Indigo

Some ideas for publishers that will help bookstores; other suggestions that make us skeptical


This is the fourth of a series of posts on bookstores and their future. The previous posts have covered the challenges of buying (proposing VMI as a possible solution), explored what we should expect for the future of Barnes & Noble, and envisioned what the world of brick-and-mortar book retail might look like in the years to come. I promised previously to review the list of suggestions for publishers to help bookstores recently rounded up by Bookseller editor Philip Jones. He’s written more about this since, but the “original” list from Philip included:

1. Publishers offering books to retailers on consignment. That means the store pays when the book sells rather than on a date based on when it was shipped to them.

2. Publishers offering books to retailers with higher discounts. That means giving stores more margin between the price they pay and the price the publisher “suggests” as the retail price.

3. Bookstores taking advantage of Amazon’s “weaknesses” as an online bookseller. That would apparently be about localized curation as opposed to algorithmically-based suggestions.

4. Bookstores becoming something more (or less, but different) than bookstores. This suggestion may be inspired by B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores.

5. Publishers creating special print editions for stores. This was done in Canada by the device of Random House creating Indigo-specific editions for Canada’s biggest bookstore chain.

And since then, in a radio interview, Harper UK MD Victoria Barnsley added a sixth suggestion:

6. That bookshops should charge “admission” to allow browsing (and perhaps credit the admission charge against a book purchase.)

We’re going to dismiss suggestions 3 through 6 pretty quickly. They either don’t scale or don’t help.

The notion that indie stores can beat Amazon at online selling is nothing short of preposterous. What indie stores can do, and should do, is offer an online sales capability to allow the customers they have who want to express their loyalty to do their online shopping with them. And they should do that in the simplest and easiest way possible. To the extent that the store has done curation work (store bestseller lists, recommendations from staff or customers), those should certainly be reflected online. But the notion that a single player can beat an online behemoth at the behemoth’s own game is a delusion and no great effort should be wasted on it.

The idea that bookstores become something other than bookstores, which is how I’d interpret suggestion number 4, is also not really much help. If not a “bookstore”, what, exactly? And if you can’t tell somebody “what, exactly”, then how is this advice anything more than a suggestion to keep throwing stuff at a wall until something sticks? That’s a strategy? Bookstores have already and always been “community gathering centers”. Playing up that piece of it is never a bad idea, but it hardly seems like an original one.

Similarly, the idea that publishers can save stores by offering them “unique” product is not really a solution at all. Yes, Random House (the biggest trade publisher) can do it for Indigo (a dominant retailer that owns the Canadian market). Even if it is adding value for Indigo, and we really don’t know if it is, there are precious few situations in the world where it could be applied.

And the suggestion that stores can save themselves by charging admission is one that can be very rapidly be disproven by any store that cares to try. It actually strikes me as a very good Candid Camera sequence. Put a toll booth at the front door of a retail store (any retail store, but a bookstore will do) and record the reaction of customers when they encounter something that makes absolutely no sense to them. I suspect wild enthusiasm for the idea will be rare.

However, the first two suggestions — to provide the stores inventory with more time to pay (consignment or extended payment terms) or more margin to work with — are worthy of more analysis and thought.

For publishers to consider easing the financial burden for bookstores based on their importance as a marketing component of the supply chain is a reasonable idea. But neither expanding retail discounts nor applying consignment is without complications.

Expanding margin needs to be done carefully, so that the margin expansion accomplishes the purpose that publishers seek: to increase the display of books in retail stores. Simply increasing discount is a difficult way to do that. What needs to be applied is an expansion of an existing principle.

