Ingram

Things are calmer than they were in the book business, but change is a constant


Among the shifts that have been taking place in publishing houses over the past decade is an increase in the head count dedicated to marketing and a decrease in head count dedicated to sales. This reflects the reduction in the number of bookstore accounts and the transfer of “discovery” from store shelves to digital search.

The reduction in bookstores and the concurrent and related reduction in print books sold in stores also affects how publishers view the economics of the sales departments and the entire support system for print distribution. The big houses still need sales forces and warehouses and sophisticated systems to track inventories and payments and returns but the “throughput” of print from their own publishing programs is declining. For many, that means that distribution clients are increasingly important. They provide the volume to support scaled operations without requiring the publisher to invest in publishing more titles. For at least four of the big five (HarperCollins being an apparent exception), distribution of other publishers’ books, with or without providing the sales force effort, is a critical component of maintaining the volume that keeps unit costs in line.

But that adds risk. Distribution contracts vary in length, but they generally only extend two or three years out. With four major publishers plus Ingram, which has, effectively, five different full distribution options to offer, on the prowl for clients, there is a plethora of choices for any publisher seeking to shed their own fixed-cost distribution or to switch distributors. Indeed, the percentages being charged for distribution services have dropped drastically over the past two decades. The competitive environment is likely to perpetuate that trend.

While the big publishers doing distribution have (so far) tended to insist on fairly large clients, Ingram is using its multiple configurations to try to serve publishers of all sizes and entities that aren’t primarily publishers at all. Today a publisher that is really a literary agency or, before long if not already, a bank, an advertising agency, or a not-for-profit with a mission, can put a book or a list of its own into the book publishing arena with sales and distribution capabilities competitive with the biggest and most experienced publishers. So a revolution that began with Amazon enabling indie authors, starting about ten years ago, to reach a big percentage of the total book market through Kindle and CreateSpace, is being dramatically extended. Going after real bookstore distribution definitely requires incremental investment and marketing savvy, even with the machinery in place to help.

But incremental investment and marketing savvy were always far easier to come by than the machinery has ever been for the small or occasional publisher.

While this levels the playing field in a major way, there are still distinct advantages to size and a B2B publishing brand. The diminishing bookstore shelf space has made the also-diminishing mass merchant (Walmart, Target) shelf space relatively more important. Between the chains — primarily Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million — and independent stores, there are only about 1000 to 1200 points of purchase for books provided by bookstores. There were three to five times that many two decades ago. So the additional thousands of opportunities to put a book in front of the public through the mass merchants are critical, particularly to move bestseller quantities.

But relatively few titles can make the cut for those outlets and the pressure on them to perform quickly is immense. Returns are high. These slots are simply not available to publishers who aren’t recognizable B2B brands with a solid reputation for backing their books effectively. These outlets represent the competitive advantage that remains for the Big Five publishers.

For the past few years, pretty much since the demise of Borders in 2011, the number of bookstores has been going up a bit each year. (It is not clear that the bookstore shelf space has been going up; indie stores seem to be smaller, on average, today than they were two decades ago, or at least there are fewer mammoth ones.) It could well be that, aside from Borders, the indie revival is also fueled by the reduction in shelf space for books at the mass merchants. If so, that is good for smaller publishers and it is good for backlist, both of which are seriously challenged getting in front of the public through mass merchants.

So, while it is definitely true that the dizzying pace of change we saw during the early years of ebooks has subsided, and it is true that the print format has not yielded much share, if any, to ebooks in the past couple of years, it is not time to celebrate a new stability. The marketplace itself is still changing; the online share when you combine print and digital is still growing and the ratio of shelf space available for backlist and slower-sellers is still declining. The smallest publishers are getting better and better market access and the biggest publishers are seeing escalating risk in how they place the books they publish and in the danger they’ll face a sudden decrease in distribution volume that would turn their fixed costs into a burden.

This is a great time in the book business to be very big (among your peer group) or very small and focused. It is a challenging time to be anything else.

A very frequent point of contention when negotiating distribution arrangements is how Amazon will be handled and compensated. Amazon is almost always the single largest account and it is not uncommon for it to represent — on many books and even some publishers — 50 percent or more of the sales. Although sophistication definitely helps in dealing with Amazon, it is also true that Amazon provides incentives to give up the “other half” of the market and just work through them. Any sophisticated businessperson is likely to get more money out of Amazon working it themselves than any distributor can get for them, even before distribution fees. (IF, and this is a big if, you discount the marketing value of books throughout the supply chain which, counterintuitively but frequently, will raise the level of sales at Amazon from what they would have been without books broadly distributed.) In any case, being able to really add value to Amazon sales would be a Holy Grail. Right now, most of the time, distributing publishers really have to make the argument that you can’t effectively split things and that they will add so much value in the rest of the world, and do the work around Amazon, that the overall relationship is worth the trade-off.

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Four players in the book business with the power to rewrite some of the rules


The news came last week that ReaderLink has purchased Anderson News. Those two companies have been the leading suppliers of books to the mass merchandisers: primarily Wal-mart, Target, and Sam’s Club. There are other players selling books in the space, including Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and smaller distributors like the less-well-known American West. But most of the books going to most of the mass merchant accounts have gotten there through what will now be one company supplying them: ReaderLink.

By my count, that puts four companies in the book business who have extraordinarily powerful holds on their space. They are ReaderLink in the supply of books to mass merchants, Amazon as an online retailer, Barnes & Noble as a bricks-and-mortar retailer, and Penguin Random House as a commercial trade publisher.

ReaderLink, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble now have extraordinarily powerful positions from which to demand better terms from their publisher-suppliers. In all three cases, they have customer bases which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a competitor to take away from them.

Amazon has pretty much owned the online book customer since the year they opened for business in 1995. There is a faint hope that fragmentation of the online marketplace and the placement of commerce in the social stream, such as is enabled by Ingram’s Aer.io technology, could wrest some of their share. Perhaps, over time, that will happen. But they keep pulling further ahead of their only real competition, BN.com, and I am not aware of even one single reporting period when Amazon’s share of the online book market hasn’t grown. It is simply not an option for a publisher who wants to sell to consumers to avoid Amazon. (The only way a publisher could conceivably do that is if their customer base is reached entirely by direct sales or through intermediaries outside the book business.)

Barnes & Noble may be losing brick-and-mortar market share to independents, but they remain by far the leading bookstore chain. If a publisher wants books in the retail marketplace, Barnes & Noble has been, since the demise of Borders five years ago, the only one-stop way to get national coverage. In fact, they almost certainly control the majority of bookstore shelf space in the country, and their single biggest competitor, Books-a-Million, has fewer than half as many stores. And B-a-M’s stores are smaller.

ReaderLink is now in a similar position vis a vis the mass merchants. These stores constitute the other big component of the store retailing system and they are critical for bestsellers, mass-market paperbacks, and “merchandise” like adult coloring books and kids books. In fact, ReaderLink and Anderson lived with what was a “managed competition” controlled by their accounts; they each had stores assigned to them by their mass merchant customers. Publishers have always had to deal with both of them in order to place their books in the mass accounts. And, indeed, it could be that there will be efficiencies to this consolidation that will be beneficial for the publishers. But, if there are, it is also quite likely that ReaderLink will find ways to adjust their terms to take at least some of the benefits back and they are likely to be successful persuading publishers to allow that. (They have also manifestly strengthened their negotiating position with those accounts that are committed to stocking books.)

There is a fourth powerful player: Penguin Random House. PRH is almost (but not quite) the size of the other four members of the Big Five combined. As such, they are in a position to do things in the marketplace that no other publisher could contemplate. Since the merger of Penguin and Random House, I’ve written about what they uniquely could do with their marketplace power. The two key suggestions, neither of which has drawn any evident interest from the management at PRH, were a program to supply non-bookstores with vendor-managed inventory (creating store retail accounts nobody else would have) and to create their own ebook subscription service. (That would also create unique distribution.)

The new combination in mass-merchant supply could suggest another such opportunity. Perhaps this one will be more compelling.

The supply of books to mass merchants, as to any account that is not primarily in the book business and comfortable with both the logistical challenges and relatively low profit potential in books, is complicated, expensive, and usually inefficient. The number of titles that actually make it into these stores is a paltry percentage of the industry’s output. Only the biggest publishers have enough of the right books to really play.

