Ingram

The support infrastructure for entities to publish is growing but the most important piece may not yet be provided


I remember a song lyric from the early 70s for which the opening line was: “we don’t need more sailors, we need a captain”. (I can’t find the reference in LyricFind and I don’t remember the name of the band.) That song could be about the new publishing that is arising from the phenomenon of “atomization”, books that could come from just about anybody anywhere (that’s the “we”). They are supported by “unbundling”, the availability of just about every service required (those are the “sailors”) in the complex task of publishing books.

This is what we should call “entity self-publishing”, as opposed to “author self-publishing”. The success of indie authors has gotten a lot of ink lately, partly fueled by the Amazon-Hachette dispute which has brought into bold relief that authors can make a living self-publishing — mostly by exploiting the capabilities of Amazon — without a big organization of their own. But entity self-publishing is ultimately far more threatening to the publishing establishment trying to make a profit because it could, in time, bring a lot more content into the marketplace with a lot more marketing muscle behind it than individual authors will. And sometimes the motivations of those content providers won’t include the need for profit.

(It also can be seen to offer opportunity to the establishment, to the extent that they find it productive to craft their own service-offering on-ramps to be flexible partners for entities.)

Companies abound that offer the core services that support publishing. Big organizations like Ingram and Perseus are mainstream providers and deliver the full suite of capabilities, including putting printed books onto store shelves. (In fact, if you’re big enough, you can get a Big Five publisher to do this for you.) Digital distributors like Vook, INscribe, and ePubDirect can turn a file into ebooks and put them into distribution around the world. Lulu and Blurb will also deliver printed books for you. The subscription services like Scribd and Oyster (not to mention Amazon, Ingram, Overdrive, and the other ebook retailers) will give you distribution. And, both as part of those larger offerings and as stand-alone services like BiblioCrunch, it is increasingly easy for an author (or self-publishing entity) to find editors, cover designers, marketers and web site creators, and just about any other specific skill set that is required to publish a book successfully. In fact, publishers themselves have relied for years on freelancers for many of those functions.

But entities have challenges that individual authors don’t.

An individual author knows what is to be published: what they write. And because most authors are most comfortable in a particular genre, they don’t have to worry much about consistency as they build an audience. They are inherently consistent. (Authors who want to span genres or write outside what they’re best known for have a tougher row to hoe to make themselves commercially successful as self-publishers.)

Of course, they have plenty of challenges outside their writing skill set: editing, cover design, even pricing and marketing. And those challenges are enough to make many authors prefer to have a publisher who will take care of them, even if they would otherwise be willing to give up the marketing and distribution clout of a professional publishing house. There are big per-copy-sold margin advantages to doing it yourself as well as being set free from the constraints and delays that come with working with a larger organization. There are still plenty of “how” questions, but there are very few “what” questions.

But when an entity commits to self-publishing, even one like a newspaper or a magazine that knows how to create the intellectual property, they suddenly need decision-making they’re not equipped to do, and it begins with “what” to publish.

They need a publisher. In the metaphor of the song lyric, they need a “captain”.

The position of “publisher” exists within the magazine and newspaper worlds as well, but it means something subtly different than it does in books. In either case, the publisher governs the whole enterprise, not just the editorial decisions. Because the revenue for magazines and newspapers comes primarily from advertisers, the publisher’s time, bandwidth, and focus are directed there. The publisher certainly has responsibility for things like marketing and distribution, but those tend not to require a great deal of issue-by-issue attention.

But the nature of book publishing is that each book is its own separate marketing challenge as well as an editorial one, and the two are interrelated. If the right book for a market should cost $15, you make a different book than if the right book would be $30, or $8. If the book is ready for publication in September but the right time to bring that book to the market is February, it’s a publisher who decides to hold it back.

And if there are 20 or 30 or 100 books an entity could do, it is a publisher who decides whether to do five a month or five a season, which ones to do first, and which ones should always come out in June.

In a post over a year ago, I cited the example of what publisher Bruce Harris did for Microsoft founder Nathan Myhrvold’s audacious (and successful) $625 cookbook. Myhrvold had the concept and the intellectual property and the business acumen to make key decisions. But it took Bruce, or somebody with his considerable experience and publishing sophistication, to orchestrate the inputs from marketers and publicity experts, coordinate it to the realities of the publishing calendar, and provide the direction to make best use of Ingram’s industrial-strength services.

