place in a time when white dominance is under serious threat. It is a more complex time and deals with more complex issues. It is easy to see why a commercial editor in the late 1950s would find “Watchman” a very uncomfortable book to sell and “Mockingbird” much easier to place in the market.

There are dueling opinions on this. I agree with novelist Ursula Le Guin (you’ll have to click on “newest post” if you go there before she publishes her next one; not sure how you’ll navigate after that), not with the bookseller who thinks the book is so bad that the store is compelled to offer refunds to disappointed readers.


A 10-point strategy for mini-vertical creation

The last post here, where I suggested that publishers should reconsider how they handle first serials, begs a number of follow-up questions. Two people commenting on the post raised the concern that HarperCollins wouldn’t have been able to handle the traffic the “Go Set A Watchman” excerpt would generate. My IT advisors say that is actually a trivial concern. In fact, if News Corp has the capacity in any of its businesses, that capacity could have been “lent” to HarperCollins for the purpose. Or it could have been leased from someplace outside. All it would take is a modicum of advance notice.

But if the challenge of getting the necessary bandwidth is really a trivial one, it is a bit more complicated to come up with a strategy that addresses this new reality. It is fine and dandy to know you’ll “self-publish” book excerpts and drive links and traffic to them to get visibility for the books and engagement with their audiences, but those are tactics, not strategies, and they need to live within a bigger context.

Here’s the overall point. Any business that makes money by selling content must have a direct marketing component to their strategy. For some, including trade book publishers, that should be about having marketing platforms that they own and control, not primarily about controlling the sales transactions. But content can be used to foster audience engagement and the set of engaged potential customers that can be generated is an asset that will become a necessary component of every publisher’s toolkit.

This post is essentially about creating verticals. It should be emphasized that verticals are not an “all or nothing” proposition. You can build out audience-centric interest to highly varying degrees and gain benefits even with an effort as small as where these suggestions start: a landing page.

With that in mind, here’s a battle plan every large publisher should adopt. The strategic approach suggested here can be configured to work for fiction, but it is best to start with non-fiction topics.

1. Look at every topic, subject, or category for which the house has 20 or more backlist titles and which define audiences to which you intend to publish in the future. Identify all the relevant titles you have for each audience. (Here is a hint that no publisher should need: ask your special sales department.)

2. Select three-to-five categories to start. Make your choices based on which ones have the most active backlists and/or the most new titles being planned. The more focused you can be, the better. That is, “baseball history” is better than “sports history”; “knitting” is better than “crafts”; “adventure travel” is better than “travel”. Everything we will suggest will work best if you have a “tentpole”: a title or author that is very famous and popular so definitely include any categories for which that is true for you.

3. Create landing pages for each of those categories under the publisher domain. So those pages would be called something like “publisher.com/baseballhistory” (which doesn’t exist). We’re recommending this approach initially to exploit (and over time to build) the domain authority of the publisher site, which will be reflected in better SEO for each component and, in fact, for everything the publisher posts.

4. While the “landing page” will contain links to all the relevant books that led to its creation, it is best to have rich and unique title-specific copy created specifically for that page, rather than the “canned” marketing copy that already exists. Aiming the copy at people who probably found the landing page through a search will work better both for SEO and to better engage those who come to it.

5. The excerpts offered for each book should not be “first chapters”. Those already live all over the web. Duplicated content is bad for everybody’s SEO. Different excerpts should be posted for this mini-vertical. And every time you post an excerpt to the vertical, promoting that excerpt through press contacts and social media effectively promotes the entire little enterprise.

6. Authors should be offered the opportunity to post relevant content here, to promote themselves.

7. The appeal and power of the mini-vertical will be enhanced if relevant books from other publishers are included as well. This is not necessary but it would add value.

8. Each mini-vertical needs an “editor-in-chief” who will post something relevant on a regular (weekly) basis. But one EIC could handle several of these sites. Certainly one person can handle the 3-to-5 we suggest as the starting group.

9. The mini-vertical landing pages will develop their own SEO juice over time, in direct proportion to how much new content is posted — which can be a lot if there are lots of new books from which to post excerpts, let alone author Q&As or promo videos or other material — and how much what is posted is promoted, which generates inbound links.

10. The point to this whole exercise is engagement. The site EIC should respond to all queries and comments. If excerpts are offered frequently, signing up for free subscriptions to that content should be enabled. Purchasing should be made as easy as possible, preferably with links to all of the top retail vendors. (Offering a direct purchase from the publisher is the least important sales option.)

Starting and managing a handful of these mini-verticals should be quite doable for less than six figures, a trivial investment for any publisher doing $50 million or more in sales and a manageable one for publishers doing much less than that. At the very least, the publisher who does this will build a network of engaged consumers that can be reached for nearly zero incremental cost, reducing marketing spending and multiplying marketing efficiency for new books far into the future. The publisher’s “domain authority” will be substantially enhanced, adding SEO juice and audience for every piece of content they ever post.

But the payoff could actually end up being a site that becomes a world of its own, worth spinning off to its own domain, and capable of being a self-sustaining (or even profitable) business in its own right.

This is a low-risk, high-reward strategy. Some publishers are already pursuing a variant of it. Any publisher without the capabilities it can deliver will increasingly be challenged to be competitive with those who have it.

I don’t mean to imply that there is no “content marketing” among publishers today. The Content Marketing Institute did a profile on Rodale which, being a vertical publisher, has a more obvious path to thinking this way. But Simon & Schuster has vertical sites —  TipsOnHealthyLiving.com and TipsOnLifeandLove.com — and has tried others. Peter McCarthy was in on the building of a number of verticals at Random House. And the genre fiction publishers — perhaps, most notably, Tor — have really tried to talk directly to their readers. But the opportunities to build marketing platforms for publishers that have access to content and to self-interested author labor have hardly begun to be explored.


