Leonard Shatzkin

Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses


One of the things my father, Leonard Shatzkin, taught me when I was first learning about book publishing a half-century ago was that “all publishing houses are started with an editorial inspiration”. What he meant by that is that what motivated somebody to start a book publisher was an idea about what to publish. That might be somebody who just believed in their own taste; it might be something like Bennett Cerf’s idea of a “Modern Library” of compendia organized by author; it might even be Sir Allen Lane’s insight that the public wanted cheaper paperback books. But Dad’s point was that publishing entrepreneurs were motivated by the ideas for books, not by a better idea for production efficiency or marketing or sales innovation.

In fact, those other functions were just requirements to enable somebody to pursue their vision or their passion and their fortune through their judgment about what content or presentation form would gain commercial success.

My father’s seminal insight was that sales coverage really mattered. When he recommended, on the basis of careful analysis of the sales attributable to rep efforts, that Doubleday build a 35-rep force in 1955, publishers normally had fewer than a dozen “men” (as they were, and were called, back then) in the field. The quantum leap in relative sales coverage that Doubleday gained by such a dramatic sales force expansion established them as a power in publishing for decades to come.

Over the first couple of decades of my time in the business — the 1960s and 1970s — the sales department grew in importance and influence. It became clear that the tools for the sales department — primarily the catalog, the book’s jacket, and a summary of sales points and endorsements that might be on a “title information sheet” that the sales reps used — were critical factors in a book’s success.

There was only very rarely a “marketing” department back then. There was a “publicity” function, aimed primarily at getting book reviews. There was often a “sales promotion” function, which prepared materials for sales reps, like catalogs. There might be an art department, which did the jackets. And there was probably an “advertising manager”, responsible for the very limited advertising budget spent by the house. Management of coop advertising, the ads usually placed locally by retail accounts that were partly supported by the publishers, was another function managed differently in different houses.

But the idea that all of this, and more, might be pulled together as something called “marketing” — which, depending on one’s point of view, was either also in charge of sales or alternatively, viewed as a function that existed in support of sales — didn’t really arise until the 1980s. Before that, the power of the editors was tempered a bit by the opinions and needs of the sales department, but marketing was a support function, not a driver.

In the past decade, things have really changed.

While it is probably still true that picking the “right books” is the single most critical set of decisions influencing the success of publishers, it is increasingly true that a house’s ability to get those books depends on their ability to market them. As the distribution network for print shrinks, the ebook distribution network tends to rely on pull at least as much as on push. The retailers of ebooks want every book they can get in their store — there is no “cost” of inventory like there is with physical — so the initiative to connect between publisher and retailer comes from both directions now. That means the large sales force as a differentiator in distribution clout is not nearly as powerful as it was. Being able to market books better is what a house increasingly finds itself compelled to claim it can do.

In the past, the large sales force and the core elements that they worked with — catalog, jacket, and consolidated and summarized title information — were how a house delivered sales to an author. Today the distinctions among houses on that basis are relatively trivial. But new techniques — managing the opportunities through social networks, using Google and other online ads, keeping books and authors optimized for search through the right metadata, expanding audiences through the analysis of the psychographics, demographics, and behavior of known fans and connections — are still evolving.

Not only are they not all “learned” yet, the environment in which digital marketing operates is still changing daily. What worked two years ago might not work now. What works now might not work a year from now. Facebook hardly mattered five years ago; Twitter hardly mattered two years ago. Pinterest matters for some books now but not for most. Publishers using their own proprietary databases of consumer names with ever-increasing knowledge of how to influence each individual in them are still rare but that will probably become a universal requirement.

So marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.

Fifty years ago, editors just picked the books and the sales department had to sell them. Thirty years ago, editors picked the books, but checked in with the sales departments about what they thought about them first. Ten years from now, marketing departments (or the marketing “function”) will be telling editors that the audiences the house can touch need or want a book on this subject or filling that need. Osprey and some other vertical publishers are already anticipating this notion by making editorial decisions in consultation with their online audiences.

Publishing houses went from being editorially-driven in my father’s prime to sales-driven in mine. Those that didn’t make that transition, expanding their sales forces and learning to reach more accounts with their books than their competitors, fell by the wayside. The new transition is to being marketing-driven. Those that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age.

A very smart and purposeful young woman named Iris Blasi, then a recently-minted Princeton graduate, worked for me for a few years a decade ago. She left because she wanted to be an editor and she had a couple of stops doing that, briefly at Random House and then working for a friend named Philip Turner in an editorial division at Sterling. From there Iris developed digital marketing chops working for Hilsinger-Mendelson and Open Road. She’s just taken a job at Pegasus Books, a small publisher in Manhattan, heading up marketing but doubling as an acquiring editor. I think many publishers will come to see the benefits of marketing-led acquisition in the years to come. Congratulations to Pegasus and Iris for breaking ground where I think many will follow.

Many of the topics touched on in the post will be covered at the Marketing Conference on September 26, a co-production of Publishers Launch Conferences and Digital Book World, with the help and guidance of former Penguin and Random House digital marketer Peter McCarthy. We’ve got two bang-up panels to close with — one on the new requirement of collaboration between editorial and marketing within a house and then in turn between the house and the author, and the other on how digital marketing changes how we must view and manage staff time allocations, timing, and budgeting. These panels will frame conversations that will continue in this industry for a very long time to come as the transition this post sketches out becomes tangible.

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Vendor-managed inventory: why it is more important than ever


The idea of vendor-managed inventory has never become particularly popular in the book business, despite a few experiments over the years where it was implemented with great success. (And despite the fact that I was pushing for it back in 1997 and 1998.) But as the book business overall declines, with the print book business leading the slide and that portion of the print book business which takes place in retail stores falling off at an alarming rate, it is time for the industry to think about it again.

In fact, VMI for the book business began with the ID wholesalers and mass-market paperbacks right after World War II. The IDs — the initials stood for “independent distributors” — managed the distribution of magazines and newspapers at newsstands and other accounts within their geographical territory. The retailers had no interest in deciding how many copies of LIFE they got in relation to Ladies Home Journal; the ID made that determination. And since only the torn off covers were necessary for confirmation of a “return”, the “bulk” cost of distribution was in putting the copies in, not taking back the overage. And because newspapers and magazines had a disciplined frequency, it was obvious that you had to clear out yesterday’s, or last week’s, or last month’s to make room for the next issue.

When the first mass-market paperback publishers started their activity right after World War II, providing books for, among others, returning servicemen who had access to special servicemen’s editions of paperbacks (in a program created by the polymath Philip Van Doren Stern, a Civil War historian and friend of my father’s) they helped the jobbers along by having monthly lists. They also were comfortable with a book only having a one-month shelf life and having the stripped covers serve as evidence the book hadn’t been sold.

For quite some time, the initial allocations to the ID wholesalers (the local rack jobbers were called “Independent Distributors”) were really determined by the paperback publishers. Eventually, that freedom to put books into distribution choked the system, but there were a lot of other causes of the bloat. By the 1960s, many bookstores were carrying paperbacks and many other big outlets were served “direct” by the publishers, leaving the IDs with the least productive accounts. But VMI, even without any system and very little in the way of restraints on the publishers, was responsible for the explosive growth of mass-market paperbacks in the two decades following World War II.

In the late 1950s, Leonard Shatzkin, my father, introduced The Doubleday Merchandising Plan, which was VMI for bookstores on Doubleday books. For stores that agreed to the plan, reps reported the store’s inventory back to headquarters of Doubleday books rather than sending an order. Then a team posted the inventories, calculated the sales, and followed rules to generate an order of books to the store. Sales mushroomed, particularly of the backlist, and returns and cost of sales plummeted. Doubleday was launched into the top tier of publishing companies.

In a much more modest way, a distributor that my father owned called Two Continents introduced a VMI plan in the 1970s. Even with a very thin list and no cachet, we (I was the Marketing Director) were able to get 500 stores on the Plan in a year. We achieved similarly dramatic results, but from a much more modest base.

Two Continents was undone by the loss of some distribution clients. The Doubleday plan was undermined by reps who convinced headquarters years after my father left that their stores would be more comfortable if they wrote the Plan orders rather than letting them be calculated at headquarters. And the rise of computerized record-keeping systems for inventory and national wholesalers who could replenish stock quickly improved inventory performance, and store profitability, without VMI. Although our client West Broadway Book Distribution has successfully operated VMI in specialty retail for more than a decade, and Random House has worked some version of VMI at Barnes & Noble for the past several years, the technique has hardly been considered by the book trade for a long time.

