Michael Tamblyn

Krugman cites a fact that fit what I posited as a theory


In a Shatzkin Files blog about the Amazon-Hachette dispute that I posted on July 15, I wrote this:

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

My scenario was hypothetical and published at a time when the meme in place was that Amazon chose what it recommended to you totally by neutral algorithms which simply tried to discern what you would want to have promoted to you. (After all, that’s how you make the most sales.)

Now, Paul Krugman of The New York Times has published an op-ed on Amazon, arguing that it is time for the government to look at whether they are operating as a monopsony — a market player with the concentrated power to bully the suppliers into lower and lower prices — where he has cited an example first reported by The Times’s “Bits” blog (on September 30, well after my post) very much like the one I dreamed up. But this is real.

From Krugman:

Specifically, the penalty Amazon is imposing on Hachette books is bad in itself, but there’s also a curious selectivity in the way that penalty has been applied. Last month the Times’s Bits blog documented the case of two Hachette books receiving very different treatment. One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh.

It is definitely not the government’s job to step into commercial disputes to save big publishers. But if, as Krugman argues (with far more knowledge than I, so I will leave it to more informed people to support or dispute the claim) the marketplace power Amazon is wielding for books is comparable to what Rockefeller’s Standard Oil did for oil a 100 years and more ago, then they apparently would have the legal justification to intercede in the public interest. (To my limited knowledge, no anti-trust laws that were on the books then that would have enabled the government to intervene have been repealed since.)

Perhaps monopsony behavior that relentlessly pushes down the revenues of publishers and their authors is legal or not a legitimate government interest. Perhaps Michael Tamblyn’s recent series of tweets about what Amazon’s “true” intent would be toward indie authors in the end is incorrect and, whether or not it is, perhaps it is not something the government need be concerned about.

But elevating books that favor your political friends — even when you’re fighting their publisher — and burying political books that promote ideas you don’t like is not something that society can comfortably accept from a retailer that is the principal book retailer in the country. (No other retailer has ever had comparable market share so this “problem” has never arisen as a public interest question ever before.) Whether they like it or not, Amazon (like Google) has virtually become a public utility, providing a service most of us depend upon to be objective and catering primarily to the interest of the individuals it serves, not its own.

The problem with Amazon’s market share isn’t just commercial, it is political. It is a legitimate topic of public concern. If Hachette chooses not to publish a book, even for political reasons, there are four other mammoth publishers and hundreds if not thousands of others that can bring it to the public. If Amazon chooses to bury a title, half the book buyers will not see it when they’re shopping for books. In my opinion, that’s not good for our democracy. I think this is a much more important question than how the pie is divided among author, publisher, and retailer.

Like Krugman, I shop at Amazon (not PRIME, like he is, but most of my books are read on the Kindle reader on my iPhone) and I admire the fabulous execution and customer service they provide. Their position of power wasn’t stolen, it was earned. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a special responsibility to be the book recommender for more than half the book purchases and allowing that to be used for one entity’s political and social preferences is potentially a very dangerous thing.

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Export sales is one of the few areas of predictable growth for book publishers


For a client meeting last week, I was shown a chart that came from Bookstats of channel revenue for publishers. Bookstats is the recent (and now no longer) partnership between the AAP and BISG collecting book publisher shipment information. It has four years of data, which were arrayed in a neat bar chart.

Since the chart showed publisher shipments, it was an imprecise gauge of sales. The third largest channel was “jobbers/wholesalers”, and those books went somewhere else (if they got re-sold and not returned), but we don’t know where. Basically all the other channels got those books eventually.

But it is noteworthy that of the eight channels enumerated (one of which is “other”), only two showed increased sales from 2010 to 2013: online retail and export sales.

Indeed, export sales are one of the real growth opportunities for publishers, and particularly English-language publishers, in the future.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to understand. English is the most important second language in most countries that are not English-speaking. And, obviously, ebooks create no-inventory and little-friction distribution opportunities that make it easy for a publisher in New York or London (or Sydney or Toronto) to deliver to a customer separated by any distance or number of oceans.

In addition, the search engines are global so “discovery” can take place anywhere as well which can increase the demand for printed books as well as digital ones, even though the printed books present a more complex delivery challenge.

The opportunity brings along its challenges. One is that rights conventions need to change. Publishers often have their rights to distribute in some parts of the globe limited by contract. But even when rights aren’t an issue, marketing — including both customizing the metadata and the pricing to a very large number of local territories — can be.

This opportunity has grown rather recently at the same time that many publishers have been preoccupied with overcoming obstacles in their home markets. Both the US and UK markets have been roiled by the relatively sudden emergence of a strong ebook market and the concurrent (and related) weakening of the brick-and-mortar infrastructure for print. Publishers have been scurrying to change many of their practices: licensing differently, learning to do SEO well and employing other digital marketing techniques, shifting their internal structures and workflows, and grappling with the opportunities presented by social media. Many have expended effort on apps and enhanced ebooks which were time and money traps in markets that briefly looked promising but then didn’t pan out.

But in a more settled marketplace, which we have now (perhaps temporarily), the opportunities for growing revenue through export sales is going to get increasing attention from all publishers, who will be happy to know that entrepreneurial companies — some new but some quite established and familiar — have been building out the capabilities to help them.

There are three panels at Digital Book World that will really inform publishers that want to work harder to exploit this opportunity.

The mostly obviously relevant one is called “Global Publishing Tactics: understanding distribution, metadata, pricing, and marketing to maximize sales in different markets”. Two of the panelists are Marcus Woodburn of Ingram and Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct — we have other conversations pending — and moderated by Len Vlahos, the executive director of Book Industry Study Group. Marcus and Gareth and the panelist(s) who will join them have experience selling around the world on behalf of many publishers. Their insight and advice will be gold for publishers looking to expand their export sales.

We also have a panel discussion “Global Market Spotlights: reports from markets around the world”. The four markets we’ll discuss are Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Russia. The panel will be moderated by Thomas Minkus of Frankfurt Book Fair. Our panelists — all of whom are local players — will talk about the switch to digital reading and online sales in those markets, but will also give specific insight into the market for English-language books.

Another discussion which is a bit more tangential, but will still be informative for publishers trying to grow ebook exports, is one on “How People Read”. What we’re trying to get at here is to use the knowledge that ebook platform providers have about the granular detail of reading consumption: about devices, how far people go in various kinds of books, whether they read more than one book at a time, and how they respond to pricing changes. All of our panelists — Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, David Burleigh of Overdrive, and Andrew Weinstein of Scribd — are superintending global platforms. Another aspect of what they’ll reveal is how these consumption patterns vary across markets, including how much English is read in various export markets. Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center, which also has an increasing international focus, will moderate.

We could well also learn more about global opportunities from the keynote talk we’ll hear from Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, and Michael Cader and I will certainly be asking Russ Grandinetti of Amazon about how publishers can maximize their export sales through them.

So if export sales is on your current agenda, a visit to DBW on Jan 14-15 also should be. And, in that case, sign up before the end of the day on Monday and save yourself some dough. Early bird pricing ends on Monday night.

