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Print book retailing economics and ebook retailing economics have almost nothing in common


There has been a lot of conversation lately about the differences between wholesale pricing and agency pricing for ebooks and about what constitutes a “fair” division of revenue between publishers and retailers. Since the economics of bookstores have been generally misunderstood for years, it is not surprising that the understanding of what changes make sense as we switch to digital have also been misunderstood. A better grounding in the print book economic realities might enable a more informed discussion of what makes sense for digital.

Here are a couple of points about book economics that I learned at my Daddy’s knee.

1. The investment in inventory is the single biggest capital requirement for a bookstore.

2. Given that the ability to invest in inventory is limited, the speed at which inventory “turns” (a measurement of how long a retailer has to hold stock before it sells) is a much more powerful determinant of a store’s total gross margin, and therefore its profit, than the margin it earns on each sale (the difference between what it pays for the inventory and what it is sold for).

In simple shorthand, that means that a retail store selling books can improve its profit more easily by more closely matching what it buys to what it sells than it can by squeezing more margin out of its suppliers. It also means that a publisher can do more for a store’s profitability by shipping quickly and allowing smaller orders at workable discounts (which make it easier to match supply to demand) and offering delayed billing than it can by offering extra points of discount (which is what added margin is called in the book business). The additional benefit of employing this understanding is that margin division is a zero-sum game, but increased inventory efficiency is actually synergistic: both the publisher and the retailer benefit from it.

This reality about bookstore economics explains the value to the supply chain of wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. By offering the ability to combine orders across publishers and giving rapid, often next-day, delivery, the wholesalers enable stores to gain much more inventory efficiency at a relatively trivial reduction in margin. (Where the publishers’ “deal” is sometimes better than the wholesalers’ in a meaningful way is that publishers will often allow a longer period before demanding payment. Inventory “investment” only really begins when the books the store received are paid for.)

So, in fact, there is very little similarity between the economics of retailing print and retailing ebooks. The tech infrastructure for selling is not a trivial investment, and DRM — including customer service — is a significant expense that ebook retailers deal with that bookstores do not. The print retailer has to build a customer-friendly location and invest in (presumably knowledgeable) clerks. How those costs of doing business compare is a complicated question that changes over time as the tech gets cheaper and the cost of physical locations — driven by ever-higher real estate values in the attractive neighborhoods where bookstores tend to thrive — goes up.

But the things that change aren’t nearly as important as the things that don’t.

The stock turn of an ebook retailer is infinity. There is zero inventory investment.

Publishers first had to deal with the question of what the bookstore’s margin should be on ebooks back in the late 1990s when Palm Digital and Microsoft created the first reflowable ebook platforms. Prior to that we had PDFs, which delivered — in the current jargon — “fixed page layout” ebooks which didn’t adjust the number of words per screen to the screen size. At that time, the ebook retailers were inclined to sell at publishers’ “list prices” and publishers tended to price ebooks at about the same level as print.

But nobody paid a lot of attention because the sales and revenue were de minimus. Since Palm had the most hand-held digital assistants (Palm Pilots) in circulation back at the turn of the century and because (as we have clearly learned since) portability is one of the big drivers of ereading, Palm’s ebooks were the best-selling format. But Palm decided not to enable widespread distribution of their ebook format; they sold the ebooks themselves through a controlled vendor (originally called Peanut Press and then Palm Digital).

In fact, the mobi format that Kindle uses today was developed at the time as a bridging format, able to be read on both Microsoft and Palm devices. This was before the creation of the epub format used by everybody except Kindle today. When Amazon bought Mobi, it was apparently to prevent any other retailer from building a real ebook business selling to what was then the “entire” ebook market. B&N’s one-time exit from ebooks was because they could sell only to Microsoft and not to Palm devices, which meant they had the smaller piece of what was a very small market. Amazon apparently figured then that they’d enter the market when they were ready, but they wanted to prevent B&N from building a foothold in it before then.

I’d argue that the biggest mistake B&N made in the history of ebook evolution was not buying Mobi before Amazon did.

So it became “established” that ebooks would be sold on a similar basis to print books with discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent off publisher-set retail. It should have been no surprise to anybody that once “real” retailers — not software companies like Microsoft and Palm — took the reins, they’d give away a lot of that margin to go after market share. That’s what real retailers do; it’s in their DNA.

In fact, the first wave of discounting of print in the 1980s by the Crown Bookstores chain followed very quickly behind increases in publishers’ discounts to stores from the low 40s to 46 percent and up. Most people never noticed that; others think there’s no connection. It always seemed to me that the increased publisher discounts and the discounting to consumers were linked.

In the early days of ebooks, the volumes were so low and the tech was still under development, so the significant margin the publishers offered — and the retailers employed — might have been necessary to have any ebook retailing at all. As time passes, the fixed retailing costs get lower and the customer service costs also tend to get lower.

