Larry Kirshbaum

Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off


When Larry Kirshbaum, the longtime head of TimeWarner Publishing (purchased right after he left in 2007 by Hachette and now the company called Hachette Book Group USA) joined Amazon many people thought — I among them — that Amazon was about to become a threat to take big titles away from the major publishers and, by doing so, also put pressure on competing retailers who would either have to buy from Amazon or do without major books.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal spells out just how futile have been Amazon’s efforts so far to upend the Big Six. Their two biggest headline acquisitions — a celebrity bio from actress Penny Marshall and the latest from bestselling non-fiction writer Tim Ferriss — are achieving paltry sales outside Amazon as measured by BookScan.

Michael Cader does some deeper digging to suggest that the high-profile books are not the place to be looking for the successes in Amazon’s publishing. They’re publishing lots of genre fiction and buying up some backlists.

Yet, I can’t believe that the high-profile output from the New York office meets Amazon’s original expectations or Kirshbaum’s. If they miscalculated the impact they could make, maybe it was for the same reason I did. An abrupt slowdown in ebook switchover took hold at about the same moment the Kirshbaum era at Amazon began. Big publishers are reporting that ebook sales are now approaching 30% of their revenue, which is about a 50% increase from what they said last year. That follows several years when ebook uptake increased by 100% or more.

(It is important to note here that the reported figures are a percentage of all revenue. Many titles are not “ebookable”: they’re illustrated books or little kids’ books and, if they have ebook equivalents at all, they don’t sell nearly that percentage. So the digital sales of immersive reading would constitute a somewhat higher percentage than that.)

Amazon as a publisher has advantages and disadvantages against more traditional competitors. They have the advantages of direct customer contact, which pay off in two ways. They can send you an email pitching a book as the logical next one to the one you just read; general publishers can’t do that. And, as the publisher, they have more margin to either pay the author more or charge the customer less, which, either way, increases an author’s revenue through online channels.

But their disadvantages are also significant. For most books, and particularly non-fiction (as both of which the high-profile releases the Wall Street Journal wrote about are), more than half of the sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. Despite their attempt to secure that exposure by a licensing deal with Houghton Harcourt, the resistance to Amazon from Barnes & Noble and many independent stores and mass merchants has curtailed that distribution.

Apparently Amazon led at least some people to believe with their success on the recent Barry Eisler book that they could sell more copies through their own channels than big publishers could through the entire network. The claim that they had outsold all his previous NY Times bestsellers was made to literary agents in a letter that also cited other great successes, all with genre fiction. Without questioning anybody’s numbers, I was skeptical about the significance of the relative Eisler sales because, it seemed to me, whatever they could do for Eisler (whom they published) they could do for any other book they wanted to, whether they published it or not. So it seems illogical to me that they would somehow magically sell more than the whole trade combined on a book because they were publishing it.  It seems apparent that Amazon isn’t succeeding at persuading agents that the Eisler case, even if it is as portrayed, is replicable.

I saw reports of bitter comments from Tim Ferriss, complaining about Barnes & Noble’s apparently-effective boycott of their competitor’s publishing program. Maybe he would be doing that even if Amazon is selling more than his conventional publishers did before. But I doubt it.

This is not a final answer. Amazon’s share of the trade market — ebooks and online print combined — is still growing and shows no sign of abating. Most publishers would still report that Amazon is their fastest-growing account.

But shelf space erosion — a metric with no reliable index anywhere — seems to have slowed down. That means that, at the moment, we have a more stable book trade than we’ve had for at least five years. It is smaller, but it is more stable. In the US at least, our market of three big ebook players (Amazon, B&N, Apple) and two sturdy and persistent upstarts (Kobo and Google) is still welcoming some new entrants. Zola eBooks, promising some interesting merchandising innovations, and Bookish — the repeatedly postponed effort from three major publishers — are expected to join the fray soon. Sony and Copia and Blio are still trying to gain traction, but they’re also still here.

Amazon definitely has the most advantages. Their Kindle ecosystem is still the best-functioning, deepest in title selection, and benefits in numerous ways from having more readers and selling more ebooks (and books, for that matter) than anybody else. The growth in their genre title base that Cader points out increases their market share of dedicated genre readers, who read other things too. They have the most self-published titles and the best ecosystem for self-published authors to make money. And the big title growth enables them to build subscription or subscription-like capabilities like KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) which do take customers out of the game for everybody else.

As their share of the market grows — as long as it continues to grow — their argument to authors to cast their lot with them gets stronger.

But, for now, it would seem that B&N definitely did the right thing for their own good by boycotting Amazon’s titles. And, for now, it would seem that most of the authors Amazon will get for their general list will be those who are annoyed at the publishing establishment like Konrath and Eisler or curious about working with a tech-oriented publisher like Ferriss.

Authors who want bookstore exposure or to maximize their total sales across the US bookselling universe will remain hard to persuade for the forseeable future. But probably a little less so with each passing day.

I note with sadness the passing of Senator George McGovern. I am proud to have worked on all three of his presidential campaigns: 1968 at the Democratic National Convention working for Pierre Salinger, two years on the 1972 campaign, and a weekend in New Hampshire trying to light a fire in 1984.

What motivated us to join Senator McGovern was primarily his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his personal and political appeal went far beyond that. He was extraordinarily decent and straightforward. In my stretch of two years working for him in the early 70s, it was remarkable how consistently he took issue positions we young idealists could be proud of. A poorly-vetted choice for vice-president will always be part of the explanation for why he was crushed, but my friend Professor Wade — one of McGovern’s top strategists — told me years ago that it was the assassination attempt that crippled George Wallace that actually was responsible for the defeat. 

Nixon had won the 1968 election with a little over 40% of the vote. Wallace had taken a share in the high teens. The McGovern planning from the beginning assumed a similar race in 1972. When Wallace was eliminated by the assassination attempt, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” made him the heir to the Wallace vote and a landslide victory.

In the end, of course, it was Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who went to jail and his administration that ended in disgrace. McGovern was always gracious and never bitterBut, as a country, we’ve never spent enough time contemplating how different things could have been if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot in 1968 or if McGovern had won in 1972.