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Innovators and circumstances: the Frankfurt Publishers Launch show


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

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

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

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

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

Both sets of presentations are extremely diverse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Things to think about as the digital book revolution gains global steam


The switchover from reading print to reading on screens, with the companion effect that increasingly the purchase of books is done online rather than in stores, is far advanced in the English-speaking world and especially so in the United States. In the past 12 months, the UK has begun to resemble the US market in this way.

With all due respect to everbody else, the primary driver of this change has been the efforts of Amazon.com. They made the online selling of print books work in the US and then provided the critical catalyst — the Kindle — to make ebooks happen. Other players — Barnes & Noble and Kobo with their devices and the publishers with their sales policies — have crafted their strategies primarily in response to Amazon. They are participants building out a market that Amazon first proved existed.

The impact of digital change in the US and UK markets has been both profound and severe. Bookstore shelf space has been lost at a rapid pace. (This has long struck me as the key metric to watch to predict industry change.) I have seen no estimates to quantify this, but with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble devoting much less space to books than it once did and the disappearance of many independents, it seems apparent that half of the bookstore shelves that were available in the US in 2007 are gone by now. The book trade in Britain is moving in a similar direction.

The publishers are well aware that their ecosystem has changed and that they have to change too. Many have changed their workflows so that ebooks and print books can be outputs from the same development process. They are all seeking new ways to interact directly with readers, which no general trade publisher would have considered doing ten years ago. They are learning about how to deliver their digital products with better metadata. They are learning to optimize that metadata for search. They’re trying to build vertical communities — or at least develop vertical audience reach — and developing new services and products to sell to the customers that they attract with their books. They’re recognizing that digital distribution newly empowers authors and responding by trying to make the experience of working with them more author-friendly.

And they’re recognizing that the world is getting smaller: that their outputs can reach readers outside their home market much more readily than ever before. That recognition is particularly useful to American and British publishers because English is the world’s leading second language, with potential customers for English language books in every country in the world.

Change has come much more slowly in non-English markets. There are many reasons for that. One is that the US and Britain have exceptional — if not unique — marketplace rules that encourage retailers to compete for book sales using pricing as a tool (or, if you prefer, as a weapon). Amazon used deep discounting to solidify its position in the late 1990s when it was building its print-selling hegemony and then again to create locked-in ebook customers for the Kindle when it launched in 2007.

The combination of price controls on books and VAT rates that have been uniformly higher for ebooks than they are for print have prevented Amazon from replicating these tactics in some other markets. There are cultural differences as well; American (and British) consumers seem more relaxed about online credit card purchases than are the citizens of many other countries in the world.

And because there was a market for ebooks in English before anyplace else, the investments have been made to assure a large reservoir of titles in English faster than for any other language.

But four major companies — Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Google — (as well as a number of smaller ones) have been methodically building out a global infrastructure to deliver digital downloads (of books or anything else.) Barnes & Noble, which has been the most successful Amazon competitor (albeit only in the US so far), has just gotten a large investment from Microsoft to help finance a global expansion and has announced its first non-US online store will open in the UK shortly.

So the roads to deliver ebooks to the global consumer have been getting paved, even if there is very little traffic on most of them so far. It seems unlikely (at least to me) that there will ultimately be much variation in the ratio of digital to print reading by country or language. (One exception: I’d expect the poorest parts of the world to get to near-zero print faster than the developed world because, ultimately, distributing books electronically will be so much cheaper that printed books will become a relative luxury.)

The US and the UK transitions are in some ways instructive to the book businesses in other markets as they prepare for a similar period of change. But, cultural differences and local commercial rules aside, the next five or ten years outside the English world will only share some of the characteristics of what the English world has seen. Because times have changed.

There are some real differences in circumstances between how things stood when the transition began in earnest in the US and UK five years ago and what we’ll see in the rest of the world over the next five years.

** The companies that built the digital distribution infrastructure for English were “local”, English-speaking, companies. Amazon, Apple, Google, and Barnes & Noble are American; Kobo began as Canadian (which feels local enough to an American). Michael Tamblyn of Kobo has spoken very articulately about what it takes to open up business in a new market and building a team of locals is high on the list of requirements. I think we can expect local language players to be critical partners in most markets as ebooks roll out. That will be less true over time as proprietary device sales by the retailers decline in importance. Which I say because…

** The key for all the players in the first five years of the ebook revolution (which I’m dating from November 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle) has been a total offering: device and store. Many who were disappointed by the relatively minor impact of Google in the US, despite its attempt to build an alliance with independent bookstores, blamed the fact that Google had no device to compete with Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Of course, Google recently introduced a phone and the Nexus 7 tablet.

It seems likely that the proprietary ereader will have much less impact going forward. (The Nexus 7 isn’t an ereader; it’s a tablet. And Apple doesn’t sell an ereader; the iPad is also a tablet.) When Amazon entered the market, there was no widespread distribution of devices people could read an ebook on, so Amazon had to get them out there. This created an obvious challenge that came with a robust opportunity, which was device lock-in of the customer base for future content purchases.

This is no longer true. Tablet computers are ubiquitous and the question is already being posed whether eink readers dedicated to displaying straight text have any future.

So while device distribution was an important part of building the ebook markets in the US and UK, ebook sellers in non-English markets will be peddling into an environment already heavily seeded with devices.

This cuts both ways. On the one hand, there is an installed base of capable devices, which could speed up ebook uptake. On the other hand, those devices will play movies and songs and do email, so, unlike the original Kindle or Nook, they don’t represent a screen walled off from temptation that tempt you away from a book.

** The selection of ebooks in English is in the millions of titles. Many people around the world can read in English. As they develop ereading capability, they could be tempted by the wider selection of titles in English than they’ve ever seen in any language in local stores, particularly in places where digitization in the local language lags. This is, in the aggregate, a big opportunity for English-language content but, in most individual cases, only a minor sales erosion challenge for local language publishers. All things being equal, people prefer to read in their native language. But the ratio of title availability between English and most other languages makes things far from equal.

** Digital makes everybody global. We’ve observed that ends up engendering competition from English. But it also enables smaller language publishers to find their global diaspora much more effectively than they could in print. I’d expect marketing to pockets of same-language readers distributed around the world will be a worthwhile skill worth to develop to stimulate ebook sales. Digital brings the sale closer and makes the promotion cheaper. It really changes the equation.

** There is another way it will prove important that publishers in a digital world are no longer restricted to publishing for their local market. We learned from some Slovenes last year about small-language publishers who translated their original fiction into English to give them a chance to sell rights in all languages. Now they’re in a position to publish those English translations digitally at very little additional cost. This is an opportunity we are seeing non-English publishers recognize and at least one US entity, Open Road, has seen the opportunity from the other end. They’re courting those publishers for distribution and marketing in the US market.

In fact, the German publisher Lubbe is doing original ebooks in both English and Chinese.

One thing that will be different but similar in the rest of the world will be the decline of bookstores. Retail price maintenance and the fact that in many markets publishers own the bookstores will definitely slow the process down compared to what we’ve seen in the US and the UK, but if the sales move from stores to online (and ebooks will compel that, despite some elaborate schemes and fantasies to preserve a place for stores to sell digital), the stores can’t stay open.

At least the non-English markets will get the benefit of seeing how the English language copes with the challenges of discovery and marketing in a digital reading environment.