Once a real retailer, Amazon, got into the ebook business, deep discounts off publisher prices had to follow, and they did. The move to agency pricing had purposes beyond the principal one, which was to remove pricing as a weapon from the retail competition arsenal. It also put publishers on a path to set realistic retail prices for consumers and to reduce the notional share given to the sales intermediary from around 50 percent to 30 percent.

There’s reason to believe that even 30 percent is too high, given the plunging cost structure for retail and the economic reality of infinite turn on inventory investment. A senior Random House executive told me during the period they were not in agency (the first year it existed) that part of the reason they stayed out is that the 30 percent figure Apple wanted and the other publishers agreed to seemed “too high”. As it turned out, Random House came in a year later and accepted the 30 percent. They said at the time it was because indie bookstores were attracted to ebook retailing by the assured 30 percent margin and fixed retail prices, and Random House always wants to support independent retailers.

It was always curious to me that the preference of all the other retailers except those who can use the book business as a loss leader — Amazon, for sure, and perhaps Google —  for publisher-set retail prices never made its way into the discussion of the publisher motivation at the time, nor to Judge Cote’s reasoning, nor to the arguments which have taken place about it since.

Ebook pricing today is very confused. Apparently, many of the retailers will accept wholesale terms at a lot less than 50 percent, although this is not widely known and, indeed, isn’t even really confirmable. Discounts of print to bookstores were published, standard terms. That’s not the case with ebooks (because they’re not really sales, they’re licenses, no matter what anybody says, and they are individually negotiated contracts, the terms of which are kept private). Nobody outside Amazon really knows what margin Amazon actually takes from ebook sales; it is certainly true that most of the ebooks are discounted from whatever prices publishers “suggest”. (And sometimes those publisher-set prices may be inflated, particularly if the publisher is selling at a bookstore-like 50 percent discount.) Perhaps they only really take the 30 percent that they get from agency publishers and that they take from individual authors in KDP and that they have said in their arguments with Hachette is the “right” share for a retailer.

We actually still don’t know what the “right” or “fair” margin is for retailers of ebooks. Random House had some idea of that in 2010 when they were holding out and they seemed to think “less than 30 percent”. Comparing ebook retailing economics to print book retailing economics only tells us that physical retailers of print need a lot more to have a viable business. Dad also taught me is that the reason publishers give stores a discount off the publishers’ retail price — which should be the price a publisher would sell the book at if a member of the public came directly to them — is to give stores the margin they need to operate. Because publishers want there to be stores. First purposes may have been forgotten in course of the digital transition.

There is programming relevant to this post at Digital Book World 2015 in addition to the main-stage appearance of Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti main-with Michael Cader and me. We have a great panel discussion on “price promotion” with Josh Schanker of BookBub, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Matt Cavner of Vook. And “Blue Sky in the Ebook World” where a panel of visionaries will talk about what is over the horizon for ebook retailing, rethinking simple ebooks, making complex ebooks, and creating ebooks with soundtracks. Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen Book’s talk about how the profile of what sells in print has changed will enlighten around this topic as well.

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This is a teamwork play that could really give Amazon a headache if they got together


I will admit that I have long been among those who believe that Amazon has what amounts to an enduring stranglehold on the book business. They have achieved a market share — which could be in the neighborhood of half the trade books sold if you combine print and digital versions — that is unprecedented in book business history. This is a smaller share than the two giant bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders — had combined at the peak of their marketplace power.

Lately, I have seen that point of view challenged. Jake Kerr wrote a very thoughtful piece making the point that Amazon’s desire to take margin out of the ebook business is a good defensive move that diminishes the appetite of their mega-company ebook competitors — Apple, Google, and, less so, Microsoft — to invest in beating them back. Suw Charman-Anderson picked up on the theme that Amazon is being defensive, “looking tired”, and found others who seemed to think the same way. Both of them express doubts about Amazon’s continuing hegemony without even using one powerful argument I think is important. Amazon is protected from ebook competition by the inability of competitors to put DRMed content onto dedicated Kindle ereader devices. (Another barrier is that so many early ebook adopters did so via a Kindle account, so their content and login credentials are in the Amazon platform along with a lot of other shopping data that raises the switching hurdle.) But the share controlled by dedicated devices is diminishing and anybody reading on a multi-function device can choose from a range of ebook retailers. (And that’s not to mention that somebody might invent a way to place protected content on Kindles without Amazon’s help; rumors have it that somebody already has!)

Contemplating Amazon’s weaknesses is new thinking for me. What I see is Amazon’s power over the book business, which is great. Amazon has achieved this position through smart and efficient operations and brilliant tactics like Amazon Prime that build customer loyalty, as well as being beneficiaries of the natural migration of sales from brick stores to online. But, most of all, Amazon benefits from its broad business base. They don’t have to support their business exclusively, or even substantially, from their book sales margin. And, on top of that, they don’t have to finance the building and maintenance of a global operation strictly from what they earn in the United States.