Publisher strategies around first serials pretty obviously need to be rethought

This Friday, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic — the Wall Street Journal in the US and the Guardian in the UK — will publish the first chapter of the much-awaited Harper Lee novel, “Go Set A Watchman”. The licensors who authorized these excerpts are HarperCollins in the US (and they are, of course, News Corp cousins of WSJ) and Heinemann, a division of PRH, in the UK.

I have not seen any reports detailing whether any money changed hands for the rights to publish these excerpts. But, unless it was a lot of money — an amount worth reporting — doing first serial this way of such a newsworthy and anticipated book seems like an anachronism, a mistake.

In the pre-internet days, first serialization to magazines or newspapers was both a way to get substantial revenue (which in most standard contracts was largely delivered to the author) and, certainly more important to the publisher, a way to jump-start awareness of the book and add some firepower to propel the first week of sales that is so important to bestseller list positioning.

But what was true in a print world is not true in an Internet world.

Most people who read the first chapter of “Go Set A Watchman” on either newspaper site will almost certainly not be a regular reader of either newspaper! They will have gotten to the excerpt some other way, through some other link or discovery point. So the “contribution” of awareness and readers from the Guardian or WSJ is likely to be far less than the additional traffic sent to them by the power of the publisher’s content. That’s a hint. It’s backwards!

Just think about what the publishers are giving up by doing these deals. All that traffic and a slew of Google-juicing inbound links could have been coming to their site. Competitors to the Guardian and WSJ, who will probably be reluctant to drive up traffic at a rival, might not link to it, but almost certainly would have if the excerpt were on a book publisher’s or author’s site. The publishers have given up the potential to get email names — perhaps hundreds of thousands of them or more — in exchange for the privilege of reading a bit beyond the first chapter or some other perk. The publisher hosting the content could aggressively upsell the book or ebook, and be driving traffic to their retailer partners, which gets them both goodwill and affiliate revenue. (How far would that affiliate revenue go toward covering any licensing fee they collected?)

Excerpts of major book releases are, in and of themselves, news events that many entities would want to “cover” and would happily link to. In the world of the web, the hosting brand is often of trivial importance, particularly when they aren’t the “source” of the content itself. Sure, people factor the Guardian brand’s credibility into their evaluation of a political story or the Wall Street Journal’s expertise for a financial or business story. But for this book excerpt? The only name that counts is Harper Lee! And the most authentic place to get her content is either from her publisher or her own branded website.

This example writes large that publishers need to reconsider their strategy and tactics around serialization. This is “content marketing” in its purest form. Penguin Random House and HarperCollins are both forward-thinking companies with a lot of digital chops. But, on this one, they’ve underscored that book publishers are often stuck in old models that need to be rethought.

It should be acknowledged that the simple purity of this lesson is muddied a bit because the Wall Street Journal excerpt might well live behind a pay wall. On the one hand, that means fewer people will see it from outside their normal base. (But it’s a weak pay wall; if you Google any WSJ headline, you can see that story without the pay wall.) But the point remains. The appearance of this excerpt will be big news that should generate all sorts of ancillary benefits to the publisher and author. Those benefits will be lost, or at least substantially reduced, by sticking to this 20th century strategy.


My personal list of what should be top-of-mind for publishers around digital change today

What are the most important digital change issues publishers face?

To prepare for DBW 2016, we need to decide what publishers need to be thinking about and learning about next March, when the seventh annual DBW will take place. It would be extremely limiting for that selection to be based on my thoughts and opinions alone, and we have a process in place to make sure that it isn’t. (More on that to come in the next post here.) But if we were relying on me alone, here’s what we’d be focused on.

1. Ebook pricing. Publishers get anywhere from 50-to-70 percent of the retail price from most ebook retailers. Unlike the print world, where price-setting must take place before the book comes out and is, because the price is printed on the book, very hard to adjust, ebook prices can be changed quickly and frequently.

Pricing variation has historically been the province of the retailer. In the physical world, markdowns were almost never shared: the retailer voluntarily gave away part of their margin to gain market share or to build customer loyalty.

In the agency world that four of the Big Five have now created (with Penguin Random House almost certain to follow on), pricing is not only mostly controlled by publishers, they are the direct beneficiaries of higher prices and lose margin if prices are lowered.

It is true — and the indie authors who like it better when Amazon is in control rather than the publishers often point this out — that publishers have almost no experience with pricing and the impact of changes. But it is also true that the retailers, who do have more experience with it, have different objectives than publishers. Retailers want a competitive advantage against other retailers and, as part of that, they want to build customer loyalty. Publishers want to maximize revenue for each SKU, build awareness of authors, and use one book by an author or in a series to sell other titles under the same brand.

Publishers are starting very near zero on knowledge. How does discounting one title in a series affect the audience’s likelihood of getting started with it and then buying other titles at higher prices? If a book is in the news, is the right strategy to raise the price (to maximize revenue) or to lower the price (to get better market penetration on the back of the news). And is the strategy the same if the story is about the book, rather than the book being about the story? Do pricing strategies need seasonality rules, and how is that different across genres or topics?

All of these are things publishers will have to learn by a combination of experimentation, archiving of information, and analysis. A complicating aspect of this is that the market itself is still changing: a person’s ebook purchasing habits today, when they’re new to it, may change over the next couple of years, as they become more sophisticated consumers. This is a moving target but a very important one. And there is one person who stands out as having looked at this more closely than anyone: Dan Lubart, who owns Iobyte Solutions, and who previously worked for HarperCollins and now is at Hachette.