In the book business, “coop” is the heading under which publishers purchase display for their books in prime locations. Coop was originally used for publishers to purchase space for their titles within a local bookstore’s newspaper ads. (Sometimes that “local bookstore” was a branch or group of branches of a chain.) But recently it has been applied to getting prime display locations, often near the cash register, as part of a promtion. The convention is for the payment for the space to be calculated as a percentage of a “supporting order”. This process imitates what happens in other classes of trade and is referred to outside the book business as RDA (retail display allowance) or MDF (marketing development funds). Another application of the same idea is for publishers to pay for “pockets” (sometimes called “slotting fees”). Under an arrangement like that a non-book retailer (like Michael’s, the craft store chain) can get an additional subsidy over and above what the discount schedule calls for on every title they carry.

But what we may be learning is that every book in a bookstore, or perhaps any retail location, has its discovery enhanced, not just the ones on promotional tables. So perhaps a publisher (followed by others, in time) might consider extending the idea to pay a “shelving fee” for every book in a “qualifying” bookstore. Consider a little math.

Let’s imagine a store that does $2 million in annual sales. If their average discount is 40% (which is a reasonable number; discount schedules would say it is higher than that, but it is reduced by freight costs, including for returns), the value of the inventory to make those sales is $1.2 million at cost. If they turn their stock three times a year, the average cost value of the inventory in the store is one-third of the total, or $400,000.

The two million in annual sales means shifting about 133,000 books (if the average retail price of the books is $15), and the average inventory is about 45,000 books. If publishers paid ten cents per book per month to be shelved, that would deliver an additional $4500 a month — $54,000 a year — to the store. If publishers paid 25 cents per book per month to be shelved, the store would get an additonal $135,000. Since a bookstore would be doing quite well to earn 10% on its sales, our notional $2 million store would be happy to earn $200,000 in profits now so, in either case, the “shelving fee” would be adding a meaningful increment. Certainly, for some stores it could make the difference between staying open or closing down. For others, it would encourage a bigger book inventory. In either case, that’s what publishers want to accomplish.

Publishers could, if they chose, make the “shelving fee” applicable whether the store bought the book directly from them or from a wholesaler. It actually makes it less tricky to apply if the wholesaler-supplied books are included. Invoicing now is done when publishers ship books, not when they arrive at the store so the time lag in between works in the publishers’ favor. For a “shelving fee”, publishers wouldn’t want to pay for time the book is not on the shelf: while it is in transit, or in a box waiting to be unpacked, or in a stockroom unavailable to a browsing customer.

In order to collect “shelving fees”, a store would have to deliver much more robust data than they now have to publishers about stocking and selling. But modern technology can make doing that not terribly difficult (systems don’t routinely do it now, but they surely could) and, in fact, stores should want to know about the efficiency of their shelving practices for their own reasons. And doing things this way would put publishers and stores on the same side around returns, because both would have good reason to get books that can’t sell off the shelves (and replace them with ones that have better odds).

Increasing the margin as a reward for a brick-and-mortar store being open and stocking books is doable and it is doable without cutting the wholesalers out of the picture. Consignment is definitely more complicated. And perhaps less helpful.

Sometimes the sale-and-return convention that has prevailed for nearly a century in the US book business is thought of as equivalent to consignment, but it isn’t. Although bookstores sometimes use returns as a tool to diminish the payments they have to make to publishers, they also “own” (and, in many cases, have paid for) a lot of books on their shelves at any particular time. And a non-trivial side effect of sale-and-return is that “shrinkage”, books that don’t sell but for whatever other reason may disappear from a store, are very much the store’s problem, not the publisher’s.

Under consignment, the payment from stores to publishers would be based on what passed through the cash register, not what was shipped from the publisher’s (or wholesaler’s) warehouse. “Shrinkage” would only be detected if a publisher called for a return of a book it had previously shipped and the store was unable to send it. Since even with the best of intentions, a store wouldn’t necessarily know a book was missing and certainly couldn’t pull a missing book for a return, the payments for those books would, at the very least, have to wait until some inventory check or returns protocol was invoked and discovered it.

