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Some things I will be looking to learn more about at London Book Fair


The London Book Fair is an every-second-or-third-year thing for me, going back many decades. From an English-centric perspective, it is like a mini-Frankfurt. All the UK players are there and a lot of US senior executives. But because it is so accessible to the Continent, you can get a taste of how things look to the rest of the world.

In the US, we look to me to be in a period when two dominant giants — Amazon for online bookselling and Penguin Random House for general trade publishing — are consolidating their positions. Amazon’s enormous market share is growing, both for print and ebooks. It is too early to draw the same conclusion about PRH, but my guess is that a year or two from now we’ll have seen them taking share from their biggest competitors just like Amazon is from theirs.

(Dominant giants will be part of a conversation I’ll be taking part in on a stage in London. I’ve been asked to participate in The Great Debate, where this year the proposition is ”It’s all about size. Bigger is always better.” I’m arguing the affirmative with Ken Brooks of McGraw-Hill Education as my teammate. We’re opposed by Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, and Scott Waxman, who is both an experienced literary agent and the entrepreneur behind Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher. It should be fun. And friendly. We’re all nice guys.)

The dominant US brick-and-mortar retailer, Barnes & Noble, appears to be fairly healthy in its traditional business. It is shrinking, but the store operations are still profitable and well run. They appear to have benefited from the demise of its erstwhile competitor, Borders (as have the independents). From across the Pond, one does not get the same impression about UK’s Waterstones chain. However, in the UK, there are forces we don’t have in the US: not just the ubiquitous newsstand-type WHSmith stores, but also two supermarket chains, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which are each ambitiously trying to build a book business and their own ebook channel. One thing I’ll be asking everybody about is the impact these retailers have in the book marketplace, particularly when we get beyond the top sellers. Perhaps if they’re doing well, it would encourage Walmart to get serious about bookselling. Certainly Walmart would like to do anything they can to poke Amazon in the eye.

Without serious competition from new players who are well-funded, like the UK supermarkets, it is hard to see what stands in the way of the global ebook giants: Amazon and Apple and, to a lesser degree, Google and Kobo. Perhaps I can get a sense in London of how Barnes & Noble’s multi-territory expansion for Nook is faring. But, however they do, there is a so-far little-noted effect beginning to become evident that could tilt the global book business to the English-language marketplace, and to the US in particular.

In a recent conversation, an executive at a Big Five company told me of a recent development. His company had licensed a few titles for Russian language rights to a publisher in Moscow. But by which retailers would most of those ebooks be sold? The answer is Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo and Barnes & Noble! And the Russian publisher, really just breaking into the ebook business, has far more limited access to these retailing giants than the US publisher which had licensed them the rights.

So the US publisher, in a suggestion that seemed in everybody’s interests, offered to be the “distributor” of those Russian ebooks to the major accounts. The deal was made and it worked. I said to the executive who explained this to me, “You could be helpful in distributing all their books, not just the ones you licensed them.” “Exactly,” he said.

But then we took the conversation a little further. This house is wondering whether, in an ebook-dominant world, it wouldn’t make more sense for them to publish books themselves in Spanish, Mandarin, and French (the first three languages they are thinking about). After all, the translations are done by freelancers. Anybody can hire them no matter where they are. And if most of the books sold are ebooks, and if the publishers of English, especially those in the US, have multiple daily contacts with the big ebook retailers and others don’t, then what is the point to licensing away those rights?

That approach would mean that publishers in at least some non-English territories would, at best, be able to license the print rights for the local geography they really cover. And it would mean that the biggest publishers with the biggest checkbooks to sign the biggest authors and titles will be able to benefit from an even larger share of the book’s global market while paying the author more than they could earn with a local publisher sharing in the other-language rights.

If this is more than one company’s inspiration right now, I should be able to find evidence of that at the London Book Fair.

The other thing for me to learn, of course, is how digital marketing of books looks from the UK. In our fledgling new business with Peter McCarthy (take a look at his new post) we have already done some title optimization work for two UK-based publishers, one large and one medium-sized. So we’ve learned how to do the work using UK-based Google and Amazon and putting BIC codes rather than BISAC codes into the metadata. We’ll be formally announcing the new business and opening our web site the day before the London Book Fair opens. I expect to find a lot of interest in what we can offer, just as we have in the US. There is no doubt that the London Book Fair presents the best possible opportunity to find out very quickly what our own opportunity is outside the US as the need for sophisticated marketing naturally follows the growth and increasing complexity of the overall digital environment.

One person I will be sad not to see at London Book Fair is my longtime friend Bruce Robertson, a founder of the pioneering packagers The Diagram Group, who died a little over a week ago at the age of 79. Bruce was sui generis: a brilliant man with a unique gift for visualization that was the guiding spirit behind dozens of global bestselling illustrated books. Forty years ago, I had the opportunity to sell three of Diagram’s greatest books, “Rules of the Game”, “The Way to Play”, and “Man’s Body” when Bruce’s publisher at that time, Paddington Press, was distributed in the US by my family’s distribution company, Two Continents. I always enjoyed seeing him and hearing his witty, insightful, and often cutting take on the people and practices in our business. Fortunately, there were many opportunities to see Bruce and his endlessly good-natured wife, Pat, over the years, at industry events or when he was in NY or I was in London. We are all one of a kind, but some of us are more obviously so than the rest of us. Bruce was like nobody else. He’ll be missed by many friends from all over the world.

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Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same. If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business. Verticalization may work, as it has seemed to for Allromanceebooks but just being “indie-curated” wasn’t enough for Books on Board, a pretty longtime player that expired last year. (So far, Diesel, a comparable indie, is hanging in there.)

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

Apple opened their ebook store because they thought they had a suitable device for book consumption (the iPad), but they also had experience with selling content before (iTunes). They also see potential for iPads in the school and university markets, so they have developed technology to enable more complex books — the kind that haven’t been successful commercially yet — to be developed for their platform. Establishing their devices and the iOS ecosystem in the education market would be a big win for them.

Google recognized over a decade ago that books, being repositories of information that contained the best response to many searches, were a world they wanted to be in. With their growing position in devices — the Nexus 7 phone and Chromebook computers — and as the developers of the Android ecosystem that competes with iOS in the app market, there are many ways that being in the ebook business complements other endeavors, including, perhaps, competing with Apple and iOS in the schools.

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

Of course, ebooks definitely complement Barnes & Noble’s core business. You have a pretty obvious deficiency if you run a bookstore and don’t sell ebooks, so everybody manages to do it somehow or other. Among the mistakes Borders is accused of having made before they disappeared was turning their ebook business over to Kobo. Doubts about the future of Waterstones in the UK include whether it was wise to turn their ebook business over to Amazon. If Barnes & Noble didn’t have Nook, they’d have to make a deal with whoever did have Nook, or with somebody else.

I’m sure Apple or Kobo or Google would be just delighted to have their ebooks integrated into Barnes & Noble’s suite of offerings, and probably Amazon would too, although they would almost certainly never be asked. All of them have shown interest in affiliating with indie stores, with Google having gone in and out, Kobo now trying hard with them, and, even Amazon, which can’t penetrate indies effectively with their own published books now offering them an affiliate program to sell Kindle ebooks called Amazon Source. But surely all of them would jump at the chance to expand their distribution to Barnes & Noble customers.