It is time for that to change. What can foster the change is a recognition about VMI that is readily apparent in West Broadway’s implementations in non-bookstores, but would not have been so obvious to the bookstores using Doubleday’s or Two Continents’ services.

From the publisher’s perspective, the requirement that there be a title-by-title, book-by-book buying function in the store in order for the store to stock books purely and simply reduces the number of stores that can stock books. The removal of that barrier was the key achievement of the ID wholesalers racking paperbacks after World War II. Suddenly there were thousands of points of sale that didn’t require a buyer.

From the store’s perspective, buying — and managing the supply chain to support the buying decisions — is expensive. VERY expensive. Books are hard to buy. New ones are coming all the time; the number of publishers from which they come (and who are the primary sources of information about the books, even if you could “source” them from wholesalers at a slight margin sacrifice for operational simplicity) is huge; the shelf life of any particular title is undeterminable; and the sales in any one outlet are very hard to read.

Consider this data provided by a friend who owns a pretty substantial bookstore.

Looking at the store’s records for a month, 65% of the units sold were singles: one copy of a title. Only 35% were of books that sold 2 or more. (I didn’t ask the question, but that would suggest that 80-90 percent of the titles that sold any copies sold only one.)

Then, the following month, once again 65% of the units sold were singles. But only 20-30 percent of them were the same books as had sold as singles the prior month. Upwards of 70% of them were different titles. And upwards of 70% of the ones that sold one the prior month didn’t sell at all.

To further underscore how slowly book inventory moves, another report they do shows that more than 80% of the titles in the store do not sell a single copy in any particular month. So it is no surprise that an analysis of books from a major publisher that promotes heavily showed that more than half the new titles they receive from that publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the store, which would include the promotion around publication date!

These data points demonstrate another compelling reason for VMI. When a store sells none of 80% of its titles in a month, and of the ones they do sell 80% of those sell one unit, they clearly need information about what is going on in other stores to know which ones to keep or reorder and which ones to return. Above the Treeline is an inventory service which provides its stores with broader sales data to address that issue, but the information is not as granular or as susceptible to analysis as what a publisher or aggregator could do with VMI.

Partly because of the high cost of buying and a supporting supply chain that a book outlet requires, publishers will see shelf space for books drop faster than retail demand. (The closure of Borders, which wiped out a big portion of the shelf space, is part of what is behind the recent good sales reports from many independents.) At the same time, retailers of all things will be under increased pressure to find more sales as the Internet — often, but not always, Amazon — keeps eating into their market.

This all adds up to VMI to me. We’ll see over the next couple of years whether industry players come to the same conclusion.

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Full-service publishers are rethinking what they can offer


At lunch a few months ago, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, expressed dissatisfaction with the term “legacy” to describe the publishers who had been successful since before the digital revolution began. For one thing, he felt that sounded too much like “the past”. “We need to come up with a different term,” was his assessment and he suggested that perhaps “full-service” was more apt.

I find I keep coming back to “full service” as an accurate description of the publisher’s relationship to an author. That’s what the long-established publishers have evolved to be.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that publishing organizations were deliberately created as service organizations for authors. They weren’t. In fact, as we shall see, the service component of a publisher’s DNA was developed in service to other publishers.

My Dad, Leonard Shatzkin, pointed out to me 40 years ago that all trade book publishing companies were started with an “editorial inspiration”: an idea of what they would publish. Sometimes that was a highly personal selection dictated by an individual’s taste, such as by so many of the great company and imprint names: Scribners, Knopf, Farrar and Straus and Giroux, for examples. Random House was begun on the idea of the Modern Library series; Simon & Schuster was started to do crossword puzzle books.

That is: people had the idea that they knew what books would sell and built a company around finding them, developing them, and bringing them to market.

And the development and delivery to the market required building up a repertoire of capabilities that comprised a full-service offering.

The publisher would find a manuscript or the idea for one and then provide everything that was necessary — albeit largely by engaging and coordinating the activities of other contractors or companies — to make the manuscript or idea commercially productive for the author and themselves.

The list of these services describes the publishing value chain. It includes:

select the project (and assume a financial risk, sometimes relieving the author of any);

guide its editorial development (although the work is mostly done by the contracted author or packager);

execute the delivery of the content into transactable and consumable forms (which used to mean “printed books” but now also means as ebooks, apps, or web-viewable content);

put it into the world in a way that it will be found and bought (which used to mean “put it in a catalog widely distributed to opinion-makers or buyers” but now largely means “manage metadata”);

publicize and market it;

build awareness and demand among the people at libraries and bookstores and other distribution channels who can buy it;

process the orders;

manufacture and warehouse the actual books or files or other packaged product;

deliver;

collect;

and, along the way, sell rights to exploit the intellectual property in other forms and markets, including other languages.

It has long been customary for publishers to unbundle the components of their service offering. The most common form of unbundling is through “distribution deals” by which one publisher takes on some of the most scaleable activities on behalf of other smaller ones. It has reached the point where almost every publisher is either a distributor or a distributee. Many are depending on a third party, quite often a competing publisher, for warehousing, shipping, and billing and perhaps sales or even manufacturing. All the big ones and many others, along with a few companies dedicated to distribution, are providing that batch of services. It is not unheard of for one publisher to do both: offering distribution services to a smaller competitor while they are in turn actually being distributed by somebody larger than they.

An assumption which influenced the way things developed was that the key to competitive advantage for a publisher was in the selection and editorial development of books and in their marketing and publicity, which emerged organically from their editorial efforts. All the other functions were necessary, but were not where many editorially-conceived businesses wanted to put their attention or monopolize their own capabilities.

About 15 years ago, working on VISTA’s “Publishing in the 21st Century” program, I learned the concept of “parity functions” in an enterprise. They were defined as things which can’t give you much competitive advantage by doing them well but which can destroy your business if you screw them up. This led to the conclusion that these things were often best laid off on somebody else who specialized in them, leaving the publisher greater ability to focus on the things which truly and meaningfully differentiated them from competitors.

Another driving force here was the way that bigger and smaller publishers look at costs and scale. If you’re very big, it is attractive to handle parity functions as fixed costs: to own your own warehouse, have a salaried sales force, and to invest in having state-of-the-art systems that do exactly what you want them to do. If you’re smaller, you often can’t afford to own these things anyhow and, on a smaller base, fluctuations in sales could suddenly render those fixed costs much too high for commercial success.

It is therefore more attractive to smaller entities to have these costs become variable costs, a percentage of sales or activity, that go up when sales go up but, most importantly, that also go down if sales go down. And the larger entity, by pumping more volume through their fixed-cost capabilities, subsidizes its own overheads and improves the profitability and stability of its business.

One of the things that is challenging the big publishers — the full-service publishers — today is that the unbundling of their, ahem, legacy full-service offering has accelerated. You need scale to cover the buyers and bill and ship to thousands of independent accounts. If you’re mainly focused on the top accounts — which today means Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor for most general trade publishers — you might feel you can do it as well or better yourself with one dedicated person of your own.

And if you’re willing to confine your selling universe to sales that can be made online — print or digital — you can eliminate the need for a huge swath of the full-service offering. Obviously, you give up a lot of potential sales with that strategy. But the percentage of the market that can be reached that way, combined with the redivision of revenue enabled by cutting the publisher out of the chain, has made this a commercially viable option for some authors and a path to discovery for others.

So the consolidation of business in a smaller number of critical accounts as well as the shifting of business increasingly to online sales channels has been a challenge for some time that larger publishers and distributors like Perseus and Ingram have been dealing with.

But now the need for services and the potential for unbundling is moving further up the value chain. The first instances of this have been seen through the stream of publishing efforts coming directly from authors and content-driven businesses like newspapers, magazines, and websites.

To the extent that the new service requirements are for editorial development help and marketing, it gets complicated for the full-service publishers to deal with. The objective of organization design for large publishers for years has been to consolidate the functions that were amenable to scale and to “keep small” the more creative functions. So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.