The big question in consignment is when and how often a store pays. I recall having a discussion about consignment with a very large book retailer ten years ago. The top person there was thinking in terms of paying publishers every six months or so. It is safe to assume that no publisher would be excited about offering consignment on that basis. Allowing a store to “pay on sale” is one thing; allowing them to pay six months after sale is much more costly to the publisher.

For consignment to be workable, payments would have to be no less frequent than monthly, and would have to cover sales pretty much up to the moment of payment. What might make sense, for example, would be payments on the 5th of the month for sales made through the end of the preceeding month. That would be 35 days after sale for some books, 5 days after sale for others, and an average of about 15-20 days after sale. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a publisher offering consignment to want payment more often than that, perhaps even as often as weekly.

The challenges of turning consignment into a workable commercial practice in our business include establishing a payment timing that makes sense and some method to catch shrinkage.

But the next problem is that the process of ordering would probably have to change. It is sometimes said that stores are now too easily tempted to over-order because, after all, they can return whatever they don’t sell. Imagine how much less restraint there would be on over-ordering if the store could hold books cost-free for as long as it took for them to sell! (There could still be the cost of freight in and out to discourage over-ordering, but that exists now.) Unlike the “shelving fee” concept, consignment puts the publisher and store in conflict around slow-moving inventory.

Let’s also take note of the fact that consignment is not all about paying later; sometimes consignment would require paying earlier. Bookstores get a boost when a bestseller comes in and flies off the shelves for the first week or two it is out. The revenue on those books is kept by the stores for 45 or 60 or 75 or 90 days (depending on how publishers enforce their collections) before they have to pay the publisher. Under a consignment arrangement, they’d have to turn over the publishers’ share much faster. (Of course, at the same time, they wouldn’t have to pay for some slower-moving books that might have come in the same shipment but hadn’t sold yet.)

There are other complications to consignment. The way things work now, publishers carry books in their warehouse on their balance sheet at inventory “cost” (something like manufacturing cost). When they sell them, they book the amount they sell to the store for, and keep some “reserve” for potential returns. On the store’s balance sheet, the books sit at the price the store paid, or will pay, the publisher for them.

But if the books are shipped to the stores on consignment, there has been no sale. So the publisher would have to continue to carry those consigned books on their balance sheet at the manufacturing cost and not credit themselves with the sale until the store reported it and paid them. What this would do to public reporting and bank covenants is a company-by-company proposition, and perhaps a knotty problem in some cases.

And sometimes there are state or local taxes based on “inventory”. IANAL (“I am not a lawyer”) but the taxing authority probably expects payment from the entity that ownsthe inventory. Under sale-and-returns, stores “own” it (whether or not they’ve paid the bill). Under consignment, the publisher certainly owns it. That would create complications, at the very least. Complications could also arise over insurance. (If a store had a flood or fire, would consigned inventory be covered by a store’s insurance?)

The bottom line is that publishers can help stores most by helping them carry their inventory less expensively and there are a great variety of ways to do that. The simplest way of all, of course, is just to extend the payment time from the current (as it often enforced) 60 days to something more. Thirty-five years ago, my father had me administer a program called “credit for overstock” where we gave stores 180-days extended billing for books left unsold after Christmas if they’d delay returning them. (Simple to do: issue a credit for what’s there dated today and an invoice for the same stock dated six months from now).

We’ve heard through the grapevine that at least one of the Big Six is experimenting with 180-day terms and that another might be a fast follower. That strategy is apparently offering competitive advantage (stores stock more of that publisher’s books, so they sell more of them too). That’s a way for a publisher to give benefits that are “like consignment” without the complications. From my perspective, it’s a shotgun, not a rifle, because it extends terms for everything equally. Credit-for-overstock targeted books that would very likely have been returned. The old “dated billing” plans targeted particular titles at particular times of year. Consignment requires that books that sell fast be paid for fast. A big across-the-board increase in time to pay is a far less targeted tool, but it still constitutes a big step in the right direction.

That’s because books on bookstore shelves are more valuable to publishers than books in their warehouse. Increasing recognition of that fact is occurring; more actions will certainly follow.

