Jane Friedman

No, Mike Shatzkin did NOT say that publishing is spiraling down the drain


As part of the promotion of the Digital Book World conference, I do some interviewing with the very capable Jeremy Greenfield, the editor of their blog. And Jeremy takes our conversations and chops them up into short pieces around the themes of our show. Since the focus of Digital Book World is “how digital is changing publishing”, Amazon is a topic of great interest and one we try to address in an original and enlightening way.

In my interview with Jeremy, for which he published very brief but entirely accurate excerpts, I did say that publishers would face a real selling job with authors when Amazon’s share grows by another 25% from its current base or if Barnes & Noble closed. Neither of those things is likely to happen in the next few years. If and when the day comes that one of those things does happen, not all publishers would be entirely defenseless even with today’s arsenal of capabilities. And Jeremy’s piece closes with my suggestion that publishers can help themselves by doing “digital marketing at scale, which is audience-centric in its thinking.”

Despite how this is interpreted in some circles, it does not add up to publishing “spiraling down the drain”.

Amazon is already truly disruptive and it isn’t clear to anybody but those on the inside of Amazon exactly how disruptive. I’ve written earlier that we know nothing about the used book marketplace they host and foster, which we must assume cuts into sales, particularly of bestselling books which have many copies in circulation. A recent discussion on a mailing list I’m on revolved around what we don’t know about how many ebooks are being published. Why? Because Bowker, which issues ISBN numbers and therefore helps us count the titles going into the marketplace, doesn’t necessarily get to touch (and count) titles that stay entirely inside of Amazon and therefore only use the Amazon “ASIN” substitute for the ISBN. Other ebook retailers will handle titles without ISBN numbers, but only Amazon has a large enough market by itself to make a substantial number of self-publishers work with them alone.

And now we have the anomaly of sales reporting from the AAP, once again working without totally internal Amazon IP, that suggests ebook sales are going down. Are they going down? Or are self-published titles exclusively inside Amazon taking share away from the part of the business we can see and count for ourselves and masking the ebook sales growth that is actually taking place? I have no evidence, but that strikes me as a more likely reality than that ebook sales have actually fallen year-to-year recently.

What that means is that we are developing two publishing businesses. One of them includes all of us: all the publishers, all the retailers, all the industry bodies counting books and sales. And one of them is “private” or “proprietary”; it is Amazon. They are publishing an unknown number of titles selling an unknown number of copies netting an unknown number of dollars under a numbering system nobody else can crack or track.

Actually, Amazon is not entirely alone in wanting proprietary titles. Perhaps there are some within Nook or Kobo, but hosting proprietary titles to establish themselves in the market is the declared strategy of upstart retailer Zola Books. Last week they announced exclusive titles from Joan Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. They think having showcase titles of this kind will enable them to crack the ranks of established ebook retailers. I think it would take a lot more of them than they’ll ever get to make a dent, but time will tell. And if they don’t sell a lot of the ones they have, it will become impossible to persuade anybody else to give them such an exclusive on any basis.

But Amazon, being more than half the market already for a lot of genre fiction, can use painless (to them) financial incentives to induce authors to give them exclusives through the KDP Select program. So they get them in numbers none of the rest of us can count but which could conceivably be large enough to actually make industry figures inaccurate.

My assumption is that Amazon can do more for a book inside Amazon than a publisher or author can working Amazon from the outside, all other things being equal (although the U-turn from the ambitious Larry Kirshbaum publishing program might cast doubt on that). And the publisher takes a big share of the Amazon-generated revenue. That means that the publishers have to make up the difference in revenue for the author in one or both of two ways:

They have to do a superior job publishing the book — editing, positioning it in the marketplace, selling rights, and sustaining a marketing effort that will be largely digital — so that it sells more even inside Amazon than it would without those efforts. In other words, they have to assure that “all other things” do not remain equal.

They have to sell lots of books outside of Amazon so that the revenue from the larger publishing ecosystem makes up for the Amazon-generated revenue that the author shares with the publisher.

The shift that has taken place so far is apparently not crippling publishers at all. There are no clear tallies about this, but it certainly feels like there are more authors moving from self-publishing to a publishing house (to borrow a term that usually has a different meaning in our business: “discovered” by publishers because of their self-publishing success) than the other way. So either they’re able to make more money, or they really appreciate the full bundle of editing and marketing services a publisher provides, or they value the broader exposure through a publisher’s entire distribution network more than the perhaps-higher revenue they could make from fewer sales through Amazon alone, or some combination of the three.

My point, and what should be a broad industry concern, is that the publisher’s challenge continues to get steeper. Amazon’s share is growing in relation to the rest of the market and more and more service offerings for editing and marketing are making it ever-easier for authors to entertain a non-publisher option. There is a very small but growing population of authors with lengthy backlists who have gotten their rights back, or secured their ebook rights alone, and are able to consider alternative paths to market.

Although she wasn’t the first, Jane Friedman saw this very early — and it is the opportunity that got things started for her Open Road Integrated Media, probably the largest new publisher built during our current shifting paradigm. Richard Curtis of E-Reads and Arthur Klebanoff of Rosetta were pursuing a similar strategy before Friedman got started, but she found the funding and added the promotional sizzle to build a bigger business faster. (It is still an open question whether the companies that are building themselves by offering more generous royalty splits for already-established backlist have a sustainable business model.)

We’ve said repeatedly in this space that the publisher’s time-honored core proposition has been “we put books on shelves”. That is changing and the new proposition has to be “we will help authors reach their whole audience”. A very smart executive from a major house suggested another formulation that makes sense: “publishers are experts at building author brands.”

Either of those, as a competitive statement against Amazon, will almost certainly reflect a potential advantage for authors. But as the difference between what is Amazon’s audience and what is the whole audience gets smaller, the publishers’ challenge gets harder. And only by doing a smashing job at both publishing in a way that sells more on Amazon and by maximizing the market outside Amazon will publishers retain their power to attract authors in the years to come.

The answers for publishers as seen from here are “verticality”, or “audience-centricity”, combined with scaled skills (and tools) to do digital marketing in ways the authors can’t on their own and which Amazon isn’t likely to develop. The two go together: focusing on an audience enables a publisher to build scaled capabilities to reach that audience that others without that focus will not have.

There have always been publishers that have gone “down the drain” or, more likely, seen themselves become part of some other publisher rather than a stand-alone entity. We will certainly see consolidation in various segments of the industry at the same time that we will see lots of new smaller entrants attracted by book publishing’s diminishing cost of entry. (We call this atomization.) But seeing that things will get harder is not the same as seeing a pending apocalypse, and recognizing there are benchmarks that would signal a real escalation of the challenge is not the same as saying we’re about to hit them.

The topics covered in this post will get a thorough airing at the Digital Book World conference on January 14-15, 2014. (Here’s the full program.) Our Amazon coverage will include presentations from Brad Stone, Benedict Evans, and Joe Esposito, followed by a panel discussion among them. Professor Dana Beth Weinberg combines her data analysis skills as a sociologist with her publishing interest and knowledge as a romance writer to present a unique perspective on the changing dynamic between publishers and authors. And Phil Sexton, the publisher of Writer’s Digest, will present the results of his organization’s survey of more than 5,000 freelance writers, capturing an up-to-date picture of how writers view the choice between working with a publisher and putting their material out on their own.

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Rethinking book marketing and its organization in the big houses


Here’s a modest proposal about how marketers at big publishers should be organized.

By audience segment, or, to use my own favored terminology, by vertical.

Marketing demands it and entirely new business opportunities — beyond publishing — can arise from it.

A publisher — even the most general publisher — should figure out which audiences it targets again and again. Some of those are easy and neat and defined by genre, like “romance readers”. Some of them might be defined by demographics and might overlap with genre readers, like “single women under 30″. Some of them might be defined by interests, such as “passionate chefs”.

Each audience segment already has its own web sites, its own apps, its own nomenclature, its own influencers. And, of course, each audience segment wants to know about the books (and other content) that relate to its core interest.

Marketers have always asked about every title: “who is the audience?” Now to optimize their digital marketing efforts, publishers large and small are wanting to know about that audience: “where can I find them?”

Big publishers have always posed their marketing questions in a title-by-title context.

Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, came to the conclusion by using the social listening tools in the market (like Covercake and Radian 6) that the best approach with them was to use them categorically, rather than title-by-title. He spelled that out to the audience at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last October.

Pete McCarthy of McCarthy Digital made a related point to me when he explained that it became very clear to him at Random House that the more data that he had to work with, the more effectively he could target an audience. So the rich get richer. It was a lot easier for Pete to structure a strong marketing outreach for Dan Brown than for a first novelist. And it is much easier for marketers to build up data around a category of readers than it is around any single title.

But, as far as I can tell, no publisher has (yet) taken the step of moving away from title-centric marketing structure to an audience-centric marketing organization.

It is bound to happen. There will be increasing pressure on the existing structure driven by two related realities: bookstore decline and Internet-based marketing opportunities.

Until a very short time ago, books not in a bookstore had very little chance of selling, regardless of how powerful a publicity break they could generate. Now we’re seeing an average (across titles and genres) of more than 30% of the book sales being made online. “In stock in stores” isn’t nearly the requirement to make sales that it used to be and it will be less important every month than it was the month before for a long time to come.

The understanding that books wouldn’t sell if they weren’t available at retail excused the savvy publisher from reacting to every marketing stimulus that came down the pike. Only the successful books remained widely available more than 90 days after publication date, so media breaks that occurred later than that in most books’ lives had to meet a very high threshold to be worth acting upon. If the publisher didn’t know about a break far enough in advance to get books in place — and if the break weren’t persuasive enough to make retailers cooperate with that effort, perhaps on a book they’d returned a month or a year ago — then it was just background noise.

In fact, relatively few real marketing breaks occurred for books post-publication in the past the way they do now. Sophisticated print and air media tended to be most interested in books when they were new. If you’re “book-centric”, you focus on the new and upcoming, not on the history.

But life isn’t like that anymore. Books can be discovered at any time because the metadata doesn’t disappear from the virtual shelves. And because so much of the media isn’t book-centric (very few blogs have a book review editor sifting though the new releases), if the book is new to them and relevant to their audience’s current concerns, they’ll be interested in it.

So while it used to be perfectly acceptable (even “highly professional”) to ignore an author’s call telling his or her editor that s/he has a radio interview scheduled for next Saturday (although you would always say “thanks for letting us know”), it isn’t anymore.

With more marketing breaks taking place that are independent of a book’s publication date and in a time when we can no longer call off the marketing efforts for each book when it is about a month old, the by-title approach to marketing is bound to become a workflow nightmare. The old stuff won’t move out of the way to make room for the new. And books remaining permanently in the marketplace combined with the proliferation of marketing outlets assures that the number of stimuli calling for a response will just continue to grow.

It will become less and less acceptable (and less and less wise) to simply ignore post-publication marketing breaks. And when publishers move away from a title-driven marketing structure to an audience-driven marketing structure, it won’t be necessary either.