That means they are not designed to be scaleable and they’re not amenable to getting work from the outside. It’s much less of an imposition for somebody in a corporate business development role to ask a sales rep to pitch a book that had origins outside the house than it is to assign one to an editor in an imprint. The former is routine and the latter is extremely complicated.

But what does this mean? Should publishers have editorial services for rent? Should they try to scale and use technology to handle editiorial functions — certainly proofreading and copy-editing but ultimately, perhaps, developmental editing — as a commodity to assure themselves a competitive advantage on cost base the way they do now for distribution? Should publishers try to scale digital marketing? Should they have teams that can map out and execute publishing programs for major brands?

The way Murray sees it, a major publisher applies a synthesis of market intelligence and skills that can only be delivered by publishing at scale. He believes that monitoring across markets and marketing channels along with sophisticated and integrated analysis of how they interact provide an unmatchable set of services.

The scale challenge for trade publishers to collaborate with what I’m envisioning will be an exploding number of potential partners is to find ways to deliver the value of the synthesized pool of knowledge and experience efficiently to smaller units of creativity and marketing.

There is plenty of evidence that publishers are thinking along these lines. The most obvious recent event suggesting it is Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions. Penguin had shown prior interest in the author services market by creating Book Country, a community and commercial assistance site for genre fiction authors. Penguin suddenly has real scale in the self-publishing market. They have tools nobody else has now to explore where services for the masses provide efficiencies for the professional and how the expertise of the professionals can add value to the long tail.

There are initiatives that stretch the previous constraints of the publisher’s value chain that I know about in other big companies, and undoubtedly a good deal more that I don’t know about. Random House has a bookstore curation capability that they’ve coupled with editorial development in a deal with Politico that could be a prototype. Hachette has developed some software tools for sales and marketing that they’re making available as SaaS to the industry. Macmillan has a division that is developing educational platforms that might become global paths to locked-in student readers. Scholastic has a new platform for kids reading called Storia that involves teachers and parents that they’d hope to make an industry standard. Penguin has a full-time operative in Hollywood forging connections with projects that can spawn licensing deals. Random House has both film and television production initiatives.

These developments are very encouraging. One of the reasons that Amazon has been so successful in our business is that our business is not the only thing they do. One of the elements of genius they have applied ubiquitously is that every capability they build for themselves has additional value if it can be delivered unbundled as well. Publishers were comfortable with that idea for the relatively low-value things that they do long before they ever heard of Amazon. It is a good time to think along the same lines for functions which formerly seemed closer to the core.

Speaking of which, many of publishing’s most creative executives will be speaking as “Publishing Innovators” at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on Monday, October 8, 10:30-6:30, on the grounds of the Book Fair. 

We did a free webinar with a taste of the Frankfurt conference last week and it’s archived and available and worth a listen. Michael Cader and I were joined by Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Marcello Vena of RCS Libri.

Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, Helmut Pesch of Lubbe,  Rebecca Smart of Osprey, Anthony Forbes Watson of Pan Macmillan, Ken Michaels of Hachette, Stephen Page of Faber, and Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (as well as Joyce and Vena) will all be talking about initiatives in their shops that you won’t find (yet) going on much elsewhere. And that’s just part of the program. There is a ton of other useful information — about developments in the Spanish language, the BRIC countries, the strategies of tech giants and how they affect publishing, and much more — that will make this the most useful single jam-packed day of digital change information you’ll have ever experienced. We hope to see you there.

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Explaining my skepticism about the likelihood of success for a general subscription model for ebooks


In a prior post, I observed that the apparently-successful subscription offerings for books were in niches. And I said I believed that a more general subscription model wouldn’t work for ebooks the way it has seemed to work for music (Spotify), movies and TV shows (Netflix), and audiobooks (Audible).

By that I meant two things. First of all, it will be impossible for any aggregator to secure the rights to anything like enough of the most appealing titles to deliver an offering comparable to what’s succeeded in other media. But even if they did, that kind of offering wouldn’t deliver nearly as much value to the book reader as general subscription offerings do in other media.

The latter point is based on intuitive speculation. The former is based on an informed view of the commercial realities.

Let’s briefly reiterate the case about consumer appeal. The number of songs, movies, and even audiobooks a subscriber might use in a month (the normal billing period for any subscription, so a relevant unit of measurement) dwarfs the number of books most people would read or refer to. And the heaviest readers — people who read several books a month — are often in genres (romance, science fiction) that already have subscription offerings. They don’t need a more general one.

So the price a subscription offering can command for general ebooks is almost certainly lower in relation to an individual book purchase than the price that can be charged in other media in relation to purchase. That was reflected in the thinking of the fledgling company that got me started writing these posts. They wanted to go to market with a subscription price of about $5 a month, which is less than Spotify, Netflix, or Audible!

(I may disagree with them about the overall viability of the subscription idea, but at least they recognize the necessity of a truly bargain price point.)

But it will be very hard for them, or anybody else, to put together a title base sufficiently appealing for that offering to work commercially.

Big books that consumers know about and want drive them to the points of acquisition for the title. When bookstores talk about how sales are going, they almost always cite the particular books that are driving traffic to their stores (or bemoan the fact that there haven’t been enough of them). That’s why booksellers heavily discounted Harry Potter titles the day they came out and why Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild promoted the availability of the biggest bestsellers they had rights for in their advertising.

Everybody in trade publishing understands this effect. Publishers “overpay” for big books because they know the control of them provides critical leverage dealing with bookstores and wholesalers. BOMC and Literary Guild would bid up the prices for rights to predictable bestsellers beyond what the books would “earn” in royalties on book club sales to gain the value those books had bringing members into the Clubs.

When consumers tie themselves into a subscription service, the power equation shifts for those people. Some of the power of the titles that brought in the consumer is transferred to the owner of the subscription service. If there is enough of value to keep the consumer from looking elsewhere for more content, that can provide great leverage.

It creates enough leverage that Audible can flip the 70-30 model and pay publishers 30% of the attributable revenue for digital downloads of their audiobooks. Since they are the content providers for both iTunes (Apple) and Amazon (their parent company), they have an effective monopoly on audiobooks sold that way. Any publisher that doesn’t want to agree to that split for the subscription business, and I know of at least one very big one that doesn’t, effectively has to live without most of the digital download market for their audio titles.

There have been expressions of dissatisfaction with the payment formula by which Spotify compensates the owners of the songs in their service. But how could there not be? With a combination of free and very low-cost offerings, Spotify is delivering music for far less cost to the consumer than purchasing a collection would require. (There is, theoretically, compensation on the back end because the subscription fee has to continue to be paid to maintain access, whereas older consumers — like me — get a lot of “free” listening to the music we purchased years ago.)

But less cost to consumers means less revenue to be divided by creators. And book authors can’t expect to collect on “repeat reads” the way music creators can collect on “repeat plays”.

So, from an author’s perspective, putting content into a general subscription service threatens to build up the leverage for a market channel that will almost certainly find it less necessary in the future to pay high prices for incremental content.

Simon Lipskar at Writers House, which represents a significant number of major bestselling writers, sees subscriptions as an inherently bad deal for successful writers. In our conversation about this, he echoed my thinking by saying, “Subscriptions by definition transfer the brand value of the author to the brand of the subscription service.”

Users of subscription services, he explained, are attracted to the services by the presence of authors they want to read. But once they are members and paying a monthly fee, their dollars are earmarked for the service rather than to the acquisition of individual discrete books by individual authors.

From Lipskar’s perspective, which is the author’s perspective, “these services act as a very expensive distribution model, inserting themselves between the publishers who license books from authors and the readers who read them, often taking a much bigger piece of the pie than traditional retailers.”

(This point by Lipskar makes me recall my Dad’s — Leonard Shatzkin’s — disdain 50 years ago for the “other” methods of selling consumer books — book clubs and direct mail — because they did, indeed, require more of the consumer’s dollar to execute than selling through stores did. Dad liked “efficient” and he’d argue until the cows came home that bookstores, including returns, were a remarkably efficient mechanism for distributing consumer books. This, of course, was long before the Internet. He started saying it before there were bookstore chains or national wholesalers.)

Lipskar can imagine a subscription service more along the lines of the traditional Book-of-the-Month-Club, in which readers are aided in their discovery of titles by a curatorial/editorial process that helps to select quality titles and, even more important from a commercial perspective, in which the reader’s monthly fee just funds a discount on a discrete monthly purchase.