Maybe they can even solve the problem of making illustrated books succeed in a digital format, which the English world has not done yet. The Italian publisher RCS (owners of Rizzoli, among others) have done this for a handful of titles so far in a market that has hardly moved the digital needle overall but the successes have been too few in number to call the problem “solved” yet. Perhaps the English-language publishers will find something to learn from them.

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I keep wanting to make an observation that isn’t worth a whole post, so I’ll stick it here. The “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon, which hit our collective consciousness in March, was foretold by our Romance study at Digital Book World last January. (A hat tip and thanks to AllRomanceebooks for having done that survey for us.) What at first glance appeared to be the romance community “voting” with their purchases for less DRM turned out, on closer examination, to be votes for more sex. I made the point in this piece that mainstream publishers might be letting fledglings steal the market for raunch. Those days are over.

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This piece raises a lot of issues we’ll be covering at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on October 8. Many of the players mentioned here will be speaking there. Check out the entire program and I think you’ll agree that if you can get to Frankfurt on the Monday before the Book Fair, you’ll want to be there. We have shifted the time of the conference slightly, starting at 10:30 instead of 9, to make it easier to travel in that morning and make it.

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What retailers know that publishers need to know


The Wall Street Journal ran a piece last week about what the ebook retailers know about how we are all reading. In fact, all the ebook retailers who manage ecosystems that include apps for using their platform on multi-function devices can see every move their consumers make. We all have the sense that they know something on a per-customer basis because they recommend what we should read next when we visit or through emails they send (and even that gives some consumers the heebie-jeebies). The piece focused on the analysis of aggregated data way beyond just purchases to understand the interaction between many readers and books.

Much of what was cited in the article would be intuitively assumed. Readers of fiction tend to finish the books more often than readers of non-fiction and to read them more continuously. Readers of genre fiction tend to read the books faster. Readers of literary fiction tend to have more than one book going at a time.

This kind of stuff, in my opinion, actually doesn’t help a publisher or a retailer much more than sales data at the ISBN level already can. Barnes & Noble reports launching Nook Snaps (shorter books) for non-fiction, it is implied in the piece, because they observed that readers often quit non-fiction books before they’ve completed them. But there’s already plenty of data in all retailers’ databases about the performance of shorter works. Kobo started as “Shortcovers”, thinking they’d be the pioneers of shorter stuff. There are independent efforts to publish shorter books like Byliner and The Atavist.

And, of course, there are Amazon Singles. Research by Laura Owen at paidContent points to some robust successes there, with over 2 million Singles sold in a year and at least a handful of authors making some pretty decent money from them. In other words, anybody monitoring the sales of shorter works or cheaper works can draw their own conclusions about how they sell without regard to data about the consumption patterns for longer books.

But the Journal piece did suggest one kind of data that is extremely worth noting: when consumers show heightened interest in a particular author (by reading that author’s book faster and with fewer interruptions than others) or declining interest (by reading more slowly or abandonment before completion) in one that has had prior success.

It isn’t actually the retailer that is most in need of that data; it is the publishers who will bid on the next book by the author who most need to know that.

And that brings us to the crux of the matter which is mentioned, but only lightly touched upon, in the story: only Amazon (so far) is really both a retailer and a publisher.

This has been on my radar screen for a long time. It was several conferences ago — well over a year — that I asked Michael Tamblyn of Kobo to talk about “what retailers know that publishers would want to know” about ebook consumption. Kobo, which works hard to promote its publisher-friendliness and willingness to share data, readily took up that challenge.

Then last Fall I was counseling a purveyor of ebook sales data about how a service that I thought would be of value to publishers. “Aggregate the usage stats from the ebook retailers.”

“Why would they give them to me?” he asked.

“Because, if they’re smart,” I said, “they won’t want Amazon to be the only publisher who knows what retailers know. Books Amazon signs up might well be lost to them for sale; they want publishers to keep signing up all the important books. To the extent that this data can only be used by a publisher and they aren’t using it, they’re well served if the data is used well by publishers who look to them for distribution.:”

Then, as the Journal story reported, Jim Hilt of Barnes & Noble excited our audience at Digital Book World last January by promising that B&N would share data with publishers going forward. I took that as confirmation of my judgment about smart retailers. There have been false starts on that promise since then, but the Journal article says that B&N is now sharing analytics data with publishers.

Hilt cites the case of a series where interest from the readers seems to be flagging and suggests it might be a hint that publishers should juice it up, perhaps by adding a video. Of course, he has the analytics data and I don’t, but I wonder if that’s the right reaction. Do videos get clicked on and viewed? Would they add interest or create a distraction?

I’d suggest there are three responses more likely to be valuable. The pretty obvious one is to lower the price of the ebooks. (Surely the retailers’ analytical capabilities would show the efficacy of that pretty clearly.) I suspect one thing retailers see more clearly than publishers is the price-banding of their customer base. To the extent that’s true, you can revive a tired backlist title by introducing it to a “new audience”, those who buy in a price-band and don’t consider books above it.

Another would be to change the configuration of the offer, such as putting three (or more) books together for a special bundled price. That would gain some attention for the “event” value of a new edition, as well as presenting a price-offer.

And the last, totally in the hands of the publisher, would be to offer the author advances based on a lower sales forecast going forward or to stop publishing him or her at all.

What would be of even more interest to a publisher, and almost certainly something that Amazon has set to be flagged for their publishing arm, is when a less-known author or book is being read very avidly. That would signal an opportunity for a publisher — one the author herself wouldn’t know about, even if she checks her sales figures and ranks regularly.

One conjecture that would seem to be worth confirming is that ebooks make continuous series, or multiple ISBNs that form a reasonably seamless and continuous story, more commercially attractive than in the days of print. The Journal story opens with B&N’s observation that the first thing most readers of the first book in The Hunger Games series do when they finish it is to order the next one. And, of course, they can start reading it right away.

We already know that ebooks are lifting genre fiction over literary fiction and all fiction over non-fiction in relation to print. If the series is lifted by comparison to the print-in-store past, it would suggest some changes in the creative output (novels that leave plenty of hooks for successor books rather than ones that neatly resolve all the loose ends) and dealmaking (publishers wanting stronger option clauses and, perhaps, more multi-book deals even for first-time authors.)

Successes like the self-published “Wool” by Hugh Howey might be instructive. We spent some time learning about it last week in conversation with Howey’s agent, Kristin Nelson, as background for our Publishers Launch Hollywood conference on October 22 (at which we’re hoping that Howey will appear). “Wool” is a novel compiled from five novellas. Howey and Nelson have publisher deals in place in 10 markets including the UK and Brazil (with sales in Germany and Russia imminent) and the movie rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox. But Howey is doing so well with his self-publishing ebook sales (and a handful of print sales through Amazon’s CreateSpace) that he has so far turned down six-figure offers from US publishing houses.

Howey introduced what is now his phenomenon as a single novella on Amazon without particularly high expectations. A combination of reader reaction and Amazon’s response to it, promoting him in various ways, led to Howey writing further installments as novellas. Eventually, five of them were collected into an “omnibus”, which is the novel “Wool”.

I suspect that some good analytics at Amazon led to the promotion which contributed to Howey’s success, which he has extended to other ebook platforms. I also suspect that at some future time Amazon will adjust their tactics so they give their publishing arm a crack at an author like Howey before they promote him into stardom.