It is likely that B&N believes that the Nook business can only be truly successful if they keep investing in improved devices and create a global presence. That may be true, but it also might be that Nook can be a useful adjunct to their store business without continually adding devices or creating a presence outside the US where there are no B&N stores. More and more people are comfortable reading on multi-function devices through apps. Maybe B&N could profitably hold on to a core Nook audience by emphasizing synergies with the stores more (bundling print and ebooks, like Amazon does with its Matchbook initiative and as has been tried on a smaller scale by some publishers, would be one such way) and not worrying so much about making Nook competitive with the other ebook retailers as a stand-alone business.

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.) Kobo has made it a pillar of their strategy to find brick-and-mortar partners all over the world.

On a global basis outside the English-language world, the ebook business is still in its infancy. But it is hard to see how any player without a strong English-language presence could develop the scale to compete with those who have it. Every nation and language will have local bookstore players who have “first claim” on the book-readers in their locality. Some might harbor ambitions to also own their local ebook business, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks cannibalize bookstore shelf space. But the cost in cash and time of doing it, combined with the competitive advantage of having English-language books in the offering no matter what language your target market reads, will make a build-it-yourself strategy increasingly unattractive. So it would seem that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo are positioned to grow organically and partner ubiquitously. And it will require some seriously disruptive event, like Walmart buying Barnes & Noble, to break the hold that quartet will have on the global ebook market over the next decade.

A potential disruptive development which this piece ignores is the possibility that ebooks become largely a subscription business over the next decade. I have two overarching thoughts on that.

One is that the book-by-book purchasing habit is sufficiently ingrained that it will not be changed drastically around ebooks in the next ten years. I have no idea what percentage of the ebook market is now subscription, but I think it is safe to say “far less than 1%”. So my instinct is that it would take wild success for it to get to as much as 10% in the next ten years.

The other thing to remember is that any ebook retailer can always develop a subscription offering. Amazon effectively started already that with Kindle Owners Lending Library. You can be sure that if Oyster or 24Symbols starts gathering a substantial share of the market, all of the Big Four as we see them here will find a way to compete for that segment. (It is considerably harder to go the other way around; it is much less likely that Oyster or 24Symbols will open regular stores.)

So whether subscription grows faster or not, the giants of ebook retailing will remain the same.

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Book publishing may not remain a stand-alone industry and book retailing will demonstrate that first


You are missing some good fun if you don’t know those AT&T commercials where the grown-up sits around a table with a bunch of really little kids and asks them questions like “what’s better: faster or slower?” There always seems to be an obvious “correct” answer. Those kids could answer some important questions about ebook retailing in the future like these:

“What’s better? Selling just ebooks or selling ebooks and print books?”

“What’s better? Selling in just one country or in all countries?”

“What’s better? Selling just books or selling books and lots of other things too?”

“What’s better? Having one way to get revenue, like selling books with or without other stuff, or having lots of ways to get revenue so that books are only a part of the opportunity?”

And the answers to those simple questions, so obvious that a 5-year old would get them right, explain a lot about the evolving ebook marketplace and, ultimately, about the entire world of book publishing.

Book retailing on the Internet, let alone an offer that is ebooks only, hardly cuts it as a stand-alone business anymore. The three companies most likely to be in the game and selling ebooks ten years from now are Amazon, Apple, and Google. The ebook business will not be material to any of them — it is only really close to material for Amazon now — which is why we can be sure they will see no need to abandon it. It is a strategic component of a larger ecosystem, not dependent on the margin or profit it itself produces. And the rest of their substantial businesses assure they’ll still be around as a company to run that ebook business.

Kobo is owned by Rakuten, a large Japanese online retailer. They started a global  expansion in 2005, buying up ecommerce companies in different key markets, including Buy.com in the US. They also have invested in Pinterest. I don’t know what it is, but I have to believe that deep in Rakuten’s strategic consciousness there is a larger reason for them to have Kobo, probably based in the opportunities inherent in having a consumer’s email address and credit card information and knowledge of what s/he reads. So they also have a base bigger than the ebook business.

Barnes & Noble demonstrates the principle that books alone and one market alone just aren’t enough. They were able to use their US store presence to jump-start the Nook, but after they grabbed the low-hanging fruit among their store customers for digital reading, they quickly ran out of steam. Without a global presence and without a strong online store (BN.com has been deficient, and an albatross, for years), they just don’t have the ballast to be competitive. And that’s a shame, because B&N is the player that could make the most powerful consumer offer in the book space. They have online and offline, print and digital, but it really hurts them that the execution of offline print isn’t up to competing with Amazon and the overall coordination that would maximize the power of all these capabilities is not in evidence.

This is a totally conceptual theory being posited here, not one with any data to support it. And it is not based on the value of the consumer proposition, although it does seem to me that the “right answers” to the questions in the lead can be formulated strictly from the consumer perspective. The thinking is that book retailing, and particularly ebook retailing, is doomed to being a low-margin business. As such, it is much easier to sustain and support if there is benefit to be gained that goes beyond the margin that can be captured from those sales.

This has really been Amazon’s secret sauce from the beginning. The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.

Google and Apple are similarly situated in that way and profits (or losses) from ebook retailing don’t even rise to the level of a rounding error for them. Their ebook retailing operations exist in service to larger initiatives: search and Nexus 7 and the whole Google Play content offering in Google’s case; making devices more useful and complementing the iTunes and apps offerings in Apple’s. Their ecosystems are much larger than their ebook businesses and they benefit just from the ebook business being there.

And they’re global. As is Kobo, and Rakuten presumably has an ecosystem play in mind, although it isn’t evident yet.

This is a paradigm that leaves Barnes & Noble out in the cold. Their business, on which they must make money, is selling books. They are trying to diversify their merchandise selection a bit in their stores, but that’s a strategy that is both difficult to execute and has nowhere near the upside that Amazon, Google, and Apple have with their other businesses. This is an unfair fight where B&N is dependent on margins from their ebook (and book) sales while their competitors, if perhaps not totally content to break even on that business, aren’t materially affected if they do, or even if they lose a bit of money on that aspect of their business.

All of this is good for publishers, who benefit from having lots of retailers.

But publishers are bound to face the same problem due to atomization. As the share of the book market — print or digital — reached by online retailers grows (and it is perhaps past 50 percent for fiction already), it makes it easier and easier to put book content into the marketplace and have it reach a substantial percentage of its potential audience. Ambitious self-publishing authors have been reaping the benefits of this reality in growing numbers for the past several years; now entities ranging from newspapers and magazines to ad agencies and colleges and manufacturers are discovering the same opportunity.

In other words, publishing — like book retailing — is likely to become a subsidiary function pursued in strategic support of larger goals. Unlike in retailing, this will not be consolidated among a few players, but as widely scattered as the subjects about which books are produced. But the core challenge for the legacy publishing establishment, that they will increasingly face competition that doesn’t need the profits from that activity as much as they do, will be the same. Book publishing as a stand-alone industry with most of its significant players earning all their profits within it is in the process of morphing into something quite different, starting with the retailers.

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Finding your next book, or, the discovery problem


A big flap has arisen this week — which I believe I would have been equally aware of had I been home in New York rather than in London — because the giant UK books-and-stationery retailer WH Smith has apparently found inappropriate ebooks being recommended through the kids books portions of the Kobo-managed ebook offering they host. This has sparked a lot of conversation about how recommendations — indeed how curation — is managed in the online environment. In this case, the discussion is about the specifics of this problem and how metadata might have been wrong, gamed, misunderstood. This has resulted in Smith’s turning off their whole web site, which contains the Kobo-offered ebooks, while the problem is “fixed”. It’s a mess that points to how far we are from solving core challenges of selling books in a virtual environment.

Online bookselling has a long way to go before it can deliver even what it intends to deliver in response to a search or to prompt a next sale. Of course, there are two additional and larger problems that come first: knowing what the right suggestion(s) would be and being able to make enough of them to match the book shopping experiences online sales must replace.

