Impelsys

Asking whether Amazon is friend or foe is a simple question that is complicated to answer


I’ve been invited to join a discussion entitled “Amazon: Friend or Foe” (meaning “for publishers”) sponsored by the Digital Media Group of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (only in England!) and taking place in London next month. I think the answer must be “both”, and I suspect that my discussion-mates — Fionnuala Duggan, formerly of Random House and CourseSmart; Michael Ross from Encyclopedia Britannica; and Philip Walters, the moderator for the conversation, will agree. This is a simple question with many complicated answers. I am sure that Fionnuala, Michael, and Philip will introduce some perspectives I’m not addressing here.

The first thoughts the question triggers for me are three ways I think Amazon has profoundly changed the industry.

Although just about every publisher has headaches dealing with Amazon, very few could deny that Amazon is their most profitable account, if they take sales volume, returns, and the cost of servicing into consideration. This fact is almost never acknowledged and therefore qualifies as one of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Because they’ve consolidated the book-buying audience online and deliver to it with extraordinary efficiency, Amazon must feel totally justified in clawing back margin; it wasn’t their idea to be every publisher’s most profitable account! But since they are effectively replacing so many other robust accounts, the profitability they add comes at a big price in the stability and reliability of a publisher’s business, which feels much more comfortable coming from a spread of accounts. Publishers strongly resist Amazon’s demands for more margin, partly because they don’t know where they’ll stop.

It is also true that Amazon just about singlehandedly created the ebook business. Yes, there had been one before Kindle was introduced in November, 2007, but it was paltry. It took the combination that only Amazon could put together to make an ebook marketplace really happen. They made an ereading device with built-in connectivity for direct downloading (which, in that pre-wifi time, required taking the real risk that connection charges would be a margin-killer). They had the clout to persuade publishers to make more books, particularly new titles, available as ebooks. And they had the attention and loyalty of a significant percentage of book readers to make the pitch for ebooks. With all those assets and the willingness to invest in a market that didn’t exist, Amazon created something out of nothing. Everything that has happened since — Nook and Apple and Google and Kobo — might not have worked at all without Amazon having blazed the trail. In fact, they might not have been tried! Steve Jobs was openly dismissive of ebooks as a business before Amazon demonstrated that those were downloads a lot of people would pay for.

The other big change in the industry that is significant but might not have been without Amazon is self-publishing. The success of the Kindle spawned it by making it easy and cheap to reach a significant portion of the book-buying audience with low prices and high margins. Amazon added its skill at creating an easy-to-use interface and efficient self-service. Again, others have followed, including Smashwords. But almost all the self-publishers achieving commercial success have primarily Amazon to thank. It appears that, in the ebook space at least, self-publishers among them move as many units as a Big Five house and, in fiction, they punch even above that weight. Without Amazon, this might not have happened yet.

So, in the three ways Amazon has really changed the industry — consolidating the bulk of online book buyers, creating the ebook business, and enabling commercially-viable self-publishing, publishers would really have to say the first two are much to their benefit (friend) and the last one they could have done without (foe).

The second big heading for this Amazon discussion is around the asymmetry between what Amazon knows about the industry and what the industry knows about Amazon. Data about the publishing industry is notoriously scattered and because of the large number of audiences and commercial models in the “book business”, very hard to interpret intelligently. Amazon, on the other hand, has its own way of making things opaque by not sharing information.

The first indication of this is that Amazon doesn’t employ the industry’s standard ISBN number; they have their own number called an ASIN. So whereas the industry had a total title count through ISBN agencies that required its own degree of interpretation, the titles published exclusively by Amazon, which only have ASINs and not ISBNs, are a total “black hole”. Nobody except Amazon knows how many there are or into what categories they fall.