This kind of expertise is even more important to structure lists within an ongoing publishing program.

Vook has certainly experienced some of that. Their new website announces them as “author-centric” (and they’ll move more and more in that direction), but they have totally cottoned to the idea that entities are a big part of the self-publishing future. They’ve provided critical infrastructure services to enable ebook publishing for The New York Times, Forbes, Thought Catalog, Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report, Frederator Studios, and The Associated Press.

Providing business intelligence has been a crucial part of Vook’s strategy for working with entities. Matt Cavnar of Vook told me:

“We’re tracking data on over 4 million books — print and digital — and we use that information to generate pricing recommendations to maximize revenue for the books our partners publish, to then adjust the books within the marketplaces, and to find specific categories where they will more be likely to rank on bestseller lists. We also coordinate the standard digital marketing and merchandising with the retailers. Thus, we’re acting as the infrastructure and data backend platform for these partners to be as successful as possible — allowing them to focus more on the creative and developmental side of their publishing program.”

But, of course, that data needs to be acted upon by a publisher at the other end. Vook’s client list is heavy with media organizations that can provide some version of that title-by-title, list-by-list decision-maker to make use of Vook’s tools. Because Vook  thinks hard about offering services to authors, Cavnar knows what it is like having focused direction and acknowledges the point.

“That’s right. That coordinated/creative decision maker on the partner side plays the role of the author in a sense.”

The news arrived over the weekend that Blurb, the publishing services company that grew out of an initial print-on-demand offering, had hired veteran publishers Molly Barton and Richard Nash to help them build a network of support services that they will, presumably, operate as a stand-alone business and as an on-ramp to their core business. Blurb has seen this coming for a while and the move made made sense: two publishers with vast experience know how to find and vet all the service offerings for every component of what it takes to publish a book successfully.

But I suspect that for most of the newbies who find editors and cover artists and book marketers in the network Barton and Nash will help Blurb deliver (and, one wonders, how much overlap and qualitative distinction there will be with what BiblioCrunch and a Google search would offer), it would be Barton and Nash themselves, and people like them and Bruce Harris and other veterans with experience with many books and many lists, who would be the most valuable service providers. The most ambitious of the new entrants to book publishing, coming to it to build on knowledge and a reputation established in some other ecosystem (even one that is “media”), would be wise to see that, like all the other tasks, the orchestration of a publishing program is best done by somebody with experience. And the person providing it doesn’t necessarily have to be on staff.

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And another, not unrelated thought.

In the world outside book publishing, a lot of content is being generated for “content marketing”. It has been part of my job in programming Digital Book World to understand how the world of content marketing and the world of book publishing connect.

The way a publisher instinctively wants to think about it is “if people are getting paid for content, can I sell some?” Of the three possible interactions with the world of content marketing, that’s likely to be the least productive one. The content marketing world is all about creating precisely the right content for a brand’s marketing needs. It’s not a particularly efficient approach to search the world of existing content for that, then have to license it and live with the licensing restrictions, and almost certainly have to modify it for marketing use. So, with some limited exceptions, scratch that.

Another potential interaction might be around distributing what is or starts out as marketing content as ebooks. I first made this suggestion to a law firm that had created a white paper on Trademark Law. Why not publish it as an ebook, I said? They said, why bother? I thought, don’t you want to show it to people who search Amazon for “trademark law”?

But when I talked to Joe Pulizzi, the head of the Content Marketing Institute, about ebooks, he said “well, sure, they might make sense in some cases, but there are so many other things that are more important to a marketer.” He’s talking about blogs and Pinterest and YouTube and the wide world of web and apps where content can be made to show up for the people who would be most interested in it exactly when they need it. In other words, “I see your point, but frankly, we usually have much bigger fish to fry.”