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The expected changes in the book business favor Amazon’s share growth


This post is the second that is contemplating two big questions facing the publishing industry:

When will the growth in Amazon’s share of the consumer book business stop?

Who will be left standing when it does?

Amazon applies pressure and generates angst among publishers from two directions. As they grow to be 30% or more of many publishers’ business, they are in a position to push to improve their margins at publishers’ expense. And they do, indeed, push.

At the same time, they are both offering authors attractive opportunities to self-publish and wielding a checkbook to build their own publishing program. Both threaten to constrict publishers’ access to the ultimate source of all their revenue, the output of authors looking for a path to readers. And even when Amazon doesn’t sign a book they go after, they could well be pushing up the price a publisher has to pay to get it.

This pincer maneuver is really unprecedented in its power, even though elements of it have existed before.

Joint ownership of publishing and book retailing is definitely not new; it has been a part of the industry for my entire 50 years in it. My first book publishing job was on the sales floor of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue in 1962. My dad was a publisher. He was a vice-president of a company then called Crowell-Collier, which bought the first Macmillan in the early 1960s, eventually changed the corporate name to Macmillan, and was then purchased by Simon & Schuster in 1994. None of these entities have anything to do with the company now called Macmillan, which took its name from the British company the owning Holtzbrinck family had also acquired.

Anyhow, when Crowell-Collier bought Brentano’s, Leonard Shatzkin became the responsible corporate executive. He had gone to Crowell-Collier from Doubleday, which also owned bookstores. Across the street from Brentano’s was the Scribner Bookstore, owned by Charles Scribner’s Sons. They were the publishers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among others. (Scribners exists today as an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)

And, of course, it has only been about 10 years since book retailing giant Barnes & Noble expanded its proprietary publishing program by purchasing independent niche publisher Sterling. That doesn’t appear to have worked out particularly well for them; they are apparently having trouble selling Sterling today, even at a fraction of the price they paid for it.

And, in fact, Amazon’s publishing efforts haven’t been particularly disruptive to publishers so far. Their big “gets” to date are Tim Ferriss and Deepak Chopra, two big authors who are unusual because their pattern has been to write for different publishers rather than having a lengthy run at one particular house. The very biggest names, which would be fiction authors, have not yet been enticed to make the jump, although Jackie Collins created a stir last week with some self-publishing plans that don’t have entirely to do with Amazon. It has been nearly a year since Amazon signed former Time Warner Books head Larry Kirshbaum to lead their attempt to woo big trade authors. That was very concerning to the big houses but, so far, the sky has definitely not fallen.

Whether we will really see profound changes that justify the questions that head this series of pieces or whether this turns out to be a totally baseless bout of nervousness by the established players depends on what happens in the overall marketplace in the next few years.

The percentage of a publisher’s business that Amazon represents is largely channel-dependent. If ebook sales go up overall, then Amazon’s share will probably go up. If purchasing shifts from brick stores to online, then Amazon’s share will certainly go up. If print sales in brick stores hold their ground, then Amazon’s sales won’t rise.

I think you’d have to look hard to find a credible voice making the case that print sales in stores will hold their ground. To the extent there is a debate, it revolves around how fast those sales will decline.

AAP says we’ve seen double-digit declines of print sales in 2011 over what they were in 2010. They say print revenue was down 17.5% in adult hardcover and 15.6% in adult paperback.

Forrester’s survey of publishing executives finds few expecting such a big decline in the coming year, but then, few expected such a steep decline last year. Forrester’s own prediction is for sudden drops. I would agree that sales will tend to decline in “step-increments”, as players exit the game. Borders may be responsible for a lot of the loss we saw in 2011. There wouldn’t seem to be any shelf space loss that great on the immediate horizon, but we do see B&N reducing both the number of stores and the percentage of shelf space within them devoted to books and there are many predicting that books might lose their appeal to the mass merchants as well. They are fully capable of substituting other merchandise for books and making that switch very quickly whenever they decide it should happen.

My own expectation is that over the next five years we’ll see the share of sales that are ebooks more than double. (This should be seen as a startlingly conservative prediction, since that number has doubled annually for the past five years!) That would put ebook unit sales at about 65% for commercial immersive reading. (I’m grossing up the 20% of revenue number the big houses are reporting because ebooks produce less revenue than print hardcovers and because many titles in the print revenue base aren’t in the ebook revenue base.)

Of the remaining 35% allocated to print, I’d expect half of the sales, at least, to be online. If those numbers are right, then 17.5% of immersive book sales would be in brick stores.

If Amazon remains about 60% of ebook sales and 90% of print books sold online, that would put their share of immersive reading sales at about 50%. And were a book available in Kindle that people knew about and wanted to read and not available in other formats, Amazon could pick up a lot of the ebook sales they would otherwise miss. (Remember, anybody using a Nook or Kobo app as opposed to a Nook or Kobo device could just switch to the Kindle app to read that particular book.) All that is really hard for them to capture is the 17.5% allocated here for print sold in stores. And even the loss of that share wouldn’t be total, since, for any really big book, in-store buyers would buy online if they had to. So they’d be in a position to reach well more than 70%, perhaps even more than 80%, of the market for all books that are principally text. (And those are the books that lead the industry.)

Imagine what that will do for Kirshbaum’s ability to go get big authors. Today an author considering an Amazon publishing deal must figure that half or more of the market is unreachable through that arrangement. No matter how much money Amazon is willing to pay, no matter how much they increase the ebook royalty over the publishers’ offers (which they have ample margin to do), it is a pretty tough sell to get an author to write off more than half the marketplace, particularly the half most visible to the public.

In other words, overall trends are moving things increasingly in Amazon’s direction. Even if nothing changes in the deals offered or resources available to the competitors for author attention in the next five years, Amazon’s position will have grown considerably more powerful. And, in fact, Amazon’s share of publisher sales just about assures that any changes in deals and resources in the meantime will favor Amazon as well.

