Hay House

Further ruminations about the complex notion of scale in publishing

Our May 29 conference is built around the theme of “scale” in our business, which means something different than it did a very short time ago. Usually “using scale” means “employing the competitive advantages of size” but it can also be leveraging efficiency; the key beneficial characteristic of scale is that unit costs decline with increased activity.

In times past in publishing, the advantages of scale included lower printing costs (bigger companies doing more volume get better prices); lower warehousing and systems cost (because operations almost always get cheaper on a unit basis as they get bigger); and more revenue for each unit sold (because bigger publishers with better lists could get retailer and wholesaler customers to buy at slightly lower discounts).

All of these scale advantages were centered around what has been the core capability of a book publisher: to put books in sight and in reach of consumers on retail shelves. For the better part of the past 100 years, the publisher who could do that more effectively than its competitors had a significant advantage in the marketplace.

But with more and more of the business of customers finding and buying books shifting away from stores, those scale advantages are both reversing in reality and diminishing in importance. Publishers who had built great systems, efficient warehouses, and a nonpareil sales network find them managing less and less “throughput.” That means that less of their business is taking place in their scale-advantaged activities, but it also means the price of maintaining them is going up on a unit basis.

That’s why you see the two Big Six publishers who have invested most heavily in their scalable activities — Random House and Hachette — most active in competing with Ingram and Perseus (two companies far more dedicated to providing services) pursuing distribution clients. They can offer the benefits of their scale pricing to clients and, at the same time, preserve those benefits for themselves as the print-to-store segment of their business diminishes.

The shift in the business to online discovery and purchase would, at first glance, seem to have a leveling effect. Scale in reaching customers that used to require big publishing operations are now largely offered by Amazon, Apple, and Google. When you “searched” for a book in stores (whether you knew you were searching for that specific book or not), you might find it there and you might not. And you were ever so much more likely to find it if the publisher had a stack of copies in the front than if they had one spine-out copy in a store section. Those distinctions aren’t nearly as determinant of whether you’ll find a book at Amazon, or have it suggested to you by Google.

So the smartest big companies have focused on where scale can benefit them in the new context. Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, made the point to me over a year ago that his company was advantaged because they were launching books by the dozen into the marketplace every week, and each one gave them an additional opportunity to learn about search optimization, customer reactions, and how various tools from Facebook to Pinterest worked to boost awareness and sales. He was confident that the volume of activity they engaged in provided its own scale advantage.

As former Random House marketing strategist Pete McCarthy will make exceedingly clear in his introductory remarks at our May 29 show (and will amplify considerably at the Marketing show we’ll hold on September 26 just about to be announced), publishers can and should plan and execute all their marketing efforts in a holistic way to keep learning both about the components of the marketplace environment and about individual consumers. And, yes, the bigger companies will have a definite scale advantage in doing that.

But in our increasingly unbundled book business, “scale” — unit costs going down with increased activity — can be applied to niches with precision.

Companies like Hay House and Harvard Common Press and even F+W Media are relatively tiny compared to Random House (even before the Penguin acquisition) or HarperCollins or Hachette, but their focus on specific audiences means they may learn more on a niche-by-niche, or even customer-by-customer, basis than the big guys do.

I keep being amazed at what my longtime clients at Vogue Knitting can do on the back of a relatively small-circulation magazine brand in a niche market, including staging phenomenally successful and profitable live events that will ultimately dwarf the returns from their book publishing efforts (and augment them at the same time). But they can truly apply the scale they have reaching the audience of people who knit and want to know more about it. Nobody can do it as effectively as they can.

(I’ve told this story before. An agent told me several years ago that he had sold a mind-body-spirit title to Random House and that they sold 12,000 copies. He sold the author’s second book to Hay House, a MBS publisher, and they sold 200,000 copies. At that time, I believe Hay House had about one million email addresses of MBS-interested people. They undoubtedly have many more now. That’s people that you can mail to free; scale doesn’t come more starkly presented than that. For MBS scale, Hay House is the 800 pound gorilla.)

What we’re beginning to see repeatedly is that scale can be provided from a position outside publishing. One of our panels on May 29 is of new publishers that work from a base outside the publishing business. Two major daily newspapers (the Chicago Tribune and the Toronto Star), a kids’ animation studio (Frederator), and a business school (Wharton) all have publishing programs. They’re built on their own scale, and they have cost-effectiveness both on the content creation side and the audience-reaching side of the spectrum of publishing activity provided by their existing activities.

Publishers have watched Amazon come into the publishing business employing their scale. They’re now seeing Google do the same thing. Google’s entrance is in a self-created game niche, apparently far less threatening than Amazon’s far-reaching multi-genre plus general publishing approach to signing up titles many publishers might also be competing for. (How long before Apple decides to publish some books?)

These cuts to the commercial publishers’ share of the market are coming from literally thousands of directions. Each is a relative pinprick, but cumulatively they could lead to a lot of bleeding. Will the “scale” that a big publisher can bring to marketing from the experience they have with thousands of titles from across the interest universe provide a proposition that gets them into the game for the biggest commercial-potential books that can be produced by this new myriad of players? If there is truly scalable marketing activity, it should only become more efficient by adding relevant titles to its activity base. That would seem like the modern publishing equivalent of the perpetual motion machine.

I’m not smart enough to know if that’s possible, but I don’t think we’d even be asking the question if bookstores had the share they had five years ago.

A dramatic demonstration of the opportunities that can be provided by scale occurred yesterday, when Amazon announced its new initiative “Kindle Worlds” around fan fiction. Fan fiction has existed in a commercial box; because it depends on using characters invented and owned elsewhere, it couldn’t be sold. But the all time record bestseller “50 Shades of Gray”, liberated by rewriting away from the “Twilight” characters that spawned it, showed the powerful commercial possibilities in the genre.

So Amazon is applying scale to create a whole new commercial enterprise. First, they are licensing the rights to material fans can turn into their own stories, starting with properties from Alloy Entertainment but clearly planning to build out from there. Then Amazon will sell (and own copyright) in the output, using its huge audience as a commercial launching pad and paying royalties to all the stakeholders. Everybody in the game wins: the originators, the fans who create the fiction, the fans who buy and read the fiction, and, of course, Amazon.

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Two new initiatives to ponder as we end the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rethinking book marketing and its organization in the big houses

Here’s a modest proposal about how marketers at big publishers should be organized.

By audience segment, or, to use my own favored terminology, by vertical.