And then the publisher has to cover both the retail accounts that will ultimately sell their books and the distributor-intermediary that supplies them. It will be a bit easier for the big publishers selling books to Wal-mart and Target to manage the business through one big account rather than two (one fewer account to deal with), but it is still a frustratingly inefficient segment of the business. (The one fewer account aspect of this is bound to be causing some nervousness right now in the sales departments of some publishers.) Visibility into inventory status is, relative to the store-level view available at Barnes & Noble, klunky. Returns are high. Responsiveness to breaking events is slow. And the margins are worse than for any other part of the domestic business.

But part of the reason for that is that delivering on the service requirements for these accounts is expensive. One sales executive I spoke to estimated that ReaderLink has more than 2500 detail people calling on the outlets of the mass merchants: checking stock, tidying fixtures, and replacing sold books. No wonder these distributors need hefty margins to do this work. And this also explains why Ingram and Baker & Taylor, who, of course, carry all the titles these merchants would ever need, don’t appear to move aggressively to take this business away from the incumbent(s).

To picture the Penguin Random House options, I try to view this from the perspective of one publisher with about half the books that these mass merchant accounts need. I’m giving away margin to a middle player that adds a layer of inefficiency and cost in order to be an effective aggregator. Obviously, the accounts want that aggregator. They don’t want to deal with hundreds of publishers individually, or even with just each of the Big Five. It would be a non-starter for a publisher supplying five or ten or even twenty percent of their books to say: “can we work out a way to do this directly?” So just about everybody has to accept the inefficiency.

But what about if it were a supplier that provided half the books? And what if that supplier offered, as an opening gambit, to share some of the margin that now goes to the middle player directly with the account? And what if that effectively became the account’s only way to get those books, because the powerful publisher was no longer willing to play ball with the high discounts and high returns that the current system entails?

Only Penguin Random House is in a position to take this approach. And it wouldn’t be an easy thing to do. They’d have to create a VMI system. They’d have to organize a detailing army quite different from the sales force(s) they have created and managed historically. They’d have to either gear themselves up to execute more smaller shipments or form alliances that would make that possible. But the payoffs would also be substantial. And PRH has a much bigger margin share to support their efforts than ReaderLink, or any other wholesaler or distributor, would have.

Sales would go up. Returns would go down. Margins would improve. Their competitors would be weakened. In fact, it is conceivable that, over time, a PRH direct-supply operation could morph into a ReaderLink service that was available to other publishers as well. (All big publishers, including PRH, already offer their core distribution services to competitors. This would be a variation on that theme.)

Perhaps Penguin Random House will never behave in a qualitatively different way than the other Big Five houses, exercising power that they uniquely have. They certainly haven’t so far. On the other hand, it was pointed out to me recently that the integration of what were the two biggest publishers among the Big Six when Random House and Penguin combined four years ago is, even today, not yet complete. Rationalization has occurred in the “back end”, with the consequent job losses which are part of the payoff for the owners in any big merger of this kind. But more consolidation is still in front of them, and perhaps the radical paradigm-shifting initiatives need to wait until that job is really done.

And perhaps Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and now ReaderLink are wary of poking the bear, and are less demanding that PRH honor their primacy with margin than they are of PRH’s competitors. In fact, the CEO of one of their Big Five competitors told me a year or two ago that he liked having a competitor of PRH’s size on the publisher side because this executive felt it kept the overall industry terms under control. The belief on this CEO’s part was that PRH’s size restrained the big accounts to the benefit of all the big players.

But unlike Amazon or Barnes & Noble, whose businesses can not be efficiently replaced by any direct effort, the supply of mass merchant accounts is something PRH could conceivably do better on their own. Whether the acquisition of Anderson by ReaderLink provides the catalyst to get them to try it is something it will probably take a couple of years to find out.

Although Ingram occupies a unique position in the global book supply chain and, indeed, might be the single most important player, they aren’t in the position of these other four to exercise power. In wholesaling, they have always had a powerful national competitor, Baker & Taylor, which is now even more financially stable having itself been acquired last week by Follett. Even in smaller-publisher distribution, where Ingram grew dramatically by acquiring Perseus, they will always have all the big publishers and a host of smaller distributors as alternatives for those considering their services. Indeed, Ingram could try to compete with ReaderLink for the mass merchant accounts, but they’d have to support the substantial systems and staff investments on a distribution margin, which is a much more challenging proposition than it would be for PRH with the publisher’s margin.

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When it comes to supporting authors in marketing efforts, no publisher has it right yet


It is my firm conviction that the biggest shortcoming of traditional publishers these days is their failure to help authors help themselves with digital marketing. In my opening remarks at Digital Book World earlier this month, I said this:

At the very least, every house should do a “digital audit” for every author they sign that includes concrete suggestions for filling in gaps and improving discoverability and engagement. To my knowledge, not one does.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that there are people in big houses, even some who view things from a high perch, who emphatically don’t agree with me. One senior executive told me I was “completely wrong”, and said their editors were very much up to speed with what authors do on social media. Another, a publisher from a different house, asked me if I really believed “landing pages were important”. Of course, if you don’t see the pay-off from creating and managing landing pages on an author’s website (or the publisher’s own!), you might make the mistake of thinking a robust social media presence obviates the need for an author web site.

That is a mistake. And it is an increasingly common one.

Citing the expertise of editors as the lead claim for a house’s expertise is a tip-off. I have never seen the publishing house where editors were more expert in digital marketing than marketers are. Most author websites are sub-standard but most editors don’t have the knowledge to know that. And, on top of that, neither editors nor authors fully understand the different roles of websites and social media in the marketing effort for a book and author.

If the feedback from these two executives were exceptional or unusual, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But it is typical. And both of these houses are making substantial investments to upgrade their digital understanding and performance. They don’t have their heads in the sand.

It isn’t just my imagination that there is a disconnect between big publishers and their authors on the digital marketing front. This shortcoming is real and it is going to really hurt the big publishers, far beyond the sales they’re losing, if they don’t fix it.

I recently tested this idea with one of the most digitally-ept literary agents. I asked him whether he agreed that publishers are failing in this regard. He did. Completely.

If there’s a gap here, somebody is going to fill it. Just this week, the relatively-new Diversion Books announced a new initiative called Radius, a “full-service publishing services division” with distribution through their affiliation with Ingram. They are targeting “non-fiction authors with very specific and known audiences (consultants, experts in a field)” looking for help “with various aspects of the process–editorial, cover, production, marketing and publicity etc.”

In other words, they would like to partner with perhaps the most desirable category of non-fiction authors: those with a real marketing platform independent of any book publishing activities. Those authors often have pretty decent personal marketing already set up; if they don’t, they are delighted to have professional feedback about how to improve it. Radius will provide a powerful reason for those self-promoting authors to work with them rather than with an older and more established house.

It is worth noting that Diversion was founded by a literary agent, so it is highly sensitive to the author perspective. What they have built is essentially a customized front end to industrial-strength services provided by Ingram, with easy access even for individual authors through what is called Ingram Spark. Diversion is a new-era publisher. They created a service arm and community called EverAfter to serve romance authors; Radius will primarily serve non-fiction authors who have already built audiences. Undoubtedly, other entrepreneurs will build on-ramps to these Ingram capabilities for other segments of the author community.

Should publishers worry about this? Well, the ones who depend on authors can expect more and more services and fledgling publishers trying to make a more appealing offer to them. (And those that don’t depend on authors exist, but they are the exception, not the rule.)

The author platform question is further vexed by the way publishers are organized. Editors “own” the author and agent relationships. Marketers and/or sales departments “own” the marketing resources. To be good at their jobs, editors need to recognize commercial content, negotiate the many moving parts of a book deal, and help the author craft the most salable possible book. Knowing digital marketing or best practices for search engine optimization are not what editors are hired or trained for. Those are the bailiwick of marketers who are explicitly (in most houses) excluded from direct author contact.

Beyond that, there is the confusion in publishing houses, reflected in the question I got about landing pages, about what’s important and what’s not. I can’t tell how widespread this is, but I have heard too often for comfort that “author web sites are a waste of time”, that social is more important, and that working Facebook effectively obviates the need for a web presence.

In fact, “search” is still the single most important component of discovery and author web sites are crucial for Google to “know” who the author is and to have a contextual understanding of their expertise and their audience. Precisely how the web site provides value depends on the author. For a non-fiction author, it can establish topic authority. For a multiple-title fiction author, it can provide definitive information for the order of books in a series or for the back story on the author’s characters (whose names, of course, can be important search terms for the book).