2. Building direct customer knowledge. What is knowable about audiences through listening and analytical tools today is stunning. It is critical to do audience research on a constant and ongoing basis. Publishers need to keep formulating theses about who their audiences are, then doing research to find where they hang out online and what words they use when they talk about the things the publisher wants to engage them about.

The customer knowledge is essential to do first-class search engine optimization, but it is even more important for a publisher that wants to do any kind of “campaign”. Buying keyword exposure is an exercise in constant experimentation, measurement, and management no matter what you do, but starting a campaign without doing the core audience research is simply wasteful. And what is true of ad campaigns is also true of earned media and traditional marketing campaigns. This is the marketing equivalent of “measure twice, cut once”. Don’t waste time, money, and effort doing something that research could have told you in advance wouldn’t work.

3. Building direct customer contact. Near as we can tell, the big publishers have been building email lists for years. There’s a Shatzkin Files post from the Fall of 2011 citing Tor.com’s having mailed to hundreds of thousands of people the month before, with a very high open rate and getting an extraordinary percentage of those to “take an action”.

But building lists and managing them for maximum effectiveness are two quite different things. And even more complicated is a next-generation challenge: getting publisher lists and author lists working in tandem. It would seem like a win all around for publishers to organize authors whose audiences are similar to email across their lists to everybody’s benefit. But it is easy to see why authors (or their agents or business advisors) would be reluctant to dive into something like that, or to want some control over their use in ways that effectively forestalls collective action.

Even for lists publishers entirely own and control, there is enormous work to do segment them properly and test, test, test to find the most effective ways to use them. And engagement with customers also includes branding and interaction with them in social media and targeted web sites or landing pages that can engage potential customers (and, of course, capture their email addresses as well).

4. New protocols for author collaboration around marketing. We’ve made the point in this space before that the author’s digital presence is an important component of any book’s SEO. A publisher extending its own efforts to make its books discoverable that is not including the author web sites in their analysis is missing a component essential to the success of their efforts.

This is a complicated question that will ultimately back right up to the author’s contract, but where each publisher needs to start is with an understanding of what they want from an author’s digital presence and web site. There needs to be a best practice “ask” and there needs to be analysis of what exists to pinpoint the ways it should be improved. One very alert Big Five house we know has at least an executive or two at a high level who sees the virtue in our suggestion that a graded analysis of an author’s online presence, together with specific recommendations for improvement, should be both a standard and promoted feature for authors of being published by that house. It is hard to imagine that this won’t be normal operating procedure in a couple of years but the time to start working on it, for everybody, is now.

5. Maximizing global sales: distribution and discovery. Publishers, coaxed by global ebook distributors like Ingram, Vearsa, and others, are increasingly aware that English-language ebooks have a global market. But maximizing those sales requires both having distribution to the retailers serving each market and optimizing the title description metadata so that search “works” at many places around the world.

Part of what is required there is — say it again — more research. The search terms that work best for any book may well be different in India or Australia than they are in the US. But the challenges in getting differentiated copy posted correctly in the right places are not trivial, and things don’t work the same in Amazon and Google, let alone in local retailers in each market. We figure that the sophistication of the global ebook distributors will be increasingly useful here, but it will also be necessary for each global publisher to understand their most important markets and retailers for their books to sell most effectively.

6. Building a company-wide understanding of SEO (editorial, marketing, and sales). The understanding of SEO at most publishing houses, from our experience, is both insufficient among the most knowledgeable in the house and grasped at all by far too few people. For the most part, SEO is the province of the “marketers”, but, in fact, it might even be as important that editors and salespeople understand it. The S in SEO stands for “search” but it might as well stand for “sales” or “shelved”.

Editors who don’t understand SEO lack an important tool to direct authors, particularly of non-fiction books, to address what the audience wants. Without SEO understanding, they can’t instantly tell a “bad” title (one that won’t work for SEO) from a useful one.

Salespeople, whether they are covering brick stores or online ones, need that understanding too.

The key to optimizing for search is knowing how the audience searches. This can only be accomplished by research, and it changes with time so the research for a similar book on last season’s list can’t reliably be re-used. That will become clear as we consider the next point.

7. Allocating effort across a large backlist. The biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge for publishers, as they have historically operated and as they are currently structured, is maximizing their opportunities across their backlists. The big houses are dealing with many tens of thousands of titles. We advocate techniques that require some human application so scale techniques have to be used to pinpoint the titles worth an effort.

Although we are developing tools to help digest the external cues that might affect where the focus should be — cues from the news and social graph — each publisher has to start with a combination of knowledge of the list, intuition, and a sense that sales can be improved to pick those titles worth reviewing for better audience understanding and descriptive copy improvement. Almost certainly, titles that are more than a couple of years old will need work for several reasons: the house knew so little about SEO when copy was written; time will have changed the search terms that matter; and reviews and awards and other things from the book’s experience in the marketplace might need to be incorporated.

8. Make sure you ignore what is not important. My Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy has worked inside big companies and he urged me to add this eighth point. No company has the people or bandwidth or resources to spend time on things that are not very important. Whether you use this list of mine or make your own, be very wary of expending any energy or capital or bandwidth on anything else.

Of course, DBW itself won’t be relying just on me to make the choices of what to cover and what to ignore. I have already created a much longer list of topics than this for our Conference Council to review. We have them express themselves on how useful each potential topic is in a Survey Monkey poll. We will give our readers the opportunity to take that same poll when we describe the larger list of topics in our next post.