It is worth noting that during the time that Howey’s writing, his readers, and Amazon’s marketers were combining to create what might be a new commercially giant mega-saga, he wasn’t publishing on the Nook or Apple or Kobo platforms. Only after he proved that “Wool” was actually a sensation, did he even bother to make his work available through the other retailers.

I think I might find a lesson or two in that if I worked for any of Kindle’s competitors.

Now Howey is working on his next two novels, which will also be issued as a series of novellas before they are collected. He’s no secret to anybody anymore.

I’m involved in two events this month about very different topics that will both profoundly change publishing.

I’m speaking at George Washington University at their 5th Annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing on July 9 about the danger to the publishing industry posed by the DOJ’s suit and the settlement agreement apparently about to be ratified by the Court. 

And on July 26, we’ll hold our “Publishing in the Cloud” conference at Baruch in Manhattan. We see “hosted software” as a key tool for publishers to cut their overheads and pre-production costs (as they will have to) by almost unimaginable percentages in the next few years. Our conference is the first dedicated to this topic for publishing and we’ll be hearing from publishers large (Hachette, HarperCollins, Perseus, Random House, Washington Post, Wiley) and not-nearly-so-large (David C. Cook, Liberty Fund, Wayne State University Press, Workman) about how they’re employing these new capabilities. A great roster of sponsors will not present from the stage, but our  “speed-dating” and “expert session” format will enable all attendees to get their very specific questions answered both by the people they’ll hear present and from many of the suppliers who provided them the capabilities they will have talked about.

 

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Publishers Launch conference at BEA will cover a wide range of digital change issues


What are the important topics to discuss today concerning publishing and digital change? I think we’ve got most of them covered at Publishers Launch BEA, the one-day conference we’ll stage at the Javits Center next Monday, June 4.

Our all-day event has sixteen distinct presentations and panels. There may be a topic of interest to somebody somewhere that we won’t cover, but we’re definitely not missing much.

The day will begin with a review of recent industry developments from Publishers Launch co-founder Michael Cader. As I write this, the news of the moment is “Waterstones will sell Kindles”. That event, and others that may follow between now and then, will be put into context by the man who prepares our daily Publishers Lunch. Michael likes to point out the topics we spend more time discussing than they’re worth. Those observations are always amusing and insightful.

We’ve noticed that cloud solutions — commonly called SaaS, “software as a service” — are becoming increasingly important in the operations at publishing houses. We think the topic is so important, in fact, that we’ve scheduled an all day conference called “Book Publishing in the Cloud” for July 26 in New York. Ken Michaels, the COO of Hachette Book Group USA, is a big proponent of SaaS and believes it could change the way we work, together and separately, as an industry. He’ll kick off our conference describing what he sees as the opportunity for publishers represented by cloud solutions.

Then a panel of four publishers will talk about a very much related subject: how publishing houses are remaking their processes and workflows to respond to the demands of the digital age. Publishing veteran David Wilk will chair that panel, which will include Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks, Sara Domville of F+W Media, Joe Mangan of Perseus, and Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins. All of these companies are doing some very basic things quite differently than they did only a couple of years ago and these executives will discuss how things have changed, how hard it was to change, and what benefits have come to them because they did change.

We like to feature short conversations with industry players who have a unique view. One of these is Molly Barton, who is the global digital director for Penguin. Molly is the only digital head I know today who started out inside the publishing house as an acquiring editor. Now she has a view of digital change around the world from the top of one of the world’s biggest book publishing empires and within an even larger publishing company that has many digital irons in the fire. I’ll have an onstage conversation with Molly, and we’ll cover a wide range of topics from DRM to enhancement to whatever might have arisen earlier that morning.

After Molly, we’ll move to a new feature of Publishers Launch Conferences: the Publishers Launchpad sessions. Launchpad is our slot for introducing new products and services. When we debuted it at Digital Book World last January, we were pleased to recruit a consulting client of my Idea Logical Company, Linda Holliday of Semi-Linear, to moderate the sessions. On June 4, Linda’s own new product will be the kickoff Launchpad subject.

And Linda’s new product, Citia, has as its objective nothing less than reinventing the presentation of high-concept non-fiction in the digital age. It is a shamelessly ambitious undertaking, literally deconstructing and then reconstructing the ideas in a book. The debut Citia title will be “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly, from Penguin, the house of the previous speaker, Molly Barton. Barton is one of the biggest fans of the new Citia presentation of material. Michael Cader will interview Linda and they’ll show you how the complex ideas we previously could only access through narrative text and illustrations can be rethought and made clearer with what I call, for simplicity, “Cliff’s Notes for the Digital Age” but which is really much more than that.

Then Linda will bring on two other new propositions as part of the Launchpad session. Both of them are new SaaS services to make ebooks.

The simpler proposition is from Hugh McGuire and is called Pressbooks. It is a free XML ebook-making tool built on WordPress that enables users to produce epub and PDF files on the web.

The other tool is called Aerbook Maker, created by Ron Martinez of Invention Arts. Aerbook makes enhanced ebooks and both HTLM5 and native apps. It is a tool that allows mixing in audio and video and interactive elements without advanced programming skills.

Then, before lunch (aren’t you hungry already?), we’ll have our agents panel. Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent will moderate a great agent group that includes Laura Dail of Laura Daily Literary Agency, Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, and Jennifer Weltz of The Jean V. Naggar Agency. They’ll be discussing both the changes in the business of agenting and the dynamic negotiating climate with the publishers. We’ll learn what they’re thinking about managing their digital backlist and what new skill sets they think their authors will be demanding of them.

Kelly Gallagher of Bowker will kick things off after lunch with with the latest report from their new Global eBook Monitor (GeM), a global look at ebook uptake around the world. Gallagher will feature “country level data” to a degree that hasn’t previously been revealed. We’re looking forward to it.

One key premise about digital change is that the world is getting smaller and publishers will find it easier to sell books, particularly ebooks, in territories other than their own. Our panel called “Sales Across the Borders — Import” will look at the increased penetration of ebooks from abroad, particularly in languages other than English. I’ll moderate a group of three panelists: Patricia Arancibia, Editorial Director, International Digital Content, for Barnes & Noble, consultant Javier Celaya from Spain, and Spanish publisher Blanca Rosa Roca of Roca Editorial. Blanca Rosa is doing some very innovative things to get her books into the US market in both Spanish and English. (She’s just created an English language ebook publisher called Barcelona eBooks and forged a partnership with Open Road for marketing and distribution.) Javier consults to companies throughout Europe and will report on how publishers, particularly in Spain, Italy, and France, are viewing this opportunity. And Patricia wrangles content for B&N to sell from all over the world. There are very few people, if indeed there is anybody, who knows more about this subject than she does. One wrinkle on this topic is that other-language publishers are now translating their own books into English to hit the English-speaking ebook market. One thing we’ll want to learn from our panelists is how commonplace they expect to see that practice become.