And that points to what publishers most have to gain from the business of content marketing. Publishers have tons of content, but they are far from having figured out every best way to use that content for marketing. That’s an adjacent science for us, not one in our experiential wheelhouse. That’s why we have Pulizzi speaking on precisely that subject — using content to build an audience and how to apply all those things that work better than ebooks — from the main stage at Digital Book World. We even gave him a breakout session to follow because there are going to be tons of questions from publishers (and their marketers) who will want to put these capabilities in their arsenal.

Many of the companies mentioned in this post are speaking at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. Blurb and ePubDirect are sponsors who will also be on the program. Speakers from ForbesIngram, OverdriveOysterPenguin Random House, PerseusScribdUS News & World Report, and Vook are on panels. From the main stage, we will hear a presentation from James Robinson, who does web analytics in the newsroom at The New York Times, and Michael Cader and I will have a conversation with Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.

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Print book retailing economics and ebook retailing economics have almost nothing in common


There has been a lot of conversation lately about the differences between wholesale pricing and agency pricing for ebooks and about what constitutes a “fair” division of revenue between publishers and retailers. Since the economics of bookstores have been generally misunderstood for years, it is not surprising that the understanding of what changes make sense as we switch to digital have also been misunderstood. A better grounding in the print book economic realities might enable a more informed discussion of what makes sense for digital.

Here are a couple of points about book economics that I learned at my Daddy’s knee.

1. The investment in inventory is the single biggest capital requirement for a bookstore.

2. Given that the ability to invest in inventory is limited, the speed at which inventory “turns” (a measurement of how long a retailer has to hold stock before it sells) is a much more powerful determinant of a store’s total gross margin, and therefore its profit, than the margin it earns on each sale (the difference between what it pays for the inventory and what it is sold for).

In simple shorthand, that means that a retail store selling books can improve its profit more easily by more closely matching what it buys to what it sells than it can by squeezing more margin out of its suppliers. It also means that a publisher can do more for a store’s profitability by shipping quickly and allowing smaller orders at workable discounts (which make it easier to match supply to demand) and offering delayed billing than it can by offering extra points of discount (which is what added margin is called in the book business). The additional benefit of employing this understanding is that margin division is a zero-sum game, but increased inventory efficiency is actually synergistic: both the publisher and the retailer benefit from it.

This reality about bookstore economics explains the value to the supply chain of wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. By offering the ability to combine orders across publishers and giving rapid, often next-day, delivery, the wholesalers enable stores to gain much more inventory efficiency at a relatively trivial reduction in margin. (Where the publishers’ “deal” is sometimes better than the wholesalers’ in a meaningful way is that publishers will often allow a longer period before demanding payment. Inventory “investment” only really begins when the books the store received are paid for.)

So, in fact, there is very little similarity between the economics of retailing print and retailing ebooks. The tech infrastructure for selling is not a trivial investment, and DRM — including customer service — is a significant expense that ebook retailers deal with that bookstores do not. The print retailer has to build a customer-friendly location and invest in (presumably knowledgeable) clerks. How those costs of doing business compare is a complicated question that changes over time as the tech gets cheaper and the cost of physical locations — driven by ever-higher real estate values in the attractive neighborhoods where bookstores tend to thrive — goes up.

But the things that change aren’t nearly as important as the things that don’t.

The stock turn of an ebook retailer is infinity. There is zero inventory investment.

Publishers first had to deal with the question of what the bookstore’s margin should be on ebooks back in the late 1990s when Palm Digital and Microsoft created the first reflowable ebook platforms. Prior to that we had PDFs, which delivered — in the current jargon — “fixed page layout” ebooks which didn’t adjust the number of words per screen to the screen size. At that time, the ebook retailers were inclined to sell at publishers’ “list prices” and publishers tended to price ebooks at about the same level as print.

But nobody paid a lot of attention because the sales and revenue were de minimus. Since Palm had the most hand-held digital assistants (Palm Pilots) in circulation back at the turn of the century and because (as we have clearly learned since) portability is one of the big drivers of ereading, Palm’s ebooks were the best-selling format. But Palm decided not to enable widespread distribution of their ebook format; they sold the ebooks themselves through a controlled vendor (originally called Peanut Press and then Palm Digital).