Marketing demands it and entirely new business opportunities — beyond publishing — can arise from it.

A publisher — even the most general publisher — should figure out which audiences it targets again and again. Some of those are easy and neat and defined by genre, like “romance readers”. Some of them might be defined by demographics and might overlap with genre readers, like “single women under 30”. Some of them might be defined by interests, such as “passionate chefs”.

Each audience segment already has its own web sites, its own apps, its own nomenclature, its own influencers. And, of course, each audience segment wants to know about the books (and other content) that relate to its core interest.

Marketers have always asked about every title: “who is the audience?” Now to optimize their digital marketing efforts, publishers large and small are wanting to know about that audience: “where can I find them?”

Big publishers have always posed their marketing questions in a title-by-title context.

Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, came to the conclusion by using the social listening tools in the market (like Covercake and Radian 6) that the best approach with them was to use them categorically, rather than title-by-title. He spelled that out to the audience at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last October.

Pete McCarthy of McCarthy Digital made a related point to me when he explained that it became very clear to him at Random House that the more data that he had to work with, the more effectively he could target an audience. So the rich get richer. It was a lot easier for Pete to structure a strong marketing outreach for Dan Brown than for a first novelist. And it is much easier for marketers to build up data around a category of readers than it is around any single title.

But, as far as I can tell, no publisher has (yet) taken the step of moving away from title-centric marketing structure to an audience-centric marketing organization.

It is bound to happen. There will be increasing pressure on the existing structure driven by two related realities: bookstore decline and Internet-based marketing opportunities.

Until a very short time ago, books not in a bookstore had very little chance of selling, regardless of how powerful a publicity break they could generate. Now we’re seeing an average (across titles and genres) of more than 30% of the book sales being made online. “In stock in stores” isn’t nearly the requirement to make sales that it used to be and it will be less important every month than it was the month before for a long time to come.

The understanding that books wouldn’t sell if they weren’t available at retail excused the savvy publisher from reacting to every marketing stimulus that came down the pike. Only the successful books remained widely available more than 90 days after publication date, so media breaks that occurred later than that in most books’ lives had to meet a very high threshold to be worth acting upon. If the publisher didn’t know about a break far enough in advance to get books in place — and if the break weren’t persuasive enough to make retailers cooperate with that effort, perhaps on a book they’d returned a month or a year ago — then it was just background noise.

In fact, relatively few real marketing breaks occurred for books post-publication in the past the way they do now. Sophisticated print and air media tended to be most interested in books when they were new. If you’re “book-centric”, you focus on the new and upcoming, not on the history.

But life isn’t like that anymore. Books can be discovered at any time because the metadata doesn’t disappear from the virtual shelves. And because so much of the media isn’t book-centric (very few blogs have a book review editor sifting though the new releases), if the book is new to them and relevant to their audience’s current concerns, they’ll be interested in it.

So while it used to be perfectly acceptable (even “highly professional”) to ignore an author’s call telling his or her editor that s/he has a radio interview scheduled for next Saturday (although you would always say “thanks for letting us know”), it isn’t anymore.

With more marketing breaks taking place that are independent of a book’s publication date and in a time when we can no longer call off the marketing efforts for each book when it is about a month old, the by-title approach to marketing is bound to become a workflow nightmare. The old stuff won’t move out of the way to make room for the new. And books remaining permanently in the marketplace combined with the proliferation of marketing outlets assures that the number of stimuli calling for a response will just continue to grow.

It will become less and less acceptable (and less and less wise) to simply ignore post-publication marketing breaks. And when publishers move away from a title-driven marketing structure to an audience-driven marketing structure, it won’t be necessary either.

This is how I imagine organizing the trade publisher’s marketing department in the future. I’m describing an idealized scenario to get there that is almost certainly not immediately practical for anybody, but I think makes it easier to visualize the desired state.

A publisher will build a list of target audiences, defined by interest or demographics. Probably this exercise is best started by looking at the company’s top 1000 titles (I’m imagining a Big Six-type house here; the exercise is actually easier for a smaller and nichier player.) We’ll call the individual audience segments being targeted “verticals.” Each vertical will be assigned a team (although a single team might work more than one vertical and any individual marketer could be on more than one team). Flexibility is key here; each audience has different value to the house and the person-hours allotted to the vertical has to bear some reasonable relationship to the revenue potential. So these teams are not “one size fits all”. That’s why marketers will be on more than one team; some will warrant a fraction of the time and effort of others.

For each vertical, the marketing team’s job is to make audiences aware of the house’s books on a timely basis (which does not mean “pub date”, but means “when a book is currently relevant and likely to be of interest to the audience” which is something that is, on some level, examined anew every single day), to get the audience to “talk” (tweet, blog, chat, comment) about the house’s books, to know enough about trends with the audience to suss out topics of future interest, and to conceive marketing programs — subscription services, establishing brands, selling non-content offerings — to both monetize and get closer to the market.

In some verticals, it might be possible to establish a community hub — a website or an app or a subscription offering or a sharing or annotation capability — that can serve as an anchor for ongoing communication with the vertical. But that won’t happen most of the time. What the marketing team is looking for are the hubs that already exist and the ways to get close to them, collaborate with them, identify the opportunities they present and take advantage of them.

Let’s imagine that there are 100 such audiences with teams assigned to them to start out. Any book might call for help from one of them or several of them. Only in very rare cases should it be necessary to coordinate efforts for a book across teams, because they’re working different audiences.

This approach will result in publishers learning a lot more than they know about the audiences for what they publish. For example, one would imagine (going in) that “literary fiction” has an audience that is common: that there are people that want to read the most “writerly” books. But it will only become evident over time whether “quality” (meaning “literary” or not) trumps genre categorically. I’d assume a priori there are books that would “work” for a romance or sci-fi vertical but also for a “literary” vertical. But perhaps the “literary” team will find that well-written romances don’t work with their audience, even though well-written science fiction does.

Working this way will deliver a publisher a much deeper understanding of the readers and what makes them respond. The most obvious drawback is that it will be more difficult to manage the marketing teams on a per-title basis. You will be putting titles into the hands of many different teams because it has many overlapping audiences when you define them by interests and demographics. And each of them will have timing and messages that are largely, if not primarily, influenced by the environment in their vertical.

Obviously, it will be much harder to coordinate a Big Bang on pub date using this approach. But the guess here is that the necessity for that is diminishing over time anyway and it will be compensated for by the improvement of marketing across the list, on smaller titles and on backlist. There’s room for a “big books coordination” function. It won’t interfere much with the work of the individual teams to have to be in corporate harness for a small number of titles.

