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It is hard for publishers to apply even Harvard B School advice in their struggle with Amazon


Harvard Business Review published an article recently by Benjamin Edelman called “Mastering the Intermediaries” which gives advice to businesses trying to avoid some of the consequences of audience aggregation and control by an intermediary. The article was aimed at restaurants who don’t want their fate controlled by Open Table or travel companies who don’t want to be beholden to Expedia. The advice offered is, of course, scholarly and thoughtful. It seemed worth examining whether it might have any value to publishers suffering the growing consequences of so much of their customer base coming to them through a single online retailer.

The author presents four strategies to help businesses reduce their dependence on powerful platforms.

The first suggestion: exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.

The author cites the fact that American Airlines’ strong coverage of key routes made its presence on the travel website Kayak indispensable to Kayak’s value proposition. As a result, AA negotiated a better deal than Kayak offered others or than others could get.

Despite some suggestions in the late 1990s that publishers set up their own Amazon (which they subsequently half-heartedly tried to do with no success) and a couple of moves to cut Amazon off by minor publishers that were minimally dependent on trade sales, this tactic has never really been possible for publishers on the print side. Amazon began life by acquiring all its product from wholesalers — primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor — before they switched some and ultimately most of its sourcing to publishers to get better margin. But the publishers can’t cut off the wholesalers without seriously damaging their business and their relationships with other accounts, and the wholesalers won’t cut off Amazon. So for printed books, still extremely important and until just a couple of years ago the dominant format, this strategy is not worth much to publishers.

However, the strategy was and is employable for ebooks, which are sold via contractual sufferance from agency publishers, even if the sourcing is (sometimes, not typically by Amazon) through an aggregator. That was the implied threat when Macmillan CEO John Sargent went to Seattle in the now-famous episode in 2010 to tell them that ebooks would only be available on agency terms. Amazon briefly expressed its displeasure by pulling the buy buttons off of Macmillan’s print books. (Publishers can’t cut them off from print availability, but they can cut publishers off from print sales!) In the meantime, Amazon’s share of the big publishers’ ebook sales has settled somewhat north of 60 percent, and those Kindle customers are very hard to access except through Amazon. This is considerably more share than Kayak had when American Airlines threatened their boycott.

In fact, it is likely that Amazon could live without any of the Big Five’s books for a period of time, except for Penguin Random House, which is about the size of the other four big publishers combined. The chances are that PRH’s size will prevent Amazon from treating them the way they are now treating Hachette. And the massive share that Amazon has of both print and ebook sales makes it extremely difficult for Hachette, or any other big house except PRH and possibly HarperCollins, to sustain an ebook boycott (with consequent print book sales reductions) for any significant length of time. In other words, for publishers dealing with Amazon, this horse has left the barn.

Where it has not yet left the barn is with the ebook subscription services, and for them many publishers actually appear to be following the strategy being suggested here. Only two of the big houses have put titles into Scribd and Oyster, and it appears that they got extremely favorable sales and payment terms in order to do so. Indeed, these fledgling subscription offerings must have the big houses’ branded books to have a compelling consumer proposition.

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

The HBS piece cites the complaints that eBay was giving search prominence to suppliers who advertised on the site forcing a reversal of the policy.

Although the search algorithms on powerful platforms are ostensibly geared only to give the customer what they’re most likely to want, it is probably generally understood that these results are jiggered to favor the platform’s interest. It is not surprising that Google has underwritten White Papers from UCLA professor Eugene Volokh and from Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defending that conduct. Volokh argues that the first amendment prevents the government from interfering with search results and Bork says nobody is harmed if Google favors its own interests.

Could we apply that same logic to Amazon? How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

This is the kind of an argument that can arouse the government which, so far, has shown scarcely more interest in Amazon’s dominance of book commerce than they would if they dominated the commerce in soft drinks or lawn fertilizer. Can they be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented? We don’t know, but we do know that Hachette sent lawyers to Washington early in the Obama Administration to call attention to Amazon’s growing marketplace power and their willingness to use it. That apparently had no affect (unless, in some perverse way, it contributed to the government’s interest in pursuing the “collusion” case).

There could certainly be some consumer blowback to the gaming of search results by a platform, perhaps including Amazon. The Harvard article says Google changed algorithms that seemed to be burying Yelp because consumer sentiment, partly measurable in search queries, showed dissatisfaction among the public. But in the absence of an aroused government, it would seem unlikely that this suggestion will do publishers large or small much good.

It is definitely worth noting here that Hachette authors are involved in just such an effort right now over the current Hachette-Amazon dispute. (And Amazon authors, also often called “indie authors”, are pushing back in the other direction.) There is a difference of opinion about how much this is “hurting” Amazon or whether it will push them to a quicker resolution of the dispute; I’m not sure anybody will ever know the answer to that.

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

As the piece explains, when MovieTickets was on the verge of dominating phone and online ticketing, Regal Entertainment and two other large theater chains formed Fandango.

Unfortunately, this is a strategy that simply won’t work as an antidote to Amazon. In fact, trying it, which publishers have, demonstrates a failure to understand the source of Amazon’s power in the marketplace.

Amazon’s strategy is in plain sight and is the title of the best and most recent book about them: Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”. Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin. Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental. This is one of the reasons, perhaps even the principal one, why they operate their book retailing on margins so thin that the incumbent book retailers can’t match them. After all, B&N can’t make up the margin shortfalls created by offering books cheaply by selling that same customer a lawnmower. Nor do they benefit from additional scale provided by selling lawnmowers or cat food or server space.

The fact that Amazon did book retailing in a thorough and sophisticated way as they established their business to become an online Walmart made them different from omni-retailers in the past (going back to departments stores a hundred years ago) who sold some books.

The story has been told on this blog before about Amazon cutting prices more than fifteen years ago to discourage competition coming into the market. Although publishing is a profitable business for them, it is also a strategic component of larger objectives: getting an increasing share of its customers’ purchases across a range of physical products as well as to compete as a streaming content provider across the entire range of digital media.

No enterprise focused primarily on books can compete with that. Amazon takes too many customers off the table before whoever else is competing gets to begin and keeps them for a wide range of reasons. They’ve got the most admirable competitive position conceivable: a first-class operation supported by scale provided by myriad other enterprises, totally wide-ranging and broad knowledge of the details of book retailing, and the financial heft to accept diminished (or even negative) margins from time to time to support strategic objectives.

So, Bookish, the attempt to compete (although that objective was not explicitly stated) forged by three major publishers more than a decade after Ingram’s I2S2 attempt to create a broader base of online retailers, was never a serious threat. (It is now owned by another Regal, Joe Regal, whose Zola Books — an ambitious upstart ebook retailer — bought Bookish, apparently for its recommendation engine, from the publishers.)

This is probably the 20th year in a row, dating from their start in 1995, that Amazon has gained market share for sales of books to consumers. And that’s because consumers are making what for them is the obvious choice for convenience, total selection, and competitive pricing, as well as getting tied into Amazon through their PRIME program. Unless one of the other two tech giants in the bookselling world — Apple or Google — decides to make a dedicated effort to take some of that market share away from Amazon in both print and digital (and neither of them is much interested in print), it is hard to see where a serious competitor can come from.

As of this moment, there is no way for any ebook retailer except Amazon to put DRMed content on a Kindle, which eliminates a big part of the audience from play for any competitive platform.

The fourth suggestion: deal more directly. The article points out that people ordering takeout through online platforms like Foodler and GrubHub have often already chosen their restaurant so that restaurants that deal directly can afford to exit the platform.

As I was working on this post, HarperCollins announced that they have redesigned their website to be consumer-facing which enables them to sell books directly to consumers. They’ve collaborated with their printer-warehouse partner, Donnelley, to handle print book fulfillment and have a white-label version of indie ebook platform Bluefire to deliver ebooks. They promise that authors will be able to use the capability very easily to connect their own web presences and they’re thinking about additional compensation to authors that generate those sales.

This bold move has a hole in it, though, and it is one that publishers so far have no easy way to fill. All the non-Amazon platforms use Adobe DRM, which HarperCollins/Bluefire supports, so they can put your ebook on a Nook or Kobo device with copy-protection. Of course, they have their own “reader”, which can be loaded with ease on most web-capable devices and can apparently also be squeezed onto a Kindle Fire. But, because HarperCollins wants to continue to use DRM protection for the content, they won’t be able to sell directly to users of Kindle devices that are dedicated e-readers.

Although publishers have certainly encouraged that competition to Amazon which exists, their direct efforts have for the most part been limited to cultivating direct interaction with the end user audience to influence awareness and selection. Many smaller publishers are willing to sell direct without DRM and other large publishers sell direct in a more restrained way, but this seems to be the first concerted effort by a major player to drive direct sales.

