Marcello Vena

New data on the Long Tail impact suggests rethinking history and ideas about the future of publishing


For most of my lifetime, the principal challenge a publisher faced to get a book noticed by a consumer and sold was to get it on the shelves in bookstores. Data was always scarce (I combed for it for years) but everything I ever saw reported confirmed that customers generally chose from what was made available through their retailers. Special orders — when a store ordered a particular book for a particular customer on demand, which meant the customer had to endure a gap between the visit when they ordered the book and one to pick it up — were a feature of the best stores and the subject of mechanisms (one called STOP in the 1970s and 1980s) that made it easier. But they constituted a very small percentage of any store’s sales, even when the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor made a vast number of books available to most stores within a day or two.

It was an article of faith, and one I accepted, that if you could expose most books to a broad public, they would “find their audience”. The challenge was overcoming the gatekeepers or, put another way, the aggregate effect of the gatekeepers (the store buyers) was to curate, or act as a filter, to find the worthwhile books that the public would really see from which they would choose what to buy.

There was also ample evidence over time that a large selection of books in a store acted as a magnet to draw customers. That fact was noted by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, in the early 1960s, when they doubled the inventory at the Short Hills, NJ, Brentano’s store (the chain reported to my father, who was a Vice-President of Crowell-Collier, the company that owned Brentano’s, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and Macmillan Publishers, among other things) and it went from the worst-performing store in the chain to the best. In the 1970s, BP Reports published a survey that said that nearly half of bookstore customers chose the store they were in on the basis of the selection they’d find and more than half reported their particular purchase decision was made in the store.

By the late 1980s, both of the big national bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and Borders — were undergoing a massive expansion of “superstores”. Whereas chain bookstores (B&N’s B. Dalton and Borders’s Walden) carried 20,000 or 30,000 titles, and large independents carried as many as twice that, now the new superstores would carry 100,000 titles or more! Customers flocked to the massive bookstores and the ever-expanding chains ordered lots of the publishers’ backlists and everybody celebrated a new era, except the independent bookstores who were increasingly squeezed by their new large competitors. The era was less than 10 years old when it got disrupted.

In the 1970s, it was my responsibility for a couple of years to write the orders for stores that accepted vendor-managed inventory from Two Continents, my family’s distribution company. I was being careful to make sure that each store earned $2 gross margin per dollar of inventory investment, which was what you’d get from 40% discount with inventory turned 3 times a year. This gave me a hands-on look at how stock turn in the aggregate was affected by the inventory decisions on specific titles.

When you do this, you figure out pretty fast that you can produce very high stock turn on books that are moving consistently. If a store were selling five copies a month of a title on a sustained basis and I put in 10 and replenished monthly, they would be getting an annual turn of 10 or perhaps much more on those moving books. (Turn calculation: sales divided by average inventory for a period multiplied by the number of such periods in a year.) That would support a lot of single copies of books that moved very slowly or, as it turned out, not at all. Since very few stores managed a turn of 3 or 4 on their own (chain store turns were usually under 2), giving the stores on our Plan a good result with the advantage of shipping monthly was shooting fish in a barrel.

But if you think about the turn you’re achieving with the titles that really move, know that the titles that move are a large percentage of the store sales, and take on board what stores’ overall turns tended to be, it leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling, or calculation, that a very high percentage of the titles each store ordered didn’t sell a single copy in that store. In fact, one big advantage of vendor-managed inventory is that it gives you the ability to use the high turn on your titles to stock the titles of yours that turn slowly or don’t sell at all, rather than having the store “waste” those margin dollars your books produce stocking somebody else’s slow-moving books.

Remember, in physical retail, selection was the magnet. The books that didn’t sell were helping to pull in the customers for the books that did sell. Stores knew that too. Later work I did demonstrated that there were whole store sections that turned at half or less of the rate of the store as a whole. But if you want, say, a philosophy section that “turns”, it would only have about ten titles in it. If you want a philosophy section people will browse and shop from, you have to carry a lot of slow-moving titles.