The complementary panel, which will be moderated by longtime sales executive Jack Perry, is “Sales Across the Borders — Export”. For this one we’ve gathered three experienced export sales executives: Chris Dufault of Random House, David Wolfson of HarperCollins, and Dan Vidra, who has just this month left Simon & Schuster to work for the new German-based (but global and multi-language) ebook platform, textr. They’ll be joined by David Cully, the President Retail Markets/EVP Merchandising for Baker & Taylor, the US wholesaler that has long been a global leader helping US publishers sell their books abroad. This panel will tell us what markets are showing the most promise for US publishers, how the sales growth of ebooks is affecting the sales of print, and how the growth of export might be impacting the related business of selling foreign translation rights. (We’ll be able to cross-check what they say with what the agents will have told us a couple of hours before.)

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo is always a popular speaker at publishing events because he shares interesting data. This time we’ve asked Michael to focus on what Kobo has learned from its recent experience in new markets, particularly the UK and France where Kobo tied up with major retailers. What we’ll want to know for non-English markets particularly is how powerful the draw of wide title selection in English is. Will ebookstores in other countries really expand the sale of our books in English around the world? Tamblyn will certainly get us started on answering that question.

Our final chunk of programming in the afternoon is all about change.

Fritz Foy is Macmillan’s EVP for digital. Macmillan made news a couple of weeks ago when they announced that they would be going DRM-free with their Tom Doherty Associates imprints including Tor, Forge and other related sci fi and fantasy imprints. We immediately called him and got him to agree to talk about that on the program. Foy is going to do a presentation that recaps Macmillan’s thinking about this question, which he says goes back several years. Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the anti-DRM crusader who is one of Tor’s key authors, Macmillan had already experimented with it. Foy promises us there will be surprises and at least one news announcement coming from his presentation. We’ll be surprised right along with you when we find out what it is.

Phil Ollila of Ingram Content Group accepted our challenge to comb their sales data for clues about how bookstores and other retailers have been changing their stocking decisions in recent years. The short summary of Ollila’s findings, which are summarized in an article he did for our conference book (all Publishers Launch Conferences have a printed conference book!), suggest that fiction is down, some surprising categories are up, and that what publishers can expect is more titles in more different stores with fewer sales per store per title.

We’ll have a bit of a change of pace with a presentation by David Steinberger, the one who is Founder and CEO of the Comixology platform. (There is another David Steinberger, of course, who is the CEO of Perseus.) Comics constitute a very big global business that operates in silos by language and by country. Will it stay that way? Will the rights and cultural issues that have kept the market from globalizing continue to do so in the digital age? As the creator of the most successful comics-selling platform in the US and a man with an eye for the world stage, Steinberger is in a unique position to speculate on the answers. And perhaps we’ll get some insight about how other highly-illustrated genres with strong localized content — travel and food come to mind — might change because of the digital transition.

There is a growing consensus in the industry around two points that would have been controversial only two or three years ago. One is that bookstores are declining rapidly and will, unfortunately and in the not-too-distant future, atrophy to the point that they are a subsidiary channel for book sales, not the primary one. The other point is that the marketing exposure that books get in retail stores is a critical component of their early exposure, leading to the “discovery” by consumers that is the key to getting commercial traction. Our last two sessions of the day will focus on that challenge.

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex has been conducting studies of book purchasers for a decade, including careful tracking of how they learned about the books they bought and read. Peter is one of the greatest champions of the bookstore’s role in discovery, and perhaps the leading skeptic that search engine optimization and social network marketing can be an adequate substitute. In this presentation, Peter will make his case thoroughly backed with data from the years of research his company has done.

Then Peter will join our final panel of the day, one focused on “The Future of Book Discovery.” Two publishers that are doing a lot of work in this area, Amanda Close of Random House and Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Scott Stein, who heads up the book coverage for USA Today, will be part of that discussion, which will be moderated by Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center. One of Hildick-Smith’s key points is that there is a Catch-22: if you don’t know something about a book, you’re not likely to search for it. And unless somebody gets the ball rolling for a book, there’s nobody to comment on Facebook or Twitter to get you started that way. The publishers on the panel and the overseer of one of America’s most widely read book pages will talk about their efforts to build something new that will tell us about books the way window displays and stacks and face-out displays have for years.

After that, Cader and I will wrap up the day. Very briefly. We’ll all be very happily exhausted!

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Searching for the formula to deliver illustrated books as ebooks


I want to make clear at the outset that this post is not about “enhanced ebooks”, making something multiple-media out of a book that started as straight text. That’s a “want to do” problem that I’ve always been skeptical about and which I believe many, if not most, publishers are abandoning as “not commercially viable at this time”. Today’s ruminations are about moving illustrated books from print to digital, which many of today’s book publishers will find a “must solve” problem as the channels to reach consumers effectively with illustrated books — the bookstores — are diminished in number and power by digital change.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble are trading boasts about whose iPad-lite is better than the other guy’s. Kobo’s Vox is joining the party with Kobo now owned by Rakuten, a massive Japanese company that gives the former upstart the means to really compete with all the other players. We can be pretty sure that tablets that can deliver color-illustrated book pages will be in many hands very soon. (That’s in addition to the tens of millions of iPads and many millions of Nook Color devices that have been sold already.)

This is presenting publishers with illustrated books on their list with what seems like an enormous opportunity. But it also presents some equally enormous challenges.

It has been estimated by many that 25% of the print books sold are illustrated books. (I last saw this number in a slide from Michael Tamblyn of Kobo at our eBooks for Everyone Else conference in San Francisco on November 2d.) I am not sure what that means. Trade books only?

And even if I did know what it means, I wouldn’t know enough. Books that are primarily pretty pictures, which don’t require much integration of the pictures and text (the minority of the 25%, one would assume) are a considerably simpler proposition to port to digital than a book with pictures and captions that have to stay with them or text that needs to be on the same page with a picture or a chart.

A lot of work is being done to create new standards called HTML5 and Epub3 that will permit more faithful rendering of a publisher’s intentions through a web browser or an ebook than our current capabilities do. But there are two very big flies in the ointment that persist regardless of the technology.

One: illustrated books are considerably more complex and expensive to deliver to digital devices than straight text books. (Even if HTML5 and Epub3 accomplish everything their creators want and they’re fed by XML-workflows, converting the backlists will cost a multiple on a per-title basis of what straight text costs. And I suspect we’re many years away from relieving publishers of the need to make the decisions necessary to execute multiple versions of each book, new or backlist, as will be made clear further on in this post.)

Two: we really don’t know whether consumers with tablets or tablet-lites will choose to consume illustrated books on those devices. (I’d say we do know that people will happily read straight text on devices; what seems to be true in my experience these days is that most of the people who say they “prefer printed books” have not tried an ereader yet.)

So while many publishers are largely seeing eroding print sales for straight text more than compensated for by ebook sales, there is no guarantee that the same will be true of illustrated books.

The retailers selling the tablets and the publishers of illustrated books are excited about the possibilities. The development of HTML5 and its close cousin, Epub 3, promise to enable features and capabilities that heretofore were only available in apps to be delivered as ebooks. That’s a big deal because the app marketplace has two huge shortcomings: it doesn’t enable book discovery very well and it is loaded with very inexpensive products. Many publishers have come to the conclusion that selling apps isn’t a commercially-viable strategy going forward. They’d much rather have their IP on sale in an ebookstore.

To be fair, others (like Callaway Digital Media) think apps work just fine commercially (although I’d add that Callaway does children’s content primarily, and that’s different…) and there are more and more tools being delivered to make app-building cheaper and more economical than it was before. But I still agree with the doubters.