It will be interesting to watch the pricing interaction between Harper and Amazon and whether Harper can come up with “specials” (bonus content, some connection to the author, bundling) that Amazon or another retailer can’t match. Competing on price is the retailer’s first instinct, but for publishers competing with Amazon on price is a fool’s errand, fraught with the potential for retaliation in many ways (including that “discounts” from publishers, the retailers’ margin, is presumably based on the publisher’s price. What does “publisher’s price” mean if they sell for less?)

But HarperCollins doesn’t need to get a big volume of direct sales for this to be a worthwhile initiative for them. I’d expect it to be copied. Any sales they can get directly increase their power in the marketplace.

There is one other initiative we’re aware of that can perhaps help publishers disintermediate Amazon for direct sales. That’s Aerbook, which widgetizes a book or promotional material for a book so that it can be “displayed” in any environment. Aerbook’s widgets can contain the capabilities for transacting or for referring the transaction to a retailer, Amazon or anybody else. Putting the awareness of the book directly into the social and commercial streams can be a big tool for authors and publishers. But even Aerbook can’t put a DRMed file on a Kindle. They offer a version of “social DRM” — essentially “marking” the ebook in a way that identifies its owner — which can be loaded onto the Kindle. But big publishers and big authors have apparently not yet come to a comfort level with that solution; perhaps the need to get to the Kindle customer directly and the experience Aerbook develops with their method will encourage a more open mind on that question over time.

So, it would seem, the best thinking presented by Harvard Business Review for how producers and service providers can dodge platforms trying to lock in their audiences has precious little that can be usefully applied by publishers to escape the grip of Amazon. Having taken about half the retail book market over the two decades of their existence, they have given themselves a reputation, tools, and momentum that will make it very hard to stop them from eating into the other half substantially in the years to come.

The fact that competing with Amazon is difficult doesn’t stop smart people from trying to figure out how it might be done. A group of publishing thinkers are holding a 2-day brainstorming session at the end of this month to come up with ideas. Two of them, Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon, will be presenting at a session at Digital Book World in January called “Blue Sky in the ebook future”, which will include thoughts on how to improve the narrative ebook itself from Peter Meyers and somebody not yet chosen to speak about complex ebooks.

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New data on the Long Tail impact suggests rethinking history and ideas about the future of publishing


For most of my lifetime, the principal challenge a publisher faced to get a book noticed by a consumer and sold was to get it on the shelves in bookstores. Data was always scarce (I combed for it for years) but everything I ever saw reported confirmed that customers generally chose from what was made available through their retailers. Special orders — when a store ordered a particular book for a particular customer on demand, which meant the customer had to endure a gap between the visit when they ordered the book and one to pick it up — were a feature of the best stores and the subject of mechanisms (one called STOP in the 1970s and 1980s) that made it easier. But they constituted a very small percentage of any store’s sales, even when the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor made a vast number of books available to most stores within a day or two.

It was an article of faith, and one I accepted, that if you could expose most books to a broad public, they would “find their audience”. The challenge was overcoming the gatekeepers or, put another way, the aggregate effect of the gatekeepers (the store buyers) was to curate, or act as a filter, to find the worthwhile books that the public would really see from which they would choose what to buy.

There was also ample evidence over time that a large selection of books in a store acted as a magnet to draw customers. That fact was noted by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, in the early 1960s, when they doubled the inventory at the Short Hills, NJ, Brentano’s store (the chain reported to my father, who was a Vice-President of Crowell-Collier, the company that owned Brentano’s, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and Macmillan Publishers, among other things) and it went from the worst-performing store in the chain to the best. In the 1970s, BP Reports published a survey that said that nearly half of bookstore customers chose the store they were in on the basis of the selection they’d find and more than half reported their particular purchase decision was made in the store.

By the late 1980s, both of the big national bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and Borders — were undergoing a massive expansion of “superstores”. Whereas chain bookstores (B&N’s B. Dalton and Borders’s Walden) carried 20,000 or 30,000 titles, and large independents carried as many as twice that, now the new superstores would carry 100,000 titles or more! Customers flocked to the massive bookstores and the ever-expanding chains ordered lots of the publishers’ backlists and everybody celebrated a new era, except the independent bookstores who were increasingly squeezed by their new large competitors. The era was less than 10 years old when it got disrupted.

In the 1970s, it was my responsibility for a couple of years to write the orders for stores that accepted vendor-managed inventory from Two Continents, my family’s distribution company. I was being careful to make sure that each store earned $2 gross margin per dollar of inventory investment, which was what you’d get from 40% discount with inventory turned 3 times a year. This gave me a hands-on look at how stock turn in the aggregate was affected by the inventory decisions on specific titles.

When you do this, you figure out pretty fast that you can produce very high stock turn on books that are moving consistently. If a store were selling five copies a month of a title on a sustained basis and I put in 10 and replenished monthly, they would be getting an annual turn of 10 or perhaps much more on those moving books. (Turn calculation: sales divided by average inventory for a period multiplied by the number of such periods in a year.) That would support a lot of single copies of books that moved very slowly or, as it turned out, not at all. Since very few stores managed a turn of 3 or 4 on their own (chain store turns were usually under 2), giving the stores on our Plan a good result with the advantage of shipping monthly was shooting fish in a barrel.

But if you think about the turn you’re achieving with the titles that really move, know that the titles that move are a large percentage of the store sales, and take on board what stores’ overall turns tended to be, it leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling, or calculation, that a very high percentage of the titles each store ordered didn’t sell a single copy in that store. In fact, one big advantage of vendor-managed inventory is that it gives you the ability to use the high turn on your titles to stock the titles of yours that turn slowly or don’t sell at all, rather than having the store “waste” those margin dollars your books produce stocking somebody else’s slow-moving books.

Remember, in physical retail, selection was the magnet. The books that didn’t sell were helping to pull in the customers for the books that did sell. Stores knew that too. Later work I did demonstrated that there were whole store sections that turned at half or less of the rate of the store as a whole. But if you want, say, a philosophy section that “turns”, it would only have about ten titles in it. If you want a philosophy section people will browse and shop from, you have to carry a lot of slow-moving titles.

But just when the bookstores put the inventory in place to stimulate book buying all over the country, along came the Internet, Amazon.com, print-on-demand, and ebooks, in that order. All four were fully integrated into the book publishing ecosystem over a decade-and-a-half starting in 1995. As quickly as the magic of selection via the 100,000-title store was implemented, it was superseded by the “total” selection provided by Amazon’s, and then BN.com’s, “unlimited shelf space”. Now every book would have its full chance to sell, or so it seemed.

Unlike the period of superstore expansion, when substantial orders for deep backlist suddenly became commonplace in a continuing windfall for publishers, the new era with Amazon was characterized by things getting harder for many publishers. That wasn’t necessarily clear at first, but the impact of Amazon, and then Lightning (print on demand offered by Ingram) was to dramatically increase the number of titles competing for sales. It gave the Long Tail a real opportunity to get to customers which, through bookstores — even very big bookstores — only the top 100,000 titles were able to do. Publishers were a bit like the metaphorical frog in heating water; the challenges imperceptibly became greater over time. In 1990, a new book competed with about 100,000 available titles. In 1997 it competed with many hundreds of thousands and that number just kept growing. Today it competes with millions.

The challenges for conventional publishers got steeper again when ebooks became mainstream, pioneered by Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007. There had been a modest ebook business building for about a decade, but until Amazon committed its resources to creating a dedicated device, a repository of content, and audience awareness, it had a trivial impact. But a full-fledged ebook business unleashed a new wave of competition from self-publishing authors. Amazon fostered growth by creating an easy on-ramp for self-publishing, a move quickly copied by B&N, Apple, and Kobo. In the several years that ebooks have been commercially important, many — certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands — of authors have achieved meaningful sales. Many of those have been of backlist books originally published conventionally but there have also been thousands of successful original ebooks. Whether revived formerly-dead backlist or new titles, these are books that are competing with the output of the conventional publishers and wouldn’t have been a decade or two ago.

So the Long Tail for books has been a topic of conversation for most of the past 20 years. Amazon’s limitless shelves and Ingram’s Lightning contributed heavily to this before the turn of the century; self-publishing has accelerated it dramatically. The early expectations, including mine, were that the Long Tail would take sales from all the books being “currently” published. But it became evident pretty early that the big books were just getting bigger: the head of the sales curve wasn’t diminishing. In fact, both the head and the Long Tail took sales from the middle of the curve. This was particularly challenging for publishers because publishing mid-list, those books they do that aren’t bestsellers, became much more challenging.

