IDPF

Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January


Blog posts have been scarcer for the past couple of months because I’ve been so engaged with a major responsibility: putting together what amounts to 7-1/2 days of conference programming that will be presented on four days next month in New York City.

As most readers of this blog probably know, we’re responsible for the programming of the two-day extravaganza that is Digital Book World. DBW 2013 — taking place on January 16 and 17 at the Hilton New York Hotel — will be the fourth iteration of the event, which aims to explore the commercial challenges facing trade publishing in the digital transition. DBW is not about technology per se; it is about the business problems publishers must cope with in an age of technological change.

DBW’s main two days are divided between morning plenary programming — all 1500+ people in one big room — and afternoon breakouts. We’ll have up to five simultaneous breakout sessions in each of three slots each day. So we have what amounts to 4-1/2 days of programming in the breakouts plus one on the main stage.

Because people really do come from all over the world to attend DBW, we were delighted to agree when they asked us at Publishers Launch Conferences (the conference business I own with Michael Cader) to add a show on each side of theirs to build out a week of programming. (The team at DBW itself are also putting together some pre-conference workshops that will run on Tuesday.)

So on Tuesday, January 15, we’ll do our second annual “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” conference at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium (put together with the invaluable assistance of our Conference Chair and close friend, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners). And on Friday, January 18, we’re presenting (in conjunction with the DBW team) a new program called “Authors Launch“, a full day of marketing advice for publisher-published authors. (Self-published authors are welcome and will learn a lot, but the program is framed for authors who are working with publishers, not looking for ways to avoid them.)

Programming the “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” show revealed what we think will be the most important theme in the children’s book space for the next few years: the development of  digital “platforms” that, like subscription offerings (which some, but not all of them, clearly are), will “capture” consumers and make them much less likely to get ebooks and other digital media from outside of it. The list of platform aspirants in this space is long and varied: Storia from Scholastic; RRKidz from Reading Rainbow (the TV show brand); Poptropica from Pearson (which launched Wimpy Kid before it was a book); Magic Town; Disney; Capstone; and Brain Hive. All of them are presenting, as well as NOOK, which, like Amazon Kindle, has announced parental controls on its platform that encourage parents to manage their kids’ reading experience there.

There are other big issues in children’s publishing, particularly the creation of original IP by publishers so they can better exploit the licensing opportunities that follow in the wake of successful kids’ books. We’ll have data presentations from Bowker and from Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex to help our audience understand how kids books are found and selected outside the bookstore in today’s environment.

But we know that the digital discovery and purchase routines will be markedly affected by the platforms as they establish themselves. Publishers are faced with an interesting conundrum. They can’t reach the audiences that are loyal to a platform without going through the platform. But it is the presence of many publishers’ books that strengthens the attraction of the platform and, once it gains critical mass, the value of the content to it (and probably what it will be willing to pay for the content) is reduced. So publishers licensing content to these platforms may be strengthening beasts that will ultimately eat them. I think the roundtable conversation Lorraine and I will lead at the end of the day, which will include publishers Karen Lotz of Candlewick, Barbara Marcus of Random House, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, will have interesting things to say about that paradox.

We’ve developed some “traditions” in the four years we’ve been doing Digital Book World. As we’ve done the past two years, the plenary sessions will open on Tuesday with the “CEOs’ view of the future” panel organized and moderated by David Nussbaum, the CEO of DBW’s owner F+W Media and the man who really dreamed up the idea of this conference. David will be joined this year by Marcus Leaver of Quarto, Karen Lotz of Candlewick, and Gary Gentel of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Michael Cader and I will — as we have every year at DBW — moderate a panel to close the plenaries, “looking back and looking forward” with agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House; Harper’s new Chief Digital Officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, and Osprey CEO Rebecca Smart.

Among the presenters on the main stage who will be unlike what our audiences usually hear at a digital publishing conference will be Teddy Goff, the digital director for the Obama campaign, who will talk about targeting and marketing techniques that might serve us well in the publishing world; Ben Evans of Enders Analysis in London, who will tell us how publishing fits into the strategies of the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) that he tracks regularly*; ex-Macmillan president and now private equity investor Brian Napack, talking with Michael Cader about the investment climate in publishing; and Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing from Carnegie-Mellon, talking about a study he and his colleagues have done on the real commercial impact of piracy.

(We’ve also scheduled a breakout session for Teddy Goff so he can talk more about the Obama campaign for those in attendance who want to learn more of its lessons to apply.)

We’re also delighted to have gotten Robert Oeste, Senior Programmer and Analyst from Johns Hopkins University Press, to deliver his wonderfully insightful, entertaining, and informative presentation on XML, the subject so many of us in publishing need to understand better than we do. And we will after he’s done. (We’re also giving Oeste a break-out slot to talk about metadata which I’ll bet a lot of our audience will choose to attend after they’ve heard him on XML.)

(*Late edit: Ben Evans had to cancel.)

Some authors have had remarkable success without help from publishers in the past year, but few or none more than Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool”, who has just signed a groundbreaking print-only deal for the US with Simon & Schuster. His dystopian futurist novel has sold hundreds of thousands of self-published ebook copies and rights all over the world and to Hollywood. We’ll have a chat with Howey about how he did it and we’ll be joined by his agent, Kristin Nelson, for that dialogue. Kristin will stick around to join a panel of other agents (Jay Mandel of William Morris Endeavor, Steve Axelrod, and Jane Dystel from Dystel & Goderich) to talk about “Straddling the Models”: authors who work with publishers but are also doing some things on their own.

We will have several panels addressing the challenges of discovery and discoverability from different angles. One called “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap” teams Patrick Brown of Goodreads with three publishing marketers — Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, and Rachel Chou of Open Road — and is chaired by Peter Hildick-Smith. That will focus on what publishers can do with metadata and digital marketing to make it more likely their titles will get “found”. Barbara Genco of Library Journal will share data on library patron behaviors and then helm a panel discussion with Baker & Taylor, 3M, Darien Public Library, and Random House exploring the role of libraries in driving book discovery and sales. Another session called “Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable” introduces three new propositions from Matt MacInnis of Inkling, Linda Holliday of Citia, and Patricia Payton of Bowker, along with SEO expert Gary Price of INFODocket. Publishing veteran Neal Goff (who is also the proud father of Obama’s digital director) will moderate that one. MacInnis, Holliday, and Payton offer services that will help publishers improve the search for their books. Price will talk knowledgeably about how the search engines will react to these stimuli.

We’re covering new business model experimentation (with Evan Ratliff of The Atavist, Brendan Cahill of Nature Share, Todd McGarity of Hachette, and Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks) where publishers discuss ways to generate revenue that are not the old-fashioned ones. We’ll underscore the point that we’re about changes caused by technology rather than being about technology with our “Changing Retail Marketplace” panel, featuring publishers and wholesalers talking about the growth of special sales (through retailers that aren’t bookstores and other non-retail channels).

The future for illustrated books will be discussed by a panel with a big stake in how it goes: John Donatich of Yale University Press, Michael Jacobs of Abrams, Marcus Leaver of Quarto, and JP Leventhal of Black Dog & Leventhal. Two publishers who have invested in Hollywood — Brendan Dineen of Macmillan and Pete Harris of Penguin — will talk about the synergies between publishing and the movies with consultant Swanna McNair of Creative Conduit.

We will have major US publishers and Ingram talking about exports: developments in the export market for books — print and digital. And we’ll have some non-US publishers joining Tina Pohlman of Open Road and Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble talking about imports: non-US publishers using the digital transition to get a foothold in the US market.