But what is always true is that the web site is the one piece of digital real estate the author can actually own, which is not subject to some change in rules or process that will affect its discovery in search or the ability to use it for any purpose of the author’s choosing. Ideally, a publishing house will evaluate an author’s own web site as part of an overall digital audit and make constructive suggestions for improving it. If the author doesn’t have one, the house should provide a simple placeholder site that gives fans a place to land or link and can be the ultimate authority of facts about the author and the book.

And only by controlling a web site can an author or publisher control the single most powerful tool there is to promote an author through search: landing pages. Best practice is to optimize a landing page on the author’s site for each of the most commonly-searched terms that could lead to real interest or the sale of a book. Anybody who really knows SEO knows that. That’s why the failure to grasp the significance of landing pages high up in a big publishing house is so disturbing.

It really is terrific that so many publishers these days have a high-level executive with the word “audience” in their title and job description. It is a sign of real progress that many of the big houses have invested in vertical sites to build audiences they can tap at any time.

But they’re still missing the most important boat. The real focus needs to be on marketing collaboration with authors and giving them the support they need to maximize their effectiveness. Doing that requires tackling a lot of tricky questions because authors own their names and careers and publishers, at best, have a long lease on one or more specific books they’ve written. But both book sales and author retention depend on publishers taking on this challenge as an essential component of their offering.

I did a post for BookMachine some months ago spelling out a strategy for authors who were marketing themselves.

Here’s a quick checklist of what a useful publisher audit of an author’s digital footprint might be looking for:

* A robust author website to anchor an author’s complete digital presence and act as the central hub and source of authoritative information on everything about the author, her books, her work, and life

* Complete author and book information at book cataloging and community sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, as well as at all online retailers (especially an Amazon Author Central page)

* Google+ to signal to Google who an author is, what she writes about, and all of the things connected to her

* The right social media mix, which can vary — and evolve — depending on the author, the type of books she writes, and the interests and demographics of her audiences

* Mechanisms to collect, manage, and effectively use email addresses

* Ongoing efforts to maintain accuracy and relevance across all of these

* Effective cross-promotion (across titles and authors)

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On Amazon stores and publishers accepting standardization; two unrelated commentaries


When the “Amazon-opening-400-stores” rumor landed a week ago, many people were gobsmacked. It took me a minute to get past that, which also required getting past my firm conviction when they opened the Seattle store last year that it was an information-gathering exercise, not the opening move of a bigger retail play.

But, when you think it through, it not only doesn’t seem crazy that Amazon would open stores, it seems like an obviously compelling move.

Other retailers that started strictly online have opened retail locations, most notably the eyeglasses shop Warby Parker. (This New Yorker story mentions that. It also has an interesting disclaimer at the end because “Amazon Studios is producing a New Yorker series in partnership with Condé Nast Entertainment”. Wow.)

“Omni-channel”, which is really a new-fangled fancy term for selling both online and through a brick store, is the buzzword du jour of retailing. Actually, the online piece of that is the harder part and Amazon already had that licked.

Barnes & Noble “beat” Borders largely because they had a network of distribution centers that made stocking their retail locations extremely efficient. Amazon’s network of distribution centers is complicated because it isn’t just books, but they have many times the number of points of inventory storage as B&N. In fact, they have many times the number of storage points as B&N and Ingram and Baker & Taylor combined!

Amazon has tons of information that nobody else does that would inform their stocking decisions if they harnessed it. They know where searches are coming from for particular book titles or for generic needs, both geographically and psychographically. And they probably can detect early lifts for particular books faster than anybody else, simply because they have more data.

It is possible that if B&N and the indies had responded differently to Amazon Publishing, agreeing to stock the books rather than boycotting them, this could have played out differently. (No stronger argument could be made for the efficacy of that strategy than this post arguing that stores should stock Amazon titles to punish them because the returns would make them unprofitable! You can’t beat logic like that.) If the stores had stocked their titles, Amazon might have chosen to use their distribution center advantage to start wholesaling, rather than to support their own retail locations (as they appear to be doing).

But the determination of the brick retailers to boycott Amazon was spelled out loudly and clearly. So opening Amazon retail locations — as it increasingly appears they have every intention to do — has two strategic payoffs for them. One is that it gives them access to at least some brick-and-mortar retail locations for their publishing output, which otherwise they can only sell online. And the other is that it capitalizes on their distribution centers, delivering additional sales and margin for investments already made.

In a recent post, I suggested one specific way Amazon could get very disruptive if they had more than a handful of stores. There’s another. They are a tech company that likes to have computers make decisions that in other companies and in other times have been made by humans. I suspect they’ll figure out pretty fast that they will want to have some sort of vendor-managed inventory system to streamline and optimize the stocking decisions for what will almost certainly be a growing network of retail locations. (The part of a trade book person’s DNA that is most out-of-step with the digital age is that we like to make decisions case-by-case, rather than living with decisions made by rules we create. That’s the key to the second half of this post.)

Sophisticated but automated stocking and restocking decisions are not part of the toolkit at B&N or of any other retailer or wholesaler we know. Could that be the next battleground that Amazon retail stores create? That would certainly be disruptive, but at least in this corner of the world it would not be a surprise.

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One mantra of the book publishing world is “every book is different”. We sometimes refer to that fact as reflecting the “granularity” of the book business compared to other kinds of consumer goods businesses or other media. Even if you think in terms of categories, there are just more of them in publishing than there are for other products or media.

Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that publishers are often inclined to encourage that uniqueness beyond where it is required. And, frankly, it is only required for editorial development and for targeting the marketing. The objective at every place in the value chain in between should be to standardize and, as much as possible, to treat many different books the same. That’s not a creative imperative; it is a commercial imperative.

My father first experienced the tension that this insight can create at Doubleday in the 1950s when he persuaded the company to standardize the trim sizes of their books for maximum printing efficiency. That didn’t require radical changes. It simply meant that books would be an eighth- or quarter-inch longer or shorter, wider or narrower. These were differences that were really not perceptible to most people, yet it was a real internal corporate battle to wrest control from designers who believed “every book is different” and that this mystery (or cookbook) had to be published as a 6 by 9 inch book while that one had to be 6-1/2 inches by 9.

In fact, the trivial differences in trim size were not important at all to the books’ chances of success. There were other decisions — the specific paper or type face among them — that also had no discernible commercial impact on each individual book but were, nonetheless, intentionally made book-by-book as though they did. In many houses, and (admittedly I’m saying this without any supporting data) probably more in smaller houses than larger ones, they still are. And that’s true even though whether the paper is 55 pound or 60 pound or the type face is Times Roman or Baskerville can’t be shown to have any impact at all on a book’s sales.

Now the University of North Carolina Press has been funded by the Mellon Foundation to put Dad’s theory to use in the university press and academic publishing world. They’ve created a service offering through their Longleaf distribution platform that takes the design, pre-press, production, and distribution burden off the hands of university press and academic publishers so they can focus on what makes them distinctive: the books they choose to publish and the skill with which they edit them.

This fits an industry reality I identified a couple of years ago that I called “unbundling”.

On one hand, UNC Press Director John Sherer reports real success, expecting to grow that part of their business by 50 percent in the coming year. But he also reports resistance by some presses who believe that making these design and production decisions adds so significantly to the “quality” of their output that they’re comfortable losing money doing it.

My own hunch is that many directors just don’t have the heart (or courage) to get rid of staff that, with all the best intentions and capabilities but without the advantages of technology and scale, provide them with no better than average quality at a much higher cost than they need to spend. This was a battle for Leonard Shatzkin when he fought it at Doubleday in the early 1950s and apparently it is still being fought hard six decades later.

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Transformation of companies and the book industry itself are not just 21st century phenomena


Company transformation is a major theme at this year’s Digital Book World conference. By “transformation” we mean substantial changes in a company’s business model or core competencies or revenue streams. We found eight worthy companies to speak on this subject. Six of them — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ingram, Quarto, Rodale, Sourcebooks, and Wiley — are long-established players in the book business that have changed considerably in some fundamental ways compared to what they were and did ten years ago. Two of them — NetGalley and Diversion Books — started relatively recently to bring digital innovation to the publishing business and have moved considerably beyond their original goals and business models.