Of course, there is more to successful publishing than just signing up a book and managing an online audience. Editing and presentation count. A marketing plan that goes beyond just reaching online bookstore customers counts. Rights sales count. And pricing to maximize a particular title’s revenue, not a bookseller’s overall share and customer loyalty, also counts. None of these are things that Amazon’s experience naturally leads them to do. All of them require investment and development of infrastructure and team skills. Will Amazon invest in and perform these functions?

And the more books a publisher does, the more challenging it becomes to manage all these things. Title growth might also challenge Amazon’s marketing resources, such as they are. There are only so many slots on the home page for a category of books to use to feature your own titles. (And there’s a risk of alienating your customers if they think your featuring and recommendations are just shilling for your own books.) There are only so many emails you can send pushing your own books before you lose people’s attention (and perhaps their permission). The special sales and vertical marketing functions that will be increasingly important for publishers are not natural fits at Amazon. Will they do these things?

Of course, we need to remember that while Amazon signs up titles directly, they pressure competitive retailers as well as publishers. There are two approaches Amazon can take in that circumstance and one can imagine them choosing which approach to apply by title.

Either they are a supplier of titles to the rest of the trade, which gives them a different kind of power. Or they withhold what they’ve got from the rest of the trade, which means the Amazon title selection is advantaged over the competition.

You have to excuse publishers if it makes them nervous to think about living in a world where the company through which they get 50% of their sales is also competing with them to sign up titles directly. This is a situation where it is accurate to say that any other player in the ecosystem who is not at least mildly panicked probably doesn’t fully understand what’s going on.

The challenges faced by Amazon as they try to grow as a publisher are not trivial, but neither is the strength they bring to address them. The world five years from now where Amazon is stronger because they can reach 80% of the market rather than somewhat less than 50% is also one where the big players with whom they’re competing for authors are also weaker. In fact, if the number following “Big” isn’t smaller than “6” by then, I’ll be one very surprised prognosticator.

It’s taken me two posts (here’s the first one) to lay out what I see as the dynamic forces tilting the trade book business toward Amazon. I have at least three more components of this story to consider: how these changes look from each spot in the value chain (author, agent, large and small publisher, retailer, reader); a discussion of the “cultural gap”, which can be traced as much to different objectives as to the lack of shared history, between Amazon and the legacy book business; and a discussion of the Amazon antidotes: what other players in the industry can do, within the constraints of the law and practicality, to slow down or reverse the Amazon share growth before it changes the nature of the industry, and its cast of characters, beyond recognition.

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Clever moves all around in the B&N and Amazon chess game


Readers who have been following publishing’s digital transition for two years or more will recall the situation in 2010 when five of publishing’s Big Six switched over from selling their ebooks on wholesale terms, by which the retailer sets the price to the consumer, to agency terms, by which the publisher sets a price that prevails across all retailers. Random House stayed out.

That decision seemed to puzzle many observers despite the realities for the publishers. Making the change required actually reducing per-unit revenues to the publisher (and author) while at the same time making each unit more expensive to the consumer, so it was done by what was then called the “Agency Five” at some sacrifice (in their view) for the greater good (in their view) of the industry. Agency protected weaker ebook retailers — Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google as well as independents — from having to compete with the deep-pocketed Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategies. The immediate payoff was the opportunity to sell through Apple’s fledgling iBookstore.

As we explained at the time, Random House’s choice was transparently in their short-term self-interest. It was understandable that their competitive cohort, who saw themselves making a sacrifice on behalf of the industry’s long-term future, were unhappy that the biggest player among them was staying out. But it was a bit hard for me to understand what was so hard for everybody else to understand about why Random House did what they did. (Random House switched over to selling on the agency model in March, 2011.)

Those times are recalled for me by the recent round of indignation and analysis over the jockeying among the retailing competitors over the titles published by Amazon. Everybody is just acting in their own best interest. There really isn’t much mysterious about anybody’s behavior.

We could say the most recent set of events was begun by Amazon’s escalating efforts to capture titles for ebook rendering exclusively on the Kindle platform. They were apparently doing this two ways: by signing up authors directly for their own imprints and by offering self-published authors financial incentives — such as paid participation in their lending library program — for making their ebook a Kindle exclusive.

For the books they signed directly, Amazon recognized that it might not be the most comfortable sales call in the world for any rep to pitch these books to B&N’s buyers. Representing the books of every bookseller’s biggest competitor would be a challenge but it was one that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to attempt. Last year it was announced that HMH had taken the opportunity to license the Amazon-originated titles in paperback. Major publishers had often expressed the view that publishing in print without ebook rights was a non-starter for them. HMH hoped that their efforts wouldn’t be viewed in that light since it is not considered unusual (although I’m not sure how often it has happened) for ebook rights to remain with the hardcover publisher when paperback rights are licensed.

More heat was generated when the Kindle Fire debuted with some graphic novel content delivered exclusively to it. When Barnes & Noble pulled the paper versions of those books off their store shelves, they explained that their policy would be to refuse to stock the print version of something not offered to them for sale “in all formats”.

The message at the time seemed clear. If Amazon wanted to sign up books directly and sell them broadly, they couldn’t maintain a Kindle monopoly on those titles. Undoubtedly, it was becoming clearer and clearer to Amazon that getting broader distribution for printed books was an important element if they wanted to sign up important books. Let’s remember that Larry Kirshbaum had been brought on board in June to sign up big titles. He was the first person to work at Amazon who had the relationships and the experience to tell them what it would take to succeed in those efforts.

But things were dynamic at B&N as well. With Borders gone, they have become the only player at scale able to offer print book merchandising. There is an increasing awareness of how important print display still is to “making” a book. It is very likely that inside B&N there has been increasing appreciation of the power of their position.

There is complementarity here. Amazon had a dominant position with Kindle before the Nook arrived that has been eroding since then due to increased competition. They’re still more than half the ebook sales in the US, but they want to shore up their position. Using their strength to get Kindle exclusives is a sensible way to do that.