With this sort of structure in place, all sorts of additional development not only becomes possible, it becomes inevitable. And the problem of knowing when and how to react to marketing breaks will largely be solved. Purely hypothetically, the “electoral politics” vertical team might find that an NPR break is worth a lot of effort to promote and the “gourmet eating” vertical team might learn it isn’t of much value at all. Niche subscription services, newsletters, first chapter distributions, and event development will flow naturally from the focus on audiences. Having a large number of teams, with many marketers working more than one of them, will encourage both experimentation and the spread of best practices.

This audience-centric way of thinking is pretty natural, or at least easier, for smaller publishers. They tend to specialize by subject or genre more than the bigger players do anyway. They don’t have new titles literally every day — every major house does more than 365 books a year and some are publishing closer to 10 titles every working day — to keep their marketers from having the time to think about anything else. (Yes, the big houses have more marketers than the smaller ones, but whether they have more headcount per title would be a different question.)

It has already happened that the vertical marketing efforts of smaller, more-focused houses have enabled them to be very competitive with big houses in certain niches. One agent told me several years ago that he had concluded that the mind-body-spirit specialist publisher Hay House could sell many times the number of copies of a book in their sweet spot than a Big Six house. Hay House has focused on its audience, collecting email names and running paid events, for years. They have the ability to promote to hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of their core audience without incremental cost. And, not to say that there isn’t plenty of imaginative marketing thinking in their shop, I’d maintain that the innovations that give them marketing power follow pretty naturally from publishing and marketing to the same audience repeatedly. They didn’t have to organize vertical teams for marketing; their entire company is a vertical team.

And Jane Friedman’s Open Road, much of whose list consists of established backlists for which the company was able to acquire the ebook rights, is not as “vertical” but they are similarly untethered from a publication-date-driven marketing strategy. Open Road works from a marketing calendar that looks at the events that will drive consumer behavior and they market to that. What have we got and how can we position it for Father’s Day? What have we got and how do we position it for Election Day? It isn’t exactly vertical, but it is audience-centric and thinking that way makes it natural for the marketers to promote the right backlist at the right time.

But it is structurally much more difficult for a major house to do this because it means blowing up — or at the very least diverting a lot of resources from — the existing title- and imprint-based marketing structure. Imprints in major houses were rarely if ever formed around audiences; they were formed around editorial units. In general houses, even the individual editoral units work tend to work across many topical areas. In the big houses, really it is only the genre fiction that gets an editorial unit, branding, and marketing teams dedicated to them.

That’s why many of the the most interesting innovations in the big houses, like Tor’s massive mailing lists and cross-publisher ebook store and Avon’s Facebook-centric initiative to sell non-DRMd titles through AllRomanceebooks.com, tend to come from the genre fiction units.

There is definitely full awareness in the major houses that “marketing at scale” must replace “we put books on shelves” as their defining value proposition. They are shifting more and more resources to marketing. They’re investing in and learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing).

Random House, showing one strategy that is consistent with this perspective, is developing a tool set to create bookstores for existing vertical sites, starting with Politico. If it works, that’s an extensible way to get the marketing benefits of niche community-building for your books without having to build the community yourself. And it fits with the point we make above that vertical marketing efforts don’t have to be about creating communities; it is more efficient to exploit those that have already been created.

But as far as I can tell, no house is close to accepting the reality that the title-driven and pubdate-driven marketing techniques that we all grew up with will shortly have outlived their usefulness. The increased demands on marketers created by new opportunities, particularly those arising for books past their pub date, are being met now by adding to staff and tinkering with the rules about what’s worth attention and what isn’t and, of course, trying to create tools and techniques that will enable the title-driven and pubdate-driven efforts to be more effective at scale.

Change will ultimately come in stages. (I can’t even imagine how one would quickly implement the plan as I describe it here in a massive publishing house.) Nobody will start with 100 vertical marketing teams and small remnants of the existing structure. But it is definitely time for every house to have three or six marketing teams focused on specific audiences.

When those have raised the sales on the relevant backlist, resuscitated some dormant titles into an active status, created a couple of surprise bestsellers a few months after they were published, and brought in a few great books that were never seen by an agent or any other house, it will make it much easier for management to see for themselves, and persuade all their colleagues, that this is the way to the future.

And, beyond that, when publishers become expert in targeted audiences and also have content reservoirs to attract them and learn more about them, entirely new commercial opportunities will emerge. But that’s imagineering on top of imagineering, so we’ll leave it for another day.


Will juvie publishing remain a book business as tablets take over?

This post will discuss a realization I had even before this morning’s news about the developing e-products scene. I’ve always been a skeptic about enhanced ebooks, based on seeing my hunch that they wouldn’t work come true 15 years ago with CD-Roms. But it is increasingly obvious that CD-Rom type thinking will work very well for kids’ books. In fact, I’m beginning to think that enhanced ebook or app-type delivery could overwhelm books as a container-of-choice in a pretty short time. Single digit years.

The reasons that I’m skeptical about enhanced (or enriched, a recent term I’ve heard that might be better) ebooks is because most adult books are written as narrative reading experiences not intended to be interrupted and now being read by people who value the immersive experience. (Not all. But most of the kind we think of as bestsellers or literature.) My guess is that it is going to be hard to shift many of the hours of consumption now devoted to immersive reading to something quite different. And I see that as a qualitatively different challenge than moving immersive reading itself from one delivery mechanism (paper) to another (screens.)

The reason that kids’ material didn’t survive the CD-Rom period 15 years ago was the complexity of the delivery mechanism. You had to be at a computer, which usually meant a desktop computer. You had to load the CD-Rom, which on most computers (because few then were Macs) required additional navigation before they would play. These products just weren’t really accessible to kids, even if the programming they contained was designed for them.

But those reservations just don’t hold for kids’ “books” (if that’s what you call them) migrated to the iPad, a smartphone or, now, the NOOKcolor (which, I think, is how its owners would like us to spell it.)

The degree to which you can immerse yourself in a book is directly proportional to the fluency with which you read. That means that the younger you are, the more likely you are to accept the interrupted reading experience .

And as the devices get cheaper and more ubiquitous, parents and kids will learn fast how entertaining, instructive, and accessible interactive experiences can be.

