Nate Hoffelder

The truth is we do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books


In the 1990s, Mark Bide would always begin the “Publishing in the 21st Century” conferences we ran by reviewing the research we had done around some aspect of digital change in publishing with the admonition that book publishing was “many very different businesses.” By that, Mark meant that trade publishers (who sold primarily through bookstores) were quite different from college textbook publishers and schoolbook publishers and sci-tech publishers and database publishers (who did not, and shared different dissimilarities with each other).

All of them were in the “book” business because all of them put their publishing output into bound pages for packaging and sale. But, aside from that, the commonalities in business model were all within the segments of book publishing, not across them. And when we were running these conferences 15 or 20 years ago we wanted our attendees to understand that how digital change might affect trade books might be quite different than how it would affect textbooks or professional books.

This was a continuing lesson. When O’Reilly and Pearson established Safari as a subscription database of books for programmers, it was a successful commercial play that wouldn’t have worked for a publisher of mysteries or biographies. And, indeed, the principal disruption in the trade business over the past decade has been the reduction of retail shelf space, a factor which affects non-trade publishers very little.

It has been suspected in these quarters for quite some time that the trade business was, on its own, going to demonstrate that it is actually many different businesses. That fact may now be manifesting itself in visible ways.

Last week Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader pointed my eyeballs at a story from the UK about a very prominent gardening author who, at age 85, has decided to stop writing gardening books because he believes his audience now gets that information from the Web, not from books.

Dr. David Hessayon created the Experts series of gardening guides and has been delivering more and more of them for over five decades, distributed in the UK by a division of Random House. But his sales figures and his insight into digital change tell him that “the how-to-do-it book has lost its absolute supremacy. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something that you can’t look up on Google.”

Hoffelder offered his take on this.

Then, entirely coincidentally, came this very much related story in Monday’s New York Times. The Times focused on the efforts, of which there are many, to create something different than a straight “conversion” for an ebook, or simply moving what was on a page to a screen. The reporter spoke to some of publishing’s leading pioneers around that problem. The confusion, in the industry and in this piece, is that the pioneers aren’t tackling the same problem. Peter Brantley, a library-rooted digital pioneer identified for his role organizing the Books in Browsers conference, talks about the limitations of the printed book in constraining how stories can be told. I am skeptical about what productive results can come from pursuing that possible opportunity. My sentiments are much closer to what was expressed by Peter Meyers of Citia, who said “a lot of these solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need. We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.”

(I worked with Pete Meyers on a project a few years ago and some useful videos resulted.)

That said, it is no surprise that the program from Citia is highly practical, breaking complex non-fiction books into “cards” representing the ideas inside the book. Inkling has used a similar approach to make ebooks from how-to books, including creating an online bookstore from which to sell them. (Inkling has also made the point that the “card” paradigm also makes the content more discoverable, by making the cards themselves searchable and discoverable.) The “how-to” ebookstore is definitely an idea on the right track, but it will take a while to build enough awareness and traffic to find out whether the ebooks will sell in sufficient numbers for people to make money.

The books Citia applies its thinking to — idea-oriented books like Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” — are quite different from the how-to crafts and photography and cooking books Inkling is featuring. And they’re miles from novels, maybe light years from the more inventive replacements for the print novel that Peter Brantley is thinking about.

The Times piece focuses on the fact that the attempts to “change” the digital version of the book from what the printed version was — with interactivity or social or visual elements — have universally failed commercially. This is true. The piece Nate Hoffelder was inspired to write poses a more useful query than whether publishers can invent new forms that will work commercially: “Is the Internet a Greater Threat to Publishers than Self-Pub eBooks?”

But neither gets to the extension of the point Mark Bide made repeatedly two decades ago. Now it is the trade book business which is showing it is many book businesses, a fact that is being revealed by the shift to digital. And publishers are increasingly realizing the truth of this and that they have to focus on that fact as they plan their futures.

Here’s the simple fact that none of these three articles say. We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that digital versions of narrative immersive reading — which I define as books you read from page one to page last — if made reflowable will satisfy the vast majority of the book’s print audience. Some people have switched to devices and some haven’t. Some stubbornly prefer printed books. Some find reading on a phone too cramped or reading on a computer too confining. But almost everybody finds reading on an ereader to be quite satisfactory (even if they don’t find it preferable to print). And if the book reflows and you can pick your type size, the ways it could have been improved but wasn’t always (seamless note-taking ability, improved navigation, ability to share) don’t interfere with your personal reading enjoyment. So these books have “worked” commercially as ebooks, particularly since the cost of getting to a digital version is trivial.

