Michael Cader

Big publisher bashing again with fictional facts


The estimable Clay Shirky has written a lengthy piece called “Amazon, Publishers, and Readers” on medium.com saying, essentially, that an Amazon-dominated world would be an improvement over the Big Five “cartel”-dominated world of publishing we have today. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Big Five are not nearly as broad a cartel as Amazon — which reaches way beyond the consumer books they publish — is a monopsony. Amazon touches much more of the book business than the Big Five publishers do. To make his case, Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation to get from his own impression of the current Hachette-Amazon dispute (about which he says “Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact”) to a completely different conclusion.

My complaint with the facts and logic start at the top: with the two paragraphs Shirky uses to set up his argument and establishes the “holier-than” context for his position. He says:

Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.

Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to protect first editions; as long as ebook prices remained high, hardback sales could be protected. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.

Almost every sentence of this is subtly or blatantly wrong.

1. Publishers did not begin selling large numbers of books in digital format in 2007. Amazon started Kindle in late November 2007. Significant sales of ebooks didn’t start to occur until after Christmas and continued to grow rapidly thereafter.

2. Although an uninformed person would be led to infer from reading this that DRM was somehow created for Amazon, in fact DRM was routinely used for ebooks for their entire existence before Kindle. DRM on Kindle continued current practice; DRM was not created for Kindle or at Kindle’s behest.

3. DRM maintains pricing power for content owners as well as hardware vendors. In fact, I’d say it is more for the content owner than for the hardware owner. What it does for the hardware owner, particularly Amazon because they eschew the industry standard Adobe, is lock customers into their ecosystem. Of course, it is that lock-in that Shirky is telling publishers they can overcome by going DRM-free. (This precise antidote to Amazon was offered up by Matteo Berlucchi, then the CEO of Anobii, at a talk we put him on stage to give at Digital Book World in 2012.) In fact, it is not transparent that eliminating DRM would curb Amazon; it might fuel them. How well would the other retailers stand up to Amazon having easy access to their customers? Because that would happen at the same time.

4. Publishers did not believe — let alone “clearly assumed” — they were handing Amazon any sort of consolidated control. Perhaps that was a failure of vision, but it was a justifiable expectation since nobody had succeeded at selling ebooks before Kindle.

5. Amazon’s discounting was entirely at their own expense and was a tactic designed, at least originally, to sell devices and create captive customers. The publishers’ “inflated profits” (if that’s what they were) were not at issue in 2007 or 2008. So Amazon “sided with the customer”, but they also “sided with their own interests”. Some might say that’s not relevant; I think it is. Either way, it should be acknowledged, not elided or ignored.

6. Amazon was partly enabled to give the big discounts to consumers because publishers gave discounts too big to them, foolishly aping the print book business model even though a retailer’s costs drop much more than a publisher’s do with the change to digital. Stock turn is the key profitability metric for retailers. Stock turn on digital books is “infinity”. (I’d note that these are small points in this piece but are really really big points that go ignored in most of the discussions about ebook economics, which are almost always “fails” at understanding the core economics of publishers or retailers.)

7. The reduction in publisher revenue per book sold which resulted from Agency pricing (pejoratively characterized by Shirky as “colluded with Apple” rather than the at-least-equally accurate “using Apple’s established app store business model”) was not due to “Apple’s cut”. “Apple’s cut” was less than “Amazon’s cut” had been under the wholesale model. And, if you doubt that, you should take note that Amazon prefers not to switch to “Apple’s cut” so they don’t allow any but the biggest publishers to sell on the agency model with its lower margin. (Publishers can get 70% of net direct through KDP, but they have to stick to the $2.99-$9.99 price band and are at the mercy of KDP’s terms.)

8. It is misleading to attribute the publishers’ desire to keep “hardbacks” (really, all print) alive as a desire to protect “first editions”. It was primarily a desire to protect the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It should be said that way for accuracy but also to make the motivations of the sides clear. Publishers want to strengthen or maintain bookstores because their ability to reach them is a core competence that keeps them in business. Amazon wants to weaken or eliminate bookstores because it is clearly established that many customers of each bookstore that closes come to them. Another motivation for the publishers was to maintain a diverse ebook ecosystem, which at that time had just added Nook to its ranks and was about to add Apple. It is likely that Amazon’s discounting — thanks to the DoJ’s and court’s actions weakening agency — did as much to weaken Nook as any mistakes made by Barnes & Noble. And let’s not forget that Kobo has also abandoned active marketing in the US ebook market since then as well.

The other piece of Shirky’s screed that is misleading and inaccurate is his history of paperbacks.

Whether you date the beginning of paperbacks in the US to Pocket Books’s founding and Penguin’s establishing itself in the US in 1939 or to the period right after World War II when paperback publishing writ large discovered the magazine distribution system and really took off, there were decades between their arrival on the scene and their consolidation into the larger book business under joint ownership with hardcover houses. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that, to the degree that the ebook disruption is analogous to the paperback disruption, the reaction would be even more extreme on the part of the incumbent establishment dealing with the lightning-quick change that has transpired since ebooks took off in 2008.

And that is quite aside from the fact that the paperback revolution was not 60-to-70 percent controlled by a single account that also controlled a substantial and growing chunk of the rest of the book sales as well. Be that as it may, Shirky is simply factually wrong to say that what happened was that the hardcover houses just bought up the paperback houses and consolidated them into the existing business. The acquisitions took place in both directions. In at least three cases, the paperback house bought the hardcover house (Avon bought Morrow, Penguin bought Viking, and Bantam bought Doubleday) in order to assure themselves a steady supply of good books.

And before the consolidation even began, real troubles had started to develop with the distribution through the magazine ecosystem. Returns were climbing (that is why prices of paperbacks went up) and paperback publishers were finding they needed to sell directly to many accounts, which made them more like the hardcover publishers. And over the couple of decades between the end of World War II and the beginnings of consolidation, almost every “hardcover” house had started doing its own “trade” paperbacks: not rack-sized and sold through the same network that sold hardcover books.

In other words, the analogy is not analogous in many important ways.

It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”.

Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”. It seemed like Shirky himself tried to dismiss that idea near the opening of his piece, when he attacks Steve Coll for writing “about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes”, which Shirky describes as maintaining the current “elites” or seeing Amazon become a “soul-crushing monopoly”. But that is precisely where he ends up. To look at things this way rejects not only what the publishers keep trying to tout as their “added values” (curation and editing, yes, but also marketing, distribution, and rights management) but it also ignores the interests of academic and professional publishing, textbook publishing, bookstores, and a diverse book retailing — and therefore book recommending — ecosystem.

There will be many Hachettes fighting their version of this battle over the next few years. But there will only be one Amazon.

Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.com is joining us for an interview by Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and me at Digital Book World 2015, coming up next January 14-15. 

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Getting Mark Coker right this time and agreeing with him up to a point


On Tuesday, for the first time in the five years I have been writing this blog, I did a post I would like to take back. (But in the interest of the public record, and because there were several comments of value, I’m leaving it up.) This is the post that I should have written the first time.

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, wrote a Huffington Post piece in which he asserted that indies are now responsible for 15% of the ebook market in dollars and on their way to 50% by 2020. The initial post of mine misread Mark, and assumed that the 15 percent and 50 percent claim were about units, not dollars. Mark set me straight, but, unfortunately, that other post focused on trying to translate what I thought were unit shares into dollar shares. Sorry…

At first I had thought I agreed with Coker’s overall numbers, because I thought an estimate that indie ebooks were 15 percent of the total units was reasonable, rising to 50 percent in six years. But dollars are another story. (Note: Michael Cader’s independent examination of the numbers determined that indie/self-published ebooks were, at most, 11 percent of the ebook dollars and probably less. Cader’s generous calculations put the unit share percentage at about double that, in the low 20s. I believe his logic and numbers would also support my view that it is something less than that, which would put me near to Coker’s dollar estimate for my units estimate: about 15%.)