So they trump everybody. Barnes & Noble, their only competitor selling both print and digital books, seems to have stalled in its bid to build a rival global empire with the Nook device as the leading edge. Their lack of stores outside the US robs them of the main tool they used to build Nook from a standing start to what seemed for a while to be a serious threat to Kindle and the consequent lack of global scale is hobbling their Nook business. The US stores are still profitable as print-sellers, but very few are those who maintain that print-in-stores is anything but a declining market. (As for BN.com, the less said the better. Of the four principal components of B&N’s business: bookstores, college stores, Nook ebooks, and their online retailing operation, the most dramatic and persistent failure has been BN.com.)

Kobo, Apple, and Google are all ebook purveyors only with no print book complement. Kobo has nominally tried to deliver a combined offering, and claimed some store support to sell their devices, by making alliances with leading local booksellers in many markets. Apple, a company primarily interested in selling its hardware and the ecosystems it builds around them, has no apparent interest in print. Google appears to have hit on a broader variation of the Kobo strategy, making alliances with physical retailers by offering a combination of its power in search and a same-day delivery capability called Google Shopping Express — competing with Amazon Prime — that retailers in a single vertical couldn’t deliver for themselves.

Under that rubric, Google is now allied with Barnes & Noble. But I see this as an initiative with the accent on the wrong syllable. The combined companies’ offering is only of real value applied to the small number of book purchases for which same day delivery adds substantial utility (and for which the digital version — always delivered instantly — doesn’t constitute an adequate solution for the need for speed). They are further limited by the books available in the particular B&N store plugged into the program in each locality and each store carries far fewer titles than the chain does as a whole. So the number of books customers will need delivered with that alacrity will be further reduced by the imperfect match between the demand and what’s available. Even if this program steals a high percentage of the same-day demand sales from Amazon, I’m not sure how much it would shift market shares. And with Amazon also offering rapid delivery and probably around a greater number of titles, it is not a given that the new offering from Google and B&N will steal much market share at all.

That doesn’t make it a bad move. The sales and visibility are incremental pluses for Barnes & Noble. Google’s new Google Shopping Express has a business model into which B&N fits very nicely. Books are a nice-to-have additional product line to offer within that service, designed to compete with Amazon’s growing same-day goods delivery. This is a fight between two behemoths that is much larger than the book business (as it has to be to interest them). B&N has a role to play, but it is a supporting position, not a lead.

From where I sit, this offering from Google and B&N doesn’t look like a game-charger for the book business. Nothing about it would seem to threaten Amazon’s overall (and still growing) hegemony in book retail. The migration of sales from print to digital and from stores to online has clearly slowed down, perhaps even plateaued, in the past year or two but few are those who believe those trends are permanently over.

Google is on a right track with Google Shopping Express; people who buy physical goods use Google search to find them and see Google ads when they do. But going after the smallest corner of the print book business — those books on which 6-hour delivery presents a very big advantage over 24-hour delivery — is not going to bend the curve much on Amazon’s future, even if it provides some marginal benefit to B&N and Google.

But there is a different combination that could give Amazon a real headache. There are two companies that together could deliver print and digital, just about anywhere in the world with competitive delivery speed, with discovery capability that would rival Amazon’s as well. Between them, they really have almost all the capabilities and infrastructure required already in place.

One of those companies is, of course, Google.

The other is Ingram, the book business’s biggest US wholesaler and, through its present activities already providing global digital and print distribution as well as print-on-demand. Ingram is positioned to deliver any book in any form anywhere extremely efficiently. They also have a robust and accurate database of book metadata which, if combined with Google’s data and search mastery (and capabilities that match Amazon’s “Search Inside” offering as well), could challenge Amazon effectively as a “best first place to look” for any information about books.

What Google needs to take on board to make the strategic leap to explore a partnership like this is that most book consumers read both print and digital and probably will for some time to come. It will get harder and harder to compete with Amazon without a print-and-digital offering; you can’t be fully effective with either one unless you do both.

And it would help if Google saw the book business as distinctly different from the other media businesses that with books constitute Google Play. The differences play to and can enhance Google’s core strength. Book marketing is almost infinitely granular, because the number of possible motivations to buy a book are so great in number. Rarely do you buy music or video because of where your next vacation will be or because you want to put a new roof on your house or change careers. Associating specific book suggestions to discerned interests and motivations is the key to effective book marketing in the digital environment. And the insights about any individual by analyzing their book search also can tell you what else they may be looking for. Nobody does those things better than Google. They have limited impact on the ability to suggest music or movies, but enormous value in selecting what books to feature to any particular customer at any particular time and what else they can be sold after they’ve bought a book.