But just when the bookstores put the inventory in place to stimulate book buying all over the country, along came the Internet, Amazon.com, print-on-demand, and ebooks, in that order. All four were fully integrated into the book publishing ecosystem over a decade-and-a-half starting in 1995. As quickly as the magic of selection via the 100,000-title store was implemented, it was superseded by the “total” selection provided by Amazon’s, and then BN.com’s, “unlimited shelf space”. Now every book would have its full chance to sell, or so it seemed.

Unlike the period of superstore expansion, when substantial orders for deep backlist suddenly became commonplace in a continuing windfall for publishers, the new era with Amazon was characterized by things getting harder for many publishers. That wasn’t necessarily clear at first, but the impact of Amazon, and then Lightning (print on demand offered by Ingram) was to dramatically increase the number of titles competing for sales. It gave the Long Tail a real opportunity to get to customers which, through bookstores — even very big bookstores — only the top 100,000 titles were able to do. Publishers were a bit like the metaphorical frog in heating water; the challenges imperceptibly became greater over time. In 1990, a new book competed with about 100,000 available titles. In 1997 it competed with many hundreds of thousands and that number just kept growing. Today it competes with millions.

The challenges for conventional publishers got steeper again when ebooks became mainstream, pioneered by Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007. There had been a modest ebook business building for about a decade, but until Amazon committed its resources to creating a dedicated device, a repository of content, and audience awareness, it had a trivial impact. But a full-fledged ebook business unleashed a new wave of competition from self-publishing authors. Amazon fostered growth by creating an easy on-ramp for self-publishing, a move quickly copied by B&N, Apple, and Kobo. In the several years that ebooks have been commercially important, many — certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands — of authors have achieved meaningful sales. Many of those have been of backlist books originally published conventionally but there have also been thousands of successful original ebooks. Whether revived formerly-dead backlist or new titles, these are books that are competing with the output of the conventional publishers and wouldn’t have been a decade or two ago.

So the Long Tail for books has been a topic of conversation for most of the past 20 years. Amazon’s limitless shelves and Ingram’s Lightning contributed heavily to this before the turn of the century; self-publishing has accelerated it dramatically. The early expectations, including mine, were that the Long Tail would take sales from all the books being “currently” published. But it became evident pretty early that the big books were just getting bigger: the head of the sales curve wasn’t diminishing. In fact, both the head and the Long Tail took sales from the middle of the curve. This was particularly challenging for publishers because publishing mid-list, those books they do that aren’t bestsellers, became much more challenging.

The Long Tail continues to grow. There are a limitless number of aspiring authors and their aspirations to self-publish successfully are fueled both by success stories and by a growing band of indie authors who tout their success and question the business models and practices of the majors. Because being conventionally published has its own set of hurdles and time requirements, it has seemed to many (and I haven’t been immune from this thought) that self-publishing would just continue inexorably to take share from the publishing business.

But now we have some data that calls that assumption into question. I encountered two examples of that in the past week.

In Toronto last Wednesday, Noah Genner of Booknet Canada presented information about the Canadian market showing that the number of ISBNs was expanding rapidly, but that the number of individual ISBNs selling at least one single copy was about flat.

Then this week, Marcello Vena of RCS Libri in Italy published a White Paper based on his company’s data (link through to the White Paper from the DBW piece introducing it) which showed something similar. Sales of his company’s books were becoming increasingly concentrated in a small number of titles. Vena added an analysis using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). HHI measures the concentration in a market and is, according to Vena, used by the US Department of Justice to measure concentration in an industry. The HHI is calculated by adding the squares of the market shares of the players. So if one company owned 100% of a market, the HHI would be 100 squared, or 10,000. But if 100 players each owned 1% of the market, the HHI would be 100 times 1/10,000 (1/100 squared) or 0.01. Using the market concentration and title concentration numbers in tandem, Vena finds that they’re linked. As market concentration increases, the sales move to the head of the sales curve and flatten further in the Long Tail.

Of course, Italy and Canada are not the United States. Our market is bigger and richer. But Italy and Canada are not trivial samples, either.