In fact, the mobi format that Kindle uses today was developed at the time as a bridging format, able to be read on both Microsoft and Palm devices. This was before the creation of the epub format used by everybody except Kindle today. When Amazon bought Mobi, it was apparently to prevent any other retailer from building a real ebook business selling to what was then the “entire” ebook market. B&N’s one-time exit from ebooks was because they could sell only to Microsoft and not to Palm devices, which meant they had the smaller piece of what was a very small market. Amazon apparently figured then that they’d enter the market when they were ready, but they wanted to prevent B&N from building a foothold in it before then.

I’d argue that the biggest mistake B&N made in the history of ebook evolution was not buying Mobi before Amazon did.

So it became “established” that ebooks would be sold on a similar basis to print books with discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent off publisher-set retail. It should have been no surprise to anybody that once “real” retailers — not software companies like Microsoft and Palm — took the reins, they’d give away a lot of that margin to go after market share. That’s what real retailers do; it’s in their DNA.

In fact, the first wave of discounting of print in the 1980s by the Crown Bookstores chain followed very quickly behind increases in publishers’ discounts to stores from the low 40s to 46 percent and up. Most people never noticed that; others think there’s no connection. It always seemed to me that the increased publisher discounts and the discounting to consumers were linked.

In the early days of ebooks, the volumes were so low and the tech was still under development, so the significant margin the publishers offered — and the retailers employed — might have been necessary to have any ebook retailing at all. As time passes, the fixed retailing costs get lower and the customer service costs also tend to get lower.

Once a real retailer, Amazon, got into the ebook business, deep discounts off publisher prices had to follow, and they did. The move to agency pricing had purposes beyond the principal one, which was to remove pricing as a weapon from the retail competition arsenal. It also put publishers on a path to set realistic retail prices for consumers and to reduce the notional share given to the sales intermediary from around 50 percent to 30 percent.

There’s reason to believe that even 30 percent is too high, given the plunging cost structure for retail and the economic reality of infinite turn on inventory investment. A senior Random House executive told me during the period they were not in agency (the first year it existed) that part of the reason they stayed out is that the 30 percent figure Apple wanted and the other publishers agreed to seemed “too high”. As it turned out, Random House came in a year later and accepted the 30 percent. They said at the time it was because indie bookstores were attracted to ebook retailing by the assured 30 percent margin and fixed retail prices, and Random House always wants to support independent retailers.

It was always curious to me that the preference of all the other retailers except those who can use the book business as a loss leader — Amazon, for sure, and perhaps Google —  for publisher-set retail prices never made its way into the discussion of the publisher motivation at the time, nor to Judge Cote’s reasoning, nor to the arguments which have taken place about it since.

Ebook pricing today is very confused. Apparently, many of the retailers will accept wholesale terms at a lot less than 50 percent, although this is not widely known and, indeed, isn’t even really confirmable. Discounts of print to bookstores were published, standard terms. That’s not the case with ebooks (because they’re not really sales, they’re licenses, no matter what anybody says, and they are individually negotiated contracts, the terms of which are kept private). Nobody outside Amazon really knows what margin Amazon actually takes from ebook sales; it is certainly true that most of the ebooks are discounted from whatever prices publishers “suggest”. (And sometimes those publisher-set prices may be inflated, particularly if the publisher is selling at a bookstore-like 50 percent discount.) Perhaps they only really take the 30 percent that they get from agency publishers and that they take from individual authors in KDP and that they have said in their arguments with Hachette is the “right” share for a retailer.

We actually still don’t know what the “right” or “fair” margin is for retailers of ebooks. Random House had some idea of that in 2010 when they were holding out and they seemed to think “less than 30 percent”. Comparing ebook retailing economics to print book retailing economics only tells us that physical retailers of print need a lot more to have a viable business. Dad also taught me is that the reason publishers give stores a discount off the publishers’ retail price — which should be the price a publisher would sell the book at if a member of the public came directly to them — is to give stores the margin they need to operate. Because publishers want there to be stores. First purposes may have been forgotten in course of the digital transition.

There is programming relevant to this post at Digital Book World 2015 in addition to the main-stage appearance of Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti main-with Michael Cader and me. We have a great panel discussion on “price promotion” with Josh Schanker of BookBub, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Matt Cavner of Vook. And “Blue Sky in the Ebook World” where a panel of visionaries will talk about what is over the horizon for ebook retailing, rethinking simple ebooks, making complex ebooks, and creating ebooks with soundtracks. Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen Book’s talk about how the profile of what sells in print has changed will enlighten around this topic as well.