If indie ebooks were 15 percent in dollars today, then they would be 30 or 40 percent of units because they are priced so much lower than publishers’ ebooks. Is that possible? I suppose it is. I thought in the middle of last year that in the aggregate indies sold the number of units equivalent to one Big Six publisher, but not anything like 30+% of unit sales (even though Howey’s examination of 50,000 Kindle titles led him to assign 27% of the units sold to indies.)

If they are 30 or 40 percent of units, and nobody I know has read any, does that suggest a cohort of people who really prefer indie ebooks and read them in big numbers? And if indie readers form a “separate” market, is it growing or is it static? In other words, do indie ebooks draw on a particular pool of readers, so that we have two separate competitions going on for eyeballs and ebook sales?

We note a piece this morning at Good EReader that calls for the segregation of the self-published titles at ebook stores, because their sheer number interfere with discoverability for publishers’ books. That’s bound to be an unpopular idea in many quarters, but it is something that could happen if any one retailer offers it as a choice to consumers (which is the way to do it: as a filtering choice, not a hard-wired default). If consumers liked it in one place, the practice could spread.

Regardless of whether there is one competition for readers for all books or separate ones for indies and publishers, wouldn’t we expect the flood of titles to make it harder for everybody to make sales? (This is a point that Peter Turner brought up in the comment string to the prior post.) Chances are, yes. And that could mean even more authors will be forced to go indie because publishers are likely to respond to a shrinking market and more challenging discovery by reducing their outputs.

But it is also true that more challenging discovery means more skill doing it and more tools to reach customers have value. So the ability of established publishers to have “better odds”, to get their books to rise above the “noise” of a large title output, should improve (relatively) over time.

Coker did a great service to all of us putting the ebook sales indies achieve into a larger perspective. And, in doing that, he might even have understated the current case for their importance.

What Coker did was point out that the 15% ebook dollar share for indies was within the estimated 30% of the market that is ebooks, 70% still being print. Doing math with his share number, he concludes that self-published ebooks are taking 4.5% of the dollars in the overall market. I’d put them at somewhere between half and two-thirds of that.

But, in fact, the 70% of the market that remains print contains a lot of titles that have very little, even no, ebook sales at all. These are illustrated books or reference books or even kids’ books that have not worked commercially in a digital version. We don’t know how much of the 70% of books that are print are “readerly” books that are equivalent to the 30% that sell in ebooks, but it isn’t nearly all of them. I think it would be conservative to assume that non-readerly books constitute 25% or more of the 70% of the market that is print, which would divide that portion of the market to be 52.5% books that have commercially viable ebooks (the 30%) and 17.5% books that don’t.

So the 30% ebooks overall is really more than 35% for the books that are real ebook candidates (and probably nearer 100% for most of the indie ebooks which would have limited or no print sales). In other words, the ebook share for the books that can work as ebooks is already a bit bigger than an overall summary would suggest. But, despite that, indie ebooks are somewhere in the low single digits as a percentage of industry revenue.

I think that’s very important to keep in mind. Indie ebooks are not yet commercially important if we think about consumer dollars. (But, of course, as Hugh Howey and Coker point out, the author keeps a lot more of those dollars.)

There are two big questions going forward.

1. How fast will the indie self-publishing ebook market continue to grow at the expense of publishers who do it for profit? (All of the calculations from Coker and Howey about the benefits to indie authors assume they do it themselves, not through some new-fangled indie-first publisher or aggregator. If they do it through anybody else, new or old, the author share will decline. Every participant takes a cut.)

2. For any individual author, how does the decision of whether to do it themselves or sign with a publisher look?

On the first, I think one key question is whether we now have a bifurcated market: one group of people reading the bulk of indie books and another group reading the bulk of published books. There is certainly reason to believe that we do, although this is something that only the retailers really can know for sure.

I believe we do have two markets. Part of that is genre-driven. Many readers who habitually consume romance, thrillers, and sci-fi have found less expensive digital-first and author-published alternatives perfectly satisfying. They read lots of units. So it is likely that a concentrated cohort of readers is responsible for a big chunk of the indie books.

(There is probably a third market because we know there are also bargain shoppers. Though traditionally-published titles are discounted, there are still price bands where the indies largely own the marketplace.)

If that is the case, then indies compete with indies more than they do with publishers. And since we believe that a big part of indie sales growth will be driven by indie title growth, it could be that the sales will have trouble keeping up with the titles. That would mean the path to success for each individual indie author would get harder.

Note that this would not affect a self-published author who had built a name and a brand by being published first, except to the degree that self-publishing gets handled differently by retailers or that discovery metadata is not as professionally produced. In general, the distinction between authors who had publisher help building their brand before going indie and those who created success from a standing start has not been underscored as much as it should be in these discussions.

And that leads us to the second point. As Coker has pointed out in his piece and in the comment section of my previous post, some authors like to have “control” of their process. As print books become less and less important, those authors have more and more inherent reason to be attracted to a self-publishing model.

I believe that those authors who like “control” are already more ubiquitous in the self-publishing world than in the overall population of commercially-capable writers. It stands to reason that they would be early adopters of the digital self-publishing opportunity. My hunch is that most authors want to write, and to let publishers handle their business. They don’t want to do the administration and marketing work necessary to self-publish. And that’s even before they get to the difference between getting paid in advance for a book and having to spend money to put a book out.

But it is also true that the deals we see today are not necessarily forever. Publishers have held the line on 25% of their revenue as the author ebook share (apparently with some limited exceptions and, of course, situations for big authors where unearned advances effectively deliver higher royalty rates on everything). If they have to raise royalty rates to keep authors, they probably will. E-only publishers and digital-first imprints at traditional houses are already establishing new standards. Amazon just reduced the author take through their Audible subsidiary. Will the day come when they decide to take a bigger share of indie author ebook sales? Why not?

Authors will have a shifting set of commercial propositions to consider, along with their personal preferences for “control” or “help”. And that’s before we get to other things not reflected in any comparison of what they earn from a self-published ebook versus a publisher’s ebook: print revenue, unearned advances, and having somebody else doing a lot of work on your behalf.

So while I largely agree with Coker’s 10 trends that will lead to enormous growth in the number of indie-published ebooks we will see, I think a grain of salt is needed about how economically significant they will be either for the industry at large or for the vast majority of individual authors following that path even though they are bound to grow quickly. It turns out that the previous post started out with a misunderstanding that led me (and therefore my readers) on a wild goose chase but, in the end, the headline message was right. Even over the next few years, the changes we’ll see around how authors get their work to their readers are more about evolution than revolution.

As it happens, The Great Debate at the London Book Fair is about whether big publishers or small publishers will “win” over time. Ken Brooks of McGraw Hill Education and I have the “big” side; Stephen Page of Faber and Scott Waxman, who is both a literary agent and owner of an ebook publishing house called Diversion, tout the “small”. Michael Healy of CCC moderates. If you’ll be at LBF, check this out.

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Looking at predictions from here going back a few years


Prediction posts are common blog- and article-fodder at the end of a calendar year. I don’t think we’ll do one this time around, but I thought it would be fun to review some of the prediction posts from prior years. So pardon the highly self-referential post, but I think reviewing the predictions and reality from the past provides some perspective on the changes we’ve experienced over the past half-decade.