Getting ready for Digital Book World, we had a conversation in the past couple of weeks with a publisher that does illustrated books almost exclusively. He volunteered what we believe: nobody knows if the customer will buy these yet. And then he pointed to his enormous pain point: screen sizes.

The currently-touted solution for illustrated books on devices is “fixed page layout.” You don’t “reflow” the text, which is the technique used for straight text. Reflowing changes the number of words on the page to suit the screen size and type size. That means you are changing the amount of content that appears on the screen. If you did that for illustrated books, pictures and captions wouldn’t stay together and things you planned to be on the same page might very well not be. So you deliver a “fixed page” to the device, just like you do to a printer.

The dominant color tablet device has been the iPad, which has a 10-inch screen (this is a diagonal measurement). But the new tablet-lites have seven-inch screens. This cuts the viewing area by about 50%. There is really no way to present a “page” that combines text and pictures that works on both screen sizes. If you go from 10-inch to seven, the type will be too small to read. If you go from 7-inch to ten, the white space surrounding the page will be ridiculous, or the type will be ludicrously large.

And I haven’t mentioned the fact that the iPhone has a 3-1/2 inch screen. Imagine the fixed page for a 10-inch iPad on that!

Although tools exist that make it relatively quick and easy for a designer to see the page on the right screen size and move things around a bit, that doesn’t really solve the problem. An illustrated book publisher would really have to design and lay out each book at least twice (for the 10-inch and 7-inch screens) and possibly three times (to get the iPhone screen too.) Then those would be three different files, so you couldn’t actually move across your devices and have them auto-synch the way Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple enable you to do now for straight text.

Would you get the files for all three sizes when you made the purchase?

There is a way to create the book for different sized screens with the same number of pages, which would be to use more area for the page than will fit on the screen vertically, and then scroll down to get more. Scrollmotion introduced this technique when they were making simple ebooks as a way to make ebook pages match printed book pages. But even employing that technique wouldn’t really save the illustrated book publisher any work. You’d still have to redesign each page for the particular device, and, anyway, I’m one reader who found I didn’t like ebooks that make you both scroll and turn.

One prominent ebook executive I know told me that there have been about 1000 illustrated ebooks available until a month or two ago but that the conversion houses in India have recently been working overtime to deliver more for the plethora of new tablet and tablet-lite devices hitting the market . Now they’re cranking out approximately 1000 illustrated ebooks a week so that by the end of the year, we might have 10,000 illustrated ebooks to choose from on many of the platforms.

That’s still paltry, compared to a million or more straight text ebooks, but the sudden leap in illustrated ebook titles available and screens to read them on must, one assumes, generate a real sales increase. Maybe we’ll start finding out what works and what doesn’t. This same executive, working for one of the major ecosystems, is trying to help publishers set their priorities for what books to convert. (Much of the conversion expense right now is being borne by the device-maker-retailers, so they get to call some shots.) But meaningful data points are so scarce that they offer very little guidance.

As bookstore shelf space disappears, the urgency of solving this problem grows. The sales of illustrated books have reportedly been going up in the bookstores, which is good news for as long as it lasts. It makes complete sense that retailers would emphasize the things that seeing and touching make you more likely to buy. But I’d be concerned that even the sales of illustrated books will suffer as more and more of the straight text consumers find what they want without visiting a bookstore. And a closed bookstore doesn’t sell any illustrated books at all.

I learned something interesting lately from a travel book publisher with a robust web presence that might be a useful clue. I was told that photo albums are a big new moneymaker for them. People who are traveling to Paris love the opportunity to look through a series of photos of Paris. Each photo is a new screen with new ads on it. That is creating some really easy additional revenue for this publisher’s web sites.

I think that a “500 photographs” series of ebooks could also do very well, particularly with the digital ability to present them in sequences determined by metadata. If 500 Paris pictures were properly tagged, I could see “Eiffel Tower”, “churches”, “19th century architecture”, and “Champs Elysee” pictures grouped together by clicking on a menu.

And that kind of a book, with no associated text necessary (“captions” could be on a jump screen), could be designed once for all size devices.

Of course, whether it would have a commercially-viable print counterpart is yet another question.

I have concerns that converting how-to books to digital success is going to be a very frustrating experience. The ebook will not deliver the printed material well, unless the same care is exercised optimizing the content to each different digital screen as is put into designing a book. And there will be so much more the ebook could do with video and audio and animation and interactivity that would make sense for most subjects that “converting” a book will just leave too much opportunity behind.

But publishers have to try. With millions of devices in consumer hands, some illustrated ebooks are going to sell impressive numbers. We saw what happened with “The Elements” when the iPad came out (even if comparable success hasn’t seemed to happen for any other content-based app product since).

Creating a truly interactive book-type digital experience has been the objective of countless thousands of high-quality person-hours for two decades, since even before the CD-Rom era. Nobody has cracked the code yet, by which I mean nobody has come up with a formula which will repeatedly satisfy consumers so that a publisher can approach the marketplace for digital content with something approximating the confidence that it does with straight text books. As an industry, we’re about to throw a lot more time and money at the problem. Maybe we’ll find an answer. Or maybe there isn’t one.

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Introducing the North American Big Six


There’s a new Big Six in town. Or maybe not “in town.” But “on the planet.”

The Big Six is a term commonly used to collectively designate the behemoths of US trade publishing: Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan. Although there are other large players, some of whom occasionally can compete with these companies for seven-figure authors, the lion’s share of the biggest author brands are published by one of these six houses.

But from the perspective of publishers or booksellers outside the United States, there is a new North American Big Six. These are the companies that have direct relationships with publishers — all of them that matter in the US (with one noteworthy exception) and, increasingly, those that matter overseas as well — to secure the rights to distribute ebook files wherever in the world the publishers have rights.

Why does this Big Six matter so much? Because as dedicated ereaders and tablets and smartphones that can effectively serve as ereaders gain increased market penetration anywhere, the appetite for ebook content will grow proportionately. In languages other than English, the number of published books currently in epub — and therefore deliverable as reflowable ebooks — is paltry compared to what we have. It will take a long time for the publishers in most countries to make enough content ready to satisfy that growing hunger in their local markets.

And the Big Six companies have the infrastructure, and, most importantly, the rights, to satisfy that appetite everywhere.

Three of the North American Big Six are well known and would be immediately identified just about anywhere. Although Amazon, Apple, and Google have not yet opened their ebook “stores” in every country in the world that can buy ebooks, it won’t be long before they will. These three global giants all derive more revenue from outside the book business than they do from ebooks (and only Amazon, of the three, has any commercial interest in selling books except for ebooks.) But they are past (Amazon), present (Apple), and future (Google) game-changers: companies that have such an enormous presence that their entry into any area, certanly including ebooks, causes every other player in the market to sit up and take notice.

There is a fourth player like them, relatively tiny Kobo,.Kobo is also an ebook retailer. Over the past two years, they have been extraordinarily successful at getting publishers to establish direct relationships with them. (I didn’t track this with great precision, but I believe Kobo was the only company besides Amazon to have all the agency publishers on board the day agency selling started last April.) Kobo has “white-labeled”, or powered, an ebook store for Borders in the US and Red Group in Australia (two booksellers who, coincidentally or not, have just filed for bankruptcy protection). Kobo also has, according to their executive, Michael Tamblyn, at Tools of Change, “more than two million registered users.”