What got us started on this whole line of thinking was an article in the Nashville Tennessean last summer about Ingram. It documented what has been a pretty massive transformation over the past two decades from a company that was a traditional book wholesaler to one that has a big technology component providing a variety of services to the global publishing industry.

As Chairman and CEO John Ingram will discuss in detail with me on the stage at DBW, the changes we see today at Ingram really date from the creation of Lightning Print in 1997. The idea of “print on demand” — manufacturing a single copy of a book to order — became extraordinarily powerful when it was incorporated into the supply chain through the global supplier with the biggest network of bookstores and libraries. Ingram could put the book they manufactured this afternoon on an even footing with those titles for which they stocked inventory from publishers. At first this was just for paperbacks with pretty strict limitations on trim size and bulk. As time went by, Lightning improved the technology to deliver much higher quality, color, and hardcovers.

The ebook revolution dawned at about the same time as Lightning began. It didn’t take long for the repository of digital files Ingram held to become an even more valuable asset. It is now called CoreSource, and it drives both POD and ebook distribution.

But, in fact, Ingram had transformed, and transformed the industry, once before. That happened in the 1970s, right about the time I started working full-time in the trade book business. And it is a story that everybody trying to understand today’s transformation would appreciate and learn from.

I had forgotten until I searched that I had written about this before, nearly seven years ago when this blog was brand spanking new. Here’s an edited version of the story as I told it then.

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Before the early 1970s, wholesalers to the trade were local and carried a relatively small number of titles. Their main job was to provide back-up stock of bestsellers very quickly. Most bookstores went directly to the publishers for just about everything else. Baker & Taylor was national, but focused on the library market. And Ingram (which was Tennessee Book Company until the Ingram family bought them) was a small and pretty insignificant player. Harry Hoffman was their president.

Most of those local wholesalers to the trade actually leaned on other business for most of their volume: school supply, library supply, or mass-market books and magazines. They looked to the trade book business for multiple copy sales of a handful of titles that were hot.

The wholesalers’ challenge was that they couldn’t carry everything, and for anything except the top titles, there was no assurance of any demand.

And that created the retailers’ challenge. Most of what they ordered from a wholesaler wouldn’t get delivered. The “fill rate” (percentage of what’s ordered that is delivered) was terrible. On average, it was well below 50%.

The flip side of this was bad for the wholesalers. Most of the orders they got from stores couldn’t be filled, but still required some level of processing and communication to tell their customers what they wouldn’t get. So, cumulatively, they spent a lot of money on the orders they couldn’t make a nickel on.

And here was everybody’s shared challenge: all of this took a lot of time and effort that was unproductive and didn’t get books back on the shelves.

One day in about 1972, a former colleague of Hoffman’s from his tenure at Bell & Howell stopped by to visit and showed the Ingram team a new gadget called a microfiche reader. The reader enabled one to see what was on a piece of film that was about 3 inches by 5 inches and was literally packed with information. What somebody saw in that meeting (and Michael Zibart, a longtime friend of ours who did the buying at Ingram then and is now owner and publisher of BookPage, thinks it was Hoffman himself) was that Ingram could put the inventory count for every book it stocked on a single microfiche. So if somehow the stores could have a reader, they could get the inventory of Ingram’s books mailed to them each week.

(Yes: mailed! Isn’t it amazing how klunky life was before email and the web?)

If stores could see what books were actually there, they’d stop ordering books Ingram didn’t have. And they’d know, with reasonable certainty, what they were going to get when they placed an order. And the very good news for Ingram was that they would no longer have to process orders they couldn’t fill.

The challenge for Ingram was to get the microfiche readers Bell & Howell made, which were not inexpensive, into the stores’ hands. They decided to do that by renting them, asking the stores to pay a monthly fee (memory says it was $10 a month) to have them. So they went to the ABA Convention (American Booksellers Association, which sold the convention to Reed Exhibitions in the 1990s and which Reed turned into BEA) in Los Angeles in 1973 to peddle the readers. They had no idea what reaction they’d get.

It turned out to be overwhelmingly positive. The stores, many of which didn’t yet know Ingram, were enthusiastic about the concept and willing to pay to rent the reader. Ingram was able to charge the publishers for the cost of creating the microfiche (I think that started at $1 per month per title listed). So they created self-liquidating efficiencies which immediately supercharged their fill rate (into the 90s), boosted their volume and customer base, and eliminated lots of waste: the money they spent processing orders they couldn’t fill. As a bonus, Ingram was able to put their unique title number, which they needed to fill an order, on the microfiche so the stores did the “coding” for them, writing those numbers on orders that they sent in by mail. (We didn’t even have faxes yet.) More costs eliminated.

Within a year or two, Ingram was the first really powerful national trade wholesaler. Baker & Taylor, national but much more library-focused, copied the microfiche innovation later in the 1970s. Stores were able to stock backlist much more efficiently because they could single-source multiple publishers and order with much greater frequency.

This was really a transformation story before we thought about companies changing in this way. But it wasn’t just a company that changed that time, it was the whole industry. And it probably was changed more by the microfiche and the growth of effective wholesaling than by any other single thing that happened after that until…Lightning Print.

Two worthy extensions of this piece. John Ingram did a nice little interview with Daniel Berkowitz at the Digital Book World blog.

And my good friend Joe Esposito published a piece about a year ago citing the Ingram microfiche innovation for the significant milestone that it was. Esposito made the further point that what Ingram did for the industry was subsequently what Jeff Bezos did with Amazon for the consumer. That is, of course, particularly ironic, since it was Ingram’s inventory and rapid fulfillment capabilities that Bezos used to get Amazon started.

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There is very profitable revenue that the organizational structure of big publishers makes it hard for them to get


In our Logical Marketing work with partner Peter McCarthy over the past couple of years, helping publishers with the next-phase challenges of digital marketing, we have identified three specific cross-functional opportunities that exist in every publishing house that are especially difficult for the biggest ones to address internally. All three of these can unlock substantial revenue and save the house from going down costly rabbit holes trying to address pain points that are clearly felt but not so clearly understood.

All of them are obvious to one degree or another (and have previously been talked about in some fashion on this blog), so they are being addressed in ad hoc ways. But structural barriers, most importantly organizational silos, make it hard for companies to evaluate them fully and come up with solutions that maximize the opportunities. The effort to take a systematic approach would have a big payoff for any of these. For that to happen, they’d have to be elevated to strategic issues being examined by the highest levels of the company.

1. AUTHORS. Author activity is becoming an increasingly important component of any book’s marketing impetus. Publishers not only don’t control the author efforts the way they do the marketing the house executes itself, often what the authors do isn’t even evident to them. That means the work by the authors is not included in the overall picture house marketers have of what is being done for the book. (And that can lead to some misleading analysis of effort and reward.) In most houses, editors serve as the point people for interacting with authors. They are neither trained nor supported for the increasingly critical and multi-dimensional role of advising on marketing and assuring that house and author efforts are, if not integrated, at least aware of each other. This effort depends almost entirely on the skill and initiative of the individual editors. There are few, if any, repeatable mechanisms in place to coordinate the author-based marketing efforts with the house’s other efforts.

2. GLOBAL. Both online accounts, most importantly Amazon but others as well, and Ingram have global reach that grows every day. The publisher’s metadata, telling accounts where they can offer the book and at what price, and the publisher’s marketing efforts combine to influence how effectively sales opportunities outside the home market are exploited. The reps who call on Amazon or Ingram are not adequately supported to address this the way they should be. They neither have enough understanding about where U.S. Amazon or Ingram can sell effectively nor about the house’s marketing efforts now being directed to offshore markets where real sales could result. The marketing piece is definitely non-trivial and how well it is done varies both across houses and, within houses, across markets. Developing and applying audience understanding, market-specific pricing, and scaled global marketing and publicity to many disparate markets worldwide is a huge challenge.

3. BACKLIST. Allocating incremental efforts to marketing backlist titles, which is a clear opportunity in the no-shelf-space digital age, defies the basic organization of any large publishing house. Publishers have time-honored processes and rules to allocate marketing spend and effort to books in their initial push, but not after it. Unlike the other two challenges, this one has no “natural” in-house owners. But no matter who ultimately owns the decisions, information needs to be developed to support them that isn’t aggregated and delivered now. Some books have a big built-in “margin advantage” because their advances will never earn out — the house gets to keep the part of the sales dollar that would go to royalties — and anybody managing these decisions would want to know that. They would also want to know which books have living authors and for which books the author is dead. They’d want to know which books have authors still active with the house or were signed by editors still active. And they’d certainly want to know which books had active marketing still taking place by an author or any other interested party. In other words, there needs to be the right combination of marketing information, technology, and staff for backlist organized into a workflow that does not yet exist anywhere.