In December 2012, I wrote about “what to watch for” in 2013. I don’t think this was very adventurous, but it was mostly right.

I said that:

1. Overall migration of sales from print to digital will continue to slow down.

2. “Other-than-immersive” books will continue to lag in digital transition.

3. Mergers and consolidation among publishers are likely to become more common, after a long period when they haven’t been.

4. Platforms for children’s books will become increasingly powerful gatekeepers.

5. Marketing for publishers will be a constant exercise in learning and reinvention, and increasingly difficult to separate from editorial.

In December 2011, I steered away from predictions to raise what I thought were the important questions facing the industry coming up in 2012. Despite no “predictions”, this one anticipated a number of developments that mattered, including the challenges Amazon Publishing would face, the difficulty for B&N trying to create a workable international strategy, the lift indie bookstores would get from Borders going out, and the conundrum facing illustrated book publishers as consumption migrates to digital.

That same year, I chimed in with others for Jeremy Greenfield’s annual round of predictions on the DBW blog. I commented on the restructuring of big companies that would result in new positions. And that was before anybody had people with the word “audience” in their job titles. Doesn’t everybody now?

But I really got it wrong about ebook royalties, which I thought back then would go up from the “standard” 25% and, although that may still happen someday, it hasn’t happened yet.

I didn’t write a single consolidated predictions post in December 2010 but I did posts making some predictions. One thing I got right was that ebook sales would continue to rise quickly (some people back then expected a slowdown, but we were still in a more-than-doubling-each-year period though, as noted above in the predictions last year, that slowdown came eventually). I thought bookstores would be headed for very hard times. That was just before Borders’s demise.

I’ve made the point on the blog before that every book purchased online is another nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar bookselling. … I’m expecting that what brick-and-mortar booksellers will experience in the first six months of 2011 will be the most difficult time they’ve ever seen, with challenges escalating beyond what most of them are now imagining or budgeting for.

I think the next six months will make what we’ve been experiencing for the past year look very gradual. I know smart people who have thought for the past year that there would be some flattening coming soon in the ebook switchover. It doesn’t feel that way to me.

At the same time, I focused on marketing with a suggestion — for topic-specific (vertical) ebook recommendation apps or ebooks — that I still think is out there waiting to be exploited. Maybe Mike Fine’s Mediander will take hold and carry us in that direction. (What has happened instead is ebook notification of ebook price sales, which is, to my mind, not as useful.)

I also saw backlist emphasis as a logical consequence of ebook ascent. I think publishers are still lagging in taking advantage of this the way they could. And that blows the end of this prediction, because I said everybody would see that by the end of 2011. They didn’t. (And we now understand the constraints — of time, timing, and budgeting — that make backlist marketing difficult. Publishers are now looking to tackle the backlist in scalable, data-driven, and efficient ways.)

In December 2009, I made 13 predictions for 2010. One stands out: I said that ebooks would become significant revenue contributors for many titles. That happened. And also accurate was my hunch that “windowing” for ebooks, for a little while the strategy employed by publishers to protect print, would be overwhelmed by circumstances. Windowing really didn’t last long.

In January 2009, I wrote a piece for PW analyzing how my 2008 predictions had held up. I gave myself a pat on the back. I think I deserved it. As I said in PW:

I said the popularity of e-books would increase—that the rising Kindle tide would lift all the e-book boats. That appears to be unambiguously correct.

I said Apple would make an e-book reader out of the iPod and iPhone. They haven’t, but they’ve made it easy for others to do so.

I said B&N would continue to leverage its great supply chain to lengthen its lead over Borders. And, in an incredibly difficult year for all book retailers, B&N has substantially outperformed its closest competitor.

I said the lack of a competitive supply-chain infrastructure would handicap Borders, which would get a new owner. Turns out I was half-right. The lack of a competitive supply chain has been such a handicap that Borders has not yet found a new owner!

I said publishers would push harder to publicize books through the Internet because traditional review channels would continue to diminish. Well, the traditional review channels have certainly diminished, and publishers have increasingly turned to bloggers, Web sites and e-mail blasts to promote their titles. Most publishers now have dedicated staff for Web marketing.

I also said 2008 would be the year of experimentation. In many ways it was: Random with free e-book giveaways; Penguin beefing up its e-book editions of classics; Harper creating an imprint with Bob Miller that has a new business model for authors and a no-returns option for intermediary customers, as well as its Authonomy and BookArmy sites. Experimentation will be curtailed in 2009 because of the difficult economy, so I got that one into the right year.

At the end of 2013, we look forward to a new year with a revised commercial trade publishing landscape, mainly because what was formerly the Big Six is now (to my way of thinking) the Big One and the Following Four. The challenge for publishers will be to hang on to their margins, which will be under assault from a single dominant store network, a single dominant online retailer, and literary agents who know their author clients are reading the same articles they are about how the publishers’ profit has remained healthy through the early phases of the digital transition. The challenge for bookstores will be to stay relevant now that the most avaricious readers no longer must visit them to get their next book. And the challenge for everybody is to make a profit and generate some leverage on the even-diminishing share of the business that isn’t controlled by Amazon.

At this year, the fifth Digital Book World, I’ll start the show with a quick summary of what has changed since we started having the Digital Book World conference in 2010. And the wrap-up panel I co-host with Michael Cader will focus again on “Looking Back, Looking Forward”; what has happened that is significant in the past year and what we expect in the year ahead. We are delighted to have John Ingram, Mary Ann Naples, and Simon Lipskar joining us for that conversation.

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Don’t blame Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter for the fact that technology changes behavior


In the past week, we have seen the Louis C.K. rant against smart phones, the Jonathan Franzen deep intellectual swipe at what Amazon is doing to the world of publishing, and I had an exchange with a very dear old friend who does email (his wife doesn’t), but can’t handle texting or Facebook. Or thinks he can’t.

I remember about four years ago telling a family member of mine that it had gotten to the point that not having a cell phone was anti-social. I am quite sure that people who don’t have cell phones or Facebook accounts miss out on communication they’d have been glad to get. And by being outside communication streams that are increasingly ubiquitous, they actually place an unintended burden on people around them to keep them informed.

Futurist David Houle has pointed out that eighty years ago some people would refuse to get a telephone because a) people could just call you on it and intrude into your private space and b) people would know where you lived by looking you up in the phone book. These things were true (although eventually we got to “unlisted numbers”), but so were a lot of other things that were benefits. I was thinking about my friend who won’t do texting or Facebook. Hey, they’re just means of communication! Do you want me to mail you a letter to find out if you want to have dinner next Saturday night?

When the first means of electronic communication arrived, telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse had the prescience to make the first message he sent be “what hath God wrought?” Indeed, progress in electronic communication changes the world in ways that prior generations would have expected were possible only from God.

Yes, we have entered a world where all of us are connected to the entire planet all the time, except at the moments we specifically choose not to be (leaving the cell phone in a drawer or turning off all audible signals from it). This is as good a thing for each of us as we make it. But we are also increasingly depending on everybody else to be connected this way too.

Many of us announce our most important life events (and some insignificant ones too) on Facebook. That keeps our friends and family apprised of marriages, illnesses, births, and political opinions without us having to send out cards and make sure we have all the up-to-date addresses. Many of us (me not yet among them…) can use Twitter effectively to get the most up-to-date information about a breaking news event. (No self-respecting journalist could be without this capability today, I suspect. Certainly any journalist who knows how to use Twitter has an advantage over any who doesn’t.)