A Google-Ingram partnership would not only start with every capability necessary to compete with Amazon as a global bookseller, they would have some additional Secret Sauce as well. Google and Ingram wouldn’t actually have to make money on the combined retailing component because they make money other ways that are associated with it. Google would be adding incremental search and ad placement opportunities. Ingram would be benefiting as a wholesaler providing all the print books and many of the ebooks the new “store” sells. They could make nearly nothing from the new retailing operation, just like Amazon does with its book retailing operation, and still have the enterprise return a profit for their engagement.

A joint digital retailing enterprise to sell books and ebooks from Google and Ingram is the only possibility I can see on the horizon that would save the legacy publishing business from being entirely subject to Amazon’s inexorably growing marketplace power. It is almost certain that Ingram — part of the book business Amazon is so successfully disrupting — sees this very clearly. (Full disclosure seldom necessary in this space: Ingram has been a client of The Idea Logical Company for many years.) Being a hero to the book business may be a less immediate objective for Google, but making life a bit more difficult for Amazon almost certainly is. Nothing they could do would create more challenges for Amazon than a partnership with Ingram to create an all-media store that sells both physical and digital versions of everything, including and especially books.

Since I posted my last piece, triggered by Amazon’s invoking of Orwell and Streitfeld’s accusation that they got him wrong, two conflicting posts have arisen. I’m indebted to Hugh Howey for pointing out that apparently Orwell really did want to destroy cheap paperbacks but Orwell’s estate takes a different view. In fact, I don’t think which side got it right is particularly germane to the arguments I was making. The Orwell connection made a cute hook, but it is not really an essential part of either side’s story.

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Unbundling in the book business: the fourth big trend


A few weeks ago, I wrote that there are three big forces driving the future of publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization.

I was wrong. I had forgotten my own blogpost from last September when I identified another trend that belongs with the first three: “unbundling”. The book business, in the trade segment I follow most closely but in every other segment as well, is seeing its value proposition becoming unbundled in a number of ways.

Up until very recently, a trade publisher controlled just about every aspect of a book’s publication. The indispensible parts of the value publishers offered were two: the advance against royalties that often provided essential financing to enable the writer to create the manuscript and the network of relationships and infrastructure that put books on shelves for consumers to find and buy them.

Because the publisher was taking both a capital and reputational risk with every book published, it was natural that it would handle all the supporting steps: developmental and copy-editing, marketing and publicity, design and manufacturing. The publisher would commission the artwork for the book’s cover and determine what was the best foot forward on flap copy.

Until the turn of the 21st century, it was the exceptional author who had any kind of “platform” that could be employed for the book’s marketing: something like a TV show or newspaper column or fame achieved some other way that could be a springboard for promoting the book. In the cases where those opportunities existed, publishers recognized that the book was being “piggybacked” onto something that had its own commercial purpose and was not subject to the wishes or timetables of a book’s publisher.

What changed before the publishing business changed is that many of us have some sort of platform now, as in “a way to reach an audience”. And, although my platform isn’t comparable to Rush Limbaugh’s or Jay Leno’s, it is, indeed, mine all mine and I can do what I want with it. Many other people have platforms of their own that are far more powerful than mine.

It could be said that publishers themselves began the unbundling process as they got authors to use their platforms to market their books. With the advent of ebooks and driven by the CreateSpace services offered by Amazon, it became possible for any author to publish his or her own book and those with a platform, or even just building one, no longer had to get the assent of a publisher to put their book into the market.

My friend, futurist David Houle (whose new book “Entering the Shift Age” has been published by Sourcebooks), was frustrated in 2007 with his inability to connect with a publisher for his predictive thinking. He was just starting his blog, “Evolution Shift” and it didn’t have enough history or audience to persuade any publisher he found to put out his companion book, “The Shift Age”. So he did it himself, through Amazon, even before there was a Kindle. Over the years, David has sold about 7,000 copies of his book, many through Amazon but many more through his own public appearances as a speaker. (And what he’s made per copy is far more than what he’d have made in a publishing deal.)

Since Houle published “The Shift Age” several years ago, an industry has grown around offering services for publishing. This is referred to as the “author services” business. The core offerings are to take the creator’s file (in Word or InDesign) and make it accessible in various ebook formats at the front end and then to interact with ebook retailers (delivering the file and capturing the sales information and the revenue) at the other end. The services offered by the retailers themselves (and you can get this help from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) don’t push the ebook out to other ebook retailers. Amazon is the only one to offer a companion print option.

The first mover on these services in the ebook age outside the retailers was Smashwords. They’ve been joined by a host of others. Author Solutions, acquired about a year ago by Penguin, rolled up a number of companies that offered these services in the print-only world that existed before Kindle. They have all come to recognize that publishers provide more than the essential services at each end of the publishing process; they also provide editing and packaging and marketing services in the middle. So these have popped up as discrete offerings — “unbundled” — both through the complete service providers and as stand-alones.

Now there’s an aggregator of the stand-alone service providers, BiblioCrunch, which features a host of freelancers that any author can access. Another fledgling, NetMinds, which has made some news lately by publishing Nolan Bushnell’s book, makes provision of expert services in many categories a part of its model.