All four of these companies will be competing as ebook retailers in every market in the world and in every language in the world. They all start out with a robust aggregation of US-published ebooks. Apple is the laggard here. They don’t carry Random House books yet — the “noteworthy exception” referred to in the third paragraph above — and they have fewer available titles than any of the other three. But Apple comes with its own significant advantages in the form of the wildly popular iPhone and iPad. These devices assure a certain minimum amount of traffic to their iBookstore, even if Apple doesn’t move ahead with in books with the power play they’ve just exercised over subscription sellers of magazines and newspapers. (And so far we have only rumors and stretched intepretations of what they’ve said and done to suggest that they will do that anytime soon.)

Because American hegemony is resented in much of the world, Kobo may have a built-in advantage in international competition against the other three. Kobo is a Canadian company. They are also not disrupting people’s lives or terrifying them by monopolizing online print sales in any market (like Amazon), or by delivering devices designed to capture audiences and wall them off from competitors (like Apple), or by digitizing first and asking permission later (like Google.) All three of the Biggest Three (of the Big Six) have enemies and detractors. Kobo doesn’t.

Kobo doesn’t have their effectively unlimited resourcces either.

There are already retailers active in every country in the world, operating in the local language, who want to be the ebook resellers of choice in their own countries. For them, the other two members of the North American Big Six are potentially critical resources: Ingram and Overdrive.

Ingram is well known throughout the book business worldwide (and is sometimes, and currently, a client of ours.) As the biggest and most innovative wholesaler in the US for four decades, they have built both a customer base and a supplier base all over the world. They’ve been the principal wholesaler of ebooks to US independent ebook retailers since the begining of ebook time. They have deep and strong relationships with every US publisher of any size, rooted in their wholesaling business. They can set any retailer up with a wide selection of US ebook titles.

Ingram’s competitor for the role of delivering English-language (and, ultimately, all non-local language) ebooks to resellers all over the world is Overdrive. Overdrive has been in the digital content business since the 1980s and pioneered ebook distribution to libraries from the dawn of the current ebook era in the late 1990s. They also have a very broad base of publisher suppliers and can, like Ingram, provide an ebook reseller local to any country with a robust selection of other-language ebooks to vend, with an emphasis on those provided by American publishers.

Could any upstarts join the Big Six as credible providers for local competitors to the four global ebook retailers? I see three possibilities.

Barnes & Noble certainly has the relationships with publishers globally to assemble an ebook title selection that can rival anyone’s (and they’ve done it.) They are already the number two ebook reseller in the US market, miles ahead of Apple and Google and Kobo. But, so far, they have continued their brick-and-mortar strategy of sticking to the US market. It seems to me that the economics of their successful Nook family of devices and the ebook store they run would benefit from extending to a global base. But every company has to make choices about resource allocation and focus, and it is hard to quarrel with the success B&N has had competing with Kindle and iPad considering their prior experience with hardware (none). They’ve leveraged their retail presence to do it and they don’t have that resource to employ outside the US.

Copia and Blio are upstart ebook platforms. The independently-owned Copia has its social component as a unique feature (although Kobo has some pretty cool social stuff and there’s an upstart called Rethink Books with some technology that provides social capabilities around books independent of the ebook platform.) When Blio started, they seemed to offer an opportunity for publishers to enhance their ebooks readily. But the tool set that would enable hasn’t been delivered. Both of these offerings have a distance to travel to catch up with the Big Six, all of which have been in the game a long time and built up a network of suppliers and customers that it is not a trivial challenge to duplicate.

If there’s going to be a Big Seven, my bet would be on B&N.

Right now, publishers and retailers seeing the book tsunami coming closer to their shores will want to focus on the North American Big Six. If I were a publisher in any language, I’d be sure they all had my books. If I were a retailer in any country, I’d be looking at them as possible competitors or collaborators. Understanding who these companies are, what they have to offer, and what they have in mind is going to be an important component of every publisher’s and retailer’s strategic thinking for the foreseeable future.

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A brilliant Conference Council helps make a great Digital Book World


We had a very successful debut annual conference for Digital Book World last January, even though we didn’t conceive the idea until June, put together a group of helpers (which we now call our Conference Council) until July, or draft the initial program until August. This year we’re way ahead of that schedule. We’ve put together a fabulous Council to advise us this year and we’re having a meeting of many of them next week to discuss the agenda and to start getting suggestions for speakers.

The Council gives us wide exposure and connections to the trade publishing industry. That way we make sure we don’t miss any ideas and we don’t miss knowing about any talented people whom our audience would want to hear.

We have several publishing company presidents and CEOs (Sara Domville of F+W, Marcus Leaver of Sterling, Maureen McMahon of Kaplan, Brian Napack of Macmillan, Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks) and some presidents and CEOs from other companies and support organizations in the industry (Kristen McLean of the Association of Booksellers for Children, Tracey Armstrong of Copyright Clearance Center, Peter Clifton of Filedby, David Cully of Baker & Taylor, Joe Esposito of GiantChair, John Ingram of Ingram Content Companies, Scott Lubeck of The Book Industry Study Group, and Steve Potash of Overdrive Systems.)

We have other senior level executives, many with specific digital responsibilities (Peter Balis of Wiley, Ken Brooks of Cengage, Mark Gompertz of Simon & Schuster, Madeline McIntosh of Random House, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Larry Norton of Borders, Kate Rados of F+W Media, Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press, John Schline of Penguin, Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Maja Thomas of Hachette, and Tom Turvey of Google.)

We have agents (Sloan Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writer’s House, and Scott Waxman of the Waxman Agency) and industry consultants and commentators (Michael Cairns of Persona Non Data, Ted Hill of THA Consulting, and Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.) And because he is our media partner, we have help from Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace as well. And we also get great input from others on the F+W team: David Nussbaum, David Blansfield, Cory Smith, Guy Gonzalez, and Matt Mullin.

So we have all the Big Six represented, as well as small publishers, industry-wide associations and service providers, wholesalers, digital distribution partners, retailers, and agents. All of these people have real input into the topic list and speakers. Many of them are joining us for a meeting next week to review our ideas for the program, which we previewed on this blog about a month ago.

Because Digital Book World tries to be at the cutting edge of trade publishing and digital change, we often face one or both of two challenges. Sometimes we believe something should be happening, or be about to happen, but we may not know where or whether the publishers leading the charge will talk about it. Several topics come to mind that fit that description: vertical efforts inside general trade houses; what houses are doing to adjust to reduced expectations for print sales in bookstores; how houses are gearing up or changing their sales efforts to compete in and serve a growing list of digital intermediaries; how enhanced ebook and ebook first creation change the traditional order of things in product development.