The Long Tail continues to grow. There are a limitless number of aspiring authors and their aspirations to self-publish successfully are fueled both by success stories and by a growing band of indie authors who tout their success and question the business models and practices of the majors. Because being conventionally published has its own set of hurdles and time requirements, it has seemed to many (and I haven’t been immune from this thought) that self-publishing would just continue inexorably to take share from the publishing business.

But now we have some data that calls that assumption into question. I encountered two examples of that in the past week.

In Toronto last Wednesday, Noah Genner of Booknet Canada presented information about the Canadian market showing that the number of ISBNs was expanding rapidly, but that the number of individual ISBNs selling at least one single copy was about flat.

Then this week, Marcello Vena of RCS Libri in Italy published a White Paper based on his company’s data (link through to the White Paper from the DBW piece introducing it) which showed something similar. Sales of his company’s books were becoming increasingly concentrated in a small number of titles. Vena added an analysis using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). HHI measures the concentration in a market and is, according to Vena, used by the US Department of Justice to measure concentration in an industry. The HHI is calculated by adding the squares of the market shares of the players. So if one company owned 100% of a market, the HHI would be 100 squared, or 10,000. But if 100 players each owned 1% of the market, the HHI would be 100 times 1/10,000 (1/100 squared) or 0.01. Using the market concentration and title concentration numbers in tandem, Vena finds that they’re linked. As market concentration increases, the sales move to the head of the sales curve and flatten further in the Long Tail.

Of course, Italy and Canada are not the United States. Our market is bigger and richer. But Italy and Canada are not trivial samples, either.

One further point about Long Tail sales. In the aggregate, they can be very significant. But for each individual title, they are trivial. So the real commercial benefits flow to the aggregators — Amazon and Lightning — and much less to the publishers or authors of the individual titles. There certainly are situations where particular publishers have a lot of Long Tail books: the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses would be prime examples of this. For them, with thousands of titles in the Long Tail, the aggregate sales are probably commercially significant. But for a publisher with 100 titles, or even 1000 titles, selling a copy or two a year (or none), and that’s what we’re talking about here, it hardly makes any difference. I personally own several Long Tail titles. I get checks from somebody every month, but it adds up to three figures a year, not four.

The implications of this in the discussion of how the publishing industry might be affected by self-publishing disruption are interesting. It would suggest to me that the boosts publishers can give a book — even their catalogs provide more marketing lift than most self-published books start with — will become increasingly important as the market becomes increasingly flooded. If the data Vena has presented turns out to be the future trend, the increase in self-published titles will drive more and more sales to a smaller number of winners, and my hunch would be that the winners will most likely be from publishers. That would indeed be a paradox and a totally unintended consequence.

Of course, the publishing business isn’t one business; it is segmented. So far, the commercially successful self-published authors overwhelmingly, if not entirely, fall into two categories. There are authors who have reclaimed a backlist of previously published titles and self-published them. And there are authors of original genre fiction who write prolifically, putting many titles into the marketplace quickly. Successful self-publishing authors are often in both categories but very few are in neither. Those two categories are nearly 100% of the self-publishing success stories but a minority of the books from publishers. So, even before Vena published his White Paper, the idea that self-publishing would upset the commercial establishment was way overblown. If Vena’s data turns out to be prophetic, the road is going to get harder and harder for all books, but especially the self-published.

Two big items in the news today. On B&N’s decision to spin out Nook and college into a separate public company, I have little to say except to wish them all well. On Hachette’s and Ingram’s division of the two Perseus businesses, I’d say this. 1) The notion that this is about Hachette “bulking up” for the Amazon battle is almost certainly wildly wrong and anybody saying that has disqualified themself as an expert. 2) The titles Hachette get here really change the character of their list, adding a non-fiction and academic dimension they never had. 3) Ingram has made a major leap in scale for their Ingram Publisher Services business which now, in the aggregate, is Big Five sized.

Once again, the Feedburner service failed to distribute my most recent post, which was a graf-by-graf disagreement with a post by Hugh Howey. The comment string of that post contains ample evidence that the fact contained in the last paragraph here is not widely acknowledged.

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All the Amazon-Hachette coverage doesn’t seem to cover some important causes and implications


A great deal has been written in many venues about the current tussle between dominant Internet retailer Amazon and one of the three smallest of book publishing’s Big Five general trade houses, Hachette Book Group. Although neither side has been particularly explicit about the precise points of contention, both what I read and what I hear tell me that the argument is about adjusting the ebook sales terms that were first hammered out in the doomed initial Agency implementation and then modified by a settlement reached under the Court’s direction. That settlement restored Amazon’s ability to discount from the publisher-set agency price (which pretty much defeated the purpose of agency from the point of view of the publishers who implemented it) but did not change the 30%-of-agency-price margin that had been established. Expanding that margin seems to be Amazon’s current objective.

My “position” on all this is that it reveals an imbalance that only the government can fix. I don’t know enough about the law to have an opinion about whether Amazon is abusing its marketplace power in an illegal way (although some seem to think they are), but I am quite sure (and so is an op-ed from the Wall Street Journal) that there is not a lot Hachette (or most publishers) can do to resist Amazon’s demands except suffer and hope the suffering is mutual. Hachette has gotten some recent strong support in the marketplace from some of Amazon’s competitors. Little fledgling retailer Zola started it, but Books-a-Million, Walmart, and now Barnes & Noble have joined to push and discount the books that Amazon is trying to bury. It would surprise me if their efforts covered Hachette for half of what they’ll lose.

Even when I’m credited by somebody else with coming up with a suggestion — raising the author split of ebook revenues so that the publishers don’t wave fat ebook margins in front of observant and powerful retailers — that would have made Hachette’s position stronger had they accepted it, I am dubious that the publishers can do much about this. Nothing publishers can do — or could have done in the past — would change the fact that Amazon controls anywhere from 35 to 75 percent of the sales for most trade books. Anybody with that much market inside its corral can charge a considerable toll for getting inside its gates.

For all that has been written, there are some critical points that I think have not been made as often or as emphatically as their importance warrants.

1. Amazon used the book business to build an enterprise no longer dependent on books. Although the executives at Amazon I know maintain that they have always had a “profitable” book business (and I don’t doubt them), the company has famously been willing to live with less margin than its retailing competitors. That takes the oxygen out of the room for any retailer competing with them within the four walls of the book business. Amazon has skillfully used books as a customer acquisition tool and focused on the lifetime customer value across product types, not the margin that could be earned from the book business alone. There’s nothing morally, ethically, or legally wrong with that, but it has been steadily demonstrated for the past two decades (and acknowledged on this blog years ago) that it makes it very hard, perhaps impossible, for somebody retailing books alone to compete with them.

2. Partly as a result of that, Amazon has changed the book business ecosystem. It was almost certainly inevitable that more and more book business would move online. But the consolidation of all the online business in one place — helped along by Amazon’s skillful integration of the used book business (the dimensions of which nobody knows much about) and their market-making Kindle initiative (more about which below) has created a distribution and revenue-source imbalance that publishing has never had before.

3. Amazon, at great expense and with great vision, made the ebook business happen. Before the Kindle, the ebook marketplace was small and unambitious. The biggest player in terms of sales was Palm, which wasn’t really interested. The most interested party was Sony, which repeatedly tried over more than a decade to establish some sort of ebook device and ecosystem. But Amazon made a significant corporate commitment — creating the Kindle device, pressuring the publishers to make much more of their catalog available as ebooks, and investing heavily in discounted sales and screen real estate to build the consumer market. When B&N with Nook in late 2009 and Apple with iPad and iBookstore in early 2010 entered the market, they were attempting to capitalize on a product class that Amazon had pretty much single-handledly created.

4. Amazon is just about every trade publisher’s largest and most profitable account. (Academic and professional publishers, which operated on “short” or “professional” discounts in their interactions with retailers, have been pushed way up on discounts so this generalization usually doesn’t apply to them.) Amazon is a unique account for publishers. They sell both print and ebooks and they sell them globally. Because they don’t have to stock tens or hundreds of far-flung stores, their efficiency of sales, as measured by their very low returns, is almost certainly the highest among retailers and probably the highest of all accounts (including the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor, which can also be pretty efficient). Amazon has no interest in being anybody’s most profitable account; what the publisher profitability suggests to them is that their efficiencies are responsible for a lot of margin generation and they are inclined to want more of it. From Amazon’s perspective, being equivalently profitable to other large accounts is “generous” enough. From many publishers’ perspective, the enormous marketplace control Amazon has was built on the back of the publishers’ and authors’ intellectual property. With Amazon now having effectively replaced large components of the marketplace: Borders being gone and Hastings in the process of going, the independent channel a shadow of what it was a decade ago (despite recent signs of “growth” that might just be partial replacement of Borders demand), and B&N — at the very least — slowly shrinking its store footprint, publishers rely on the margin Amazon provides.

