John Sargent

What to watch for in 2013


Although “digital change in publishing” has a year that lags the calendar year and this year won’t “end” until we have a read on how post-Christmas ebook sales were affected by the new devices consumers got for Christmas, the dropping of the ball in Times Square is the signal most of us respond to when timing our look ahead.

The signals about what to expect when the “digital year” ends are mixed, but not wildly encouraging. There are anecdotal reports of strong sales by US indies selling Kobo devices and Amazon has bragged about their Kindle Fire sales. On the other hand, B&N does not seem to be meeting its targets on the digital side and we’re learning that we don’t get the ebook sales surge from replacement devices that we get when a consumer first switches over from print. Most of the devices being sold now are replacements. And we’re also seeing tablet sales surging past ereaders. Prior analysis has told us that people spend more time reading books on ereaders than they do on tablets.

But quite aside from precisely where Digital Year 2012 ended up, there are five trends I think will be increasingly noticeable and important in trade publishing that are worth keeping an eye on in 2013.

1. Overall migration of sales from print to digital will continue to slow down.

We have already seen this clearly in data that has been reported throughout 2012. After ebook share growth that was in triple digit percentages for four years (2008-2011), this year we saw that switchover slow down considerably to substantially less than a 50% increase over last year.

Although the slowdown was pretty sudden, it shouldn’t really have been that surprising. Since the ebook era began in earnest with the arrival of Kindle in November, 2007 (5 years and a few weeks ago), it has been clear that heavy readers were early adopters. Both price and convenience were drivers that made the reader of a book a week much more interested in the new way of purchasing and consuming than the reader of a few books a year.

There appear to be those out there who believe this is a temporary lull and that the ebook switchover will shortly accelerate again. I really don’t think so. Although I don’t think the various surveys of reading habits have captured this, my hunch is that there are relatively few heavy readers left to make the change and those are, demonstrably, extremely resistant.

It is entirely possible that the death of Borders and changes at B&N reduced the amount of shelf space for books by as much as 50% in the two years that ended with 2011, a year ago. (That emphatically does not mean that print sales declined by that amount, or even that print sold in stores did.) That adjustment of shelf space to the reality of the purchasing shift consumers had made was a sudden over-correction, with the result that the remaining booksellers got a bit of wind at their backs. The data is hard to interpret, but it is possible that the indies benefited from that more than B&N did, perhaps as a result of B&N’s more intense focus on its NOOK business compared to the indies, who (despite the lift they got from selling Kobo devices this past Fall) are more focused on print.

This does not mean the digital switchover has ended. My gut (I don’t think there’s a great empirical substitute available here) tells me that store sales for books will continue to lose ground to online (print and digital) at a rate of 5-to-10 percent a year for some years to come. But that’s a much more manageable situation than the one bookstore owners had been dealing with for the several years leading up to 2012.

This is good news for big publishers. Their model is still built around putting print on shelves and managing a marketplace that works around a publication date focus and the synchronized consumer behavior that store merchandising really stimulates. It is good news for B&N too, if they can take advantage of it.

2. “Other-than-immersive” books will continue to lag in digital transition.

The commercial realities of ebooks and print are very different for immersive reading than they are for reference books, illustrated books, and picture books for kids. This difference is unfavorable for other-than-immersive books both in their creation and their sales appeal.

For immersive reading — books that are all text where you basically start on the first page and read through to the last — the “adjustment” to ebooks is both technically simple and uncomplicated for the consumer. Make it “reflowable” and it works. And the additional “labor” to make the two different versions (print and digital) is minimal.

But for books that aren’t consumed that way (reference) or which have important content that isn’t mere words, a single digital version might not work effectively (think of the difference in screen sizes and what that could do to a picture and caption or a chart). And compromises we make for a printed book — using six still pictures instead of a video or a flat chart instead of an animated one — can be downright disappointing in a digital context.

There are ongoing efforts to make creating good complex ebooks cheaper and easier, the most recent one coming from Inkling. Apple offers tools to do this, but then you can only sell the output through Apple. Vook was on this trail, although their most recent pivot seems to be away from reliance on illustrated books. The ebook pioneers at Open Road Digital Media have been making deals with illustrated book publishers — Abrams and Black Dog & Leventhal among them — and appear committed to solving this problem

But it seems to me that it might not be readily solvable. The inherent issue is that precisely the same intellectual output in both formats, which works fine for immersive reading, almost never does for complex books. So the core realities that have cushioned the digital transition for publishers of novels and biographies — that the cost of delivering to the digital customer is really very low and the appeal of the content is undiminished in digital form compared to print — don’t apply for illustrated books for adults or kids.

Will the how-to or art book in digital form ultimately be as close to its print version as has been the case for novels? Or will the how-to or art digital products in the future come from book publishers at all? Will there be any real synergy there? I don’t think we know that yet. As pressure grows in the retail marketplace, it gets increasingly urgent for illustrated book publishers to find out.

3. Mergers and consolidation among publishers are likely to become more common, after a long period when they haven’t been.

I have been a bit surprised about how little imagination has been evident from the kommentariat about the pending merger of Penguin and Random House. It seems like it is being viewed primarily for its cost-cutting potential (and that will be real), but I think it could actually be transformative.

I see two very big immediate wins for the combined company. They’ll be able to launch a credible general subscription, book-club-type offer using their own books exclusively (print and digital, although the big opportunity is digital). And they’ll be able to serve no-book-buyer retail accounts with a commercially-appealing selection of books working with a publisher’s full margin, not the thinner revenue available to a third party aggregator.

This is the two biggest of the Big Six joining forces. The other combination that is believed to be under discussion, putting together HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, would be something like half the size of Penguin Random House and it wouldn’t have an equivalent reservoir and flow of highly commercial titles.

While Macmillan, according to the year-end letter from its CEO, John Sargent, remains determinedly independent, it is hard to see Hachette staying outside the merger tent as a stand-alone if Harper and S&S were to execute on the current rumor. The three of them together would present a competitive challenge to PRH and would have similar opportunities to open up new and proprietary distribution channels.

The merger activity will not be confined to the big general players. Both F+W Media (our partners in Digital Book World) and Osprey are building out the “vertical” model: providing centralized services to enable development of “audience-centric” publishing efforts for many and diverse communities. F+W has more than 20 vertical communities, most recently having acquired Interweave. Osprey, starting from a base in military history, has added science fiction (Angry Robot) and mind-body-spirit (Duncan Baird) to their list by acquisition.