About 15 years ago the CEO of a major publishing house, a person with a reputation for digital forward-thinking, told me he was questioning whether everybody in his shop ought to have email! (After all, people with email are tempted to have communication that isn’t necessarily about their job. He was okay with internal electronic communication on a closed system.) It seems like every technological change faces skepticism because every technological change brings along a set of possibilities for behavior that needs to be controlled.

But, this being a blog about publishing, I’m most interested in rebutting Franzen’s suggestion that Amazon is somehow bad for reading, or bad for reading good books. (I agree with him that Amazon makes things harder for publishers, but that’s not the same thing.)

First of all, let’s not blame Amazon for two things: being really good at what they do and the natural impact of network effects. The “network effect” is that the more people are on a network, the more valuable it is to each person on it. In the first two decades or so of the 20th century, phone companies could only reach their own subscribers. A person who wanted to reach all their friends in an area might have to have several phones with different companies. Most wouldn’t, so even with a phone, communication was minimized. Gradually, the “roads got paved” and the phone systems were knit together.

You know one of the things that resulted from that? Reform politicians who were outside the central city finally became competitive with the urban machines, who could communicate easily without phones because they were in close geographical proximity in the center of town. (Thanks for this fact to my late friend, Professor Richard C. Wade, who invented the field of urban history.) It is also true that over time many kids wasted countless hours talking to each other on the phone. I know because I was one of them in the 1950s and 1960s during my adolescence when all my friends were available through them. I would have been outside getting fresh air 40 or 50 years earlier. Oh, those terrible telephones!

Amazon and Facebook and Twitter have more value than any possible competitors because they have more people actively engaged with them every single day. B&N can’t compete with Amazon around reader reviews because it has far fewer of them. Amazon tells you that X people out of Y found this review helpful. You need numbers to do that. Only one person in many writes a review. Only one person in many reads any posted review. And only one person in many bothers to post that they found a review helpful. That’s one in many cubed. The denominator is one enormous number. Amazon’s book customer traffic is probably 10 times or more what BN.com’s is. So it is possible for Amazon, and for nobody else, to tell you that X out of Y found this review helpful with meaningful numbers. (Even if Jonathan Franzen and others aren’t impressed with the provenance of the reviews. And even if some of the reviews have been deliberately gamed.)

Meanwhile, New York Times book reviews are available to far more people than they were before Amazon came into being and through the same computers that bring in Amazon. And when Jonathan Franzen writes his piece for The Guardian, far more people (including me and anybody who clicks the link I provided above) will read it than would have when there was only print. And anybody interested in the new book of his that he is promoting can just click a bit more, probably to Amazon, and buy it.

This is bad?

It is true that Amazon is the pointed spear of change in the world of communication (although they are not alone). From the moment they made a massive database of books available online, they challenged the core proposition of bookstores and the biggest ones with the biggest selections were the most challenged. It isn’t really Amazon’s fault that buying books online is so attractive to so many people, it is the nature of the beasts: the book choice beast and the Internet database beast.

But Amazon takes advantage of this opportunity better than anybody else. This is where their superior execution comes in. I am very close to somebody who vastly prefers to buy her books from Barnes & Noble for reasons that would probably appeal to Jonathan Franzen. But, over many years, she has found that their search engine just doesn’t work effectively. So she finds what she wants at Amazon and then goes over to BN.com to purchase it! Most people won’t do that; they’ll just buy where it is easiest to shop. Is it Amazon’s fault that they’re cleaning BN’s online clock through a better service?

I spoke this past week with the communications director at a think tank who has their publishing arm reporting to him. He’s new to the world of books. He reports that his team keeps portraying Amazon as the enemy; from his perspective, they are “the answer”. Yes, he’s worried about whether their increasing hegemony over the book-buying public could ultimately result in some nasty cuts to his margins. In fact, probably they will. Amazon is likely the most profitable account for almost every publisher because their sales are massive and their returns are minimal. Some publishers report that even their demands for co-op spending are less onerous than Barnes & Noble’s. Of course, they will probably push the envelope over time and claw back more of that margin from publishers. Most retailers would.

In fact, Amazon can sometimes use network effects and its capability to execute (all of which could be summed up as “scale”) to improve its margins by creating new business that nobody else can. They may have done that with their new Matchbook program, which offers a print-and-ebook bundle. Perhaps Barnes & Noble could have done this (and perhaps at some point they will), but only publishers with a very large direct-to-consumer business could execute this themselves.

Amazon is probably smart enough not to want a world in which, as Franzen fears, they publish everything that isn’t self-published by an author. They know they benefit from the investments publishers make and they’re probably even detached enough to know they benefit from books being in the marketplace because they’re supported by sales Amazon doesn’t have the breadth to make. And let’s remember that book sales are probably down to a low double-digit percentage of Amazon’s business. They have bigger fish to fry than building their market share or their margin at the expense of publishers.

Here’s another historical perspective to ponder which I believe is analogous. In the first half of the 19th century, many of the bestselling writers in the US were poets. One big reason why was a low level of literacy. Books were read aloud by the person who could read to the others who couldn’t. That was an environment that favored poetry over prose.

But then came the crusade for universal public education and improvements in transportation that boosted it along. By the latter part of the 19th century, poets had yielded to novelists and, in fact, poetry has declined in commercial popularity pretty much ever since.

So we can say that universal public education was a dagger to the heart of poetry’s commercial advantage. In some people’s minds, that might be a good reason to reconsider it. The arguments against the natural effects of digital communication, selectively finding perhaps-true negatives and dwelling on them, strike me the same way.

We have two great shows running this coming Thursday, September 26, being staged by Michael Cader’s and my Publishers Launch Conference in conjunction with the team at Digital Book World. The Marketing Conference is a collaborative effort with Peter McCarthy, who is rapidly gaining recognition as the industry’s leading thinker about books and digital marketing. The Services Expo is three mini-conferences that will help publishers find the service providers they need to help with tech on editorial/production, digital asset distribution, and rights and royalties. The Services show is priced low so that you can attend just one of the three mini-conferences if you want and still get a very fair deal. I’m co-moderating the Marketing Conference with Pete and I can assure you that it will be amazing. If you have any time left on your calendar on Thursday and you’re near NYC, you’ll be glad if you spend some of it with us.

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Publisher margins today may be enviable, but it will be a big challenge to keep them that way


The major publishers have apparently worked themselves into a very strong commercial position at the moment with the transition to ebooks. I say “apparently” because the data that gives the most recent rise to that understanding — a presentation by HarperCollins of the current economics — is somewhat incomplete.

What Michael Cader reported in Publishers Lunch on June 4 — about which agent Brian Defiore commented on the Aardvark blog the same day — is that HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray had laid out the standard revenue and cost structure for hardcovers versus ebooks for shareholders. What it showed very starkly is that:

1. (Even though) revenues (the top line) for ebooks are lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;

2. (And) royalties for ebooks are also lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;

3. (Still) unit margins for publishers net of manufacturing, distribution, returns, and royalty costs are considerably higher for ebooks than for hardcovers.

So the authors working on the contractual rates make less per unit on the ebooks than they do on hardcovers and the publishers make more. The joker in that last sentence is “working on the contractual rates”.

The biggest authors don’t, and that’s how this situation has been allowed to happen.

The savviest agents for the biggest authors don’t negotiate contracts in the same way the rest of the world does. They figure out in concert with the publisher how many copies they think the book should sell (big authors with long track records are somewhat more predictable than the rest of the universe, which is one more reason their books are so desirable to the publishers) and get an advance that is equal to a startlingly high percentage of the revenue that sales level would produce.