However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book. (And with all due respect to Philip Jones of The Bookseller, whose piece on this subject is much more “on point” than the other three, pointing as he does to what Pottermore has done and can do is hardly a prototype for a dedicated book publisher.) How-to books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Reference books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Cookbooks haven’t sold well as ebooks. If you dip in and out; if you rely on illustrations (which maybe should be videos); if your book is just filled with pretty pictures; then there is no formula for a digital version that has demonstrated mass commercial appeal. There have been successes, but they seem to be novelties (e.g. Touch Press) or on a much smaller scale than would warrant major publishers getting into this business (e.g. a small art press like MAPP Editions can claim success with 1,000 copies sold).

And even though companies like Inkling and Aptara and Aerbook are doing their best to make the process cheaper and easier, making an ebook of a complex book is going to cost more and take more creative bandwidth and, in some cases, entirely new skillsets from the publisher (and perhaps the author) than the conversion of a novel. A complementary challenge is how these books translate to online sales. Narrative fiction and non-fiction sells well online, whether in print or digital form (so, those “stubborn” print readers are still satisfied). It’s a heavier lift to sell print illustrated how-to, art, and reference books online.

What this means is that the digital future for narrative reading — fiction and non-fiction — is much clearer than it is for any other kind of book. Publishers of novels can apparently count on their sales shifting from print to digital and from in-store to online without losing a lot of readers. And with not much in the way of conversion costs, publishers of these books can proceed with their development with some confidence that the changes in publishing’s landscape and ecosystem won’t throw the calculations they are making for future profits on today’s acquisitions into a cocked hat.

But publishers of everything else have no basis for similar confidence.

No general publisher that I’m aware of has announced “we won’t do illustrated books anymore”. I have purely anecdotal evidence from people who once worked there and left that Random House — the one publisher I know that really tried to convert a lot of its illustrated content to ebooks over the past few years — is de-emphasizing illustrated book publishing. I have been given to understand that one of the leading art book publishers is now doing more straight text publishing, which is sensible if art books don’t port to digital.

As for Dr. Hessayon, I know what I’d suggest if he were my consulting client. With digital content about gardening that has been being created since 1958, the chances are very good that he has a database of information that could constitute a whole new resource for gardeners in the 21st century. Perhaps there is a publisher who can do something with that, but it is perhaps more likely that a producer of seeds or fertilizer or a garden center retailer would have just read an article on the Internet about “content marketing” and see Hessayon’s last half-century of work as a great jumping off point for a new offering for the next half-century. The good doctor is right that “books” are no longer the best commercial form for monetizing a lot of information, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t valuable, if it is delivered in different sized chunks under a different commercial model.

It would certainly appear from his experience that he’s concluded that the publishers’ distribution network no longer fits his content and its presentation. Unfortunately for today’s publishing incumbents, there are other skills that are required to be a good book publisher which also may no longer have commercial relevance for that content. So the question for publishers is whether their skills and assets are right for whatever will be the new way to present this kind of content. The answer — except for long-form reading — is not self-evident.

But, of course, publishers of illustrated and other complex books have to keep trying to find a solution that works and the only way to do that is to keep creating new digital products out of their books. A panel of people who can help them do that effectively and efficiently — Pavan Arora of Aptara, Gus Gostyla of Inkling, Ron Martinez of Aerbook, and Bill Kasdorf of Apex Covantage — will discuss the topic “Crossing the Chasm: Finding Digital Solutions for Non-Narrative Content”, moderated by industry veteran David Wilk at Digital Book World on January 14.

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Rethinking what’s happening with ebook prices


Could I have gotten the DoJ impact on ebook pricing completely wrong? Could the elimination of the Apple-mandated pricing bands actually be such a good thing for publishers that loosening the restraints on discounting won’t actually disrupt the marketplace?

The early evidence seems to point that way although we need to emphasize the word “early”.

What Cader was the first to write publicly (and which he told me in conversation before he posted it, but obviously it didn’t sink in) was that the publishers’ ability to raise ebook prices and ignore those bands offered a powerful antidote to the retailers’ ability to offer discounts.

The first reports when HarperCollins titles showed up on Amazon and other ebook retailers with discounts didn’t focus on the fact that the base price before the discounts had gone up on many of their titles.

Cader did the work required for sound analysis: grabbing Harper list prices from their site (showing that they had “re-banded” their prices higher, so that discounting up to 30% wouldn’t change consumer prices much from what they’d been) and doing price checks at a number of accounts.