All three of these opportunities are very difficult for anybody in-house to analyze and referee, even if there is high-level recognition of the opportunity, good systems-development capability (because the existing systems will not be adequate), and the will on everybody’s part to cooperate. The fact that they are cross-functional means there is no natural “home” for ownership of the solution in any house (even though the author and global opportunities would appear to have nominal owners — the editors and the account managers — in the current configuration).

All of them require marshaling data that is not routinely assembled in any house now. They require some funding. And they require placing authority — or at least some very powerful levers for persuasion — in somebody’s hands to do things that will still want substantial support from their colleagues and, perhaps, take some decisions away from them.

These three challenges are all being addressed in some fashion at the big houses. But the need to respect existing structures means they are addressed in a haphazard — situational rather than comprehensive — fashion. Every big house has coordination with authors on marketing taking place. Every big house has export sales through Amazon and other online retailers and Ingram in places the U.S.-based sales team never thought about in the past. And every big house tries to get digital marketing and sales benefits for its backlist.

What no house we’ve seen has managed for any of these three cases is the development of policies and workflows to maximize the potential opportunities across the entire output of the company. The opportunities here are, one book at a time, almost unavoidably obvious, so they are addressed in some fashion. But we know of no house where there is specific ownership of any of these challenges with somebody having the power to assemble the information and, as needed, implement cross-functional processes to address them. What inevitably results is ever-more-widespread recognition of the missed opportunities without a commensurate capability to fix the problem.

Oddly enough, smaller houses have some advantages here because they don’t suffer the handicaps of scale. Far fewer books means that ad hoc solutions are proportionately more effective. They have less bureaucracy keeping the author tethered to the editor relationship, so it is easier for marketers and editors to collaborate around promoting synergistic marketing between the house and the author.

Fewer titles and the greater sharing of information inherent to a smaller house also make both the global and backlist opportunities easier to grasp. Of course, they also have less in the way of resources to help authors with tech, or to do marketing work that will pay off in far-away places.

And the challenge of maximizing the backlist is orders of magnitude easier with a total title output that everybody can keep in their heads. Big publishers with literally tens of thousands of backlist titles need systems and rigorous monitoring of data and metadata to identify where to put additional effort.

Within each of the big houses, the first requirement to move on any of these is an overall situation assessment and some quantification of the size of the opportunity they present. That requires both data-gathering and collecting insights from key operators.

No matter what is found through that discovery effort, there will be choices for a house to make among possible solutions. There is no single universal answer — no “magic bullet” — for any of these. What’s best for each house will depend on existing procedures, personnel, culture, and capabilities. For some houses, the biggest challenges will be around developing and implementing the tech they need. For others, the bigger hurdle might be imprint silos. In other cases, a lack of transparency in international markets might be the largest obstacle.

The questions that need to be addressed are pretty clear and those are the same across houses. Should editors continue to handle all marketing conversations with authors, or should there be designees from the marketing department to take that role for some things? (We’ve seen that solution implemented in some places, but not systematically.) Do the Amazon or Ingram rep teams need to have global or export specialists (perhaps some already do), or should books just be allocated among the existing teams with foreign market opportunities being one of the considerations when they are divvied up? Does somebody in each publishing group take responsibility for marketing backlist, or is that role assigned to the sales department? And, in all cases, what systems are they using to do what they do?

Since no house we know has started with an assessment to bring organizational consensus to the reality of the opportunity and its size, these questions are addressed from the subjective perspective each imprint or function brings to the conversation.

Only by starting with an agreed understanding of each of these opportunities can there possibly be any consensus formed about how to address them. And as long as that it isn’t done, revenue is being left on the table and marketing money is being spent in something less than the most effective possible ways.

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Can crowd-sourced retailing give Amazon a run for its money?


Although it has always seemed sensible for publishers to sell their books (and then ebooks) directly to end users, it has never looked to me like that could be a very big business. In the online environment, your favorite “store” — the one you’re loyal to and perhaps even have an investment in patronizing (which is how I’d characterize Amazon PRIME) — is only a click away. So however you learn about a book (or anything else), it is very easy to switch over to your vendor of choice to make the purchase.

There is a concept called “the fallacy of last click attribution” that is important in digital marketing. You don’t want to assume that the place somebody bought something (the last click) was the place they decided to buy it (attribution). If you’re a marketer, you want to aim your messages where the decision gets made and you need to know if that wasn’t where the purchase was made. You learn quickly that the two are often not the same.

There are a variety of reasons why direct sales are hard for publishers. One is that their best retailer customers — Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, but many others as well — don’t like their turf encroached upon by their suppliers and they have power over their suppliers’ access to customers. They particularly don’t like it if suppliers compete on price.

But it isn’t just publishers who have trouble competing with the online book retailers and ebooks are just as hard as print. On the ebook side, many readers are comfortable with specific platforms — Kindle, Nook, Kobo — and are uncomfortable “side-loading” content into them. And when you get away from the owner of an ecosystem, the complications created by the perceived need for DRM — some ability to either lock up or identify the owner of content that might be “shared” beyond what its license (which is what a purchase of ebooks is) allows — makes things even more complicated.

Because it appears so superficially simple to transact with trusted customers, attempts to enable book and ebook sales by a wide variety of vendors are nearly as old as Amazon itself. In fact, Amazon began life in 1995 leaning almost entirely on Ingram to supply its product and began discounting in earnest when Ingram started to extend the same capability to other retailers through a division called I2S2 (Ingram Internet Support Services) in the late 1990s. The aggressive discounting by Amazon quickly and effectively scared off the terrestrial retailers who might have considered going into online sales.

When one company, a UK-based retailer called The Book Depository, organized itself to fulfill print books efficiently enough to be a potential competitor, Amazon bought them. Nobody else ever really came close. Borders didn’t try, initially turning over its online presence to Amazon. Barnes & Noble partnered with Bertelsmann in the 1990s to create Books Online, which has continued (to this day) as BN.com. But they have not (to date) managed to achieve a synergistic interaction with the stores to give themselves a unique selling proposition. And the Amazon discounting strategy, designed to suck sales away from terrestrial retailers and partly supported by Amazon’s reach well beyond books, was never a comfortable fit for BN. As a result, Amazon has never been threatened as the online bookselling king.

Barnes & Noble dominates physical retail for books; Amazon owns online. One channel is shrinking; the other is growing.

Trying to do retail for print books without a substantial infrastructure is just about impossible, but ebooks are tempting because, at least superficially, those challenges appear to be much smaller. That may have been behind the attempt by three publishers — Penguin (before the Random House merger), Hachette, and Simon & Schuster — to launch Bookish a few years ago. By the time it opened, Bookish was touted as a “recommendation engine”, but its true purpose when it was started was to give its owning publishers a way to reach online consumers in case of an impasse with Amazon. They get points for predicting the impasse, which Hachette famously suffered from during ebook contract negotiations with Amazon in 2014. But the solution wasn’t a solution. Bookish never had the juice to build up a real customer base and probably never could have, regardless of how much its owners would have been willing to invest.

There are currently two noteworthy players in the market enabling any player with a web presence to have an ebookstore selling everybody’s titles. One is Zola Books, which started out two or three years ago promoting itself as a new kind of web bookstore. They were going to let anybody create their own curated collection of books and profit from their curation. And they were going to host unique content from brand name writers that wouldn’t be available anywhere else. It didn’t work, and now Zola, having acquired much of the defunct Bookish’s tech, is trying to be an enabler of online ebookstores for anybody who wants one.

That same idea is the proposition of Hummingbird, an initiative from American West Books, a California-based wholesaler that provides books to leading mass merchants. They have created technology to enable anybody with a web presence to sell ebooks. The company told us that their internal projections suggest that they can capture 3% of the US ebook market in 24 months from their imminent launch. They promise an impressive array of resellers, ranging from major big box retailers (many of which are their customers for books) to major publishers themselves.

There are others in the space, providing white label platforms and other direct sales solutions, including Bookshout, Enthrill, Bluefire, and Impelsys. And there are distributors, etc. who support their clients’ D2C efforts — Firebrand, Donnelly/LibreDigital, Demarque.