The advance is not expected to earn out (and, believe me, with advances calculated this way, they almost never do). That means the royalty rates are irrelevant. So they can have their star authors sign the boilerplate contract, permitting the publisher to say — almost truthfully — that they don’t pay more than 15% of cover price royalty on print or more than 25% of net royalty on ebooks (among other things).

So Murray’s chart is accurate, except that it doesn’t cover the commercial reality — even though it reflects the actual contracts — for all the biggest books.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, the chart being out in the open, there’s an adverse reaction from beyond the agent community to what looks very much like big publishers improving their financial position at the expense of authors. What other reaction could there possibly be? The Authors Guild is upset and blogger-reporter Porter Anderson catches some additional commentary from Defiore.

At the same time, publishers are doing battle on the other side of their business, with retailers looking to increase their margins as well. This is not just about Amazon. They dominate online sales and are indispensable for that reason. But Barnes & Noble is nearly as dominant in terrestrial retail and have apparently been engaged in a dispute with Simon & Schuster for months which has reduced the presence of S&S’s books in their stores. The just-announced financial results for B&N make it very clear that they’d be motivated to be extremely covetous of any additional margin they can squeeze out of their trading partners.

When ebooks started to become commercially important, which we date to the launch of the Amazon Kindle in the fourth quarter of 2007, publishers faced the challenge of reducing overheads required for print publishing as the demand for print declined. Quite aside from what was (and is) the unpredictability of the rate of the change, this is not an easy challenge. The printing you’re ordering may be smaller, but you still need to set type, design a book, and order a printing. The number of copies you’re shipping and processing as returns might be smaller, but most big publishers owned their own warehouses so it wasn’t a simple matter to reduce the cost of that component either.

In fact, it would appear that returns may have declined more than print sales have, and even more drastically as a percentage of overall sales since ebooks don’t get returned at all. All of this has been good for publisher profitability. In fact, seeing the data we see now, one might wonder whether the publishers were being self-destructive when they went through great gyrations (including everything that landed them in the lawsuit Apple just finished for them all alone and which was expensive for them to settle) to preserve print sales at the expense of ebooks. They tried windowing — withholding the ebook from the market for a while — and then, famously since the DoJ involvement, maintaining somewhat higher prices on ebooks at retail.

But, of course, they weren’t being self-destructive. As I’ve written repeatedly, putting books on shelves is the publisher’s primary value proposition; as the need for that declines in importance, so do they. The bigger margins of the current environment will be extremely difficult to maintain. Agents for the big authors will be looking for an even higher percentage of the projected revenue as it shifts to digital. Since advances from publishers for other-than-the-biggest titles are also declining, those next-tier authors will find self-publishing or publishing with smaller houses that pay lower advances but higher ebook royalties an increasingly tempting alternative. Most of all, the biggest retailers will keep pushing for more margin. And most publishers won’t have the stomach for the lengthy fight S&S has undertaken (particularly since there is no evidence, yet, that S&S will prevail in the argument).

The big publishers who are reinvesting their current margins to develop the value proposition that will be important in the future — and that’s “digital marketing at scale” — might still be able to prosper as the transition progresses. But their trading partners on both sides — authors and retailers — will be relentless at chipping away at any “excess” margin they perceive. Michael Cader has pointed out that Amazon, making a margin of less than 1% of sales, has little reason to be sympathetic to publishers complaining about how hard it is to achieve double-digit margins. Barnes & Noble will need more margin from publishers every year to keep stores open in the face of declining sales.

Authors will be tempted to try something other than the old-style deal in direct proportion to two factors: how much the sales move online and how effective they can be at getting the word out on their books on their own digital backs. The first factor is out of the publishers’ control (and difficult to predict); the second means that the most desirable authors below the very top tier will become the hardest to retain.

I offered the advice some time ago that publishers should raise their author royalties as insulation against being hit up for margin by the retailers. At the time, one major publisher CEO said to me that there was merit in the advice I was giving, but it was “pretty hard to make changes like that with the DoJ in your shorts”. So perhaps we’ll see some overt moves to raise that 25% ebook royalty rate sometime soon since the DoJ problem seems to be in the past.

I’ve felt for a long time that what authors (agents) should work toward is a fixed amount-per-copy-sold as an ebook royalty and just get out of the percentages business on ebooks, which, as we know, can have their prices change on a frequent basis. I know that would be resisted by the publishers, but it makes a lot of sense.

But the current state of affairs says pretty emphatically what I’ve felt all along: the incumbent management of the big publishers is damn smart and has managed a very tricky transition extremely effectively. Where they’ve brought things as of today is an impressive feat, even if it will be almost impossible to sustain.

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What I was thinking when I said that wild stuff


At our Publishers Launch Conference on the Wednesday of BEA, Michael Cader and I introduced a new feature we think will become regular at our events: a candid 1-on-1 conversation between us. It went well.

In fact, it went so well that what reads like a pretty damn accurate verbatim account of much of it constituted a story for Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives. So, now, thanks to Ed, much of the world knows that I made a number of pretty bold forecasts, probably the boldest of which is that we’ll see the US market boil down to one dominant trade publisher over the next 10 years.

There are a lot of unexpressed assumptions in that calculation. And, in the “predicting the future” part of my business, when I say 10 years I don’t count myself “wrong” if it takes 15. So, with thanks to Ed for reporting me accurately, it seems worthwhile to elaborate a bit more on what I said last week.

Operating with absolutely no “inside” knowledge, I outlined two expectations I have for initiatives we’ll see from Penguin Random House, about which I’ve written before. One is that they’ll create an ebook subscription offering which operates exclusively for their own books. The other is that they’ll apply the knowledge they’ve already gained about vendor-managed inventory (VMI) to create book departments within stores of all kinds, taking advantage of the reduction of shelf space in dedicated bookstores and the related challenges facing all other retailers to maintain top line revenues for whatever is their line of business as sales of all things, not just books, migrate online. Both of these capabilities could also be extended to include their distribution clients; it might require some renegotiation of terms to do it, but it would almost certainly be seen as a beneficial add-on by the distributees.

If PRH did that, and if they hit my made-up-from-thin-air target of 1000 proprietary sales locations over a couple of years, the new trade behemoth would have a bigger distribution base than all the other trade houses to go along with their already-bigger checkbook. So the consolidation of the general trade business under them could occur author-by-author as contracts expire, not requiring them to buy or merge with other companies.

I think the ebook subscription service is a relative no-brainer, assuming Random House can come up with the deal structure to get big authors to agree to it and, without a third party taking out some of the revenue, that should be doable. They don’t need 100% participation; I’d guess that if half the big-brand authors go ahead, the others will follow and the rest should be delighted with the opportunity.

I also think that every major publisher should be offering an ebook subscription service for their kids’ books, because they all have extensive lists and major brand names for that market and subscriptions will prove a very convenient way for parents to give kids lots of reading material at a predictable cost as the book world goes increasingly digital. There are aggregators in the field doing that now across many publishers’ titles, but there might be room for a lot of offers here and the publishers would be wise to consider whether they do best by creating their own subscription offers, licensing their big brand content to aggregators, or doing both.

But the build-up of proprietary offerings at retail and the prediction that trade publishing will consolidate as radically as I forecast, depend on the future of consumer behavior which nobody, and certainly not I, can predict with any certainty.