Analysis offered by Russ Grandinetti of Amazon at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last week suggested that the US and UK are on the verge of transacting more than 50% of the book business online, with other markets in Europe and Asia not more than two or three years behind. (This may understate the real state of affairs; in a meeting I just had in London I was told that one of the biggest UK publishers says that 60 percent of their sales of print, ebooks, and audio are through Amazon!) Online sales of books were probably in the neighborhood of 10%, or less, for most publishers a decade ago. That shift is why retail shelf space has diminished so much, with major chains having sunk in both of the big English-speaking markets (and in smaller ones as well).

When most books were bought in physical locations, it was axiomatic that a book displayed in a store had an exponentially greater chance of selling than one that wasn’t, despite wholesale supply in the US from Ingram and Baker & Taylor that could get almost any book to almost any store in 24-48 hours. It had to be seen in the store to be bought. Competent commercial trade publishers knew there was very little point to pushing a book through marketing efforts if inventory wasn’t in place at retail, because seeing the book at the time you might buy it was a more powerful trigger for purchase than any other. Indeed, all the other stimuli (reviews, suggestions from friends, conversation at the office) tended to be acted upon only when the presence in the store was in proximity to the suggestion or recommendation. (And that’s why recommendations from clerks in the store were the most powerful recommendations of all: hence the concept of “hand-selling”.)

One problem with the change to online buying from the discovery perspective is that the funnel for each shopper keeps getting narrower. It isn’t hard for somebody in a bookstore to look at hundreds of books in a few minutes. It’s nearly impossible online. This either requires the consumer to spend more time shopping to see the same number of titles they used to see in a store, or to make a decision having seen fewer. And the concern is that the decision that gets made having seen fewer can be not to buy anything at all. (Or, particularly in the case of tablet users, to buy something other than books.)

Of course, in theory, being able to present a personally-curated batch of suggestions for each customer could be far more precisely targeted than what a store can do, and, in that case, fewer titles shown might do the same job. But we are a long way from that. And, for reasons I hope this piece will make clear, personally-curated choices would actually be far more likely to be delivered by Google than by Amazon (although they would raise a host of what would be considered big privacy concerns to a lot of customers by doing it). And that’s not a reflection on the quality of anybody’s programmers, and certainly not of their commitment to their customers.

The technology that hopes to help you “pick your next book” is referred to as a “recommendation engine”. I’ve never been on the inside of such an effort but the thinking behind them seems to center around analyzing what books you’ve bought and what you’ve searched for and, from that, figuring out what you might read next. This might be based on analysis of the content itself (e.g. Pandora recommending music of similar style and quality) and/or collaborative filtering models — leveraging user inputs (purchase history, ratings, and reviews) to make recommendations for other similar users (“people who bought x also bought y”). It all recalls for me the experience of being told when I met a great bookseller, the late Joel Turner, at the 1978 American Booksellers convention in Atlanta, that “if a customer walks up to my cash register with five books, I can always sell him a sixth”.

Of course, over time, a bookseller can fill out that knowledge with even more data as they see more and more purchases and get to know their customers, and perhaps their families. But, in fact, using books bought as a guide to recommendations is an incomplete data set. It can also be a misleading one since people buy books for people other than themselves.

Another way to look at it came from my friend, Andrew Rhomberg.  Based on his experience with start-up Jellybooks, he formulated five major book discovery paths: serendipitous, social, distributed, data-driven and incentivized.

The point is that most people get their ideas about what to read next from many sources: people they talk to, reviews, news reports, business interactions. Some people say they get book recommendations from their friends; others (like me) say they don’t often read the same things their friends or relatives read. I suspect that online communities of readers tend to work best for people who do a lot of reading in genres and not nearly as well for people who mix fiction and non-fiction, entertainment and learning. And some people gravitate to what’s popular, so bestseller lists work best for them. It is clear that getting on a bestseller list fuels a book’s sales.

And books are bought for motivations other than “to read”, so it might also be important to know that a customer’s son is having a birthday, that a customer’s cousin is getting married, that a customer is shopping for a new home or looking for a new job or starting on a new hobby or spending money on an old one.

Few, if any, of these things would be apparent to even the most diligent hand-selling bookstore personnel. Bits and pieces of it might be detectable by the super-merchant Amazon (but not likely to any other).

This is one devilishly complex problem. There are countless potential inputs to the “next book purchase” decision and they are processed by each different individual in a highly personalized way. If you think it through, it seems obvious that most recommendations to most people wouldn’t work. Which takes us back to the need to make a lot of them, which a bookstore display does much better than online pages that show 10 or 20 books at one time.

In the long run, it would seem to me that Google is the entity best-positioned to address this challenge if they can somehow combine the knowledge of what you searched for (which they know), with what you read online (which they could know if you use Chrome for your browser), and the topics and book titles that have appeared in your emails (which they could know if you use Gmail) and the things you ‘like’ and talk about online (if you use Google+). Knowing your travel plans and patterns would be helpful too.

Of course, unless you use Google Play for ebook purchase and consumption, they’d be missing the two most important bits of data — what you bought and how voraciously you read it and they still wouldn’t know your print book purchases (unless they crawl your email receipts for that as well) – which Amazon is building on without all the other information. What you’d really want to do is to correlate the book buying and consumption information from the past with the behavioral data contemporary to it. With it all combined, perhaps you could filter recommendations so that the 20 or 50 you could show on line would have the commercial power of the hundreds or thousands you could see in the same amount of time in a store.

At the moment, both Amazon and Google are trying to see a pattern through one nearsighted eye.

But is this all really part of a larger problem for publishers? Is online discovery really affecting the sales patterns for books? It would appear so. One of the global ebook sellers told me during Frankfurt that their online sales are far more concentrated than publishers’ sales tended to be, with a tiny fraction of titles (under 5%) making up a huge percentage of total sales (nearly 70%). (I am assuming here that this retailer’s data is typical; of course, it may not be.) If memory serves, at the turn of the century Barnes & Noble stores saw only about 5% of their sales coming from “bestsellers” and, I believe (relying on memory of detail, which I admit is not my most powerful mental muscle) backlist outsold new titles. Publishers really live on the midlist. We know the long tail is taking an increasing share of sales and it would appear the head is too. Those sales come out of the midlist. It is pretty hard to run a profitable publisher without a profitable midlist.

And that would suggest that the increasing concentration of sales, which is likely the result of our hobbled ability to present choices in the digital sales environment, is a problem that publishers will want to address.

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Barnes & Noble and managing the digital transition


We keep making the case that the split that matters when trying to foretell the future of the book business (and everybody in it) is not “print” versus “digital”, but “bought online” versus “bought in stores”.

Of all the major retailers, only Barnes & Noble has a stake in all four of the meaningful transaction streams for trade books: print in stores, devices in stores, print online, and ebooks. (All devices are available online.) Amazon has no store presence. Kobo has a minimal store presence through independent retailers but has no print business. Apple has no store presence for content at all and doesn’t sell print online. And Google seems to only tangentially deal with any of the non-digital content businesses.

In fact, B&N is in a fifth “segment”: college bookstores. That segment was the only one that showed revenue growth in their latest reporting, although even in that segment same store sales showed a slight decline. College textbooks having been slow to move to digital has helped preserve that business, but it would be a weak bet to expect that to last forever, or even for many more years.

What this means is that Amazon, Kobo, and Apple are firmly planted in parts of the business that are growing. Kobo and Apple only sell ebooks and Amazon sells print too, but, in general, the migration to online buying and ebook consumption is going to continue so the sales taking place in the environments in which they operate will continue to grow. Whatever their share, they will be taking it from a bigger and bigger pie.