One session I think has been needed but never done before is called “Clearing the Path” and it is about eliminating the obstacles to global ebook sales. That one will start with a presentation by Nathan Maharaj and Ashleigh Gardner of Kobo where they will enumerate all the contractual and procedural reasons why ebooks are just not available for sale in markets they could reach. And then Kobo will join a panel conversation with Joe Mangan of Perseus and agent Brian Defiore to talk about why those barriers exist and what might be done in the future to remove them.

Oh, yes, there’s much much more: audience-centric (what I call “vertical”) publishing; the changing role of editors; the evolving author-publisher relationship; and a conversation about the “gamification” of children’s books. David Houle, the futurist and Sourcebook author who wowed the DBW 2012 audience, will return with his Sourcebooks editor, Stephanie Bowen, to discuss their version of “agile” publishing: getting audience feedback to chunks before publishing a whole book.

We will also do some stuff that is more purely “tech”. We have a panel on “Evolving Standards and Formats” discussing the costs and benefits of EPUB3 adoption, which will be moderated by Bill McCoy of IDPF. Our frequent collaborator Ted Hill will lead a discussion about “The New Publishing IT Department”. Bill Kasdorf of Apex will moderate a discussion about “Cross-Platform Challenges and Opportunities” which is about delivering content to new channels.

But purely tech is the exception at Digital Book World, not the rule.

And purely tech won’t show up at all at Authors Launch on Friday, January 18, the day after Digital Book World.

Authors Launch is what we think is the first all-day marketing seminar aimed squarely at authors with a publisher, not authors trying to work without one. It is pretty universally taken as a given that authors can do more than they ever have before to promote themselves and their books and that publishers should expect and encourage them to do that. But, beyond that, there is very little consensus. What should the publisher do and what should the author do? That question is going to be addressed, in many different ways, throughout the day.

The Authors Launch program covers developing an author brand, author involvement and support for their book’s launch, basic information about keyword search and SEO, use of metrics and analysis, a primer on media training, when and how to hire a publicist or other help, and a special session on making the best use of Goodreads. We’ll cover “audience-centric” marketing, teaching authors to think about their “vertical” — their market — and understand it.

The faculty for Authors Launch includes the most talented marketers and publicists helping authors today: Dan Blank, co-authors MJ Rose and Randy Susan Meyers, journalist Porter Anderson, David Wilk, Meryl Moss, Lucinda Blumenfeld, agent Jason Allen Ashlock, and former Random House digital marketer Pete McCarthy.

We have assembled a group of publishers and an agent to discuss how an author should select the best places to invest their time from the staggering array of choices. (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etcetera.) That panel will include agent Jennifer Weltz of The Naggar Agency as well as Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Kate Stark of Penguin. Matt Schwartz, VP, Director of Digital Marketing and Strategy for the Random House Publishing Group, will conduct the session on metrics.

A feature of both our Kids show on Tuesday and the Author show on Friday are opportunities for the audience to interact with the presenters in smaller groups so each person can get his or her own questions answered. At Kids we’ll do that at lunchtime, seating many of our presenters at tables with a sign carrying their name so our attendees can sit with them and engage. At Authors Launch, we’ll be conducting rounds of workshops, crafted so that the authors can get help in their own vertical (genre fiction, literary fiction, topical non-fiction, juvies, and so forth), and on the topics of greatest need for them.

We are sure the week of January 15-18 will prove to be an energizing and stimulating one for all of us living in the book publishing world. We hope you’ll join us.

Digital Book World Week | January 15-18, 2013

Children’s Publishing Goes Digital | Tuesday, January 15, McGraw-Hill Auditorium
DBW Pre-Conference Workshops | Tuesday, January 15, Hilton New York Hotel
Digital Book World Conference + Expo | January 16-17, Hilton New York Hotel
Authors Launch | Friday, January 18, Hilton New York Hotel

2 Comments »

Lots going on; no single topic today


I find myself with a lot of pages open on my web browser. Even before Amazon’s announcement yesterday about ebooks passing hardcovers in sales this past quarter, there has been a lot going on.

There had been some suggestions, which I never bought into, that ebook sales were slowing in 2009. (Is this a meme that started with somebody anti-Agency? More on that later…) I look at the IDPF chart as it stands today and it is headlined 2010 Sales  ”OFF THE CHART” vs. Previous Quarters and that’s how it looks to me. A major publisher told me yesterday that AAP figures suggest ebook sales are up 210% this year and that house’s numbers are up 225%, so they feel they’re rising with the tide. That’s about what PW said the AAP said with the additional information that hardcover sales were up and paperback sales, trade and mass market, were down.

In fact, Amazon, in the face of the apparently-stiff competition from the Nook and the iPad, says Kindle book sales have tripled in the first half of the year!

Nonetheless, Madeline McIntosh at Random House doesn’t see ebooks causing problems for paperback sales. She’s quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “Our conclusion is that there’s no data to prove any connection—good or bad—between growth in e-books and the growth or decline, in trade paperback sales. … If anything, we may be seeing a positive effect in which the steady pace of e-book sales helps to keep a book in front-of-mind for a growing number of consumers after hardcover momentum slows.”

Kat Meyer, blogging for O’Reilly, got an indie ebookseller to talk on the record about the difficulties they’re having with the transition to Agency. This would seem to undercut the idea (which I agree with) that Agency is good for smaller sellers, because the little guys will get squashed in a price war with big guys. A seminal figure in the online book retailing world who has worked with smaller stores on these challenges for years told me in a phone conversation this week that he completely agrees with me. But the problems Kat lays out for the smaller guys during the transition are real. Let’s hope we don’t lose too many of them while this all gets figured out.

Meanwhile, Knopf made some news with the announcement that they are converting more of their backlist to ebooks. We were wondering what titles they could have missed so far. Random House has never been a laggard at ebook conversion and we’re scratching our heads wondering about a conversion initiative that would be imprint-specific. But this shows that the ebook sales records being broken are occurring without the gun being fully loaded; they’re still making ebullets out of old books.

Joe Wikert wrote a blog about the emerging ebook landscape in which he imagines that the various indies selling Google Editions will, all together, constitute a big Amazon. I don’t think so. I don’t think Google can save indies with what they’re doing. But it is good that they’re trying.

Joe also thinks that Amazon will abandon the Kindle device in favor of the Kindle as a platform. I don’t agree with that either. The device is reportedly still selling like hotcakes with sales rising quickly since a recent price cut, even while the Nook has established itself and iPad has been “competing.” I think there’s room for tablet computers and ereaders, which might be a minority position at the moment. (Being in the minority is perfectly comfortable for me.)

You know we’re all about vertical here at The Shatzkin Files. It looks like some authors from big houses are taking this vertical thing into their own hands. A bunch of gardening authors have created their own garden experts speakers bureau.  It won’t surprise anybody if I predict that this effort will be more successful than the “horizontal” speakers bureaus launched by some of the major houses over the past few years. I checked with the folks at Cool Springs Press, the gardening publisher I featured here a couple of weeks ago, and, of course, they’re involved.

I had written a blogpost recently saying that I thought ebook selling nodes would explode and be all over the web. It looks like Oprah is fueling that idea in a way that I hadn’t entertained: with an app. Why not? Who has a better brand than Oprah for “curation”? Maybe Barnes & Noble. But maybe not.

It also seems that self-publishing is growing in ubiquity and respectability. PW announced the plans of an author who told his agent not to bother selling his rights. If this isn’t the major trade houses’ worse nightmare, it should be! Joe Konrath, who may go down in history as the trailblazer who proved that some authors, at least, can make money without publishers, is reporting his rising Amazon revenues on books the New York houses have turned down, and they’re eye-catching.