The key in both cases is being able to add revenue channels to an acquisition as well as the time-honored objective of cutting costs through a combination. In different ways, all of the mergers we’re talking about here accomplish that.

4. Platforms for children’s books will become increasingly powerful gatekeepers.

Publishers discovered the power of platforms when Kindle showed them that they, not the publishers, controlled the customers and they, not the publishers, controlled the pricing. It took less than a year for Kindle to “own” enough customers that it would have been very difficult for any publisher to live without their sales, even without the leverage Amazon had as a significant customer for print.

Now we suddenly have a plethora of platforms that want to convince parents and teachers that they are where kids should be doing their reading. This is coming from the retailers: Amazon has a subscription offering for kids’ content and both Kindle and NOOK have parental control features. It is coming from the people who have been in this market all along: Storia from Scholastic and Reading Rainbow’s RRKidz. It is coming from outside enterpreneurs: Story Town and Ruckus.

And, before long, I think we’ll see branded digital subscription offers from the biggest publishers. (Why not?)

This suggests that a lot of shopping and purchasing decisions for young reading are going to take place outside of any environment that one could say now exists. And that’s going to be true pretty soon.

There are a lot of moving parts here. Sometimes the content has to be adjusted in some way for he platform, or can be enhanced for it. Sometimes the platform can facilitate a sale of stuff that is pretty much as it already was. Some of the platforms work on subscription models and others on discrete product sales models. But publishers (and agents) are going to be thinking about what those deals ought to look like. For now, platform owners are eager to engage the content so they have something to capture an audience with. When the audience is captured, the power shifts to the platform owner for anything but the most highly visible and branded content.

This will be an interesting arena. (And one that will be discussed at length at our conference, “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” on January 15.)

5. Marketing for publishers will be a constant exercise in learning and reinvention, and increasingly difficult to separate from editorial.

I spent a post recently trying to describe an “audience-driven” rather than “title-driven” or, worse, “title-on-pub-date-driven” approach to marketing. When you get down to actually trying to use the biggest new tools publishers have in the digital world — the top two coming to my mind are using email permissions and social media for dirt-cheap communication and lots of data sources with more and more tools for analyzing big data — you very rapidly realize that it is very limiting to think about using them on a per-title basis.

Rick Joyce of Perseus presented some ground-breaking thinking at our Frankfurt event about using social listening data tools for publishing marketing; he learned that the tools were most effectively applied across categories rather than for titles. (Part of the reasoning here was that using the tools is time-consuming and therefore expensive; part of it is that you just get more actionable information categorically than you do title-by-title because you’re crunching more data.)

So when publishers start to conform their publishing and marketing to what the new tools can do best (we’re still in the stage where we’re mostly trying to make the tools do what we did before), it will mean an explosion in the number of marketing decisions that have to be made (because the age of the book will not be a central factor in the decision to include it in a marketing opportunity.) This is accompanied by the big increase in decisions required to respond to the near-instantaneous feedback marketing digital initiatives deliver.

All of this will continue to be very challenging to the structure and workflow practices in large companies.

I think the clearest indication that marketing is reaching its proper 21st century position in publishing will be its increasing importance in driving title selection. As publishers become more audience-centric, it is the people who are communicating with the audience (the marketers, but also the editors, and the line between them will get fuzzier, not that it hasn’t sometimes previously been blurred) who will see what’s needed that isn’t in the market yet. In a way, that’s always happened. But in another year or three, it will be a formal expectation in some structures, and will have a defined workflow.

One obvious trend I’m not discussing here is “globalization”. In fact, one analyst sees exploiting global opportunities as one of the big wins of the Penguin Random House merger. With all the retailers publishers know well (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google) expanding into new countries every month, there will be no shortage of reminders that publishers should clear rights and price books in all territories for which they possibly can. But the problem starts further upstream than that, with the licensing practices of agents, who still often maximize advances-against-royalties by selling books market by market. There is a long gestation time on deals, so even if the dealmaking changes, it will take a while for that to be reflected in more ebooks on sale in more places. That’s why I am not expecting globalization to have a major commercial impact in 2013 and it is also why I see it as a more distant opportunity for the new PRH business than the ones I suggested in this piece.

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The ebook marketplace is a long way from settled


When we put on conferences, we sometimes book speakers because of who they are, or who their company is, but we also do our best to make sure the content of their presentation will be useful to our audience. So I had booked Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of the British ebook startup Anobii, to speak at last January’s Digital Book World 2012 some months before the event for two reasons. For one, I had met Matteo at our Pub Launch London conference last June and he impressed me. And, in addition, his social-network-conscious ebook retailing operation has three major houses — Penguin, HarperCollins, and Random House — as investors.

A couple of weeks before DBW 2012, we got on the phone with Matteo to learn what he wanted to talk about. That’s when he told me he’d call for publishers to give up DRM because, as he saw it, their doing so was the only way he could compete for Kindle customers. As a conference organizer and promoter, I was instantly aware that he was handing us a major news break: a retailer partly owned by three Big Six publishers was calling for the end of DRM! There was some gallows humor on the call about how Matteo would bring his CV (curriculum vitae, which the Brits use more freqently than the American “resume”) along to New York.

But, of course, Matteo wouldn’t have been doing something like that without the knowledge of his owners. So it was not a stretch to draw the inference that three major publishers didn’t mind floating a trial balloon, or perhaps what they were thinking was that it would be good if Amazon knew they’d seriously consider this.

His presentation created a stir, as we knew it would.

But Pottermore created an even bigger stir when they demonstrated how to execute on the “no DRM” strategy, including how to position the big retailers in that context. As we all know now, the threat that Pottermore might be able to load Kindles with Potter books (by selling DRM-free; it would be hard if not impossible for an outside vendor to crack Kindle’s proprietary DRM to load “protected” content on it) persuaded Amazon to play ball. They send Potter ebook buyers over to Pottermore’s site to register and pay and then are willing to take the customer back to load a DRMd ebook file on their Kindle. (Meanwhile, Pottermore enables also loading a Nook file, an iBooks file, and even provides a non-DRMd epub file for more general use, all for the same single purchase.)

Back in the early days of ebooks, which was not a hundred years ago but actually about five, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, invested in the company that became LibreDigital (now owned by Donnelley) because he had a vision that publishers should deliver their own ebook files. Murray’s concern at the time was about piracy and file control. Whatever it was, the ebook retailers (mostly Amazon back then) shot the idea down. No way were they going to trust a publisher, any publisher, to provide service at the level their consumers had been taught to expect from them. So the model we’ve lived with until Pottermore has been that each retailer has its own copy of the publishers’ ebooks, and they serve their customers and account to the publishers for what was sold.