Worth mentioning — and inadvertently neglected by me in the VMI post — is that VMI does not need to be, and should not be, at odds with bookseller-management of curation. A publisher can certainly manage lists of titles that are designated “do not stock” or “always have on hand” that are designated by the store. The point to VMI is not to take tastemaking power away from the store. Of course a store should be able to exclude books they find offensive or that they think their customers will find offensive. And their decisions about categories or authors to stock out of proportion to how well they sell — higher or lower — can also be accommodated. And so can their inputs about local promotions that a publishers’ central office would have no way to know about. VMI offers two enormous benefits in any case. One is that the publisher knows things about individual book promotions, and recent performance, that might not be factored into each store’s calculations. And the other is that most stocking decisions are routine and  best made — particularly in the age when we’re discovering Big Data — by a system massaging the maximum amount of information.

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More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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Clever moves all around in the B&N and Amazon chess game


Readers who have been following publishing’s digital transition for two years or more will recall the situation in 2010 when five of publishing’s Big Six switched over from selling their ebooks on wholesale terms, by which the retailer sets the price to the consumer, to agency terms, by which the publisher sets a price that prevails across all retailers. Random House stayed out.

That decision seemed to puzzle many observers despite the realities for the publishers. Making the change required actually reducing per-unit revenues to the publisher (and author) while at the same time making each unit more expensive to the consumer, so it was done by what was then called the “Agency Five” at some sacrifice (in their view) for the greater good (in their view) of the industry. Agency protected weaker ebook retailers — Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google as well as independents — from having to compete with the deep-pocketed Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategies. The immediate payoff was the opportunity to sell through Apple’s fledgling iBookstore.

As we explained at the time, Random House’s choice was transparently in their short-term self-interest. It was understandable that their competitive cohort, who saw themselves making a sacrifice on behalf of the industry’s long-term future, were unhappy that the biggest player among them was staying out. But it was a bit hard for me to understand what was so hard for everybody else to understand about why Random House did what they did. (Random House switched over to selling on the agency model in March, 2011.)

Those times are recalled for me by the recent round of indignation and analysis over the jockeying among the retailing competitors over the titles published by Amazon. Everybody is just acting in their own best interest. There really isn’t much mysterious about anybody’s behavior.

We could say the most recent set of events was begun by Amazon’s escalating efforts to capture titles for ebook rendering exclusively on the Kindle platform. They were apparently doing this two ways: by signing up authors directly for their own imprints and by offering self-published authors financial incentives — such as paid participation in their lending library program — for making their ebook a Kindle exclusive.

For the books they signed directly, Amazon recognized that it might not be the most comfortable sales call in the world for any rep to pitch these books to B&N’s buyers. Representing the books of every bookseller’s biggest competitor would be a challenge but it was one that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to attempt. Last year it was announced that HMH had taken the opportunity to license the Amazon-originated titles in paperback. Major publishers had often expressed the view that publishing in print without ebook rights was a non-starter for them. HMH hoped that their efforts wouldn’t be viewed in that light since it is not considered unusual (although I’m not sure how often it has happened) for ebook rights to remain with the hardcover publisher when paperback rights are licensed.

More heat was generated when the Kindle Fire debuted with some graphic novel content delivered exclusively to it. When Barnes & Noble pulled the paper versions of those books off their store shelves, they explained that their policy would be to refuse to stock the print version of something not offered to them for sale “in all formats”.

The message at the time seemed clear. If Amazon wanted to sign up books directly and sell them broadly, they couldn’t maintain a Kindle monopoly on those titles. Undoubtedly, it was becoming clearer and clearer to Amazon that getting broader distribution for printed books was an important element if they wanted to sign up important books. Let’s remember that Larry Kirshbaum had been brought on board in June to sign up big titles. He was the first person to work at Amazon who had the relationships and the experience to tell them what it would take to succeed in those efforts.