Lipskar says that for a subscription service to be embraced by authors and publishers, the economics would have to favor authors and their publishers to a much greater extent than the models currently on the market. On that note, the one thing he said he simply could not imagine would be good for authors (or publishers) on any level would be the “all you can eat” model like Spotify, which he believes has spawned a broad feeling within the music business to be a very effective means of transferring the financial value of music from the creators to Spotify.

All the big publishers know that continuing to sign up the authors is what provides the oxygen that keeps them alive. The biggest threat from Amazon is not that they’ll extract another point or three of margin — although that is definitely a continuing concern — but that they’ll reach a point where their market share is large enough to enable them to start signing up really desirable authors on a regular basis and pull them from the rest of the distribution ecosystem. (It is worth noting that Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple have as much at stake in that regard as the major publishers do.)

Because of that, major publishers will never do anything that would distress the major agents. It doesn’t really matter whether a close reading of a contract would give a publisher the “right” to put an author’s work into a subscription service. If the publisher believes the author’s agent would react adversely to them doing that, they’ll be very disinclined to do it.  And some agents might well react adversely to their doing that for any book, not just one under contract to that agent, because agents for big authors who think the way I’m describing don’t want to see subscription services enabled at all!

So that’s why I believe that fledgling subscription services have practically zero chance to get major publishers to commit major books to their pool of available titles.

Of course, there is one entity that might make subscription for general books work and that’s Amazon. They are actually already trying to pull this off even though their efforts have apparently been unanimously rebuffed by the biggest publishers.

The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is offered to “subscribers” to Amazon Prime, the retailer’s overall package of “loyalty” benefits offering that start with free shipping. KOLL allows a loan of an unlimited length, so it is, in effect, a cat’s paw for an ebook subscription program.

Amazon is only now able to offer a robust selection in that program because of a combination of its willingness to spend and the ebook contracts it has with most publishers aside from the Big Six, as well as a very large pool of self-published titles in Kindle Direct Publishing KOLL has not — so far — noticeably damaged the ability of the publishers to sell their “branded author” ebooks successfully. The ebooks from successful authors are still benefiting from a “power law” distribution of sales (things tend to move that way in the Internet world) that favors the biggest SKUs.

Amazon has marketplace clout that dwarfs that of any fledgling with a great idea and they went to great lengths to build up a robust title repository for the KOLL debut. Still, when they launched in November 2011 they only had 5,157 titles which they said included “over 100 current and former New York Times Best Sellers”. It wasn’t an impressive selection.

But the wholesale purchasing terms under which Amazon acquires the ebooks of all publishers except the Big Six apparently enable Amazon to lend any title it wants to, as long as it purchases a copy to lend each time it does so. And it is in the ether that Amazon offered publishers a lot of money to put titles into this program. They have an impressive list of publishers whose work they are offering — including Scholastic, Norton, Bloomsbury, Grove/Atlantic, Workman/Algonquin, F+W Media, Lonely Planet, Rosetta Books as well as their own publishing imprints — but there’s no way to know how many of them went for the deals being offered or which ones are included simply because Amazon is buying a copy of any ebook from them each time a customer wants to borrow one.

And while agency pricing rules are definitely a barrier that makes it more difficult for a Big Six publisher to participate, there seemed to be no burst of creativity on any publisher’s part to figure out a way around it.

So Amazon is, in effect, conducting an experiment testing my theory that a general subscription offering won’t be a powerful magnet. For now, the test is to see how many of the Prime customers find it possible to live largely or entirely within the selection of titles that KOLL offers them, and particularly whether they are weaning those customers away from the higher-profile offerings of the Big Six. Perhaps we’ll see Amazon extend the reach of KOLL sometime by offering a Kindle feature package that is cheaper than what Prime has to be to offer free shipping. I’d sort of expect that. Wouldn’t you?

Will Amazon have an argument to make in a year or two, to publishers or to authors, saying that there is a substantial pool of desirable readers they that they can only reach by participating in KOLL?

They might.

But can anybody else but Amazon put together the combination of the audience and title base they have, piggybacking as they are on Prime and willing as they are to buy an ebook just to lend it once to demonstrate that they can?

I doubt it.

It was been called to my attention by Pam Boiros of Books24x7 that in my prior piece I gave Safari Books Online credit for pioneering the subscription model and the payment by metered usage and that actually credit for both should go to Books24x7. Safari came along a few short years after Books24x7 had started the model which they operate today across a wide range of verticals, serving a mostly institutional customer base. I thank Pam for refreshing my memory, which was the source of the information. Safari is still a great service and the closest thing to a trade subscription model outside the single-publisher efforts, but they followed a path that was originally cut by Books24x7.

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There’s no level playing field without agency pricing, and not in the way you think


In the 1990s, Bernie Rath was the head of the American Booksellers Association. (Bernie was not a popular man across the industry. Lawsuits about trading practices that troubled publishers really began with him.) He pushed the idea that publishers should stop printing prices on the books. Bernie’s logic was very simple. He pointed out that you paid more for a shirt or a couch if it was sold to you by a vendor in a high-rent location rather than one in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. He thought it was essential that the retailer be able to set prices so they could raise them if necessary to adjust to things like their rent. Otherwise, Bernie argued, books wouldn’t be sold in the best locations. Bernie thought the price having been printed on the book was what prevented the retailer from charging the “right” price for their sales venue.

My father (who always loved a rabble-rouser) was a friend of Bernie’s and saw merit in this argument. This was one time Dad and I didn’t agree, and I still think I am right on this.

In those pre-Amazon days, it was sometimes necessary for a publisher to sell a book directly to an end consumer. People who couldn’t find the book they wanted or a store that would order if for them (not uncommon for most of the 20th century) would, in desperation, contact the publisher. And the publisher would sell them the book. The publisher would sell at full retail price plus postage and handling. They didn’t seek that business; they didn’t actually want that business. But when it came their way, they extracted the maximum revenue from it. And in doing so, they kept stores from being unhappy with them because, after all, the customer would only buy at those prices from the publisher (and put up with the service issues dealing with a company that didn’t think much about individual consumers) if they felt they had no alternative.

The basis of my disagreement was equally simple. Whether or not it was printed on the book, there was, indeed, a publisher’s retail price. And anybody who wanted to find out what it was could do so by asking the publisher or ordering from them. That meant that any store routinely charging more than that would get found out. Even before Twitter, word could get around fast about something like that and it would create suspicion about every book in their store, including books they might be selling below publisher’s list. So, in fact, they couldn’t really charge more just because the publisher didn’t give them away with a printed price.

In addition, the publisher printing the price on the book benefited the store two ways. If the price was deemed high by the consumer, the printed price made it clear the retailer was not to blame. And if the retailer ate into his/her margin to sell it cheaper, the customer could see very clearly that the merchant had done the clientele a favor.

As we know, successful publishers unlearn old behavior very slowly. So it has taken some time for the big general houses to shed their prejudice against selling direct to end customers even though, in the digital age, it is actually essential that they do so.

Why?

Because the business of publishing digital books delivered online is entirely different than the business of publishing printed books sold through intermediaries. This was not instinctively understood by most publishers, particularly by big horizontal (not subject- or audience-focused) publishers.

But by now every publisher has learned that they have to gather names for direct customer contact. When Markus Dohle, Random House’s CEO, told me that Random House had to become an effective B2C marketer two years ago, it was a visionary statement. Now it is a common understanding.

One Big Six house told us last week that they had something over 6 million email addresses they had permission to mail to right now. And they get very decent open rates and very tiny unsubscribes. That’s not enough of a customer base to live without intermediaries, but it is a healthy start.

When you’re selling digital downloads, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be emailing with people and not executing the transactions and satisfying the demand you’re creating. And, not incidentally, pocketing more than 40% more margin.

Of course, there are vertical publishers (like Harlequin and Ellora’s Cave and Baen Books in fiction, F+W Media in various enthusiast segments) which have already built strong direct selling operations. The key to that for them is the consistency of their offering which enables creating a community. And Harlequin and Ellora’s Cave and Baen all had direct ebook customer bases before Amazon even got started with ebooks in a big way.

The Big Six and other large publishers didn’t have that head start. They’ll be trying to begin now, building on name gathering they’ve done mostly over the past two or three years.