B&N, on the other hand, gets most of its sales from print in stores. That is the component of the sales which is declining and bound to continue to decline. That means that B&N, uniquely, has the challenge of keeping its customers as they switch their mode of buying and consuming books.

The retailer announced their latest quarterly results this week and, at least superficially, they are not encouraging. Sales of devices are down. Sales of digital content are down. Sales of print in stores and online are down. The company points out that book sales in general took a hit because the two most recent book sales phenomena, “Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades of Gray” are running out of steam and haven’t been replaced by The Next Big Thing(s) yet. But in the absence of sales information about print and ebooks from Amazon (which data is normally well-masked in their overall reporting), we have no basis for comparison. And comparison is what we need to know how B&N is doing and what their future holds.

In other words, are Amazon’s online and ebook sales declining because of the lack of a replacement for “Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades”? Or is B&N not only losing sales, but also losing share as the market migrates from stores (their strength) to online (Amazon’s strength)?

There really is no “industry” data to help us get at an answer to that. For a few years in the prior decade, Idea Logical did some sales data analysis work for a number of publishers large and small. Each publisher gets clear reporting of its sales in a granular-enough way to examine this. Of their B&N sales, they know what is digital and what is print, and they know what is sold in stores and what is sold by BN.com. At the time that we were doing this work, which ended before ebooks became a significant portion of the commerce, it appeared that Amazon sold about 10 times as many books across most lists than BN.com did. (Of course, at that time at least, B&N stores sold more than Amazon.)

Barnes & Noble is in a unique position. Every other player is looking to capture customers migrating from old patterns to new ones, whether switching from buying print in stores to buying it online (Amazon) or switching from reading print to reading ebooks. Only B&N is trying to keep customers who came to them for print in stores.

In 2010 and 2011, it appeared they were doing very well at just that, selling lots of Nook devices in their stores. It appeared that there were a large number of heavy book readers who had been unwilling to jump to digital. Perhaps they wanted to see and touch the devices first. Perhaps they wanted to see that many friends and family of theirs had made the leap before they would. Or perhaps they just wanted their trusted book vendor, Barnes & Noble, to offer them the ebook opportunity.

The anecdata suggested (there was no clear objective data to prove) that, following the launch of Nook in the Fall of 2009, B&N’s format shot up pretty quickly to a market share in the neighborhood of 20-25%, with Apple (initially) taking about 10% with the iBookstore. Amazon’s Kindle declined from more than 90% of the market to around 60%.

Then some things changed in the marketplace. The DoJ suit effectively ended publisher-set pricing. Apple took the direct link to the bookstore off all the iOS apps except their own. And tablets and phones increased their share of the ebook market in relation to dedicated ereaders. Again, relying on anecdata where no industry data exists, reports suggest that the B&N/Nook share has declined, Apple’s iBookstore has risen, and Amazon has perhaps come back a bit. (Amazon, Apple, and Kobo have a much bigger global footprint than B&N, although that probably doesn’t matter much in the US market.) Certainly, the numbers from B&N reporting that digital content sales have declined in real terms strongly suggests a reduction in their US market share. Overall digital content sales have almost certainly not declined.

It is beyond B&N’s power — or anybody else’s — to do much to affect overall consumer behavior. People will buy and read in the way that the current combination of price, convenience, and technology motivate them to. In the abstract, it would seem that a company that has a foot in all the markets would have a better chance to capture people switching buying or reading modes than a company with a more limited offering. It would seem that way, but it isn’t working out that way. B&N has to figure out how to make their ubiquity work in their favor which, except for a year or two around the debut of the Nook, they haven’t managed to do yet.

The facts tell us that Barnes & Noble failed years ago to make its store customers into online customers. They’ve been sharing customers with Amazon since Amazon began. Indeed, the skill sets a corporation needs to run a successful online business aren’t the same as they are to run a chain of physical stores. But it can be done: the office supply retailer Staples is the second-largest online retailer in the US. I think if I were at B&N I’d be asking somebody up there how they did it.

BN.com has been the weak link in the Barnes & Noble chain since they launched it under joint ownership with Bertelsmann. When the company was run by strong merchants, they didn’t pay close attention to it. For the past few years, the company has been run by an ebook-focused management and they didn’t improve it. In both cases, BN.com’s success was secondary to another agenda. It is ironic that the current management, rooted in finance and operations, seems to have focused on this core — perhaps existential — strategic problem, with improvements in BN.com promised shortly.

Another aspect of the B&N reporting was that major shareholder and Chairman Leonard Riggio announced that he is “suspending” his interest in buying the stores. Whether that is an indication that he’s less confident of their future than he was before or whether, as the announcement says, he just feels that B&N as a company needs to concentrate on making the Nook-and-store combination work more effectively, is not something anybody but he and his closest advisors know for sure.

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The totality of the relationship is what matters


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.

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Unbundling in the book business: the fourth big trend


A few weeks ago, I wrote that there are three big forces driving the future of publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization.

I was wrong. I had forgotten my own blogpost from last September when I identified another trend that belongs with the first three: “unbundling”. The book business, in the trade segment I follow most closely but in every other segment as well, is seeing its value proposition becoming unbundled in a number of ways.

Up until very recently, a trade publisher controlled just about every aspect of a book’s publication. The indispensible parts of the value publishers offered were two: the advance against royalties that often provided essential financing to enable the writer to create the manuscript and the network of relationships and infrastructure that put books on shelves for consumers to find and buy them.

Because the publisher was taking both a capital and reputational risk with every book published, it was natural that it would handle all the supporting steps: developmental and copy-editing, marketing and publicity, design and manufacturing. The publisher would commission the artwork for the book’s cover and determine what was the best foot forward on flap copy.

Until the turn of the 21st century, it was the exceptional author who had any kind of “platform” that could be employed for the book’s marketing: something like a TV show or newspaper column or fame achieved some other way that could be a springboard for promoting the book. In the cases where those opportunities existed, publishers recognized that the book was being “piggybacked” onto something that had its own commercial purpose and was not subject to the wishes or timetables of a book’s publisher.

What changed before the publishing business changed is that many of us have some sort of platform now, as in “a way to reach an audience”. And, although my platform isn’t comparable to Rush Limbaugh’s or Jay Leno’s, it is, indeed, mine all mine and I can do what I want with it. Many other people have platforms of their own that are far more powerful than mine.

It could be said that publishers themselves began the unbundling process as they got authors to use their platforms to market their books. With the advent of ebooks and driven by the CreateSpace services offered by Amazon, it became possible for any author to publish his or her own book and those with a platform, or even just building one, no longer had to get the assent of a publisher to put their book into the market.

My friend, futurist David Houle (whose new book “Entering the Shift Age” has been published by Sourcebooks), was frustrated in 2007 with his inability to connect with a publisher for his predictive thinking. He was just starting his blog, “Evolution Shift” and it didn’t have enough history or audience to persuade any publisher he found to put out his companion book, “The Shift Age”. So he did it himself, through Amazon, even before there was a Kindle. Over the years, David has sold about 7,000 copies of his book, many through Amazon but many more through his own public appearances as a speaker. (And what he’s made per copy is far more than what he’d have made in a publishing deal.)

Since Houle published “The Shift Age” several years ago, an industry has grown around offering services for publishing. This is referred to as the “author services” business. The core offerings are to take the creator’s file (in Word or InDesign) and make it accessible in various ebook formats at the front end and then to interact with ebook retailers (delivering the file and capturing the sales information and the revenue) at the other end. The services offered by the retailers themselves (and you can get this help from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) don’t push the ebook out to other ebook retailers. Amazon is the only one to offer a companion print option.