One further point about Long Tail sales. In the aggregate, they can be very significant. But for each individual title, they are trivial. So the real commercial benefits flow to the aggregators — Amazon and Lightning — and much less to the publishers or authors of the individual titles. There certainly are situations where particular publishers have a lot of Long Tail books: the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses would be prime examples of this. For them, with thousands of titles in the Long Tail, the aggregate sales are probably commercially significant. But for a publisher with 100 titles, or even 1000 titles, selling a copy or two a year (or none), and that’s what we’re talking about here, it hardly makes any difference. I personally own several Long Tail titles. I get checks from somebody every month, but it adds up to three figures a year, not four.

The implications of this in the discussion of how the publishing industry might be affected by self-publishing disruption are interesting. It would suggest to me that the boosts publishers can give a book — even their catalogs provide more marketing lift than most self-published books start with — will become increasingly important as the market becomes increasingly flooded. If the data Vena has presented turns out to be the future trend, the increase in self-published titles will drive more and more sales to a smaller number of winners, and my hunch would be that the winners will most likely be from publishers. That would indeed be a paradox and a totally unintended consequence.

Of course, the publishing business isn’t one business; it is segmented. So far, the commercially successful self-published authors overwhelmingly, if not entirely, fall into two categories. There are authors who have reclaimed a backlist of previously published titles and self-published them. And there are authors of original genre fiction who write prolifically, putting many titles into the marketplace quickly. Successful self-publishing authors are often in both categories but very few are in neither. Those two categories are nearly 100% of the self-publishing success stories but a minority of the books from publishers. So, even before Vena published his White Paper, the idea that self-publishing would upset the commercial establishment was way overblown. If Vena’s data turns out to be prophetic, the road is going to get harder and harder for all books, but especially the self-published.

Two big items in the news today. On B&N’s decision to spin out Nook and college into a separate public company, I have little to say except to wish them all well. On Hachette’s and Ingram’s division of the two Perseus businesses, I’d say this. 1) The notion that this is about Hachette “bulking up” for the Amazon battle is almost certainly wildly wrong and anybody saying that has disqualified themself as an expert. 2) The titles Hachette get here really change the character of their list, adding a non-fiction and academic dimension they never had. 3) Ingram has made a major leap in scale for their Ingram Publisher Services business which now, in the aggregate, is Big Five sized.

Once again, the Feedburner service failed to distribute my most recent post, which was a graf-by-graf disagreement with a post by Hugh Howey. The comment string of that post contains ample evidence that the fact contained in the last paragraph here is not widely acknowledged.

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Now HERE is an experiment that looks like it worked and is worthy of replication


The new opportunity to publish a book without printed inventory has been popularized primarily by self-publishing authors and by new fledgling publishing enterprises like Entangled and Byliner following in the footsteps of earlier pioneers like eReads and Ellora’s Cave and, more recently, Open Road. This changes the economics of publishing substantially, taking a very large part of the risk out of it and decreasing a publisher’s dependence on hundreds of stores to individually agree to commit their own capital resources to display printed copies.

There have been some experiments with no-inventory publishing from the major houses, all in genres. Last year, HarperCollins launched HarperTeen Impulse and Random House launched the digital-only imprints Loveswept, Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt. And Harlequin had preceded them early in 2009 with Carina Press. In fact, these digital innovations have already given rise to what I believe is premature concern from some agents that publishers will carry this “no printing” thing too far!

Much of the promised innovation has been around publishing shorter works, works that might not have lent themselves to printed versions anyway, but they also were a way to reach out to self-published authors. Now Italy’s RCS Libri has come up with a really imaginative use of no-inventory publishing — also in a genre — as a way to test not only the appeal of a new author’s work but also the ability of fledgling authors to promote it. The concept appears to have succeeded commercially on its first attempt; it will be interesting to see whether it can be replicated by RCS Libri and by other publishers in other countries.

RCS Libri  set up a new publishing arm called “Rizzoli Lab”, a new imprint dedicated to experiments in digital. For the first effort of Rizzoli Lab, they came up with a really nifty idea. It is a series of books called You Crime, by which RCS Libri is creating a new kind of collaboration they call “co-publishing”, by which they mean that they are combining the efforts of a publisher with the efforts authors provide as self-publishers.