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Export sales is one of the few areas of predictable growth for book publishers


For a client meeting last week, I was shown a chart that came from Bookstats of channel revenue for publishers. Bookstats is the recent (and now no longer) partnership between the AAP and BISG collecting book publisher shipment information. It has four years of data, which were arrayed in a neat bar chart.

Since the chart showed publisher shipments, it was an imprecise gauge of sales. The third largest channel was “jobbers/wholesalers”, and those books went somewhere else (if they got re-sold and not returned), but we don’t know where. Basically all the other channels got those books eventually.

But it is noteworthy that of the eight channels enumerated (one of which is “other”), only two showed increased sales from 2010 to 2013: online retail and export sales.

Indeed, export sales are one of the real growth opportunities for publishers, and particularly English-language publishers, in the future.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to understand. English is the most important second language in most countries that are not English-speaking. And, obviously, ebooks create no-inventory and little-friction distribution opportunities that make it easy for a publisher in New York or London (or Sydney or Toronto) to deliver to a customer separated by any distance or number of oceans.

In addition, the search engines are global so “discovery” can take place anywhere as well which can increase the demand for printed books as well as digital ones, even though the printed books present a more complex delivery challenge.

The opportunity brings along its challenges. One is that rights conventions need to change. Publishers often have their rights to distribute in some parts of the globe limited by contract. But even when rights aren’t an issue, marketing — including both customizing the metadata and the pricing to a very large number of local territories — can be.

This opportunity has grown rather recently at the same time that many publishers have been preoccupied with overcoming obstacles in their home markets. Both the US and UK markets have been roiled by the relatively sudden emergence of a strong ebook market and the concurrent (and related) weakening of the brick-and-mortar infrastructure for print. Publishers have been scurrying to change many of their practices: licensing differently, learning to do SEO well and employing other digital marketing techniques, shifting their internal structures and workflows, and grappling with the opportunities presented by social media. Many have expended effort on apps and enhanced ebooks which were time and money traps in markets that briefly looked promising but then didn’t pan out.

But in a more settled marketplace, which we have now (perhaps temporarily), the opportunities for growing revenue through export sales is going to get increasing attention from all publishers, who will be happy to know that entrepreneurial companies — some new but some quite established and familiar — have been building out the capabilities to help them.

There are three panels at Digital Book World that will really inform publishers that want to work harder to exploit this opportunity.

The mostly obviously relevant one is called “Global Publishing Tactics: understanding distribution, metadata, pricing, and marketing to maximize sales in different markets”. Two of the panelists are Marcus Woodburn of Ingram and Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct — we have other conversations pending — and moderated by Len Vlahos, the executive director of Book Industry Study Group. Marcus and Gareth and the panelist(s) who will join them have experience selling around the world on behalf of many publishers. Their insight and advice will be gold for publishers looking to expand their export sales.

We also have a panel discussion “Global Market Spotlights: reports from markets around the world”. The four markets we’ll discuss are Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Russia. The panel will be moderated by Thomas Minkus of Frankfurt Book Fair. Our panelists — all of whom are local players — will talk about the switch to digital reading and online sales in those markets, but will also give specific insight into the market for English-language books.

Another discussion which is a bit more tangential, but will still be informative for publishers trying to grow ebook exports, is one on “How People Read”. What we’re trying to get at here is to use the knowledge that ebook platform providers have about the granular detail of reading consumption: about devices, how far people go in various kinds of books, whether they read more than one book at a time, and how they respond to pricing changes. All of our panelists — Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, David Burleigh of Overdrive, and Andrew Weinstein of Scribd — are superintending global platforms. Another aspect of what they’ll reveal is how these consumption patterns vary across markets, including how much English is read in various export markets. Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center, which also has an increasing international focus, will moderate.

We could well also learn more about global opportunities from the keynote talk we’ll hear from Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, and Michael Cader and I will certainly be asking Russ Grandinetti of Amazon about how publishers can maximize their export sales through them.