What most industry observers track is how the percentage of a publisher’s revenue that comes from digital books is rising. That’s commonly considered to be in the 25-30 percent range at the moment, going up by perhaps 30-40% a year (so next year it might e 33-38 percent) after having been rising much faster in recent years. A more nuanced view of this recognizes that it is particular books that (so far) really sell in digital form — generally books you read from beginning to end rather than those you skip around or dip into or which require illustrations — while others do not. For fiction, we are likely at 50% or more digital for a high percentage of the titles published.

In fact, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, tracking ebook sales against print sales, believes that digital will exceed print in a pretty short time.

But an even more important index if you’re charting the future of publishing is what’s bought in stores versus what’s bought online. Obviously, all ebooks are bought online. But there’s pretty strong evidence that the percentage of print books sold online is still steadily rising. In our discussion on stage, Michael Cader (the most reliable source for industry facts there is) remarked on the fact that Amazon print sales are still rising; more slowly than before, but still rising. Juxtapose that fact against the reality that total sales of print books through retailers are not rising, and sales through bookstores are certainly shrinking and it is clear that the online share of print sales is still going up.

I’m assuming that trend will continue. When bookstores close, the people who shopped in them often switch to buying online. When a bookstore reduces the selection of titles it offers, as Barnes & Noble certainly seems to have done, some of the people who browsed it are going to switch to browsing online. This leads to more stores closing and to more stores reducing their book inventory. It’s called a vicious cycle. It’s not a new concept.

Every publisher is trying to put print books into more retail places with great urgency. Some have better lists for it than others; some have better sales policies and other tools for it than others. But the barrier, most of the time, is that buying books is really hard for retailers. Each book is a unique product that has to be tracked uniquely and thought about uniquely and a store has to have at least hundreds, and preferably thousands or tens of thousands of them to be a decent place to shop for books.

That’s why vendor-managed inventory is so important; it can eliminate the need for the store to have book-buying expertise as a pre-condition for them to carry a decent range of books, even in a defined niche market.

So if PRH does what I think they will do and the shelf space for bookstores keeps shrinking and the share of book sales that take place in stores shrinks along with it, the position of other general trade publishers becomes increasingly difficult to navigate. PRH has additional distribution that nobody else has and the biggest checkbook among publishers. Amazon will have an increasing share of the potential market, so authors signing with them will be missing less and less eschewing what most publishers could give them beyond Amazon and the biggest checkbook of all.

Almost two decades ago, when the Internet first posed a threat to the business model for scholarly journals, I asked my friend, Mark Bide (now head of business development for Publishers Licensing Society in the UK), what would be the early warning sign that the traditional journals model is headed for trouble. He said “when the scholars stop submitting to the journals. As long as the scholars submit, their business will work.” In other words, the danger wasn’t so much losing their sources of sales as it was losing their sources of intellectual property.

It looks to me like that wisdom will apply to general trade publishers over the next decade or so.

In the discussion with Cader, we talked about how the other publishers might respond to this. It would take all four of them merging to present an equivalent title offering to PRH, and that would, at the very least, take some time. Another possibility is that a third party aggregator could create a competitive set of titles, or even do the job for the whole industry including PRH. But the challenge there would be terms; publishers need to give up margin to make this workable for a 3rd party, a problem PRH wouldn’t have on their own. And it is also true that PRH could probably complete its set of bestsellers if it had to by buying in those that it didn’t publish for this offering. One CEO I talked to about this nearly a year ago conceded that, if PRH went this way, that CEO’s company would almost certainly have to sell them whatever books they wanted.

And while this post is still extremely speculative, it has what might be the virtue of being fairly consistent with the thinking reflected in the speech I did at BEA six years ago predicting “the end of general trade publishing houses”. 

Final point on this one. I am not saying that nobody but one publisher will publish books that people will want. There will be publishers in many niches, including fiction niches. What I’m predicting is that the “general trade” model of a publisher that issues books on subjects across the board, trusting the book retailing system to sort out the books for the customers by subject and genre, will consolidate to a single player in the next couple of decades.

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“Scale” is a theme everybody in publishing needs to be thinking about, so we’ve made it the focus of our next Publishers Launch Conference


The overarching theme of our upcoming Publishers Launch Conference at BookExpo America on May 29 is “scale”. I thank my PLC partner, Michael Cader, for urging that we label that as a core concern worthy of being the centerpiece for a day’s discussion. (With that nudge, I identified “scale”, along with “verticalization” and “atomization”, as one of the three big forces driving publishing change in the current era of transition.)

We’re covering “scale” from many angles on May 29.

The program will kick off with a presentation from Pete McCarthy, formerly a digital marketing strategist at Random House, about moving beyond our standard understanding of “industry data” — what we learn about the industry in the aggregate from BookStats and Bowker and others — to mining and analyzing the massive amounts of public data about readers: who they are and where they are. The data we care about, and that can really help us, isn’t labeled “book publishing data” but is far more useful and actionable than much of what we try to decipher meaning from that is tagged that way.

The requirements of scale threaten to really change the business of literary agents. Since the rise of agents as intermediaries between publishers and authors in the 1950s and 1960s, it has always been possible for agents to operate as very tiny operations. Single-agent offices have never been terribly unusual, and agents could run a successful business with a handful of prosperous clients, or even just one! The unusual convention in publishing by which the buyer (the publisher) customarily pays for the lunch at which the seller (the agent) learns about the buyer’s likes and priorities has been a symbol of the viability of this highly decentralized world.

But those times are changing. The opportunities for self-publishing and the requirements for authors to be self-promoters have placed new demands on literary agency offices. It is often no longer sufficient to have knowledge of acquiring editors and what they want and a network of foreign co-agents who can help place projects in other languages and territories. Agencies large and small are adding self-publishing services, which can include capabilities as mundane as getting cover art designed and as sophisticated as distribution to a global network of ebook retailers. This adds the potential for “conflict” for the agents. In some cases, agencies have chosen a course that might present a choice for an author between a publisher’s deal and their agent’s deal.

These changes and the challenges they present will be discussed by three agents — Brian DeFiore of DeFiore and Company, Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media Group, and Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management — in a conversation that will be moderated by Michael Cader.

We will have presentations from three publishers about how they are employing scale. David Nussbaum of F+W Media (owners of our Digital Book World partners) will talk about how they support a variety of vertical businesses with central services providing ecommerce and event management that make it possible for all their communities to benefit from a wider variety of offerings and capabilities. Ken Michaels of Hachette will describe some of his company’s solutions to knotty challenges like digital marketing and metadata quality that they are then making available industry-wide as SaaS offerings. And Jeff Abraham of Random House will be talking about their efforts to utilize scale in a new publishing environment, to drive efficiency and reach in the supply chain and to reach consumers more effectively via their marketing programs.

Ben Evans of Enders Analysis studies big companies that operate at scale far beyond our industry but whose activities very much affect us: namely Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. His presentation will focus on how their strategies and activities influence the environment for the publishing industry, with insights as to how publishers can surf the waves of these giants’ activities rather than be overwhelmed by them.

As publishers have rethought their organizations in the past several years, the words “business development” have popped up in publishing job titles, which they never had before. We’ll have four publishers talking about what “business development” means to them: Peter Balis of John Wiley, Andrea Fleck-Nisbet of Workman, Adam Silverman of HarperCollins, and Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster, in a panel conversation moderated by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.

Brian Napack was President of Macmillan for several years; he’s now an investor at Providence Equity Partners. In a conversation with Michael Cader, Napack will discuss how he views the importance of scale as an investor and how his views have evolved since he was an operator in one of the large companies that might be challenged by the scale of even larger competitors.