So selling individual titles one by one, which is what Amazon does (mostly) and which the publishers would like to be able to do as they build audiences, is a doomed exercise if the price in the marketplace isn’t fixed for that kind for that kind of transaction. If the publisher sells at the full price they’ve established, Amazon will use their power to control price to undercut the publisher and make them look foolish to their audience. If the publisher discounts, Amazon can always discount more.

But if the publisher discounts, they face another problem. Amazon (and every other retailer) would say, with ample justification, “the retail price my discount and margin should be based on is the price you sell it for.” If “publisher’s retail price” means anything, it must mean that! Just like when publishers didn’t sell direct in the all-print world before online happened, the price the publisher says is the retail price is what intermediaries would expect to see them sell the book for.

There are ways around this. A publisher can create content they don’t put into general circulation that is available only directly from them. A publisher can perhaps sell a DRM-free version of a book exclusively from its own site. The agency agreements as Apple apparently wanted them (because, without actually having seen one, it is how I understand them to be) are very inflexible in terms of allowing promotions, so bundling and even subscription programs can be difficult under today’s contracts with agency-priced books.

But if the publisher can’t control the price of the book across resellers, then there is ultimately only one general publisher that will be able to sell direct, and that’s the one with enough names in its database to live without any other resellers.

We’d have rules that set it up so that Amazon can disintermediate the publishers, but the publishers can’t disintermediate them.

If that were the principal outcome of the Department of Justice’s action, it would certainly qualify as “highly ironic”.

I’ll write soon about the great show we have coming up at Publishers Launch BEA on June 4. I also look forward to speaking at the Book Summit at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on Thursday, June 21. Their overall topic is about “discovery in the age of abundance” but I’m likely to mix other topics into my talk, including the one that is in this post. I am also speaking at George Washington University’s “Ethics and Publishing Conference” on July 9 (no link available yet). Since they’re interested in the litigation around agency, the topic of this post is likely to arise there as well.

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Random House maintaining a big field force while the industry wisdom is to cut


I was brought up to believe in the virtues of a large field sales force. One of Dad’s early successes in his career as Director of Research at Doubleday was when he analyzed sales rep effectiveness to advise the company about the optimum number of reps to keep when they combined sales forces that had 10 and 14 members, respectively. The company expected him to come up with a number between 10 and 14, or, perhaps, between 14 and 24. His careful analysis of the impact of reps calling on stores led him to recommend that the new sales force consist of 35!

This decision was contrary to the contemporary practice and reasoning of all other publishers.

And very quickly thereafter, Doubleday concluded that taking orders was not the most important function for the rep. Influencing display, store merchandising, and sales clerk awareness of Doubleday titles were where they came to believe the big wins were.

A lot has changed since then, of course, including the ubiquity of computerized inventory management tools, very fast service nationwide from well-stocked wholesalers, and the growth, and then decline, of bookstore chains. But, most of all, we have gone from a country where the number of bookstores was organically increasing to one where it is, clearly, organically diminishing.

Is a large field sales force still a good idea? Dad died 10 years ago, but I am pretty sure he would think it was. He’d be very pleased to see what Random House is doing. They are maintaining a force of well over 100 reps in the field (among several different sales organizations with defined product or account specialties) while everybody else is cutting, usually from a much smaller base. They are, as he did, operating contrary to the contemporary practice and reasoning of all other publishers.

We’ve tried to get at the question of sales force deployment before but I had clearly not focused sufficiently on Random House. We had a session at Digital Book World in 2011 about it and Jaci Updike of Random House (who, as you will see, was a key actor in all this) was on the panel. But the Random House initiative we’ll be talking about below was only in development then. The story that was told at that session, and in industry news reports from time to time, was that the combination of field realities (fewer stores) and new capabilities (like electronic catalogs created by some houses and the industry electronic catalog Edelweiss) made it possible to cover the retailers with fewer reps. Not only that, sales conferences — a very expensive exercise that requires enormous travel expense to bring reps together — were sometimes being replaced by videos of editors pitching their books. The videos, unlike the reps, travel for free.

What made me want to learn more about what was going on at Random House was a conversation I had two weeks ago with another Big Six executive who wondered what they were doing. That person was aware of cuts at their own company and at others, but not at Random House. It seemed impossible that the biggest publisher in town could be cutting sales force and nobody else knew about it; those dismissed reps would be out looking for jobs and knocking on all the competitors’ doors. What was going on there?

I got the chance to ask the question of a friend on Random House’s corporate strat team a few days later. I was told that, indeed, Random House senior executive Madeline McIntosh and the adult sales director who had been on the DBW panel, Jaci Updike, had been redefining the role of the sales rep, broadening the responsibilities so that they remained productive and could be retained in large numbers even with fewer stores. Not only that, but they were proud of what they were doing and were happy to talk about it.

So last Friday I sat down with Updike for an hour and learned about the project that Random House calls “Rep 3.0″.

Whenever you learn about a company innovating, a recurring theme is “it requires support from the top” and that is true here. Jaci’s first reference, when asked “where does this come from?” was to the support the sales reorganization has gotten from CEO Markus Dohle. In his most recent end of year note, he specifically cited the work that Random House’s field reps do. (Updike also pointed out that she’s not the only sales executive leading this. She made it clear that Joan Demayo, leading the children’s sales organization, is doing the same thing.)

There is a belief in Random House, not necessarily documented and perhaps impossible to document, that half of sales come from word of mouth. They are also convinced that their field force is a primary tool to generate the dialogues that sell books. With Updike heading adult sales, they had a leader who had started out as a sales rep at Random House 22 years ago — after working in a bookstore before that — and who was their first Director of Independent Bookselling.

Jaci lived through many shrinkings of the Random House sales force in the 1990s and earlier in this century. But starting about three years ago, they started to disassociate the sales rep’s work from billings and look hard at what reps do “in the community”. Reps already did staff presentations in stores and connected to local media and to libraries. This was behavior that grew organically, but Jaci believes that Random House was unusual in that they encouraged it. If you’re stretched thin trying to cover all the accounts, it is harder to be supportive of what appear to be extra-curricular activities.

But three years ago, with Madeline McIntosh, Jaci’s predecessor in her current job, now running sales and all related operations, they embarked on their Rep 3.0 program. A core element of this was to reorganize the workflow of the rep’s job, using such tools as iPads and electronic catalogs, to make order-generation take less time and free up time for other activities. And those new activities, presenting to libraries and corporations as well as to bookstore staffs, became part of what the company expected their reps to do.

Implementing this strategy required that they make some changes in philosophy and approach that would seem counterintuitive to most sales executives.

They no longer compensate reps based on the sales they generate. Reps are compensated, as are many at Random House, on the overall company performance.

They encourage blogging and speaking engagements without corporate control of the messaging. In fact, they’re quite comfortable if the books their reps talk about aren’t all Random House books. This comes from their conviction that their community-building exercises won’t be taken seriously if they’re seen as shilling for their own stuff. On the other hand, they’re sure their own stuff benefits the most.

And they’ve invested in supply chain in general, seeing the connection between improving the tech in the reps’ hands, the speed of shipment from the warehouse, and the development of such capabilities as vendor-managed inventory, as worth the effort even in an era when the number of bookstores is getting smaller.

The community-building, non-bookstore efforts by the reps get very ambitious. There are Random House reps organizing “retreats” with authors where readers pay to join the group. These bring in attendeees from far afield, including from other countries who want to participate in the discussion about books. The attendees are not book sellers, primarily, although a bookseller is always involved. They are book readers, book lovers. But Random House doesn’t see this as a brand-building exercise. Updike believes that a part of what makes this all work is that the reps are “credible”; they’re not just pushing Random House books.

“We don’t touch what they do with their blogs,” Updike says. “We don’t influence. We don’t suggest.” It is the independent view the reps offer that “makes efforts like this work”, in her opinion.

With these new marketing practices largely arising from reps’ creativity and initiative and then being spread as “best practices” throughout the sales force, the company-wide sales meetings remain very important and Random House continues to run them twice a year.

So Random House sustains an investment in covering field accounts that none of their competitors appear to believe is sustainable, and they do it employing very unconventional techniques that are hard to measure. Is it working? Do they believe it is working?