So if export sales is on your current agenda, a visit to DBW on Jan 14-15 also should be. And, in that case, sign up before the end of the day on Monday and save yourself some dough. Early bird pricing ends on Monday night.

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This is a teamwork play that could really give Amazon a headache if they got together


I will admit that I have long been among those who believe that Amazon has what amounts to an enduring stranglehold on the book business. They have achieved a market share — which could be in the neighborhood of half the trade books sold if you combine print and digital versions — that is unprecedented in book business history. This is a smaller share than the two giant bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders — had combined at the peak of their marketplace power.

Lately, I have seen that point of view challenged. Jake Kerr wrote a very thoughtful piece making the point that Amazon’s desire to take margin out of the ebook business is a good defensive move that diminishes the appetite of their mega-company ebook competitors — Apple, Google, and, less so, Microsoft — to invest in beating them back. Suw Charman-Anderson picked up on the theme that Amazon is being defensive, “looking tired”, and found others who seemed to think the same way. Both of them express doubts about Amazon’s continuing hegemony without even using one powerful argument I think is important. Amazon is protected from ebook competition by the inability of competitors to put DRMed content onto dedicated Kindle ereader devices. (Another barrier is that so many early ebook adopters did so via a Kindle account, so their content and login credentials are in the Amazon platform along with a lot of other shopping data that raises the switching hurdle.) But the share controlled by dedicated devices is diminishing and anybody reading on a multi-function device can choose from a range of ebook retailers. (And that’s not to mention that somebody might invent a way to place protected content on Kindles without Amazon’s help; rumors have it that somebody already has!)

Contemplating Amazon’s weaknesses is new thinking for me. What I see is Amazon’s power over the book business, which is great. Amazon has achieved this position through smart and efficient operations and brilliant tactics like Amazon Prime that build customer loyalty, as well as being beneficiaries of the natural migration of sales from brick stores to online. But, most of all, Amazon benefits from its broad business base. They don’t have to support their business exclusively, or even substantially, from their book sales margin. And, on top of that, they don’t have to finance the building and maintenance of a global operation strictly from what they earn in the United States.

So they trump everybody. Barnes & Noble, their only competitor selling both print and digital books, seems to have stalled in its bid to build a rival global empire with the Nook device as the leading edge. Their lack of stores outside the US robs them of the main tool they used to build Nook from a standing start to what seemed for a while to be a serious threat to Kindle and the consequent lack of global scale is hobbling their Nook business. The US stores are still profitable as print-sellers, but very few are those who maintain that print-in-stores is anything but a declining market. (As for BN.com, the less said the better. Of the four principal components of B&N’s business: bookstores, college stores, Nook ebooks, and their online retailing operation, the most dramatic and persistent failure has been BN.com.)

Kobo, Apple, and Google are all ebook purveyors only with no print book complement. Kobo has nominally tried to deliver a combined offering, and claimed some store support to sell their devices, by making alliances with leading local booksellers in many markets. Apple, a company primarily interested in selling its hardware and the ecosystems it builds around them, has no apparent interest in print. Google appears to have hit on a broader variation of the Kobo strategy, making alliances with physical retailers by offering a combination of its power in search and a same-day delivery capability called Google Shopping Express — competing with Amazon Prime — that retailers in a single vertical couldn’t deliver for themselves.

Under that rubric, Google is now allied with Barnes & Noble. But I see this as an initiative with the accent on the wrong syllable. The combined companies’ offering is only of real value applied to the small number of book purchases for which same day delivery adds substantial utility (and for which the digital version — always delivered instantly — doesn’t constitute an adequate solution for the need for speed). They are further limited by the books available in the particular B&N store plugged into the program in each locality and each store carries far fewer titles than the chain does as a whole. So the number of books customers will need delivered with that alacrity will be further reduced by the imperfect match between the demand and what’s available. Even if this program steals a high percentage of the same-day demand sales from Amazon, I’m not sure how much it would shift market shares. And with Amazon also offering rapid delivery and probably around a greater number of titles, it is not a given that the new offering from Google and B&N will steal much market share at all.