At the same time, the leverage Barnes & Noble has from its print store dominance is perhaps at its peak. In their case this isn’t because competition in their channel is likely to erode their share. It is a continuation of the consumer trend of shifting to online buying and ebook reading that will dilute the importance of brick-and-mortar even if B&N’s share remains very high. So they too want to use the leverage of that position to strengthen themselves while they can.

Both Amazon and B&N demonstrate the power of their position by looking for an increased share of the book sales revenue from publishers.

Anyhow, Amazon continued to work on this problem of getting the books they acquired directly from authors into broader store distribution. In January, they expanded the first-look licensing deal they had with HMH and announced the New Harvest imprint there to deliver paperback editions of their books to broader distribution. And, proving they’d been listening to what Barnes & Noble said earlier, they announced that New Harvest books would have ebooks made available in formats that would enable their sale in all ebook channels.

It took Barnes & Noble less than a week to respond. Ignoring Amazon’s willingness to make the new imprint books available as ebooks, they instead focused on the continuing programs Amazon had that kept other titles as Kindle exclusives. B&N announced that they wouldn’t carry any Amazon-originated titles in their stores, although they would make them available online and as ebooks. Of course, that “offer” gave Amazon precisely what they didn’t care about (BN.com online sales) or didn’t really want (Nook availability) and denied them what they were really after (bookstore shelf and display space).

Pretty quickly, both Daily Finance and Time Business found fault with Barnes & Noble’s move. It was seen as boneheaded for a retailer in the declining brick-and-mortar space to decline to stock some books that might sell. It was even suggested by some that this was an “opening” for Barnes & Noble’s terrestrial competitors to carry attractive Amazon titles, with the implication that this could help them steal customers from B&N.

But Barnes & Noble’s competitors actually saw things the same way that B&N did. The independent store and publisher, Melville House, was quickly supportive. A few days later, the Canadian chain Indigo (which occupies the same dominant position there that B&N does in the US) and the second-ranked US chain, Books-A-Million, announced that their policies would mirror B&N’s.

The day that B&N announced they wouldn’t carry the Amazon books, a reporter called me for comment. This reporter clearly expected me to castigate B&N for shortsightedness. I think he was surprised when I told him I thought the policy made complete strategic sense for them.

The bottom line here is that as Amazon’s power to sign up books away from the major publishers grows, the retailers who depend on publishers for a flow of commercial product suffer along with the publishers. B&N saw — and Indigo and Melville House and Books-a-Million saw — that Amazon wanted bookstore distribution to enable them to sign up more titles directly. Even though those titles would be made available to them, they see themselves as strengthening their enemy when they stock those books.

B&N’s decision seems to me like the right move for them. Most very regular bookstore customers aren’t really surprised if any particular store doesn’t have any particular book. Indeed, the impossibility of stocking everything anybody might ask for in a store is part of the reason that online bookselling is such a useful service. In this day and age, most people who want a particular book don’t go to a bookstore to buy it; they just order it online. They go to bookstores to browse and shop and choose from what is within the store. So, yes, there may be some disappointed customers if B&N doesn’t have a high-profile Amazon title, but I don’t think that disappointment will be widespread.

On the other hand, authors and agents who might have considered an Amazon publishing deal will have to think twice if they know very few bookstores will carry it. Amazon can do some remarkable things to sell books to their mammoth online customer base and that won’t change. But there is both a practical and a vanity aspect to getting store display that will still be seen as indispensible by many authors and agents who otherwise might have taken the leap to sign with the newest big checkbook in town.

Amazon still has the biggest forces, and time, on its side. eBook reading will continue to grow and Kindle will remain the most powerful platform as it does. More and more print buying will shift from stores to online and nobody has mounted meaningful competition to Amazon in the online print channel. The Amazon online experience for search and selection and delivery remains — in this consumer’s opinion — far and away the best. Their reach beyond books to so many other product lines gives them further advantages in many ways, including fueling their Amazon Prime program, which is an unmatched tool to encourage customer loyalty. The shelf space for books at B&N will almost certainly continue to decline and the leverage that comes along with it will do the same.

This tactical decision will not change the overall course of history. Neither did Random House’s decision to postpone moving to agency for a year after everybody else did. But, just like Random House’s decision, everything Amazon and Barnes & Noble (and the retailers that followed them) have done is actually perfectly sensible when viewed from the perspective of their own self-interest. There are a lot of smart people engaged in a pitched battle here. Outside observers would be well-advised to keep that in mind as they evaluate the moves they make.

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One takeaway from Digital Book World that is not to be missed


I think just about everybody has fun at Digital Book World, but it is hard to have more fun there than I do. It’s damn near a year of work coming together over a couple of days with dozens of smart speakers making me personally look good for putting them on the program. So they work hard and satisfy the audience and I get congratulated. What could be better (for me) than that?

(OK, I did do a little bit of work. Besides emceeing the show and co-hosting the final panel, I delivered opening remarks trying to set the stage.)

There were a lot of great takeaways this year. Perhaps the biggest news was the final presentation before the wrap-up panel Michael Cader and I hosted. That was by Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of Anobii, a UK-based ebook retailer that has substantial investment from Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins. Matteo didn’t exactly “call for the end” of DRM, but he certainly described a better world without it. And the main point he made was, “I want to sell to Kindle customers and the only way I can do that is if we get rid of DRM.” The combination of the message and the messenger made this the most newsworthy presentation of the show, I thought.

But the factoid that most grabbed me was delivered on the previous day as part of the data developed by AllRomanceebooks.com about the romance readers market. Very superficially, the point being made was also about DRM, but that’s actually a distraction. There was a much larger point buried within.

All Romance is a specialized ebook retailer. To serve the romance reader community more effectively, they’ve built out the BISAC taxonomy for romance, adding more categories. And they’ve added a metadata element called “flames” which basically measure the frequency and explicitness of the sex scenes in any particular book.

The romance world, particularly among the cognescenti in it, is a very anti-DRM environment. And an outfit like All Romance, which has no “device lock-in” working for them — essentially everything they sell gets “side-loaded” somehow, and DRM can often make that more challenging — is right in step with their community sentiment. So the survey contained questions trying to get at the audience attitude about DRM.