The contradiction here, of course, is that the high relative profitability is all created by efficiencies in the (shrinking) print marketplace. Amazon wants to take the margin back on the (growing) ebook side.

5. Amazon wants lower prices for consumers — at least right now. (They’d say it is a core value and they’ll want it forever; there is room for an honest difference of opinion about how they’ll feel about it when their market share rises further.) Everybody else in the book business (authors, agents, publishers, other retailers) want prices at the very least maintained and probably would prefer they rise. This is the crux of the publishers’ problem with the government and with some quarters of public perception. Lower prices for consumers is catnip for politicians. They simply can’t resist it.

6. Amazon pays amateur authors, often unedited, who upload files not yet ebook-ready to them and don’t know anything about marketing or metadata, as much as 70 percent of retail if they meet certain exclusivity and price stipulations. (Obviously, there are great gems among those, but they are still mostly unproven, unknown, and unsuccessful.) They are apparently fighting hard to avoid giving Hachette — which invests substantially to be consistently superior to a fledgling author on all these counts — the same cut.

7. In the course of building the powerful position they now occupy, Amazon both made substantial infrastructure investments and subsidized sales for publishers through heavy discounting, sometimes below the price publishers charged them for the goods (particularly for ebooks in the days before agency pricing). Very few publishers complained about Amazon’s deep discounting of print books in the late 1990s when it began. Amazon’s pricing strategy discouraged many brick-and-mortar retailers from even entering online selling at that time (which, of course, must have been part of the calculus that motivated them to do the discounting the in the first place) but publishers just benefited through greater sales.

8. Hachette is, essentially, tied with Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for third place among the Big Five publishers. HarperCollins is twice as big. Penguin Random House is more like five times as big. This fight is already being costly to Amazon’s reputation among authors (many of whom, including Malcolm Gladwell, John GreenJames PattersonCharlie Stross and Michael J. Sullivan, have been heard from directly) and can’t be well-received among consumers. They’re not likely to try the same tactics with PRH. That means PRH is the most significant beneficiary of what is now going on. If nature takes its course, they should have much better terms than the other big publishers after this round of negotiations over new terms is concluded. That, along with their deepest pockets and excellent execution, puts them in a position to take down their competitors author-by-author, or editor-by-editor.

In some ways, the die for a reshaped publishing business was cast when Jeff Bezos had the vision to get Wall Street to finance an “everything store” (hat tip to author Brad Stone) built on a foundation of book-buying customers. Amazon has plenty of internal justification for believing that their investment and risk-taking has been a huge benefit to publishers for most of the 20 years of their existence. But that doesn’t change the fact that an imbalance exists that will feed on itself. Amazon will grow at the expense of all other book and ebook retailers and Penguin Random House will grow at the expense of all other trade publishers. Smaller publishers have already felt the pain and self-published authors will in the future. That’s what will happen naturally and organically from now on, unless a stronger force intervenes, and on the right side instead of the wrong side the next time.

The last two posts, the most recent one on subscriptions and the prior one about Amazon-Hachette, were not sent out by the Feedburner service that delivers email versions of the posts to subscribers. I suspect this one won’t be either. Until we move to a new distribution capability, I’ll continue to link to the undistributed posts with each new one, as I’ve done here.

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Examining the relationship between start-ups and publishers


We are in another high-funding era for digital start-ups. The book business has always looked ripe for disruption, but never any more so than now. With bookstore shelf space shrinking, ebooks growing in very uneven ways across the types of books that are published, and everything about technology getting cheaper, everything is up for grabs.

It is not a new thing that the world looks different to the companies funded by the revenues from the legacy business than it does to outsiders, some of whom want to bring tech disruption into collision with the legacy business.

Publishers see an ebook business that has been very commercially unkind to the digital versions of books that aren’t immersive narratives. Start-ups and their funders see publishers too stuck in old forms, and unable to break away from a book-style presentation when the content and use cases would call for something quite different.

Publishers see a printed book marketplace that is dominated by Amazon with less and less room for books in stores. Start-ups and their funders see an opportunity to gain further digital discovery by making the content easier for people, and web crawlers, to “see” online. And they also see making digital versions of books easier to “share” as an aid to discovery; publishers often see it as an enabler of unauthorized distribution that could cut into sales.

Publishers see books as products driven primarily by interest in the author or genre (for fiction) or the subject (for non-fiction). Start-ups and their funders see reading as an activity at least partly driven by convenience and availability and the ability to share the reading experience.

Publishers see Netflix and Spotify and think, “How many people read more than a book a month? The subscription model doesn’t really apply to our business.” Start-ups and their funders see that the consumers of all other content really like the subscription model and they can’t see why it wouldn’t work in the book business, too.

So we have, for example, several serious initiatives around subscriptions: dedicated (and often well-funded) start-ups like Oyster, eReatah, Skoobe and 24 Symbols, as well as initiatives from the totally-established Amazon.com and the differently-established Scribd. At the same time, some agents are outspoken in their objection to the whole concept, seeing it as a way that commercial power will pass from the author brand to the subscription brand. Publishers generally pay close attention to what agents say. Whatever the reasons, as of this writing only HarperCollins has broken ranks among the Big Five to place any substantial number of books in subscription services.

If you get many of the start-ups to speak candidly about publishers, they’ll often accuse them of being hidebound, unimaginative, wedded to old ways and models, and still “experimenting” with things that should be well-established.

If you get many of the publishers to speak candidly about start-ups, they’ll bemoan the fact that they too often don’t understand how the business really works or the true commercial imperatives at the publishing houses, which must continue to sign up and please authors and harvest revenues that still come overwhelmingly from sales of one item at a time to one consumer at a time through intermediaries.

At Digital Book World in January, we have five elements in the program to address the relationship between start-ups and established publishers.

First: we are running a survey of start-ups and publishers to get them each to talk about what they expect from the other. If you work for a start-up or your job at a publisher includes meeting with and evaluating start-ups, please respond to the survey! We will announce the results at DBW.

Second: Ron Martinez, who has a start-up (Aerbook), partly financed and supported by an industry leader (Ingram) and a long background in tech, patents, and design, will speak about the relationship between start-ups and incumbents.

Third, Fourth, and Fifth will be three panels exploring the question from three sides.

A panel of start-ups, which will include Martinez and Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks and two others we’ll pick after we see the survey results, will talk about what it takes to get traction with publishers, what publishing, marketing, or ecosystem problem they’re addressing, and explain their own vision of a path to success for their enterprise.

A panel of publishing business development people, including Rick Joyce of Perseus Books Group and Leslie Hulse of HarperCollins, will talk about how they view start-ups. What makes them give start-ups a meeting? What makes them engage? How much buy-in do they need from the rest of their company to be able to work together?

Finally, a panel of investors in start-ups, three of which are owned or controlled by existing publishing entities (Ingram, Macmillan, and Harvard Common Press) will talk about what persuades them to fund a start-up and what disruption they see on the horizon for publishing from the start-up community.

Very good publishing minds from three continents around the world, including Arthur Attwell,  Javier Celaya, and Brian O’Leary, have expressed themselves recently on this very problem. Although I disagree with chunks of what each of them has to say (as Jeremy Greenfield’s interview with me on the DBW blog makes clear), they individually and collectively express the real challenge of finding both workable paths to the future and workable ways for innovators to work with incumbents to get there.

The post from Jeremy triggered an exchange on Twitter among Rhomberg (from whom it inspired a thoughtful post), Peter Turner, and me which surfaced another important point. An incumbent’s job is to continue to maintain economic viability. A start-up’s objective, often, is to “change the paradigm”. If the paradigm does change, the incumbent needs to roll with that, but they don’t need to be an instrument of change. A start-up often does. That is an inherent difference in perspective that a start-up can’t afford to ignore.

As a guy who questioned why anybody would want another device just to read books when Amazon introduced the Kindle, I’m the first to admit that predicting in advance how an innovation will do — including the observations I made with such conviction in the DBW piece — is rarely a slam dunk.

It isn’t likely that our sessions at DBW will help anybody predict which innovations will succeed in the future, but it might help both start-ups and incumbents develop more mutually productive approaches to engaging with each other. That’s certainly the intention.

Don’t forget to respond to the survey if you are either a start-up or in a role at a publisher that involves meeting with or evaluating them. We’ll be collecting responses through next Monday, November 18.

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Three points worth adding to the excellent account of the Amazon story in The Everything Store


The publication of Brad Stone’s book about Amazon, “The Everything Store”, is the catalyst for a lot of new discussion about the topic most difficult for the book business to discuss. It is pretty much impossible to be in the book business without benefiting from Amazon’s market reach. But it is also pretty standard fare to be worried about what the impact will be on your business as that market reach grows.