Then, yesterday (Tuesday) morning, Ingram announced that they have acquired Aer.io, a technology firm based in San Francisco headed by Ron Martinez. The Ingram-Aer.io combination will probably motivate the owners of Zola and Hummingbird to rethink their strategies. It is motivating me to reconsider whether, indeed, a large number of Net points of purchase for books could change the nature of the marketplace.

Disclosure is appropriate here. Ingram has been a consulting client of ours for many years. In that role, I introduced them to Aerbook, the predecessor to Aer.io, two or three years ago and I knew that Ingram had invested in it. But I didn’t know about the integration the two were working on until literally moments before they announced the merger on Tuesday. It is extremely powerful.

What Martinez and Ingram have built with a simple, elegant set of tools is the ability for anybody — you, me, a bookstore, a charity, a school, an author — to build its own branded and curated content store. You can “stock” it with any items you want from the millions of books and other content items Ingram offers. You can set any prices you want, working with a normal retail margin and paying “by the drink” for the services you need, namely management of the transaction and fulfillment. And while there is certainly “effort” involved in building your selection and merchandising, there are no up-front or recurring charges to discourage anybody from getting into the game.

One of our observations in the past couple of years has been that Amazon’s competitive set is limited because most of their ebook competitors don’t sell print books. It seemed to me that the one chance to restrain their growth — and every publisher and bookseller that is not Amazon would like to do that — was for Google to get serious about promoting and selling print as well as ebooks. But that won’t happen. Google is a digital company and they’re interested in doing all they can with digital media. They don’t want to deal with physical, even — as I suggested — doing it by having Ingram do the heavy lifting.

Whether any publishers or booksellers or other merchants or entities can build a big-and-profitable business selling books using the Aer.io tool remains to be seen. But it would seem that many can build a small-and-not-unprofitable sideline to their current activities and it would be one that would underscore their knowledge, promote their brand, and provide real value to their site visitors and other stakeholders. Thousands of these businesses could be consequential; millions could be game-changing. How many will there be? That’s impossible for me to predict, but the Aer.io proposition is totally scaleable, so the answer depends entirely on how enticing it is for various entities with web traffic and brands to have a bookstore.

And, depending on the uptake here, there will be some strategic conversations taking place around this at Amazon as well. When they have a handful of competitors selling print and ebooks, as they have, price-matching (or price-undercutting) can be an effective, and targeted, strategy. But how do you implement that when there are thousands of competitors, some of which are discounting any particular title and many of which are not? And does the customer care if they’re paying a couple bucks more to buy the book “directly” from their favorite author, particularly if the author offers a hand-signed thank-you note will be sent (separately, of course) to acknowledge every purchase?

How this will play out is something to watch over the next few years but there is at least the potential here for a real change in the game.

We already had John Ingram, Chairman and CEO of the Ingram Content Group slotted as a keynote speaker for Digital Book World 2016 to talk about one of our main themes: “transformation”. More than half of Ingram’s revenues come from businesses they weren’t in 10 years ago. We’ll see how things look as they start to roll out Aer.io, but it would seem likely Aer.io would be an appropriate add to the program as well.

If you haven’t signed up yet for DBW (which runs March 7-9), the Publishers Lunch code gets you the lowest price.

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It is being proven that smaller bookstores can work commercially


Sometimes it takes a decade or more for an insight to be validated, but it is always nice when it happens.

Around the turn of the century, I was developing a business called “Supply Chain Tracker”, which had a nice client base for a few years. What we did was take the data feeds — Excel spreadsheets — provided by publishers’ major accounts and find the nuggets of insight within them that enabled better inventory decisions.

This followed the logic of one of Shatzkin’s Laws, which in this case is “every spreadsheet is one calculation short of useful”. We added some calculations to make meaningful metrics out of raw data. For B&N’s spreadsheets reporting inventory and sales activity to publishers, two of these were calculating the “percentage of store inventory sold” from the “on hand” and “sales this week” columns and “the percentage of total stock in the warehouse” derived from “on-hand in the stores” and “on-hand in the warehouse”.

My first client for this work was Sterling in the final year that they were independently owned before they were bought by B&N, which still owns them. When we showed our first prototype of a Supply Chain Tracker report to Sterling, we sorted by “the percentage of total stock in the warehouse” and two books popped to the top: 5000 copies with 100 percent in the warehouse! When Sterling’s then-Sales VP (later CEO) Charles Nurnberg saw that he said, “those books have been there since October!” This analysis was taking place the following February.

It turns out that B&N at the time had no systematic check of this metric in their workflow. If a B&N buyer bought five thousand copies and didn’t order a “store distribution”, the books would go into the warehouse and just sit there. It was a hole in their system. And since publishers tended to eyeball the spreadsheets in order of “sales”, looking for books that needed to be replenished, they just never caught this.

When Sterling showed the problem to the responsible execs at B&N, it bolstered the view of one of them that having the publishers intelligently reviewing inventory was useful support for the chain’s buying activity. They became supporters of our Supply Chain Tracker reporting (which we then extended to other accounts: Borders, Books-A-Million, Amazon, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor). But Barnes & Noble was everybody’s biggest account at the time and they offered the most robust reporting, so they were the primary focus of our work.

Let’s recall that the early years of this century were still the years of superstore expansion. B&N and Borders were proudly featuring stores that had 120,000 titles or more. It was precisely because they stocked so many titles and that the great majority of them turned very slowly that they wanted the additional publisher help in inventory tracking, particularly further down the sales ranks. And no publishers seemed more logical candidates for that help than university presses. B&N wanted to stock them more heavily, but their books were predominantly in the slow-turning majority. Distinguishing the books that would sell a copy or two in a store versus the ones that wouldn’t demanded the deep title knowledge of the publisher combined with the insight of well-structured reporting. Our work seemed to fit, so B&N subsidized our relatively expensive engagements providing our reports and tutorials on how to use them to university presses.

What we found as we started analyzing, though, was disappointing and initially surprising to all of us. But, as we thought about it, it was intuitively logical.

The university press titles had effectively stopped selling, even in B&N stores that were near university campuses. Why? Those sales had all moved to Amazon, which, at the time, was barely more than five years old. This first struck us all as disappointing and surprising. But, then, think about it…

The university professor would hear about a book. S/he’d go down to the local bookshop — could be a B&N or another store, didn’t matter — and look for the book. It would almost always not be there. So s/he’d “special order” it and wait for it. It didn’t take long for this to become an expectation, so ordering online became a very sensible default behavior. By 2002 and 2003, when we were doing this work, the battle to sell the obscure book to an audience that knew it was there and wanted it through a brick-and-mortar store was already lost. When you thought about this, it was intuitive, even though none of us anticipated it when we started doing the work.

Cambridge University Press at the time had a sales representative (since deceased) named Steve Clark. He was one of my most engaged B&N-subsidized clients. As we were doing this work and analysis, Clark told me that Amazon was already a bigger account for CUP than all other US retail outlets combined! That was a “wow”. But it underscored the degree to which Amazon had captured market share from the stores on hard-to-find books.

B&N still operated smaller stores that had been in the B. Dalton chain and Borders had a similar chain called Waldenbooks. While B&N and Borders were building out the 100,000-plus title stores, their mostly-mall chains were 20,000 and 30,000 title stores. They were in the process of shutting them down as leases expired.

With full knowledge of the strategy that governed their activity in those days, I said to my principal contact at B&N, “you guys should be figuring out how to use your infrastructure to make the twenty-thousand title store work”. He said to me, “Mike, we’re thinking about the million title store!” In other words, there was no appetite to take on board what we had all just learned to make a big change to the overall strategy. They had fully absorbed and couldn’t rapidly unlearn the lesson first discovered by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, when he was running Brentano’s in the 1960s: a big selection of books is a huge magnet for customers.

Unfortunately, Amazon had already changed that reality in a few short years after their inception. The huge selection was not as powerful a magnet as the online marketplace when the customer knew exactly what they wanted, particularly if it wasn’t a bestseller.

Now, flash forward to the present day. I’ve been fishing for lessons from retailers around the world that might constitute useful insight for the Digital Book World audience. My friend Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners suggested I talk to Anna Borne Minberger, the CEO of the Pocket Shop chain of stores, owned by the Swedish publisher, Bonniers. I got to meet Minberger for a conversation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the last fortnight.