This unbundling effect plays out in interesting ways. When Hugh Howey sold the rights to his smash success “Wool” to Random House UK (before he had a US publisher), they worked with Howey and did some editing, including creating an additional chapter, for their edition. Howey took that component of Random House’s work and was able to make it available for the print edition he licensed in the US to Simon & Schuster and then incorporated it into the ebook version he sold himself.

All of this evidence that the publishers’ proposition is being unbundled leads to two strategic observations.

As the services game shifts from “authors” to “entities” (what I call atomization and of which there are new examples just about every single day), there is a critical job description missing from the service offerings. That job is “publisher”. The publisher makes the overall decisions about the editorial, production, and marketing resources that are committed to each book.

In the author services environment, this role can often be useful but would not be missed in many circumstances. There is no “what to publish” decision; the author has a book. There are very limited “resource allocation” decisions because the available resources to allocate are the author’s own.

But as entities of all kind take over from authors as the primary providers of books outside the industry itself, the role of publisher becomes critical. Decisions will need to be made.

There are 26 categories of helper available in BiblioCrunch. “Publisher” is not one of them.

I met last week in Los Angeles with a team of producers and development executives who are acting on an idea I have pushed: that Hollywood can become an important center for fiction book publishing. They have a core resource of thousands of great stories developed in the hopes that they will become a movie that ultimately doesn’t get funded, or as they say out there, “green-lighted”. This team has over 100 projects that are candidates for their book publishing efforts, but they can’t just “do them all”. They have to set up a company, pay to turn scripts into novels (or, at least, narrative stories), and put them into ebook and probably also print book formats. So, they asked me, which ones would you do first?

I said, “I wouldn’t ask me. I’d ask a publisher.” I named two very good and experienced ones immediately who are currently unemployed. These people have vast experience with all the decisions that are required: which stories are most saleable as books, what length the books should be, what style they should be written in, and how they should be titled, packaged, and promoted.

This necessity is even more evident when one thinks about non-fiction entities that might become publishers. If every museum, library, and department of a university is “a publisher waiting to happen” (and I believe all of them are), how could any of them proceed without a publisher?

If you were trying to get a museum started on becoming a book publisher, you’d begin with a discovery process that asked key questions. Who comes to the museum and what do you know about them? Who comes to the museum’s web site and what do you know about them? What IP do you already own that could be publishable as books? What good IP could you lay your hands on if you would publish it as a book? What is your relationship to sources of IP and marketing, like academic institutions, not-for-profits, or other museums? If you asked supporters of your museum for money to fund a publishing program, would they give it to you?

What the publishing program should be in response to the answers to those questions is something only a publisher has real experience figuring out. The publisher is the first service the entity needs. Renting a publisher takes precedence over renting an editor or a cover artist.

Ingram Publisher Services had a great success with a wildly expensive ($625) cookbook series (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Perhaps lost in the reporting of that story is the fact that Myhrvold’s first stop was to engage Bruce Harris, the former Publisher of Harmony Books and a former Random House sales executive. Harris has “publisher” in his DNA, and he undoubtedly shaped key decisions, probably including engaging Ingram in the first place, let alone directing their activites, that were instrumental to the success of the project.

So the first strategic point is that hiring all the services without hiring a publisher is like having a football team without a quarterback.

The second strategic observation is that the industry itself, but particularly the trade component of it, is also being unbundled. Disparate efforts that bookstores aggregated and welded together are now coming apart.

Here I’m not thinking about the value chain for each book, which is overseen by the publisher, but the value chain for the industry, which includes the supply chain. Although there have always been some vertical bookstores — in New York City until a few years ago they ranged from specialists in architecture to specialists in mysteries — most books were sold in general bookstores that sold everything. As publishers are forced to reach readers in different ways than they used to, the subject of a book, and the consistency of audience appeal within a publisher’s list, becomes a key to its marketing in ways it never was.

But ebooks are creating another distinction, between books that are meant to be read from start to finish and all other books: art books, illustrated instruction, references, and compendia. Narrative writing, particularly fiction, works as ebooks. The others don’t. That increasingly encourages publishers who depend primarily on narrative reading to stick to it and to not publish books of other kinds.

It is also creating a differentiated distribution problem for publishers, depending on their output. Publishers of novels and narrative non-fiction are seeing the decline in their print book sales compensated for by increases in their ebook sales. They have a new challenge reaching the audiences and making them aware of their books, but their problem isn’t exacerbated by the format change. Many of their readers simply switch over from print to digital on whatever device they want to use and one-color straight text printing enables reducing the print runs without costs getting completely out of line.

But that’s not true for publishers of other books. As bookstores close and readers switch to digital formats, they face existential questions. They can’t suffer the print run reductions readily. They can’t just make a digital version by copying the print. And, if they did, it won’t sell.