This is how I imagine organizing the trade publisher’s marketing department in the future. I’m describing an idealized scenario to get there that is almost certainly not immediately practical for anybody, but I think makes it easier to visualize the desired state.

A publisher will build a list of target audiences, defined by interest or demographics. Probably this exercise is best started by looking at the company’s top 1000 titles (I’m imagining a Big Six-type house here; the exercise is actually easier for a smaller and nichier player.) We’ll call the individual audience segments being targeted “verticals.” Each vertical will be assigned a team (although a single team might work more than one vertical and any individual marketer could be on more than one team). Flexibility is key here; each audience has different value to the house and the person-hours allotted to the vertical has to bear some reasonable relationship to the revenue potential. So these teams are not “one size fits all”. That’s why marketers will be on more than one team; some will warrant a fraction of the time and effort of others.

For each vertical, the marketing team’s job is to make audiences aware of the house’s books on a timely basis (which does not mean “pub date”, but means “when a book is currently relevant and likely to be of interest to the audience” which is something that is, on some level, examined anew every single day), to get the audience to “talk” (tweet, blog, chat, comment) about the house’s books, to know enough about trends with the audience to suss out topics of future interest, and to conceive marketing programs — subscription services, establishing brands, selling non-content offerings — to both monetize and get closer to the market.

In some verticals, it might be possible to establish a community hub — a website or an app or a subscription offering or a sharing or annotation capability — that can serve as an anchor for ongoing communication with the vertical. But that won’t happen most of the time. What the marketing team is looking for are the hubs that already exist and the ways to get close to them, collaborate with them, identify the opportunities they present and take advantage of them.

Let’s imagine that there are 100 such audiences with teams assigned to them to start out. Any book might call for help from one of them or several of them. Only in very rare cases should it be necessary to coordinate efforts for a book across teams, because they’re working different audiences.

This approach will result in publishers learning a lot more than they know about the audiences for what they publish. For example, one would imagine (going in) that “literary fiction” has an audience that is common: that there are people that want to read the most “writerly” books. But it will only become evident over time whether “quality” (meaning “literary” or not) trumps genre categorically. I’d assume a priori there are books that would “work” for a romance or sci-fi vertical but also for a “literary” vertical. But perhaps the “literary” team will find that well-written romances don’t work with their audience, even though well-written science fiction does.

Working this way will deliver a publisher a much deeper understanding of the readers and what makes them respond. The most obvious drawback is that it will be more difficult to manage the marketing teams on a per-title basis. You will be putting titles into the hands of many different teams because it has many overlapping audiences when you define them by interests and demographics. And each of them will have timing and messages that are largely, if not primarily, influenced by the environment in their vertical.

Obviously, it will be much harder to coordinate a Big Bang on pub date using this approach. But the guess here is that the necessity for that is diminishing over time anyway and it will be compensated for by the improvement of marketing across the list, on smaller titles and on backlist. There’s room for a “big books coordination” function. It won’t interfere much with the work of the individual teams to have to be in corporate harness for a small number of titles.

With this sort of structure in place, all sorts of additional development not only becomes possible, it becomes inevitable. And the problem of knowing when and how to react to marketing breaks will largely be solved. Purely hypothetically, the “electoral politics” vertical team might find that an NPR break is worth a lot of effort to promote and the “gourmet eating” vertical team might learn it isn’t of much value at all. Niche subscription services, newsletters, first chapter distributions, and event development will flow naturally from the focus on audiences. Having a large number of teams, with many marketers working more than one of them, will encourage both experimentation and the spread of best practices.

This audience-centric way of thinking is pretty natural, or at least easier, for smaller publishers. They tend to specialize by subject or genre more than the bigger players do anyway. They don’t have new titles literally every day — every major house does more than 365 books a year and some are publishing closer to 10 titles every working day — to keep their marketers from having the time to think about anything else. (Yes, the big houses have more marketers than the smaller ones, but whether they have more headcount per title would be a different question.)

It has already happened that the vertical marketing efforts of smaller, more-focused houses have enabled them to be very competitive with big houses in certain niches. One agent told me several years ago that he had concluded that the mind-body-spirit specialist publisher Hay House could sell many times the number of copies of a book in their sweet spot than a Big Six house. Hay House has focused on its audience, collecting email names and running paid events, for years. They have the ability to promote to hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of their core audience without incremental cost. And, not to say that there isn’t plenty of imaginative marketing thinking in their shop, I’d maintain that the innovations that give them marketing power follow pretty naturally from publishing and marketing to the same audience repeatedly. They didn’t have to organize vertical teams for marketing; their entire company is a vertical team.

And Jane Friedman’s Open Road, much of whose list consists of established backlists for which the company was able to acquire the ebook rights, is not as “vertical” but they are similarly untethered from a publication-date-driven marketing strategy. Open Road works from a marketing calendar that looks at the events that will drive consumer behavior and they market to that. What have we got and how can we position it for Father’s Day? What have we got and how do we position it for Election Day? It isn’t exactly vertical, but it is audience-centric and thinking that way makes it natural for the marketers to promote the right backlist at the right time.

But it is structurally much more difficult for a major house to do this because it means blowing up — or at the very least diverting a lot of resources from — the existing title- and imprint-based marketing structure. Imprints in major houses were rarely if ever formed around audiences; they were formed around editorial units. In general houses, even the individual editoral units work tend to work across many topical areas. In the big houses, really it is only the genre fiction that gets an editorial unit, branding, and marketing teams dedicated to them.

That’s why many of the the most interesting innovations in the big houses, like Tor’s massive mailing lists and cross-publisher ebook store and Avon’s Facebook-centric initiative to sell non-DRMd titles through AllRomanceebooks.com, tend to come from the genre fiction units.

There is definitely full awareness in the major houses that “marketing at scale” must replace “we put books on shelves” as their defining value proposition. They are shifting more and more resources to marketing. They’re investing in and learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing).

Random House, showing one strategy that is consistent with this perspective, is developing a tool set to create bookstores for existing vertical sites, starting with Politico. If it works, that’s an extensible way to get the marketing benefits of niche community-building for your books without having to build the community yourself. And it fits with the point we make above that vertical marketing efforts don’t have to be about creating communities; it is more efficient to exploit those that have already been created.

But as far as I can tell, no house is close to accepting the reality that the title-driven and pubdate-driven marketing techniques that we all grew up with will shortly have outlived their usefulness. The increased demands on marketers created by new opportunities, particularly those arising for books past their pub date, are being met now by adding to staff and tinkering with the rules about what’s worth attention and what isn’t and, of course, trying to create tools and techniques that will enable the title-driven and pubdate-driven efforts to be more effective at scale.

Change will ultimately come in stages. (I can’t even imagine how one would quickly implement the plan as I describe it here in a massive publishing house.) Nobody will start with 100 vertical marketing teams and small remnants of the existing structure. But it is definitely time for every house to have three or six marketing teams focused on specific audiences.

When those have raised the sales on the relevant backlist, resuscitated some dormant titles into an active status, created a couple of surprise bestsellers a few months after they were published, and brought in a few great books that were never seen by an agent or any other house, it will make it much easier for management to see for themselves, and persuade all their colleagues, that this is the way to the future.

And, beyond that, when publishers become expert in targeted audiences and also have content reservoirs to attract them and learn more about them, entirely new commercial opportunities will emerge. But that’s imagineering on top of imagineering, so we’ll leave it for another day.

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Business models are changing; trial and error will ensue


The announcement late last week that Random House is starting three digital-first imprints was just the most recent example showing that publishers are exploring new business models. Just days earlier we got news of the partnership between Simon & Schuster and Author Solutions making S&S the third major publisher — preceded by Christian publishing titan Thomas Nelson and dominant romance publisher Harlequin — to put their name to an offering in the “author services” sector.

One might say that S&S is the first of the Big Six to take such a big step in this direction, except that Pearson, Penguin’s parent company, actually bought Author Solutions a couple of months ago and HarperCollins bought Thomas Nelson last year. So, in fact, three of the Big Six are now involved with author services and it is four out of six if you remember the other recent big news, that Penguin and Random House are merging. (And that’s not counting more modest initiatives like HarperCollins’s “Authonomy” or Penguin’s “Book Country”.)

I remember being on a panel in Canada a few years ago with Carolyn Pittis, the very smart digital pioneer from HarperCollins, who referred to the way most publishers did business — buying the right to exploit copyrights and then monetizing them — as one possible business model for a publisher’s organization. She explicitly mentioned “author services” as another one. That was before her company had launched Authonomy, a couple of years before “Book Country”. In other words, big publishers have been thinking for a while about “author-pays” models (just as the professional publishers have).

This really all follows the lead of Amazon, which has made a practice for years of selling a la carte every component of its own value chain. I was just reading an ebook called “The Amazon Economy” published by The Financial Times (an example of a non-book publisher adjusting its own business model to include being a book publisher, about which more on another day) that suggested that Amazon actually makes more money making its infrastructure available to others than it does using it to sell stuff.

In other words, there is potentially profit in deconstructing one’s value chain and selling access to it in pieces.

In a sense, publishers have known this for a long time. They’ve made the part of their operation that handles things after the books exist: warehousing, distribution, credit and collection, and sales available to other publishers for years. Some publishers, like Random House, have built distribution into a significant business with its own management structure within the corporation. Perseus, which as a publisher is itself a roll-up of a number of smaller houses, has built a distribution service that has more than 300 clients. Ingram, whose core wholesaling operation combined with the Lightning subsidiary they built in the 1990s to provide print-on-demand and later digital services, has a comparable publisher distribution offering.

But what Author Solutions — and a host of less robust (and largely cheaper) competitors — has shown is that there is also very widespread demand for the services that precede the actual delivery of books ready for sale.

I have no way except inference to know how Nelson and Harlequin are doing with their author services offering powered by Author Solutions, but the fact that Penguin parent Pearson bought them and S&S has now done this deal certainly suggests that ASI has a good story to tell. Of course, they are market leaders because they make money, and they make money by having good margins. And the prices announced for the services for the Archway initiative — ASI’s project with S&S — are higher than those services could be purchased for elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they won’t sell lots of aspiring authors on using them.

This is all very logical, but also very tricky. Most publishers — at least until very recently — would have thought about the services they sold in a distribution bundle as “commodities”, widely available and highly comparable. It is true that any of the major publishers, many minor ones, and distributors even beyond Ingram and Perseus can deliver the core capabilities: active accounts with all the major retailers, the ability to transact with them and collect the money, and placement of the messages of availability throughout the supply chain. Obviously, they all strive to do these things better than the next guy and to justify charging a point or two more because they’re better at it.

But further up the value chain the publishers’ pride and belief in a qualitative difference between what they have and what the next guy has is much greater. Publishers generally believe in their editors and marketers more than they believe in their sales forces and warehouses. (Buddies of mine in sales 20 years ago used to say, with conscious irony, that there were two kinds of books: editorial successes and sales and marketing failures.) They see their time and bandwidth as precious. They are far more reluctant to make that time available for rent and, in fact, it would appear that all three of the big publisher deals with Author Solutions rely on ASI to provide those capabilities. They’re not coming from the publishers themselves.