Pottermore pointed the way back to Murray’s original vision.

A few weeks later, Macmillan announced that one segment of its company, tor.com, was going DRM-free, although not jumping into the full Pottermore model of serving the content themselves. (One Macmillan executive told me that they’ve been selling the books of anti-DRM crusader Cory Doctorow without protection for years, including through Amazon.)

Fritz Foy, the Macmillan EVP who oversees digital, is speaking about the DRM decision at our Publishers Launch BEA event on June 4.

Last Friday, the next round in this battle was fired. Berlucchi published a post calling on all the big publishers to copy the Pottermore model, and do it now.

How this will play out depends a bit on what happens with the DRM-free experiments now begun at Pottermore and about to start at Macmillan. If sales of their books collapse under the weight of ubiquitous piracy as a result, it would stop this kind of experimentation dead in its tracks.

It would also surprise a lot of people, including me.

If the net destructive impact on sales is too trivial to be measured compared with the DRMd status quo, then we are bound to see this practice spread, and quickly. And then all the biggest publishers could be compelled to return to Murray’s several-years-old vision with Pottermore’s execution template.

The question for the first publisher that wants to try this will be whether the power of a Big Six publisher to compel Amazon to play along is as great as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise. It’s a really scary thing for them to do. After all, Rowling had zero digital revenue to protect and zero responsibility to anybody else for delivering it. All the major publishers have triple digit millions of dollars of Kindle revenue at stake and thousands of authors counting on them to deliver it.

But with Barnes & Noble now funded (by Microsoft) for battle for the next several years and Kobo and Apple committed to the fight as well, there’s a serious question as to whether Amazon would feel as comfortable going forward without one of the Big Six’s ebooks the way they have been willing to work without those from IPG.

In January 2010, John Sargent and Macmillan had a confrontation with Amazon and the retailing giant was forced to back down. The concessions that Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (and he was, incidentally, recruited to that job from his position as Chief Digital Officer at HarperCollins) extracted from them are nothing short of stunning, but understandable if one considers what the impact of a Harry Potter ebook launch without the titles being available through Amazon would have been. (Oh, the headlines that would have generated!!!)

It’s easy for me to say, because I have nothing at stake, but I think Berlucchi is right. The big publishers can make this happen; it would change the game. I have trouble seeing any potential fly in the ointment for them except whatever would be the dangers of DRM-free. And that should be ascertained pretty well in the next few months.

There are still plenty of twists and turns to come in the evolving ebook marketplace.

It is important to remember that DRM isn’t Amazon’s only advantage or even their principal advantage. I’m not an Amazon fanboy (have you noticed?) and I read on an iPhone, but I buy most of my ebooks from the Kindle store because they offer the best shopping experience I’ve found.

However that (the shopping experience) isn’t a permanent advantage. The Kindle format and DRM are, as long as publishers feel DRM is essential.

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What’s the greater fear for publishers? Amazon or piracy?


Pottermore changed the game this morning. Congratulations to Charlie Redmayne, their CEO.

The “aha” moment for me was when somebody on a listserv mentioned they’d bought Kindle editions of the seven Harry Potter books which, it had been announced, were available only from the Pottermore site.

Penny drops. First thought: Hnh? How did that happen?

Then the news came that Amazon was referring people off its site to Pottermore to buy the Kindle editions of Harry Potter ebooks. (It turns out that Barnes & Noble is doing the same.) There they register themselves and then can buy the ebooks.

This is, by far, the biggest concession that has been wrested from Amazon since John Sargent faced them down over the buy buttons on Macmillan print books on that January weekend in 2010 following the Thursday when Sargent flew out to Seattle to tell them Macmillan was going to the agency model.

In January at Digital Book World, in what turned out to be a prescient presentation, Matteo Berlucchi of Anobii (an ebook retailer based in the UK that is partly owned by three major publishers) observed that only by eliminating DRM could he sell to Kindle customers. He pleaded with publishers to do that.

Now Redmayne, who until November was working for HarperCollins, has demonstrated the truth in what Berlucchi said.

Back in about 2007, HarperCollins was instrumental in turning LibreDigital into an ebook delivery platform. At the time, Brian Murray, Harper’s CEO, articulated the vision that the publisher would just serve all the ebooks to customers, with no need to entrust retailers with digital copies. I believe one of the stated motivations was to reduce piracy by reducing the number of points of distribution of files. The idea was shut down pretty quickly because Amazon and other retailers wouldn’t go along. They would have said, and it would have been a reasonable point, that they had to control the service levels to their customers.

Redmayne and Pottermore have now demonstrated that if you will live with the anti-piracy protection of watermarking, rather than insisting on a digital hammerlock through DRM, you can gain extraordinary leverage.

Without DRM, as Berlucchi explained, anybody can sell ebooks that can be read on a Kindle. Once Pottermore decided they could live without DRM, they faced Amazon with a very difficult choice. The ebooks were going to go on Kindle devices whether Amazon wanted them there or not. Either they could ignore them or they could play along. I am sure the “play along” deal includes compensation to Amazon for the sales they refer (as it does B&N and, according to a quote from Redmayne, other distribution relations and affiliations will be enabled going forward.)

In other words, in a refreshing change from recent history, the content owner was able to present Amazon with a “take it or leave it” proposition. They decided to “take it”. They were wise. The game was changing either way.

The $64 million question is how the Big Six executives and strategists are viewing these developments. There is no author in the world with the power of J.K. Rowling to do this; she’s the Beatles. But, how about a big publisher? What would happen if Random House or HarperCollins (or one or more of the other four) told Amazon, “we’re taking off the DRM and we’re going to serve all our ebooks ourselves; you’re welcome to continue to sell our books on a referral basis”?

Could this change the strategy for Bookish going forward?

Obviously, this tactic won’t work if it is done by a publisher without tons of bestsellers and must-have backlist. In fact, it could generate a huge advantage for big publishers, assuming they can pull it off and smaller ones can’t.

I’ve been posing two questions in recent posts. “When does Amazon’s share growth stop?” and “Who’s left standing when it does?”

I put a new one at the top of this post. If publishers can overcome their fear of piracy, they will have, as Matteo Berlucchi proposed and Charlie Redmayne has just demonstrated, an enormous weapon to fight Amazon.

One entity that will definitely be “left standing” is Pottermore. And they’ll have the names of the people that were referred over to them by Amazon.

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Publishers better start using their scale to price better, and soon!