Updike was convincing on this subject, even while she rejected as somewhat inflated a colleague’s report that independent store sales were measured as “up 40%” in February. (Like her reps increasing their credibility by not limiting their discussions to Random House books, Jaci’s willingness to discount what she thinks is an inflated measurement of their success reinforced her credbility with me!)

She figures some of that 40% increase was simply a shift of sales from wholesalers to direct because Random House had a few-month program of 2-day-shipment that ran through February. But she also knows that “POS was up” and she believes “our in-stock position was better than other publishers. We were in stock on a lot of hot titles when others were not; that was part of it.” And even with Borders closing, which we all know put wind in the backs of many independents, the 15% increase in indie store sales she thinks is the accurate number, is a very impressive feat in these times.

Random House figures that its “army of marketers”, which is how Updike now sees her sales organization, is helping them sell more books, build more titles from obscurity to success, and is thus giving them an edge winning over agents as well. This is a strategy not likely to be duplicated by any of their competitors. It will be interesting to see how clear a competitive advantage it can deliver them, and for how long.

Here’s another family anecdote that brings all this home. In 1975 I was working for my father, running sales at Two Continents. He had met a young sales director at Frederick Fell named Charlie Nurnberg. “Go meet him, Mike,” my father said. “You’ll learn things.”

I did, and I did, starting with the very first conversation we had when Charlie explained to me that if the permission line when somebody excerpted your book included a price and an address, you’d get orders.

In any era before the current one, the executive who got me started on this investigation by wondering aloud what was going on at Random House would have just picked up the phone and taken somebody there out to lunch to find out. “What are you guys doing about sales force deployment?” would not, in and of itself, have been seen as a “price-fixing” or “combination in restraint of trade” question.

But the reason why they don’t act that way today became very publicly evident yesterday, with the announcement of the DOJ suit against Apple and five publishers and the settlement agreed to by three of them. Publishers can’t talk to each other about the industry anymore. Aside from many other things, this means publishing just isn’t as much fun as it used to be anymore. (Even as I write this, I can hear the ridicule that statement will inspire in some quarters.)

I want to let the dust settle for a couple of days while people smarter about this than I am make clear what the legal papers actually say and what the timetables are for changes to become effective before I try to spell out some things it might mean.

This will certainly make for a lot of interesting conversation starting this weekend at the London Book Fair.

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Extending the life of bookstores is critical, but devilishly difficult


I’ll admit that I would have thought a few years ago that by the time we got to the point when more than a third of unit sales for major houses had gone digital — and perhaps more than half for fiction — that the future shape of the book business would be discernible. But, at least according to what I learned from one Big Six house last week, we have reached that level of ebook uptake and despite that, the business still looks very much as it has. It seems impossible to me that it will stay that way.

Here are a few bits of information that came onto my radar last week.

One Big Six executive told me that ebook sales in their shop had reached the mid-30s as a percentage of units sold. That broke down to about 50% of fiction units and 25% of non-fiction.

Nonetheless, that same executive noted a real slowdown in the rate of ebook growth. This is to be expected as the base of sales grows, of course, but it slowed down faster than this house expected. They had seen a 120% increase in ebook units in 2010 and figured they’d see an 80% growth in 2011; it came in at 60%. In short, the rate of increase was cut in half.

These numbers gave this particular executive reason to believe that print demand was begining to stabilize and that it was reasonable to assume that 50% print units might persist into the future, with commensurate new stability for brick-and-mortar stores. I have since been told that a leading executive at another of the Big Six houses shares the same expectation, or hope. Perhaps they all do.

On the other hand…

Another publisher, substantial but not Big Six, has seen much more explosive growth continuing in ebooks and, for that publisher, unit sales for fiction have already gone to well beyond 50% digital.

A paper by the accountants-consultants at Deloitte in the UK, reported in the Guardian, predicts a decline of 40% in all brick-and-mortar stores over the next five years. That’s because books are not the only item for which sales are migrating from brick stores to online. We’ve already learned that books are among the items most susceptible to online purchasing for a myriad of obvious and well-established reasons. We also know that buying public in the US is at least as receptive to online purchasing as the British.

I’ve written time after time after time about the diminishing retail network for books and its potential impact. I have always seen this as existential for big trade houses, whose distinguishing value proposition for authors remains their ability to put books on retail shelves. (There are other things that matter, but I’d argue that all of them put together don’t equal that.) Publishing printed books is a complex endeavor best done by a large organization that can perform its various functions — warehousing, shipping, billing, commissioning the manufacturing, sales representation, and contact with marketing megaphones — at scale.

A proliferation of online marketing channels with real influence could once again challenge the under-resourced (authors working alone or smaller publishers) or otherwise-preoccupied (Amazon) who are trying to substitute for what the big publishers do. So far, the platforms that matter (to the extent they do…more on that below) have been limited in number, Facebook being the most prominent one. (One sales executive said to me yesterday, “Facebook isn’t a platform. It’s a requirement.”) If Tumblr becomes really important and Pinterest really were the next Facebook and, over time,  online influencers become as dispersed as our 20th century media world was, it opens up opportunity for big organizations to add value that smaller ones can’t.

So even if the Big Six optimists are wrong that their business proposition will be preserved by a slowing switch from print to digital (and, with no more knowledge than they have, my intuition against their intuition, I wouldn’t bet a dime that they’re right), perhaps we’re heading for a world where any author in her right mind would want a publisher to cover all the digital marketing bases, with the help of technology and dedicated staff, rather than trying to do it herself.

Nobody’s predicted that yet that I’m aware of, but let me be the first on the block to acknowledge the possibility.

The future of bookstores and the future of publishers if the bookstores diminish much futher in importance should be one of the most important topics on the minds of all stakeholders in the book business. We’re going to try two different ways to explore it at our next Publishers Launch Conference, taking place at BookExpo on June 4. Both of them involve one of the distinguishing features of our events: delivering insightful data about our industry that is not delivered by other industry conferences.

All of the current industry data reporting, including the recent effort called BookStats put together by the AAP, BISG, and Bowker, are unable to isolate sales and inventory in stores by type of book. To plan future publishing programs (and to sign up books this month and next), publishers need to understand with some level of granularity whether it is true that stores are shifting their buying (and selling) from immersive reading to illustrated books and, if so, which illustrated books. Among the reasons that the industry stats fail to capture this properly is that they don’t look beyond the sales publishers make to wholesalers to find out what happened with the books the wholesalers bought.

But the wholesalers know whether the book they just sold went to a brick store, a library, an online store, or an individual. We’ve been fortunate to get Phil Ollila of the Ingram Content Group to examine his company’s records to give us a more detailed and granular understanding of what is really happening in the retail marketplace. Are bookstores really stocking fewer novels and more illustrated books? Is the proportion of sales made online versus in stores changing at different speeds for straight immersive books and illustrated books? Ingram is mining its data to come up with answers to those questions. Ollila will report some findings at our conference.

We will also have a data-rich and sobering presentation from Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. Hildick-Smith and his team have been surveying book consumers on a quarterly basis for nearly a decade. Their work is high-level and expensive and is normally only available to the big companies that can afford to subscribe. But Hildick-Smith sees a crisis ahead for the industry in his data, and he cares enough about our collective future to want to sound an alarm. He’ll be doing that our June 4 event.

And what he sees and documents is the critical role bookstores play in consumer discovery of new books and authors. He demonstrates with data and logic that SEO and social media are totally inadequate substitutes. Hildick-Smith thinks a future without bookstores will be very different than the present. He makes the case that author brands established in the bookstore era will be largely unchallenged when the bookstore ladder gets pulled up and future authors can’t climb it. And he believes that publishers don’t appreciate that all measures, even desperate measures, are called for to preserve the brick store base as long as possible.

When you start trying to figure out how publishers could do that, you appreciate very quickly that you’re tackling a very challenging problem.

Six decades ago, long before there was any bookstore crisis, my father, Leonard Shatzkin, then at Doubleday, recognized that bookstores were the publishers’ lifeblood. He didn’t see the logic in giving bigger discounts to wholesalers than to retailers. After all, wholesalers primarily put their books in warehouses waiting for orders that publishers’ marketing efforts and a book’s inherent appeal create while retailers put them on shelves in front of customers, stimulating demand. His solution, implemented ever-so-briefly, was to eliminate the wholesalers’ discount differential and offer them the same terms as retailers.