All of this sidesteps another important component of successful publishing: the coordination of all these activities. Successful publishing is the result of a lot of very small decisions: in editing, in presentation (both the book itself and the metadata, like catalog copy and press releases, that support it), and, increasingly, in the SEO tags and signals about “placement” that are included in the book’s digital file or marketing metadata. In the digital age, these things can change over time. Every day’s news — about UN votes or Pentagon sex scandals or anything else — could call for a change in the metadata around a book published a month or a year ago to make it more likely to be shown by the search engine queries being placed today.

(The FT ebook on Amazon, which I recommend, makes it clear that Amazon also sells “coordination” on the retail side as an extremely important, and apparently much-appreciated, value-add.)

Indeed, whether to put more effort into a book or stop paying attention to it is — or should be — based on an analysis of sales and search trends, as well as more old-style measures like the reviews it is getting.

In the old pre-internet days, publishing books was like launching rockets. Most crashed to the earth, some went into orbit. But the publisher’s efforts — most of the time — were limited to the launch. Then the marketing team could move on. This was not a way of doing business that was appealing to authors, but it was consistent with the realities of the marketplace. The big book chains wouldn’t keep a title in stock if its sales appeal wasn’t evident at the cash register within 90 days. Without copies of a title in the stores, there was no point to the publisher pushing it.

That’s something that has changed dramatically in the digital age. With some titles and genres achieving half their sales through ebooks or online bookselling, there is no longer a time limit on marketing effectiveness. In what is a subject we will certainly explore at a future conference, this must be causing traffic jams in publishers’ marketing departments. They can no longer be counting on the older titles making way and clearing marketers’ schedules to work on newer ones.

Open Road is a digital-only publisher that works primarily, but not exclusively, with backlist. (Recently they seem also to be specializing in books brought in from offshore publishers and in helping illustrated book publishers break into ebooks.) What impressed me when I met with them a year ago was that they didn’t distinguish between “frontlist” and “backlist”. They marketed to the calendar and the events and holidays everybody was thinking about, not to the newness of their books. I believe this actually brought increased relevance to their marketing. Obviously, this was also making a virtue of necessity because they didn’t have a flow of “new” books to tout. But it also capitalized on the new situation: that the books don’t suddenly become largely unavailable because retailers throw them off the shelves.

A by-product of the extended sales life of books is that it makes it easier for publishers to cluster them for marketing purposes. Now four books on a similar topic can be pushed in unison, even if they were published months or even years apart. Open Road has made ample use of that reality.

These are challenges and opportunities that compel publishers to rethink the organization of their marketing departments and the deployment of their marketing resources. It is an opportunity for a publisher to extend its value to an author if it pushes an author’s book six months or a year later when a related title hits the marketplace or a news event makes an older book newly relevant. Since authors are increasingly able to do some useful things on their own behalf to capitalize on these opportunities, they will be increasingly impatient with publishers that quit on their books too soon..

There are things the author just can’t do. They can’t adjust the book’s metadata and add tags. They can’t push for or buy promotional screen placement from the retailers when somebody else’s new book makes them suddenly relevant again. Authors also don’t have the benefit of arriving at marketing best practices and rules of thumb by examining performance data across various groupings of titles: large title sets, categorized sets, comparable-selling sets, and others. They’re counting on the publishers to do that.

The publisher’s role in coordinating and managing a myriad of details has always been one of its principal value-adds and it can be even more so in the digital age. But only if they actually do it, and there’s precious little indication that they intend to do it for the titles they’re being paid for.

Jane Friedman (the blogger and expert advisor to writers, not the CEO of Open Road) points out that her alma mater, Writers Digest, and Hay House — the vertical publisher in mind-body-spirit that has done so well interacting with their reading audience — also did ASI deals. She points out that the big successes we all know about among self-published authors — John Locke, Joe Konrath, and Amanda Hocking being the headline names — didn’t go through ASI. Jane takes issue with the ASI promise to help publishers “monetize unpublished manuscripts”. It’s hard to dispute that publishers who are primarily in business to pay authors to publish them could be walking a fine line having a business model right alongside that charges authors for services that are unlikely to lead to them making money.

On the other hand, Random House has made an emphatic statement about the value legitimate publishers can bring with the success of “Fifty Shades of Gray”, originally a self-published story and now, very much thanks to the biggest publisher, the biggest commercial success of all time. No self-published book has come close and it will be a very long time before one does. I see their digital-first imprints (which they are not the first to launch, but seem to be the first promoting aggressively to the self-publishing diaspora) as a step toward a different business model that recognizes the new commercial realities of publishing. It enables lower-investment publishing — the authors in these digital-first imprints are unlikely to receive advances at levels commensurate with most Random House books — and perhaps they’ll get less editing attention too. Marketing is simplified by the fact that print isn’t involved and therefore retail stores aren’t either. So the threshold for profitability is much lower and, as we have learned, they can still decide to give any book in these new imprints the “full treatment” — print copies stacked up in stores — later on if they want to.

It is too early to judge whether the tie-up between publishing houses and author services offers will produce value on all sides. All these publishers now have or will have, at the very least, a stable of self-published authors that are contributing margin to them and in which they have a financial stake (even if they didn’t have to invest to get it). There is definitely inherent conflict between trying to make the most money one can from an author hiring publishing services and recruiting authors and books that will be commercially successful.

But publishers still know how to make books with commercial potential sell better than mere civilians do. Whether ASI and their partner publishers can find the formula that makes the promise inherent in a publisher’s brand productive for authors that hire services under it is a question that will be answered in the months to come.

Having more companies trying to figure it out certainly improves the odds that somebody will (and ASI has every interest in spreading best practices as they emerge). And more and more cheaper services for those aspects of self-publishing that really are commodities means that ASI and all its partners are going to have to demonstrate convincingly that they can add effective marketing to their offering mix if they’re going to be around ten years from now.

Michael Cader and I are doing our first Authors Launch show, in partnership with our friends at Digital Book World, on Friday, January 18, the day after the 2-day DBW 2013 will end. The question of where the line gets drawn between publisher efforts and author efforts is a major topic. We have a great roster of experts to serve as faculty: the aforementioned Jane Friedman, along with Porter Anderson, Jason Allen Ashlock, Dan Blank, ex-Random House marketer Pete McCarthy, co-authors Randy Susan Meyers and M.J. Rose, Meryl Moss, and David Wilk. Among the publishers speaking will be Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Matt Schwartz of Random House. This is a conference really intended for published authors rather than self-published, but it will teach skills and insights for any author willing to invest time and effort to sell their book.

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Publishers adding value on the marketing side


Obviously my day job, consulting, informs a lot of what goes into The Shatzkin Files. I guess it is just as obvious that I can’t quote everybody who tells me something or attribute everything I want to write about to a specific company or individual. I don’t make a living writing this blog and I wouldn’t make a living at all if people in the industry couldn’t trust me to keep their confidences.

But once in a while people inside competitive companies tell me things that they want the world of publishing to know about what they’re doing. That’s happened twice this week and, in both cases, publishers were making it very clear that they are doing things that will add real value to authors’ marketing efforts, things that no self-publishing author could do for themselves. Self-publishing authors could be wrong, but a read through the comment string of a recent post here makes it clear that they don’t much believe publishers add value in marketing.

On Monday, I was talking to Fritz Foy, the senior VP for Digital Publishing and Strategic Technology at Macmillan. My mission was to recruit speakers from Macmillan for Digital Book World. The conversation turned to the question of “collecting names” for marketing purposes. I had learned previously that Macmillan really has a company-wide effort to do that. That’s something I have advocated. I thought it was so important that I went to the unusual (for me) effort of learning some fundamentals of direct contact management and writing about them on the blog 14 months ago. But Macmillan is the only company I’m aware of that makes email address capture an objective across the company, although we see pockets of name-gathering activity in other majors.

Fritz emphasized that collecting names wasn’t the only priority. Using them, using them well, and tracking what happened when they used them were the keys. (I was reminded, as I was again by the next conversation I’ll describe, of the adage “you can’t improve what you don’t measure”.) To demonstrate, he pulled some October numbers from tor.com, which one would assume, based on the relatively longstanding tor.com effort, probably constitutes the company’s biggest single pool of email addresses.

And they had a lot of them, enough to have sent over 650,000 emails to their lists in the month of October. That’s impressive. But what’s positively stunning is that more than 30% of those emails got opened (that’s more than 200,000) and more than 20% of those clicked through: took the action that Macmillan asked them to take in the email. That’s in the neighborhood of 40,000 actions.

Now the actions were, for the most part, to get free access to more content. (Only 15% of the mailings were purely “marketing”.) They weren’t selling anything. But what Fritz was demonstrating was the growth of what I call “investment marketing”: marketing that produces a result that makes subsequent marketing efforts cheaper or more productive. These tor.com numbers are going to grow, inexorably. Another indication of how solid Macmillan’s lists are is that only 0.1% unsubscribed!

If I were an author (or agent) looking for a sci-fi publisher, it would impress me that Macmillan has lists that get a 30% open rate. It would make me feel they could do things to promote my book that another publisher without those lists couldn’t do. I don’t know what the growth rate is on those lists, but most things (sales, device penetration, self-publishing) in the digital publishing world have been more than doubling each year and these could well be too.

The key point to take on board here is that tor.com is a flagship; Macmillan is doing this across their company. They are building other verticals as well. If other publishers aren’t systematically taking names, getting email permissions, and testing what can be done with them, Macmillan will build up marketing capabilities that it will get increasingly expensive to compete against.

There is little doubt that Amazon’s author-recruitment efforts for their imprints include the promise to mail to known buyers in the author’s genre. They almost certainly can send more than 600,000 emails in a month for many books and genres. But can they get a 30% open rate and a 20% clickthrough?

And Amazon, a retailer, can’t get trapped into just pushing the books it signs up when their consumer brand, and their sales, depend on offering full range of selection of available titles across publishers’ lists. That conflict is compounded as they sign up more and more titles as proprietary. (But it will also be ameliorated if the titles they sign are higher profile than they’ve been so far.)

The day may not be far off when agents are going to be asking publishers “how many emails can you send in support of this book on publication day?” If I were in Amazon’s shoes, I’d be pushing that question. It looks like Macmillan is methodically building the ability to provide an answer.

But not everybody with a modern view of marketing agrees with me (and Macmillan) about the importance of name-gathering, which brings us to the second conversation this week.

We got a call from Open Road Integrated Media asking us to come down to their shop and learn a bit about what they’re doing. Open Road is an ebook publishing company founded by former Harper CEO Jane Friedman which has been an annoyance to the big publishers. Jane has been in the business for more than four decades in high positions at major houses (at Random House before Harper). She knows the agents and she knows how the game of signing up content works.