Four of the big five have new deals with Amazon and only the biggest is still to negotiate one

A reporter called earlier this week focused on what he figures are the upcoming negotiations over trading terms between Amazon and Penguin Random House. I had observed when Amazon was throwing sharp elbows at Hachette during their contractual dispute that Amazon wouldn’t try similar tactics with PRH.

Since then, with HarperCollins and Amazon having announced they’ve reached new terms, deals have been done with all the Following Four US publishers. It would appear that the DoJ’s and Judge Cote’s work to stop publisher-controlled pricing across retailers has been very largely undone by the deals independently arrived at. So it is a sensible question for a reporter to ask, as this one was: can Penguin Random House do better than the others did in these negotiations?

I don’t know the answer to that. And even after a deal is announced, none of us will necessarily know the answer. But this is an appropriate time to consider the power of Penguin Random House’s position in the marketplace. It is very strong. If I were any of the other four major publishers, I would fear PRH more than Amazon as a potential disruptor of my business. When I put that proposition to a UK-based executive of one of those companies at the London Book Fair last week, he readily agreed with me.

When one considers what a segmented business publishing is, the Penguin Random House combination becomes that much more eye-catching. These five companies — PRH, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan — compete much more with each other than they do with anybody else. Cambridge competes with Oxford and other university presses. Quarto competes with Chronicle and Abrams and Running Press and outside the US with Egmont and other illustrated book publishers. Yes, a bestseller might come from anywhere: Harry Potter came to the US market from Scholastic and the UK market from Bloomsbury. But the publishers who compete for the bestselling authors and the front-of-store slots repeatedly are the Big Five, which were formerly the Big Six.

And when Penguin merged with Random House, that was not just any old merger of the Big Six. It was a merger between Number One and Number Two. It has created a single company that is, in the US market, about twice the size of its next competitor (about $2.5 billion in sales for PRH against about $1.2 billion for HarperCollins). And HarperCollins, in turn, is about double the size of each of the other three.

What that means is that PRH, like Amazon, can make its commercial decisions independently from the rest of the industry. They can take risks that would be very challenging for anybody else. Amazon could afford to get into a dust-up with Hachette that affected the supply of books in ways its customers could clearly see and make it public to try to make a point. Random House, even before the merger, could afford to stay out of the new iBookstore (they wouldn’t play ball with agency terms in the beginning) for a while, which would have seemed a big risk to the others. (Of course, the DoJ and Judge Cote didn’t see it as individually-discernible risk. Their explanation was “collusion”.) That decision by Random House paid off in big ways in 2010 with higher sales per ebook title (because they didn’t go to agency, which reduced the per-title take) and higher unit sales (because agency would have forbidden discounting, and Amazon went to town discounting Random House books against their agency competitors).

In the past year, Scribd and Oyster announced ebook subscription programs. Pretty quickly, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster announced varying degrees of participation in the services. And then Macmillan followed. But Penguin Random House and Hachette stayed out. Hachette is the most author- and bestseller-driven of the major houses and author brands are the most likely long run casualties if subscription services succeed. But, if they succeed, Hachette will have to go back to them hat in hand. Penguin Random House won’t, necessarily.

Because if subscriptions are actually the wave of the future and the title rosters from Scribd and Oyster are sufficient to make that happen, then PRH could compete with them entirely on their own. They would have as many prominent commercial books from their own reservoir as the other services have aggregated. And they wouldn’t be sharing with a third party vendor.

It is worth noting that PRH has gone into the Scribd service with audiobooks.

When Oyster announced last month that they would now sell ebooks a la carte as well as in subscription bundles, some of the press saw more significance to the move than it warranted. Scribd started out as an a la carte document access site. Amazon itself formed a subscription service (Kindle Unlimited) the minute Scribd and Oyster announced what they were doing. If you have the capability to sell ebooks, why not sell them by whatever commercial arrangement the customer wants?

By the same token, the distinction between publishers and retailers is melting away. Amazon went into publishing very quickly after ebooks enabled self-publishing. Barnes & Noble published proprietary books for years, even before they bought Sterling in 2002. HarperCollins built a retailing capability for themselves in the past year. (The Tor.com imprint of Macmillan said they’d be selling DRM-free ebooks directly from their own site, but we have seen no evidence that they actually ever did.)

So, the reporter trying to understand the possibly-occurring Amazon-PRH negotiations wondered, would PRH become a retailer?

I don’t think so (at least not anytime soon), but I still believe — as I did when I first speculated about all this 2-1/2 years ago — that a store could have a competitive selection of books with titles exclusively from PRH. No other publisher could serve a general interest audience at retail without other people’s books as well.

How else could PRH be disruptive? They could offer a license to schools for their titles. If a school bought one of those to load its students’ digital devices with content, they wouldn’t have everything they might want but they could conceivably have all they need. How hard would it be to sell a competing license with less good stuff in it? How hard would it be to build an aggregation so that a competing license had as much good stuff in it?

The executives I’ve spoken with at PRH — and I have high personal and professional opinions of all of them — have consistently disclaimed any interest in most of what I’m suggesting. And, indeed, they haven’t started a subscription service and they’ve shown no signs of rolling out a program to create PRH-only bookstores. There are reasons, aside from altruism or short-sightedness, why they might resist these solutions. After all, PRH publishes about half the most commercial titles in the US book trade. Subscription services and retail competition would weaken the existing bookstore network, and PRH benefits from its existence in proportion to its relative size, which is to say “much more than anybody else”.