And the last thing I note in this pot-pourri is the news from Farrar Straus & Giroux that they’re launching an online literary magazine. On the one hand, this is the kind of niche marketing we’ve been advocating that larger houses pursue. On the other hand, the story suggests this is all about promoting FS&G books, not about building a community of like-minded readers, few of whom would know or care which publisher put out the last book they liked.

26 Comments »

What I Would Have Said in London, Part 4


This is the last of a 4-part series describing what I was intending to say to a live audience at the Publishers Association in London on April 28. In Part 1, I tried to make clear that a lot can happen in 20 years, which is the prediction arc for the first three posts. In Part 2, I described what I think is the world of information that will include publishing in 20 years. In Part 3, I suggest what I think publishers will evolve to and make some suggestions about how to get from where we are to where we’re going. And now, in Part 4, I take a shorter view, looking at the changes we can expect to see in the next two or three years.

Now let’s think about the pretty immediate future.

The year-on-year growth of ebook sales as charted by the IDPF shows overall sales volume growing by more than 2 or 3 times over the same period in the previous year and accelerating. Squinting at the chart, it looks to me like wholesale volume in the fourth quarter of 2007 was about $7 million, in the fourth quarter of 2008 the sales were about $16 million (2+x over last year), and in the fourth quarter of 2009 they were about $55 million (3+x over last year, about 8x over two years ago).

Anecdotal reports say that for new narrative books, ebook sales are already in high single or low double digit percentages of the total number of units the book sells.

You have to figure that the percentage growth on a per-title basis is less than the overall number for industry growth. The overall sales growth is partly attributable to more and more titles being made available as ebooks, so the expectations for unit growth for an individual title wouldn’t be quite as fast.

If ebook sales for new titles now are 7.5%, which seems like a low-but-reasonable estimate, and if that number doubles annually, which also seems conservative, we’d expect the ebook percentage to be 15% a year from now and 30% two years from now. In that light, a forecast of 25% ebook sales for new narrative books published by the end of 2012 (a bit over two-and-a-half years from now, and not to be confused with saying 25% of dollar sales volume will be produced by ebooks by then) is actually pretty restrained.

The volume of print book units sold online is likely to be a similar number to the number of ebooks by then. That means that by the end of 2012, the expectation would be that fully half of the unit sales in the US for a new narrative title will be rung up online. Online sales not only require almost no sales force, no warehouse, and no complex support apparatus to achieve (that is: the services normally offered as “sales and distribution”), they also really require no inventory. Print books ordered online can be printed on demand.

Making this forecast even more likely to be valid is the trend of diminishing sales in brick-and-mortar stores. Both major chains have reported substantially lower same store sales, year on year, for the past two years. Like the growth in ebook sales, this is a trend which it is hard to see changing over the next few years. Or ever, if the 20 year view we contemplated in an earlier piece in this series pans out.

There are a number of obvious implications of the situation we see unfolding if this fairly short term analysis proves correct. Authors will be more inclined to self-publish, particulary their out-of print backlist and any title a publisher doesn’t offer an advance reflecting high expectations. That means that, on average, desireable books will be harder and more expensive for publishers to sign. The pressure for publishers to give more than a 25% ebook royalty will intensify. There will be excess capacity throughout the print supply chain: printing, warehousing, and sales operations, and the price of distribution services on offer will go down because the overhead cost of maintaining it, as a percentage of the sales it supports, will have gone up for those with fixed operations.

Because the whole motivation for this lengthy multi-part post was to address the publishers in London, I want to close with a thought about a re-think that should be taking place among British publishers and agents over the next few years.

In general, it is true that the Web diminishes the value of “local”. Part of the reason that bookstores are so challenged is that the customer around the corner from them who wants to shop online finds Amazon.com or BN.com just as “close” as their local store. On the other hand, the Web opens up a potential global market to anybody connected with it.

For the past decade or more, the UK publishers have, in the stated interests of defending their territorial rights in their own home market, tried to bring English-language rights for Europe, which for years was ceded as “open” to books from the US or UK, into their exclusive grant of rights. The stated justification for this has been that the rules of the European Union allow any wholesaler in Holland or France to ship books into Britain and, if they bought from US sources, US editions could find their way onto UK bookstore shelves. Ignoring for the moment the number of ocean miles, warehouse handlings, and individual company profits a book taking that route to the UK would have to pay for (making one wonder, “you can’t compete with that?”), the wisdom of building high territorial walls might very shortly be called into question.

For if a British publisher has an inside track to a British writer or a British-told story that has global appeal; and if the marketing for that book is mainly going to take place online through niche communities on the Web that are often geo-neutral but are certainly accessible from anywhere at no particular cost whether they are or not; then a British publisher can reach half the US market for that author with no inventory risk at all. Furthermore, territorial disputes between English-language publishers about ebook rights are making total global sales coverage increasingly problematical. The blogosphere is full of stories about people who can’t download an English-language book in Peru or Greece because the rights situation is ambiguous. Having one global publisher will assure total worldwide availability in a way that rights-dealing is making increasingly difficult. Agents will understand that.

So I’d bet that a number of British publishers will, over the next few years, find the defense of territoriality a rear-guard and retrograde reaction to the new realities. In fact, aggressively selling the books you publish throughout the world, is not only possible but the most profitable and author-friendly way to navigate the next, and (from the long historical perspective) one of the last, twists of the book market.

22 Comments »

Serious disruption just over the near horizon


The monthly release of ebook sales figures by the IDPF provides a regular reminder about how fast this market is growing and it always provokes me to project the curve into the future and think about the implications. It was an IDPF data release that triggered the thought that we needed a “Tipping Points” panel at Digital Book World last January which turned out to be one of the highest-rated presentations by the attendees of the conference. And it was another release of that data that made me say on this blog on March 22 that I thought ebook sales would reach 20-25 percent of the sales for new works of narrative writing by the time of Obama’s reelection in November 2012.

Then last week, The Economist had a story quoting Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, forecasting S&S ebook sales in that range in “3 to 5 years.” This is the first time that I’m aware of that a Big Six CEO has been willing to put their name on a forecast that is just about as aggressive as my own. Another conversation with the head of another one of the Big Six companies captured a forecast that is in the same ballpark.

So I think it is worth a few moments to contemplate what it means if this forecast is accurate, or even close to accurate.

If by the end of 2012, 25% of sales for a new book are digital, then about half of new book sales will be made through online purchases if we count the print book sales made through online retailers (mostly Amazon.)

Online print sales can be served through inventory generated on demand. So, if these estimates are right, we are less than three years away from a publisher (or author) being able to reach half the market for a book without inventory risk!

Having half the market reachable without print-run risk or inventory storage; having half the customers connecting with their reading through online paths that make them at least theoretically identifiable; and having a quarter of those customers reading through a medium that enables interactivity will make all the changes we’ve seen so far in trade publishing appear trivial. And if the very perspicacious Carolyn Reidy, her unnamed counterpart, and I are right, that disruption is going to take place before many books now under contract reach their publication date.

The immediately disruptive effects of this, for which every major publisher should be preparing right now, include:

1. Publishers are going to really have to rethink the development process for their ebooks. Right now, publishers put their creative energy into optimizing print books; ebooks are an afterthought.  The most forward-thinking houses are going to XML workflows which will reduce the costs of conversion to ebook formats. But are any of them fundamentally rethinking how the editor and author shape the project to optimize the ebook experience? That working relationship is going to have to undergo fundamental change.