The changes in publishing and the provision of services have also enabled publishing with less organization or investment and by the application of scale created outside publishing to new publishing enterprises. A panel of new publishers with roots outside the industry: Jennifer Day of the Chicago Tribune, Steve Kobrin of Wharton Digital Press, Alison Uncles of the Toronto Star/Star Dispatches, and David Wilk of Frederator Books will talk about how their organizations publish in ways that wouldn’t have been possible or even conceivable a few short years ago on a panel that will be moderated by longtime Harper executive and digital pioneer Carolyn Pittis.

Dan Lubart of Iobyte Solutions has been tracking ebook sales data for years and has been providing the data and analysis behind the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Lubart will present insights from “behind” the bestseller list data, including a deeper dive into the trends relating to ebook pricing. The ebook bestseller lists have been the evidence of strong challenges to the publishers who operate with scale on their side, as an increasing number of self-published authors have seen their work rise to the very top of the charts.

Our conference will also tackle the special problems facing illustrated book publishing. The success of ebooks has been pretty much confined to narrative reading made reflowable on devices of any screen size. No formula or format has yet proven to work commercially for illustrated books. We’ll address that question from two angles.

Ron Martinez of Aerbook is the best thinker we know around the question of making creative complex ebooks and apps more efficiently. His company has developed its own tool, Aerbook Maker, to address that challenge. But Ron is also knowledgeable about and respectful of other efforts, including tools from Apple and Inkling, that reduce the cost of experimentation for illustrated book publishers looking for ways to deliver an appealing and commercially viable digital version of their content. He will kick off our discussion of the challenges for illustrated book publishing by reviewing the tools and best practices for lower-cost experimentation. And in his quest to improve the margins for illustrated book publishers delivering virtual versions, he has also worked out what might be a marketing and distribution tool that can improve the equation from the revenue side.

Ron will be followed by a panel of illustrated book publishers talking about how they plan to thrive in an environment where the virtual solution hasn’t arrived and the store environment is becoming more challenging. Joseph Craven of the Quarto Group, Tim Greco of Dorling Kindersley, Lindy Humphreys of Abrams, and Mary Ann Naples of Rodale will discuss these issues in a panel moderated by Lauren Shakely, who faced these challenges herself as the longtime publisher at Crown Illustrated.

Our normal practice at Publishers Launch Conferences, which this review of our planned show spells out, is to put the smartest and most articulate players really dealing with the challenges of digital change in the spotlight to talk about what they’re doing and what they’re facing. This has the virtue of showcasing real solutions to real problems.

Frankly, our view is that very few of the outside disruptors, often tech- and private equity-centric start-ups providing “solutions” to the problems as they perceive them, have gained much traction or added much value. We’ll get more perspective on that from our “business development” panel, who are the ones in their companies charged with interacting with the aspirants, but we stick to the belief that there is more to be gained by watching what the established publishing players and the biggest companies in technology are doing than in tracking the theories spawned by industry outsiders who think their insights will change our world.

But we recognize a weakness to our approach. There are some things the established players just can’t discuss. We can’t expect Random House and Penguin — or their biggest competitors — to talk about what the merger of the two biggest publishers will mean to the marketplace. We can’t expect publishers who must trade with Amazon and Barnes & Noble to discuss the impact of their unique marketplace power — one in online sales and one in brick-and-mortar — on publishers’ margins. We can’t expect agents and publishers to talk candidly about when and whether established authors might be willing to eschew their bookstore sales in favor of higher margins on their online sales through a direct tie to Amazon.

But Michael Cader and I have informed opinions on these subjects and neither of us is looking for a job in the industry beyond the one we already have, which is, from our different perches and platforms, to call them as we see them. So we’re going to engage in a 30-minute 1-on-1 discussion of the topics we think it would be hard for the speakers we recruit to discuss as candidly as we will.

I think our discussion will be a highlight of what will be a stimulating day. Frankly, I’m looking forward to all of it. Join us if you possibly can.

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More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January


Blog posts have been scarcer for the past couple of months because I’ve been so engaged with a major responsibility: putting together what amounts to 7-1/2 days of conference programming that will be presented on four days next month in New York City.

As most readers of this blog probably know, we’re responsible for the programming of the two-day extravaganza that is Digital Book World. DBW 2013 — taking place on January 16 and 17 at the Hilton New York Hotel — will be the fourth iteration of the event, which aims to explore the commercial challenges facing trade publishing in the digital transition. DBW is not about technology per se; it is about the business problems publishers must cope with in an age of technological change.

DBW’s main two days are divided between morning plenary programming — all 1500+ people in one big room — and afternoon breakouts. We’ll have up to five simultaneous breakout sessions in each of three slots each day. So we have what amounts to 4-1/2 days of programming in the breakouts plus one on the main stage.

Because people really do come from all over the world to attend DBW, we were delighted to agree when they asked us at Publishers Launch Conferences (the conference business I own with Michael Cader) to add a show on each side of theirs to build out a week of programming. (The team at DBW itself are also putting together some pre-conference workshops that will run on Tuesday.)

So on Tuesday, January 15, we’ll do our second annual “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” conference at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium (put together with the invaluable assistance of our Conference Chair and close friend, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners). And on Friday, January 18, we’re presenting (in conjunction with the DBW team) a new program called “Authors Launch“, a full day of marketing advice for publisher-published authors. (Self-published authors are welcome and will learn a lot, but the program is framed for authors who are working with publishers, not looking for ways to avoid them.)

Programming the “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” show revealed what we think will be the most important theme in the children’s book space for the next few years: the development of  digital “platforms” that, like subscription offerings (which some, but not all of them, clearly are), will “capture” consumers and make them much less likely to get ebooks and other digital media from outside of it. The list of platform aspirants in this space is long and varied: Storia from Scholastic; RRKidz from Reading Rainbow (the TV show brand); Poptropica from Pearson (which launched Wimpy Kid before it was a book); Magic Town; Disney; Capstone; and Brain Hive. All of them are presenting, as well as NOOK, which, like Amazon Kindle, has announced parental controls on its platform that encourage parents to manage their kids’ reading experience there.

There are other big issues in children’s publishing, particularly the creation of original IP by publishers so they can better exploit the licensing opportunities that follow in the wake of successful kids’ books. We’ll have data presentations from Bowker and from Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex to help our audience understand how kids books are found and selected outside the bookstore in today’s environment.

But we know that the digital discovery and purchase routines will be markedly affected by the platforms as they establish themselves. Publishers are faced with an interesting conundrum. They can’t reach the audiences that are loyal to a platform without going through the platform. But it is the presence of many publishers’ books that strengthens the attraction of the platform and, once it gains critical mass, the value of the content to it (and probably what it will be willing to pay for the content) is reduced. So publishers licensing content to these platforms may be strengthening beasts that will ultimately eat them. I think the roundtable conversation Lorraine and I will lead at the end of the day, which will include publishers Karen Lotz of Candlewick, Barbara Marcus of Random House, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, will have interesting things to say about that paradox.

We’ve developed some “traditions” in the four years we’ve been doing Digital Book World. As we’ve done the past two years, the plenary sessions will open on Tuesday with the “CEOs’ view of the future” panel organized and moderated by David Nussbaum, the CEO of DBW’s owner F+W Media and the man who really dreamed up the idea of this conference. David will be joined this year by Marcus Leaver of Quarto, Karen Lotz of Candlewick, and Gary Gentel of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Michael Cader and I will — as we have every year at DBW — moderate a panel to close the plenaries, “looking back and looking forward” with agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House; Harper’s new Chief Digital Officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, and Osprey CEO Rebecca Smart.