Amazon is, at the same time, both the biggest customer for most publishers and many wholesalers and their most potent competitor. They compete with every bookseller for sales, which weakens the brick-and-mortar trade, and thus dilutes the core value proposition that publishers have always offered: putting their authors’ books on bookstore shelves. Weakening the diverse bookstore ecosystem weakens the wholesalers. At the same time, Amazon competes with publishers for authors, both through their publishing programs and through their self-publishing services.

They also compete with the free ebook lending from public libraries and the various ebook subscription services with their Kindle Owners Lending Library, a service offered to their Amazon Prime customers that makes a large number of titles — many published by Amazon or self-published exclusively through Amazon — available for no-additional-payment downloads.

And they are capable of creating propositions that every other retailer would love to match but would find quite difficult to do, such as their recently announced “Matchbook” program which offers a free or very cheap ebook edition to any customer who has bought the print version of that book from Amazon. In fact, many publishers believe in the print-and-digital “bundle” and have made efforts to engineer it for bookstores, but it is hard to do that cost-effectively. It isn’t hard for Amazon.

Candid public conversation about Amazon from other players in the industry is pretty much a non-starter. Every publisher is walking the fine line of trying to make their sales grow through their largest account and, at the same time, somehow growing their sales faster everywhere else.

And that’s just about impossible. For the few years (just concluded) when all ebook sales were growing, publishers were seeing upswings in their business with other digital accounts besides Amazon. But recent evidence suggests that ebooks have hit either a point of serious resistance or a temporary plateau so even that may not be true anymore. It is likely that for many publishers Amazon represents the only significant account that continues to grow.

Last week, Jeremy Greenfield of Digital Book World interviewed me about “why it is so hard to compete with Amazon”. Since this is a topic of such widespread interest but also so hard for so many of the industry leaders to discuss, extending that discussion seemed warranted.

In this post, I want to cite three important aspects of Amazon’s history — important as far as the book business is concerned, although not necessarily to the overall picture Stone successfully conveys of the Bezos vision and the strategy and culture that achieve it — that didn’t make it into Brad Stone’s excellent book. In a subsequent one, I will explore what I think are the two key questions about Amazon that everybody in the book business is quietly asking:

* When does Amazon’s share growth stop?

* Who is left standing when it does?

About those two questions, all we’ll say here is that Stone’s book gave me fresh insight into the possible answers.

Now for those three missing points and why they’re important.

I first raised these questions and wrote about Amazon’s squashing of Ingram Internet Support Services (known as I2S2) about two years ago, but what I think is a very important story didn’t make “The Everything Store”.

As Stone describes clearly, Amazon began its business basically standing on Ingram’s shoulders. They stationed themselves in Seattle, near a big Ingram warehouse in Roseburg, OR. When Amazon started, they were able to take a customer’s order and money; order and receive the book from Ingram and deliver it to the customer, and then sit on the cash for a while before they had to pay Ingram for the book.

Pretty early in the piece, Ingram saw that all retailers could take advantage of this capability of theirs. So they created the I2S2 offering and went out to book retailers to persuade them to use it the same way Amazon did. Of course, at that time Internet retailing of books was a tiny part of the market, but Ingram hoped that the opportunity to offer a cash-flow-positive service to their customers would entice some stores, who were already Ingram customers, to diversify the choices for online customers.

Before I2S2 could get off the ground, Amazon killed it with high-profile discounting to as much as 40% off the cover price, effectively taking the profit out of Internet sales. This move was seen as a tactic to grow the customer base quickly and satisfy the investment community’s desire to see growth in top line and in customer base. That’s accurate. But it also stopped what could have been serious competition in its tracks. Booksellers profiting from their stores had little patience to build online business that was small and would now not even be profitable.

A publishing executive who was at Random House in the late 1990s recalled in a conversation we had last week that Peter Olson, who ran Random House at that time, told him not to worry about Amazon because their share grew by about 1% per year. In fact, that’s probably just reflecting that the consumer tendency to purchase online grew by 1% per year. The executive who told me this story made the accurate point that Olson was proven right about the share growth over many years, with additional surges when events like Borders’ closing took place. (And, of course, he told the story because we both knew that Olson was proven wrong that this 1 percent growth a year was nothing to worry about. “When does it stop…?”)

But imagine if Amazon had not reacted to the existential threat of a multitude of potential competitors by trading their margin for survival!

The I2S2 experience of the late 1990s adds some poignancy to a piece of excellent reporting by Stone about a meeting Amazon had with Ingram early in the century when Amazon’s stock was falling and some industry players were worried about whether they could pay their bills. Stone reports John Ingram making it clear to Amazon that Ingram could not afford an Amazon bankruptcy. Clearly, Ingram’s credit policies had continued to fuel Amazon’s growth in the years that had elapsed when they killed I2S2 with discounting.

The second point that is somewhat more significant than I think Stone portrays it was Amazon’s purchase of the ebook technology Mobipocket in 2005. In those days before there was a real ebook business and an “epub” standard (which Amazon eschews, which is another story not thoroughly enough explored), the two leading reflowable ebook standards were controlled by Palm Digital and Microsoft. Palm’s strategy was to sell the ebooks themselves through sites they owned or controlled. Microsoft was going for the broader play and enabling retailers to sell their format.

But the problem was that the lion’s share of the tiny ebook market read Palm, not Microsoft’s Dot Lit format. So the retailers, one of which was Barnes & Noble, were really hobbled. They could only sell the ebook format nobody wanted. Mobipocket’s format would work with both the Palm reader and the Dot Lit reader, so selling that format would reach most of the hand-held devices then used for ebook reading. If B&N or Borders or anybody else had made a strong push for the ebook customers using Mobi, and capitalizing on the format’s ability to serve the entire ebook market of the time, the effort might have gained a foothold. After Amazon bought Mobipocket, they did nothing with it for three years until they used it as the ebook format for the Kindle. (By that time, Dot Lit was about dead and Palm’s core business in hand-held PDAs was about to be demolished by the iPhone.) Did Amazon buy Mobi to postpone the ebook revolution until they were ready to lead it? It would certainly seem that way.

The other significant item that I think “The Everything Store” underplays is Amazon’s enabling of the used book business online. Although this is a “marketplace” function — Amazon is not the seller of the used editions, independent players are (presumably, although questions have been raised about whether all the marketplace sellers are actually entirely independent) — it was Amazon’s decision to place the used book availability and pricing right on the same page which sells all the editions from the publisher. That means that everybody who searches Amazon for a title is shown the used copies that are available competing with what the publisher offers.

What is the impact of this ubiquitous used book availability competing with new copy sales at the world’s biggest book retailer? Well, actually, nobody really knows. In 2006, Amazon (for some unexplained reason) participated in a study and industry conversation about used book sales. They haven’t done it again between then and now, and since Amazon’s marketplace almost certainly sells the lion’s share of used books, there’s not much point to examining this question without their participation.

We launched a DBW survey today on “start-ups” about which we’ll write more in a future post. But if you are either part of a start-up or in the business development function of a publisher that includes meeting with them, you will find our survey of interest (and we will value your response). You can read more about the survey here or just jump in and start answering questions.

And, of course, Brad Stone, the author of “The Everything Store”, will be one of three great speakers we’ll have talking about Amazon at Digital Book World in January. He’ll be joined by Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis, who has a paradigm for analyzing Amazon as a business that is uniquely insightful, and by Joseph J. Esposito, an industry veteran with a strong background in scholarly publishing who has noticed for years that Amazon is a significant competitor in the institutional market (schools and libraries).

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Finding your next book, or, the discovery problem


A big flap has arisen this week — which I believe I would have been equally aware of had I been home in New York rather than in London — because the giant UK books-and-stationery retailer WH Smith has apparently found inappropriate ebooks being recommended through the kids books portions of the Kobo-managed ebook offering they host. This has sparked a lot of conversation about how recommendations — indeed how curation — is managed in the online environment. In this case, the discussion is about the specifics of this problem and how metadata might have been wrong, gamed, misunderstood. This has resulted in Smith’s turning off their whole web site, which contains the Kobo-offered ebooks, while the problem is “fixed”. It’s a mess that points to how far we are from solving core challenges of selling books in a virtual environment.

Online bookselling has a long way to go before it can deliver even what it intends to deliver in response to a search or to prompt a next sale. Of course, there are two additional and larger problems that come first: knowing what the right suggestion(s) would be and being able to make enough of them to match the book shopping experiences online sales must replace.