In fact, I’ve discussed the possibility that they could be so disruptive with the CEOs of two of the other Big Five, and neither executive (unlike the one I met with in London last week) expressed much concern. One said “they don’t want to do that”, meaning “they don’t want to destroy the competition in the trade” (which is a point of view that is actually supported by what the executives at PRH have said to me, as counter-intuitive as it seems). And the other one believes that having PRH in the game to negotiate with Amazon and B&N helps keep the terms of trade in check for everybody else as well. That executive likes having PRH there, with all its size and clout.

I had the conversation with the reporter that was the catalyst for this post on Wednesday morning and it was mostly drafted on Wednesday afternoon. Penguin Random House’s new consumer-centric web site was unveiled Thursday morning and underscores their support of the trade (they’re trying to push sales to retailers, not sell directly themselves). The site appears to give a page for every book they’ve got, which could well prove very useful as they build embellishments.

They refer the sales over to a robust choice of retailers for all formats. One thing I noticed was that a particular ebook I looked for — Napoleon, A Life by Andrew Roberts — is $45 in cloth, $20 in paperback, and the ebook is listed at $29.99! Running through the list of retailers to which PRH links directly, we can see that Amazon and Google Play discount the book down to an identical approximately 14.4% off $25.65 (with Amazon touting the massive saving over the hardcover price!) but the others listed — Apple, B&N Nook, Books-a-Million, and Kobo — offer it at the $29.99 list price. Close observers of the changing state of agency pricing will be watching whether the pricing or the discounting profile changes when PRH concludes that next round of negotiations.

And, incidentally, this also jibes with something we were told very recently by an ex-Nook employee, who said that the DoJ and Judge Cote effectively stopped B&N’s ability to compete with Amazon in its tracks when they opened up discounting of agency. Not only did they strip out margin that B&N desperately needed to compete, competing then effectively required price-monitoring capability to keep up with Amazon that was beyond their capabilities. Google has no problem doing that and maybe nobody else can keep up, but it would take looking at a lot more than one title to prove that.


Alternative paths to publishing proliferate but the path for authors most likely to be lucrative is still the oldest one

The Guardian reports that Big Five British publishers are aggressively courting authors to come directly to them rather than through agents. The specifics cited make this sound more like “toes in the water” than “a change in the value chain”. The Tinder Press division of Hachette is holding an “open submissions fortnight”. The editorial director of Random House imprint Jonathan Cape tweeted a request for submissions one time and got 5,000 of them. And HarperCollins’s new Borough Press imprint is holding its second annual “open submission”. They got a single publication out of 400 submissions last year.

The same story also acknowledges that agents are changing their processes too (and have been, as we’ve noted, back in 2011), specifically pointing to a creative writing program operated by the Curtis Brown agency which has “found 15 debut novelists” (presumably meaning they got them publishing deals) “in two and a half years”. It is also true that many self-publishing successes, including Hugh Howey, use literary agents to help them reach publishers outside their home market or language.

The writer featured in the story, Andrea Bennett, was picked up by HarperCollins after getting nowhere submitting to “a dozen” agents and getting nothing but rejection letters, some of which came so quickly after her submission that it felt to her like her material was not even read.

The publishers quoted in the story, not surprisingly, indicated that their interest was in getting to promising talent that the agents might be weeding out. But with one of the houses working its way through 5,000 submissions (“three have real promise”, the publisher says, and I have no idea if they see the irony in that statement that I do) and another repeating the exercise when last year they published one out of 400, the data suggests that the curation the agents are doing is a valuable service for the publishers.

Of course, there is a compensating financial element for publishers who do the work to find unagented books worth publishing. They can almost certainly make a more advantageous deal than they’d make with an agent. Not only can they almost certainly secure the book for a smaller advance (a point amply made in the piece), they are also more likely to get world rights. A picture caption suggests that the Bennett novel HarperCollins picked up has been sold to six markets. If they’re not all English, that’s an opportunity most agents would have denied the publisher.

An unagented author is not without cost and complication to a publisher, who would have to take on the agent’s function of explaining the lengthy and sometimes complex process of publishing to the author every step of the way. This posting from HarperCollins, saying that only their new digital-first imprint accepts “unsolicited manuscripts” is typical. It contains language protecting themselves by explicitly rejecting any responsibility to read, comment on, or even return the unsolicited manuscripts sent to them. (This is almost certainly less of a problem than it was in the past when all submissions were paper, not files. One friend recalled an author who wanted to sue a major house 15 years ago because the author foolishly submitted his only copy of his manuscript and it was “lost” by the publisher.) The exception HarperCollins cites for its digital first imprint is mirrored in an apparently much older posting on the Penguin site which excepts DAW, their science-fiction imprint.

But even if a house would process its “slush pile” (the long-standing term for the unagented and unsolicited submissions) efficiently, and few, if any, do, it couldn’t be a big winner for the publisher to spend much time with it.

Nothing in the Guardian piece suggests to me that my advice to aspiring authors should change. I always tell them to get an agent if they possibly can. (And I also tell them to use the deal database in Publishers Marketplace to find the right agent.) No agent works with odds as long as 1 in 400 or 3 in 5000 with their submissions. Some of the submissions that got lost in those numbers might have been looked at differently if they’d come from an established agent. It is also extremely likely that those submissions that were agented would have been improved somewhat by the agent before submission. Agents don’t just curate. They also edit.

Even the lead author in the Guardian story doesn’t prove the case. Yes, she got a deal with HarperCollins after having had a few agents reject her. But might another handful of agent submissions have gotten her representation that would have resulted in a better deal than the one she got? Or, put another way, what are the chances that a competent agent would have failed to submit to HarperCollins? And then, what are the chances that as an agented author she would have gotten a better offer than what she got?

