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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Digital change: what’s an independent bookseller to do?

The question of how to plug the independent bookseller into the digital revolution is a knotty one. Nobody has really “solved” it. 

Two of the smartest guys in the UK, Francis Bennett and Michael Holdsworth, tried to tackle this question in a report for the Booksellers Association in a report published in 2007. While they touched on a whole host of issues, including that publishers are likely to sell digital downloads direct, they really didn’t manage to come up with an action plan for the individual bookseller. Rather, they focused on the need for booksellers and publishers to join collaboratively to solve the problem: start with a public conference, create standards, form a joint trade working party. This is, at best, a path to an answer.

From this I conclude there is no ebook-centric answer. If there were one, these guys would have found it.

Then, three weeks ago, PW did a story headlined “Indie Booksellers Debate the E-book Conundrum”. This article introduced a product/technology called Symtio, which stores (among them Tattered Cover) use to back into ebook revenues. Symtio is a plastic card, sold at a retailer, which entitles the bearer (gift recipient) to download an ebook, an audiobook, or both from Symtio’s web site. If this strikes you as something less than the perfect ebook solution for retailers, you’re seeing it the way I do.

The ABA plans to work ebooks into Indiebound. Len Vlahos calls it a “focus for the immediate future” in a white paper presented to the ABA Board. Ingram Digital offers access to 150,000 ebook titles to independent stores. And stores such as Vroman’s are quoted as enthused about the potential for them with ebooks.

Dick Harte, however, who runs BookSite, which provides Web hosting for booksellers and librarians, doesn’t agree. Not only were ebook sales low on the BookSite platform, often they were erroneous purchases (people thought they were buying a printed book!) which then required a customer service intervention. One particularly far-sighted bookseller quoted in the article is David Didriksen who sees ebooks as very low-margin transactions not worth the effort.

I agree. What distinguishes what independent booksellers offer: local taste and judgment, personalized service, intimate customer knowledge — these things just don’t provide much competitive advantage in the ebook space. And the competition isn’t just Amazon and B&N either.

So independent booksellers need to look elsewhere to participate in the digital revolution. I tried to sketch out a strategy in a previous piece:

1. Set yourself up (probably with Ingram) in the simplest way you can to be able to sell as many titles in as many formats as you can. That is, get the maximum choice you can for your customers with the minimum hassle and investment for you.

2. Don’t expect to make money selling ebooks: consider it an accommodation to your customers to keep them buying physical books from you. Restrain yourself from investing large amounts of labor improving your ebook presentation past the point of acceptable. If the margin from your sales starts to amount to something, you can do it then.

3. Spend all of energy that you might have wasted perfecting the sale of ebooks on social networking, trying to be in direct contact with your customers through Facebook, Twitter, and through postings on popular and well-read blogs in subject matters your store specializes in. Particularly focus on the opportunities to promote to specific groups, such as through hashtags (#s) on Twitter, which identify groups of people interested in a particular thing.

I neglected to add a fourth, very important element of an indie bookseller’s digital strategy, although it is hinted at in the marketing suggestion above. This one is the same as it is for general trade publishers: get vertical!

The bad news about digital change is that it brings the biggest companies in the world — Amazon, B&N, Apple, and every phone company — into the indie bookseller’s back yard. But the good news is that it also brings every customer in the world into that back yard. So a bookseller with a vertical specialty can build a global market. This was the pre-Internet strategy of CEO-Read (originally 800-CEO-Read; if Bezos had invented Amazon ten years earlier he would have chosen a 7-letter name…) They’re business book specialists and their customer base is truly international.

Independent booksellers need to build a reputation within vertical niches. That’s a matter of having the stock, having the knowledge of the vertical subject, and then getting involved in the vertical communities — blogging, commenting, tweeting, reaching out. The bookseller’s web site, if it has good content properly tagged, can rapidly be discovered for relevant searches. Tattered Cover may not be able to beat Amazon at everything, but they should beat them on searches for Pike’s Peak. A northeastern store that specialized properly could come up ahead of Amazon in a search for “autumn leaves colors” or “historical sites Boston”. (By the way, I just checked, an no bookstores come up in the first ten pages of “historical sites Boston”!) 

In just the same way that general trade publishers need to use the time they have left when “general trade” still works to build vertical presences that will last beyond that time, so do general trade bookstores. It will work for Barnes & Noble to be “general” for far longer than it will work for any local store. The trick is to be World Class at something, most likely something that has a local root will make the most sense.