Analysis offered by Russ Grandinetti of Amazon at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last week suggested that the US and UK are on the verge of transacting more than 50% of the book business online, with other markets in Europe and Asia not more than two or three years behind. (This may understate the real state of affairs; in a meeting I just had in London I was told that one of the biggest UK publishers says that 60 percent of their sales of print, ebooks, and audio are through Amazon!) Online sales of books were probably in the neighborhood of 10%, or less, for most publishers a decade ago. That shift is why retail shelf space has diminished so much, with major chains having sunk in both of the big English-speaking markets (and in smaller ones as well).

When most books were bought in physical locations, it was axiomatic that a book displayed in a store had an exponentially greater chance of selling than one that wasn’t, despite wholesale supply in the US from Ingram and Baker & Taylor that could get almost any book to almost any store in 24-48 hours. It had to be seen in the store to be bought. Competent commercial trade publishers knew there was very little point to pushing a book through marketing efforts if inventory wasn’t in place at retail, because seeing the book at the time you might buy it was a more powerful trigger for purchase than any other. Indeed, all the other stimuli (reviews, suggestions from friends, conversation at the office) tended to be acted upon only when the presence in the store was in proximity to the suggestion or recommendation. (And that’s why recommendations from clerks in the store were the most powerful recommendations of all: hence the concept of “hand-selling”.)

One problem with the change to online buying from the discovery perspective is that the funnel for each shopper keeps getting narrower. It isn’t hard for somebody in a bookstore to look at hundreds of books in a few minutes. It’s nearly impossible online. This either requires the consumer to spend more time shopping to see the same number of titles they used to see in a store, or to make a decision having seen fewer. And the concern is that the decision that gets made having seen fewer can be not to buy anything at all. (Or, particularly in the case of tablet users, to buy something other than books.)

Of course, in theory, being able to present a personally-curated batch of suggestions for each customer could be far more precisely targeted than what a store can do, and, in that case, fewer titles shown might do the same job. But we are a long way from that. And, for reasons I hope this piece will make clear, personally-curated choices would actually be far more likely to be delivered by Google than by Amazon (although they would raise a host of what would be considered big privacy concerns to a lot of customers by doing it). And that’s not a reflection on the quality of anybody’s programmers, and certainly not of their commitment to their customers.

The technology that hopes to help you “pick your next book” is referred to as a “recommendation engine”. I’ve never been on the inside of such an effort but the thinking behind them seems to center around analyzing what books you’ve bought and what you’ve searched for and, from that, figuring out what you might read next. This might be based on analysis of the content itself (e.g. Pandora recommending music of similar style and quality) and/or collaborative filtering models — leveraging user inputs (purchase history, ratings, and reviews) to make recommendations for other similar users (“people who bought x also bought y”). It all recalls for me the experience of being told when I met a great bookseller, the late Joel Turner, at the 1978 American Booksellers convention in Atlanta, that “if a customer walks up to my cash register with five books, I can always sell him a sixth”.

Of course, over time, a bookseller can fill out that knowledge with even more data as they see more and more purchases and get to know their customers, and perhaps their families. But, in fact, using books bought as a guide to recommendations is an incomplete data set. It can also be a misleading one since people buy books for people other than themselves.

Another way to look at it came from my friend, Andrew Rhomberg.  Based on his experience with start-up Jellybooks, he formulated five major book discovery paths: serendipitous, social, distributed, data-driven and incentivized.

The point is that most people get their ideas about what to read next from many sources: people they talk to, reviews, news reports, business interactions. Some people say they get book recommendations from their friends; others (like me) say they don’t often read the same things their friends or relatives read. I suspect that online communities of readers tend to work best for people who do a lot of reading in genres and not nearly as well for people who mix fiction and non-fiction, entertainment and learning. And some people gravitate to what’s popular, so bestseller lists work best for them. It is clear that getting on a bestseller list fuels a book’s sales.

And books are bought for motivations other than “to read”, so it might also be important to know that a customer’s son is having a birthday, that a customer’s cousin is getting married, that a customer is shopping for a new home or looking for a new job or starting on a new hobby or spending money on an old one.

Few, if any, of these things would be apparent to even the most diligent hand-selling bookstore personnel. Bits and pieces of it might be detectable by the super-merchant Amazon (but not likely to any other).

This is one devilishly complex problem. There are countless potential inputs to the “next book purchase” decision and they are processed by each different individual in a highly personalized way. If you think it through, it seems obvious that most recommendations to most people wouldn’t work. Which takes us back to the need to make a lot of them, which a bookstore display does much better than online pages that show 10 or 20 books at one time.

In the long run, it would seem to me that Google is the entity best-positioned to address this challenge if they can somehow combine the knowledge of what you searched for (which they know), with what you read online (which they could know if you use Chrome for your browser), and the topics and book titles that have appeared in your emails (which they could know if you use Gmail) and the things you ‘like’ and talk about online (if you use Google+). Knowing your travel plans and patterns would be helpful too.

Of course, unless you use Google Play for ebook purchase and consumption, they’d be missing the two most important bits of data — what you bought and how voraciously you read it and they still wouldn’t know your print book purchases (unless they crawl your email receipts for that as well) – which Amazon is building on without all the other information. What you’d really want to do is to correlate the book buying and consumption information from the past with the behavioral data contemporary to it. With it all combined, perhaps you could filter recommendations so that the 20 or 50 you could show on line would have the commercial power of the hundreds or thousands you could see in the same amount of time in a store.

At the moment, both Amazon and Google are trying to see a pattern through one nearsighted eye.

But is this all really part of a larger problem for publishers? Is online discovery really affecting the sales patterns for books? It would appear so. One of the global ebook sellers told me during Frankfurt that their online sales are far more concentrated than publishers’ sales tended to be, with a tiny fraction of titles (under 5%) making up a huge percentage of total sales (nearly 70%). (I am assuming here that this retailer’s data is typical; of course, it may not be.) If memory serves, at the turn of the century Barnes & Noble stores saw only about 5% of their sales coming from “bestsellers” and, I believe (relying on memory of detail, which I admit is not my most powerful mental muscle) backlist outsold new titles. Publishers really live on the midlist. We know the long tail is taking an increasing share of sales and it would appear the head is too. Those sales come out of the midlist. It is pretty hard to run a profitable publisher without a profitable midlist.

And that would suggest that the increasing concentration of sales, which is likely the result of our hobbled ability to present choices in the digital sales environment, is a problem that publishers will want to address.

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Further ruminations about the complex notion of scale in publishing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More on atomization: why the new publishers are coming


The most recent post here laid out a future for trade publishing that will be less and less about traditional publishers and more and more about non-traditional publishers delivering books into the marketplace without the financing or “approval” of a profit-seeking publisher. That’s a radical change from the industry we’ve seen grow over the past 100 years when book sales in retail stores of all kinds have been the primary revenue source for publishers and authors.

Obviously, the likelihood of what that post predicts coming to pass is dependent on the validity of the argument that a substantial amount of commercially viable publishing will take place without the funding of the commercial trade publishers. Of course, “commercial viability” is a function of the publisher’s objectives; the new book publishing entities have ways to win that aren’t just about the profit they make publishing their books.

Books have a mystique and symbolic power, for a reason. For three centuries, they have been at the center of high-value communication of stories, information, and ideas. The number of entities that generate content that fits that description is far larger than the number of book publishers, and includes entities that wouldn’t be thought of as publishers of any kind at all.

Because delivering a book requires managing a huge variety of details and because selling one effectively has always needed a multi-faceted organization and an investment in inventory, until recently only companies dedicated to the business of books could effectively publish them.

Not anymore.

Because of ebooks and digital distribution, it is now possible for any content packaged as an ebook — if marketed effectively to its target audience — to find its readers (or to be found by them). The big publishers of today are all grappling with how to re-connect with their readers in an information universe that has been redefined. Meanwhile, the networks by which they have always connected with readers in the past — bookstores and mass merchants and even libraries — are becoming less and less relevant as readers increasingly read on devices and find what they’ll read through their online interactions.

But where there are challenges and painful adjustments in store for the biggest publishers, there is vast new opportunity for just about every other enterprise that connects to a lot of people and knows something about what those people want to know. And companies are increasingly figuring that out.

Jeremy Greenfield is the editor of the Digital Book World website; we partner with DBW to deliver their annual conference. Long before the post last week “predicting” that entities that aren’t book publishers would become book publishers, Jeremy had been keeping a list of them. It’s impressive. When we asked Jeremy what was on his list, he sent us this note:

Most recently, Scientific American launched a series of ebooks. American Express Publishing launched an ebook line with Vook. The Atlantic began to publish its own ebooks. USA Today published USA Tomorrow, a collection of expert predictions about the future of America. Harlequin and Cosmopolitan magazine inked a deal to publish several ebooks a month together. Newsweek/Daily Beast entered into a partnership with Vook to publish ebooks. Playboy launched a series of shorts for the Kindle, the Washington Post announced an e-book program, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade publication focused on the higher education field, launched an e-book business. Other notable companies to jump into the space are magazine publishers Conde Nast and Hearst and NBC News, a division of NBC Universal. And the Wall Street Journal has recently rejuvenated its e-book program.