But things were dynamic at B&N as well. With Borders gone, they have become the only player at scale able to offer print book merchandising. There is an increasing awareness of how important print display still is to “making” a book. It is very likely that inside B&N there has been increasing appreciation of the power of their position.

There is complementarity here. Amazon had a dominant position with Kindle before the Nook arrived that has been eroding since then due to increased competition. They’re still more than half the ebook sales in the US, but they want to shore up their position. Using their strength to get Kindle exclusives is a sensible way to do that.

At the same time, the leverage Barnes & Noble has from its print store dominance is perhaps at its peak. In their case this isn’t because competition in their channel is likely to erode their share. It is a continuation of the consumer trend of shifting to online buying and ebook reading that will dilute the importance of brick-and-mortar even if B&N’s share remains very high. So they too want to use the leverage of that position to strengthen themselves while they can.

Both Amazon and B&N demonstrate the power of their position by looking for an increased share of the book sales revenue from publishers.

Anyhow, Amazon continued to work on this problem of getting the books they acquired directly from authors into broader store distribution. In January, they expanded the first-look licensing deal they had with HMH and announced the New Harvest imprint there to deliver paperback editions of their books to broader distribution. And, proving they’d been listening to what Barnes & Noble said earlier, they announced that New Harvest books would have ebooks made available in formats that would enable their sale in all ebook channels.

It took Barnes & Noble less than a week to respond. Ignoring Amazon’s willingness to make the new imprint books available as ebooks, they instead focused on the continuing programs Amazon had that kept other titles as Kindle exclusives. B&N announced that they wouldn’t carry any Amazon-originated titles in their stores, although they would make them available online and as ebooks. Of course, that “offer” gave Amazon precisely what they didn’t care about (BN.com online sales) or didn’t really want (Nook availability) and denied them what they were really after (bookstore shelf and display space).

Pretty quickly, both Daily Finance and Time Business found fault with Barnes & Noble’s move. It was seen as boneheaded for a retailer in the declining brick-and-mortar space to decline to stock some books that might sell. It was even suggested by some that this was an “opening” for Barnes & Noble’s terrestrial competitors to carry attractive Amazon titles, with the implication that this could help them steal customers from B&N.

But Barnes & Noble’s competitors actually saw things the same way that B&N did. The independent store and publisher, Melville House, was quickly supportive. A few days later, the Canadian chain Indigo (which occupies the same dominant position there that B&N does in the US) and the second-ranked US chain, Books-A-Million, announced that their policies would mirror B&N’s.

The day that B&N announced they wouldn’t carry the Amazon books, a reporter called me for comment. This reporter clearly expected me to castigate B&N for shortsightedness. I think he was surprised when I told him I thought the policy made complete strategic sense for them.

The bottom line here is that as Amazon’s power to sign up books away from the major publishers grows, the retailers who depend on publishers for a flow of commercial product suffer along with the publishers. B&N saw — and Indigo and Melville House and Books-a-Million saw — that Amazon wanted bookstore distribution to enable them to sign up more titles directly. Even though those titles would be made available to them, they see themselves as strengthening their enemy when they stock those books.

B&N’s decision seems to me like the right move for them. Most very regular bookstore customers aren’t really surprised if any particular store doesn’t have any particular book. Indeed, the impossibility of stocking everything anybody might ask for in a store is part of the reason that online bookselling is such a useful service. In this day and age, most people who want a particular book don’t go to a bookstore to buy it; they just order it online. They go to bookstores to browse and shop and choose from what is within the store. So, yes, there may be some disappointed customers if B&N doesn’t have a high-profile Amazon title, but I don’t think that disappointment will be widespread.

On the other hand, authors and agents who might have considered an Amazon publishing deal will have to think twice if they know very few bookstores will carry it. Amazon can do some remarkable things to sell books to their mammoth online customer base and that won’t change. But there is both a practical and a vanity aspect to getting store display that will still be seen as indispensible by many authors and agents who otherwise might have taken the leap to sign with the newest big checkbook in town.