It was just about two years ago that I appeared on a panel at a meeting of agents with, among others, Macmillan CEO John Sargent and Sargent made the point that maintaining ebook pricing and margins was one of the critical challenges facing publishers. Ebook sales were still hovering around one percent of the business. Or maybe two. Nowhere near five. Sargent was prescient.

It was about six months ago that I did a couple of posts on direct marketing techniques. I engaged a publishing friend named Neal Goff, whose background is mostly outside of trade books, to help me with those. I had him walk me through some fundamentals because I didn’t know them and, I feared, neither did the trade houses that were now — because of agency — required to set prices on their own books without the requisite expertise.

It was only last week that Random House announced it was shifting to agency pricing and I said I hoped they would be more ambitious about experimentation with price than their competitors in the arena had been.

All of these thoughts came together for me when I read this post on CNET that has two real wake-up calls in it for the big publishers.

One they are increasingly aware of: very cheap ebooks are selling very well and, with at least two major bestseller lists (The New York Times and USA Today) now counting ebook sales in units for their rankings, there is a real threat that the established business at established price points could be chased from the biggest market-maker there is. (It is important to note that the Times and USA Today methodologies are still a bit opaque and it is not clear how lower-price books are weighted. Some clear successes in the low-price realm haven’t shown up yet.)

The other point is more subtle. Individuals and little publishers are fiddling with price in ways to maximize bestseller positioning and revenues. The rules are complicated. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have programs that reward pricing above $2.99 by paying higher royalties. But it would certainly appear that there are many consumers who are limiting their shopping for ebooks to those that cost 99 cents or below. So some authors have learned that cutting their price increases unit sales to put them on a bestseller list, then raising their price results in more revenue. Apparently one very useful strategy for revenue maximization is to shuttle between prices.

The point that “cutting price boosts sales” isn’t exactly surprising, and it also isn’t exactly news. J.A. Konrath, perhaps the first established author to really start raking in shekels self-publishing through Amazon, has been experimenting with pricing and proving this point for a long time. Konrath’s data was charted for clarity by blogger Dave Slusher a few months ago. Konrath’s work and Slusher’s analysis of it further emphasizes the central point Neal Goff made to us. Experimentation matters. (Neal called it “testing.”)

Another author has demonstrated that cutting price is important, and promoting lower prices is also important.

Although I have heard one major publishing CEO suggest that the house is doing some fiddling with pricing, there was no suggestion there of controlled and monitored experimentation. And I believe it is safe to say, without doing any research, that no major publisher is doing that on a consistent and persistent basis, let alone algorithmically-programmed price management such as the major ebook retailers almost certainly do.

There is another hugely ironic point buried in the CNET story. It is built around the work of an author named Christopher Smith, who has mastered the shuttle-pricing technique. Turns out Smith has a new fan named Stephen King. King, of course, has not only published successfully with major houses for decades, he was one of the first great ebook experimenters around the turn of the century when he tried to do author-direct publishing of ebooks before there was a market. King’s blurb for Smith has been very helpful to the lesser-known, lower-priced author.

Might Smith return the favor for King by teaching him the revenue-maximization techniques he’s developed so King can get back into the self-publishing experimentation game? I think that possibility encapsulates the major publishers’ biggest nightmare. Publishers are going to have a devil of a time defending their 25% royalty rate into the future, which just feels intuitively unfair to authors. They can get away with it for the time being because print sales still matter. But they won’t for long and if publishers don’t use their scale to do a better job managing dynamic pricing to extract the maximum revenue from ebook sales than an author might do on his or her own, the challenge of retaining their top talent will become even more difficult.

There is a reasonable suggestion that publishers should be making in a hurry about bestseller lists in the ebook era. In print, books are separated by format (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market) by The Times and identified by format by USA Today  so that apples-to-apples comparisons are possible for consumers. It is really a stacked deck to rank on unit sales alone any book at 99 cents and Ken Follett’s bestseller “Fall of Giants”  at $19.99. Format in print creates a reasonable proxy for price. I think price-tiered bestseller lists would be a stretch, but going to the movie studio “box office” concept would not. Publishers, while they still have clout as advertisers in media that promote bestseller lists, should suggest a “units times price” ranking as one that provides a more useful comparison for many consumers.

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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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The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan


Now I swear all this is true. As everybody knows, a very serious food fight broke out between Amazon and Macmillan late Friday night. All weekend Michael Cader led the way in ferreting out additional useful information and I spent most of today (Sunday) trying to write an analytical blogpost. I got it just about finished in the early afternoon, and the bottom line to what I’d written was “Amazon will not be able to sustain this.”

I decided to hold the post until after going to see Crazy Heart this afternoon and, when I came home, Amazon had already folded. But I had written a post that provided a lot of useful information, even if events had stolen my punchline.

So I’m giving it the once-over to edit it for the reality that Amazon has already announced that they will not continue to boycott Macmillan books.

It is received wisdom in Washington that when you have news you have to release but would prefer to have minimum impact, you release it on Friday afternoon. The latest tiff in the Amazon versus Big Publisher brouhaha went that idea one better; it appears to have broken in the middle of the Friday-to-Saturday night.

About midnight that evening, David Wilk alerted the Brantley list to a VentureBeat post that indicated that Macmillan titles were no longer available at Amazon.

By noon the following day, Brad Stone had posted a further explanation to the NY Times blog.

The VentureBeat post had no clue as to what was going on and even carried a link to a post from author John Scalzi suspecting a “glitch.” But Stone pinned down that the disappearance of the Macmillan titles was, indeed, retaliation for Macmillan’s move to the agency pricing model, first revealed by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch and discussed on this blog last week.

Sometime late Saturday afternoon, Lunch posted a narrative explaining what was going on and including a paid insertion from Macmillan: a letter from Chairman and CEO John Sargent giving Macmillan’s account of what had transpired.

Which, as many people who care know by now (as I write this on Sunday morning and afternoon) is that Macmillan told Amazon about the new agency model, by which Amazon would actually get ebooks at lower prices than now but also by which Macmillan would set the prices to consumers. Amazon retaliated with what is, more or less, a “nuclear option.” Macmillan books are no longer on sale except through third party vendors (extending the ban to those dealers would open up yet another big can of worms for Amazon and they hardly need any more) and that includes Kindle. Most of the third party vendors are selling used books and no Macmillan books are being transacted directly by Amazon at all.

We have said on this blog, repeatedly, that publishers’ discounts to retailers would have to come down and that the windowing tactic (delaying ebooks from being available when the hardcover first comes out) was all about pricing control and nothing else.