In addition to these, we know of more: the New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston GlobeTED Books, Esquire, the Guardian, Wharton Business School, the US Army, Provincetown Public Library, the Saturday Evening Post, Xiamen Bluebird Cartoon Company of China, cartoon-producer Fred Seibert creating Frederator Books, and Scott Rudin and Barry Diller’s Brightline, and many others.

Of course, all of these are content-producing entities; many of them are even print-content producers. But it simply wasn’t in their power to decide to become book publishers until the world changed.

Three companies which started out with content-generation ideas of their own — Vook, Byliner, and Atavist — are frequent partners for these new publishers, as are existing publishers from Big Six players to Perseus’s Constellation, Ingram, new ebook publishers Open RoadDiversion and Rosetta, and other companies like INscribe and PressBooks. (Not all of these have gotten into this game yet, but they certainly all will.) These companies are serving the first wave of fledgling publishers and the aspirants so far have been content-generating companies.

Some of those we’ll soon see wouldn’t think of themselves as content creators. Before long, I’d expect to see every museum, every historical society, every consulting firm and law firm and accounting firm joining the party.

For example, a law firm of our acquaintance sent us a notice last year that key members of their team had put together a “White Paper” about changes in trademark law. I called the partner there that I knew and asked “why don’t you publish it as an ebook?” He said, “I don’t know.”

Another attorney to whom I told the story patiently explained to me that intellectual property like this was created to be given away to lure clients to the firm and impress them. Why, I was asked, should we publish it as ebook? What would we gain?

That’s pretty simple. Somebody will go to Amazon and search “trademark law”. You want to come up! And, in fact, you could price your White Paper at $100. It wouldn’t be great for sales, but you’d get the discovery benefit and you’d be putting a marketplace value on what you’re giving away for free. You win twice.

The next wave will be everybody else: every brand with a following, a meaning, a reputation, a website. The next group will need editorial services which presents a whole new set of opportunities for writers, agents, and, especially, packagers. And it will present an opportunity for me to elaborate more on atomization in another post.

Of course, we’ve got this subject covered at our upcoming Publishers Launch Conference at BEA on May 29. The program is starting to take shape, and we’ll have a panel called “Outsiders: New Book Publishing Operations from Media and Content Companies”. Steve Kobrin of Wharton Digital Press, Alison Uncles of the Toronto Star, and David Wilk, just appointed the publisher of Frederator Books, will be speaking on it. Each of their programs is quite different from the others, as are their objectives. But all of them are heading up businesses that would scarcely have been conceivable five years ago.

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Atomization: publishing as a function rather than an industry


The announcement of what amounts to the first book publishing program spawned by Google demonstrates a paradigm we’re seeing repeatedly. It suggests a sweeping change in publishing from how we’ve known it. The bottom line is that most people employed publishing books perhaps as soon as 10 years from now won’t be working for publishing companies.

The trade publishing business over the past twenty years has been transitioning from what it was for a century. The Internet, which so many of us said two decades ago “changes everything” is ultimately responsible. Amazon.com has been the primary catalyst, with print on demand technology (especially Ingram’s Lightning Source) and ebooks (mostly Amazon, but others too) as supporting players. With so many more books to choose from and really available than there ever were before, the function of gatekeepers, which trade publishers and booksellers clearly and proudly were, becomes an anachronism.

The big question — at least for me — is what is trade publishing transitioning to? What does the trade publishing world look like when it doesn’t primarily reach readers through bookstores anymore, a day which one could say has already come in the past five years.

Overall trade sales today outside of special outlets, catalogs, and what remain of book clubs divide into three big chunks: one is printed books sold in stores, one is printed books sold online, and one is ebooks. The latter two are sold without stores, and far more than half of that is sold by Amazon. And that is the way it is most helpful to think about sales because it is only print-in-stores that requires (or benefits from) a big publishing organization.

What the latest Bowker information has to say, lumping ebooks into “online commerce”, is that 44% of sales are online, 32% through physical retail, and the remainder through book clubs and warehouse clubs (physical retail to me!) and “all other channels”. But they also report that 30% of sales are ebooks, which would mean that they’re only calling 14% of the remaining 70% online. There are a lot of ways to count these things, and the resulting calculation of 20% of print sales being online feels very low to me.

It all depends on what kind of book we’re talking about, of course. I visualize the market breaking into thirds among the three chunks. Certainly, one-third ebooks is an understatement for fiction.

However we view the current division of sales, the trade book business was built in a completely different environment. Indeed, the central proposition that all publishers offered all authors is ” we put books on shelves.” The companion reality was “you can’t do this by yourself”.

As recently as 2007, before Kindle, there were no ebook sales and upwards of 85% of print was sold in stores.

The requirements to deliver on the promise “to put books on shelves” included the capital to invest and specialized knowledge to turn a manuscript into inventory, a physical plant to manage the warehousing and shipping of those books, and a network of relationships with the owners of the shelves (in the bookstores) to get the right to put your books on those shelves. These were the minimum requirements to be a publisher. If you had them, you could move on to being smart about selecting books (in the case of non-fiction, almost always before they were were completely written), being skilled at developing them, being capable of packaging them attractively, and being managers of another network — of reviewers and broadcast conversation producers and, more recently, bloggers and social megaphones — to bring word of them to the public.

All of this together gave a publisher the capability to pay authors advances against what amounts, for all but the very biggest authors, to a minority share of the revenue the book generated. But, in fact, the central proposition has lost its power. Only a quarter to a half of the sales now — far less for fiction and far more for illustrated books — require a publisher to “put books on shelves”. And that number is going down. For the balance, no inventory investment is actually necessary. Nor is a physical plant or a vast network of sales relationships.

And, without that requirement, the barriers to entry to becoming a “book publisher” have collapsed, particularly if you’re willing to start with ebooks and think of print as an ancillary opportunity. Google is becoming one. Amazon became one a long time ago. NBC has become one. The Toronto Star and The New York Times have become ebook publishers. And, of course, so have many tens of thousands of individual authors, a few of whom are achieving startling success.

Soon — in the next 5 or 10 years — every university (perhaps most departments within a university), every law firm and accounting firm and consulting firm, certainly every content creator in other media, as well as most manufacturers and retailers will become book publishers too.

Why not? Without the requirement of an organization to reach the public through bookstores and without the requirements of capital or knowledge to create printed books, any organization that is routinely reaching people interested in a common topic — whether or not they are creating content around that topic now, but especially if they do — will find it constructive to publish, and well within their reach and means to do so.

That is: publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. Think about it this way. If you had told every museum and law firm in 1995 that they needed a web page, many would have wondered “what for?” If you had told them in 2005 that they needed a Facebook presence or in 2008 that they needed a Twitter stream, they would have wondered why. We’ve reached the moment when they all need a publishing strategy, and that will be as obvious to all these entities in a year or two as web pages, Facebook pages, and Twitter streams look now.

This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years.

Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.

Publishing is not immune to the laws of supply and demand and the price of books is tumbling. Most self-published fiction is crap, but a small percentage of a very large number of self-published novels constitutes a significant range of good cheap choices for fiction readers, particularly in genres. That “diamonds in the dirt” effect has been becoming more and more evident with the passage of time. Recently, the Digital Book World bestseller list (compiled by ioByte’s Dan Lubart in conjunction with our friends at DBW) had a self-published book in the top slot for the first time. It won’t be the last time.

Publishers still have plenty of capabilities that are enticing to authors. There are still stores with shelves on which to put books. And big publishers can build on that increased presence very impressively; it is hard to believe that “Fifty Shades of Grey” would have sold the tens of millions of copies that it has as a self-published book. Random House made a quantum difference.

But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into that. The publishers’ power to use that capability to command a share of the “easy” (no inventory investment or sales force required) money from ebooks, which was a sine qua non for them until very recently, is evaporating.

When Hugh Howey was in the early stages of what has turned into his eye-popping success with the novel WOOL, publishers would only offer him a deal to publish print if he also gave them ebook rights. Howey and his agent, Kristin Nelson, found those offers easy to resist, since he was making so much money on ebooks and publishers would have wanted a healthy share of it. A few months later, Simon & Schuster (wisely, in my opinion) agreed to give Howey a print-only deal for US rights.

How far away can it be for the NBC News book on a national election or the Whole Foods book on cooking the organic way or the Home Depot book on how to build a shelf or the Boston Celtics’ own book on the history of their team to get the same treatment? (Or, of course, the “brand” can handle the whole job themselves, using services offered by many — most prominently Ingram, Perseus, and Random House — to handle the decreasing percentage of the business that is “books in stores.”)