2. It will be eminently sensible to launch books with a no-inventory strategy and move to press runs with returns allowable when reviews or sales have proven that it makes sense. Of course, publishers will be happy to sell anytime on a no-returns basis and for some books launched “digital first” there could be enough no-returns demand to generate a printing, but the idea of printing and distributing speculatively will make less and less sense as the potential market to be reached by that tactic diminishes as a share of the whole. By the way, this reality would give B&N, the only retailer with its own DC resupply infrastructure, an additional competitive advantage.

3. A non-US publisher will be able to reach half the US market without needing an operation of any kind in the States. This is a sea-change that could even encourage our UK counterparts to reconsider their staunch defense of territorial rights. We already know that the greatest part of marketing value beyond the display and positioning in a bookstore is generated online. That means it can be done from anywhere without a local nexus. By the end of 2012, we’re saying half of all the sales potential can also be reached with the product without a local nexus: no requirement of local inventory or any shipping or revenue collection facility beyond your digital distribution and print-on-demand partner.

4. Because books or ebooks will be purchased by half of their customers electronically, the potential exists to know exactly who those are and to establish interaction with them. Obviously, the intermediaries have both selfish and customer-oriented reasons not to share data, but for ebooks, at least, publishers will find hooks to get readers to check in with the publisher and establish contact. (Of course, they will also be selling more and more units direct to consumers, without any intermediary at all.) This opportunity presents a new battleground for competitive advantage that publishers will have to pursue both for marketing and for author relations.

5. Publishers will have to start devoting the bandwidth and resources to direct sales that they devote to intermediary sales today. The notional 50-50 split of sales between terrestrial and online means that half the sales are actually direct sales. Publishers will increasingly find ways to influence those sales decisions, but the companies that devote management attention and resources to the challenge will find those ways faster, to their competitive advantage.

6. There’s an inevitable concurrent downward spiral of brick-and-mortar retail inherent in this forecast that sales are moving online. The nearly-limitless online selection has been an increasingly powerful magnet since the day Amazon opened and in the new paradigm there will be a growing body of talked-about content not visible on store shelves. It is beyond the scope of today’s speculation to consider what this means for the strategy and survival of bookstores and wholesalers and for publishers’ expectations for them, but it’s not likely to be pretty.

7. Self-publishing strategies for entities that can do the marketing become much more compelling. It is no secret that an author can make more money on each copy sold managing her own publication through Lulu or Author Solutions or Bookmasters. If half the market is directly available without regard to the effectiveness of a field sales force then we can be sure, at the very least, new title acquisition will be more challenging for established publishers. The big players will still be the only big bankrolls in town, but that’s a two-edged sword that can lead to overspending and losses as well as to securing desirable projects.

8. If the infrastructure for direct sales management at most publishers will be woefully lacking, the infrastructure for print warehousing and delivering print orders at most houses is likely to be heavily underutilized. That should lead to a reduction in the charges for distribution services, adding pressure to a business that will already suffer from the growing viability of no-inventory publishing. And publishers with volume-related pricing contracts with their printers will find they don’t need as much capacity as they contracted for a year or two before.

For the past three years, Ted Hill and I have conceived and organized the program for the Book Industry Study Group’s Making Information Pay conference, coming up on May 6. Our theme this year — Points of No Return — addresses precisely this issue from the perspective of how functions will be organized, what the changing skill sets will be, and how secure people doing jobs today can feel about having a job they can do tomorrow. If you found that this post gave you something to think about, you’ll find MIP a morning very well spent.

74 Comments »

Ebook growth continues to accelerate; how long can this go on?


A busy day today, but time for some very quick and simple math.

The IDPF’s figures for January show nearly a 4-fold increase in ebook sales over the prior January. Recent reports suggests that ebook sales are now in the 3%+ range for some big publishers.  But that’s a bit of an understatement of reality because so many books haven’t been ebookable (illustrated) and the backlist has been introduced gradually over time (which accounts for part of the increase.) Sales of ebook editions of new straight text titles are higher with 5% more like a minimum expectation than an average.

Meanwhile, we know this year we’ll be adding our new client Copia (with six devices and a platform that works on just about everything else except Kindle), B&T’s Blio, the iStore and Apple iPad, the Google Editions program, and a host of other new devices as well as expected next generation readers (with color, perhaps) from Kindle and Nook. Those new ebook platforms will keep the title increase going because they include an ability to deliver a more robust presentation on a larger screen.

So would we expect the pace of ebook adoption to slow down in the next 12 months from what it has been over the last 12 months? I wouldn’t, and there won’t be a slowdown until ebooks hit some new point of resistance by penetrating the market to the point of saturation. Where would that be? Your guess is as good as mine.

It is worth pondering that if the rate of growth remains about the same (let’s call it 3.5 times growth annually to be conservative about where it stands now) for the next 12 months, then the ebook minimum expectation by next Christmas would be between 15 and 20 percent of the sales of a new title. And then it can’t really continue the same growth rate the following year because that would take us to a great majority of books read being ebooks. And I don’t think you’ll find anybody expecting 60% or more ebook penetration in two years.

So my hunch is that growth will continue to accelerate for a while longer and then it will have to start slowing down. But my guess (which is as good as yours!) is that it won’t start slowing down until ebook sales are 20-25% of what a publisher expects on a new title. I’d take the bet that we reach that level before Obama’s re-election in November, 2012. Given the historical trend line, that’s a very conservative prediction, although, as I write it, it seems like I’m going way out on a limb.

What does 20-25% ebook sales fewer than 30 months from now mean if it happens? A lot of disruption.

43 Comments »

What it will mean when the ebook comes first


The “ebook tipping point” has recently been a frequent subject of discussion for me. I started out thinking about the business implications and that’s the main focus of the panel discussion on the subject at Digital Book World.

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, I have lately been turning my thinking to a huge shift I think might just be around the corner: that editors and authors will have to start thinking “ebook first”. When we get to that point, it will cause huge upheaval. And personnel changes.

The way things work today is that the author and editor work together to create the best possible print book. That involves figuring out what to cut more often than it is about what to add. (My wife is a freelance project editor; she announced this morning that she and her authors had just successfully completed cutting tens of thousands of words and over a hundred images from a book manuscript in order to skinny down to the publisher’s desired page count. This is not the least bit unusual.)

The ultimate result of that work is a “clean” manuscript which will make the right number of pages and a lot of material that didn’t make the book. Then that manuscript might go into an XML workflow that will tag it for structure and that will allow it to be rendered as a print PDF and an ebook in various forms. Or it might simply be made into designed pages in InDesign, after which an exported file will be turned into ebooks.

If you want video or links or extra editorial material in your ebook — an “enhanced” ebook — that becomes a new creative project that begins when the development of the print version ends.

If you actually want to end up with more than one final “product”: (presumably) one print version and (perhaps) more than one digital version, this is not the most sensible way to do it. It is far easier to look at a complex ebook and figure out what can be held static to create a print version than it is to go the other way around.

Up until what seems like five minutes ago, the static print version was where all the money was. But with the IDPF reporting industry-wide year-on-year gains of 300% of ebook sales through August and Crain’s saying Random House had an 700% year-on-year increase of Kindle sales through September, the day when ebook sales are financially significant has apparently arrived and the point when those revenues could be more important than print revenues is in sight. So it may be time to change the objective of the author and editor from “how do we create the best possible print book” to “how do we create the best possible ebook?”

This will require some radical changes in thinking.

1. “Space” will no longer be scarce. That means that nothing of value should be discarded; the question becomes how to best employ any thoughts, writing, or images, not whether to include them. (Warning of a likely unintended consequence: putting mediocre material in the finished product can become a temptation and that does not achieve desired effects.)