What I want to accomplish in this post is to lay out clearly what is happening and then enumerate some key points about what’s going on: paradoxes and prospects.

Before the Agency Model (like “now”), publishers sell ebooks at about 50 off an often ridiculously high established price (“parity” is common; same price as a hardcover on a new book) to retailers who were setting the prices to the consumer themselves and, following Amazon’s lead, always discounting. The publishers are paying the authors royalties that are frequently 25% of net, which amounts to 12.5% of publisher declared retail. Some publishers pay 15% of retail; Sargent, in a previous letter to agents, indicated a desire to move from 25% of net to 20% of net, which would be 10% of retail.

The proposed Agency Model will have publishers setting a price lower than the established retail they had before but higher than the deep discounts Amazon led retailers to sell at. The publisher intends to  pay 30% of that established price to the retailer and 25% of either the full consumer price or of the 70% “net” (still to be determined) to the author. This means that the retailer will get a higher price from the consumer and a better margin than they realize now (even though a lower percentage of the “established” price). The author’s cut per copy could actually be reduced!

The wholesalers, Ingram and Content Reserve, often get the same discount as publishers. They handle the stores and libraries publishers serve don’t want to deal with directly. So those stores and libraries get less margin than the big ones publishers handle without an intermediary. One thing that was new to me that came out on the Ebook Supply Chain panel at Digital Book World is that publishers insisted on vetting the accounts that would be selling their books to make sure they didn’t violate territorial restrictions. So Ingram (and presumably Content Reserve) has to manage a granular control by title by publisher by account.

It is not at all clear how the Agency and price maintenance protocols get applied through wholesalers. Perhaps this means that smaller accounts and libraries just won’t have the newer titles that will only be released on the Agency basis (assuming that the scenario Sargent describes is what is also followed by other big publishers.)

This is a bizarre paradox, really. Macmillan actually proposed to sell Amazon the ebooks at what is, in effect, a lower wholesale price than Amazon gets now and their enforcement of a retail price puts more margin into Amazon’s pocket on every sale made than they earn now! And Amazon is fighting it.

Sargent’s note makes clear that the discount-off-retail pricing that has existed all along will still be offered, but that newer books wouldn’t be included in that offering. Those would be available only on Agency terms. What is not clear is whether Macmillan intends to continue the Agency terms past the nine-month “window” for new books. We’d guess they will for some accounts.

But that leads to another paradox because publishers unambiguously benefit if retailers sacrifice their own margin and discount when hardcover price maintenance and NY Times Bestseller list rankings are not at stake. Lower prices to consumers sell more copies. Presumably retailers will continue to want to compete on price and will do so when sales terms allow. But what does that do to the publishers’ challenge of “setting” prices for those accounts that want that done across the entire list?

Yet another paradox is the position of the agents. On the one hand, we have seen that many of those representing big authors see the same danger the big publishers do of inexpensive ebooks undercutting valuable hardcover sales and Times Bestseller rankings. On the other hand, publishers lowering established ebook prices and reducing their take from their intermediaries could often mean lower royalties for authors. But not necessarily.

If publishers are paying on “net receipts” (and many are) and if a) retail prices aren’t cut by as much as half (which they often won’t be) and b) if the publisher doesn’t deduct the Agency “commission” from its computation of net (sure to be debated), then the basis of the author’s royalty wouldn’t go down.

Quick summary: if you have a $25 list price ebook on which the author’s royalty is 25% of net, the author is now getting 25% of $12.50, or $3.125. If that book becomes a $15 ebook with a 30% commission, the author would get $3.75 (a nice increase) if the commission is not deducted first and $2.625 if it is (a sharp cut.) Of course, the $25 and $15 prices described here are notional and with different prices (as they say) “your results will vary.” If that notional book had been priced at $30 in hardcover, the author’s share would have been $4.50 and the ebook price change would clearly cost them something on every copy.

Author Charles Stross had a very insightful post on his blog, speaking from the perspective a gored ox (he has books published by Macmillan which have been taken down.) Stross makes clear that Amazon is miffed because their competitive strategy of driving away ebook competition through aggressive discounting will be foiled by publisher price-setting. Stross says:

Amazon are going to fight this one ruthlessly because if the publishers win, it destroys the profitability of their business and pushes prices down.

I’m not sure it “pushes prices down”; I think it actually pushes (ebook) prices up, at least temporarily. But the points Stross makes about Amazon wanting to achieve ebook hegemony and the Agency model being part of the publishers’ plan to beat that back and strengthen other players seem right to me.

We had a lot of this conversation last Spring before Sourcebooks’s windowing move with Bran Hambric, followed by Hachette with True Compass and HarperCollins with Going Rogue, pushed this tussle between Amazon and publishers to the forefront. In his analysis at that time, Cader made the point that publishers were actually helping Amazon undercut other retailers with their “parity” pricing; making the ebook retail the same price as the hardcover print retail. His logic was that the high prices increased Amazon’s advantage over other retailers because they could better afford to sell high-profile titles at a loss than their competition. Meanwhile, the publishers (and authors working on “net”) continue to get higher ebook revenues than the consumer spending would really entitle them to.

My first question when all this arose overnight on Friday was “why Macmillan?” Sargent’s note may have answered that question: because John was in Seattle on Thursday officially delivering Amazon the Agency Model news that we only assume is going to come to them from other publishers as well. One presumes that Amazon thinks that taking such drastic action as this might discourage the other publishers thinking about doing the same thing (and the iPad announcement on Wednesday would lead us to think that four of the remaining five Big Six players are indeed working out the details of a similar consumer-price-controlling sales model.)

And Amazon apparently figured out, as I was writing these words, that the only brand blown to smithereens by the nuclear option would be theirs. It is hard to imagine how extensive the brand damage could have been if Amazon delisted even one more major publisher along with Macmillan for even a couple of weeks. For a brand whose principal attributes are dependability and dedication to the consumer, it would have been catastrophic.

Amazon says now that the boycott is temporary and they were candid about the fact that they have no choice but to yield. They take a swipe at the publishers’ copyright-based “monopoly” on titles. But this was a really bungled response on every level. Amazon deserves credit for being smart enough to walk this thing back within 48 hours. Amazon may have to learn something new for them in the ebook space: how to be one of a number of players, not the only game in town.

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One brave publishing executive speaks out on ebook pricing, and we comment


When I did my two recent posts on ebook pricing — first one proposing “debut pricing” and then one taking it back as not viable — I got a note from a major company CEO saying that, of course, no publisher could discuss pricing with me because of anti-trust concerns. At the same time, I have been trying to staff a panel for Digital Book World on ebook pricing and was told by one of my Board of Advisors, who is from another of the big companies, that I shouldn’t expect any publisher to be able to discuss that issue.