Some illustrated book publishers have robust distribution outside the bookstores, to museums or gift shops, for example. In some cases, the book trade was already a diminishing share of their business before the ebook revolution happened.

But the impact of digital change on publishers that used to all depend together on a healthy bookstore network is very highly variable. Their fates were joined. They’re now being unbundled.

Although the organizing theme of our Pub Launch BEA conference is “scale”, the other trends definitely get their moment. Ken Michaels of Hachette will talk about tools his company has developed that are being unbundled and delivered as services to other publishers. And the particular challenge of the illustrated book publishers as they lose the ability to piggyback on bestseller traffic in bookstores is the subject of the final chunk of the day’s programming. First, Ron Martinez of Aerbook will survey the new tools available to make putting an illustrated book into digital form cheaper and more effective. Then a panel of illustrated book publishers — Joseph Craven (Quarto Group), Tim Greco (Dorling Kindersley), Lindy Humphreys (Abrams), and Mary Ann Naples (Rodale) — will talk about how they are adjusting to the new retailing environment unbundling is creating in a panel discussion moderated by former Crown Illustrated publisher Lauren Shakely.

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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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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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Auletta’s New Yorker piece is good orientation for thinking about the DoJ case


Writing about the lawsuit the DoJ has instituted against Apple and five leading publishers is very hard. It’s a big issue and doing it justice requires navigating two very large and complex bodies of knowledge: anti-trust law and the trade book publishing business. Whenever I write about it, I feel handicapped because I don’t know much except what I’ve read lately about anti-trust law.

I just know the industry. And I know the arguments for “collusion” or “conspiracy” are mostly built on illogic or misunderstanding of what is called “evidence”.

And I know that all prosecutors have the right and responsibility to decide what cases are worth making. It is on that basis that I think the DoJ is terribly wrong in pursuing this case, that the consequences of doing this will be dire for the industry and the reading public, and — again apologizing for not knowing anything about anti-trust law — that this action will lead directly to a real and obvious monopoly which will have to be addressed at some future time.

Except then it will be too late to undo the damage or to rebuild what will have been destroyed.

The June 25, 2012 issue of The New Yorker has an article by Ken Auletta called “Paper Trail” which is a sympathetic synthesis that untangles and clarifies a complex web of law and behavior. Except for a single sentence where Auletta attributes Microsoft’s investment in a new venture jointly owned with Barnes & Noble to be primarily driven by the desire “to produce a more popular tablet computer” (I think there were other motivations that were more important), I don’t take issue with his presentation of the facts.

(Bob Kohn, the founder and CEO of RoyaltyShare, who is a lawyer experienced and knowledgeable about the issues and who filed his own comments with the DoJ, provides an alternative view to those of the legal experts chosen from academia by Auletta. He is surprised that Barry Hawk of Fordham Law School failed to come up with the well-known 1979 BMI v CBS case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, as a relevant precedent, and that Tim Wu of Columbia Law School could not understand the obvious point that Amazon was selling the ebooks at a loss to lock people into their ecosystem, where prices could obviously be raised later. But I’ll leave it to the lawyers to argue the law. On the business side, Auletta’s facts were solid and his choice of interviewees on all sides, quite aside from yours truly, was excellent.)

Reading Auletta inspires me to extend or re-emphasize a few things he said or touched on, some of which I learned from his piece.

I perhaps should have known, but didn’t, that Hachette USA had lobbied the Justice Department to examine Amazon’s predatory practices. (And frankly, had I known, I would never have reported it. I’m not a reporter; I’m an independent synthesizer, analyst, and articulator. There’s a difference.) Auletta reports that Hachette made what should be the very powerful argument that their copyrighted material was being used to sell Kindle devices and “drive bookstores out of business”. The point is accurate (and since Auletta’s reporting on an appeal that was made in 2009, also prescient) but elides an even bigger one.

Kindle was locking people into the Amazon purchasing ecosystem. What publishers saw, very early in the game, really, was that Amazon was aggregating customers that would soon find it difficult to get an ebook from any other source. In the parlance: their switching costs would be high. And they were the industry’s best customers.

(I mean, imagine this! “They’re locking customers into their platform with our books by selling them at a loss!” How would any business react? And do you think you need to “collude” with your competitor to come to the same conclusion? Give me a break.)

I was at the least reminded by Auletta’s piece, though perhaps I should already have been aware, that Apple had stipluated to all the publishers that they wouldn’t open iBookstore unless four of the Big Six were on board. That fact gives rise to a series of obvious observations that surely haven’t been mentioned often enough.

1. If that’s true, then all the chatter about publishers discussing their intentions to proceed is one very large and very red herring. Apple had made it clear that there would be four or no store. That’s all any of them needed to know.

2. How could Apple have proceeded any other way? As it was, the biggest of the Six (Random House) holding out really handicapped iBookstore and the Agency Five. Not only did it give Random House (and Amazon) a whole lot of price-advantaged brand-name-author books (with Random House also collecting the higher wholesale-pricing cut from the retailer), it kept those many desireable titles out of the iBookstore.