There were two relevant stats that I recall. One is that only about 20% of even All Romance’s readers really resist books with DRM. That is to say: 80% don’t. But the factoid that grabbed me is that 96% (that’s not a typo: ninety-six percent) of the ebooks they sell do not have DRM.

All Romance also reports that 91% of the titles they have available are protected by DRM. That makes sense, since all the titles from all the Big Six publishers and all the titles from Harlequin except those from their new digital-first imprint, Carina, have DRM.

What this means is that the nine percent of All Romance’s offerings that do not have DRM are selling 96% of their units overall. And since only 20% of their customers find DRM as a strong deterrent to sales, that means those fledglings are outselling all the majors for other reasons.

This provokes two very important lines of inquiry to me, and neither of them have anything to do with DRM.

The first one would be top of mind to me if I were a major publisher. What are these books that are selling like hotcakes? Why are these books selling like hotcakes? Why can’t we publish these books that are selling like hotcakes?

It is a virtual certainty that a lot more romance ebooks are sold through the “traditional” channels like the Kindle and Nook and Kobo stores than through All Romance. But they have a market big enough to get 6,000 respondants to a survey in a couple of weeks so they’re definitely serving a big clientele. They’ve obviously aggregated an audience that is buying a lot of books that major publishers are missing. Some of this is due to price, undoubtedly, since the All Romance stats also showed robust sales at price points below where the majors are usually most comfortable. Some of it could be attributed to a raunchier title selection being compiled by the smaller upstart title selection (remember All Romance’s “flame” ratings.) Some of it might be loyalty to authors who could be signed up by majors with the right offers.

But if 24 out of every 25 books being sold by a pretty damn big specialist retailer to the biggest ebook genre that I competed in were outside of my immediate competitive set (which, for the Big Six, is basically each other and Harlequin), I’d want to know more about the details of that. And I’d also be asking All Romance what I could do to get more sales from their audience. I have a feeling they’d say that better metadata, more sex (within the pages of the books, that is), and lower prices are all more important than stripping off the DRM, but it’s s conversation the big publishers should be having with them.

The second question that the data provokes to me is whether this phenomenon — all these successful books outside the purview of the major houses — is a unique characteristic of romance books. I don’t know if there’s an All Mystery ebooks vendor or an All Thrillers ebook vendor or even an All Sci-Fi ebook vendor (I’ll bet we’ll find out from our comment string after this is posted!!!) but, if there is, it would be interesting to find out if this is true there too.

These are the immediate questions All Romance’s appearance put in the front of my mind. I think they show another aspect of verticalization. As a vertical retailer, they invent new metadata elements that really help them merchandise to their audience. What that suggests is an opportunity for an All History or All Politics retailer as well; enhancing metadata might be even more valuable for non-fiction subjects than it is for specialized fiction.

There was an article about Amazon by Brad Stone in this week’s issue of Bloomberg Business Week in which I was quoted about Larry Kirshbaum, the former head of Time Warner Book Group (now Hachette) and currently the head of a new Amazon imprint whose mission it is to recruit mainstream authors to be published by the retailer. Many of Larry’s former colleagues and counterparts at big publishers take this decision of his to join Amazon extremely personally and it is reflected in what they say they now feel about Larry himself. That was reflected in my quote which says that Larry “has gone from one of the most well-liked people in publishing to the one of the most reviled.”

I want to make clear that I was not expressing my personal opinion. I still very much like Larry Kirshbaum and I’m a bit embarrassed to be quoted (even accurately) characterizing the feeling about him in these terms. The people running big NY houses see Amazon as a bare-knuckled competitor. With their responsibility for the continued success and viability of their own enterprises and the threat Amazon poses in that regard, contentiousness is built into the interaction and competition between Amazon and the big publishers. I believe my quote accurately reflected the degree to which that is transferred to personal feelings, even for somebody whom so many people have known and liked for years. Although I well understand the feelings my quote described, this is one case where I wish I hadn’t been so candid.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon’s news of hiring Kirshbaum is a helluva start for BEA


Amazon dropped a shoe last week when they announced their new mystery imprint, Thomas & Mercer Books, and started signing authors, including self-publishing evangelist, Joe Konrath.

Last night they dropped the other shoe, which turned out to be a very heavy boot. They signed former Time Warner Publishing (the company that is now Hachette Book Group) CEO Larry Kirshbaum to head up a new general trade imprint for them.

The next thing to drop will be a few pennies as the industry wakes up to a very new day.

Konrath complained in a blog post over the weekend that independent bookstores planned to boycott the Thomas & Mercer imprint. It would appear Konrath (who, in his pre-ebook-evangelist days worked hard to promote through independents) took very personally what was meant to be resistance to Amazon.

One would suspect that the books Kirshbaum is going to acquire will be very hard for any bookseller that wants to serve and keep her customers to avoid stocking. In other words, the Kirshbaum signing might have cured Konrath’s concern.

Where did this arise before? Many times, many places. Borders stopped buying Sterling books when the independent publishers was acquired by B&N. The relationship between Sterling and Amazon is more complicated, but it would be safe to say that sales of Sterling books were not Amazon’s highest priority and sales through B&N’s biggest competitor were not Sterling’s.

Amazon briefly (for a couple of days) turned off Macmillan’s buy buttons in January 2010 in an fleeting and unsuccessful attempt to persuade the big houses not to go to agency pricing.

When Barnes & Noble bought Sterling, they stated clearly that they did not intend to publish precisely the kind of books Kirshbaum is now going after: “non-fiction and literary fiction.” Although things have changed in what has been nearly a decade since that acquisition, Sterling was a “category” publisher when B&N acquired them and have never stepped aggressively into the high-advance, agented arena that is Kirshbaum’s natural milieu.

I’d say one of the pennies dropping might be at B&N, where they are probably reconsidering their title acquisition strategy. If their biggest retail competitor is going after the biggest authors directly, can they afford not to?

Five years ago we lived in a world where every book that mattered sold more copies at brick stores than it did online. Five years from now every book that matters will sell more copies online than it does in a brick store. The Amazon decision may mark the commercial turning point of that massive shift.