Amazon still has the biggest forces, and time, on its side. eBook reading will continue to grow and Kindle will remain the most powerful platform as it does. More and more print buying will shift from stores to online and nobody has mounted meaningful competition to Amazon in the online print channel. The Amazon online experience for search and selection and delivery remains — in this consumer’s opinion — far and away the best. Their reach beyond books to so many other product lines gives them further advantages in many ways, including fueling their Amazon Prime program, which is an unmatched tool to encourage customer loyalty. The shelf space for books at B&N will almost certainly continue to decline and the leverage that comes along with it will do the same.

This tactical decision will not change the overall course of history. Neither did Random House’s decision to postpone moving to agency for a year after everybody else did. But, just like Random House’s decision, everything Amazon and Barnes & Noble (and the retailers that followed them) have done is actually perfectly sensible when viewed from the perspective of their own self-interest. There are a lot of smart people engaged in a pitched battle here. Outside observers would be well-advised to keep that in mind as they evaluate the moves they make.

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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.

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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…)

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A context in which to evaluate ebook strategies


This post is part of a growing set initiated by the Sourcebooks experiment holding back an ebook from simultaneous publication with an upcoming hardcover. It is the second (link to the first below) and will be followed by at least one more, as the conclusion of this post makes clear.

To talk sensibly about the Sourcebooks experiment with Bran Hambric, we need to sketch out some context. Trying to provide it will be the objective of this post. A couple of caveats before we begin:

We are talking here about narrative fiction and non-fiction: books that don’t need illustration or design-intensity to get their content across.

And we are talking about books intended for general audiences: trade books.

The first caveat matters because it describes the technical challenges of presenting the content and the second because it defines the commercial parameters for all the players (and the players will be the subject of a subsequent post.) Content that is delivered to more structured and organized markets, such as we see in academia or corporations, has a very different set of commercial realities.

There will eventually prove to be four distinct stages of ebook adoption, and what makes sense for all the players will change as we move from one to another. The four stages are vision, establishment, transition, and the new marketplace.

The first stage, vision, which started in the late 1990s, will be seen to have ended when the Kindle was launched in November of 2007. This was when ebooks attained a minimal market, substantially less than 1% of total trade sales. In that stage, we had the development of the ePub standard, which could be a permanently useful efficiency for the market. We also had the establishment of basic terms of trade, giving intermediaries approximately the same margins based on the publishers’ suggested retail price that they have had in the physical print-book world. (In my opinion, that will not prove to be so helpful.) Author royalties in publishing’s Big Leagues seem to have settled at either 15% of the publisher’s suggested retail or 25% of the publisher’s revenue, another formula that will be challenged by market forces. We have learned a lot about the futility and frustration surrounding DRM. And publishers have tried to establish ebook pricing that tracks the printed book availability at any time, generally listing the ebook at about the same or a buck or two cheaper than the lowest-priced print edition available.

The second stage, establishment, started with the Kindle. This is when ebooks are much more obviously headed for their ultimate central position in consumer trade book publishing. Ebooks are moving from making a negligible commercial contribution to each book to measureable value, a shift which could be said to have occurred. Many major books are now getting nearly half their Amazon sales from Kindle and other ebook sales are growing as well. Publishers are seeing ebook sales that have tripled as a percentage of their total sales in the past 12-to-18 months. In this stage we are also seeing — and will see more — new players enter the game. Amazon’s device play was followed by software launches from Apple (more than one, including Amazon, from the App Store) and Indigo (a smartphone application called Shortcovers which is part of the iPhone expansion). The Kindle device was preceeded by the Sony Reader; there have been UK-based launches of an independent competitor (Cool-er Reader) and one from Borders UK called Elonex; and strong rumors suggest that both Barnes & Noble and Indigo will deliver their own devices very soon. There are others as well. In this establishment stage, ebook revenues are growing, though they are not yet sufficient to change the overall power relationships in the publishing value chain. But because so many devices and channels are competing to get established and because of the high physical-world discounts, publishers have completely lost control of consumer-facing pricing at the title level.