Of course, there is, or at least there can be, a lot more to publishing than just making good content available and making the people you know already aware that it is there. (Although, increasingly, that will be seen as “enough”, along with ancillary benefits, to make it worth the effort to many entities.) There are rights to be sold. There are ways to market to “known book buyers” that are increasingly going to be the property of entities that have developed lists and techniques at scale.

So there will continue to be a trade book business and it is likely that the machinery of the biggest book publishing organization (or two) will be required for a very long time to maximize the biggest commercial potential, like “Fifty Shades of Grey”. But, without a robust “book trade”, from which trade publishing gets its name, there cannot be commercially robust trade publishing, at least not as we have known it.

I reflect on a pithy bit of wisdom offered to me in conversation a few years ago by David Worlock, who might be thought of as one of the originators of digital publishing, and who, in any case, is a wise observer of the publishing scene and by a few years my senior. Well before we thought of any self-published bestsellers — this must have been about 2005 — David said, to me, “surely, in time, the number of books created within the network must exceed the number of books created outside the network.”

The “network”, of course, was the Internet. He was envisioning direct-to-ebook publishing and automated blogs-to-books publishing as well as a lot of customization. He was right.

And the atomization I think may be the overarching trend of the next decade or two fits right in.

Once the concept of the atomization and dispersal of the publishing function becomes understood, you see it everywhere. Aside from the Google-spawned publishing program — which is built around their massive multi-player game activity, but there are many other applications once they get used to this idea — we had a library announce a new digital press last week.

We’d already been putting together a panel of new entrants to book  publishing for our Publishers Launch BEA conference on May 29. Of course, the atomization we talk about here is enabled by the scale being provided by others, including service providers. And the major houses are trying their hardest to build marketing at scale. Ken Michaels, the President and COO of Hachette, and David Nussbaum, the Chair of F+W Media, are our first two confirmed speakers about that. We’ll have a panel of literary agents talking about how they’re tackling the need for scale to help clients with an increasingly broad range of choices for publishing.

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How much time and effort should established publishers be spending on startups?


We are now in a period replete with startups that want to be the disruption in publishing. We see a lot of them in our office. Part of our business involves helping startups find relevance and contacts within the established publishing community.

There are three areas in particular which the startups seem to think the publishing business needs their help with, if the frequency with which we hear about propositions in these spaces is any guide. They can overlap.

1. eBookstore alternatives to the established players.

2. Enabling social connections among readers of books.

3. Subscription services that will deliver books for a fixed monthly cost.

I wrote about the subscription services a while ago when one of the fledglings came into our office. They were well advanced in their planning and tech development. I asked them if they had spoken to any literary agents. They said “no”.

Presumably they have done so since then and have found out that big shot literary agents are very skeptical about the value of subscription propositions for big shot authors. In fact, they are (in their own enlightened self-interest) downright hostile to the idea. That makes smart trade publishers, who are highly dependent on literary agents, also hostile to the idea.

When it comes to selling subscriptions to a general audience, Amazon (and probably only Amazon) can do it without the biggest books. Maybe down the road Penguin Random House can do it because they’ll be the publishers of more than half the bestsellers. O’Reilly, with Safari, has demonstrated that subscription can work in niches, and we’d expect to see more of that in the future. But there’s a damn good reason why no Safari service has cropped up for general reading; it’s a bad commercial model for the copyright holders of the biggest commercial books.

Attention: entrepreneurs with this idea. The reason it isn’t happening has nothing to do with failures of imagination or tech competence by the legacy players.

The “social reading” play also attracts entrepreneurs and, apparently, some funding. I think there are two generic failures of understanding that drive this interest. One is the sheer granularity of the book business. The vast number of titles there is to choose from means that the percentage of overlapping titles in the reading lists of unconnected people is going to be very low. Therefore the value of shared notes and annotations or “in-book” conversations is low as well.

Enabling this kind of shared reading experience can make sense to a class of students or an organized reading group. But it takes a really vast community to deliver value in shared book conversations to many people. And let’s remember that both Amazon and Kobo offer social tools already. If they become important, they’ll build out more. The fact that they haven’t to date is not a reflection of their inadequacy; it is a reflection of how much the people selling lots of ebooks and observing real customer behavior think these capabilities matter.

Several years ago, when they were starting up, I was consulting to Copia, which built social tools right into the reading software as their distinctive feature from the beginning. As a skeptic about the value of social reading (we’re all prisoners of our own experience and preferences, and I have precious little personal interest in “sharing” my reading experiences), I suggested that the key for them was to work in niches: to recruit users who would have common interests and therefore better-than-average chances of being interested in the same books. I think they’ve moved in that direction, but the suggestion was counterintuitive to them at the time. How do you get to be bigger by targeting a smaller audience?

Many of the social plays require the simplicity of DRM-free files to make their proposition work. That just makes it harder for them to get commercial titles into their ecosystem. Or impossible.

Copia is also a competitor in the ebookstore category. There are a lot of them, despite the fact that there are market leaders with advantages it is hard to see how to overcome. The global market leaders are Amazon and Apple. The global runners-up are Google and Kobo. All four of these companies have extremely deep pockets and all except Kobo have other ways — besides selling ebooks — to amortize their investment in audiences. In the US, B&N has managed to make Nook a strong competitor, but it is still very much an open question whether they can do the same internationally without the store footprint they have here and without the funding capabilities of their competitors.

Yet, others, including Copia, keep trying. Baker & Taylor has Blio, which looked early on like a player for illustrated ebooks. Two problems: the flexible tool set they originally promised failed to materialize in the manner they first projected. And the sales of illustrated ebooks are not very good anyway. Joe Regal’s Zola Books has been trying to gain traction, with a variety of propositions including decentralized curation and exclusive content.

Three big US publishers have launched Bookish, which is presumably more a discovery mechanism than a bookstore, but which will have to attract traffic to be of much use as either.

And then there’s Inkling, which has developed tools to make complex ebooks (they seem, quite sensibly, to be more focused on school and college textbooks than on illustrated trade books) and is pairing that with a “store” which would appear by the deals they offer to be an important monetization element in their planning.

With whatever are the limitations of my understanding or imagination, I can’t see success in the cards for any of these adventures in retailing, social, or subscription (Inkling’s product-building tools are different and could have longterm value.)

All of this wraps into a larger question: how much time, money, and bandwidth should commercial publishers be spending on startups?

That subject is of great interest to the investment community, which has been frustrated by what they see as publishers’ lack of engagement with startups or interest in disruptive technologies. One angel investor we know tells us that a need to work with publishers is a real deterrent to raising money from technology investors.

But does that mean the publishers are wrong not to be embracing startups more than they do?

Javier Celaya, a Spain-based consultant to publishers on digital change, recently conducted a survey about this subject. What the detail of Celaya’s investigation seems to show is that investment in startups takes place in the educational sphere, but not in trade. That would make sense. After all, trade publishers deliver books to be consumed by a wide variety of people for an equally dispersed set of motivations. But in education, the “book” needs to fit into an ecosystem, a platform. Educational publishers recognize the possibility of controlling the platform, if they have the right tools to offer. That makes it sensible for Pearson and Cengage and McGraw-Hill and Macmillan to make investments in technologies that might give them that platform advantage.

(We’ve observed that “platforms” aside from those of the big retailers are becoming important in the juvie publishing world.)

I had an exchange with Javier Celaya about his survey after he posted it. To my skepticism that investing in startups made sense for trade publishers, Celaya pointed out that an investment in Goodreads would have been much more fruitful than the massive effort and investment three big publishers made to start Bookish.

That’s true. It is also true that no publisher that missed finding Goodreads in the first year or two or three of its existence would have been much handicapped in making good use of it whenever they did discover it. And it is not clear that owning a chunk of it would give a publisher any great advantages in using it over what they can achieve anyway. It is also not yet clear how successful Goodreads will be monetarily (although it has clearly managed to recruit an audience large enough to be valuable as a marketing engine).

If I were making policy for a publishing house, I would discourage spending any time with a social or subscription proposition that didn’t clearly have a “niche” strategy. And I’d allow the investment of only the minimum of effort in a fledgling ebookstore. Publishers do need to be able to provide their metadata and put titles up for sale easily (Ingram or others can help with that if they don’t want to serve each little ebook retailer themselves) and they should do that. But the odds of any new ebook retailer making much of a dent in the market are so long that conversations about it are most likely to just be a waste of time.

Of course, I’d also have a list of “tech we’re looking for”: ways to streamline metadata enhancement and improve creation workflows would probably make the list. The startups who came with a promise to solve a previously-identified need would certainly be welcome and experimentation might well be called for. But not investment.

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