So she moved against the establishment by offering a standard deal of a 50% share of ebook revenues, when the major publishers are holding the line at 25%. (Open Road’s deal includes the ability to recoup one-half the digitization cost before paying what we usually call royalties but which they call “profit share”. ORIM says that comes to less than $500 per title. Open Road pays no advances.) She used her understanding of the ambiguities in legacy publishing contracts to sign up backlists from both living authors and estates, including Willam Styron, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, Alice Walker, and others.

Those have been the headlines about Open Road and that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of their proposition. Without any other knowledge of their economics — their ability to raise money, their burn rate, their sales — I was skeptical about the sustainability of their model, if it rested primarily on paying 50% for what others were paying 25% for and gathering high-quality backlist of titles not nailed down already for ebooks, which is a limited resource.

It turns out they have a lot more going for them than that. But they don’t gather names.

Open Road’s head marketer is Rachel Chou, who worked with Jane Friedman at Harper. Jane and Rachel, and former Scholastic CEO Barbara Marcus, who is an advisor to Open Road on children’s and YA acquisitions, made the point that Open Road is a marketing company. That’s what they do. And their bullpen with about a dozen people in cubicles working away is just about exclusively devoted to marketing. Except that, in their eyes, marketing and sales and author relations are all the same thing to them, and they see a workflow built around that perception as a key differentiator.

In fact, they see the consolidation of functions in their shop as a significant competitive advantage. In the ebook world, marketing and sales are so closely related that it is hard to see how to parse them. That’s partly because the promotions by ebook retailers could be the single most important marketing component (a point made emphatically by Diversion Books’ Scott Waxman at our eBooks for Everyone Else shows in New York and San Francisco), but it is also because all marketing efforts at Open Road are aimed at driving sales to the ebook retailers. (Their widgets all have buy buttons for the full range of retailer choices.)

But that’s not where the competitive advantage of their structure comes into play.

Rachel spelled that out. One of the major retailers came to them in the past few weeks with a big sales opportunity. They could place 15 Open Road titles in a major promotion that would sell a lot of books. One catch: they needed the titles cleared for the promotion within 24 hours.

Another catch that is characteristic of the ebook world: this was a price promotion that required clearing the participation of each book with its agent. That’s 15 agents. Rachel and her team of marketers, who have the agents of the Open Road ebooks on their own speed-dials, got the job done and got all 15 books into the promotion.

Moving that fast would be a non-starter in any significant publishing house. Whether the opportunity came in through sales or marketing, neither team would own the agent relationships. I believe in most houses it would be necessary to have the agent calls made by the editor who had signed the book. Certainly, the editor would have to be consulted before anybody from marketing or sales could make such a call. And that round of communication, which would include explaining the promotion opportunity to each of the affected editors, would never be attempted within a 24-hour window. Realistically, 24 days would be a challenge.

Open Road is organized differently than legacy publishers because there is so much they don’t have to do! There is very little in the way of a production department (there is a person who creates their covers and Pablo Defendini, who was a key player building Macmillan’s tor.com, is their “interactive producer”.) There is no sales department. There is no inventory management. Everybody works in a room that is dominated by a wall with a 2-month marketing calendar, listing all the events and anniversaries they might promote around. They have 75% or 80% of their company dedicated to marketing, which everybody — including all the big publishers who have expressed an opinion to me — agrees is the prime responsibility of the book publisher in the digital era.

But, even within that, Open Road is organized for efficiency and speed based on the realities of the value chain for ebooks. Their marketers are assigned books which “fit together”, so they are consistently going back to the same blogs and websites for promotion. They can develop relationships. They’re not really a “vertical” publisher (by genre or by topic) but they do have multiple titles from the same author, which helps.

To be fair, the other major publishers are reorganizing themselves constantly into more marketing-focused and less bureaucratic organizations. Just this past week, Simon & Schuster announced organizational changes which effectively shift resources from physical store sales to online marketing (which is admittedly an oversimplification.) The big companies all have great leadership and they’re well aware that they have to change. And I know for sure there are plenty of initiatives I haven’t heard about because the houses feel there’s competitive advantage to keeping them quiet. In fact, Rachel Chou told me about newsletters that are published readers at HarperCollins were getting open rates when she was there a couple of years ago that were even higher than Fritz’s tor.com numbers in October!

Open Road’s team would point to other distinctions between them and other publishers. (They not only claim to be different from the legacy print publishers, they don’t recognize any of the other ebook publishers as true competitors either.) They do extensive video interviews with every author (or a descendant in the case of a deceased author) which creates a rich library of video content. It’s a point of pride with ORIM that these are not fodder for video trailers, but give them real editorial material that can be made into solid programming, often combining video from several authors thematically into “mashups”. They distribute that video aggressively and claim they’ve now reached the point where they’re a recognized B2B brand by some digital media and bloggers who come to the Open Road website, unbidden, to pick up video. Of course, all the video is tagged so the Open Road marketers can track its placement, downloads, and any clickthroughs that result to the retailers.

And that leads us to metrics. Open Road is relentless about data and analytics. They make the point that they can test different covers or tag lines on Facebook or in other media and have answers within hours about what works best. The Open Road team believes that the big houses don’t give their marketers the kind of tools ORIM has to measure the impact of campaigns and that their competitors’ corporate structures don’t enable fast changes in the pitch or the artwork based on data.

These may not be sustainable advantages. Tools can be provided. Workflows can be changed to permit faster responses when that’s necessary. The established houses can raise their royalty rates. How fast things will change in the big houses is an open question (and the answer is different for every house), but it is undeniable that the decision-making structures that worked for print books readily accepted time lags that are a real handicap in the evolving ebook world.

Jane Friedman and her team claim that there is a marketing plan for every book for every quarter! (They admit there’s some ganging there; a bunch of different books might be part of the same Mother’s Day effort.) Whether that is scaleable and replicable when they are ten times their current size (approximately 1400 titles) is another question. But it is certainly a point of differentiation today.

Open Road doesn’t sell direct, only through intermediaries. And they eschew name and email address capture of end users, preferring to rely on the combination of the viral distribution of content and their always-developing relationships with bloggers and websites.

Both Macmillan and Open Road are doing things that no big trade house could have imagined five years ago. Macmillan is applying scale; Open Road is applying the speed and flexibility enabled by a smaller organization. But both of them are employing what I’d call “investment marketing”: doing things on behalf of their books that build their capabilities to do more on behalf of subsequent books. I think that’s the key for publishers who want to give authors and agents convincing reasons to publish with them in the future.

We’ll do a panel on “investment marketing” at Digital Book World in January. Of course, Open Road and Macmillan will be on it. So will F+W Media, a vertical publisher (investment marketing is much more natural for vertial publishers) and we expect to add one more Big Six house which is doing interesting things in this regard.

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Which flies the coop first? the chicken or the egg?


There are lessons that can be taught or learned in one segment of publishing that can then apply to another. Well over a decade ago, Mark Bide and I were discussing the business model for journals. The way it works is that the university pays the professors a salary and rewards them with promotions and tenure for writing publishable material for the journals. Then the journal publisher pays nothing for the article (although they spend lots of money managing peer review and doing other things associated with editing, curating, and delivering the content.) Then the university pays for the IP all over again by buying (now licensing) the journal.

From our earliest understanding of the Internet and its potential for disintermediation, this seemed like a very vulnerable model. “How will we know when there’s a problem developing with the model?” I asked Mark. “When the publishers are having trouble getting submissions,” he said. “The problem will become obvious on the supply side before it becomes obvious on the demand side.

One of the challenges for a retail player trying to be a publisher is the difficulty of getting other retailers to play along. Even the most dominant US retailers, Amazon in the online world and Barnes & Noble in brick stores, don’t have a total monopoly on the customer base. People buy books online through outlets other than Amazon and people buy books in stores that aren’t owned by Barnes & Noble. And, of course, either of the two delivers grossly incomplete access to the total customer base without the other.

Barnes & Noble has been acquiring content directly for a long time. They’re very aware of the dichotomy between having a monopoly on content for your stores’ benefit versus making it more broadly available in the content’s best interests. Almost from the minute B&N acquired Sterling, Borders stopped stocking Sterling books (a problem that matters much less today than it did a few years ago.) And Sterling had a real sales force, retailer-friendly sales policies, and all of the systems necessary to support moving their books through intermediaries. Amazon does not.

Amazon took the first steps to fill that gap by making a deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a few months ago, giving HMH a right of first refusal (apparently) to purchase paperback rights (excluding Amazon, we’d assume) to the books Amazon was publishing through their proprietary imprints. I have no inside information, but I would assume that one of the things Larry Kirshbaum will figure out early in his new role there will be how to get real print book distribution for the books he will be acquiring.

Amazon’s strategy appears to be that they’ll use their checkbook, the offer of 70% ebook royalties from the most powerful ebook platform, and their close connection to the online consumer, to get the books they want on the terms they want. And what they seem to want most for the books they pay for is “Kindle exclusive”: the ability to build up an inventory of titles available through Kindle but not through Nook, iBookstore, Google, or Kobo, let alone the stores here and abroad served by Ingram and OverDrive.

Barnes & Noble is familiar with that idea. They wouldn’t let other stores sell their Sparknotes study guide line. They never made it generally available through Sterling’s organization because they perceived value in having it be uniquely available through their stores and online channels.

But they didn’t avoid that dichotomy. The value they perceived is to the retailing entity, not to the content holder. Since their retail business was something like 50 times bigger than Sterling, it might not have been seen as a terribly difficult decision even though the content holder is always better off if the book is sold in as many places, online or offline, as possible.

Last week, PW did a story introducing Amazon’s “summer list”: ostensibly the books being published by them in the next few weeks. Obviously, these books were signed up before Kirshbaum’s arrival.

I’m not a bookseller. I have no expertise to apply to look at a list of books and decide what should be in any particular bookstore. But nothing on this list looked like a “must have” for an independent bookseller. To make sure, I reached out to a smart one I know and asked her to look at the PW list. “Would you stock these books?” was my question.

Her answer was interesting. “I don’t know about any of these,” she said. “For the most part, I learn about books by sales reps visiting our store and telling us about them. Nobody has ever told us about these.”

I had my staff do a little bit of searching. We couldn’t find a consolidated list of Amazon’s summer offerings online. What we found was the press release announcing 32 titles that PW referred to, but that release only listed 19 of the 32. We couldn’t find anything on any of these books at the Houghton Harcourt web site. We were able to find 14 more titles by looking under the various Amazon imprints (including Seth Godin’s Domino partnership with them) for a total of 33 coming or having been released from last March through November. Is this the “summer list”? Maybe, with global warming…

We found nothing about any of the titles on the Houghton site. Oddly enough, they did publish a prior title by one of the Amazon authors, Max Allen Collins, but they haven’t listed the current one, a collection of short stories.

(Here’s an ironic thought. You think Amazon will place an ad in the PW Announcement Issue to get this all straight?)

So, as far as we can tell, the Amazon summer list contains very few books that the old publishing guard, publishers or booksellers, will suffer much for having missed.

Except, of course, that maybe Amazon can create demand among the millions of online customers they have for books and ebooks. If they do, and the word of mouth grows to a point that independent booksellers find they must stock these books, Amazon will really have created a new publishing paradigm. That certainly seems to be what Godin is counting on.