The edge in maximizing online sales revenues will go to the publisher that can manage online pricing and marketing most effectively. That not only means raising and lowering prices dynamically to get the most possible revenue, it might also mean experimenting with free sample sizes to see what delivers the best rate of conversion to a sale. It certainly also means having the best list of potential readers to alert to a book’s publication.

Publishers have a steep hill to climb to develop skills in that regard that Amazon has been honing for years. The announcement of Bookish, a community and information site for readers, seems like a weak counterweight to this Amazon announcement. I would imagine Kirshbaum will have signed away a few books the Big Six publishers wanted before Bookish even opens its doors.

Agents, who have just gotten a big new bidder to drive up the prices of everything valuable they have to sell, are having a very good day. Publishers, as they say: not so much.

I hope I’ll see you at either the memorial celebration of Ruth Cavin’s life tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon at 5:30 at the Salmagundi Club at 5th Avenue and 11th Street or at our “eBooks Go Global” conference at Javits all day on Wednesday, where the topic of this blogpost will surely arise!

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The tipping has really already started


The idea of an “Ebook Tipping Point” panel for Digital Book World arose when I wrote a blogpost last August http://www.idealog.com/blog/ebook-growth-explosive-serious-disruptions-around-the-corner on the occasion of the regular monthly release of the IDPF’s ebook sales figures. It was clear then that very substantial percentages of the sale of new narrative fiction and non-fiction were going to move through ebook channels and this post raised the point that this would be disruptive just before Dominque Raccah and Sourcebooks started last Fall’s cascade of strategic moves by publishers to try to slow things down, at least for Kindle.
In October, really writing about the same situation, http://www.idealog.com/blog/a-coming-new-obsession-how-to-handle-a-smaller-print-book-business, I predicted that major publishers would be challenged to cope with the problem of de-scaling.
When I wrote the August post, I was in the early stages of organizing the program for Digital Book World and I decided to put together the “Ebook Tipping Point” panel. I knew that current C-level executives, focused as they must be on making numbers for this quarter and this year, not to mention always having to be aware of the impact their statements could have on their companies, wouldn’t be the right panelists. So I just decided to recruit the four savviest people I knew — about ebook publishing, about the finances of publishing houses, and about the ecosystem publishers live in — to discuss the topic with me on stage.
Yesterday that panel — Ken Brooks of Cengage; Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch; Larry Kirshbaum, ex-TimeWarner Books CEO and currently a literary agent; and Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press — met in my office for a preliminary conversation to help me formulate the questions that will trigger the discussions.
Ken Brooks is my go-to person for all things related to ebooks and digital production. He the SVP, Global Production & Manufacturing Services at Cengage Learning. Before that, Ken created and sold a company called Publishing Dimensions that did digital format conversions in the early ebook days. He’s run warehouses and other operations for Bantam and Simon & Schuster and he even had a brief stint setting up an early attempt at ebook distribution for BN.com ten years ago.
Michael Cader is the creator Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, the new nexus for conversation and information about the publishing business, which he developed from scratch starting with a free email newsletter less than ten years ago. Before that, he was a book packager. Cader is the single person who knows more about book publishing — the people, the deals, the business practices, the view of the business from the standpoint of the investment community — than anybody else I’ve ever met.
Larry Kirshbaum turned over the reins at TimeWarner Publishing to David Young three years ago, just before the company was sold to Hachette. He was known for his eye for bestsellers and his ability to make them work. Since then, he’s been a literary agent. Kirshbaum knows exactly what it is like to run a big publishing company; he did it for more than two decades.
Evan Schnittman is Vice President, Business Development & Rights at Oxford University Press. In that role, Evan combines the zeal and focus of a sales executive with targets to hit with the vision of a strategic digital thinker, a very unusual combination. Oxford is a university press, of course, not a trade house, but they have a trade list big enough to make them real players in that sandbox. Evan knows and understands trade, but he has the objectivity and vision of somebody who is not entirely dependent on that business.
One scorecard worth keeping is this: Brooks, Kirshbaum, and I were all sure ten years ago that ebooks would happen much faster than they did. Cader was sure they wouldn’t. Michael has been the hardest among us to persuade that ebooks would substantially displace print anytime soon.
We had a rollicking 2 hour conversation that would have entertained anybody who could have heard it. I am not going to steal the panel’s thunder by revealing much about it except to say that there was a strong consensus that big publisher overheads are going to have to shrink dramatically for them to survive. Michael Cader is particuarly articulate — and particularly experienced — about the point that legacy businesses carry legacy cost structures that handicap them making a transition to a new paradigm. He lived that advantage as the David that slew the Goliath of PW.
So I awoke this morning to get the news in my mailbox that Simon & Schuster has redesigned its sales coverage to be “more phone”. Cheaper. Less overhead. But also (likely) less effective and (certainly) less differentiated from what any small publisher based anywhere can do.
So what distinguishes the big publishers from their competition are the capabilities of “scale.” And the albatross for big publishers going forward is the cost of “scale.” This is a tough box to get out of.
I think some eyes are going to be opened when this panel takes the stage on Wednesday, January 27.

The idea of an “Ebook Tipping Point” panel for Digital Book World arose when I wrote a blogpost last August on the occasion of the regular monthly release of the IDPF’s ebook sales figures. It was clear then that very substantial percentages of the sale of new narrative fiction and non-fiction were going to move through ebook channels and this post raised the point that this would be disruptive right after Dominque Raccah and Sourcebooks started last Fall’s cascade of strategic moves by publishers to try to slow things down, at least for Kindle.

In October, really writing about the same situation I predicted that major publishers would be challenged to cope with the problem of de-scaling.

When I wrote the August post, I was in the early stages of organizing the program for Digital Book World and I decided to put together the “Ebook Tipping Point” panel. I knew that current C-level executives, focused as they must be on making numbers for this quarter and this year, not to mention always having to be aware of the impact their statements could have on their companies, wouldn’t be the right panelists. So I just decided to recruit the four savviest people I knew — about ebook publishing, about the finances of publishing houses, and about the ecosystem publishers live in — to discuss the topic with me on stage.