The first mover on these services in the ebook age outside the retailers was Smashwords. They’ve been joined by a host of others. Author Solutions, acquired about a year ago by Penguin, rolled up a number of companies that offered these services in the print-only world that existed before Kindle. They have all come to recognize that publishers provide more than the essential services at each end of the publishing process; they also provide editing and packaging and marketing services in the middle. So these have popped up as discrete offerings — “unbundled” — both through the complete service providers and as stand-alones.

Now there’s an aggregator of the stand-alone service providers, BiblioCrunch, which features a host of freelancers that any author can access. Another fledgling, NetMinds, which has made some news lately by publishing Nolan Bushnell’s book, makes provision of expert services in many categories a part of its model.

This unbundling effect plays out in interesting ways. When Hugh Howey sold the rights to his smash success “Wool” to Random House UK (before he had a US publisher), they worked with Howey and did some editing, including creating an additional chapter, for their edition. Howey took that component of Random House’s work and was able to make it available for the print edition he licensed in the US to Simon & Schuster and then incorporated it into the ebook version he sold himself.

All of this evidence that the publishers’ proposition is being unbundled leads to two strategic observations.

As the services game shifts from “authors” to “entities” (what I call atomization and of which there are new examples just about every single day), there is a critical job description missing from the service offerings. That job is “publisher”. The publisher makes the overall decisions about the editorial, production, and marketing resources that are committed to each book.

In the author services environment, this role can often be useful but would not be missed in many circumstances. There is no “what to publish” decision; the author has a book. There are very limited “resource allocation” decisions because the available resources to allocate are the author’s own.

But as entities of all kind take over from authors as the primary providers of books outside the industry itself, the role of publisher becomes critical. Decisions will need to be made.

There are 26 categories of helper available in BiblioCrunch. “Publisher” is not one of them.

I met last week in Los Angeles with a team of producers and development executives who are acting on an idea I have pushed: that Hollywood can become an important center for fiction book publishing. They have a core resource of thousands of great stories developed in the hopes that they will become a movie that ultimately doesn’t get funded, or as they say out there, “green-lighted”. This team has over 100 projects that are candidates for their book publishing efforts, but they can’t just “do them all”. They have to set up a company, pay to turn scripts into novels (or, at least, narrative stories), and put them into ebook and probably also print book formats. So, they asked me, which ones would you do first?

I said, “I wouldn’t ask me. I’d ask a publisher.” I named two very good and experienced ones immediately who are currently unemployed. These people have vast experience with all the decisions that are required: which stories are most saleable as books, what length the books should be, what style they should be written in, and how they should be titled, packaged, and promoted.

This necessity is even more evident when one thinks about non-fiction entities that might become publishers. If every museum, library, and department of a university is “a publisher waiting to happen” (and I believe all of them are), how could any of them proceed without a publisher?

If you were trying to get a museum started on becoming a book publisher, you’d begin with a discovery process that asked key questions. Who comes to the museum and what do you know about them? Who comes to the museum’s web site and what do you know about them? What IP do you already own that could be publishable as books? What good IP could you lay your hands on if you would publish it as a book? What is your relationship to sources of IP and marketing, like academic institutions, not-for-profits, or other museums? If you asked supporters of your museum for money to fund a publishing program, would they give it to you?

What the publishing program should be in response to the answers to those questions is something only a publisher has real experience figuring out. The publisher is the first service the entity needs. Renting a publisher takes precedence over renting an editor or a cover artist.

Ingram Publisher Services had a great success with a wildly expensive ($625) cookbook series (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Perhaps lost in the reporting of that story is the fact that Myhrvold’s first stop was to engage Bruce Harris, the former Publisher of Harmony Books and a former Random House sales executive. Harris has “publisher” in his DNA, and he undoubtedly shaped key decisions, probably including engaging Ingram in the first place, let alone directing their activites, that were instrumental to the success of the project.

So the first strategic point is that hiring all the services without hiring a publisher is like having a football team without a quarterback.

The second strategic observation is that the industry itself, but particularly the trade component of it, is also being unbundled. Disparate efforts that bookstores aggregated and welded together are now coming apart.

Here I’m not thinking about the value chain for each book, which is overseen by the publisher, but the value chain for the industry, which includes the supply chain. Although there have always been some vertical bookstores — in New York City until a few years ago they ranged from specialists in architecture to specialists in mysteries — most books were sold in general bookstores that sold everything. As publishers are forced to reach readers in different ways than they used to, the subject of a book, and the consistency of audience appeal within a publisher’s list, becomes a key to its marketing in ways it never was.

But ebooks are creating another distinction, between books that are meant to be read from start to finish and all other books: art books, illustrated instruction, references, and compendia. Narrative writing, particularly fiction, works as ebooks. The others don’t. That increasingly encourages publishers who depend primarily on narrative reading to stick to it and to not publish books of other kinds.

It is also creating a differentiated distribution problem for publishers, depending on their output. Publishers of novels and narrative non-fiction are seeing the decline in their print book sales compensated for by increases in their ebook sales. They have a new challenge reaching the audiences and making them aware of their books, but their problem isn’t exacerbated by the format change. Many of their readers simply switch over from print to digital on whatever device they want to use and one-color straight text printing enables reducing the print runs without costs getting completely out of line.

But that’s not true for publishers of other books. As bookstores close and readers switch to digital formats, they face existential questions. They can’t suffer the print run reductions readily. They can’t just make a digital version by copying the print. And, if they did, it won’t sell.

Some illustrated book publishers have robust distribution outside the bookstores, to museums or gift shops, for example. In some cases, the book trade was already a diminishing share of their business before the ebook revolution happened.

But the impact of digital change on publishers that used to all depend together on a healthy bookstore network is very highly variable. Their fates were joined. They’re now being unbundled.

Although the organizing theme of our Pub Launch BEA conference is “scale”, the other trends definitely get their moment. Ken Michaels of Hachette will talk about tools his company has developed that are being unbundled and delivered as services to other publishers. And the particular challenge of the illustrated book publishers as they lose the ability to piggyback on bestseller traffic in bookstores is the subject of the final chunk of the day’s programming. First, Ron Martinez of Aerbook will survey the new tools available to make putting an illustrated book into digital form cheaper and more effective. Then a panel of illustrated book publishers — Joseph Craven (Quarto Group), Tim Greco (Dorling Kindersley), Lindy Humphreys (Abrams), and Mary Ann Naples (Rodale) – will talk about how they are adjusting to the new retailing environment unbundling is creating in a panel discussion moderated by former Crown Illustrated publisher Lauren Shakely.

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How the ebook evolution might get started in other places


The organizers of the Buenos Aires Book Fair, which will run for the next few weeks, invited me to speak at an opening session of their event last Friday. They left the topic completely up to me. What I offered to do, which the organizers liked, was to review the history of the past 20 years of digital change in the US and in the English language which has brought us to this point. The presumption is that understanding how it happened to us will help them understand what is going to happen in their market, in other Spanish-speaking markets, and in other countries and other languages.

The underlying premise of my talk, which was delivered formally at a Book Fair opening event last Friday and informally to other gatherings they scheduled for me — of students, of young editors, and of some publishing executives — and in a meeting consulting with about 20 employees of one publishing house, was that what happened in the US and then elsewhere in English was unique and would not be replicated in the same way in other languages and territories. What I had identified as the unique characteristics of the US market were:

Three hundred million people with one language, one currency, one commercial set of rules.