So it was mildly refreshing to see that Arnaud Nourry, the global CEO for Hachette Books, expressed some pretty strong opinions about ebook pricing to the Financial Times in an interview. Nourry said publicly what I have only heard expressed privately before: that the aggressive pricing by ebook retailers (led by Amazon) where they actually sold ebooks at a loss could come to no good end.

On Amazon’s current policy of selling many high-profile new releases at $9.99, FT quoted Nourry as saying: “That cannot last . . . Amazon is not in the business of losing money. So, one day, they are going to come to the publishers and say: ‘by the way, we are cutting the price we pay’. If that happens, after paying the authors, there will be nothing left for the publishers.”

Nourry also expresses concern about the reported one million public domain titles that Google is releasing as free ebooks. Although the article is wrong in its reporting that Amazon charges $9.99 “for all its e-books in the US” (Michael Cader has reported several times that many are higher than that and, of course, many are also lower), we can understand Nourry’s expressed concern that “all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99.”

I agree with Nourry’s characterization of the present condition as unhealthy and threatening, but I think things look a little better for him and his fellow large publishers than his comments would suggest. And as powerful as Amazon’s position in, there is reason to believe it is at a high-water mark in the ebook marketplace and that, at the very moment Barnes & Noble is stepping up, the conditions are perfect for a competitor.

The downward pressure on ebook prices has been apparent for some time. I reported that John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, said at a panel discussion for agents (I was one of the panelists) several months ago that maintaining ebook margins was the key strategic concern for publishers over the next few years. Since Sargent made that statement, very shortly after the announcement of Kindle 2 and Kindle DX, we’ve had a reported surge in ebook sales, a host of new reader and retailer announcements, and the further entrenchment of the epub standard. These, combined with B&N’s entry into the market, are good news for publishers.

Epub is probably the publishers’ best defense against Amazon and the Kindle. With all other device manufacturers able to coalesce around a non-Amazon standard, we have a situation analogous to the VHS-Beta conflict of the 1980s and the Mac-Windows duke-out of the late 80s and early 90s. On one side, we have a standard that remains closed to enable “control” (Beta, Mac, Kindle.) On the other side, we have a wide-open standard to enable multi-player use (VHS, Windows, Epub.) In the two cases we know about because they are historical, the consensus was that the “loser” of the numbers race (Beta and Mac) provided a superior technological performance. Kindle does not seem to have even that element in its favor. Whether you use something larger that does e-ink (Kindle, Sony Reader) or something you’re carrying anyway that is backlit (the iPhone or any other smartphone) is a matter of personal preference. But does anybody doubt that a world full of hardware creators will soon make a device that is similar but demonstrably better than the Kindle?

Right now, Amazon has a huge head start on the narrative-reading consumer ebook market. By putting Kindles into the hands of (estimates are) 1 to 1.5 million of the heaviest book consumers, they jump-started ebook uptake and grabbed a huge lead in sales. Anecdotal information gathered from publishers and agents suggests to me that, right now, 70% of the ebook sales for most titles offered in Kindle and epub are Kindle. And a lot are still sold as pdf.

But Google just put a huge thumb on the scale by making one million public domain titles available in epub for free! Those can’t be read on a Kindle without a little bit of technological bridge-building. On the one hand, if Amazon makes that bridge-building transparent and shows that it is easy for people to load epub titles on the Kindle, they compromise the whole Kindle business model. But the perception of choice — and the relative number of titles that will show up under any consumer’s search — is attacking what has been one of Kindle’s greatest advantages: a bigger title selection.

Amazon made what looked from here like a major concession last winter when they released an iPhone app for Kindle. I am hesitant to read too much into my own behavior, but that was the catalyst for me to give my Kindle to my wife and do all my reading on my iPhone. So it was easy for me to switch over to B&N when they came back into the marketplace a month or two ago. And, you know what? The shopping experience is just as good as Kindle. My wife may buy Kindle books again, but I won’t. (The Kindle on iPhone mimics the worst fault of Kindle’s presentation on the device itself: it only presents justified lines, no ragged right!)

Of course, all this means that the blades and razors strategy is going too. When Sony launched the reader, it looked for all the world like they figured they’d make their money selling the books. That was Palm’s idea too nearly a decade ago. Amazon blew them away because they were real booksellers, which they parlayed into both more title availability (they had the contacts) and a better presentation.

It will be a big surprise to me if B&N and Indigo’s Shortcovers don’t rapidly become the dominant horizontal purveyors of epub-formatted titles. And every web site and blogger will sell ebooks in their niche (why not?) which will include offerings that might not make the full-line distribution system. The next question is how long it will take Amazon to start selling epub titles as aggressively as they sell Kindle and print books. Or make Kindle transparently epub-compliant, which amounts to the same thing. They’ll need to do one of the other to protect their overall franchise, but it might mean the end of a meteoric Kindle era (remember the Commodore 64?) when they do.

Oh, and one note on all that to Mr. Nourry. If I’m right about the overall situation, don’t worry about Amazon telling you they need more margin. Because they’re going to need your titles fully as much as you need their sales. Expect to start seeing movement on this first from the smaller publishers, some of which report that they have been pushed into relatively low-margin deals by Amazon. There will be competition among epub vendors; they’ll all want to have the biggest number of titles (and accept the challenge of curating and presenting that.) If you can get higher revenues by 25% or more in one channel, might you be tempted to try to “force” consumers to buy it there by withholding from the lower margin channel? You’d surely be tempted.

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The evolving role of agents


Because of a couple of panels I spoke on last spring and because of the development of FiledBy, I have had more and more conversations lately with agents. They are part of the General Trade Publishing ecosystem. So their lives are getting more difficult and more complicated, like everybody else’s in Book Valley.

The agents’ concern is frequently expressed as “what do I tell my authors?”  Publishers are increasingly insistent that a prospective author have an internet platform to build on before they sign a book. Editors always wanted credentials to back up a writer’s authority on any subject; now they’d like to see that the writer has a following on that subject as well.

But agents are also concerned about themselves. The two most innovative imprint initiatives in recent memory — Bob Miller’s HarperStudio inside HarperCollins and Roger Cooper’s Vanguard inside Perseus — are built on the idea of reducing risk, paying the author a lower advance. Yes, they also promise a higher reward (higher royalty), but experienced agents know most books don’t earn anything beyond the advance.