Most of the other publishers seemed unimpressed with the share iBookstore took of sales in 2010 even though the Random House books weren’t competing. But everybody was delighted with the additional reading screens delivered by iPads that brought them, as well as Random House, a lot more ebook sales through the other ebook retailers.

I don’t think that iBookstore would have been viable for Apple without four of the Big Six. It was perfectly reasonable for Apple to have made that business determination. It would have been irresponsible of them not to have done the calculation. Is Justice saying that, knowing that, they shouldn’t tell a potential trading partner if they were asked?

If the law actually prohibits this, which seems impossible, please change the law. And if you can’t change the law and if you have to choose which one is a smart one to enforce, this is a good “skip”.

3. A lot has been made of the fact that Apple has required the publishers to let them price-match. Now we know that Apple drove the deal. They said to the publishers, “we’ll let you set the price. as long as you don’t make us look like monkeys in relation to the print book price. But, of course, you can’t require us to sell at a price disadvantage, so you have to allow us to match any lower price.” How could Apple, or anybody else, do it any other way unless they were fools? They couldn’t allow themselves to be locked into a price that made them look extortionate to the consumer. They were proposing the terms on which they’d provide their proprietary access to their devices. Isn’t this a reasonable demand?

If the law prohibits this, please change the law.

I really liked the fact that Auletta emphasized, for the first time in any widely-distributed story I can remember, that the publishers going to agency sacrificed significant revenue by doing so. He quoted agent Simon Lipskar praising them for being far-sighted, willing to accept a hit on their watch to build a sustainable ecosystem. He quoted a CEO who estimated that $100 million was the aggregate hit to profits in a year.

Part of the $100 million that publishers lost provided some of the $200 million that Auletta reports Nook invested in delivering and launching the Color Nook. That’s a consumer benefit provided by the competition that is provided by agency pricing. The same is true of Kobo devices and Amazon devices, which are getting better and better and cheaper and cheaper thanks to the subsidy provided by the sale of publishers’ content.

If the law prohibits this, please change the law.

The most poignant part of the piece to a relative insider was Auletta’s reporting on the much-derided Picholine dinner in September, 2008. David Young of Hachette is reported to have organized it to welcome Markus Dohle, the new CEO of Random House, to New York. Anybody who knows David Young, as I am very pleased to have done for years, will recognize this immediately as the friendly and gracious behavior that is entirely characteristic of him.

As Auletta makes clear, this dinner took place before Apple had even announced it was going into the book business. In fact, I think it was still in the period when the Jobs pronoucement that “people don’t read books” was the prevailing wisdom from Silicon Valley.

And if the law prohibits this, and makes it part of a conspiracy, you’re making me happier than ever that I wrote a book on the New York Knicks instead of going to law school.

Auletta’s piece concludes on a telling, and chilling point. John Sargent spells out how small publishing is in relation to the giants now influencing its fate, which Auletta identified as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Their strategies all involve the book business in some way. Sargent’s observation that books, by which he means the book publishing ecoystem that has built up around paper over the past 300 years, could become “roadkill in a larger war” gives pause.

It is increasingly easy to imagine. And it is worth considering seriously before it is a fait accompli.

It isn’t Amazon’s job to figure out what the book business needs to look like. They’re doing their job, which is to maximize the opportunities for their business as they see them within the rules of the game and the limitations imposed by competition and their trading partners.

Seeing that it isn’t their job means recognizing that it is everybody’s job. A lot of people need a better understanding of what publishing does and is for that to happen. I think the DoJ is making it very clear that smart people with a lay knowledge of the publishing industry routinely misapply what they think they know from other places.

Publishing one book is complicated, although a bit simpler if digital only. Publishing 200,000 books a year, which is what the industry does, is infinitely more complicated and made only more so by digital opportunity. Nobody from some other place — any other place — has entertained equivalent workflow, operational, administrative, and financing complexity.

I think the Auletta piece is valuable because it exposes the lie in the cartoon picture of “Greedy Big Publishing” stiffing the poor novel-reader while the selfless heroes at Kindle fight to save them two or three bucks a book. (And never mind that the price of your reader dropped by 50% because the guys across the street are offering one too.)

It isn’t Amazon’s job to do the PR for the other guys either.

I am speaking on approximately this topic at the 5th Annual GW Ethics & Publishing Conference at George Washington University on Monday, July 9th. 

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The ebook marketplace is a long way from settled


When we put on conferences, we sometimes book speakers because of who they are, or who their company is, but we also do our best to make sure the content of their presentation will be useful to our audience. So I had booked Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of the British ebook startup Anobii, to speak at last January’s Digital Book World 2012 some months before the event for two reasons. For one, I had met Matteo at our Pub Launch London conference last June and he impressed me. And, in addition, his social-network-conscious ebook retailing operation has three major houses — Penguin, HarperCollins, and Random House — as investors.