Nobody — or at least very few — outside Amazon knows what new capabilities will be put in place to support the publishing programs Kirshbaum will build. Barry Eisler indicated at our Publishers Launch BEA conference that he had received a six figure advance for the book he just signed directly with Amazon to publish. He seemed to expect, or at least had hopes for, a robust bricks-and-print strategy along with his high ebook royalty. But he’ll have the same problem with Barnes & Noble and independents that Sterling had with Borders: it will take the perception of a very high level of demand to compel them to stock a book from a company they think is taking the bread right off their table.

A related development is that Arthur Klebanoff, one of the original ebook publishers founded on the idea that the big publisher standard of 25% ebook royalties creates opportunity for entrepreneurs, told the British AAA (the agents) this past week that he’d be delighted to publish their backlists and pay a 50% royalty. To agents who are already planning to do this themselves (and quite a discussion has broken out in the UK about whether that is a legitimate thing for agents to do; the AAA has decided it is) Klebanoff points out that things can go wrong with ebook publication (it might not sell, for one thing) and agents would be wise not to jeopardize their relationship with an author client when there are alternative ways to get a high royalty.

Klebanoff seems here to be jumping squarely into competition with Jane Friedman’s Open Road, which has been signing up content with very much the same pitch. (Open Road also has other attributes to tout, primarily some very talented digital marketers and a focus on developing tools and techniques to do that work effectively.)

Meanwhile, other agents are setting up their own digital publishing capabilities and service offerings continue to mushroom. Agents tell me — two were in the office this week talking about this — that their authors are frequently asking about self-publishing.

Does the insight Bide offered to me late in the last century about scholarly journals end up applying to trade publishers? Will the most obvious sign of a challenged model become the resistance of authors to their blandishments and their advances? There seem to be a lot of entities betting on the idea that it will.

It is worth noting here that there’s one dog that hasn’t barked. Richard Curtis was the first ebook publishing agent. He set up his E-Reads business over a decade ago. He also pays 50% royalties. Richard did not create E-Reads to compete with publishers on royalties but because when he did publishers just wouldn’t do the ebooks. He has built his enterprise since that time to nearly a $1 million annual business (meaning that he’s delivering half-a-million a year to authors for properties that, at least until very recently and perhaps still, would never have been put into ebooks by a publisher.) But his name is noticeably absent from the chorus using higher ebook royalties as a public prod to bedevil publishers.

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Upstream and downstream developments crowd publishers’ space


I had breakfast last summer with one of the titans of 20th century publishing who is now in his senior years running his own smaller operation. He’s a notorious non-techie.

When we talked, he was trying to come to grips with what the problem for publishers was with this digital transition. From his perspective, publishing just gets cheaper (no books to print) and there should be room to lower prices, pay good author royalties, and still make a profit under something pretty close to the traditional model.

Well, I said, that would be true, but the problem is you’re going to face a lot more competition. Demand may go up and costs may go down but if supply in competition with publishers’ outputs rises too fast, there could still be a very difficult period in front of the industry’s legacy players.

That is: it could get increasingly difficult to get consumers to give you money.

Of course, increased competition from anonymous authors — many of whom would have been filtered out by the curation activities of agents and editors in the past — didn’t scare him. But, I pointed out, it won’t be limited to that. Do you think ESPN, for example, with all its content and all its market reach, will need a publisher to do a book or book-like thing? Or CBS News? Or The Museum of Modern Art?

When I shifted the conversation from stray authors he would have rejected as a big publisher to brands he sought deals with, the point had more impact.

Then, earlier this week at Digital Book World, David Nussbaum’s panel of publishing CEOs and presidents took up a related subject: ebooks being given away for free as a promotion. Brian Napack of Macmillan expressed a concern I’ve felt previously (and wrote about a year ago): that if there are enough free books around out there being distributed to promote an author or series, many readers will just choose from what’s free and stop buying books. Jane Friedman of Open Road declared on the same panel that “free is not a business model; it may be a marketing model, but it isn’t a business model.”

What the CEOs were focused on was what their company policies were and what they hoped others would be. Everybody’s learned that giving away a free book can serve as a promotion for other books by the same author, particularly if the book given away is the first in a series. But if enough people are promoting, that can generate a lot of free ebooks for any consumer to choose from any day of the year.

In a presentation of consumer data the following day, both the joint effort from BISG and Bowker (who were surveying the ebook consumer) and the research from iModerate (who were surveying readers who use multi-function devices) revealed findings that suggested that half or more of the ebooks being read these days are being obtained for free! How much of that is public domain material, how much of it is unknown authors promoting themselves, and how much is branded content from major houses is not yet known.

These two things — non-publisher brands and entities competing with publishers to deliver content and free content competing with content for sale — connect in a painful way at the publisher’s balance sheet. And there isn’t a lot publishers can do about them.

This morning comes the report that the New York Times is tackling the question: “How do you monetize the content when it is not news anymore?” Would you be surprised to learn that the answer is “publish an ebook”?

Their new ebook, “Open Secrets”, further amortizes the large volume of work they did to comb the wikileaks material. The ebook is available for $5.99 in most places ebooks are sold. Will there be more of this? You bet there will! Jim Schachter, the paper’s associate managing editor, is tasked with making sure there will.

The same approach is being tried by a newer brand with similar content, the independent journalism farm, ProPublica, which heretofore has teamed with various newspapers, including the Times, to deliver their investigative journalism to the public. Their entrant is “Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story” by Sebastian Rotella and it is available only from Amazon through their new singles (short works) program for $0.99.

Ten or fifteen years ago, “Open Secrets” would have been an “Instant Book” from a major publisher (if it were anything at all.) The Times could have an opportunity like this 10 or 20 or 30 times a year. They provide themselves with brand extension, revenue, an opportunity to give more exposure to their reporters and their reporting, and total flexibility without the need for the complexities, including contracts and corporate interactions, that arise when getting a book published by somebody else.

According to Richard Tofel of ProPublica, their goal is primarily dissemination of the information. After all, they’re a mission-driven organization to begin with. So they seem quite happy selling high-quality, curated content for 99 cents. Not free, but if you’re a publisher trying to sell content at prices that make commercial sense, not much better than free either.

These two unrelated realities — consumers being diverted from purchases by free ebooks and sources of content being diverted from publishing contracts by alternate paths to the market — make it clear that traditional publishing faces challenges both upstream and downstream from where they sit.

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It isn’t wise to draw lines in the sand that ultimately can’t be defended


Apologies in advance for a much-longer-than-usual post.

It is not like the publishers haven’t seen the ebook royalty fight coming. On a panel he and I were on together in March of 2009, John Sargent, the Chairman and CEO of Macmillan, identified ebook margins as the critical issue for publishers going forward. Even though ebook sales at that point were financially insignificant and the growth surge that we’ve seen in the past 15 months wasn’t yet evident, Sargent expressed the belief that ebooks would be the future and that publishers had to be diligent to preserve their margins in the digital environment.

There are three moving parts to the publishers’ margin equation for ebooks.

The one that I think Sargent was thinking most of at that time is ebook pricing. If “misguided” publishers or market forces drive down prices a great deal, that could threaten publishers as sales migrate to digital.

The second one, which was then and remains today a focus of publishers, is the potential consolidation of sales channels so that power moves from a multitude of publishers to a small number of, or perhaps a single dominant, point of contact with the customer. Until the Nook came along from B&N last winter and the iPad from Apple in the spring, Amazon and Kindle looked dangerously close to being able to dictate both pricing and margin in the ebook supply chain.

And third, of course, is the amount of the consumer spend that is taken by the authors: the royalty.

The ebook pricing and channel consolidation issues have been front and center for the past year, ever since Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks put “windowing”, which had been tried before for ebooks, in the spotlight as her solution to the perceived damage deeply discounted ebooks could do to print book sales, particularly of the hardcover edition. After she announced that she was holding back the ebook for Bran Hambric, similar announcements came from other publishing houses. At that time, only a year ago, Amazon was the dominant ebook vendor with Kindle sales amounting to 80% or more of the ebook sales for narrative trade books.

But the introduction of Barnes & Noble’s Nook device began to eat into Amazon’s hegemony last winter as 700 B&N stores started pushing a Kindle-type experience on their millions of customers. Then, in April, Apple introduced the iPad and changed the game two ways.

First of all, their tablet computing device, which can serve as a larger-than-a-cellphone screen for an ebook reader, started adding tens of thousands of new device-equipped potential book customers every day!

But along with the device competition, the iPad and its iBooks platform added a new business model called Agency. And, under Agency, the pricing of ebooks at retail theoretically becomes standardized across the web, not subject to discounting by individual retailers. This visibly upset Amazon, which appeared to pick a fight with Macmillan over the terms. It looked to those of us with no inside knowledge of their conversations to be an attempt to bully publishers to give up the Agency idea. In retrospect, this was perhaps a bad fight to have picked. Amazon’s threat was to stop selling the print editions of titles from those publishers who sold ebooks on Agency terms. Since five of the top six publishers were moving in that direction, and none of them blinked, Amazon had to, in their own words, “capitulate.” (On the other hand, we are not aware of any other publisher, beyond the Big Five, to whom they also capitulated, so the final score on this fight isn’t in yet.)

So it would seem that the big publishers have solidified two of the major components of their ebook margin. With their help, consolidation in the ebook channel has been reversed and they’ve taken critical steps to control prices to the consumer, while ebook sales have continued to rise at an accelerating pace.

But there remains this tricky question of royalties.

Agency pricing compounded the 25% problem from the authors’ and agents’ point of view because the base price for Agency books is 25% to 40% lower than it is for the old model, wholesale, so the authors’ share is commensurately reduced. Most agents liked the principle of getting uniform pricing, likely to create a healthier ebook marketplace, but were understandably miffed that their per-copy take could be reduced without any agreement required on their part. The publishers would no doubt point out that their take per ebook unit was going down as well. And Random House, still selling at wholesale, is no doubt making the point that their 25% amounts to substantially more per unit than the other guys’ 25%.

There had already been signs for a while that a lot of legacy backlist wasn’t being enticed by the royalty offers of its current publisher. Jane Friedman, formerly the CEO of HarperCollins and an important player on the New York publishing scene for four decades with a lot of very solid relationships, started a new publishing company called Open Road. Among her propositions was to secure ebook rights to some very well established backlist titles by offering a royalty of 50% of receipts while many of the big publishers were apparently holding the line at 25%. The early headline “get” for Open Road were novels by William Styron.

Then in December, S&S bestselling author Stephen Covey announced that he was putting some of his backlist into ebooks for a deal calling for more than 50% of receipts through Rosetta Books, which had litigated inconclusively with Random House about these matters a few years ago. Through Rosetta, Covey’s books were going to be exclusively offered for a time through Kindle. At the time that announcement was made, Nook hadn’t taken hold and iPad hadn’t come out and Kindle was the dominant platform in the market. A time-limited exclusive with them at that moment didn’t seem crazy.