The third stage, the beginning of which I reckon is about 1-to-3 years off, will be the transition stage. Since I’m inventing this paradigm, I’ll declare arbitrarily that the transition stage will begin when it becomes common for ebook sales to be as much as half the sales of ebookable titles (see the caveats above) and trade houses are seeing their overall unit sales (including the many books, still most juveniles and other highly illustrated titles they all publish that are not “ebookable”) grow steadily from 10% of total sales with no end in sight. In the transition stage, we will start to see real shifts in the value chain. Devices that can only import from a single source (such as the Kindle is today) will fade in importance (if, indeed, there are any left by then.) The number of potential purchase points will explode, as many web sites offer some sort of ebook-readable content, a great deal of it free, but lots of it based on the prices set by publishers. Large horizontal aggregators (Amazon, B&N, and the full-line bookstores that build their offerings from wholesalers) will struggle to hold onto a large and loyal customer base as the vertical web increasingly takes hold. Almost all publishers will be among the zillions of sites offering direct downloads to consumers, many through explicit verticals that sell the books of their competitors (as Macmillan’s tor.com sci-fi site, presciently, is doing today.) DRM will gradually disappear but policing commercial-level piracy will become much more effective because the entire industry will be fighting it. What Scribd is doing to fight piracy — using their archived content to locate pirated material posted by site visitors — will be more widespread and collaborative. There’s a real opportunity for a search engine to offer a service here that somebody will take, and then all will follow.

And the fourth stage, the new marketplace, will have arrived when ebook sales dominate and printed book sales shift primarily to short-run and print-on-demand, except for the very biggest titles. This will happen with accelerating speed when sales pass the point of being 40 or 50 percent digital overall, possibly within a decade. When ebooks become the “norm”, prominent authors will have less need for publishers and ebooks will be routinely updated and enhanced and linked to other content in ways that printed books simply cannot match. In the new marketplace, printed books will have very specific uses: tokens and souvenirs, delivery of certain material that makes great use of large presentation surfaces, and, of course, enabling those who are too old, too poor, or just too stubbornly luddite to make the shift to screen-reading that will have become ubiquitous by then.

In the next post on this subject we will really address the Bran Hambric experiment. We’ll tackle how the various stages of ebook development affect each of the stakeholders: authors, publishers, retailers, wholesalers, and, of course, readers. The context of the stages allows us to make sense of the issues of 1) timing, 2) pricing, 3) DRM, and 4) the content itself, and the marketplace impact of each of the four from the standpoint of each stakeholder. And we’ll see that the challenges Sourcebooks is responding to are symptomatic of what publishers face in the early establishment stage.

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Ebook complexity: good news for publishers


We are working on a project in this office to “grid” the ebook world. We’ll have a hard time doing it in fewer than four dimensions. What we see as “major headings” are: 1) hardware/readingdevices, 2) software/platforms, 3) file formats, and 4) ebook retailers. And after we get that sorted out, we’ll start thinking about the various commercial terms. I surprised a reporter this morning (who is probably less well-informed than most readers of this blog) when I told her that Apple gets paid for what goes on an iPhone out of the App Store, but not on what goes on an iPhone from the Kindle store. (And that’s just an example…)

This morning came the news that Canadian retailer Indigo is going to partner up with a reading device, the way Amazon has its Kindle and the way Barnes & Noble is rumored to be setting up for later this year. Although there are ways to get an ebook not purchased from Amazon onto a Kindle, and there will presumably be ways to get content not purchased from the retailer partner onto the Indigo and B&N devices (when they come), it isn’t easy. Most people I know who own a Kindle aren’t aware that they can get another ebook format onto it.