Miller and Cooper are smart guys and it could well be that their imprints will have a higher percentage of earnouts than most. But, as smart guys, they wouldn’t be willing to pay more on the high side if they didn’t believe they were saving at least that much on the risk side.

The advance pool is probably shrinking. John Sargent, Macmillan’s CEO, said as much at a gathering of agents a couple of months ago when he explained that the de-leveraging that is taking place throughout the economy is also taking place in publishing. Big houses just won’t have the cash available to them that they used to, and that means less money for advances, less money for printing, and less money for promoting.

But in addition to shrinking, publishing advances are taking on much more of a power law configuration, with concentration at the top and a long tail of books getting less and less (and extended by mushrooming self-publishing where the “advance” is actually negative; it’s a cost!)

This is already having an effect. I have heard from people who know that larger agencies are now shopping among the smaller ones to buy them out. It takes more agents working to pay the same rent than it used to. And the smaller agents are finding it harder and harder to make a living so they’re ready to sell out a bit of their upside to get some stability. The small number of agents that have clients at the power end of a power law distribution are doing great; those who have traditionally made a living on making lots of second level deals are really suffering.

Compounding the problem for agents is the changing nature of publishing opportunity. While the sales and royalty potential of the book through the publisher is declining, other opportunities are opening up. There is a multiplicity of ebook channels that in the aggregate do not replace the revenue that print used to provide and doesn’t anymore. Chunks of books and material too short to be published as a book can be sold through them. Agents have for years been trying to split off audio rights to sell to Audible or Brilliance or Tantor Media. The opportunity to sell content to web sites seems to be emerging. But all of these deals require conceiving, pitching, closing, negotiating, and contract reviewing. For fifteen percent of what?

And further comlicating things is the ubiquitous self-publishing option. As self-publishing becomes part of the strategic approach to getting a “real” publisher (and it is), it adds a further complication to the business relationship between agent and writer. Is it fair for an agent to work with a writer on developing a proposal or a manuscript and then, when it fails to sell to a publisher, see that writer self-publish what amounts to a collaborative effort without owing anything to the agent? I think most agents would say, “NO!”

An agent for a book writer carries the same title as the agent for an actor or the agent for a performing musician but that’s a bit misleading. A book writer’s agent is really a business partner, more like the managerof an actor or musician. I see the writer and agent as two halves of a business: the writer creates the product and the agent handles the B2B relationships necessary to turn it into money.

When the book agent’s job, most of the time, was to find the biggest possible up-front payment for an author’s work, a straight commission deal made complete sense. With writer-pays options becoming not only more common and accessible, but more sensible as a commercial choice and, indeed, becoming part of the step-ladder to commercial success, it increasingly will not.

At a conference on “Giving It Away” in Toronto at which I spoke two weeks ago, Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins was explicit that the publisher buying content and making money by selling it was “one model”, and she pointed out that there is a “fee for services” model as well. The inference I drew was “that’s not what we’re doing today, but every option is on the table for tomorrow.” Why not? Don’t we have to believe that one of the exit strategies for the investors in Author Solutions, the biggest rollup of self-publishing service companies, might be to sell to one of the Big Six who, despairing of the future of their publishing model, tries to buy their way into a new one?

I am old enough to remember that agent’s fees, now standard at 15% of revenue, once were 10% (like the agents in other businesses I referred to at the top.) When that change happened — was Scott Meredith the first? — many of the 10 percenters sneered at the change as exploitation. But eventually they all went that way. About 10 years ago, agent Richard Curtis started EReads, an ebook publishing company which gave his authors, and others, another choice besides throwing the ebook rights in for print publishers who, at that time, seldom exploited them. Curtis was also excoriated in some circles for generating a conflict of interest, which, indeed, it would have been if he steered his authors away from better ebook options with their publishers. (He doesn’t do that.) It would be like a doctor owning a medical testing business, for crying out loud! (And they do do that…)

A friend of mine in the financial business wrote a book 20 years ago and wanted to get an agent to sell it. He knew the advance would be low, but he also knew the book would add credibility to his business. He wanted it sold. An agent told him that the agency only handled books on which they thought the advance would be $25,000 or more, yielding a commission of $3,750 at the normal 15%. This friend told the agent, take the first $3,750. The agent took the book, sold it for $6,000, and everybody was happy. This kind of arrangement, as well as others where the agent actually charges a fee for helping an author manage self-publishing options, are going to have to become more common in the future. Let’s not be too judgmental about the pioneering agents who change the paradigm.

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Len Shatzkin and the breaking of a publishing color line


There was a lot of lore in our family but one of my favorite bits of it was my father’s great pride at having hired the first two black office workers at Doubleday in the 1950s. This was particularly cheeky for the guy who was the only Jew in top management ranks. The way I always understood the story from him was that after the second one was hired Doubleday management said, “ok, Len. That’s enough.”

Dad died in 2002. In September, 2006, I was at a party with my two sisters and my mother. I didn’t know it then, but this was going to be the last party I would go to with my mother. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about two weeks later and she died in January 2007. So what follows is a story very fortunate for the timing of its telling. I almost didn’t know it.

I was telling somebody at the party about Dad and the first two black employees of Doubleday in the 1950s. My sister Karen thought she noticed something wrong with the way I was presenting the story (I can’t now remember what) so we went off to find Mom to get it retold.

“Mom, what was the story with Dad being told by Doubleday that he couldn’t hire another black employee?”

My father’s memory used to have a lot of holes in it. Mom’s had none. She gave you the details like yesterday.

“You remember the summer we went to Cape Cod with the Tiloves and the Popkins?”

I’m pretty good, too. “Yes, that was 1959. Dad was reading an advance copy of Advise and Consent, which was just about to come out and he knew it was going to be a bestseller.”

“Your father did want to hire another black employee. And just before we went up to Cape Cod, he offered another young man a job. Then, while we were up there, he got a call from Louise Thomas, who was in charge of personnel at Doubleday telling him he had to rescind the offer.”

I had never heard this part. My sister Karen had never heard this part. My sister Nance wasn’t standing there at that moment but she had never heard this part either.

“So, Mom, what did he do.”

“Well, you know your father. He would never agree to something like that. He said he had made the offer and he absolutely would not rescind it.”

There was something very literal about my Mom. She had answered the question. So she stopped. We waited.

“Mom. What HAPPENED?”

“Oh, the young man turned down the offer. He didn’t take the job. So, nothing happened.”

My father was the luckiest guy on the planet. He didn’t have to compromise his principles and he didn’t have to go to war with his employers.