I started writing this post over the weekend because we knew about several entrepreneurial ventures that were focused on developing kids’ material in this way. Then this morning’s Publishers Lunch told us the story of the developments at Callaway, which only underscore that some serious money is betting on this direction.

In short, I have come to the point of view that the juvie book business is going to migrate to enhanced digital products much faster than adult narrative text and that, as a result, the origination and publishing for the various kids’ book marketplaces will be increasingly the province of new companies and less and less the business of book publishers.

The Callaway Digital Arts story as Publishers Lunch reported it today is stunning. Not only did they secure $6 million in financing led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’s iFund, they have won a $30 million “Ready to Learn” grant from the Department of Education. With this wind at their backs, Callaway says they plan to be producing 150 apps a year by two years from now. They’re being seen by Apple as a “strategic partner” helping the iPad to “transform education.”

While the Callaway start-up is the most dramatic, they’re hardly alone in focusing on the market for enhanced kids’ content built on books .

Oceanhouse Media is building what seems like a comparable business a completely different way. Rather than going to investors for capital, Oceanhouse managed to self-capitalize by building a network of developers willing to work for a piece of the projects they are developing. They’ve got deals with Hay House (that’s not for kids, primarily), their neighbors in San Diego. And they’ve secured rights to Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears. In a conversation with them, it sounded like they’d be delivering new products at the rate Callaway projects even sooner than two years from now.

Trilogy Studios has partners who have run game studios at Electronic Arts, Fox Interactive and Vivendi Universal Games and recently launched their most successful children’s product to date, a casual MMO (that’s a “Massive Multiplayer Online” game) based on a very successful animated feature film. They’ve expanded their portfolio to include interactive storybooks and social games and hired publishing veteran Marc Jaffe (recently of Rodale) to secure rights to some of the most recognizable entertainment and publishing brands for further digital development.

Rick Richter, recently the head of children’s publishing at Simon & Schuster, has his own new entrant in the field called Ruckus Media Group. They’re doing Apple and Android apps, have acquired rights to the Rabbit Ears Library (children’s classics read by celebrities) and are signing authors for original content.

Smashing Ideas is a website, game, and app studio that has been in business for 14 years. They’ve worked with youth-focused brands like Hasbro, Nickelodeon, and Disney for many years. Now they have a deal to develop projects with Random House and they’re also going to town on public domain books with apps out or coming soon for War of the Worlds, The Jungle Book, and The Wizard of Oz. This shouldn’t be a big surprise because Ben Roberts, who now leads their ebook division, helped create Alice for the iPad.

All of this investment and all of this development must be seeing the same thing I’m seeing. Kids are going to be a big market for this kind of product. Straight narrative reading can be immersive to the extent that the act of reading itself is easy and effortless. You can’t lose yourself in the story if you’re looking up words or frequently re-reading sentences to get the meaning.

That means it is a lot harder for a younger person to get immersed in just words on paper. That’s why kids’ books offer so much more than that: pictures, of course, but also pop-ups and various other entertaining three-dimensional devices, to the extent they can be delivered in something which is fundamentally bound paper.

You could say kids have been getting “enhanced books” forever!

The new devices have much better capabilities than CD-Roms did to engage in ways other than with words — ways which those of us who love immersive reading might find distracting or annoying but which kids love. Intuitive touchscreen navigation, a relatively recent development, makes it even easier to engage and interact with an active mind that hasn’t yet learned enough language to work comfortably with written cues.

I don’t live in a child-centric atmosphere, but I’ve been aware for the past couple of years that parents who thought their kids were too young for the connectivity expense of an iPhone would buy them an iPod Touch, which does what an iPhone does except make and receive calls (and, therefore, has no monthly connection fee associated with it.) A friend of mine who is pretty determinedly “old media” was recently asking me what I thought about a Touch for his 7-year old, who wanted to keep up with his friends by having one. These kids aren’t using Google for their homework; they’re playing games that are the leading edge of the new kids’ book business.

The iPad drew these new players into the explicit business of making enhanced ebooks of kids’ books. The NOOKcolor only adds fuel to the fire.

And because the NOOKcolor is half the price or less of an iPad, parents will be more relaxed about having their kids playing with it.

There is anecdotal testimony that kids can become more interested in a paper book after they’ve been exposed to the character and story through an enhanced ebook or app. We’re finding that out because the enhanced ebooks being made today are starting out from books that already exist. This is a totally sensible way into the business. Why add to the creative challenge by starting from scratch when there is a wealth of established brands and characters to license? And as the first great success in this enhanced kids genre, Alice for the iPad, demonstrated and Smashing Ideas has picked up, even the requirement of licensing can be sidestepped by using a public domain text as its basis.

The guess from here is that publishers — or whoever owns the rights — will have a nice business for a while licensing books and characters to enhanced ebook developers called “digital studios” who will make very successful products. In time — and not too much time — those studios will become the originators of the new characters and franchises and the book will become the “subsidiary right.” How soon? Not long. Three to five years?

Any publisher that wants to be serving the kids’ market in the middle of this decade better buy one of those studios, or start one.

This idea jumped into my head about a month ago; it had to get past my prejudice against annoying interruptions which is how I view most enhanced ebooks meant for grown-ups. So of course, we started to put together a panel on the subject for the Digital Book World Conference immediately. That got me talking to a lot of these companies. We haven’t made the final call on which three or four will be discussing what they’re up to at the show on January 25-26, but it will certainly be a conversation about juvie publishing’s near-term future.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cool Springs Press, a gardening publisher that really understands “vertical”

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been on the “vertical” trail for a long time and I try to stay abreast of book publishers’ efforts to realize the advantages of subject specialization and community building. I wrote a whole post about the Sourcebooks initiative, Poetry Speaks, when it launched last Fall. I have often referred to the vertical efforts of Hay House and Harvard Common Press. And I’m proud to have had a small role in Sterling’s creation of Lark Crafts and their forthcoming Pixiq site for photography.

But of all the efforts I’ve seen so far, the book publisher who seems to have taken the vertical vision we espouse the furthest — one that elevates community-building above content-selling as the first priority — is Cool Springs Press in Nashville, Tennessee. We spent some time earlier this week talking to Roger Waynick, their founder and CEO, to learn more about what they do, looking for lessons that other publishers can apply.