A powerful player (Amazon) able to change both publisher behavior (twisting arms to have them provide more titles as ebooks) and consumer habits (getting them to consider what started as an expensive device — a $400 Kindle) with their marketplace power.

Indeed, no other market has those two elements. In fact, in many markets, including all of the players I talked to in Latin America, Amazon is not seen as a really signficant factor.

In addition to the conditions that made the US market unique, I stated two additional assumptions which drew little objection from my audiences in Buenos Aires.

At some point — whether it is five years from now or 20 years from now — the world’s book publishing markets will look very similar. That is, the effects we see in the US — patterns of ebook uptake and the consequently devastating effects on bookstores — will somehow be replicated in other markets.

Both because the unique market characteristics of the US don’t exist elsewhere and because the market already made in the US has created global players and infrastructure that weren’t here when the ebook revolution caught hold, we need to expect that it will be a different path to the future in other places from what we saw in the US. The markets will not be made by the inherent marketplace scale and by Amazon, as ours was.

I thought some things we’ve seen constituted “universal” lessons worth taking on board. We’ve seen ebooks consistently work commercially for narrative reading and not for any other kinds of books. We haven’t seen “enhancements”, like video or interactivity, pay off in bigger sales or in making it easier to command higher prices. I suggested they should expect the same, and the people I spoke with agreed. They should also expect that the product competition from outside the commercial publishing community, which we’ve seen so far primarily from self-published authors, will drive down the prices for books from established authors as it has in our market.

But the more I probed, looking for what would make the market, the more I ended up in blind alleys. There is no online purchasing market anywhere in Latin America to compare with ours. That’s why Amazon hasn’t gained a strong foothold. Kobo’s strategy of working through local booksellers — an alliance has been formed in Brazil and they are clearly looking for partners elsewhere — apparently hasn’t made much of a dent either. One publisher said Apple sales were “promising”, but they’re still “insignificant”.

The reality underlying all this futility is the relative dearth of credit card use. In the US, we have had about three generations of ubiquitous credit card use. They are second nature to us. And the online purchasing world — Amazon in particular — would never have achieved the position they have if that weren’t true.

Well, it isn’t true in Latin America.

There is no way to make an ebook market, which must be an online market, without a payment mechanism. And the one we have in the US isn’t set up to work in Argentina, Brazil, or the rest of Latin America (or, for that matter, in many other parts of the world).

Of course, the cell phone carriers, who do send a bill and collect money from the masses in all these countries where credit card use is limited, had figured that out a long time ago. Nokia and others have been dancing around this opportunity for years. Txtr, a Germany-based ebook play, targets the cell phone companies as its path to the market. Txtr is building an inventory of titles and has come up with an ultra-low-cost ereading device called beagle to jumpstart their market. In doing that, they show that they learned something from Google’s experience, where ebook sales only started to grow when the Nexus7 tablet, which is tied to Google, made its way into the market.

All the conversation led me to come up with my own version of an “answer”; I don’t know if anybody else has made this suggestion but the small bit of conversation I was able to have between having this thought and leaving Buenos Aires didn’t uncover evidence that anybody else had.

It takes three components to make an ebook market:

1. A device to read the ebooks on. That could be a laptop or desktop computer or dedicated ereading device, but it is most likely to be a smart phone or a tablet.

2. A store: a merchandised selection of ebooks that can be shopped through browsing and searching that is compatible with the device.

3. A payment mechanism.

In the US, we really didn’t think about the payment mechanism. For many other places in the world, that’s a very tricky part.

Txtr is trying to deliver the missing pieces to the solution to the telcos, right down to delivering a very inexpensive device that can be the reader if the cell phone is not.

What occurred to me, and I’m wondering whether it is being developed by anybody else, is what I think would be an even better — as in more likely to build a market quickly — solution. What I’m imagining is that a device manufacturer (or more than one, but if one, preferably one that makes both smart phones and tablets) teams up with a cell phone company (to do the billing) and persuades the ebook retailers — Amazon, Google, B&N, Kobo — to accept payment through the phone company. Then that hardware manufacturer has a fabulous value proposition to help them sell their devices and the ebook market has a choice of the best retailers with the best selections of ebooks already aggregated.

Actually, persuading one retailer will persuade them all. If Samsung were pushing a tablet and smartphone and got any of the major ebook retailers to go for the proposition, the others would surely have to follow. And, in fact, it would make sense for either Apple or Google to do this when they sell apps in credit-card-challenged markets as well.

Another complication in some places — particularly Brazil and Argentina at the moment — is created by complex regulations that make the sale of hardware manufactured outside their country either impossible to get or extremely expensive. Although that’s a problem that extends beyond the book business, it is much more likely to be solved by a multi-function device-maker than for one dedicated only to ebook consumption.

It is interesting to think about Apple’s position here. The other big ebook retailing operations already provide apps for both iOS and Android devices as a matter of course. The iBookstore, however, is a Mac-only play. If the solution I’m envisioning were to roll out around the world — and one can imagine a company like Samsung making such a thing happen — would that continue to be the wisest play for the Apple-owned ebook retailer? I think not, but one can only imagine how intense the internal discussions around that point could be.

Today (April 30) is the last day to get the Early Bird pricing for our next Publishers Launch Conference, which will be at BEA on May 29. The theme for this event is “scale”, a fairly obvious topic of great importance that we don’t believe has been a central focus for a digital change event before. We’ll have agents talking about it as well as presentations from three publishers — F+W Media, Hachette, and Random House — who are applying it in very different ways. We’ll have Brian Napack presenting the investor’s view of its importance. We’ll have a presentation on the current state of more complex ebook- and app-making from Ron Martinez, followed by a panel of publishers considering the future of the illustrated book. And Michael Cader and I will discuss the topic of scale in circumstances that most executives won’t (or can’t) in public, like how it is applied by Amazon and how it might be used by the new Penguin Random House.

 
See pricing information and registration options on the PLC site for more details. You may register either through our dedicated Launch BEA registration link, or via the main BEA registration page where you can sign up for BEA itself and other events at the same time.

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The three forces that are shaping 21st century book publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization


There are three overarching realities that are determining the future course of book publishing. They are clear and they are inexorable:

Scale, and its close cousin “critical mass”, is the ability to use size as a competitive advantage in any endeavor;

Verticalization, or being in sync with the inherent capability of the Internet to deliver anything of interest in an audience-specific way; and

Atomization, or the ability for any person or entity to perform the most critical component of publishing — making content available and accessible to anybody anywhere — without capital and without an organization dedicated to distribution.

Scale

In the 20th century, scale in publishing was really an internal concept. Big publishers had more resources to sign books, get to bookstores, and roll out marketing than smaller ones. Barnes & Noble and Borders had supply chain and cost advantages over independent bookstores, except that Ingram and other wholesalers lent their scale to provide partial compensation. Bigger literary agencies had negotiated more boilerplate agreements than smaller ones and often had helpful relationships that went beyond publishing, but a single operator could still cultivate enough editors to make a legitimate case that he or she could place a book as effectively as the giants.

But that’s changed entirely in the past 10 years. Now publishing operates in a world increasingly controlled by Amazon, Apple, and Google, all companies that make far more money outside of books than through books. One Big Six CEO observed to me about five years ago that the time had passed when s/he could call all the biggest trading partners of their company and reach the CEO instantly. Penguin Random House has merged into a publishing company that will control about half the most commercial titles in the marketplace, but any suggestion that their size will enable them to dictate much to Amazon, Apple, or Google is deluded.