2. Background material of any kind will become useful. For fiction, that might mean more in-depth character descriptions or “biographies”. For non-fiction, that might mean source material.

3. Multiple media are desireable. Anything that is relevant to the book in video or audio form or art of any kind should be included. If rights and permissions are a problem, then linking out to the material wherever it is on the web becomes an option.

4. Linking is essential. The author should be recording deeplink information for every useful resource tapped during the book’s creation.

5. New editorial decisions abound. Should the reader be given the option to turn links off (to avoid the distractions)? Does it “work” if linked or multiple-media elements become essential to the narrative of the book? And, if that becomes the case, what are the work-arounds for the static print edition? Should “summary” material be added, such as a precis of every chapter than can be a substitute for reading the whole chapter? (That could help somebody skip and dive their way through a non-fiction book, particularly.)

6. How should all of this complexity flow? Books are pretty straightforward: you start at the beginning and turn pages until you get to the end. But ebooks can allow different sequencing if that becomes useful. Can we have beginner, intermediary, and expert material all in one ebook that “selects” what you see by what you tell the book you are?

7. When is the book “finished”? An ebook that is continually being enhanced and updated by the author, perhaps even by the addition of relevant blog posts (to imagine a situation which would be very easy to execute) is a great antidote to digital piracy. But it would surely separate the ebook from the print, which couldn’t keep up with that kind of change. As ebook consumption becomes more common, though, authors won’t want their books to be out of date and they will recognize how easy it is to add new material. O’Reilly Media already includes free “updates” in the ebook purchase price of their books. How long will it be before a trade publisher makes a similar offer? Or before an author requires it as a condition of doing their next deal?

I can’t imagine any veteran editor reading this and not gnashing their teeth, at least a bit. But I also can’t imagine these questions being postponed forever. If I were a 20-something employee in a publishing house, I’d be thinking about this very hard and watching for my opportunity to volunteer.

48 Comments »

A coming new obsession: how to handle a smaller print-book business


Here’s a prediction that has almost no chance of being wrong. Every major player in the trade book industry is about to develop a new obsession: how must our business model change when we reach a level of ebook sales that is dynamically disruptive to the print book ecosystem?

This might not be exactly a “tipping point”, since that implies a point at which growth accelerates from some people to most people, or nearly all people. But print publishing will be seriously disrupted long before ebooks are used by “most people.” That’s because print publishing is a “critical mass” business: we need to sell enough to make a sensible print run, to keep the bookstore open, to support the sales organization and the warehouse. Our bestseller lists (with one exception) capture exclusively print sales, our author-publisher contracts and sales terms with accounts are based on the notion that we’re selling a physical object, and the biggest publishers in the land use their scale to perform capital-intensive functions that are, as much as any editorial or marketing expertise, what the authors need them for.

This presents a problem to all the incumbent players. Every powerful company in the print book supply chain: the big publishers, the big retailers (including Amazon!), the wholesalers, and certainly the independent retailers have a huge investment in competencies that revolve around print books. They can design them, jacket them, price them, print them, ship them hither and yon and keep track of each separate ISBN in the package, put them on shelves so customers will find them when they arrive and calculate when to take them off the shelves to send them back. Although there are other skills that these companies have that might port to an all-ebook or ebook-dominant world, none of these do.

Whether the challenges get acute when 20% of the sales of a narrative title are predictably e, or whether the number is 25% or 30%, the day is coming faster and faster. Growth in sales of the simplest kind of ebook — a direct lift of what is published in print — are exceeding the most aggressive predictions. The IDPF just announced that year-over-year ebook sales for August are triple what they were a year ago! Michael Pietsch, Publisher of Little, Brown, reports that 15% of total sales is the level many of their top authors are reaching now.

(Ruminative interlude: it has been my surmise that big authors will have their ebook sales “capped” at a lower level than smaller authors, just because their print books are on sale in so many more places. However, ebook sales are also very sensitive to “brand”; you don’t and can’t “browse” as many titles when you shop electronically, particularly on a device. I know that smaller publishers with less effective total distribution report Amazon sales of 60% and 80% of sales, so their ebook sales proportions are also bound to be much higher. But how the midlist authors of big publishers fare on overall ebook sales relative to the big ones is a question I haven’t asked. I will. Or, I am…)

Meanwhile, ereaders keep improving and proliferating; there have been several announcements of new devices in the past week, including the forthcoming “Nook” from B&N, which will really raise the stakes for Kindle. It will “see” Kindle’s e-ink screen and “raise” one LCD panel for link viewing, plus a 3G connection and Wifi use in B&N stores, all at the same price. B&N has the same power Amazon does to amass a robust list of titles (they have deep contacts with all the publishers) and they have at least as good a skill set for curation and merchandising to make a great shopping experience. And they’re putting their reader front and center in their bookstores (with the free wifi and some special in-store content features) which will expose the concept of the device to many people who don’t shop at Amazon and did not get blasted with a sales pitch every time they bought books.

Barnes & Noble had entertained being the ebook market leader a decade ago, losing interest when the Palm format became the early format frontrunner and wasn’t made available for intermediary distribution (one of the first in a string of futile attempts to install an iTunes device-capture model for book content, and before the iPod, at that.) Then B&N let Amazon get the jump on them in the ebook world with the Kindle; their Nook will be following more than two years later. In the meantime, B&N may have realized what all the big publishers know: that when the customer shifts to ebooks, it threatens all their business models, sunk investments, and longtime marketplace advantages. That, along with the sour experience of trying to lead on ebooks and being frustrated by what was actually a self-destructive policy by Palm, may have fed their apparent disinterest in ebooks until recently.

But it was clear to everybody that the first round of ebook growth shifted power dramatically to Amazon. Publishers have been frustrated and humbled by the Kindle’s rock-bottom, loss-leading pricing of the hottest new titles. And Barnes & Noble had to figure that, recession aside, some of those same-store sales they were missing were from shoppers who stopped coming to them because they had bought a Kindle and were now locked into the Kindle store for their purchasing to use the device.

Incidentally, the sales levels that the IDPF and Michael Pietsch are revealing are for legitimate ebook sales. Nobody knows the size of the pirate ebook market. There are some who guess it is rather small despite the robust number of files available in various hard-to-quell locations on the Internet, but if it includes any significant number of current or recent print-book customers, it only magnifies the impact on the legacy businesses.

There are a multitude of questions facing the industry about the expanding ebook market: how (some, including some highly credible voices, would say “whether”) to use digital rights management (DRM), how to price ebooks, what enhancements or updating can make commercial sense and how to manage them in the marketplace, when they should be made available, and, most important of all in the long run, what the “deal” is for the consumer (and then, based on that, for the author) who is actually licensing something rather than taking possession of something. But the questions about the declining print side are just as acute.

The brick-and-mortar bookstores, led by Barnes & Noble, are going to have to figure out how to keep their stores enticing with might be a smaller selection of print books. Nothing can grow the market for print books in the years to come, but keeping the number of points of purchase as high as possible and the traffic as high as possible are in the industry’s interests. It will require some real creativity to figure out what other activities or product offerings are compatible to keep people coming and how to drive traffic with online activity.

Amazon is not unaffected by this shift, either. Their big early lead in the ebook world was really built on the back of their superior print-book supply chain. From the very beginning, when they put out a database that had out-of-print books in it and then gave the customer a reliable delivery date for what they could sell, they created an unmatched print book shopping experience, provided a) you knew pretty much what you wanted and b) you didn’t have to have it right this minute. Their logistical capabilities are nonpareil but don’t do them nearly as much good with an electronic customer as a physical one. Their grasp on the ebook market really depends on the Kindle remaining a favored device and I think you could get good odds if you wanted to bet on that. Making hardware is not a core competency for them.