You Crime has four published ebooks from Rizzoli Lab, each with four short crime stories within. Four of the sixteen stories, one in each book, are written by well known Italian crime writers. The other three stories in each book are by fledgling writers, whom the Rizzoli editors found by looking at submissions but then examining the authors’ presences on the Internet. They obviously have huge numbers of people who wish to publish with them. In addition to judging the writing quality of submissions and limiting to one genre (only crime: no romance, no fantasy), they tried to evaluate the authors’ attitude toward digital and their past experience with self-publishing. They refer to what they did as “digital editorial selection”. Since RCS Libri is investing in the entire initiative (and marketing of the series, but not author marketing) they wanted to be sure they had good content to offer to the readers and strong marketing efforts to let them know it was there. Of course, their editors knew how to judge quality content. What was new was the evaluation of the fledgling authors’ digital marketing potential.

According to Marcello Vena, the digital head at RCS Libri under whose leadership this has all happened, the established authors participated in the project at least partly because it provided interim exposure to the public between their major books. Of course, everybody got royalties and the established authors got a bigger share.

The twelve fledgling authors were charged with driving traffic, awareness, and sales of the book their work appeared in. Meanwhile, RCS Libri worked with the powerful national newspaper in their corporate family, Corriere della Sera, to promote the You Crime series generically and run its web site.

As it turned out, all four books in the You Crime series sold quite well. They all made the top 50 (among over 4,000 titles) for Rizzoli throughout the entire Italian ebook market (including in the Kindle store). RCS Libri promoted the series as a competition, like X-Factor. The fledgling authors were expected to add their title-promotion efforts to the series branding done by Rizzoli and Corriere della Sera. And now at least some of those writers will have their own full-length novels published by Rizzoli, having been introduced to the reading public through this vehicle.

Vena calls this new form of publishing “co-publishing”, where an established publisher effectively partners with aspiring writers, bringing established writers into the project to help with their content and their brands. He sees the authors and publisher as “co-responsible” for driving readers to the book.

I don’t know whether the competitive X-Factor aspect of this or the “co-publishing” label are the key elements. Of course, they might be. But, regardless of that, the concept of using established writers to entice sampling of new writers is definitely a very cool idea, and doing this in a “digital-first” publishing paradigm, seriously reducing investment risk, makes complete sense.

Obviously, we want to see this work again before we leap to the conclusion that it will work every time, or even regularly, but having four successes out of four and a large number of fledgling writers picked up for full-novel treatment is a powerful statement on behalf of an imaginative experiment. I think we should expect to see this tried again in other markets. And before too long.

Of course, we are putting together a panel including RCS Libri at Digital Book World 2014 to talk about “no inventory publishing”. That’s one of several pieces of programming we will have around “new models”. We’ll also feature leading innovative publishers and suppliers talking about subscriptions, new direct sales channels, agile content publishing models, and new product forms for non-narrative content. Register by November 8 for the best rate. 

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Innovators and circumstances: the Frankfurt Publishers Launch show


In some ways, I think this year’s Publishers Launch Frankfurt show kicks off the next era of digital change in global publishing. The US and other English-speaking markets have established clearly that immersive reading — fiction and narrative non-fiction — is easily ported to screens for most people. In the past 18 months, changes in the UK book market have begun to resemble what we saw in the US, including Amazon’s dominance and bookstore shelf space shrinking.

While there are still many unanswered questions about how the English-speaking trade book world will look in a few years, I think the story of the next 12 months could well be more dramatic in non-English markets. The Frankfurt show is our most international; Americans are in the minority as attendees at this event.

We have packed 18 panels and presentations into our one-day Publishers Launch Frankfurt. (I like to keep things moving.) In keeping with the way digital change has taught us to think about the book business, we have two themes that are actually analogs for “content” and “context”.

Providing the “content” will be nine “Innovators”. The presenting innovators are publishing executives who are doing things inside their companies that are hard (or impossible) to find being done anywhere else. Yet.

Creating the “context” are a number of presentations on “Circumstances”. The context of the digital revolution differs by country, by language, and by time. What happened in the United States over the past five years offers clues, but not definitive answers, about what to expect in other countries over the next five years. We are exploring a wide range of circumstances that are defining the environment for publishing around the world in the future.