What Random House can do is apply scale against other publisher competitors. And they will.

Critical mass is a scale-related concept but it is also a component of verticalization. When a publisher, or any aggregator, has enough material to allow it to ignore competition in a consumer offer, it has achieved the effective barrier to entry that scale also provides. For example: subscription models for general books are a very difficult commercial proposition because the biggest agents for the biggest authors wouldn’t want their titles included. But Amazon might just have so many titles they can make available through a subscription offering that they can do it successfully even without the top of the bestseller list. The new Penguin Random House combination might also be able to do something here, if the avoidance of a 3rd party could generate enough revenue for the authors to change the minds of the agents, even though they’d be doing it with just their books. After all, Spotify was able to aggregate enough music to sell subscriptions even before they brought The Beatles into their catalog.

Another smart and relevant application of scale is by F+W Media (our partners in Digital Book World conferences), which publishes across a range of communities. They are able to offer each one the advantages of a direct retailing operation, because they maintain that capability through the scale of their entire operation. Some of the verticals in which they apply it wouldn’t be able to support such a capability on their own. F+W applies scale to their niches with their web and event teams as well.

Verticalization

In the 20th century, most trade books reached their customers through bookstores. That liberated publishers to be largely audience-agnostic in their choices about what to publish. They could stick a memoir, a novel, a knitting book, a travel guide, and a kid’s pop-up book into the same box and the bookstore would sort it out for the consumer, putting it on the appropriately-labeled shelf for the shopper.

In those days, the devotee of any subject from baseball to cookbooks would think nothing of browsing the shelves of several different bookstores to find all the offerings relevant to their interests.

Those days are gone. Twice.

Thanks to Google and its competitors, the entire universe of offerings around any topic of interest are aggregated and surfaced very quickly. And bookstores and the staff and shelf space publishers used to sort things out are disappearing.

All of this is driving publishers to be audience-centric in their thinking in ways that were never required before. If the Internet is how customers are reached, not bookstores, it becomes evident pretty quickly that it makes for highly inefficient marketing to be all over the lot with your subject matter or genres. It didn’t used to matter to publishers if they had the “next book” for the person who bought the last book. But it surely does when you’ve spent good marketing money and effort to find and reach that person, and when you can often stay in touch with them in a cost-free (or at least very low-cost) way going forward.

It is in audience-centric marketing that scale can be applied successfully today, using size and resources to improve the ability to reach out rather than to lower the unit cost of some internal mechanistic function. Understanding the reality of verticalization should also prompt publishers to rethink the way they define and build brands. Imprints are brands within a publishing house meant to communicate to their trading partners: bookstore buyers and reviewers in one direction and authors and agents in the other. In a vertical world, brand-building should be much more audience-centric. This particular requirement to think differently seems to be very challenging for publishers.

Atomization

In the 20th century, it took capital and an organization to publish a book. While you always had to provide your own capital to be a publisher, ways evolved to “rent” the organization, specifically the distribution services offered by most publishers and some specialist organizations.

The barrier to entry for book publishing was always relatively low compared to other media: magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and movies would all require much more of a financial and organizational commitment than was required to publish a book. But there definitely was a fence around the book publishing world, and the position of “gatekeeper” was both well-earned and well-rewarded.

But those days are gone too.

As of this writing in April 2013, sales of any book of narrative reading will, depending on topic or genre, be 20% to 60% in ebooks, which requires no inventory investment and minimal distribution infrastructure. Sales of the printed books — the other 40% to 80% — will be anywhere from 25% to 50% through online channels. Those sales can also be achieved (largely through Amazon) without an investment in inventory, printed at the moment they’re ordered.

The first flood of opportunists exploiting this new reality were authors who self-published. Some, like Bob Mayer and Joe Konrath, took the brands they’d built through traditional publishing (and sometimes even the very books themselves) and created a new commercial model where the majority share of margin taken by the publisher was divided between them and the retailer, usually Amazon. Others, like Amanda Hocking and John Locke in the early days  and hundreds of others since, built publishing brands on their own. These authors were driven by the desire for recognition of their writing and, in some cases, by the conviction that they could make money. Their existence in large numbers fueled the creation of an “author services” industry. The biggest and most profitable of the companies in that business, Author Solutions, was bought by Penguin a year ago. Amazon built a business called CreateSpace to serve this market; Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple all offered varieties of the same set of capabilities.

Recently, we have seen a rush of other content creators — newspapers, magazines, web sites, and new companies dedicated to exploiting the book opportunity — building their presence as book publishers, or at least as ebook publishers. There are experiments with content types (short form, author-centric) and business models (subscription being a frequently-tried one on which the jury is still definitely out).

But all of this is a precursor to the next wave, when every law firm, accounting firm, consulting firm, department of a college or university, retailer, service provider, and manufacturer will see the benefits to them of building the function of book publishing into their marketing mix. This will truly constitute an existential threat to book publishing as a business, because these entities will not be building their publishing programs with profits primarily in mind. That will make it exceedingly difficult for the companies that do — the book publishing business we’ve always known — to compete. The quality they deliver costs money. The prices they need to charge are based on their costs.

Their books will be in a marketplace competing with titles supported by other rewards and priced with considerations other than profit in mind.

Scale, verticalization, atomization. Examine any new proposition you hear about against the filter of those concepts and I think you’ll have a pretty fair sense of whether it has much chance for success. Hitting two of those three marks is no guarantee of prospering, but failing to hit any would be a pretty fair assurance of failure.

Our Publishers Launch conference at BEA on May 29 has several presentations focused on the theme of scale. We’ll have presentations from Random House, Hachette, and F+W Media about how they’re applying it for competitive advantage. We’ll have a panel of agents discussing how scale affects their role in publishing. And in a discussion my PLC partner Michael Cader and I will be having, trying to talk about the things people in publishing jobs are constrained to discuss, it will certainly be a core topic.

Our regular readers may notice a relative lack of links in this post. Because this synthesizes and re-articulates many thoughts we’ve expressed over the years, we thought it might be more helpful to gather the relevant internal links here at the bottom of the post rather than placing some of them throughout. The links from speeches and posts here are presented chronologically to document the evolution in thinking that led to today’s post.

End of General Trade Publishing Houses: Death or Rebirth in a Niche-by-Niche World – 5/31/2007

Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric Web World – 5/29/2009

The Emerging Opportunity for Today’s Publishers – 6/17/2009

The Need for Critical Mass is Why Verticalization is a Process – 6/22/2009

Verticalization in Action – 7/2/2009

Why Publishers Need to Understand Brand – 9/23/2009 

My Advice is Not Always Easy to Follow, But Sometimes It Proves Right Anyway – 3/29/2010

Cool Springs Press, a Gardening Publisher that Really Understands “Vertical” – 6/23/2010

Publishing is Living in a World Not of Its Own Making – 7/24/2011 

Will Book Publishers Be Able to Maintain Primacy as Ebook Publishers? – 10/9/2011 

True “Do-It-Yourself” Publishing Success Stories Will Probably Become Rare – 11/6/2011 

Publishers Adding Value on the Marketing Side – 11/17/2011 

Two Questions That Loom Over the Trade Publishing Business – 2/28/2012 

Amazon’s Growth and Its Lengthening Shadow – 4/30/2012 

Everybody in Hollywood Needs an Ebook Strategy – 5/14/2012 

Subscription Models Seem to Me to Be for Ebook Niches, Not a General Offer – 7/16/2012 

Explaining My Skepticism about the Likelihood of Success for a General Subscription Model for Ebooks – 7/22/2012 

Going Where the Customers Are Might Be an Alternative to Selling Direct – 8/9/2012 

Full-Service Publishers Are Rethinking What They Can Offer – 9/4/2012 

New Publishing Companies Are Starting That Are Much Leaner Than Their Established Competitors – 9/24/2012 

Peering Into the Future and Seeing More Value in the Random Penguin Merger – 11/26/2012 

Business Models Are Changing; Trial and Error Will Ensue – 12/3/2012 

Rethinking Book Marketing and Its Organization in the Big Houses – 12/17/2012 

Buying Is a Hard Thing for Bookstores to Do Effectively, and That Becomes an Increasingly Important Reality for Publishers – 1/23/2013 

Ideas about the Future of Bookselling – 2/7/2013 

Publishers Are Reshaping Themselves – 3/12/2013 

Atomization: Publishing as a Function Rather than an Industry – 3/19/2013 

More on Atomization: Why the New Publishers Are Coming – 3/26/2013 

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How much time and effort should established publishers be spending on startups?