Another piece of Amazon’s business that has critical relevance to the rest of the industry but is totally concealed from view is their used book business. There is an argument to be made that the used book marketplace Amazon fosters actually helps publishers sell their new books at higher prices by giving consumers a way to get some of their money back. But it is also pretty certain that people are buying used copies of books they otherwise would have bought new, with the cheaper used choice being offered to them from about the first moment a book comes out. One would intuitively assume that the effect becomes increasingly corrosive as a title ages and the supply of used copies keeps rising as the demand for the book is falling, inexorably bringing the price of the used books down. But none of us outside Amazon know anything about this at all, including how large the market is.

And, by the same token, we have no idea how big Amazon’s proprietary book business is: the titles they sell that are published by them exclusively. Beyond not knowing how many there are or what categories they’re in, the rest of us can’t interpret how the sales of Amazon-published titles might affect the prospects for titles a publisher might be signing up. Amazon has that perspective to inform their title acquisition, their merchandising, and to gauge the extent of their leverage in negotiations with publishers.

Going back to the original question, except for the possibility that some new book sales occur because the purchaser is confident of a resale, this is all foe!

In retrospect, it is clear that Amazon’s big advantage was that they always intended to use the book business as a springboard to a larger play; they never saw it as a stand-alone. This was an anticipation of the future that nobody inside the book business grasped when it was happening, nor was it imitated by book business pure players. But it was the key to Amazon’s economics. They didn’t need to make much margin on books; they were focused on “lifetime customer value” and they saw lots of ways to get it. Google and Apple have the same reality: books for them are in service to larger purposes. But they started with the larger purposes and, for that and other reasons, have never gotten as good as Amazon is with books. (One big deficiency of the Google and Apple offers is that they are digital only; they don’t do print books.) And B&N and Waterstone’s never thought beyond books; it appears that Waterstone’s scarcely thought beyond physical stores!

But it could well be that Amazon is approaching its limits in market share in the book business. What they did worked in the English-speaking world — for printed books two decades ago and for ebooks almost a decade ago — because they were first and able to aggregate an enormous customer base before they got any serious challengers. They will not find it as easy to dominate new markets today, particularly those that have rules that make price competition harder to employ. Language differences mean book markets will remain “local” for a long time and strong local players will be hard for Amazon to dislodge.

Amazon has powerful tools to keep their customers locked in. PRIME is the most effective one: once customers have paid a substantial fee for free shipping, they’re disinclined to buy elsewhere. Kindle is another one. The devices and the apps have broad distribution and, because of self-publishing, Kindle remains the ebook retailer with the biggest selection.

The marketplace is changing, of course. Amazon’s big edge is having the biggest selection of printed and digital books in one place. That’s been known for decades to be the best magnet to attract book buyers. But now a lot of book reading is done without the title-by-title shopping in a bookstore that it always used to require. We are at the beginning of an age of “distributed distribution”. Many different tech offerings — Aerbook, Bluefire, De Marque, Page Foundry, and Tizra among them — can make it easy for publishers to sell ebooks directly (and Aerbook enables that and promotion in the social stream). The subscription services Scribd, Oyster, 24Symbols, and Bookmate (as well as Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited) are pulling customers away from a la carte ebook buying and Finitiv and Impelsys make it easy for any entity to offer digital reading by subscription. All of these sales except Kindle Unlimited come primarily out of Amazon’s hide, since they are the dominant online retailer for books. Publishers mostly see this dispersal of the market as a good thing for them, even though some of the same opacity issues arise and, indeed, the big general subscription services are a new group of potentially disruptive intermediaries now being empowered.

For the foreseeable future — years to come — Amazon will remain dominant in most of the world as the central location where one shops online for books a la carte because they have the best service, the biggest selection, and they sell both print and digital books. But they now have their own new challenge dealing with the next round of marketplace changes, as what they dominate becomes a smaller portion of the overall book business in the years to come. Publishers face the same challenge presented a somewhat different way.

The event that gave rise to this post takes place the night before the London Book Fair opens. The entry fee is nominal. If you’ll be at LBF and want to attend, please do! I will, typically, have no real base of operations at LBF, but I’ll be there all three days with some time available to meet old friends and new. Email to [email protected] if you want to set something up. 

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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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