As the print business declines, Amazon continues to win if real print book demand falls more slowly than brick-and-mortar availability. But their hammerlock on the ebook market will probably not last; there will be too many better devices and they have to make a concessionary shift to selling the epub format before they can even begin to compete for those customers. They’ll do it someday, and probably soon, but they loosen the grip they have on the Kindle owners the day they do.

Publishers have an interest in continuing to support bookstore survival because the display they get there is great promotion and because being seen by a browser who put themselves at a bookstore section is still a great way to be discovered and bought. And there will still be, for some time, books which are not narrative reading which are simply better in print than in any electronic rendition. Publishers still sell a lot of these books (many of them juveniles) and bookstores, or some appropriate retail setting, are essential to them.

But publishers are going to have to rethink their operations. Sales staffs will probably contract; warehouse space will become redundant; investments in IT systems for the print operation will have to be more rigorously controlled. Publishers will likely combine, of course; the big houses now all gladly take competing publishers into their back office operations to help support them. But downward shifts in scale are not only inevitable, they will probably happen in more dramatic lurches than we’ve known in the past.

Wholesalers and distributors will both win and lose in this shift, but the shape of their business will certainly change. On the one hand, they, like everybody else, will lose sales that they have today because accounts go under and publishers they distribute cease operating. On the other hand, they are in the business of converting fixed operating costs to variable ones, and the number of customers for that proposition will grow as the apparent costs of operations (as a percentage of sales) get out of control at many companies.

Agents and the top 500 authors (an arbitrary number) are most likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of these changes in the short term. Because they themselves are powerful, searchable brands, they could actually sell ebooks themselves off their own websites, keep all the money, and make considerably more than their contracts would give them for ebook sales today even with sales of a quarter or less than the publisher and retailer get for them. (And the sales might not be that low.) I have talked to big publishers about the threat that top authors might just make their ebook deals first (you can cover the market in 4 or 5 stops and branded authors would have their own websites to sell from as well) and offer publishers print-only. Without exception, the big publishers tell me “no way we do the deal on that basis.” But if what is contended in this post is true — that keeping the print business viable is going to depend on amassing volume for it any way you can — they might not actually feel that way when presented with the problem. I think they will be getting the opportunity to make the choice.

I’ve posted on variations of this thought before. I had already decided it needed to be the topic of a keynote panel at Digital Book World. I’ve recruited Ken BrooksMichael CaderLarry Kirshbaum, and Evan Schnittman to join me on stage there to discuss it. Continually rebalancing the business between print and electronic, and maintaining the scale to run still-vital print operations, will be a topic of interest for just about all of us in the months and years to come.

Apologies for the paucity of posts lately. I’ve had a lot of work, been traveling, and had a bout of food poisoning. The food poisoning’s about gone, but the work and travel schedule remain robust for the rest of the month. I should become a more reliable correspondent again in a couple of weeks.

61 Comments »

Ebook growth explosive; serious disruptions around the corner


The news about trade ebook sales growth continues apace. The IDPF has just said that sales in June 2009 were up 136% over June a year ago. Calendar year sales to date are up about 150% over 2008.

Anecdotal information from big trade houses suggests that ebook sales are approaching 3% of total sales. But not all the books big houses sell are “ebookable” with current technology: much of the juvie list, most illustrated books, and books where tabular or graphic material is important might well not have been made into ebooks. So the number is larger, maybe 5% or 6%, of the straight narrative books. And because not all of everybody’s backlist is yet available in ebooks, sometimes because of rights issues and sometimes because it just hasn’t been digitized yet, the number is higher for straight narrative new titles. So maybe that’s at 8%. Now!

And the chart of the sales trend that IDPF shows would certainly suggest we’re still seeing accelerating growth. There’s no reason to think that will stop; in fact, there is every reason to think the growth will gain additional impetus. New reading devices are coming and new features are coming for existing devices. Growth in ebook uptake to now was achieved with no help from the biggest purveyor of consumer books: Barnes & Noble. Now they’re jumping in to the pool with both feet. They have announced a partnership with Plastic Logic on one new reader and there is a rumor they will have another one of their own.

And the Apple tablet is going to be a reality, which many people think could be a Kindle killer. It won’t be, but it will surely be a Kindle challenger and it will grow the market in various ways, including making good ebooks from a lot of books that weren’t good candidates with the previously available screens.

The market is still dominated by Amazon and by Kindle, which may be selling 70% of the trade ebooks at the moment. Publishers are saying that seeing 50% of Amazon sales on a title in Kindle is not unusual. On most big books it is 30 or 40 percent and rising.

It has been reported that this is going to be a big Fall for big books: the late Michael Crichton, Pat Conroy, Jon Krakauer, Dan Brown, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Attwood, John Irving, Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver and many others will have books hitting the shelves between now and Christmas.

If that has any effect on ebook reading, it should be a spur. Of the 90+% of book readers who do not (yet) read ebooks, some know they will, but they just haven’t started yet. Since ebooks are cheaper than their hardcover counterpart, sometimes — given the price wars taking place among retailers — a lot cheaper, the plethora of hot new books should be a merchandising tool to sell devices and to get people who already have ereadable devices like iPhones to try this new way of consuming print content.

And then we have another piece of news: that Sony is pushing its partnership with Content Reserve to boost use of Sony Readers by libraries.

When we get to the point that the ebook share of a new book is consistently 25% or more, we will start to see real strain on many aspects of today’s business model. And we can expect to reach that point before Obama runs for reelection, perhaps in the next 18 months. I don’t want to try to get into answers in this post; it’s enough to just think about the questions. Consider…

1. Bestseller lists. Right now ebook sales don’t get added into bestseller list numbers. With Kindle sales (by our informal estimate) constituting about 70% of ebook sales and no apparent inclination by Amazon to report those sales, that’s a hole that will exist for a while. With all the big books coming this Fall, publishers will have a chance to see how ebook sales vary by author, genre, pricing, and ebook release strategy. Will authors whose audiences switch to ebooks faster be punished on the bestseller list as a result?

2. Library sales. From the beginning, Content Reserve — the principal provider of ebooks to libraries, the power behind Baker & Taylor’s ebook provision and now in partnership with Sony Reader — has attempted to replicate the printed book world with a model that requires libraries to buy the number of copies they want to lend simultaneously. So if a library wants to lend 100 copies of the new Dan Brown at the same time (assuming it is available as an ebook), they’ll have to buy 100 ebooks. But what is not factored into the current model is that print books wear out. A library can only lend a print book X number of times before pages start to fall out. Replacement stock wouldn’t be part of the (current) ebook model. (In fact, with the new Sony deal for readers in libraries, it is the hardware that will wear out, so Sony, not the publishers, will get the replacement stock business.)

3. Library sales again. In the print book world, you have to go to the library to get a book and then go back to the library to return it. In the ebook world, you go to one web site to download the book for free and another one to download it and pay. Consumers are bound to notice. How will publishers that are spending a lot of money and time chasing down pirate copies respond to that?

4. Market fragmentation. Amazon is 15 to 30 percent of a book’s sale; somewhat less when the book has big distribution through mass merchants and somewhat more if a book is long tail and hardly available except on the Internet. That number is rising. They are perhaps 70% of ebook sales. How long will it be before an author says to publishers “I’ve handled Amazon. Would you like to offer me a contract for the rest of the market?” And with another big chunk at another single retailer, Barnes & Noble, an author’s agent could make two deals and get half the potential market. Won’t that be an enormous temptation?

