Like a marriage, relationships between people and companies are seldom made or broken on the back of one transaction or one kind of transaction. They are bigger and more complicated than that. That point was driven home in my house over the weekend by the dustup between Time Warner Cable and CBS, which resulted in both our local Channel 2 and Showtime being removed from our service. That meant that Martha couldn’t see the last episode of “Dexter”, a show she has loyally followed for years.
Although, as of this morning, it is still not clear to us whether CBS pulled their programming as a negotiating ploy or whether Time Warner booted it to strengthen their own hand, it seems evident that the broadcast networks want to move to pay-channel remuneration from the cable systems that use them, among other programming, to get us to use their services and pay their bills. (In our case, that’s north of $300 a month for TV, internet, and telephone service.) Pulling just one brick out of that wall — the CBS-owned programming — has us immediately questioning the whole bundle.
We say we’re confused about this because TW customer service, and some news reports, said that CBS pulled the programming. But the Times contradicts that.
“Indeed, timing seems to be the dominant factor driving the dispute. CBS has continued to insist that it would make its programs available to the cable company throughout the negotiations and that the cable company acted now to remove them from its service because Time Warner Cable would lose leverage as the football season got closer — a point the cable executives do not dispute. They acknowledge they need to push the issue now.”
I remember that when we had RCN — an alternative provider — one “price” we paid was that we didn’t get Channel One, a NY news channel. We didn’t switch to Time Warner for that reason (I can’t remember what the motivation was; probably a price offer at the time) but we weren’t losing popular series or can’t-miss sports like Tiger Woods’s golf victory yesterday or the NFL games coming on CBS.
My reaction was anti-Time Warner immediately, and to start investigating alternatives. But since some accounts suggested that CBS had pulled the programming to gain the edge in negotiating, Martha reserved a large part of her annoyance for them. If they can pull programming she’s been following closely for years in this way, she reasoned, then she can’t trust them not to do it again. Her solution is to reconsider becoming loyal to any CBS (or Showtime) series in the future. She says she will immediately stop watching “Ray Donovan” for that reason.
But I think it is easier for her to find substitute dramatic series than it is for me to find a substitute for NFL football. Both of us are annoyed at the moment, but how we respond depends on the totality of our relationship with CBS. CBS is apparently counting on us to punish Time Warner, reasoning that TW is producing a large-scale relationship on the back of their programming.
Publishers will want to watch how this plays out. CBS really has a small fraction of the total possible programming, comparable to the sliver a large-ish but not supersized publisher might have. The new Penguin Random House combination, on the other hand, has about half the most commercial book titles in the marketplace. How will anybody run a functioning bookstore without those titles? (In fact, Amazon backed down from its own mini-boycott of Macmillan in 2010 because it would have upset the totality of their relationship with their customers.)
This “totality of the relationship” point is going to become more important to us, but it is not new. In 2010, when five of the Big Six publishers had gone to Agency pricing — reducing their revenue-per-ebook-sold in a vain attempt to re-engineer the ebook marketplace into one in which publishers controlled the selling price — a sales executive at one of them was querulous about B&N’s apparently unwillingness to “punish” Random House for continuing wholesale terms. “We largely did this for B&N,” was the executive’s complaint. He really couldn’t understand why B&N was, effectively, letting Random House “get away” with staying out, effectively gaming the change to its own advantage.
Of course, the fact that B&N lived with Random House’s ebook selling policy was not because they weren’t unhappy with it. It was because so much else in their relationship worked so well. With Random House having invested in systems that enabled them to provide vendor-managed inventory, they were probably B&N’s most profitable trading partner. B&N wasn’t going to cut off its nose to spite its face. On the whole, they did well in the Random House relationship, even if a high-profile component of it wasn’t to their liking.
The same principle applied, in different ways, when Apple started to enforce its requirement that in-app sales pay a 30% “toll” to Apple. Since that requirement would have effectively made profitable ebook sales impossible, the other ebook vendors — Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and others — complied by taking the direct link to their stores out of their apps. So, from that day (until now), you can only buy ebooks for iOS devices directly from the app if you’re buying from iBookstore. That’s annoying, and it certainly has had the effect of increasing sales at the iBookstore at the expense of their competitors for readers using iPads or iPhones to read books. (iBookstore share has reportedly jumped since then. Of course, they also have added Random House titles, which they didn’t have at the beginning and which certainly diminished the totality of their customer relationship until they did.)