Among the presenters on the main stage who will be unlike what our audiences usually hear at a digital publishing conference will be Teddy Goff, the digital director for the Obama campaign, who will talk about targeting and marketing techniques that might serve us well in the publishing world; Ben Evans of Enders Analysis in London, who will tell us how publishing fits into the strategies of the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) that he tracks regularly*; ex-Macmillan president and now private equity investor Brian Napack, talking with Michael Cader about the investment climate in publishing; and Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing from Carnegie-Mellon, talking about a study he and his colleagues have done on the real commercial impact of piracy.

(We’ve also scheduled a breakout session for Teddy Goff so he can talk more about the Obama campaign for those in attendance who want to learn more of its lessons to apply.)

We’re also delighted to have gotten Robert Oeste, Senior Programmer and Analyst from Johns Hopkins University Press, to deliver his wonderfully insightful, entertaining, and informative presentation on XML, the subject so many of us in publishing need to understand better than we do. And we will after he’s done. (We’re also giving Oeste a break-out slot to talk about metadata which I’ll bet a lot of our audience will choose to attend after they’ve heard him on XML.)

(*Late edit: Ben Evans had to cancel.)

Some authors have had remarkable success without help from publishers in the past year, but few or none more than Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool”, who has just signed a groundbreaking print-only deal for the US with Simon & Schuster. His dystopian futurist novel has sold hundreds of thousands of self-published ebook copies and rights all over the world and to Hollywood. We’ll have a chat with Howey about how he did it and we’ll be joined by his agent, Kristin Nelson, for that dialogue. Kristin will stick around to join a panel of other agents (Jay Mandel of William Morris Endeavor, Steve Axelrod, and Jane Dystel from Dystel & Goderich) to talk about “Straddling the Models”: authors who work with publishers but are also doing some things on their own.

We will have several panels addressing the challenges of discovery and discoverability from different angles. One called “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap” teams Patrick Brown of Goodreads with three publishing marketers — Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, and Rachel Chou of Open Road — and is chaired by Peter Hildick-Smith. That will focus on what publishers can do with metadata and digital marketing to make it more likely their titles will get “found”. Barbara Genco of Library Journal will share data on library patron behaviors and then helm a panel discussion with Baker & Taylor, 3M, Darien Public Library, and Random House exploring the role of libraries in driving book discovery and sales. Another session called “Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable” introduces three new propositions from Matt MacInnis of Inkling, Linda Holliday of Citia, and Patricia Payton of Bowker, along with SEO expert Gary Price of INFODocket. Publishing veteran Neal Goff (who is also the proud father of Obama’s digital director) will moderate that one. MacInnis, Holliday, and Payton offer services that will help publishers improve the search for their books. Price will talk knowledgeably about how the search engines will react to these stimuli.

We’re covering new business model experimentation (with Evan Ratliff of The Atavist, Brendan Cahill of Nature Share, Todd McGarity of Hachette, and Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks) where publishers discuss ways to generate revenue that are not the old-fashioned ones. We’ll underscore the point that we’re about changes caused by technology rather than being about technology with our “Changing Retail Marketplace” panel, featuring publishers and wholesalers talking about the growth of special sales (through retailers that aren’t bookstores and other non-retail channels).

The future for illustrated books will be discussed by a panel with a big stake in how it goes: John Donatich of Yale University Press, Michael Jacobs of Abrams, Marcus Leaver of Quarto, and JP Leventhal of Black Dog & Leventhal. Two publishers who have invested in Hollywood — Brendan Dineen of Macmillan and Pete Harris of Penguin — will talk about the synergies between publishing and the movies with consultant Swanna McNair of Creative Conduit.

We will have major US publishers and Ingram talking about exports: developments in the export market for books — print and digital. And we’ll have some non-US publishers joining Tina Pohlman of Open Road and Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble talking about imports: non-US publishers using the digital transition to get a foothold in the US market.

One session I think has been needed but never done before is called “Clearing the Path” and it is about eliminating the obstacles to global ebook sales. That one will start with a presentation by Nathan Maharaj and Ashleigh Gardner of Kobo where they will enumerate all the contractual and procedural reasons why ebooks are just not available for sale in markets they could reach. And then Kobo will join a panel conversation with Joe Mangan of Perseus and agent Brian Defiore to talk about why those barriers exist and what might be done in the future to remove them.

Oh, yes, there’s much much more: audience-centric (what I call “vertical”) publishing; the changing role of editors; the evolving author-publisher relationship; and a conversation about the “gamification” of children’s books. David Houle, the futurist and Sourcebook author who wowed the DBW 2012 audience, will return with his Sourcebooks editor, Stephanie Bowen, to discuss their version of “agile” publishing: getting audience feedback to chunks before publishing a whole book.

We will also do some stuff that is more purely “tech”. We have a panel on “Evolving Standards and Formats” discussing the costs and benefits of EPUB3 adoption, which will be moderated by Bill McCoy of IDPF. Our frequent collaborator Ted Hill will lead a discussion about “The New Publishing IT Department”. Bill Kasdorf of Apex will moderate a discussion about “Cross-Platform Challenges and Opportunities” which is about delivering content to new channels.

But purely tech is the exception at Digital Book World, not the rule.

And purely tech won’t show up at all at Authors Launch on Friday, January 18, the day after Digital Book World.

Authors Launch is what we think is the first all-day marketing seminar aimed squarely at authors with a publisher, not authors trying to work without one. It is pretty universally taken as a given that authors can do more than they ever have before to promote themselves and their books and that publishers should expect and encourage them to do that. But, beyond that, there is very little consensus. What should the publisher do and what should the author do? That question is going to be addressed, in many different ways, throughout the day.

The Authors Launch program covers developing an author brand, author involvement and support for their book’s launch, basic information about keyword search and SEO, use of metrics and analysis, a primer on media training, when and how to hire a publicist or other help, and a special session on making the best use of Goodreads. We’ll cover “audience-centric” marketing, teaching authors to think about their “vertical” — their market — and understand it.

The faculty for Authors Launch includes the most talented marketers and publicists helping authors today: Dan Blank, co-authors MJ Rose and Randy Susan Meyers, journalist Porter Anderson, David Wilk, Meryl Moss, Lucinda Blumenfeld, agent Jason Allen Ashlock, and former Random House digital marketer Pete McCarthy.

We have assembled a group of publishers and an agent to discuss how an author should select the best places to invest their time from the staggering array of choices. (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etcetera.) That panel will include agent Jennifer Weltz of The Naggar Agency as well as Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Kate Stark of Penguin. Matt Schwartz, VP, Director of Digital Marketing and Strategy for the Random House Publishing Group, will conduct the session on metrics.

A feature of both our Kids show on Tuesday and the Author show on Friday are opportunities for the audience to interact with the presenters in smaller groups so each person can get his or her own questions answered. At Kids we’ll do that at lunchtime, seating many of our presenters at tables with a sign carrying their name so our attendees can sit with them and engage. At Authors Launch, we’ll be conducting rounds of workshops, crafted so that the authors can get help in their own vertical (genre fiction, literary fiction, topical non-fiction, juvies, and so forth), and on the topics of greatest need for them.

We are sure the week of January 15-18 will prove to be an energizing and stimulating one for all of us living in the book publishing world. We hope you’ll join us.

Digital Book World Week | January 15-18, 2013

Children’s Publishing Goes Digital | Tuesday, January 15, McGraw-Hill Auditorium
DBW Pre-Conference Workshops | Tuesday, January 15, Hilton New York Hotel
Digital Book World Conference + Expo | January 16-17, Hilton New York Hotel
Authors Launch | Friday, January 18, Hilton New York Hotel

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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