Unfortunately, this is a story about which I didn’t capture all the details while Dad was around to give them to me. I know that the wholesalers went ballistic and demanded meetings with Doubleday management (presumably including Dad, who implemented policies like this from the relative safety of the “Research Department”, not from the front lines of the Sales Department.) The policy was reversed and the wholesale discount was restored.

But I can personally attest to the enduring bad feelings this initiative engendered. In 1974, around two decades after the failed experiment, I was working for Dad selling books for Two Continents. As the top sales guy, it was my role to introduce the company to Bookazine, a wholesaler that then occupied a warehouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Bill Epstein was the owner of Bookazine and, when he met me, all of the anger from that Doubleday discount change came to the surface, as if he’d been waiting 20 years to complain about it again.

The day has perhaps come again when publishers will want to consider offering the highest discount incentive for placing a book on a retail store shelf. (The idea exists in the world of commerce: it is called a “retail display allowance”, although the concept would need to be extended to favor all retail display, not just favored positioning.) This would be a devilishly difficult policy to design and implement to avoid alienating the wholesalers the way my Dad did. (There is no way a policy like this would be well-received by Amazon.) But after publishers hear Peter Hildick-Smith at Pub Launch BEA, it is bound to strike some, at least, as an idea well worth considering.

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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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By one benchmark at least, we are probably halfway through the (r)evolution


A couple of major (Big Six) publishers have acknowledged that ebook revenues for them have passed 20% of their revenues. Of the 80% that remains print, I think it would be conservative to estimate that 20% of that is sold online. That’s an additional 16 percent of their business. Adding those together tells us that, for at least some very major companies, 36 percent of of their sales are being transacted online. That would leave, on average, about 64% of the sales for print sold through brick-and-mortar retail and other more minor channels. ”On average” should not be read as “typical” on a title-by-title basis. It isn’t. For immersive reading, or straight text like novels and biographies, the percentage sold in stores is already almost certainly substantially lower. My hunch, and nobody really keeps these figures (but I think I’ve found a way to get at them, which we’ll try to show at a future Publishers Launch conference) is that it may already be down to 50% print in stores for new titles.

(It adds both confirmation and confusion to note that Bowker’s PubTrack estimated that 30% of the dollars spent on books in 2010 were spent online. But they figured that only 2.2% of the dollars that year were ebooks. My own estimates are based on the picture of things we get from big publishers, who are perhaps more skewed to straight text than the industry as a whole. There are all sorts of explanations that would narrow the apparent differences between what Bowker describes and what I infer from what I know, but they’d require a different piece which, I think, would be less helpful in painting an overall understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going than the one you’re about to read.)

Five years ago, early in 2007, it was a virtual certainty that 80%, and probably much more, of the sales of any trade book that sold a significant number of copies would take place in stores. There were almost no ebook sales. (The Kindle did not make its debut until November 2007; sometimes I feel like I was the only person reading ebooks before the Kindle arrived.)

Five years from now, by the start of 2017, I’d bet that 80% of the sales of any trade book that sells a significant number copies will be transacted online.

And that, even more than the ebook uptake that is a mere component of the store-to-online shift, is the story of our times that matters in trade publishing.

One thing I believe but won’t try to prove (which means “take it on faith”) is that more attention has been paid to the change from print reading to screen reading than to the change from store purchasing to screen purchasing. But the change in purchasing behavior is by far more significant in its affect on the industry than the change in consumption, at least in the medium term.

The shift in the way we consume what is now print may become more important as new presentation forms enabled by digital delivery — making use within the content itself of video, animiaton, links, social connections, and alternative content and navigation paths — are improved and gain commercial traction. (I’d argue that no enhanced or illustrated ebook solution has achieved that so far.)

But being halfway through the change in consumer buying habits in our decade of change has profound implications for all the big players in the publishing value chain. It would appear that publishers in both the US and UK are now accepting that the decline in numbers of bookstores and the shelf space they offer for merchandising is not temporary and not primarily recession-driven. (We heard that said more than once last year and the year before.) It is a fundamental societal shift that is inexorable and which shifts power away from publishers to their trading partners on both sides of them: the authors and the retailers.

In fact, even though the share of the overall business commanded by the brick-and-mortar retailers is declining, even they will, at least in the short term, gain clout with the publishers. The exposure they offer any book they carry will be increasingly appreciated as shelf space diminishes. And for illustrated books, print is really the only proven game in town because there is no digital presentation of such books that has demonstrated enduring viability in the marketplace.

The fact that we are halfway to a complete reversal of the online-offline sales ratio explains some conflicting behavior see in today’s marketplace. It is still true that brick-and-mortar placement is instrumental to building the reputation of a book or an author. And it is widely accepted that only a publisher employing a real infrastructure and customer network (its own or through effective use of a powerful distributor like Perseus or Ingram) can deliver that placement. At the same time, sales through online channels, particularly of ebooks, has reached a level of real commercial significance and those sales can be delivered with a fraction of the organizational capability that the declining model requires.

So we have authors like J.A. Konrath. He is perfectly content to eschew the bookstore exposure in favor of doing it himself. He keeps much fatter margins on the ebook sales, even though he probably has to charge lower prices for the same book than a publisher would. Konrath has argued for a long time that he is thinking of the future. He may be giving up some sales today, he acknowledges, but he believes he’ll be compensated for his foresight as the sales base moves away from bookstores and he has avoided forever paying 50% or 75% of his ebook royalties in an exchange for bookstore sales that will inexorably diminish.

Of course, he gives up advances against royalties too.

On the other hand, we have the author Amanda Hocking who built herself an online sales machine from scratch but yet happily sold her next four books to a publisher. She got significant advances, will now get bookstore exposure she never had before, and, from her perspective, also laid off many of the non-writing tasks of delivering a book to market. Those were tasks she found onerous; she’d rather write. I think she’s right that it is hard to do it oneself and I think it might get harder.

And then, taking a middle-ground position between these two, we have John Locke and Barry Eisler.

Locke was like Hocking. He started from scratch and built a big sales base online. He also was not getting the bookstore sales and exposure he’d get through a publisher. But Locke doesn’t mind the marketing work and he likes controlling his online presentation and pricing. So he made a “distribution deal” with Simon & Schuster for his print, getting the muscle of a real publishing sales and distribution organization working for him on a fee-for-services basis.

Eisler, who had done several books with major houses, turned down an advance from a publisher (ironically, the publisher was St. Martin’s, the same one who signed Hocking) and initially intended to self-publish. Instead, he took a deal with an Amazon imprint. This cuts the baby in half. He gets an advance. He gets the marketing attention of a big organization with unique capabilities. But he does not get bookstore exposure.

The reason all these different approaches actually make sense is that we are still in a period of transition. Konrath is banking on the fact that my analysis is right. From his perspective, he’s giving up bookstore revenue and marketing now because he doesn’t want to be paying forever for what he gets today. The same is true for Locke. Eisler and Hocking are pursuing more immediate benefits. Eisler is betting that Amazon’s direct marketing to consumers they know will propel him further and faster than going back to bookstores for sales yet again. And Hocking is banking on the fact that the bookstores and the publishers’ ability to place books in them will accelerate the growth of her fan base as well as laying off a lot of work she doesn’t want to do on somebody who is willing to fatten her bank account for the privilege.

The transition has another dynamic which is the growth of Amazon’s power in relation to every other player in the value chain. Going back to the stats at the top of the piece, the publisher who is seeing 36% of total sales and perhaps nearer 50% of immersive reading sales taking place online, is also seeing the percentage of their sales through Amazon grow as well. Amazon has about 60% of the ebook sales in the US and perhaps 90% of the online print sales. That would make Amazon (12% of the 20% sold as ebooks and 16% of the 80% print) about 28% of such a publisher’s volume now.

But using an overall number like that understates the reality of Amazon’s dominance. Their share of the sales of straight text books is almost certainly higher (because they sell most of the ebooks), so that share is almost certainly above 30% now. If things proceed as this piece contemplates for the next five years and nothing drastic has happened to change the shares retailers have of the ebook and online print channels, Amazon is likely to be something more than 50% of a big publisher’s business. All they won’t have is the 20% that is brick-and-mortar print, a sliver of online print, and the chunk of the ebook business that is sold by other vendors. And, as now, the percentage sold online will be higher on straight text.