The thing that was most striking about our conversation with Roger was the frequency with which he referred to “our industry”, by which he did not mean the book business! He meant the lawn and garden business, which is the vertical that Cool Springs Press serves. This is a nuanced but massive differentiator. If a company thinks of itself as a “book publisher”, it is already off on the wrong track. If it thinks of itself as a content- and information-provider for an industry or a community, its self-image will lead to it doing the right thing much more often. And the very first right thing a book publisher with community aspirations has to do is to create a site that has very little reference to books, which they have.

Waynick knew nothing at all about publishing when he started Cool Springs Press in 1994. He was looking for a book about gardening and he started from the highly logical presumption that what he needed was local information, since gardening has to match the geography. A visit to a large and well-stocked local bookstore yielded nothing except confirmation that what he wanted didn’t exist.

So he created it and he created a formula. He found a local gardening advisor with a media presence and created a “Tennessee Gardening” book. Waynick had intuitively done the right thing. Finding content knowledge and promotional capability combined meant that he had recruited what the smartest publisher with experience would have called the best possible author. Before long, he was extending his franchise, creating gardening books by state, one after another. (At this point, Cool Springs has state-specific gardening books for 48 states.)

In 2003, large Nashville publisher Thomas Nelson embarked on a strategy to expand out of their religious publishing niche. (They didn’t ask me…) They acquired a few smaller publishers with non-controversial publishing programs and Waynick took the opportunity to sell his business. For the next few years, until Nelson management changed and the strategy changed to re-focus on their core business, he consulted to them and stayed somewhat in touch with the business he’d created.

But when the strategy at Nelson changed, Waynick was ready to buy his company back and turn it into a real content vertical. In 2007, he regained control of Cool Springs Press, set up trade distribution through Ingram Publisher Services, and started to invest seriously in the capabilities he needed to be more than just a book publisher.

Waynick’s key insight was that the lawn and garden customer was looking for solutions. And solutions, to be practical, had to be local. So he constructed a taxonomy around plants (roses, gardenias) and around actions (planting, weeding) to tag the content in his state-specific books. Waynick estimates that, since reacquiring Cool Springs in 2007, he’s spent a dollar on upgrading, tagging, and curating old content for every four dollars he has spent creating new books. And he invested that money upgrading his content repository with faith, but no clear plan about how he’d get it back.

In a formulation that echoes what we’ve heard earlier from Harvard Common Press talking about cookbooks and recipes, Waynick said he needed to see his content as a database of information, not as a collection of books. And just like Harvard Common, he looks at his database for “what’s missing” to direct him about what new content he needs to acquire.

He continued to build on his special retailing network. (Ingram handles Cool Springs’s trade sales, but Waynick maintains the relationships with the lawn and garden trade directly.) He recalls that, when he started, it seemed wildly counterintuitive to a national chain to put a Tennessee book in only the Tennessee stores, and so forth. But his sales were so robust that the skepticism quickly melted away. He built closer relationships with those special retailers by custom publishing: putting together books especially for a particular retailer. His path was smoothed in all these things by his author relationships; many of them were, like his first author, local gardening experts with radio shows popular with the core audience.

This year, for the first time, substantial revenue has flowed to Cool Spring from content licensing. About 10% of Cool Springs’s revenue will come from licensing content to web sites and creating apps for other players in the lawn and garden space. About 25% will come from the book trade, 35% from home center book sales, 15% from individual lawn and garden centers, and the balance from other special outlets like hardware stores.

The way Waynick sees it, the licensing side of the business has just begun to work. Next year will be far larger than this. He expects licensing sales to surpass book sales for his company in 2012.

Cool Springs has an online bookstore at gardenbookstore.net. In his retailing capacity, he sells the books of all his competitors. The day we spoke, Waynick pointed out that only two of the 15 books on his retailing front page were his publications; the rest came from other publishers. Perhaps because he’s a “customer”, he says that more and more of his competitors seems receptive to collaboration, allowing him access to their material for his efforts to provide content to retailers and wholesalers in the lawn and garden industry.

Waynick is not terribly concerned about competitors. Having been the first to act on the insight that gardening is local and that content has to be developed with a highly local point of view, and then having invested to put his content into shape for re-use, he really sees no other player that can deliver the variety of relevant content that he can. And now he’s moving on to a new opportunity that he is uniquely positioned to exploit.

Reflecting the initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama, school gardens are springing up all over the country. Waynick says that over 3000 new ones were created last year. Working with school administrators, Waynick is developing curriculum for the schools from his content. This also puts him in a position to help his retailers and his authors find additional opportunities. And how convenient is it for him that education in this country is organized the same way his book program is: state-by-state!

Waynick also recognizes the value of his author base. He does his best to keep his authors working, and not just on books. They blog for him and create content for his licensing clients as well.

One point that Waynick made in our conversation is an important one for all publishers to take on board: the presentation of content needs to be sensitive to the audience. Too often, he says (and he’s right), publishers end up with catalog copy meant to sell a book to a store buyer being presented on a web site to an end user customer. The copy is wrong for the purpose. He credits his distributor, Ingram, with having a system that helps him deliver the right metadata to the right places.

The future for Cool Springs Press looks very bright. Waynick is already providing content for a number of national retailers, including one of the brand leaders, which is what has jump-started his licensing revenues. These players see good content as a critical competitive requirement. They represent a growth market for web content, apps, and custom books and the growth opportunities they will offer will far exceed the rate of shrinkage in the traditional book market.

What we think will be interesting to watch going forward is how much Cool Springs moves into the business of selling things other than content to the audiences they keep growing and nurturing. They’re certainly positioned to do that.

But the important thing is that they can readily withstand shrinkage in the book trade or even in the printed book business. They’re bound to become an increasingly important marketing mechanism for all their competitors, who will become increasingly dependent on them for exposure to the consumer audience. And they’re in that position because they’re vertical and because they were willing to invest in their long run value to their community.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My advice is not always easy to follow, but sometimes it proves right anyway

I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by a journalist who was working on a story about publishers and digital change. He was building something around my “Stay Ahead of the Shift” speech from last year’s Book Expo.

“I was impressed by that speech,” he said. “You were very prescriptive about what publishers should do. So my first question for you is whether anything has changed since that speech?”

“No,” I said.

“Well then, would you say that trade publishers are doing any of the things you suggested? Have they taken your suggestions on board?”

“No,” I said.

“What would they say, then, about the assessment you offered? If I put you and a major trade player on a stage together to discuss the content of that speech, where would they say you went wrong?”

“They wouldn’t,” I said. “They’d probably say I was right and that they’re doing what I suggested. But they’re not.”