And, lo and behold, Pocket Shop has taken the suggestion I made to Barnes & Noble well over a decade ago and made it work at an extreme I didn’t imagine. Their tiny bookstores stock only about TWO thousand titles, but they are a thriving chain in Sweden and Finland now expanding into Germany. Their formula is a very small title selection placed in very-high-traffic locations (of particular interest here in New York City where both our main railroad stations are losing somewhat larger bookstores) with highly knowledgeable and helpful staff. I didn’t get into the details of buying, inventory management, and centralized infrastructure support in our Frankfurt conversation.

But, near as I can tell, Barnes & Noble still needs a solution to grow their book business; the strategy today only seems to be about how to profitably manage shrinking it. Particularly if it continues to work in Germany, a market (unlike Sweden and Finland) where online buying is strong and Amazon is a real presence in the market, one would think that the Pocket Shop formula would be even more effective if supported by the B&N infrastructure and branding in the United States. Of course, making a strategic shift of this nature is probably a heavier lift for B&N now than it would have been when I first suggested it many years ago.

But I don’t discern any other strategy that leads to growth in what B&N is doing now. If they don’t try copying Pocket Shops strategy in the US, maybe somebody else will. One could execute on this leaning on Ingram’s infrastructure rather than creating one’s own supply chain. Who knows? Maybe even Pocket Shops themselves would like to give it a try.

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Ebooks change the game for both backlist and export


There are two aspects of the business that ebooks should really change.

One is that ebooks can really enable increases in sales of the backlist.

The other is that ebooks will really enable sales outside the publisher’s home territory.

The second piece of this hardly even requires much effort. At a conference called Camp Coresource hosted by Ingram two weeks ago, Mary Cummings of Diversion Books, which last year launched a romance-only eBookstore app, EverAfter Romance, reported just short of half of EverAfter’s app users are coming from outside the “home” (US) market. Of that 49 percent, only about 6 percent come from the UK and Canada. Of course, Diversion owns world rights on many titles. And the rest of the world has far more than half the people, even far more than half the English speakers, in the world. So the US is still responsible for far more users per capita, but that’s really of secondary importance. Getting half one’s customers from markets that would have been very hard to reach ten years ago — without any extraordinary efforts — is a very new thing.

This global reality comes up in another frequent current discussion. The big publishers are suggesting that ebook sales have plateaued, perhaps even declined. Amazon says “not true”, that ebook sales are still rising. Some analysis, such as what is done by Data Guy for Author Earnings, says that the publishers’ big books are losing ebook share to the indies, primarily relying on data scraped from Amazon to make the case. The most commonly-offered explanations are that publishers’ success forcing higher ebook prices for their titles, combined with a decline in new converts to ebooks (who are inclined to “load up” their devices when they first start reading digitally) account for the apparent trend.

But the comparison can also be skewed. All Amazon sales from outside the US that are not made through a local Amazon store are credited to the US store. And when Amazon distributes indie ebooks, they always (or at least almost always) have global rights. So it could well be the case, and often is, that the publisher-ebooks that are being compared to the indie-ebooks are working on a smaller territorial base for sales. There is an apples-to-oranges problem that makes it difficult to compare Amazon sales of indie ebooks to those from publishers.

The point to capture is that just having ebooks for sale around the globe can bring markets to a customer’s door, wherever the book originated. Any rights management policy that prevents an ebook from being on sale anywhere is likely to be costing some sales.

The backlist challenge is trickier and the results might not be as obvious. Two of the biggest drivers of ebook sales are discovery in response to search and the amplified effect of existing sales momentum in bestseller lists and retailer recommendations. (“People who bought this, bought that.”) A power law distribution seems inherent in ebook sales. Those that sell develop sales momentum; those that don’t remain hidden and buried.

But a lot of that has to do with metadata. Publishers have been getting better and better at writing the descriptive copy that determines whether search engines identity them as an “answer” to the right queries. That means that as you go back in time, the copy is less and less likely to be useful for the purpose.

And there are some realities about budgets and effort allocation in big companies to take into account. The lion’s share, and that means more than 90 percent, of budgets and internal effort allocations for marketing go to the current frontlist. The backlist has many times the number of titles as the frontlist, so a much smaller amount of money and assignable labor is spread over a far larger number of titles. On a per-title basis, there have hardly been any resources available for backlist. And since backlist sales of ebooks have not generally been robust, predicting the ROI necessary to increase those budget allocations requires courage. Or foolhardiness.

Then there are corporate political realities. New books have advocates. There are the editors in the house who signed them and whose careers will be affected by how well they do. There is a publisher for each imprint watching the imprint’s P&L, firm in the belief that very few backlist books can move the needle but that every new title can. And the publishers and editors are also the ones who know the books and tell the marketers what they’re about and (too often) who the audiences are for them.

And, on top of that, publishers often count on backlist sales to be the most profitable precisely because they don’t have to allocate marketing spending or staff time to those books. There sometimes seems to be a fear operating at publishing houses that starting to expend marketing effort on backlist is opening a Pandora’s Box which would compromise the most profitable aspect of their business.

But there are hopeful signs that this is changing.

Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, keynoted the recent annual meeting of the Book Industry Study Group by underscoring how S&S has changed its approach to capture backlist opportunities. Reidy made the point that between print bought online and ebooks, more than 60 percent of the company’s sales came from Internet channels. She said that at S&S’s weekly marketing meeting, which I’m sure was almost exclusively frontlist-oriented until very recently, they are now looking at their books “through a lens of daily opportunities”. That could include noting it if a book is listed for a prize or mentioned on a TV show or in a tweet by a celebrity. The chances that a book will be discovered by somebody searching for the book that way are multiplied if the book’s descriptive copy points the search engines in the right direction.

This is an approach we first saw for ourselves at Open Road Digital Media a few years ago. Their “marketing calendar” focused on holidays and predictable events like graduations, not the publication dates of forthcoming books. Of course, Open Road didn’t have any frontlist at that time. All the books they acquired in the early days of the company were backlist for which digital rights were somehow available. They made a virtue of a deficiency. But marketing the backlist in the light of the most current “daily opportunities” is precisely the right thing to do.

It is worth noting that when Reidy spoke at Digital Book World in January 2014, she pointed to the opportunities in global. In the prior year, she noted, S&S had sold ebooks in more than 200 countries.

Recognition of an opportunity is a necessary first step and assigning human and capital resources to pursue it is the second. But the biggest publishers are also going to need digital tools to fully exploit what is now open to them. When we looked at what Open Road was doing, they had about 1000 titles in their shop, all of which had just been acquired by the team in place. They could keep them in their heads. The biggest publishers have tens of thousands of titles in their backlists, many (if not most) of which were acquired and launched by editors and publishers who are no longer in their employ. Many of them have old and out-of-date descriptive copy which is not readily updated because nobody working there now knows the book.

It will soon be seen as necessary to employ technology to monitor the news and social graph and to “bounce” the results of each “daily opportunity” off the possiblities in the backlist. It will for quite a while longer still require humans to do some targeted research into what today’s relevant search terms are and to write the descriptive copy that will respond to them, but technological assistance will multiply the effectiveness of the human efforts.

We should expect the backlists to start increasing their share of every publisher’s annual sales. And we should expect offshore ebook sales to do the same.

There are recent reports from the US and UK that print unit sales are up while ebook unit sales are down. This is being celebrated by some as an indication that book consumers are turning away from digital reading to go back to print. Perhaps because I intuitively find this so unlikely, I can think of caveats.

The presumed reductions and growth are very small and the measurement techniques are pretty crude, so there is an accuracy question. But we also know — as was referred to in the main body of the post above — that new ebook converts tend to “load up” their digital device when they start reading that way. I believe the purchases at first are somewhat “aspirational”, but then settle into a rhythm more like replacement. So ebook purchases are inflated in relation to ebook consumption early in one’s ebook-reading “career”. Fewer new ebook readers each month (which we certainly have) mean fewer people loading up.

Of course, print book sales actually rising, which is the implication from the recent data, is an independent marker that, if borne out over time, requires another explanation and that would be one that I don’t have yet.

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What Oyster going down demonstrates is not mostly about the viability of ebook subscriptions


The news that the general ebook subscription offering Oyster is throwing in the towel was not really a surprise. The business model they were forced to adopt for the biggest publishers — paying full price for each use of a book with a threshold trigger at considerably less than a complete read while, at the same time, offering consumers a monthly subscription price that barely covered the sale of one book, let alone two — was inevitably unprofitable. Their only hope was that they’d build a large enough audience fast enough that publishers would become in some way dependent on it (if not the revenue it produced) and agree to different terms.