Both sets of presentations are extremely diverse.

We’re starting off the day with what I think will be one of the most impactful of the “circumstances” descriptions. Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis tracks the strategy of the five big tech companies whose activities are most likely to have an impact on publishing: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. He’ll describe the overarching objectives of each company and examine how book publishing fits into their thinking. The point will be to help publishers see how to take advantage of opportunities that will be created and avoid the pitfalls that will come along with the opportunities.

Jim Hilt, Theresa Horner, and new International Managing Director Patrick Rouvillois of Barnes & Noble will be talking about their company’s recent first move outside the US, launching the NOOK in the UK with local retailer partnerships. The UK will therefore become the first market outside the US to experience an initiative from the one company which, inside the US, has made a meaningful run at Amazon. If they can do it in Britain, then perhaps they can do it elsewhere as well. This is a “circumstance” everybody in the business will be watching.

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo will also speak. Kobo has opened in six major markets in the past year. They’re bringing an independent — but complete with devices, including new ones just announced — ebook retailing presence into many markets. The spread of the digital delivery infrastructure is definitely one of the changing circumstances that all publishers need to stay aware of and these two retailers are an important part of it.

The decline of print bookstores has been taking place for some time in the US, an effect not yet evident in much of the rest of the world. Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group has been studying that, surveying book consumers about their purchasing decisions for a decade. He has data spelling out what the impact on sales and discovery is as bookstore shelf space contracts, which he’ll be reviewing for publishers to consider as they do their own forecasting about how fast bookstores will decline in their own markets. Hildick-Smith also has data about the reading habits of consumers on tablets as opposed to ebook readers which will be of great interest because so much more of ebook uptake outside the English-speaking world will take place on tablets.

We will have panels looking at two sets of emerging markets.

The BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — are watched by economists for emerging trends and we’re going to do the same. All of them are in the earliest stages of ebook uptake, but the beginnings are there in all four markets. We’ll have local representatives from each — publishers and retailers — to fill us in on the prospects and expectations in each of these countries.  The panelists will be Carlo Carrenho (PublishNews) from Brazil, Alexander Gavrilov (Book Institute) from Russia, Ananth Padmanabhan (Penguin) from India, and Lisa Liping Zhang (Cloudary Corporation from China.

We will also have a panel of leading Spanish-language publishing executives, chaired by Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, to discuss how digital change is playing out in the Spanish-language market. Spanish, like English, is the local language for many countries — more than 20 in the case of Spanish — and also has a very large market within the US. Digitization has been slow and there are unique issues having to do with the fact that control of copyrights is often housed in Spain, despite the fact that the biggest markets are in Latin America. Patricia and her panelists (including Arantza Larrauri of Libranda and Santos Palazzi of Planeta) will explore how fast that will change and when we should expect to see ebooks rising beyond the sliver of the market they have captured so far.

Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center is going to do a presentation on changes to copyright law and practice that may not be taking place where you live and publish but which could affect you where you do.

Noah Genner, their CEO, will report on the first fielding of a BookNet Canada survey of Canadian book consumers, the beginnings of a project that is planned to take place over the next couple of years. This may be the first intensive study of digital reading habits outside the United States so we thought it was worthy of a report to our global audience.

And a circumstance on every big company’s mind in publishing is how they will be regarded by the investment community as they navigate the digital transition. Brian Napack is now at Providence Equity Partners. Last year at this time he was President of Macmillan USA. Nobody is in a better position to discuss this topic than Brian and he’ll present on it at our event.

The innovative executives who will be navigating these shifting circumstances constitute the other half of our program. These speakers will be talking about initiatives that are often unique but are always pioneering. Our bet is that they are introducing a lot of practices that will be common in a couple of years.

Two of our innovators work from outside the English-speaking world but part of their story is that they’re not letting that cut them off from the biggest book-buying language.

Helmut Pesch leads the team that provides the internal ebook support for the German publisher Lubbe. But he’s using that position to pioneer. He’s teamed with a TV production entity to deliver a multi-media novel as a serial, launched an ebook first imprint, and is publishing original work in both English and Mandarin Chinese!