But many iOS-device customers who are satisfied with the totality of their experience with Kindle or Nook or Kobo continue to shop with them, even if it is less convenient. And Apple has apparently decided satisfaction with the total iOS experience might be too badly damaged if they took the step of prohibiting the apps for other platforms entirely.
One senior executive from a big publisher was recently expressing frustration at what it took to set up a functioning direct relationship with consumers, opining that publishers couldn’t sell ebooks profitably one-at-a-time. Only a subscription model of some kind could work. That’s likely to be true, but underscores again that there needs to be a relationship larger than individual transactions to enable individual transactions.
Amazon has operated on this principle for a long time; it is the core of the logic behind Amazon Prime, which entices a customer to stay loyal with a variety of incentives, the most obvious of which is “free” shipping.
And that brings me to a point worth considering in today’s news about the evolving ebook marketplace. The Department of Justice has asked for changes that are intended to be punitive to Apple. Certainly the suggestion that Apple be forced to allow in-app sales without compensation would be. It is likely that iBookstore sales will suffer almost immediately if they are no longer the only ebook vendor on iOS devices with a link straight to the store from within the app.
But with the DoJ’s desire to totally liberate the book marketplace from price controls, they could also be setting up the whole incumbent ebook business, including Amazon and the others as well as Apple, for an entirely new kind of competition based on total relationships that aren’t being contemplated.
(Caution: this coming bit of future-think will only work effectively for ebooks in a DRM-free environment. My own hunch is that DRM-free is coming before long for unagented and midlist books, particularly those of an instructional nature. It should be noted that F+W Media, one of the largest active “books to use rather than read” publishers, already sells DRM-free.)
Let’s say you’re a seller of home improvement tools, fixtures, and services, like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Wouldn’t you like to have all the searching for books on those subjects taking place on your site, so you knew who was looking for new bathroom fixtures and who was looking for robin’s egg blue paint? What if you made your site a destination for that kind of searching by offering no-margin pricing on all books in that category, combined with enhanced metadata for those titles in the subject area(s) that matter to them? (Metadata enhancements will come from the knowledge of the specialists at a vertical retailer who think about what is in a book differently than a book publisher or retailer would.) How about if you sweetened the pot further by offering customers a credit on their purchase of a sink or a can of paint based on their book and ebook purchases?
Or let’s say you’re a law firm that specializes in bankruptcies and divorces. You could do the same thing, perhaps enhanced with your lawyers’ (and their clients’) highly relevant commentary on whether one book or another was particularly useful in a real-life circumstance.
On the hard-copy side, these vendors can set themselves up with Ingram or Baker & Taylor to fulfill print as well. But since margin-free transactions are baked into the strategy, whether or not they make the sale wouldn’t be the central concern. They want the interested traffic and the information that come from the searches. That’s the payoff.
(At the moment, there is a below-cost selling war on print taking place between Overstock.com and Amazon.com, sparked by Overstock.com’s announcement that they’d sell at 10 percent below Amazon’s prices. This is an attention-grabbing device for Overstock.com, not a sustainable strategy, and Amazon is demonstrating that by driving many books into a downward pricing spiral in response. The most damaged parties will be BN.com, and all the bookstores. Overstock will gain some share, but mostly at the expense of those who don’t have the breadth of total experience being provided by Amazon, which will be everybody else that sells books. Amazon will just use the challenge as an opportunity to demonstrate again that they won’t be undersold.)
Whatever you sell, the books on the subject are of interest to the customers for your goods. If the ebook marketplace is further court-mandated into unprofitability, it is probably just a matter of time before books which are used rather than read will become part of the “totality of the relationship” with a vendor who doesn’t sell books for a living. They’ll be the ones who can benefit from being the front end.
And that is a sustainable reason that selling books for a living is going to continue getting harder to do.