We moved along and talked about how the world is indeed, as I said, moving to vertical. We talked about publishers like Hay House and F+W and others that have extensive email lists of book purchasers that they can target directly, and inexpensively, every time they publish a new book. These are advantages and marketing capabilities that the big general publishers don’t have.

After we’d been talking for a while, the journalist had a last question. “Can you suggest any top executives you think I should talk to for this story?”

I suggested one that I thought was interested in pushing out the company point of view. Didn’t work. “I’ve been trying to get to that person for a week and my calls aren’t being returned,” said the journalist.

Then I mentioned another. “Oh, yes,” I was told. “I talk to that person very regularly.”

“A very smart person,” I said. The journalist agreed.

“So take this on board,” I said. “We’re talking about somebody who is a friend of mine. We’re talking about somebody who understands everything I say very well, but who isn’t implementing it. What does that tell you?”

It tells me that big companies are in the business of acquiring rights, creating products called books, and selling them. They have numbers to meet every quarter. They can’t start switching over their businesses from a model based on selling products to a model based on owning communities just because Mike Shatzkin says that’s the future.

I thought back to two pieces of advice I dispensed over a decade ago. In about 1999, executives at Book-of-the-Month Club paid me a modest sum for a quick-and-dirty strategic assessment. My advice anticipated my later thinking, even before I had learned to articulate the concept of “vertical.” What I told them is “book clubs don’t map into the 21st century. Communities of interest do. So you have to take your hunting and fishing book club and turn it into a hunting and fishing community.”

“How would we monetize that?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll have to figure that out.”

So they said “thank you very much” and moved on. They apparently made the (perfectly rational) decision to keep extracting cash from the book clubs until they couldn’t anymore and then sell them, if they could. If you owned a blacksmith shop in 1910, you might not want to invest in developing an auto mechanic’s capabilities just because you could see it coming. You might want to just pull out your blacksmith profits and go into another line of work. Or put the money in a bank.

At about the same time, the owners of the Atlantic Monthly magazine asked me for thoughts about a web strategy. “What are you most known for?” I asked.

“Publishing great writing,” they said.

“And who are your top competitors?” I asked.

“The New Yorker and Harper’s,” they replied.

“Then my advice would be to partner with the two of them and create a web community dedicated to great writing.” That advice also went no further.

Looking back on both of those recommendations, I recognize how hard it would have been to follow them. But imagine there were a Hunting and Fishing community that had been built on the backs of the hundreds of thousands of names BOMC had a decade ago. Think you could sell some red checkered jackets and fishing tackle through it now?

And in this age of diminishing reviewers and proliferating content requiring evaluation for consumers of quality literature, do you think my Atlantic-New Yorker-Harper combo community would have some real power today that could be turned into money? I do.

I see the big publishers developing vertical presences in the few areas where they have enough of a content flow to attempt it: books for kids and teens and the genres, particularly romance and science fiction. And they’re leaving just about all the others to upstarts who are slowly and methodically building their presences in cooking (book publisher Harvard Common Press and web sites like Cookstr and Serious Eats), mind body spirit (Hay House), sustainable living (Chelsea Green), crafts (F+W and C & T, among others) and the list will just continue to get longer.

General trade publishers will soon find themselves handicapped trying to sell anything except the most challenging books: the sure-to-be-big ones that cost a fortune to sign and the fiction, memoirs, hot current topics, and other writing that is the most expensive to promote book by book. And they’re remaining dependent on a very fragile chain of intermediaries.

Just as BOMC pursued a strategy that eschewed converting book clubs to communities in favor of squeezing every penny out of the old model, it is also rational for today’s big publishers to pursue a “last man standing” strategy. It will be a very long time before major authors don’t sell lots of print books and they’re going to need a strong organization to print those books and put them on the shelves that are out there. They need a strong organization. But do they need six?

Aside from “last standing”, the other alternative to my “multi-niche development” suggestion is to convert from a rights-acquiring publisher to a service organization. HarperCollins seems to be at least exploring the development of that alternative.

We have had remarkable stability among big publishers since Bertelsmann acquired Random House in 1999. There are reasons for the owners of every one of today’s players to sustain their present operations for the greater good of the larger organization. But would a 10% reduction in the number of bookstores in the US change their mind? How about a 25% reduction? How many years do you think it will be before we find out?

I’d say no more than five, and it could be two.

I am addressing UK publishers at the Annual General Meeting of the Publishers Association at the end of April. I’m taking another look at the Shift speech to try to re-cast the advice for trade publishers to make it more “followable.” One thing for them is to start thinking about the day when they can sell ebooks globally and, in effect, get distribution in the US market without going through a US publisher. On the one hand, why should they care, since they’re all global companies anyway? On the other hand, we know they do care because the UK publishers have been on a pretty successful crusade to convert Europe from an open market where US and UK editions compete to one that is closed to US entries. I suspect that as ebooks grow to and past a quarter of sales over the next few years, UK publishers will be able to see the virtue in a less rigid territorial regime.


With new opportunities come new challenges

This blog and my speeches contain frequent references to what we see as the big shifts the book publishing industry, and some publishers more than others, are feeling. The horizontal and format-specific product-centric media of the 20th century are inexorably yielding to the vertical and format-agnostic community-centric delivery environment for content that will soon predominate.

In that context, we’ve observed that the most general publishers are the most challenged. The distinction between publisher and retailer is blurring; in a decade or two it will be a distinction without much difference. What has always been the source of competitive advantage to trade publishers is leverage; they could reach thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of customers for their wares through retail channels that aggregated audiences for content creators and curated content for consumers.

The non-trade components of the book business: publishers of textbooks, professional information, databases, and academic content already tended to specialize by subject so the challenge of being audience-specific, a prerequesite to creating community, had already been met. Non-trade publishers had never depended much on horizontal intermediaries. Even in college textbook publishing, which depended (and still largely does) on the college bookstore to actually deliver the product and collect the consumer’s money, the marketing component of the bookstore’s contribution was and is minimal. The publisher works vertically through a network of professors to drive adoptions, and adoptions are what drive the sales.