Marcello Vena oversees digital initiatives for the Italian holding company RCS Libri, which owns the book publishers Rizzoli, Bompiani and Fabbri Editori. Vena has started two ebook first genre imprints (thrillers for Rizzoli and romance for Fabbri) and is delivering those files DRM-free. He’s created a couple of very successful illustrated ebooks (this in a market where digital has barely cracked 2% of sales) and he also is trying out English-language publishing.

Stephen Page of Faber and Faber in the UK is building publisher- and author-services businesses while he innovates in his own publishing house. As an example of that, Faber has produced delivered two compelling apps for classic poetry: one on T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and one just released on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. And he’s building author communities that include live events and writing courses.

Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer for Perseus and their digital Constellation service, is exploring “social listening” tools, but with a twist. Joyce points out that working with these tools isn’t easy but he also is skeptical of the value which can be derived as they are often used: tracking the impact of social media efforts by a publisher. Joyce and his team are exploring whether the tools can be used to find the right marketing venues and approaches, down to the level of what blog comment streams to join and what nomenclature to use when they’re being worked. He will explain the tricky balance between being terribly specific in your search (like using the book title) which yields far too few opportunities and being so broad that the targeting is ineffective.

Anthony Forbes Watson is Managing Director of Pan Macmillan in the UK, part of the newly reorganized global trade division of Macmillan. Watson’s house is distinctly smaller than the four biggest UK trade houses (Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Penguin) but much larger than any other player. Watson has reorganized his shop to get closer to both the authors and the markets. The evidence so far is that Pan Macmillan is proportionately outselling its competitors in digital; Watson will lay out the ways in which internal structural changes can lead to competitive advantage.

Rebecca Smart is the Chief Executive Officer of Osprey, a global publisher whose first vertical audience was military history. Since then, Osprey has executed acquisitions to put them into other verticals: science fiction, mind body spirit, food, and health. Her company is global and focused on audiences and she is building a multi-vertical publisher that will work with very diverse set of customers with a consistent approach and central services when possible.

Ken Michaels is the COO of Hachette Book Group USA. He’s also a big believer in SaaS: software as a service and he’s been rethinking and rebuilding Hachette’s internal technology structure in light of that belief. Hachette has also created some solutions themselves — among them, a capability to track metadata and ranks of books at ebook retailers and a tool for sharing content on Facebook — that they are making available as SaaS services themselves.

Charlie Redmayne is the CEO of Pottermore. He believes they’re building the digital publisher of the future and that a key element of that is to go where the audiences are: every device or channel that commands eyeballs is in his sights. Of course, Pottermore was built on the back of one writer’s amazing fictional brand and world. Redmayne believes what they’ve built might be applicable to other worlds from other authors. And that part of his presentation might get a lot of publishers and agents in the audience thinking what they have that might apply.

Dominique Raccah is the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks. Dominique is an indefatigable experimenter. She’s developed a poetry vertical. She’s experimented with “agile book creation” which invites the author’s audience to participate in creating the book. Dominique does more experiments before breakfast than most publishers do in a year. I put her on this program “on faith” because she told me she’s got 2-1/2 experiments to discuss that support her conviction that publishers have to completely rethink their businesses. (Today on a listserv she mentioned that she has “five startups” taking place internally!) Maybe I’ll find out exactly what she’s going to talk about at the conference before we get there, but I haven’t found out yet. But I’ve never been disappointed by Dominique and she says she’s more excited about what she’ll discuss at Publishers Launch Frankfurt than she has ever been about anything she’s done before. I am confident that we’ll be glad to hear what she has to say and all the other innovators will feel they are in very good company.

As we usually do at Publishers Launch events, Michael Cader and I will be opening the show with stage-setting remarks and doing a quick wrap-up at the end as well as popping up during the day whenever we think we can be helpful.

We got Peter Hildick-Smith, Rick Joyce, and Marcello Vena to do a webinar with us previewing what they’re doing at the event. Check it out! And our friends at the Frankfurt Book Fair did a little session with me talking about the conference as well. Take a look.

 

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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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