Patience here might have been remunerative.

Because there are self-published books achieving commercial success, publishers are well aware that the funnel for projects managed by the agents is not delivering them every book that might sell. It almost certainly never did, but, without self-publishing, the books they missed never got the chance to prove themselves in the marketplace without them. Now they do.

This is a great thing for authors. Self-publishing can be a path to a publisher or an agent as well as a way to reach readers directly. For those authors comfortable taking on the tasks beyond authorship — editing, creating a cover, cleaning up the text file, setting up their metadata, and publishing through the various portals — the new paradigm can be a valid alternative to the time-honored, and laborious, process of finding an agent and then letting the agent get the publishing deal.

And it is clear that both publishers and agents recognize that there are alternatives to the historical standard and that they’ll miss good projects from extremely capable authors if they don’t make themselves more accessible to aspiring writers.

But even an exponential increase in the number of self-publishing successes or, now, in the number of authors going directly to publishers without an agent, doesn’t change the realities of book publishing. The big money almost always goes to the agented author whose work is sold to a big house. The rest of it is, from an overall industry perspective, still a sideshow.

Due to many inadequacies of Feedburner email distribution, including that it seems to be locking up Outlook for some of our subscribers, we’ll be switching to a new delivery mechanism shortly, perhaps with whatever (and whenever) will be the next post. So those of you who get these posts by email should be aware that the format and look of what we put in your inbox might change next time or the time after. Presumably all changes will be improvements.


No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one

One of the best-attended breakout sessions of Digital Book World 2015 was the discussion called “Should Amazon Be Constrained, and Can they Be?” which shared the very last slot on the two day program. That conversation was moderated by veteran New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta, and included Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, thriller author Barry Eisler, and Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation.

It turns out that the two Barrys, who have pretty much diametrically opposed positions on Amazon (Lynn wants them investigated by the DoJ as a competition-stifling monopoly; Eisler casts them, for the most part, as the heroes of the book business’s digital transition) have a common position on the Big Five publishers. They refer to them as a “cartel”. Eisler is sneeringly dismissive of “New York”, which he refers to the way Republicans of the 1980s referred to “Moscow”, as an obvious pejorative. He appears befuddled by how anybody interested in the well-being of authors and the reading public could take the side of these publishers who maintain high prices for books, contract with authors to pay them smaller percentages of sales than Amazon does (either through Amazon’s own publishing operations or through their self-publishing options), and notoriously reject a very high percentage of the authors who come to them for deals.

Perhaps because the focus was Amazon, perhaps because Eisler was both emphatic and entertaining in his roasting of the publishing establishment, and perhaps because the facts to defend them are not well known, neither moderator Auletta nor panelist Lowrey challenged the big publisher baiting from Eisler with which Lynn mostly agreed.

It was just as well that I wasn’t on the panel. I am not certain that Amazon can or should be constrained, but I am damn sure that the Big Five publishers are not villains, and they are certainly not a cartel. They do seem to be extremely poor defenders of their own virtue but they are doing yeoman work maintaining the value in the old publishing model — for themselves and for authors — while adjusting to changes in their ecosystem that require that they develop strong B2C capabilities while maintaining their traditional B2B model, the death of which has been greatly exaggerated. If I’d been on that stage, the discussion of Amazon would have been diverted when the trashing of the big publishers began.

I took the step of confirming in an email exchange my recollection of the counts in Eisler’s very entertaining, persuasive, and unchallenged indictment of the big publishers.

1. Their basic contract terms are all the same, which it felt at the time he was suggesting demonstrated collusion, but which in our subsequent exchange he clarified he interprets as evidence of “asymmetrical market power and a lack of meaningful competition”;

2. They pay too low royalties on ebooks, which he also attributes to their “asymmetrical power” and “an implicit recognition that publishers come out ahead if they don’t compete on digital royalties”;

3. They only pay royalties twice a year, rather than more frequently or more promptly, which Eisler also attributes to a lack of competition;

4. The term of big publisher contracts is normally “life of copyright”, which Eisler calls “forever terms”, and;

5. They reject a lot of authors. Here Eisler clarifies that this is not an “indictment, just an axiom”. I agree when he applauds self-publishing for creating a better world where “readers have more to choose from”. But we quickly part company again because he characterizes self-publishing as freeing us from a world where “an incestuous cartel” makes “virtually all the decisions about what tiny fraction of books readers will every have a meaningful opportunity to learn of and read”.

In our exchange, Eisler expressed the belief that “the only reason people have been okay with this is that the Big Five are ‘my people'”. So they get a pass which he likens to what conservatives gave George Bush or liberals give Barack Obama. (In another point of disagreement between us, Eisler seems to find very little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. I guess that is some people’s way of saying “nonpartisan”. What it says to me is “not discerning”.) And Eisler finds it “interesting” that the publishing revolution has “people decry” Amazon for “doing, or often only for potentially one day doing, the very things that are the definition of the Big Five.” (I have problems with this too, because none of the big publishers have a dominant market share selling books online and ebooks. In other words, Amazon and the publishers really aren’t comparable. Check back with me if any of the big publishers builds — or buys — a market-leading retailer.)

I’m going to plead “no contest” to the charge that the Big Five are “my people”, which I hope won’t discredit my arguments any more than the fact that Eisler is an Amazon-published author discredits his. But the cartoon picture of publishing in Eisler’s reviled “New York”, where some small group of extremely like-minded people apply their narrow views to effectively restrict what people read is a massive distortion of reality. Let me try to set the record straight about this world so many of my friends inhabit and with which I’ve been interacting for the better part of five decades.