A couple of weeks before DBW 2012, we got on the phone with Matteo to learn what he wanted to talk about. That’s when he told me he’d call for publishers to give up DRM because, as he saw it, their doing so was the only way he could compete for Kindle customers. As a conference organizer and promoter, I was instantly aware that he was handing us a major news break: a retailer partly owned by three Big Six publishers was calling for the end of DRM! There was some gallows humor on the call about how Matteo would bring his CV (curriculum vitae, which the Brits use more freqently than the American “resume”) along to New York.

But, of course, Matteo wouldn’t have been doing something like that without the knowledge of his owners. So it was not a stretch to draw the inference that three major publishers didn’t mind floating a trial balloon, or perhaps what they were thinking was that it would be good if Amazon knew they’d seriously consider this.

His presentation created a stir, as we knew it would.

But Pottermore created an even bigger stir when they demonstrated how to execute on the “no DRM” strategy, including how to position the big retailers in that context. As we all know now, the threat that Pottermore might be able to load Kindles with Potter books (by selling DRM-free; it would be hard if not impossible for an outside vendor to crack Kindle’s proprietary DRM to load “protected” content on it) persuaded Amazon to play ball. They send Potter ebook buyers over to Pottermore’s site to register and pay and then are willing to take the customer back to load a DRMd ebook file on their Kindle. (Meanwhile, Pottermore enables also loading a Nook file, an iBooks file, and even provides a non-DRMd epub file for more general use, all for the same single purchase.)

Back in the early days of ebooks, which was not a hundred years ago but actually about five, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, invested in the company that became LibreDigital (now owned by Donnelley) because he had a vision that publishers should deliver their own ebook files. Murray’s concern at the time was about piracy and file control. Whatever it was, the ebook retailers (mostly Amazon back then) shot the idea down. No way were they going to trust a publisher, any publisher, to provide service at the level their consumers had been taught to expect from them. So the model we’ve lived with until Pottermore has been that each retailer has its own copy of the publishers’ ebooks, and they serve their customers and account to the publishers for what was sold.

Pottermore pointed the way back to Murray’s original vision.

A few weeks later, Macmillan announced that one segment of its company, tor.com, was going DRM-free, although not jumping into the full Pottermore model of serving the content themselves. (One Macmillan executive told me that they’ve been selling the books of anti-DRM crusader Cory Doctorow without protection for years, including through Amazon.)

Fritz Foy, the Macmillan EVP who oversees digital, is speaking about the DRM decision at our Publishers Launch BEA event on June 4.

Last Friday, the next round in this battle was fired. Berlucchi published a post calling on all the big publishers to copy the Pottermore model, and do it now.

How this will play out depends a bit on what happens with the DRM-free experiments now begun at Pottermore and about to start at Macmillan. If sales of their books collapse under the weight of ubiquitous piracy as a result, it would stop this kind of experimentation dead in its tracks.

It would also surprise a lot of people, including me.

If the net destructive impact on sales is too trivial to be measured compared with the DRMd status quo, then we are bound to see this practice spread, and quickly. And then all the biggest publishers could be compelled to return to Murray’s several-years-old vision with Pottermore’s execution template.

The question for the first publisher that wants to try this will be whether the power of a Big Six publisher to compel Amazon to play along is as great as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise. It’s a really scary thing for them to do. After all, Rowling had zero digital revenue to protect and zero responsibility to anybody else for delivering it. All the major publishers have triple digit millions of dollars of Kindle revenue at stake and thousands of authors counting on them to deliver it.

But with Barnes & Noble now funded (by Microsoft) for battle for the next several years and Kobo and Apple committed to the fight as well, there’s a serious question as to whether Amazon would feel as comfortable going forward without one of the Big Six’s ebooks the way they have been willing to work without those from IPG.

In January 2010, John Sargent and Macmillan had a confrontation with Amazon and the retailing giant was forced to back down. The concessions that Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (and he was, incidentally, recruited to that job from his position as Chief Digital Officer at HarperCollins) extracted from them are nothing short of stunning, but understandable if one considers what the impact of a Harry Potter ebook launch without the titles being available through Amazon would have been. (Oh, the headlines that would have generated!!!)

It’s easy for me to say, because I have nothing at stake, but I think Berlucchi is right. The big publishers can make this happen; it would change the game. I have trouble seeing any potential fly in the ointment for them except whatever would be the dangers of DRM-free. And that should be ascertained pretty well in the next few months.

There are still plenty of twists and turns to come in the evolving ebook marketplace.

It is important to remember that DRM isn’t Amazon’s only advantage or even their principal advantage. I’m not an Amazon fanboy (have you noticed?) and I read on an iPhone, but I buy most of my ebooks from the Kindle store because they offer the best shopping experience I’ve found.

However that (the shopping experience) isn’t a permanent advantage. The Kindle format and DRM are, as long as publishers feel DRM is essential.

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