Last week, the plot really thickened.

In retrospect, one could say that there were two preliminaries to the big news about the intentions of the agent Andrew Wylie.

On Tuesday Teleread carried the story that Knopf was pushing ahead to digitize more backlist. There appears never to have been a formal announcement of this, and it seemed a bit curious on a couple of counts. One is that Random House, of which Knopf is a part, has already digitized backlist for years. What could they have missed in their prior efforts? The other is that it always seemed that Random House’s digital efforts were corporate, not imprint-specific. Why would there be news about Knopf on its own?

Then my good friend Evan Schnittman published a post on his Black Plastic Glasses blog called “Pass the Gestalt, Please.” Evan’s point was simple and forcefully made. Ebooks don’t exist in a vacuum; they can’t be evaluated with stand-alone economics. Publishers acquire intellectual property and they monetize it every way they can. They make more from some formats and channels than they do from other formats and channels. But what matters in the end is how much total money they produce, for themselves and for their authors.

I have a problem jumping from the math Schnittman lays out to the characterization that agents are being unreasonable when they ask for a higher percentage of ebook receipts than they get of hardcover receipts. Schnittman argues that margin is irrelevant because the parties aren’t negotiating a profit-sharing deal. I’d say the receipts comparison that he draws is irrelevant. Hardcover receipts are offset by printing costs, handling costs, and spending for excess inventory that receipts on ebooks are not.

Schnittman’s post, which was debated as soon as it hit, turned out to be prologue to the events which then dominated conversation for the rest of the week.

By all public appearances, big publishers were being very stubborn about their 25% ebook royalty, even on very important backlist and more or less daring authors to do something about it.

On Wednesday morning, the plans of the Wylie office were dropped like a bomb, apparently by Amazon. (I am told by a source I trust that Amazon revealed the news and that Andrew Wylie himself was, and is, away on vacation. The Times, as you can see, didn’t report it that way.) It was announced that Wylie that had formed a new publishing company called Odyssey to handle some significant backlist  and — in an apparent middle finger to the entire publishing community — were putting the books into Amazon for a 2-year exclusive. Left unrevealed were what Wylie was paying the authors, what splits Amazon offered Wylie’s authors, and whether any money changed hands between Amazon and the new Odyssey entity. The announcement of Odyssey followed a long period where Wylie had complained publicly about publishers’ reluctance to pay what he (and many other agents) thought were reasonable ebook royalties for legacy backlist.

Response was quick. John Sargent, tongue deeply in cheek, welcomed Wylie to the community of publishers and suggested he should perhaps be paying AAP dues. Random House announced they would not be buying any books from the Wylie agency until this issue was resolved. And many people observed that signing an exclusive deal with Amazon when they’re losing market share quickly and are likely to lose more soon was questionable, not to mention whether there was a conflict of interest for an agent publishing his own clients’ books.

Without knowing what incentives Wylie got for his authors from Amazon in return for the exclusive, it is hard to be sure that it is a mistake (although it seems likely, given the current growth pattern of the ebook suppy chain.) But the conflict of interest for an agent charged with looking for the best possible deal for an author and then self-publishing, in the face of potential litigation, is transparent. And even if Random House is the only house that openly boycotts the agency, there’s an impact on all Wylie clients in return for a theoretical advantage for the ones being he will publish through Odyssey. One must imagine there are more than a few current authors with that office who are scratching their heads about what this might mean for them.

From my perspective, there’s plenty of justification on all sides of this argument. Although I didn’t like his math, Evan Schnittman is entirely correct to say that a publisher making a deal for a copyright plans to exploit it through all channels. In words I’ve heard often from John Schline of Penguin, “you don’t do a P&L on a format; you do a P&L on a title.” They’re right that the author negotiating a deal with them accepts a basket of compensation schemes for different channels in return for an advance. Logical fallacies can creep in when you take one element of it in isolation and say it “isn’t fair” (although, in practice, that’s exactly how contracts are negotiated.)

But the controllers of old copyrights — the Styron estate and Stephen Covey, among others, and apparently several other estates and authors represented by Andrew Wylie — are also right to believe that the ebook rights weren’t contemplated in the contracts for the books in question and that a publisher starting today to publish those books electronically will have a tiny cost base and relatively astronomical margins.

Certainly not all publishers are being stubborn about the 25% number in all negotiations. And agents usually feel they can’t talk about concessions they get publishers to make. One made it very clear to me that s/he was getting concessions from publishers on ebook royalty terms in the form of escalators, but would never say so out loud for fear of angering the customers of s/he’d wangled those concessions from.

(On the other hand, things might be changing fast. In a story I saw just as I was finishing this post, the Financial Times wonders if the Wylie plans don’t signal the conclusion of publishing as we have known it. In that story, superagent Amanda (Binky) Urban is quoted saying her ICM office is getting significant royalty concessions from major publishers, including Random House. Perhaps the Wylie story has changed the dynamic so that now publishers want all the agents to know they’re ready to be reasonable. I’m not aware of an agent having been quoted to that effect before, and it would seem highly unlikely that Urban said what she said without having consulted any house she would name in advance. All of that would anticipate the suggestion I’m making below.)

All public statements are, by definition, posturing.

But the arguments publishers have made publicly to this point have elided the fact that their negotiating position is not the same for these books as they are for a new book. When a new proposal is put in front of them for purchase today, whether they are offering $10,000, $100,000 or $1 million for the rights, they’re in a position to say “if you want my check, it comes attached to these royalty terms.” But they didn’t stipulate those terms when they published books 40 or 30 or 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. At a minimum, they require agreement from the author on a royalty rate to publish the ebook today; they may need agreement from the author to publish the ebook at all.

Why would the publishers expect an author whose book has earned out long ago, who has no requirement to allow the publisher to publish the ebook and (at the very least) a case to make that they’re free to sell ebook rights elsewhere, to accept the same terms that are offered to authors not in that position?

Publishers may have trapped themselves by not articulating that distinction. Their public position seems to be that they can’t make a competitive deal on this backlist because it would create precedents for the new titles they’re negotiating for today. But it doesn’t have to. There’s a very simple, clear policy they could declare that would make this whole issue go away. Maybe there are one or two already acting this way, but it would be nice if even one publisher would just say this:

“Our policy for all new titles we sign up in the context of all our other standard terms is that we pay 25% royalty on ebooks. But for those books on our backlist which a) have earned out their advance and b) have ambiguity in their original contracts making it unclear what the royalty rate for an ebook should be, we will negotiate a higher royalty in recognition that a contractual element is being negotiated after the value of the copyright has been demonstrated in the marketplace and the risk profile has changed.”

Life is very complicated here. Every deal is different. There are costs and risks for authors and publishers trying to set up these separate ebook deals while a print backlist remains with a legacy publisher. The publisher might sue (although that opens up, for them, the danger that they’d lose, and the consequences of that could be dire.) At the very least, the author annoys the guys with the big checkbooks who are still the custodians of their print sales.

Although it is certainly possible that some authors or estates would want a publisher as talented as Jane Friedman remarketing their backlist, I still believe that if Open Road and others are offering 50%, publishers would find many authors receptive to avoiding the conflict if the publishers were offering 40%. But even if they had to pay 50% to some authors, the publishers would be doing themselves a favor by stating the position articulated above.

Each publisher has to do its own math about how many books of theirs would be affected and what openly paying 60-to-100 percent higher royalties on those books would cost them. Undoubtedly, it would also require them to make concessions to authors they’d roped in for the 25% royalty; certainly many of those have re-openers or most favored nation clauses of some kind in their contracts. That’s the downside. But there is a lot of upside. For one thing, Open Road and Rosetta and Wylie’s new imprint would be seriously weakened; except for Open Road, which has strong cachet with Jane Friedman at the helm, they might just disappear. For another, lots of great titles that could be selling robustly as ebooks if only they were available as ebooks would be producing revenue for the publishers (as well as the authors.) Significant legal costs and liabilities would evaporate. And they’d gain enormously in trust and goodwill with the agents, who are spending far too much time trying to figure out how to go around publishers for the best backlist they control, rather than how to work with them. The conversations I have had make me believe that most agents do not believe that most big publishers are willing to deal on the basis I’m outlining here, (although a lot of them will be calling the publishers tomorrow after they read Binky Urban’s quotes.)

Aside from the reduced per-copy royalties agents and authors are seeing from the Agency pricing, they are also afraid that robust ebook sales at the hardcover price are postponing the issuance of trade paperback editions, on which the 25% Agency royalty does exceed the normal 7% of retail paid on print. That makes them feel like they’re losing again.

It is a paradox that traditional contracts have legacy publishers — the ones who write the large advance checks — paying higher per-copy print royalties than many little publishers pay on hardcovers, even with the various high-discount clawbacks that have been built in over the years. The ebook-first publishers who do print will almost certainly pay lower print royalties than print-first publishers have, if they do hardcovers at all. Publishers will need a foundation of good will, but over time should be able to negotiate lower hardcover royalties in return for higher ebook royalties on new contracts. And that will make sense, because, ultimately, print sales are more expensive for publishers to deliver than ebook sales.

Even if the publishers pushing back manage to win this round with Wylie, and they well might, I don’t think the 25% royalty can hold for very long. As more and more of the business shifts to ebooks, companies without the legacy costs that big publishers have will find it easy to pay higher royalties than that and agents will keep doing the math about how many sales they can afford to lose and still end up ahead in dollars with a higher ebook royalty. As Amazon should have learned in their fight with Macmillan in January, it isn’t smart business to draw a line in the sand marking a position you ultimately can’t defend. I hope every big publisher in town will take that lesson on board, or, even better, that Urban’s remarks tell us that they already have.

In a dialogue with a couple of smart people in my “kitchen cabinet” between writing this piece and posting it, I was asked whether I thought the ebook should have a royalty “greater than the hardcover or less than the paperback.” My response was:

I don’t have an ideology about this. Applying logic alone, I would think a Harlequin or O’Reilly ebook author should get a lower percentage than a Big Six ebook author because the Harlequin and O’Reilly brands add to the online ebook sales power in ways the Big Six publisher brand does not. The same author and the same book wouldn’t sell as well if it were under another imprint. Fully applied, that approach would mean that every deal would be different, which is utterly impractical. I don’t like to advocate things that are impractical.

Publishers should try to make standard the lowest royalty that they can apply in the marketplace without making enemies of their trading partners. It just isn’t realistic to offer a brand name with a choice of where to go 25% in this day and age. It’s just bullheaded. My sense is that any house that offered a standard 25% to earnout and 35% thereafter would be fine for now, except with the biggest authors with whom they’ll have to negotiate escalators (or change the basis on which the not-intended-to-be-earned-out advance is calculated.) But all solutions here are temporary. The line won’t hold. When ebook sales get to 50% of the total (2014-15), even 50% is not going to cut it.