First of all, the Big Five have plenty of competition: from each other, as well as from smaller niche publishers who may but be “big” but certainly aren’t “small”. (That is why the big ones so often buy the smaller ones — they add scale and simultaneously bring heterogeneous talent in-house). They are all quite aware of the authors housed elsewhere among them who might be wooable. In fact, since we have started doing our Logical Marketing work, we have done several jobs which were big author audits commissioned by publishers who wanted to steal the author, not by the one which presently has them signed. Eisler explicitly resisted accusing the publishers of “collusion”, but he does accuse them of “not competing” with each other. That is an accusation that is simply not supported by the facts. Nobody who has spent any time talking to people who work in big houses could possibly get the impression that they don’t compete.

(In fact, a friend of mine just moved from one big house to another. He is explicitly persona non grata at his prior employer. Now, in this case, I think the house that lost him is behaving childishly, but it certainly underscores the fact that they believe they are in intense competition and now this one-time colleague has gone over to “the other side”.)

But the big flaw in Eisler’s logic is the same one that dooms Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” project to irrelevance: the assumption that the per-copy royalty terms and rights splits are the most important element of publishing contracts. In fact, they’re not. Actually, those terms matter in 20 percent or fewer of the agented author contracts with the Big Five. Why? Because the agents get the publishers to pay advances that don’t earn out!

In fact, I have been told by three different big houses what they calculated the percentage of their revenues paid to authors amounted to. We could call that the true royalty rate. The three numbers were 36, 40, and 42 percent. That includes what they paid for sales of paperbacks, all of which carry “stipulated” royalties of well less than 10 percent of the cover price (and therefore below 20 percent of revenue).

Take that on board. Big publishers are paying 40 percent of their revenue to authors! That leaves them 60 percent to pay everything else: overheads, manufacturing, and profits! Compare that to the margin Amazon has even if they pay a 35 percent digital royalty, or compare it to what anybody else has in any other business after paying to acquire the raw material for what they sell. If there were really an “asymmetrical” power equation favoring publishers, you’d think they could acquire the author contracts for a bit less, wouldn’t you?

Not only were the authors’ collective royalty rates much higher than contracts stipulated, the authors got most of that money in advance, eliminating the authors’ risk. The only contracts on which the royalty terms matter are those that do earn out (and, arguably, those that are close). For all the others, most of Eisler’s list of complaints is irrelevant. And, for the record, I have never heard an author complain about that show of confidence, the work that follows in helping him or her reach an audience (which benefits all involved), nor the cash upfront.

More frequent accounting doesn’t matter if you aren’t owed any money. And if the solution to “forever” contracts were that you could buy your way out by paying back what you got in advances that your book didn’t “earn”, how many authors would do that?

But, in fact, agented authors don’t have forever contracts; agents have been negotiating performance clauses for publishers to keep rights for years. And, on top of that, no author in the US can possibly have a “forever” contract because the copyright law of 1978 requires the publisher to revert rights to the copyright holder after 35 years on request. Agents tell me this is has been resulting in additional “advances” for re-upped books for the past couple of years. Note: this is the law. No publisher disputes it. But the “forever contract” argument ignores it.

But, even beyond that, the negative characterization of Big Five New York publishing is terribly unfair.

First of all, the standard terms in big house contracts are almost always more generous than the terms in smaller publisher contracts. Few — if any — of the smaller ones pay a hardcover royalty as high as 15 percent of list. Although higher digital royalties can sometimes be found, usually those are from publishers who have little capacity to deliver print sales, so digital royalties is all you’re going to get. (That might be okay for a romance novel where a big majority of sales could be digital. It would be disaster for the author of just about anything except genre fiction.) And some smaller publishers actually pay less than 25 percent for digital royalties.

So the Big Five terms are generally better and they routinely pay agented authors advances that no other publisher would attempt to match.

But, beyond that, the idea that they are a “cartel” (a characterization enthusiastically seconded by Amazon critic Barry Lynn after it was introduced by Amazon supporter Eisler), is really preposterous. In fact, the Big Five are, to varying degrees, federations of imprints that even compete internally for books, sometimes to the extent that they will bid against each other when an agent conducts an auction. And it would appear from Eisler’s pre-Amazon publishing history that he himself has, in fact, been the beneficiary of bidding competition among major houses.

The internal-to-the-house competition occurs because of the way big publishers are organized. It has been understood for decades that some aspects of a publisher’s operation benefit from scale and size and other functions must remain small. In general, publishers deliver accounting, manufacturing, and sales as centralized functions and editorial acquisition and development, packaging and design, and marketing as localized capabilities housed within the imprints. The power of imprints, which are individual editorial units, varies, but it is generally the case that they have autonomy over their acquisitions and must “compete” internally for the centralized services.

The digital transition is definitely straining that organizational structure. Having the by-title P&L responsibilities distributed makes it more difficult for houses to organize cross-imprint initiatives for everything from direct sales to audience-centric (vertical- or subject-oriented) marketing. Having multiple imprints that all contain “general” lists is probably an anachronism in an age when we want brands (which imprints are) to make sense to consumers. Publishing imprint brands were always B2B, meant more to inform such trading partners as libraries and bookstores and reviewers, not the general public.

But the big houses reap large benefits from the power of their central services. They get rock-bottom prices for printing and lightning-fast service for reprints. They have daily contact with the biggest accounts, which matters for getting reorders onto suddenly-empty shelves or to execute a short-lived price promotion for an ebook. They have teams of people staying abreast of every promotional opportunity at every account or service like BookBub. They are increasingly developing teams and tools to keep their marketing metadata fresh and relevant, to monitor the online world for marketing opportunities, or to build or advise authors on creating effective web presences.