5. Health of the brick-and-mortar channel. As ebook sales climb, many of those sales will be cannibalizing print book sales (although our friends at O’Reilly say that isn’t happening yet; at least not for computer books.) That would suggest we will see declining sales through stores in the years to come. But stores are the publishers’ most important marketing and merchandising tool. If we do start to see narrative books selling 20% or more as ebooks, what can publishers do to help save brick-and-mortar shelf space? What can the stores do?

6. Pricing and timing. There is uneasiness among publishers about simultaneous ebook release, based on the the bestseller list problem, the bookstore preservation challenge, and the intense ebook pricing competition that is driving prices to the consumer far below wherever the publisher tries to set them. At least one publisher has held back the ebook of an important title for several months as a result. The view from here is that the right strategy is the opposite: get the ebook out as fast as possible to get word of mouth going before the print books hit the stores. (We’re not advocating holding back the print book here; just acknowledging the reality that printing, binding, and shipping take time and the book is “finished” when the PDF is finished.) What’s the right practice? Or does it, like so much in the trade business, “depend on the book?”

7. Ebook royalties. The author can get 85% from Smashwords (OK: no DRM, no merchandising, and not really a big league player…yet; but will it stay that way?); 80% from Scribd; 35% of sale price from Kindle. There are bound to be models also paying much higher than publisher royalties coming from B&N and from Indigo’s Shortcovers. How long will publishers be able to hold the line at 15% of retail or 25% of net, where ebook royalties are now. (Random House UK is trying to hold the line at lower numbers than that!)

8. New publishing models. When ebooks can routinely be 20% or more of a book’s sale, they can be 40% or 50% on many titles. The capital risk of publishing an ebook is a fraction of what is required to publish a print book. New entities are forming built around that reality; how long will it be before conventional publishers try an ebook-only, or ebook-first, approach on some titles? (Random House US is already publishing a number of Kurt Vonnegut short stories as ebooks only, where shorter content at a low price can be practical.)

The strategic thinkers at the big publishing houses, retailers, and literary agencies certainly have a lot on their plate.

40 Comments »

Aside from the publishers: how the other stakeholders fare as ebook adoption continues


In three prior posts, we’ve explored the initial conversation that surrounded the announcement that Sourcebooks would delay the ebook release of Bran Hambric; sketched out what we think are the four stages of ebook adoption; and looked at how publishers see the early “establishment” stage, which is where we are now.

This post is about the other stakeholders: authors, retailers, distributors, and, of course, readers.

In the “vision” stage of ebook adoption, which ended with the launch of the Kindle in November 2007, authors were virtually powerless. With ebook sales even for established books struggling to make triple digits, publishers were gunshy about accepting digitization costs for books other than the biggest sellers and it hardly made sense for authors to make the investment on their own. With the exception of genre fiction, particularly romance and sci-fi, where vertical audiences were able to cluster early, the ebook world was inhospitable to the author working on her (or his) own.

That has changed dramatically. Today Amazon Kindle as well as web services Scribd and Smashwords make it easy for an author to upload a pdf or doc file and publish an ebook. While Amazon appears to be paying authors only about 35% of the selling price to access its army of device users, Scribd (80%) and Smashwords (85%) pay much more. Barnes & Noble’s ebook announcement yesterday didn’t mention author-generated ebook content, but with their goal being clearly to offer as many titles as they can, one must assume they’ll figure out a way to get at it too. So there is a clear path to the public developing for anybody with ebookable content; the challenge will be driving audiences to the content.

At each end of the bell curve, the publisher doesn’t contribute much to that equation. Small books and unknown authors often get little or no support from a publisher; big books and big authors often don’t need help to alert the public to their content. So after several years of publishers driving down ebook royalties to the current Major League standards of 15% of retail or 25% of net, we can expect to see the pendulum swing back to the author. Big authors will negotiate far higher ebook royalty rates; small authors will turn down small advances in favor of self-publishing as the ebook market grows (and the physical books, remember, can be delivered through a variety of POD self-publishing options.)

The biggest book retailers basically stayed out of the ebook game during the vision stage. Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon made a pass at the ebook business, but gave up on it pretty quickly (although Amazon first bought the Mobipocket format, which became the foundation for the Kindle software.) That made sense; there was too small a market early in this decade to occupy the attention of corporations doing billions in sales on printed books.

There were other complications which ultimately left ebook retailing to the smaller players. Early in the vision stage, the two big formats for handhelds were Palm, which displayed on Palm Pilots, and Microsoft’s dot lit, which displayed on handhelds that used the Windows operating system. Adobe Reader software, which was installed on PCs, began back then and has been used continuously to this day. Early in the decade, Palm’s model was to keep control of the sale of Palm ebooks, first through “Peanut Press” and then through the “Palm Digital” store. That meant no other ebook retailer could sell Palm books. When Palm became, by far, the preferred format for handheld ebook reading, they left the general ebook retailers, including B&N, without access to the heaviest users of ebooks on devices.

Mobipocket was created as a cross-platform ebook reader that would work on both Windows and Palm software. The first indication that Amazon would look for a path to ebook hegemony was when they bought Mobipocket in 2005 (they bought BookSurge, the print-on-demand capability, at about the same time.) But even though Mobi ebooks would play on multiple platforms, the market was apparently too small to interest Amazon.

The Palm Digital store became Ereader in 2007 and the Ereader platform, just bought by Barnes & Noble, will work on almost all devices (except Kindle and Sony Reader) now. In the final years of the vision stage, before Kindle, ebooks were sold by independent bookstores (Powells being the most successful) and dedicated ebooksellers like Diesel ebooks. Discounts off publishers’ established prices were only offered in targeted and time-limited promotions and seldom offered even as much as 10% reductions. The stores were “powered” primarily by Ingram Digital, which replicates its print-world role as a digital wholesaler. Competing with Ingram was an upstart company in Cleveland called OverDrive, whose wholesaling operation is called Content Reserve. Content Reserve became the primary supplier of ebooks to libraries.

When Sony Reader came on the scene in September 2006, publishers had four formats to convert their ebooks to: Palm, Microsoft dot lit, Adobe, and Sony. Adobe, which played on PCs, was at that time by far the market leader in titles available and sales. But publishers, still seeing very little market, would not necessarily convert each ebook into all formats. At a time when Adobe had over 100,000 titles available, there were perhaps 40,000 on Palm and fewer than that on Microsoft or Sony.

Amazon’s arrival with the Kindle changed everything: title availability jumped, prices were slashed, delivery was vastly simplified, and the biggest online book-buying audience in the world was constantly pushed to think about ebook reading. That signaled the shift from the vision stage to the establishment stage.

Another critical development that enabled the movement from the vision stage to establishment was the development of the epub format by the International Digital Publishing Forum, the ebook trade association, facilitating use of ebook content across platforms.

Now in the establishment stage, the big book retailers — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Canada’s Indigo — are in, competing in every possible way: price, selection, and merchandising. B&N and Indigo are trying to appeal to ebook readers regardless of the device they want to use. Amazon has suggested they’ll go that way, but so far are only pushing the Kindle format for Kindle or iPhone. Prices at Amazon and at B&N are clearly being subsidized in pursuit of a larger customer base. That is going to make things very difficult for the independents or any new entrants to make a go of ebook retailing.

As we proceed in the establishment stage, we can expect publishers to start selling digital downloads and we can expect most web sites to offer vertically-curated offerings. The big horizontal aggregators will thrive for the next few years as the market grows, but the verticalization of consumer attention will eventually chip away at their sales.