I don’t have an ideology about this. I think a Harlequin ebook author should get less than a Harper ebook author because the Harlequin brand adds to the sales power: the author wouldn’t sell as well if the same book were in another imprint. Fully applied, that means that every deal would be different, which is utterly impractical.
I think publishers should try to apply the lowest standard royalty that they can get away with based on marketplace reality. It isn’t reality to offer a brand name with a choice of where to go 25% in this day and age. It’s just bloody-minded. My sense is that any house that paid a standard 25% to earnout and 35% thereafter today would be fine, for now, except with the biggest authors with whom they’ll have to negotiate escalators. When ebook sales get to 50% of the total (2014-15), even 50% might not cut it.

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A brilliant Conference Council helps make a great Digital Book World


We had a very successful debut annual conference for Digital Book World last January, even though we didn’t conceive the idea until June, put together a group of helpers (which we now call our Conference Council) until July, or draft the initial program until August. This year we’re way ahead of that schedule. We’ve put together a fabulous Council to advise us this year and we’re having a meeting of many of them next week to discuss the agenda and to start getting suggestions for speakers.

The Council gives us wide exposure and connections to the trade publishing industry. That way we make sure we don’t miss any ideas and we don’t miss knowing about any talented people whom our audience would want to hear.

We have several publishing company presidents and CEOs (Sara Domville of F+W, Marcus Leaver of Sterling, Maureen McMahon of Kaplan, Brian Napack of Macmillan, Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks) and some presidents and CEOs from other companies and support organizations in the industry (Kristen McLean of the Association of Booksellers for Children, Tracey Armstrong of Copyright Clearance Center, Peter Clifton of Filedby, David Cully of Baker & Taylor, Joe Esposito of GiantChair, John Ingram of Ingram Content Companies, Scott Lubeck of The Book Industry Study Group, and Steve Potash of Overdrive Systems.)

We have other senior level executives, many with specific digital responsibilities (Peter Balis of Wiley, Ken Brooks of Cengage, Mark Gompertz of Simon & Schuster, Madeline McIntosh of Random House, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Larry Norton of Borders, Kate Rados of F+W Media, Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press, John Schline of Penguin, Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Maja Thomas of Hachette, and Tom Turvey of Google.)

We have agents (Sloan Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writer’s House, and Scott Waxman of the Waxman Agency) and industry consultants and commentators (Michael Cairns of Persona Non Data, Ted Hill of THA Consulting, and Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.) And because he is our media partner, we have help from Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace as well. And we also get great input from others on the F+W team: David Nussbaum, David Blansfield, Cory Smith, Guy Gonzalez, and Matt Mullin.

So we have all the Big Six represented, as well as small publishers, industry-wide associations and service providers, wholesalers, digital distribution partners, retailers, and agents. All of these people have real input into the topic list and speakers. Many of them are joining us for a meeting next week to review our ideas for the program, which we previewed on this blog about a month ago.

Because Digital Book World tries to be at the cutting edge of trade publishing and digital change, we often face one or both of two challenges. Sometimes we believe something should be happening, or be about to happen, but we may not know where or whether the publishers leading the charge will talk about it. Several topics come to mind that fit that description: vertical efforts inside general trade houses; what houses are doing to adjust to reduced expectations for print sales in bookstores; how houses are gearing up or changing their sales efforts to compete in and serve a growing list of digital intermediaries; how enhanced ebook and ebook first creation change the traditional order of things in product development.

The other challenge we have to work around is when people can say things privately but not publicly. One topic that is very tough to talk about is ebook royalties, which is a major point of contention between publishers and leading agents at the moment. The big houses are pretty adamantly trying to hold the line (publicly) at a royalty of 25% of net receipts. But upstart publishers like Jane Friedman’s Open Road appear to be willing to pay 50%; publishing through Smashwords yields 85% (but sells the books without DRM, which would frequently scare the copyright owners of valuable properties); and self-publishing through a distributor would deliver a yield somewhere in between. (Remember: self-publishing ebooks carries no inventory risk.) In that environment, some agents are able to wring some concessions from some publishers. But the agent can’t talk about that without jeopardizing her ability to get concessions for her clients and no publisher will volunteer to reveal the isolated concession and start turning that into a policy.

Some things are just hard to discuss. Do booksellers, or even the publishers and wholesalers who supply them, want to talk about the possibility of their impending demise? But how can one plan for the future and ignore that elephant in the room? If a publisher suddenly sees the necessity of developing direct selling relationships with end users, after years of telling booksellers he was against it, does that publisher want to talk about those efforts in public?

When competitors participate in industry education initiatives, they must draw lines around what they will reveal and what they won’t. One ebook-responsible executive we know at a major house is persistently reluctant to reveal what he’s doing or what he’s thinking. But he has a boss, one who is proud of what he does and what their house does, who pushes him forward as a speaker.

Frankly, I think these challenges are greater for us than they are for other conferences on digital change that focus more on technology than they do on business practices. Very few publishers are masters of tech; usually they’re working with outside suppliers who are happy to share best practices. But business practices are different; they’re more sensitive. Sometimes the reluctance to share them is sound. Sometimes constraints are even legally required. Since our job is to focus on business practices, we’re glad to have relationships with very knowledgable players who will candidly engage with us on these challenges so we can figure out the best way to protect true proprietary knowledge but still disseminate valuable information.

We’re really proud of the illustrious group we have gotten to advise our efforts, and we get great value from them even though their first responsibility is to the company they work for. We feel confident that this group helps us cast a net that is wide and broad enough to assure us that any major development in the trade book world will hit our radar screen and that we’ll know if there are informed people willing to talk about it.

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Planning the next publishing model: a new take on “no returns”


Although there are some very good minds working on the next publishing model — Jane Friedman with Open Road and Richard Nash with Cursor being the first two that leap to mind — I have developed a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to them or to others planning to avail themselves of the new opportunities which are bound to be arising.

What I think both Jane and Richard have spotted is that “scale” is diminishing in its ability to provide a publisher with competitive advantage. Certainly, it is still true that the surest-fire big successes still require substantial advances to authors and aggressive laydowns of inventory that do require scale. If you want to publish Patterson or Evanovich or any author with a proven track record of bestsellers, guaranteed to move hundreds of thousands of copies, you have to take a cash risk for advance and inventory commensurate with their guaranteed minimum sales level and you have to go after the entire market, which takes money and organization, to recoup that investment.

But that covers no more than one percent of, let’s say, 100,000 titles a year published by established publishers and an even tinier percentage of the total number of new books if one includes those issued through self-publishing operations. (I am staying away from real numbers here because I haven’t done the analysis needed to discern them. The million-plus number of new ISBNs reported by Bowker contains hundreds of thousands of titles that are neither new nor self-published, but which are reissues of out-of-copyright books set up by companies that use technology to process the files into a print-ready state.)

Nash is explicitly expecting the collapse of the overall trade publishing model. Friedman has never expressed that expectation, but she’s exploiting the combination of old contracts that are ambiguous about ebook rights and the big trade houses’ reluctance to go beyond a 25% of net receipts royalty on ebook sales to make high-profile ebook captures. Her company professes to be “marketing-focused” and she has hired two of trade publishing’s most expert digital marketers, Rachel Chou from HarperCollins and Pablo Defendini from Tor. She has a partner, Jeffrey Sharp, with a filmmaking background. So there appears to be a clear emphasis on ebooks, new publishing forms, and digital marketing, not on “scale.”

A month ago I wrote that I expected 50% of the market for narrative books (words, not pictures; simple design, nothing complex like a cookbook) to be delivered through online purchases by the end of 2012. That was based on an expectation that 25% of the sales of those books would be ebooks.

Since then, I’ve decided that prediction is too conservative. Now I think narrative books might pass that benchmark six months or a year sooner than that. Hachette’s most recent financial results attributed 8% of US book revenue to electronic in the first quarter of this year. In a speech delivered last week in Australia, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster gave the same number — eight percent — as her company’s current share of revenue attributable to digital. Eight percent of revenue is something more than 8% of units (because ebooks are cheaper), and the number would be higher on their narrative books (because the 8% is across a list that includes a lot of books not available as ebooks.) If they were at 12% of units on narrative books in the first quarter of this year, they could be at 25% of units on narrative books by the first quarter of next year, which would be about two years ahead of what I was expecting just a month ago.

And what is true of both Hachette and Simon & Schuster must be a pretty reasonable approximation of what we’d see at any of the other Big Six companies.

The portion of the market that buys online doesn’t require pre-printed inventory. Setting up with Lightning and Amazon and perhaps Baker & Taylor would enable all online purchasers to get their print copies on demand. Today I am offering what I think is the solution for distributing  inventory more broadly into brick-and-mortar stores without a publisher risk. If Nash or Friedman have thought of this already, they haven’t announced it.

The brick-and-mortar world has three main components: chains, mass merchants, and independents. Here’s a deal structure that I think can be appealing to the big customers and, which, with a bit of tweaking,  can work to the benefit of the smaller ones as well.

When publishers sell to the trade channel, they collect approximately half of the retail price of the book for each one sold. They bill their channel partner that full amount when the books are shipped to the store, and credit their channel partner that full amount (with some relatively minor exceptions) when returns come back. Of that half they collect from the channel, about 20% (10% of retail) is the publisher’s cost of printing the book, 20-30% (10-15% of retail on hardcovers; actually less on paperbacks) is the author’s royalty, and the balance (about 50-60% of the money received) covers the publisher’s cost of doing business, including paying for books printed and not sold, and profit.

In a print-on-demand scenario, the manufacturing cost doubles (or more), so 20 or 30 points of the 50 or 60 remaining to the publisher are chewed up. Some contracts allow the publisher to get back some of the author royalty in that scenario, but absent that the publisher’s margin is definitely reduced so that they only “clear” 20 to 30 percent of the cash received. On the other hand, they shed the costs of unsold inventory (which can be substantial), they lose the requirement to capitalize inventory, and they can diminish or eliminate all sorts of operational costs for warehousing and inventory management. Sellers of print-on-demand services, including Lightning, have been laying out this reality to publishers for years.

In the present scenario, the channel partners — retailers or wholesalers —  are at cash risk for the return freight (and sometimes the inbound freight). And they have the full cost of the book tied up until they sell it or return it.

Here’s the new solution for a no-returns, no-inventory-risk-for-publishers world.

Publishers say: we are doing an initial press run which you can be part of. There will be no inventory maintained at the publisher. If the channel demands a subsequent run and will support it, we’ll do it. But otherwise, everything beyond the press run is available only from the wholesalers providing POD services.

The press run offer to channel partners works like this: you pay the cost of printing and delivering the book. And that payment is firm. You buy that inventory at its cost and you own it; no returns. That’s going to be about 10% of the established retail price.

But the payment above that, the rest of the purchase price by the channel, is paid on sale (or, to use the term of art, “pay on scan.”) To provide some incentive for the retailer to support a book with inventory and push up that first (and often only) press run, and then later to give them the margin for markdowns, I’d suggest that the second payment diminishes over time. The total “cost” to the retailer should be 55% of the retail price for the first 60 days after inventory is delivered, dropping to 50% for the next 60 days, and 40% thereafter. That would leave the publisher 30% of the retail price in margin on the slowest-selling books, of which the author, under the best contracts that exist today, would get half. The publisher would get half, but would have no inventory cost (that was paid up front) and no returns processing.