Although authors can certainly be found who felt they were signed and then ignored, most houses sweat all the details: editing the book, packaging it for sale, and following rigorous pre-publication routines to get endorsements. They all have special sales departments that are regularly working catalogs and specialty retailers for the books appropriate to their audiences. Smaller houses don’t have all these capabilities. To suggest to an author with no publishing background that s/he can do all this themselves, even with an unlimited budget to buy outside services, is really setting a novice up for frustration and failure, or at the very least near-certain dissatisfaction.

I asked Eisler about the competition among the big houses that doesn’t seem to enter his calculus. Here’s what he told me:

As for competition among the Big Five, I call it kabuki competition. Competition that results in decades of zero innovation and the same antediluvian lockstep contractual terms is by definition meaningless. It’s managed competition, agreed-upon competition. A lack of industry innovation is like the dog that didn’t bark: the absence is itself evidence, because in the presence of meaningful competitive pressure, industry players innovate. To argue otherwise, you’d have to argue there has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices. I think that would be a hard argument to make.

To put it another way, what the Big Five cooperate on is far more significant than what they compete on. By it’s [sic] nature, competition is more noticeable than cooperation, so a little bit of competition obscures a lot of cooperation.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell me much. I don’t know what the Big Five “cooperate” on. And though the argument that there “has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices” would, indeed, be nonsense, so is the claim that there has been no innovation. A “failure to innovate” doesn’t describe the last five years that I’ve been living through. All the Big Five houses have continuously reorganized, brought in outside-of-publishing digital talent at a high level to up their game, and introduced digital-first operations and contracts, all at the same time that they have had to manage down fixed investments in plant (warehouses) and change manufacturing-and-inventory processes to take advantage of improved digital printing capabilities.

It is now often forgotten that, while it is true that Amazon “made” the ebook market really happen, publishers had for a very long time before Kindle been creating editorially magnificent products and were far ahead of Amazon in seeking to publish in ebook formats, only partly because of better economics. (At the time all costs were additive and the market was tiny.) They published them because readers seemed to want them and big publishers, whatever their bashers might think, feel a responsibility to assure maximum distribution of a writer’s work.

In fact, the big houses all are comprised of competing imprints. Among them they employ hundreds of acquiring editors who are each trying to build their own successful lists (competing with each other). They are shamelessly commercial: a book with the potential to sell only a few thousand copies won’t get their attention. But, beyond that and those things that are far outside prevailing public morals and sensibilities, I can’t see any restrictions on what they’ll publish.

The Big Five houses have negotiated the digital transition that has occurred so far with startling success. The self-publishing business has grown, fueled by investment from Amazon and other big players, but big houses have hardly lost any authors. They are facing down dominant retailers in their two biggest channels — brick bookstores and online — and managing to maintain their margins and profitability. They are all moving on a variety of initiatives to build vertical (audience-centric) capabilities and extend their global marketing and sales reach.

But even if one assumes the “worst” of the big publishers, it is a total canard to say, as Eisler did to me, that “in the absence of meaningful competition, the Big Five has exercised incredible power over what books are published and what people are functionally permitted to read.” In fact, the argument that authors can reach their audiences successfully through self-publishing (which on other days, Eisler and his fellow musketeers Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath make with gusto) explicitly contradicts that contention. But so do Harry Potter, published by Scholastic, and “Fifty Shades of Gray”, picked up by Knopf after a self-published start, to name two sales phenomena of relatively recent times. There are a number of very capable publishers just a bit smaller than the Big Five (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has the Lord of the Rings books, for example) and there are legions of specialty publishers who do books the Big Five would generally not even consider.

Sometimes the Big Five acquire those publishers to add diverse author and publishing talent to their rosters to compete in niche markets. Harpercollins’s acquisitions of Thomas Nelson and Harlequin fit that description. How much a big house can publish is one thing; what they can publish is also a function of the talent onboard and the audience development that has already taken place.

The Big Five are actually specialists of a different sort: they do the books with the biggest commercial potential. I’d argue that having five very large companies all capable of making a book a mammoth commercial success is a pretty big number, not a small one. If those companies were broken into more of their component parts and we had 15 or 25 large-ish publishers rather than five giant ones, it is not at all obvious that author advances or sales would be higher. There would probably be more manufacturing and sales staff per title (and less investment in tech to support either) than there is now, but those salaries would be subtractions from the company’s margins, and would therefore likely increase book prices. That’s not going to produce more value for either authors or readers. So I actually think author advances — which one must always remember is the metric that matters most in determining how well authors are getting paid — would be lower.

During our on-stage conversation at Digital Book World 2015, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, took great pains to express his view that self-publishing capabilities are good for authors and for readers. On the same morning, Judith Curr, who is the President of S&S’s Atria imprint, explained how her house specifically targets successful indie authors to bring them in. Every big house has some respectful variation on those themes. The animus between big publishers and some components of the self-publishing community is really a one-way street. In a prior post of mine about the illogical publisher-bashing, the comment string taught me that the mostly rhetorical and histrionic arguments from the self-publishing side against the big houses constituted an emotional, not a rational, reaction.

A dispassionate examination of the facts and an understanding of how things really work make it clear that big publishers — both goaded and constrained by powerful agents — are very good for authors. That doesn’t mean self-publishing isn’t good for them too but, then, no big publisher I know is saying that it isn’t!