The distributors are, or have been, Ingram and Content Reserve. (I say “have been” because Barnes & Noble’s just-announced deal to power the Plastic Logic content offering  positions them as a competitor to Ingram as a digital wholesaler, although there is no suggestion as to how far they want to go and, as of now, several days after the announcement, nobody else to my knowledge has raised this point.) CR has recently done a deal to provide service through Ingram’s print-world competitor, Baker & Taylor. The subsidized discounting taking place at Amazon and B&N is going to make it very difficult for the distributors’ horizontal customers. Ingram may recognize this problem as being similar to what they faced when they tried to launch ebook wholesaling the first time in the late 1990s and Amazon responded with deep discounting.

The distributors have to find new opportunities through web sites that don’t think of themselves as content-centric or content-sellers now (they’re communities.) The trick will be to curate the set of offerings in a very granular way, but there is a marketplace that will develop there that will be served by aggregators.

For ebook readers, it is definitely the best of times, so far. Because of the epub standard developed by the IDPF, most ebooks can be offered for use on multiple devices without high conversion costs (which, in any case, are easier to bear now that there are real sales.) More and more titles are available and, despite the Sourcebooks experiment that triggered this series of posts, we are moving to a standard of ebook release when the book first comes out. I believe we’ll start to see ebook releases ahead of the book before long. The competitors have prices of the content to the consumer plunging. The choice of devices is proliferating and, of course, that means the devices will cost less in the future too. The deployment of smartphones that can also be used as book readers continues to increase. The pieces are in place for evolution to turn to revolution and, when it has, a few years from now, we will move from the establishment stage to “transition”. That’s when the printed-book world as we have known it for about the last century will change into something completely different.

Due to a little programming change we did, I haven’t been alerted to comments and I haven’t been answering them for a little while. I will clean this up on Friday (and then this message will disappear…)

12 Comments »

A few thoughts, some near heretical, about DRM


I got a call today from Laura Sydell of NPR in San Francisco to have a conversation about DRM. I found myself telling the story this way.

From the beginning, there were multiple ebook formats, the leading ones being Adobe, Palm, and Microsoft Dot Lit for a time, with Mobi originally intended to be the format that bridged the gap (at that time) between devices. Then Amazon smartly took Mobi out of play, blocking anybody else from peddling a device-agnostic solution. And now we have e-readers…

From the beginning, there has been a reluctance of people to read BOOKS (goodness knows they read many other things) on screens, or at least on the screens that were presented to them for the purpose. This distinctly separates the book business from the music business, which I know I wrote about last week, but which also applies here. Your ears don’t care whether the speakers or headphones got the sound from a download or a record. It all works the same to you. But, as we all know, reading a screen for most people is a sufficiently different experience than reading on paper that they’re likely to have an opinion about it (often whether they’ve actually tried it or not).

From the beginning, some people in the book business (mostly, I suspect, agents for very big authors and their publishers, who have the most at stake) have been concerned that there would be a spread of unauthorized digital copies if they didn’t “protect” them. They were apparentely learning a lesson from the music business. But the music business was “stuck.” The format they sold music in was a “gold master.” They distributed digital copies.

From the beginning, there has been a romantic notion called “interoperability”, which says it is a wonderful thing if the same file can work on lots of different devices. So you should be able to  read the book on your PC, or on your Sony- or Kindle-like device, and on your iPhone and/or Blackberry and your Sony Play Station, for that matter. Believe it or not, there are not only quite a few of the publishing digerati who think this is very important, there are many who actually blame the slow growth of the ebook market on the fact that the industry hasn’t accomplished the ability to deliver it. (Seems preposterous to me.)

The multitude of formats presented costs and hassles to the publishers. They had to do more work to put each book in shape for each format, and they had to do pretty meticulous quality control because a lot could go wrong. With ebooks not selling much at all, the difference between spending $250 to convert to one format, say (starting with a PDF print file), and then adding $50 or $100 more for additional formats created a whole decision-making cascade. This all choked off books from the ebook stream, on one format or another or at all, as publishers needed to “decide” to publish each book in one or more formats.

The multiple systems also prevented interoperability and restrained piracy. The DRM was actually a bit of window dressing; even unprotected files wouldn’t have traveled very far.

But then the industry, through the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) developed the epub standard, which was code that could be read by many different systems and/or converted inexpensively to other systems. So the publishers could provide just one file, the epub file, and the distribution channels could do the conversion to different formats. A giant step toward interoperability (and efficiency.)

So now DRM is the one barrier to interoperability and so the drumbeat to get rid of it gets louder and louder.

Also from the beginning, people have noticed that, in most cases, the more of a book you give away digitally, the more you sell. This would almost certainly not be the right strategy with high-value scientific reference, or a directory, but it is the experience of many people over a long period of time. Tim O’Reilly has famously pointed out that obscurity is a much more prevelant problem for books and authors than theft through piracy. Cory Doctorow is certainly the most vociferous and among the most eloquent expressing contempt for the whole idea of DRM, the insult it constitutes to the audience of book readers, and its self-defeating nature. He has given away huge amounts of digital content and he credits doing so with growing his sales as a novelist.

My officemate and colleague Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media has been doing an ongoing study of the effects of free distribution with O’Reilly Media and Random House. They are documenting both the fact that there is no significant piracy of ebooks and that free distribution, even the limited piracy, seems to have a stimulative effect on sales.

We are at a moment where publishers are noticing this and taking it on board. O’Reilly and Thomas Nelson are the first I’ve noticed to start offering ebooks in multiple formats, with Nelson doing so to any buyer of a print book who registers on their site for it. (A nice way to capture names, too.) Others, noteably Hachette’s unit Orbit, and Random House, have started giving away ebooks (for free or, in Orbit’s case, a buck or near-free)  to promote books and authors. The ROI on these is close to infinity if it sells one more book!

I hope that this is an accurate summary of events so far, except that I left out the Kindle (on purpose). Now I’d like to offer some forward-thinking and observe an enormous irony.

1. Forward-thinking. This notion of giving away ebooks has a tragedy of the commons built into it. It’s free and it works. So everybody’s going to do it. The choice of ebooks you can legitimately download for free or under a buck will grow by leaps and bounds (it already has.) At just the moment that the ebook market is growing, and lots of new people are coming into it, many people will be able to form the habit of choosing from what is free or near-free. Ultimately, this will have two negative effects. One is that it will depress the pricing across all titles. And the other is that the giveaways will lose their stimulative effect.

I would not suggest that anybody voluntarily try to save the commons. It would not be in their own best interests to do that and they would not succeed. 

2. Because there is going to be a culture of free or almost-free, piracy might well become an issue for the most popular ebooks as takeup of ebooks grows. It clearly has never been a problem, but that doesn’t mean it never will. Things change. (See number 1.)

3. The Kindle. Amazon not only steered clear of the epub collaboration, they are aggressively blocking people from selling content that would be compatible with the Kindle. Everything about what they do is closed. The problem is that they’re defying history so far: growing faster with a closed system than all their competitors for ebook eyeballs combined.

That’s ironic.

But it’s not what’s most ironic.

I personally never got the thing about interoperability until now, when I am reading the great new biography of Abraham Lincoln by by Ronald White on both my Kindle and my iPhone. Whenever I switch over from one to the other, it knows my place and asks me if I want to advance to it. This is great! I love interoperability. I have no use for it between any other two devices, but between my Kindle and my iPhone? Terrific!

Of course, Amazon is probably able to deliver this functionality so seamlessly partially thanks to the fact that they have a closed system and more control.

That’s really ironic.

18 Comments »