I actually met both of the men Dad hired before I knew any of this. The second of the two is Charles Harris, who has had a long and distinguished career in publishing. Charlie was the longtime director of Howard University Press and founder of Amistad. He was able to remind me that the groundbreaker was a man named Ed Simmons, who later owned a printing operation on Long Island. Charlie was able to provide a lot more detail that I didn’t know.

Simmons had an MBA from Harvard and was a veteran of World War II. (My dad wasn’t; he spent the war working on the Manhattan Project, but that’s another story.) Dad was in charge of manufacturing when he hired Simmons in about 1954 or 1955. Simmons left to buy the printer in 1958.

Harris was hired in 1956 to work in what was called the Operations Research Department (of DOUBLEDAY!), which my father headed as Director of Research. (And that’s anotherstory.) George Blagowidow was the manager of the department, but Dad (George’s boss) hired Charlie while Blagowidow was off on vacation (Dad wasn’t much of a respecter of protocol.)

Harris reports that Dad and Blagowidow encouraged him to go to NYU Graduate School and major in statistics and Doubleday paid the tuition.

I asked Charlie if he knew he was “pioneering.” He said no, but he realized it after a few months. My father never discussed it with him; not did anybody else. Charlie had arrived in NY, just discharged from the U.S. Army where he had been one of the few African American officers to graduate from Infantry School at Fort Benning. Charlie said that my father had recruited through Ray Rivera of The Urban League and Rivera arranged the interview for Charlie with Dad. After the interview, Dad walked Charlie down to Personnel and told them he wanted to hire him.

Charlie said, “that was August 12, 1956. I reported to work the next day.”

My father left Doubleday in 1961. Harris became an editor there about the time Dad left, but was encouraged for the next several years by Nelson Doubleday and John Sargent. And one job later,  Harris went to Random House and was working again with former Doubleday colleagues Jason Epstein and Dick Kislik. It was nice to get this ending to the story. The fact that Harris’s career thrived at Doubleday for several years after my father left speaks well for everybody.

I am a student of baseball history and while pulling together my thoughts for this piece I really thought for the first time about what Dad did in the context of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. This was all happening while Robinson was still an active player, before any civil rights bills had passed, at a time when public segregation was the practice in a quarter of the country.

I spent more hours in conversation with my father than I have with anybody else in my life, except possibly my wife. It’s really too bad we didn’t talk about this more.

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Talking to the agents, and introducing Filedby


I was flattered to be asked to speak to the AAR last night as part of a very distinguished group. My fellow panelists were John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan; Morgan Entrekin, the CEO of Atlantic Monthly Press; the agent Larry Kirshbaum, who was CEO of TimeWarner’s book division (now Hachette Book Group);  and Susan Katz, the CEO of Harper’s juvenile division. The topic was the “future of publishing.” We each got ten minutes to introduce our thoughts about “the future of publishing”. I went feeling the need to make three points:

1. The shift from horizontal to vertical is inexorable, unstoppable. People need to understand what that means and, as uncomfortable as it is for many leaders of today’s trade, they need to start adjusting their business to meet that shift. I wasn’t expecting any agreement, or even any recognition of this fact, from my fellow panelists. It’s still sort of my own private little point in trade publishing circles (but I’ll keep making it).

2. The impression I was getting from our BISG research for “Shifting Sales Channels” is that a) big publishers are feeling the pain more than smaller ones, b) people are seeing backlist erosion they hadn’t seen before (although that was contradicted at a lunch I had yesterday with a publisher who follows BookScan numbers closely and said backlist was holding pretty firm); and that the pain was much worse in Q408 than in Q109. Publishers are feeling excess pain at the moment, of course, because they’re taking returns from the Fall against smaller frontlist buys. But, in any case, books are down a lot less than a lot of other discretionary things.

Short conclusion: books may not be recession-proof, but they might be recession-resistant.

3. Trade Books live in an ecosystem. The publishers and agents in the room last night were mostly in the business of fiction and narrative non-fiction and juveniles. But if sales of travel books, craft books, and cookbooks go down, it hurts the stores. And if a store loses 10% or 15% of its business, it could close. Whatever publishers are seeing in growth of online sales, they should never forget that retailers give priceless exposure of their books, and only fullline bookstores give that exposure to just about all their books. The agents and writers and publishers can be just as smart as they’ve ever been, but if the bookstore shelf space shrinks, and it is doing that, the results will not be the same as they’ve always been.

All of my fellow panelists had useful contributions to make but I took most note of John Sargent’s points. He made it clear that big publishers are in troubled times. He pointed out that all big publishers work with borrowed money and want to be working with less of it. So they’ll be “de-leveraging.” That means smaller advances to authors, smaller printings, and tighter financial controls all around. He also reported that Macmillan had invested many more millions in ebook infrastructure last year than they had realized in ebook sales (in response to suggestions from some, including publisher-turned-agent Kirshbaum, that perhaps ebook royalties should rise.)

I made one point at the end that I was a bit surprised seemed new to just about everybody. Very few had taken on board that the difficulties in the trade book business are partly due to the Long Tail: the fact that Amazon’s retailing and Ingram’s Lightning Print (particularly) is making it easy for people to buy books that would have been dead a decade or two ago is just increasing the competition for every book that is newly published tomorrow. (And, of course, throw used books in there too, part of the Long Tail and largely enabled by Amazon.)

This is the same phenomenon that has made it harder for new bands to break out for years: a kid today can still “discover” the Beatles or Bob Dylan and have dozens of songs to listen to and learn without any regard to what is “new”, because the Beatles and Dylan are new to them! We haven’t (yet) had the situation where a multi-book novelist from the 1880s or the 1930s becomes a new addiction, but we’re bound to eventually. And in the meantime, all those Long Tail units are just making the slope to success a little steeper for every new book.

I also told the agents (and, because I did, I want to tell you) about a brand new business I’m involved in called Filedby which, I’m happy to say, is addressing the Long Tail question from another direction. Filedby is now live with a web page for 1.8 million authors — every single one with a live ISBN in the US or Canada. The pages, already mounted, are “claimable” by the authors, providing a big head start on a personalized web page that Filedby has provided largely through  automation. We see an enormous opportunity in helping authors help themselves. There are a lot of them not getting much help from their publishers. Frankly, except for Morgan Entrekin — who explictly spoke about working the internet finding the audiences for books that would sell between 6,000 and 25,000 copies — nobody was offering much hope that the publishers would be doing more for the authors in the days to come. Everybody seems to be looking to authors to do more for themselves. I think my co-founder Peter Clifton and I picked a very good time to be starting this business.

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