Yesterday that panel — Ken Brooks of Cengage; Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch; Larry Kirshbaum, ex-TimeWarner Books CEO and currently a literary agent; and Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press — met in my office for a preliminary conversation to help me formulate the questions that will trigger the discussions.

Ken Brooks is my go-to person for all things related to ebooks and digital production. He the SVP, Global Production & Manufacturing Services at Cengage Learning. Before that, Ken created and sold a company called Publishing Dimensions that did digital format conversions in the early ebook days. He’s run warehouses and other operations for Bantam and Simon & Schuster and he even had a brief stint setting up an early attempt at ebook distribution for BN.com ten years ago.

Michael Cader is the creator Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, the new nexus for conversation and information about the publishing business, which he developed from scratch starting with a free email newsletter less than ten years ago. Before that, he was a book packager. Cader is the single person who knows more about book publishing — the people, the deals, the business practices, the view of the business from the standpoint of the investment community — than anybody else I’ve ever met.

Larry Kirshbaum turned over the reins at TimeWarner Publishing to David Young three years ago, just before the company was sold to Hachette. He was known for his eye for bestsellers and his ability to make them work. Since then, he’s been a literary agent. Kirshbaum knows exactly what it is like to run a big publishing company; he did it for more than two decades.

Evan Schnittman is Vice President, Business Development & Rights at Oxford University Press. In that role, Evan combines the zeal and focus of a sales executive with targets to hit with the vision of a strategic digital thinker, a very unusual combination. Oxford is a university press, of course, not a trade house, but they have a trade list big enough to make them real players in that sandbox. Evan knows and understands trade, but he has the objectivity and vision of somebody who is not entirely dependent on that business. He’s also a really entertaining and insightful blogger.

One scorecard worth keeping is this: Brooks, Kirshbaum, and I were all sure ten years ago that ebooks would happen much faster than they did. Cader was sure they wouldn’t. Michael has been the hardest among us to persuade that ebooks would substantially displace print anytime soon.

We had a rollicking two hour conversation that would have entertained anybody who could have heard it. I am not going to steal the panel’s thunder by revealing much about it except to say that there was a strong consensus that big publisher overheads are going to have to shrink dramatically, and soon. Michael Cader is particularly articulate — and particularly experienced — about the point that legacy businesses carry legacy cost structures that handicap them making a transition to a new paradigm. He lived that advantage as the David that slew the Goliath of PW.

So I awoke this morning to get the news in my mailbox that Simon & Schuster has redesigned its sales coverage to be “more phone”. Cheaper. Less overhead. But also (likely) less effective and (certainly) less differentiated from what any small publisher based anywhere can do.

So what distinguishes the big publishers from their competition are the capabilities of “scale.” And the albatross for big publishers going forward is the cost of “scale.” This is a tough box to get out of.

I think some eyes are going to be opened when this panel takes the stage on Wednesday, January 27.

I am getting increasingly excited about the 2-day Digital Book World conference coming up January 26-27. Now that the work of recruiting nearly 100 speakers and moderators (and, boy, do we have GREAT moderators!) is done, I am able to take some satisfaction from the body of work. (Take a look.) I am also really appreciative of the great marketing job that has been done by our partners in this endeavor, F+W Media. Just about everybody really is going to be there. Are you?

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A coming new obsession: how to handle a smaller print-book business


Here’s a prediction that has almost no chance of being wrong. Every major player in the trade book industry is about to develop a new obsession: how must our business model change when we reach a level of ebook sales that is dynamically disruptive to the print book ecosystem?

This might not be exactly a “tipping point”, since that implies a point at which growth accelerates from some people to most people, or nearly all people. But print publishing will be seriously disrupted long before ebooks are used by “most people.” That’s because print publishing is a “critical mass” business: we need to sell enough to make a sensible print run, to keep the bookstore open, to support the sales organization and the warehouse. Our bestseller lists (with one exception) capture exclusively print sales, our author-publisher contracts and sales terms with accounts are based on the notion that we’re selling a physical object, and the biggest publishers in the land use their scale to perform capital-intensive functions that are, as much as any editorial or marketing expertise, what the authors need them for.

This presents a problem to all the incumbent players. Every powerful company in the print book supply chain: the big publishers, the big retailers (including Amazon!), the wholesalers, and certainly the independent retailers have a huge investment in competencies that revolve around print books. They can design them, jacket them, price them, print them, ship them hither and yon and keep track of each separate ISBN in the package, put them on shelves so customers will find them when they arrive and calculate when to take them off the shelves to send them back. Although there are other skills that these companies have that might port to an all-ebook or ebook-dominant world, none of these do.

Whether the challenges get acute when 20% of the sales of a narrative title are predictably e, or whether the number is 25% or 30%, the day is coming faster and faster. Growth in sales of the simplest kind of ebook — a direct lift of what is published in print — are exceeding the most aggressive predictions. The IDPF just announced that year-over-year ebook sales for August are triple what they were a year ago! Michael Pietsch, Publisher of Little, Brown, reports that 15% of total sales is the level many of their top authors are reaching now.

(Ruminative interlude: it has been my surmise that big authors will have their ebook sales “capped” at a lower level than smaller authors, just because their print books are on sale in so many more places. However, ebook sales are also very sensitive to “brand”; you don’t and can’t “browse” as many titles when you shop electronically, particularly on a device. I know that smaller publishers with less effective total distribution report Amazon sales of 60% and 80% of sales, so their ebook sales proportions are also bound to be much higher. But how the midlist authors of big publishers fare on overall ebook sales relative to the big ones is a question I haven’t asked. I will. Or, I am…)

Meanwhile, ereaders keep improving and proliferating; there have been several announcements of new devices in the past week, including the forthcoming “Nook” from B&N, which will really raise the stakes for Kindle. It will “see” Kindle’s e-ink screen and “raise” one LCD panel for link viewing, plus a 3G connection and Wifi use in B&N stores, all at the same price. B&N has the same power Amazon does to amass a robust list of titles (they have deep contacts with all the publishers) and they have at least as good a skill set for curation and merchandising to make a great shopping experience. And they’re putting their reader front and center in their bookstores (with the free wifi and some special in-store content features) which will expose the concept of the device to many people who don’t shop at Amazon and did not get blasted with a sales pitch every time they bought books.