Trade publishers, which are called trade publishers because they reach consumers through “the trade” network of bookstores, libraries, and the wholesalers that serve them, have been generally alert since the 1970s to the importance of what are generically called “special sales”. Those are sales that come from outside the book trade, often from retailers in other channels. Special sales experts learned pretty quickly that you did better when you had a selection of books for an audience. If you had one book of Jewish interest, you couldn’t do much with it. If you had a dozen, it could make sense to buy a mailing lists of rabbis. If you had one home repair book, you couldn’t afford the cost of setting up relationships with retailers of hardware or construction materials (particularly thinking back to days before those outlets had consolidated into giant retailers like Home Depot and Loew’s.) But if you had a list, then the mutual interest in a relationship was obvious to both sides.

Some publishers specialized. When I was consulting with Wiley in the 1980s as they were developing their fledgling trade program, they brought their philosophy of really covering the needs of a vertical market from sci-tech to trade. They didn’t want just one resume book for job-hunters: they wanted one at every sensible price point and different ones for different kinds of jobs. One day a sales rep called in from the road to suggest that they deliver a book on the cover letters that should go out with resumes. They already knew they had a market through specialized customers of all kinds and through their direct mail efforts. The lists that worked for resume books would also work for cover letter books.

The most “general” of the general trade publishers tended not to develop the same depth of specialized lists. When Wiley considered that cover letter book, they knew they’d be able to sell it very efficiently and they knew it would enhance their relationship with individuals and channel partners through and to which they were already selling a lot of books. Would the cover letter book be big? Possibly not, but it didn’t have to be to make it clearly worth doing.

But the big trade houses were not built that way. And the biggest books, the sexiest books, the most exciting books, don’t tend to be in niches. In fact, niche identification can dampen sales in a general trade market. The CEO of a major house told me a couple of years ago that he didn’t want to label a book that could become a betseller a “mystery” title. Mystery was a “category” (read: “niche”) and, while those books tended to meet theshhold expectations more readily, he perceived them as harder to break out to the sales levels they could achieve if they were perceived as unique.

We are now seeing the early signs of what will soon be a tendency, then a trend, and then a stark reality: you just can’t sell as many copies of most books if you don’t have a proprietary position with a vertical audience. The early signs are evident through companies like O’Reilly Media (computer programming and technology), Hay House (mind body spirit), Chelsea Green (sustainable living), Harvard Common Press (cookbooks and pregnancy-childbirth), and F+W Media (several niches, including writers and crafts), which have special retail channels and huge email lists of individual customers that the big houses simply don’t. Niche by niche, the big houses will find it impractical to publish in areas that were once productive for them. Their need for each book to be “big” individually — for the single title to provide its own critical mass — works against what you must do to be “big” in a niche. To do that requires a more across-the-list kind of thinking that is counterintuitive to a company that makes the lion’s share of its sales through trade channels.

So for just about all the books that aren’t novels, memoirs, celebrity-driven, or epic works of popular history or politics, trade publishers are increasingly handicapped. Unfortunately for them, things are going to get worse.

The obvious problem is that the capacity of the general trade market to merchandise and move product is diminishing. I hate to invoke the old wisdom that many things happen “gradually, then suddenly”, but it is often true and we have been gradually losing bookstores for the past decade. What happens to the economics of the big publishers if we lose a big chunk of superstores pretty suddenly?

I recall a dinner conversation with the Chairman  of a large diversified multi-niche publisher two years ago. Even back then, we were speculating about the possible sudden demise of Borders. (Hey! It hasn’t happened; maybe we were wrong!) My dinner companion said, “you know, Mike, we’re as diversified as a publisher can be, but if Borders went out, we’d definitely feel it. It would really hurt us.”

“Temporarily,” I said. He needed me to explain.

“Sure, you’ll suffer a bad debt if they go out. That hurts right now. But over the next couple of years, you’ll get a lot of cheap and useful assets from competitors of yours that couldn’t withstand the blow. By a couple of years from now, you’ll be ahead.”

“You may be right,” he said.

So even with the obvious problem, a multi-niche publisher has a big advantage over a general publisher, just as it does over smaller niche players. But the ground for the general publishers is about to shift in ways that will be even more challenging.

Because “book publishing” in an increasingly vertical world is less and less about content sales in the unit of “books” (although that will be the lion’s share of revenue for a long time) and more and more about sales bigger than the book (databases that stretch across many books and other things too) or smaller than the book (chapters or fragments that naturally stand alone or which address a particular content need.) The iPhone app as a unit of delivery is accelerating the latter trend. The value of a database across titles has long been demonstrated by O’Reilly’s “Safari” offering, which generates more revenue for them than all but one trade account.

As the percentage of a publisher’s revenue that is generated by fragments and aggregations rises, so does the value of being vertical and, especially, so does the value of a direct relationship with the end users. The fragments piece is especially important, especially challenging, and requires new ways of thinking (and perhaps new contracts.) For example, Dominique Raccah, the visionary leader of Sourcebooks, whose Poetry Speaks is building a model for vertical community building, has found that many publishers of poetry aren’t sure they have the rights to license her vertical to sell individual poems! Does that mean she has to go directly to the poets for those rights? And how long will it be before it is more important to a poet to have their individual poems available for sale on Poetry Speaks than to have them available in a publisher’s collection bound as a book?

Bruce Shaw, the longtime empresario of Harvard Common Press, is demonstrating another aspect of this thinking that we’ve expected for a long time but hadn’t seen in practice before. He told us about a macaroni and cheese cookbook his house was considering for publication. Normally, Bruce reports, that’s a subject they’d skip because it just isn’t distinctive enough to make the ambitous sales targets he normally sets for print publications. But, in this case, he’s doing the book because his overall recipe database (all the thousands of recipes HCP has published in over 30 years in business) is light on mac and cheese recipes. So he’s willing to publish the book, knowing he’s going to make less profit than he normally requires, because it is a subsidized way to improve the value of his overall database of recipes.

The question of selling fragments opens up a host of other challenges: figuring out what is a saleable fragment, tagging it with an identifier and metadata, managing transaction costs for a much higher volume or low-value transactions, and retro-fitting accounting systems to process author royalties that will require increasingly complex analysis of smaller amounts of money.

In fact, there is opportunity on what might be viewed as a micro- or nano-level of transaction, too small for even a niche publisher to manage the customer relationship and the transaction. That is going to present new opportunities for our client, Copyright Clearance Center, which we’ll elaborate on in future posts.

There’s a great deal of new opportunity out there but a lot of it is in pennies, not hundred dollar bills.

Let’s hear it for Wifi in the air! This is the first post for The Shatzkin Files filed from an airplane. Boy, did I have fun at Spring Training!