It would be a mistake to interpret Oyster’s demise as clear evidence that “subscriptions for ebooks don’t work”. Obviously, they can. Safari has been a successful and profitable business for nearly two decades. The Spain-based 24Symbols has been operating an ebook subscription business, mostly outside the US and mostly not in English, for too many years to be running exclusively on spec VC money. Scribd has very publicly (and a bit clumsily, in my opinion) adjusted their subscription business model to accommodate what were unprofitable segments in romance ebooks and audiobooks, but the inference would be that for other segments the business model is working just fine. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which is sui generis because they control so many of the parts, including deciding more or less unilaterally how much they’ll pay for much of the content.

What seemed obvious to many of us from the beginning, though, was that a stand-alone subscription offer for general trade books could not possibly work in the current commercial environment. The Big Five publishers control the lion’s share of the commercial books that any general service would need. All of those publishers operate on “agency” terms, which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a subscription service to pull those books in unless the publisher allows it. The terms that the publishers would participate in the subscriptions required, which were, apparently, full payment for the book after a token amount was “read” by a subscriber, combined with a limited number of titles offered (no frontlist), made the subscription offer inherently unprofitable.

The publishers see the general subscription offers as risky business for books that are currently selling well a la carte. Not only would they threaten those sales, they threaten to convert readers from a la carte buying to going through the subscription service. To publishers, this just looked like another potential Amazon: an intermediary that would control reader eyeballs and have increasing clout to rewrite the terms of sale.

So they only participated in a limited way. Penguin Random House (the biggest, and in shouting distance of half of the most commercial books all by themselves) and Hachette Book Group did not even experiment with the non-Amazon subscriptions. HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, and to a lesser extent Macmillan, participate in a limited way. Multiple motivations drove the participation that did take place. The primary goad, probably, was to simply oppose Amazon. Having customers nested anyplace except the behemoth in Seattle can look like a good idea to most publishers. But another was to collect at least some of that VC money poured into an unlikely-to-work business model before it was exhausted. And because the publishers got to decide which books to include, they could choose backlist titles that weren’t generating much revenue anyway and which might benefit from “discovery” within the subscription service.

(Carolyn Reidy, the CEO at Simon & Schuster, tipped to this in her talk last week at the BISG Annual Meeting where she specifically mentioned the value of the discovery S&S has seen take place in the subscription platforms.)

But not all the subscription services were equal. The established Safari was in a market niche, serving mostly B2B customers in technology companies. (They have recently gone to an expanded offering because Boeing and Microsoft techies don’t just need books about programming; they’re also parents and cooks and gardeners so general-interest non-fiction can appeal to them. But that’s not the foundation of Safari’s business and they’re not trying to push fiction.) Scribd had a foundation business as a sort-of “YouTube for documents” that the ebook subscription business both built on and enhanced. For Amazon, Kindle Unlimited just gave them another way to transact with the ebook customer and it gave them another outlet for their exclusive Kindle content.

Only Oyster and another pretty-much simultaneous startup, Entitle (which had a proposition more like a book club than a straight subscription service), were trying to make the alternative ebook revenue stream into a stand-alone business. Entitle went down before Oyster. Librify, another variation on the theme, was acquired by Scribd.

So the failure of Oyster is actually another demonstration of a “new” reality about book publishing, except it is not so new. Book publishing — and book retailing — are no longer stand-alone businesses. Publishing and bookselling are functions, and they can be quite complementary to other businesses. And as adjuncts to other businesses, they don’t actually have to be profitable to be valuable. What that means is that entities trying to make them profitable — or, worse, requiring them to be profitable to survive — are at a stark competitive disadvantage.

Amazon is the past master at making this reality obvious. Remember that they started as a “book retailer” and nothing else. They leaned on Ingram’s Oregon warehouse to enable their business model, which was to take an order for a book and accept payment, then procure the book from Ingram and send it to the customer, and then a little later pay Ingram’s bill. This positive cash-flow model was so brilliant that Ingram could have readily enabled lots of copycats, and they formed a division called Ingram Internet Support Services to do just that. So Amazon killed that idea by cutting their prices to no-margin levels and discouraged anybody else from getting into the game. That was in the late 1990s.

They could do that because the financial community had already accepted Amazon’s strategy of using books to build a customer base and to measure future business prospects by LCV — the “lifetime customer value” of the people they did business with. And it became clear pretty rapidly that they could sell book readers other things so no- or low-margin sales were simply customer acquisition tactics. This was a game Barnes & Noble and Borders couldn’t play.

Now book and ebook sales are almost certainly no more than a single-digit percentage of Amazon’s total revenue. Kindle Unlimited, like their publishing enterprises and self-publishing offerings, are small parts of a powerful organization that has many ways to win with every customer they recruit.

Scribd is not as powerful as Amazon, but they began with a network of content creators and content consumers. That gave them a marketing advantage over Oyster — not every customer had to be acquired at high cost since many potential customers were already “in the tent”. But it also gave them some stability. Eyebrows were raised recently when Scribd put the brakes on the lending of romance books and audiobooks. But tweaking the business model for those verticals simultaneously leaves open that the model is actually working in other niches.

We can see this playing out in a much more limited way in Barnes & Noble stores, where books are being replaced on shelves by toys and games. But that’s not likely to be enough diversification to matter in the long run. It is certainly not going to get B&N where Amazon is, where far more than nine out of every ten dollars comes from something other than books. And Barnes & Noble is nowhere near a point Amazon has reached: where the profit from book sales is incidental if they keep bringing in new customers and also keeps them loyal.

The story on Oyster, still incomplete as of now, is that a lot of their management team is on its way to Google, which, in effect, “bought” the company to get them. Google seems to be trying hard to make sure we don’t think they bought Oyster’s business, they just bought Oyster’s staff. Obviously, Google fits the description of a company with many other interests in which books can play a part. In the beginning, that was all about search. Now it is also about the Android ecosystem and media sales in general. An ebook subscription business, or even a content subscription business, could make sense in Google’s world. But it would be a relatively small play for them. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that they have something other than a mere “book subscription service” in mind for that Oyster staff to work on. Smarter observers than I seem to believe that the personnel Google recruited give them knowledge about Oyster’s mobile reading and discovery technology. Of course, that’s core information for Google.

Similarly, Apple, which now has subscription service for music, might also consider doing one for books — or for all media — at iOS at some point. They don’t have one of Amazon’s advantages — a big stable of intellectual property they control — but they are all about creating an ecosystem that people stay in and don’t leave. Book subscriptions could enhance that.

But the central point I’d take away from this is not that subscription failed, but that a pure book business play failed. One obvious question that provokes is when we will see some signs of synergy between Kobo and their owners at Rakuten, who presumably have Amazon-type ambitions but haven’t seemed to use their ebook business to help pursue them.

And what is true of book retail is also true of book publishing, as we observed in this space quite some time ago. Both publishing and book retailing will increasingly become complements to larger enterprises and decreasingly be stand-alone activities that business can dedicate themselves to for profit.

The New York Times this morning has a front-page article essentially reporting that the ebook surge is over, at least for now, and the print business appears stable. This is great news for publishers if the trend is real. Unfortunately, there were a few important points either elided or ignored that might have undercut the narrative.

One is that, while publishers report ebook sales as a percentage of total book sales steady or slightly declining, Amazon says (and Russell Grandinetti was quoted in the article) their ebook sales are going up. Assuming all this is true, is the difference perhaps sales migrating away from publishers (which sales would be reported by the AAP stats they rely on) and moving to cheaper indie titles available only through Amazon (which sales would not)?

Another is that publishers are raising prices on ebooks and making the price rises stick because of Agency. Is all the sales resistance created by higher prices resulting in print sales, or is some of it causing the book to be rejected for something cheaper? In other words, might total sales for many titles be less than publishers would have looked for before? (At least one agent tells me this is the case.)

And another is that the indie bookstore resurgence has occurred in the years following Borders’s demise and the shifting of the product mix in Barnes & Noble. It is worth asking whether the indies are temporary beneficiaries of a sudden shelf space deficiency or whether we’re really seeing not only an increase in print reading, but a renewed interest by book readers to go to stores to buy the print. That question isn’t posed in this piece.

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