Complicating things further is an entirely different sort of offer coming up from Google. Everybody else, whatever the differences (and there are many!), is selling you a downloadable ebook file which you “own”. Google is selling you access to a file which they will stream to you. What’s the difference? Two big ones.

* When you close your web browser, you no longer have the book.

* Because of that, any concern about piracy goes away. If you can’t grab the file, you can’t “share” it.

This is game-changing in a very dramatic way. If you’re reading on a web browser, then there are no format issues. And if you don’t have the whole file, there are no piracy issues.

Google has also announced its intention to enable retailers to “sell” these books (or, perhaps we should say, sell access to these books) based on retail prices they would allow the publishers to set. Google reserves the right to alter the price (or remove the title completely) if the price is out of line for the category. Later reporting suggested that Google is ready to give up a big chunk of its notional 37% (that’s their share in the settlement; it wouldn’t have to apply here but apparently they’re using it as a baseline) to retailers to make it attractive to them to resell, but they want the publishers to put skin in that game too. One of the two big questions that arise today is: what margin will they offer retailers? (I’m on record favoring a reduction of the margin from what retailers get in the physical world.) The whole question of pricing is so complicated that I’m going to leave it here and take it up in some future post.

The second big question is “how much is in that cache?” which could be phrased as “how long a tunnel can I ride the train through and still continue reading my book?” Apparently there is new technology which could largely mitigate that problem

There is no question that reading an ebook this way will not be quite as convenient as an ebook that you have in your device. For one thing, with an iPhone you’ll face real battery life issues (being connected drains power faster.) But Google is an organization that looks to the future, and the future is cloud computing, not hard drives (or even flash drives!)

But while we focus serially on each new thing: Shortcovers and Cool-er Reader and Google ebooks, there is a larger reality being sketched, and it is very good news for publishers. The more complicated this world becomes, the more an author will need a professional organization, operating at scale, to deal with it for them. And the more it weakens Amazon. It might have seemed a year ago that we were headed for a world where Amazon would rule. They kept growing their printed book share and, with the Kindle, started gathering a significant percentage of the ebook market. With a combination of Kindle and their own BookSurge POD operation feeding their vast audience of book buyers, they were moving — inexorably it might have seemed — toward being a single point of distribution that could adequately serve the market for many books. And anybody who wanted to reach that market could just hand off the Word file when they were finished writing and not have to deal with anybody else.

The more there is a market that is not served by Amazon, the more any author needs a publisher, and the more any small publisher needs a distributor. The key role for publishers in the value chain is to manage complexity and detail. That is an end-to-end challenge: including editing and shaping, designing and “typesetting”, putting into distributable form (printed or electronic), elevating consumer awareness, and making it possible for retailers to sell (or, viewed another way, for consumers to buy.) As tools have made it easier to handle origination, getting from a manuscript to reproducible (check out Lulu for printed books or Smashwords for ebooks), the publisher’s role was challenged for some books. The reorganization of the consumption world from horizontal to vertical has also challenged trade publishers: their connections to the Times Book Review and Oprah aren’t as valuable as they used to be. 

But they could be saved by an ebook world so complicated that only the savviest players will be able to cover every corner of it. Coming up is the next big multiplier of complexity: when web sites start selling ebook downloads (or access) to the books that suit the vertical interests of their site visitors. The method for exploiting those opportunities in the printed book world was an affililate relationship with Amazon or BN.com because you needed somebody to manage delivery of a physical volume and they did it. In the ebook world, they’re just another unnecessary middle player. The stores will go straight to the ebook aggregators — Ingram or Content Reserve — or work directly with publishers if they have enough product to engage the vertical audience.

But even if the vertical players go to aggregators, and even if the aggregators largely manage all the complexity the supply chain is throwing at us, the ebook world is rapidly getting much too complicated for single players. If publishers (and the consultants they depend on) are getting a headache trying to keep all the new stuff straight, imagine how bewildering it is to the wannabe self-published author!

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