The other challenge we have to work around is when people can say things privately but not publicly. One topic that is very tough to talk about is ebook royalties, which is a major point of contention between publishers and leading agents at the moment. The big houses are pretty adamantly trying to hold the line (publicly) at a royalty of 25% of net receipts. But upstart publishers like Jane Friedman’s Open Road appear to be willing to pay 50%; publishing through Smashwords yields 85% (but sells the books without DRM, which would frequently scare the copyright owners of valuable properties); and self-publishing through a distributor would deliver a yield somewhere in between. (Remember: self-publishing ebooks carries no inventory risk.) In that environment, some agents are able to wring some concessions from some publishers. But the agent can’t talk about that without jeopardizing her ability to get concessions for her clients and no publisher will volunteer to reveal the isolated concession and start turning that into a policy.

Some things are just hard to discuss. Do booksellers, or even the publishers and wholesalers who supply them, want to talk about the possibility of their impending demise? But how can one plan for the future and ignore that elephant in the room? If a publisher suddenly sees the necessity of developing direct selling relationships with end users, after years of telling booksellers he was against it, does that publisher want to talk about those efforts in public?

When competitors participate in industry education initiatives, they must draw lines around what they will reveal and what they won’t. One ebook-responsible executive we know at a major house is persistently reluctant to reveal what he’s doing or what he’s thinking. But he has a boss, one who is proud of what he does and what their house does, who pushes him forward as a speaker.

Frankly, I think these challenges are greater for us than they are for other conferences on digital change that focus more on technology than they do on business practices. Very few publishers are masters of tech; usually they’re working with outside suppliers who are happy to share best practices. But business practices are different; they’re more sensitive. Sometimes the reluctance to share them is sound. Sometimes constraints are even legally required. Since our job is to focus on business practices, we’re glad to have relationships with very knowledgable players who will candidly engage with us on these challenges so we can figure out the best way to protect true proprietary knowledge but still disseminate valuable information.

We’re really proud of the illustrious group we have gotten to advise our efforts, and we get great value from them even though their first responsibility is to the company they work for. We feel confident that this group helps us cast a net that is wide and broad enough to assure us that any major development in the trade book world will hit our radar screen and that we’ll know if there are informed people willing to talk about it.

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Are free ebooks a good idea or not?


Kindle is certainly engendering a lot of confusion by billboarding the downloads of free ebooks as “sales.” That paradoxical scorekeeping was the lead for an article by Motoko Rich in The New York Times on Saturday that quoted a lot of people, some apparently disagreeing with each other, but none of them necessarily wrong.

There really are three separate questions to consider, which get elided in these conversations.

1. What is the impact of giving away ebooks as a promotional device, either to boost the word of mouth on the book being given away or to promote an author’s other titles?

2. What is the potential impact on the industry overall of ubiquitous giveaways of ebooks that would apparently have commercial value?

3. When ebooks are given away, how should that sale be “scored” in any measurement of the book’s popularity?

The answer to the first question appears, anecdotally but just about universally, to be that giving ebooks away boosts sales of that title and related titles. Rich’s piece sites numerous publishers attesting to that. She apparently found no publisher that is skeptical about whether giveaway promotions work or has seen the tactic fail. And that would confirm my experience: I don’t know of one.

But as we’ve noted before, this effect could change over time. We’re still in a period where ebooks are not an acceptable format to most book readers. That means the benefits of giving them away is not confined to the word-of-mouth from the recipients, it can result in a print book purchase by the very person you gave it to! As ebook reading becomes more popular, particularly if we go to a DRM-free universe, the impact of cannibalization from giveaways could grow dramatically from what it is now.

The second question is what is apparently paramount to David Young of Hachette (as quoted in the Rich piece) and is influencing the policies described at Penguin. As more and more ebooks are given away, it offers a wider array of choice to people who prefer to select from the free offerings and just never pay. For the last 15 years of his life, my father, Len Shatzkin, refused to buy anything except remainders. He shopped from several mail order catalogs and, if he was in a bookstore, shopped at the bargain tables. His position was that if publishers were going to be dumb enough to reliably give the books away six months or a year later, he’d just wait and choose his reading from among what had been marked down. With free ebook marketing the way it is today, sometimes you don’t even have to wait!

And that’s obviously what was on Young’s mind when he said the tactic was “illogical.” It is illogical if you take a long-term, industry-health view of the situation. It is totally logical if you’re trying for short-term advantage to break a new book or build a particular author, as most of the other authors and publishers were trying to say.

There was a long comment string on the HarperStudio blog about this question six or eight months ago. I said at the time that I figured that if these giveaways kept spreading, one of our more industrious web entrepreneurs would create an ebooksforfree.com site which would be a consumer directory to “free” offers at various publishers and web retailers, title by title.

It’s a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Each person giving away ebooks succeeds in their intentions to boost their sales, but everybody will pay for the overgrazing in the end.

The third question is a tricky one. It is worth noting that the App Store makes it very easy to for the consumer to decide whether to shop the free apps or the priced apps. I think Amazon is hurting themselves by not at least sorting their bestseller pages that way. And they don’t. Amazon says the Kindle bestseller listings change every hour: I just checked the Top 10 and found one 25 cent book, one book at a substantial price (higher than $9.99), and eight free. Some of the eight free were self-promoters like the lead in Rich’s story; some were public domain; some were multi-book authors from established publishers. But only one of the Top 10 was elected with votes paid for with dollars from the Kindle clientele, which is what I think most people looking at “best sellers” would be looking for.

This raises a question I don’t know the answer to and my way to do the research will be to see if somebody with knowledge posts a comment. Kindle reports to the USA Today Bestseller List. This is, as far as I know, the only reflection of ebook popularity in the public domain. It would be interesting to know if USA Today has a standard for that reporting. Of course, most of the “weight” of the USA Today list, quite properly, would be print sales so whatever Kindle reports might not move the needle much. Most sales today are still print sales. But we’re headed for a crazy world if the concept of what “sold best” is expanded to include what people were willing to take for free.

On the other hand, if you try to separate free from paid, you will still face the question of where to draw the line. If publishers sell a $20 hardcover as a $5 ebook, should those units count equally in determining bestseller status? How about a dollar? How about a penny?

A tip of the hat here to my sometimes colleague Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media, who hinted at what I have said at length in this piece in his brief turn in Rich’s article. Brian has done extensive research that tends to confirm what Rich’s interviews and my anecdotal information suggest: that giving away ebooks boost sales in the present marketplace. But Brian managed to bridge the enthusiasm of the giveaway marketers and the incredulity expressed by David Young with his observation that there was a risk that free reading could eventually “supplant paid reading.”

And that wouldn’t really be good for anybody.

This is absolutely the last post you will see promoting Digital Book World 2010, which is on this Tuesday and Wednesday at the New York Sheraton and which is turning out to exceed my fondest hopes when we started out planning it this summer. But we have a panel on the very subject of this post called “Ebook challenges: competing with free and getting the timing right.” Brian O’Leary is moderating, and the panelists include agent Robert Gottlieb of the Trident Group; marketing director Mindy Stockfield of Hyperion (which published Chris Anderson’s book “Free”); ebook retailer Kobo’s VP Michael Tamblyn, and Steve Ross, who has been a publisher at both Random House and HarperCollins. There’s another panel on “Ebook pricing: what should they cost and why?” which includes the head of Penguin’s ebook publishing efforts, Tim McCall.  I enjoy having The New York Times stamp the topics we selected last August as “current” 72 hours before our show begins, even if just implicitly.

If you like this blog, I know you’ll enjoy Digital Book World. I hope to see you there.

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