Going from 80 to 90 percent of book sales being made in stores to that same percentage being made online in a decade’s time certainly justifies anybody’s pronouncement of profound and disruptive change. Having a single account that delivers half of publishers’ business — more on many titles — is unprecedented and perhaps unsustainable.

Although what we’ve seen in the past five years looks to me like it points very clearly to what we can expect in the next five years, it is hard to tell whether these realities are being taken on board by the players from whom power is shifting away. (Nobody is going to call me and say “Mike, our business is melting away!” even if that’s what they’re thinking.) I’m pretty sure it is all well understood, and expected, by the player who is seeing the power move in its direction. But they aren’t calling to tell me that either.

The death of the senior John Sargent last week – he was for a time my father’s boss at Doubleday in the 1950s — gave me reason to recall this piece I wrote in the blog’s very early days on Leonard Shatzkin breaking the color line at Doubleday in the 1950s. I didn’t have very many readers then compared to now. I thought it was worth calling my now-much-larger audience’s attention to it, even though it has nothing to do with today’s post. I think many of you will enjoy it.

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Some things that were true about publishing for decades aren’t true anymore


Back when my father, Leonard Shatzkin, was active with significant publishers — the quarter century following World War II — he observed that very few books actually took in less cash than they required. That is not to say that publishers saw most books as “profitable”. Indeed, they didn’t. They placed an overhead charge of 25% or 30% or more on each book so most looked unprofitable. But that didn’t change the fact that the cash expended to publish just about every book was less than the cash it brought back in.

The exceptions were usually attributable to a large commercial error, most commonly paying too much of an advance to the author or printing far more copies than were needed. But, absent that kind of mistake, just about every book brought back somewhat more revenue than it required to publish it.

This led Len to the conclusion that the best strategy for a publisher was to issue as many titles as the organizational structure would allow. That was a lesson he passed along to the next generation of publishing leadership that came under his influence. And the leading proponent of that business philosophy was Tom McCormack, who worked for Len at Doubleday in the late 1950s, then went on to Harper & Row before he ascended to the presidency of then-tiny St. Martin’s Press in 1969. Tom often credited the insight that publishing more books was the path to commercial success as a key component of the enormous growth he piloted at St. Martin’s over three decades.

(I checked in with Tom, who is long-retired as a publishing executive but a very active playwright, about how many books didn’t claw back the cash expended. He told me that his “non-confirmable recollection” is that the percentage that did at least get their money back ranged from 85% to 92%. He recalls “incredulity” from his counterparts in other houses, whom he believes simply couldn’t “wrap their minds around the meaning of the statistic: revenues minus disbursements.” He went on to tell me that this number “seemed effectively irrelevant to them. They had an overriding and deeply flawed notion of something they called title-profitability. They thought they were analyzing the profitability of a title with their ‘p&l’.”)

Despite the apparent immutability of the fact at the time that most titles brought in incremental margin, many publishers who were losing money would come to the opposite conclusion. They would decide they should cut their lists, pay more attention to the titles they published, and create more profits that way. I remember discussing the futility of that approach in the 1980s with my friend and client, Dick McCullough, who was at that time the head of sales at Wiley. When I observed that the publishing graveyard was littered with the bones of publishers who pursued cutting their lists as the path to profits, Dick said of their efforts to cut “yes, and very successfully too”.

I got another lesson about this reality in the late 1980s when a company I consulted to (Proteus Books) sued its distributor (Cherry Lane Music) for a failure of “due skill and competence” in the sales efforts for Proteus Books. One of Proteus’s expert witnesses was Arthur Stiles, who had been Sales Director at several companies, including Doubleday, Lippincott, and Harper & Row. Stiles confirmed that big and competent publishers routinely put out thousands of copies of titles in advance of publication, with extremely few failures in terms of getting the initial placements. He was testifying in a time that was still like what my father experienced: the industry’s title counts were growing, but so were the the number of bookstores in which they could be placed.

Those days are over. And, coupled with the ebook revolution, the implications of that are profound.

A few things happened to change the environment so that it became no longer true that even big publishers could get all the distribution they needed on every title to assure a positive return of cash.

1. The title output of the industry has grown enormously. In the 1960s, the total output of the industry was in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles a year. Now it is something more than 30 times that number published traditionally, with a multiple of that number being self-published. Each new book is competing against more new titles every two weeks than a book fifty years ago would have competed against in a year!

2. Nothing published ever dies. Fifty years ago, stores were smaller and, while there’s no easy way for me to measure this, I’d guess that the active backlist across publishers was probably no more than 25,000 titles. Superstore growth in the 1980s, the efficiency of Ingram as a national wholesaler, and computer systems that helped stores track their inventory and sales fueled backlist expansion. Even in the early 1990s, the total of truly competitive titles was probably in the low six figures. But then came Amazon’s unlimited shelf space and Ingram’s Lightning Print to deliver one copy at a time, and, even before ebooks, the competitive set of available titles had probably jumped to seven figures.

3. Bookstore shelf space is declining. Nobody who has been reading this blog needs much elaboration on that point.

What that means is that a list-cutting therapy that McCullough and I saw in the 1980s as suicidal and which McCormack explained repeatedly was folly is no longer crazy. (Oh, how I wish my dear departed Dad was around to discuss this with!) And the new conjecture in this blogpost is that the day might come when a publisher with an extensive backlist might decide that the most profitable path would be to hardly publish any new titles at all!

The portfolio of any longstanding publisher today contains a lot of backlist which is pure profitable gold in the ebook era. Contracts often give publishers the rights to a book for the life of copyright if they continue to sell it. (I’ll confess here that there is a caveat to this point coming up in an italicized postscript below.) So a major publisher doing $600 million and up (of which there are six), almost certainly has triple-digit millions of sales in its backlist, which is increasingly shifting to digital. Even the most sober industry observers are seeing revenues exceeding 50% from ebooks in the next two or three years, which would mean that substantially more than half the units of these books are selling electronically.

So, let’s say you’ve got a company doing a billion dollars in annual revenue and barely eeking out a profit or perhaps even losing money. With a strategy of continuing to publish what you own as ebooks, you can see digital backlist revenue of $150 million, decaying by 10% a year, with gross margins giving you $100 million or more in cash flow. Offloading all the print operations for which you own rights to a distributor or competitor will provide incremental revenue as well. (You only need help for the offline print sales. Getting the online sales requires no operational capability.) You’d then need a minimal organization to do some marketing (not a lot), sign up and put out some additional titles that would be chosen for being risk-free (not a lot), and to handle the administration and royalty processing for your thousands of contracts. Five or ten million ought to cover those costs very handily.

Of course, the other thing you could do is sell your rights to that backlist. But I think it would require somebody to overpay in relation to your net discounted cash flow to make that attractive because the costs of keeping it all for yourself would be so minimal.

One hopes that today’s publishers are looking at the simple statistic Len and Tom authored: revenues minus disbursements by title. No doubt today’s biggest publishers are looking carefully at the performance of their copyrights in a way that sorts the new titles from the backlist. But doing so is only useful if they’re apportioning their costs properly across the title base. If they are, what is described in this post will be evident if and when it is true. In the meantime, careful focus on new title acquisitions and accepting that the healthiest way to manage for the future might be to reduce the commitment to new title development will have to replace the clear truths that guided smart publishing strategy for previous generations.

The history and analysis are all valid, but there is one big monkey wrench in this scenario I’ve sketched. There is a provision in the 1978 copyright law that allows authors to reclaim rights to their books after 35 years. Titles published in 1978 become eligible for reversion, called “recapture” apparently, starting in 2013. (With logic that is ironically typical of what Congress does when it touches copyright law, older titles are on a slower track for liberation.) Agents are planning for this; publishers will have to deal with it. I am given to understand that publishers can only retain these books for life of copyright by, in effect, reacquiring them. (Should be lots of fun!)

So, in fact, the backlist attrition might be faster than 10% (but it might not, because ebooks may create more readers for backlist than we had before as well.)

It is also true that many publishers have already been moving in the direction I suggest: pruning their new title counts and being particularly cautious with midlist. Of course, there was a conviction by many that list-pruning was a good strategy even before it actually was a good strategy, but the execution of it has been much more rigorous over the past decade.

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