This formula should work fine for Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and the mass merchants, who can buy 1000 or 2000 copies of a book they want to carry and get that press run price. Serving the independents is more difficult.

We stipulated at the top that all books are set up for print-on-demand at Amazon and Ingram; perhaps at Baker & Taylor too. If those books are ultimately sold to the wholesaler on normal discounts (about 50%), the relatively higher POD cost would chew up most of the publishers’ margin. We’re positing that POD could be 25% of retail (rather than about 10% for press run), which would leave only 25% for royalty and publisher’s margin. By today’s standard contracts, that might only leave 10% for publisher’s margin. There are two possible ways to claw back margin and both of them could work.

One is to negotiate lower author royalties for sales made through print-on-demand. Let’s remember I’m formulating how a new publisher ought to operate; they don’t have any legacy contracts yet. And, I might add, both Open Road and Cursor have aspects of their model that are more advantageous to authors than today’s standard. That’s how Open Road is getting those ebooks, paying 50% instead of 25%. And Cursor offers a short-term deal that nobody else does. So, on balance, the author might see herself as better off even though the royalty on some trade sales would be reduced.

Another possibility is that Ingram or Baker & Taylor (and you only need one to say yes to more or less oblige the other) can be persuaded to accept a lower discount on these POD books. For one thing, they make a bit of margin on the POD. For another, these books will not be available at all direct from the publisher (which has moved to a no-inventory model), so the wholesaler can offer a lower discount to their customers as well and still be “competitive.” And the wholesaler has no inventory risk or carrying cost either and no cost of sending returns back to the publisher. A slightly reduced margin structure still ought to work out profitably for them.

Of course, many devils are in the details. Publishers would need retailers working this way to report sales to the publisher on a daily basis and pay promptly, perhaps weekly (after all, the retailer is only paying after they’ve collected the customer’s money.) There is “shrink”, books stolen or which otherwise disappear without going through the cash register. That cost is entirely borne by the retailer today and the publisher will need some check and balance to assure that it doesn’t become a payment dodge under this arrangement.

But as the publishers move to a world where inventory risk can be substantially reduced, it just makes good sense to look for a way for the brick-and-mortar sales channel to gain some benefit from that idea as well. Working this way can enable a 21st century publisher to cut operations costs dramatically and even, perhaps, improve their cash flow.

When I first recognized that we’re in sight of the day when half the sales can be achieved without inventory, it looked like an obvious game-changer for publishing. Now I’m seeing the way to change the other half of the game as well.

And having walked through this door of perception, I close with a message for all the no-returns advocates out there among publishers. You want to eliminate returns to reduce your risk. That’s reasonable. But your risk is really the cost of printing the books; it wouldn’t be royalty on books not sold and it shouldn’t be profit on books not sold. So shouldn’t any no-returns policy also relieve the store of those elements of the risk as well?

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What will be the big digital issues in January 2011?


I have found a way to describe the difference between the Digital Book World conference we organize for F+W Media and the O’Reilly conference Tools of Change which I believe is accurate and is certainly not intended to be a pejorative description of  Tools of Change. I go to TOC and I find it very valuable, but different from what we’re trying to do.

Tools of Change explores developments in technology that have impact or can have impact on publishing (in general) and helps publishers (of all kinds) understand how to apply them. Digital Book World explores business challenges to trade publishing (defined as book publishers who work primarily through the retail network, or “the trade”) generated by digital change and helps publishers address them. So if I were organizing Tools of Change, I’d want to scan the horizon for technologies that could have an impact and ask “how?” Because I’m organizing Digital Book World, I’m looking at trade publishing’s commercial environment and operations for the impact of technology and asking “what should we do?”

The next Digital Book World Conference is set for January 25-26, 2011. That obliges us to ask: what will the hot digital change questions be eight months from now? What should we be planning to discuss then that will be immediate and relevant to the attendees we’re targeting: the editorial, marketing, sales, and digital strategy people in trade book publishing houses?

To help us figure that out, we’re in the process of recruiting the DBW 2011 Conference Council. That group of about 30 people — CEOs, digital strategists, and marketers from publishing houses large and small, agents, retailers, and independent industry thought leaders — will help us define the panels and choose the speakers that can enlighten and inspire. I’ll introduce you to that group in a future post; the team is in formation at the moment.

Today’s blog is to recruit the readers of The Shatzkin Files to help too. I hope you will.

Here are 15 topics, or speculations, we’ve identified to start building an agenda for discussion next January. Do you have any thoughts on any of these to refine our thinking? Some of these are ideas looking for examples: do you know particular people or companies doing things suggested here (or not suggested here) we should be highlighting? And, most important, what are we missing?

1. What’s going to be in an ebook? We’re definitely moving past the stage where the ebook is a “straight lift” from the print: half-titles, blank pages, and all. As ebook sales are rising, publishers are paying more attention to presentation and quality control. And there have been a few experiments with “enhanced ebooks” that contain added content and features, some of which are presenting books as “apps” to increase the functionality that can be offered. Where will we be drawing the line between “standard” new ebook features — dictionaries and linked notes, for example — and enhancements that might be worth extra money? And what enhancements will we see working in the sense that consumers see them to be worth paying for?

2. What will ebook sales channels look like eight months from now? In addition to the main ones we have today — Kindle, iBooks and the App Store, Nook and B&N, Sony, Ingram Digital and Content Reserve — will we be seeing substantial sales through Google and the Android marketplace, B&T’s Blio, and Copia as well? Will the mobile phone service providers be creating retail outlets that matter too? Will the retailers newly in the ereader game — Walmart and Costco and Best Buy — also be motivated to create a branded outlet of their own to sell ebooks?

3. To what extent will publishers view single-title marketing as a practical endeavor? We’ve maintained that title-by-title marketing is the Achilles heel of general trade publishing and that the steady erosion of book-format-oriented marketing opportunities (book review pages in newspapers, radio and TV talk shows) and verticalization call for different marketing strategies. Where will publishers’ thinking be next January on the challenge of launching each new title into the marketplace?

4. How much progress will publishers be making on establishing direct-to-customer contact? What has characterized trade publishing is its dependence on intermediaries to reach the market. And what has made trade publishing possible is the leverage provided by those intermediaries, allowing publishers to reach millions of readers through mere thousands of touch points. But all publishers today acknowledge that the intermediary structure is breaking down and direct contact with end users is necessary. How is that working out? We may need two panels to answer that question: one of niche publishers that will find it pretty natural to do and one of general trade publishers who will undoubtedly find it very hard and complicated.

5. How important is the mobile phone market? How fast is it growing? What kind of books work best on it? And what do publishers have to do differently to please that market than what they do for larger-screen PCs, tablets, and ereaders?

6. How are publishers tackling the shrinking marketplace for printed books? Are they shedding warehouse space or considering consolidation with other players? Are they renegotiating printing contracts, reconsidering what constitutes a “minimum run” or acceptable print book margins? Are they developing new short-run and POD models to complement their prior pressrun models? Are they launching any new books with a no-pressrun strategy?

7. How much progress are publishers making toward changing their workflow, so that we have “ebook first” editorial processes? Since the beginning of ebooks over a decade ago, the standard technique has been to make them after the print book has been completed, and for the editor and author to focus their efforts on making the best possible print product. There is an increasingly widespread belief that this is backwards, and more complex ebooks help make a compelling argument for reversing the order of things. How far will we have moved in that direction by next January?

8. Does the growth of ebook sales change the thinking of publishers and agents about the efficacy of dividing up the territories for single languages? Do publishers start to see a growth in offshore sales facilitated by ebooks? Anecdotal reporting by O’Reilly, which owns global rights in all its titles, suggests that they’re seeing big sales growth in digital from markets that are hard-to-reach with print.

9. Do non-US publishers start to establish more of a sales presence in the US exclusively through virtual means? We’ve been suggesting on this blog that the growth of online sales — print books and digital books — will soon enable reaching a majority of the US sales potential without inventory, which means without the need for a warehouse or a distributor. That should lead to greater penetration of our market by offshore publishers, in all languages. Will we see enough signs of this by January 2011 to build a discussion around it?

10. How does the future look for the brick-and-mortar bookstore marketplace? On this blog (and elsewhere), concerns have been expressed about the impact on bookstores of the increasing shift to online purchasing for both print and ebooks. Christmas 2010 is being viewed in the consumer electronics industry as the “ebook Christmas”. When we’ve had a chance to digest the sales numbers of new devices and we combine that with what we know about the impact devices have on a consumer’s print book purchases, how do we see the future of bookstores when next January rolls around?

11. Is “profitable self-publishing” an idea gaining credibility or is it a pipedream? In 2009, author J.A. Konrath made a bit of a splash when he blogged about the substantial revenues he was earning putting his short stories and out-of-print backlist on Kindle without a publisher. Will there be more stories like this by January? Will this look like a viable option for established authors?

12. What’s the best approach to ebook distribution for small and mid-sized publishers? Will the original DADs (digital asset distributors) like Ingram Digital and LibreDigital provide the full service suite and sales effort that smaller publishers need? Or will the publishers-as-distributors model — notably including O’Reilly, who went into the business last February, as well as trade publishers and trade distributors like Perseus and NBN and Ingram Publisher Services, be the better option? How much is effective ebook distribution dependent on technical competence and how much of it requires sales competence?

13. After many years of discussion, are we yet beginning to see some new revenue models with any impact, like subscriptions (Disney has tried it now, in addition to O’Reilly’s Safari), selling books by the slice, or new models to compensate for library lending? We know that publishers need metadata-labeled fragments of their books for marketing purposes, but, for trade publishers, is there yet any indication that there’s a real payoff for that kind of tagging in sales revenue?

14. How much of the print backlist is still locked up by rights issues and what impact can different royalty offers have in clearing it up?Jane Friedman’s Open Road has had some success signing up established backlist for higher ebook royalties than the majors want to pay. Is the reservoir of candidates for this treatment substantial? How are agents and big publishers going to resolve these issues?

15. Is the notion of publishers building vertical presences on the web, so often expressed and promoted on this blog, gaining any significant traction in the real world? How are Poetry Speaks and Oxford Bibliographies Online and the forthcoming Pixiq from Sterling doing at establishing a new publishing model? What other examples are emerging or will emerge of publishers using delivering vertical solutions to create new business models?

At the Digital Book World conference, we want to be strategic and we want to be practical. And we want to be focused on the real-world problems digital change is forcing trade publishers to face. Have we left out any of yours?

I have finished this but not posted it yet and am already thinking of things I left out. A substantial publisher I spoke to last week learned from having his trip to the London Book Fair cancelled that he doesn’t need to go there anymore. This company has already given up its BEA floor space in favor of a meeting room. And this CEO himself is no longer going to go to Frankfurt and can see the day not far off when his company will no longer take space there either. Are trade shows  an anachronism in the age of digital communication? I have a feeling you readers and the Conference Council will think of a lot more.

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