The big guys don’t see the fundamental problem

The rapid series of developments in the digital book space and my rising profile mean that I seem to be in an interview with a journalist just about every day. As I was yesterday. The focus of yesterday’s conversation was the Baker & Taylor“Blio” platform that I wrote about last week. How widespread did I think its uptake would be?

The interviewer and I covered a lot of ground, including ebook pricing and timing and whether publishers would be able to make enhanced ebooks work. Those are the topics of the moment (and they are all panel topics at Digital Book World.)

At one point we had a robust discussion about ebook pricing. My interviewer asked me about a pundit’s observation that hardcover books were just wildly overpriced. The implication is that publishers should consider themselves damn lucky that people would pay $9.99 for an ebook, which, after all, has far fewer bytes than a movie they can get for $1.99.

That’s an easy one to answer. What’s a “right” price? Well, from the publisher’s perspective, that’s a question with a clear mathematical answer. (The math wouldn’t yield the same answer for an author.) The right price is the one at which the total gross margin — revenues after all costs — is maximized. We all know more will buy if it is cheaper and fewer will buy if it is more expensive, but the “right” price is the one where customers times margin (margin being revenue minus costs) is the highest it can be.

There is no way in the world that a publisher would maximize margin cutting $28 print book prices to $9.99. So the author of this blogpost being quoted to me might be looking at the “right price” from a consumer perspective or a high-level industry observer perspective, but they sure aren’t looking at it from the perspective of the one who sets the price: the publisher.

At the conclusion of the interview, the journalist on the other end of the phone asked me whether, in effect, publishers would be able to save themselves. “Is there a model,” she said, “which assures that a publisher will profit selling their books in the future?”

Now, I must say before you read my answer, this expresses a long view, not an immediate one. But it sure isn’t comforting to people who sell content for a living.

Is there a model for success selling content? I think the answer to that question is “no.” I’ve spent my lifetime in book publishing and so did my Dad; I don’t like coming to this conclusion. But what I think I see is that selling content as a publisher is a business that is going to just get harder and harder until it won’t really be much of a business anymore.

This has nothing to do with piracy or DRM or Amazon’s promotional ebook pricing. It has to do with the most basic of economic laws: supply and demand.

Until the digital age, content was scarce. It wasn’t scarce because people didn’t create it; it was scarce because it required an investment to distribute it. That’s no longer true. Anybody with an Internet connection can make anything they write (or snap or video or sing) available to anybody else with an Internet connection. For just about free. That’s just one reason — among many — why the amount of content choices available to everybody has mushroomed in the past 15 years.

When the supply of something goes up faster than demand, the price of the something drops. Or, put another way, money flows to scarcity. And content is anything but scarce. That, in a nutshell, is the inexorable problem publishers face. And every day it gets worse. More backlist and out of print and public domain and orphan books get digitized and made available. More bloggers blog. More commercial operations put content online to satisfy their own stakeholders. More videos are uploaded to YouTube and more documents are uploaded to Scribd. All of it is processed and made discoverable by Google and other search engines. And the cumulative effect of all this content being created as something other than new publications for sale is cutting into the market for content that is being created with the expectation of sale.

What is the new scarce item that will attract the dollars if IP is so common that it becomes hard to sell? The answer is the attention of people: eyeballs. And the winning trick for publishers will be to use the content they control — which today does have value — as “bait” to attract the attention of people and then to keep that attention and build a business around it.

Note to some publishers who think they’re doing this: it is not the right answer to simply grab email names and web site registrations as a way to offer the same product catalog over and over again by email blasts. That doesn’t create value for a community and, before long, the community will lose interest and move on. You will lower your marketing costs temporarily with that strategy, but you’re still building a business of selling content and you’ll still, ultimately, deal with the problem that something roughly equivalent to much of what you want to sell will be available elsewhere for free.

I’m far enough ahead of the wave with this insight (if, indeed, time proves it to be an insight) that I can’t really point you to any examples yet from established publishers who followed Shatzkin’s formula to success (although I’m working on a couple that might be worthy of mention by a year from now.) So far, all that is clear is that publishers that stick to an audience fare better in the digital world than the ones who don’t. Their marketing costs are lower and their reach to the audience is both more effective and less dependent on intermediaries.

A stark illustration of this hit my radar screen last month.  A major agent told me that he sold a Mind, Body, Spirit author’s book to Random House, which sold 12,000 copies.  He sold the next book by the same author to niche publisher Hay House, which sold 200,000 copies! And Hay House, with over a million email addresses of people all interested in the same type of book, probably spent less on marketing to sell eight times as many.

There is one example that points the way for all of us in this business right under our noses every day. It is Publishers Marketplace, the creation of Michael Cader. He didn’t have book content to use as bait for the publishing community, so he created a free daily newsletter, Publishers Lunch about ten years ago. The formula he used — which was novel then and is now a commonplace — was to find the stories of interest to his community every morning and deliver the links to those stories, along with a little commentary, for free. That created an enormous number of sign-ups very quickly and a corresponding amount of grumbling from the established trade press, which would have a) never wanted to show anybody else’s story rather than their own and b) would have expected to sell any content they generated rather than giving it away as Cader did. After all, selling content was the model! (Sound familiar?)

I don’t think it took a year before Cader established his community, Publishers Marketplace, built from the eyeballs that were attracted by the free content in Lunch. Soon he made the “free Lunch” an abridged version, so the “full Lunch” became one of many benefits of “membership” in the community, which comes at a monthly subscription price for the unaffiliated and at site license prices for big companies. It is important to note that the full Lunch content alone wouldn’t keep and hold a community. Rather it is databases of information, many of them created by the contributions of the audience and additional tools and services (such as a free web page for every member) that keep people signing up and paying each month without dropping out.

Publishers have always focused primarily on the content. Survival in the future will require focusing on the market.

Publishers Marketplace and Hay House (and Harlequin and F+W and Interweave and Chelsea Green and all publishers who are dedicated to serving the same community over and over again) are on the right path, one that is very difficult for general publishers to tread. Taking steps to preserve the current marketplace for content — tinkering with DRM and fighting piracy; grappling with the timing and pricing of the content in various formats; even building out from the book as we’ve known it to take advantage of new ways to deliver information and entertainment — are, at best, holding actions. They don’t attack the fundamental problem that is developing for publishers which is this: if you don’t own the audience, the cost of reaching it for one book at a time will be prohibitive.

In the digital age it will make much more economic sense for the owner of the audience to find the content rather than the way we’ve always done it, which is the other way around.