Barnes & Noble had entertained being the ebook market leader a decade ago, losing interest when the Palm format became the early format frontrunner and wasn’t made available for intermediary distribution (one of the first in a string of futile attempts to install an iTunes device-capture model for book content, and before the iPod, at that.) Then B&N let Amazon get the jump on them in the ebook world with the Kindle; their Nook will be following more than two years later. In the meantime, B&N may have realized what all the big publishers know: that when the customer shifts to ebooks, it threatens all their business models, sunk investments, and longtime marketplace advantages. That, along with the sour experience of trying to lead on ebooks and being frustrated by what was actually a self-destructive policy by Palm, may have fed their apparent disinterest in ebooks until recently.

But it was clear to everybody that the first round of ebook growth shifted power dramatically to Amazon. Publishers have been frustrated and humbled by the Kindle’s rock-bottom, loss-leading pricing of the hottest new titles. And Barnes & Noble had to figure that, recession aside, some of those same-store sales they were missing were from shoppers who stopped coming to them because they had bought a Kindle and were now locked into the Kindle store for their purchasing to use the device.

Incidentally, the sales levels that the IDPF and Michael Pietsch are revealing are for legitimate ebook sales. Nobody knows the size of the pirate ebook market. There are some who guess it is rather small despite the robust number of files available in various hard-to-quell locations on the Internet, but if it includes any significant number of current or recent print-book customers, it only magnifies the impact on the legacy businesses.

There are a multitude of questions facing the industry about the expanding ebook market: how (some, including some highly credible voices, would say “whether”) to use digital rights management (DRM), how to price ebooks, what enhancements or updating can make commercial sense and how to manage them in the marketplace, when they should be made available, and, most important of all in the long run, what the “deal” is for the consumer (and then, based on that, for the author) who is actually licensing something rather than taking possession of something. But the questions about the declining print side are just as acute.

The brick-and-mortar bookstores, led by Barnes & Noble, are going to have to figure out how to keep their stores enticing with might be a smaller selection of print books. Nothing can grow the market for print books in the years to come, but keeping the number of points of purchase as high as possible and the traffic as high as possible are in the industry’s interests. It will require some real creativity to figure out what other activities or product offerings are compatible to keep people coming and how to drive traffic with online activity.

Amazon is not unaffected by this shift, either. Their big early lead in the ebook world was really built on the back of their superior print-book supply chain. From the very beginning, when they put out a database that had out-of-print books in it and then gave the customer a reliable delivery date for what they could sell, they created an unmatched print book shopping experience, provided a) you knew pretty much what you wanted and b) you didn’t have to have it right this minute. Their logistical capabilities are nonpareil but don’t do them nearly as much good with an electronic customer as a physical one. Their grasp on the ebook market really depends on the Kindle remaining a favored device and I think you could get good odds if you wanted to bet on that. Making hardware is not a core competency for them.

As the print business declines, Amazon continues to win if real print book demand falls more slowly than brick-and-mortar availability. But their hammerlock on the ebook market will probably not last; there will be too many better devices and they have to make a concessionary shift to selling the epub format before they can even begin to compete for those customers. They’ll do it someday, and probably soon, but they loosen the grip they have on the Kindle owners the day they do.

Publishers have an interest in continuing to support bookstore survival because the display they get there is great promotion and because being seen by a browser who put themselves at a bookstore section is still a great way to be discovered and bought. And there will still be, for some time, books which are not narrative reading which are simply better in print than in any electronic rendition. Publishers still sell a lot of these books (many of them juveniles) and bookstores, or some appropriate retail setting, are essential to them.

But publishers are going to have to rethink their operations. Sales staffs will probably contract; warehouse space will become redundant; investments in IT systems for the print operation will have to be more rigorously controlled. Publishers will likely combine, of course; the big houses now all gladly take competing publishers into their back office operations to help support them. But downward shifts in scale are not only inevitable, they will probably happen in more dramatic lurches than we’ve known in the past.

Wholesalers and distributors will both win and lose in this shift, but the shape of their business will certainly change. On the one hand, they, like everybody else, will lose sales that they have today because accounts go under and publishers they distribute cease operating. On the other hand, they are in the business of converting fixed operating costs to variable ones, and the number of customers for that proposition will grow as the apparent costs of operations (as a percentage of sales) get out of control at many companies.

Agents and the top 500 authors (an arbitrary number) are most likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of these changes in the short term. Because they themselves are powerful, searchable brands, they could actually sell ebooks themselves off their own websites, keep all the money, and make considerably more than their contracts would give them for ebook sales today even with sales of a quarter or less than the publisher and retailer get for them. (And the sales might not be that low.) I have talked to big publishers about the threat that top authors might just make their ebook deals first (you can cover the market in 4 or 5 stops and branded authors would have their own websites to sell from as well) and offer publishers print-only. Without exception, the big publishers tell me “no way we do the deal on that basis.” But if what is contended in this post is true — that keeping the print business viable is going to depend on amassing volume for it any way you can — they might not actually feel that way when presented with the problem. I think they will be getting the opportunity to make the choice.

I’ve posted on variations of this thought before. I had already decided it needed to be the topic of a keynote panel at Digital Book World. I’ve recruited Ken BrooksMichael CaderLarry Kirshbaum, and Evan Schnittman to join me on stage there to discuss it. Continually rebalancing the business between print and electronic, and maintaining the scale to run still-vital print operations, will be a topic of interest for just about all of us in the months and years to come.

Apologies for the paucity of posts lately. I’ve had a lot of work, been traveling, and had a bout of food poisoning. The food poisoning’s about gone, but the work and travel schedule remain robust for the rest of the month. I should become a more reliable correspondent again in a couple of weeks.

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Talking to the agents, and introducing Filedby


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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