We are now in a period replete with startups that want to be the disruption in publishing. We see a lot of them in our office. Part of our business involves helping startups find relevance and contacts within the established publishing community.

There are three areas in particular which the startups seem to think the publishing business needs their help with, if the frequency with which we hear about propositions in these spaces is any guide. They can overlap.

1. eBookstore alternatives to the established players.

2. Enabling social connections among readers of books.

3. Subscription services that will deliver books for a fixed monthly cost.

I wrote about the subscription services a while ago when one of the fledglings came into our office. They were well advanced in their planning and tech development. I asked them if they had spoken to any literary agents. They said “no”.

Presumably they have done so since then and have found out that big shot literary agents are very skeptical about the value of subscription propositions for big shot authors. In fact, they are (in their own enlightened self-interest) downright hostile to the idea. That makes smart trade publishers, who are highly dependent on literary agents, also hostile to the idea.

When it comes to selling subscriptions to a general audience, Amazon (and probably only Amazon) can do it without the biggest books. Maybe down the road Penguin Random House can do it because they’ll be the publishers of more than half the bestsellers. O’Reilly, with Safari, has demonstrated that subscription can work in niches, and we’d expect to see more of that in the future. But there’s a damn good reason why no Safari service has cropped up for general reading; it’s a bad commercial model for the copyright holders of the biggest commercial books.

Attention: entrepreneurs with this idea. The reason it isn’t happening has nothing to do with failures of imagination or tech competence by the legacy players.

The “social reading” play also attracts entrepreneurs and, apparently, some funding. I think there are two generic failures of understanding that drive this interest. One is the sheer granularity of the book business. The vast number of titles there is to choose from means that the percentage of overlapping titles in the reading lists of unconnected people is going to be very low. Therefore the value of shared notes and annotations or “in-book” conversations is low as well.

Enabling this kind of shared reading experience can make sense to a class of students or an organized reading group. But it takes a really vast community to deliver value in shared book conversations to many people. And let’s remember that both Amazon and Kobo offer social tools already. If they become important, they’ll build out more. The fact that they haven’t to date is not a reflection of their inadequacy; it is a reflection of how much the people selling lots of ebooks and observing real customer behavior think these capabilities matter.

Several years ago, when they were starting up, I was consulting to Copia, which built social tools right into the reading software as their distinctive feature from the beginning. As a skeptic about the value of social reading (we’re all prisoners of our own experience and preferences, and I have precious little personal interest in “sharing” my reading experiences), I suggested that the key for them was to work in niches: to recruit users who would have common interests and therefore better-than-average chances of being interested in the same books. I think they’ve moved in that direction, but the suggestion was counterintuitive to them at the time. How do you get to be bigger by targeting a smaller audience?

Many of the social plays require the simplicity of DRM-free files to make their proposition work. That just makes it harder for them to get commercial titles into their ecosystem. Or impossible.

Copia is also a competitor in the ebookstore category. There are a lot of them, despite the fact that there are market leaders with advantages it is hard to see how to overcome. The global market leaders are Amazon and Apple. The global runners-up are Google and Kobo. All four of these companies have extremely deep pockets and all except Kobo have other ways — besides selling ebooks — to amortize their investment in audiences. In the US, B&N has managed to make Nook a strong competitor, but it is still very much an open question whether they can do the same internationally without the store footprint they have here and without the funding capabilities of their competitors.

Yet, others, including Copia, keep trying. Baker & Taylor has Blio, which looked early on like a player for illustrated ebooks. Two problems: the flexible tool set they originally promised failed to materialize in the manner they first projected. And the sales of illustrated ebooks are not very good anyway. Joe Regal’s Zola Books has been trying to gain traction, with a variety of propositions including decentralized curation and exclusive content.

Three big US publishers have launched Bookish, which is presumably more a discovery mechanism than a bookstore, but which will have to attract traffic to be of much use as either.

And then there’s Inkling, which has developed tools to make complex ebooks (they seem, quite sensibly, to be more focused on school and college textbooks than on illustrated trade books) and is pairing that with a “store” which would appear by the deals they offer to be an important monetization element in their planning.

With whatever are the limitations of my understanding or imagination, I can’t see success in the cards for any of these adventures in retailing, social, or subscription (Inkling’s product-building tools are different and could have longterm value.)

All of this wraps into a larger question: how much time, money, and bandwidth should commercial publishers be spending on startups?

That subject is of great interest to the investment community, which has been frustrated by what they see as publishers’ lack of engagement with startups or interest in disruptive technologies. One angel investor we know tells us that a need to work with publishers is a real deterrent to raising money from technology investors.

But does that mean the publishers are wrong not to be embracing startups more than they do?

Javier Celaya, a Spain-based consultant to publishers on digital change, recently conducted a survey about this subject. What the detail of Celaya’s investigation seems to show is that investment in startups takes place in the educational sphere, but not in trade. That would make sense. After all, trade publishers deliver books to be consumed by a wide variety of people for an equally dispersed set of motivations. But in education, the “book” needs to fit into an ecosystem, a platform. Educational publishers recognize the possibility of controlling the platform, if they have the right tools to offer. That makes it sensible for Pearson and Cengage and McGraw-Hill and Macmillan to make investments in technologies that might give them that platform advantage.

(We’ve observed that “platforms” aside from those of the big retailers are becoming important in the juvie publishing world.)

I had an exchange with Javier Celaya about his survey after he posted it. To my skepticism that investing in startups made sense for trade publishers, Celaya pointed out that an investment in Goodreads would have been much more fruitful than the massive effort and investment three big publishers made to start Bookish.

That’s true. It is also true that no publisher that missed finding Goodreads in the first year or two or three of its existence would have been much handicapped in making good use of it whenever they did discover it. And it is not clear that owning a chunk of it would give a publisher any great advantages in using it over what they can achieve anyway. It is also not yet clear how successful Goodreads will be monetarily (although it has clearly managed to recruit an audience large enough to be valuable as a marketing engine).

If I were making policy for a publishing house, I would discourage spending any time with a social or subscription proposition that didn’t clearly have a “niche” strategy. And I’d allow the investment of only the minimum of effort in a fledgling ebookstore. Publishers do need to be able to provide their metadata and put titles up for sale easily (Ingram or others can help with that if they don’t want to serve each little ebook retailer themselves) and they should do that. But the odds of any new ebook retailer making much of a dent in the market are so long that conversations about it are most likely to just be a waste of time.

Of course, I’d also have a list of “tech we’re looking for”: ways to streamline metadata enhancement and improve creation workflows would probably make the list. The startups who came with a promise to solve a previously-identified need would certainly be welcome and experimentation might well be called for. But not investment.

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