That doesn’t make it a bad move. The sales and visibility are incremental pluses for Barnes & Noble. Google’s new Google Shopping Express has a business model into which B&N fits very nicely. Books are a nice-to-have additional product line to offer within that service, designed to compete with Amazon’s growing same-day goods delivery. This is a fight between two behemoths that is much larger than the book business (as it has to be to interest them). B&N has a role to play, but it is a supporting position, not a lead.

From where I sit, this offering from Google and B&N doesn’t look like a game-charger for the book business. Nothing about it would seem to threaten Amazon’s overall (and still growing) hegemony in book retail. The migration of sales from print to digital and from stores to online has clearly slowed down, perhaps even plateaued, in the past year or two but few are those who believe those trends are permanently over.

Google is on a right track with Google Shopping Express; people who buy physical goods use Google search to find them and see Google ads when they do. But going after the smallest corner of the print book business — those books on which 6-hour delivery presents a very big advantage over 24-hour delivery — is not going to bend the curve much on Amazon’s future, even if it provides some marginal benefit to B&N and Google.

But there is a different combination that could give Amazon a real headache. There are two companies that together could deliver print and digital, just about anywhere in the world with competitive delivery speed, with discovery capability that would rival Amazon’s as well. Between them, they really have almost all the capabilities and infrastructure required already in place.

One of those companies is, of course, Google.

The other is Ingram, the book business’s biggest US wholesaler and, through its present activities already providing global digital and print distribution as well as print-on-demand. Ingram is positioned to deliver any book in any form anywhere extremely efficiently. They also have a robust and accurate database of book metadata which, if combined with Google’s data and search mastery (and capabilities that match Amazon’s “Search Inside” offering as well), could challenge Amazon effectively as a “best first place to look” for any information about books.

What Google needs to take on board to make the strategic leap to explore a partnership like this is that most book consumers read both print and digital and probably will for some time to come. It will get harder and harder to compete with Amazon without a print-and-digital offering; you can’t be fully effective with either one unless you do both.

And it would help if Google saw the book business as distinctly different from the other media businesses that with books constitute Google Play. The differences play to and can enhance Google’s core strength. Book marketing is almost infinitely granular, because the number of possible motivations to buy a book are so great in number. Rarely do you buy music or video because of where your next vacation will be or because you want to put a new roof on your house or change careers. Associating specific book suggestions to discerned interests and motivations is the key to effective book marketing in the digital environment. And the insights about any individual by analyzing their book search also can tell you what else they may be looking for. Nobody does those things better than Google. They have limited impact on the ability to suggest music or movies, but enormous value in selecting what books to feature to any particular customer at any particular time and what else they can be sold after they’ve bought a book.

A Google-Ingram partnership would not only start with every capability necessary to compete with Amazon as a global bookseller, they would have some additional Secret Sauce as well. Google and Ingram wouldn’t actually have to make money on the combined retailing component because they make money other ways that are associated with it. Google would be adding incremental search and ad placement opportunities. Ingram would be benefiting as a wholesaler providing all the print books and many of the ebooks the new “store” sells. They could make nearly nothing from the new retailing operation, just like Amazon does with its book retailing operation, and still have the enterprise return a profit for their engagement.

A joint digital retailing enterprise to sell books and ebooks from Google and Ingram is the only possibility I can see on the horizon that would save the legacy publishing business from being entirely subject to Amazon’s inexorably growing marketplace power. It is almost certain that Ingram — part of the book business Amazon is so successfully disrupting — sees this very clearly. (Full disclosure seldom necessary in this space: Ingram has been a client of The Idea Logical Company for many years.) Being a hero to the book business may be a less immediate objective for Google, but making life a bit more difficult for Amazon almost certainly is. Nothing they could do would create more challenges for Amazon than a partnership with Ingram to create an all-media store that sells both physical and digital versions of everything, including and especially books.

Since I posted my last piece, triggered by Amazon’s invoking of Orwell and Streitfeld’s accusation that they got him wrong, two conflicting posts have arisen. I’m indebted to Hugh Howey for pointing out that apparently Orwell really did want to destroy cheap paperbacks but Orwell’s estate takes a different view. In fact, I don’t think which side got it right is particularly germane to the arguments I was making. The Orwell connection made a cute hook, but it is not really an essential part of either side’s story.

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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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