The price checks contradicted my initial speculation about pricing in another way. I thought Apple would be challenged to keep up here; in fact, they were sometimes the low-price leader, undercutting (at the moment Cader took his soundings) Amazon on several titles.

So, with your usually-trusty sentinel now awakened to the reasonably obvious (I’m embarrassed to say; this is a circumstance that frequently provokes me to point out that it is not uncommon for smart people to do dumb things) strategy that the publishers would just set the agency prices higher, here’s what to keep in mind going forward.

1. We will for the forseeable have a trifurcated ebook supply chain. Assuming Hachette and S&S employ Harper’s strategy of setting prices higher so that the retailer discounting just brings them down to about where agency had originally set them, we will have a) three agency lite (again, hat tip to Cader for that description) publishers with higher retail prices being discounted; b) three “true” agency publishers with lower retail prices that, for a while at least, no retailer can tinker with; and c) everybody else, mostly selling “wholesale” at even higher listed prices but providing 2/3 more margin to the stores to use for discounting.

This raises the question of why any publisher would stick with wholesale terms — which requires setting a totally unrealistic retail price — unless they faced players in the supply chain that wouldn’t agree to sell their ebooks without getting 50% of the listed price. Eliminating the MFN (uniform prices across ebook retailers) makes the principal distinction between agency and wholesale that agency ebooks carry are assigned a sensible and defensible retail price by the publisher and wholesale-model books aren’t. (And this is still true with the price increases, although a little less true.)

2. The discounts that were shown on the Harper books (also researched by Cader) tended to be 5%, 10%, 20%, 25%, or 30% off the publisher price, or else the trusty old $9.99. This is simple, probably human-set, pricing. It also doesn’t begin to test the upper limits of what retailers can do in discounting. They’re allowed to discount a particular publisher’s ebooks up to the total margin they earn across the list. So for a 30% agency publisher, all the books being sold at positive margin (anything from less than 30% off to full price) contribute to their ability to discount below cost on other books, if they want to.

3. The settling publishers have some significant advantages over their competitors. They’re not restricted by the Apple-mandated price bands. Because they raised prices, they’re getting more per unit sold and because the retailers are taking less margin, they’re not being made less competitive to the customers.

4. Random House, which gained enormously in the year following Agency implementation by staying at wholesale — keeping their unit revenues higher and their retail prices lower than other big players — now finds itself on the other end of that stick. They, along with continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin, now see the settling publishers have taken over that position of competitive advantage. (Of course, all of these publishers can reconsider their pricing and terms strategies whenever their current contracts with retailers conclude.)

5. I had speculated that Apple would find it hard to compete. The first returns say I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced yet. Managing the discounting on just the newly-liberated Harper titles could be done by hand; it’s not that many titles. And Amazon hasn’t pushed aggressively on this. (Pushing aggressively would mean discounting many titles more than 30%.) I still believe they will (although others, notably Chris Meadows at The Digital Reader, thinks they won’t.) If Amazon pushes the envelope on discounting, then it will take bots and algorithms to keep up.

6. A couple of years ago, an Amazon executive told me that they deep-discounted 4% of the titles which amounted to 25% of the sales. I’d assume that the discounting the retailers would want to be doing now would extend across a similar title band. What we’re now seeing is a surrender of, usually, a third or two-thirds of their margin on that group of titles. Giving up two-thirds of margin on 25% of sales would only constitute a sacrifice of 16.7% of total margin. If that’s where it stops, then the net immediate impact of the DoJ suit would be a rise in revenues for publishers, a not-disruptive reduction in margin for retailers, and something pretty close to price neutrality for consumers.

Note that if a retailer chose to accept negative 20% margin on that same 25% of the sales of any particular publisher’s (selling at about 50% below the publisher’s listed retail price), they’d still be in compliance with the settlement’s mandate to not give away more margin on a publisher’s list than they earned. (This is a slightly dodgy comparison because much more than 25% of the Big Six lists would fall into the 25% of the total that Amazon previously deep-discounted.)

It would take that kind of discounting to be disruptive. I think it is important to remember that the smaller reason publishers were concerned about Amazon’s deep-discounting was the impact they had on shifting sales from print to digital. The larger reason was the fear that the discounting would give them such a huge market share that they’d be able to dictate terms. If the levels of discounting that occur don’t contribute significantly either to creating economic hardship for the other players or growing Amazon’s share, it won’t be of much concern to publishers.

7. Every publisher except the remaining pure agency players are actually counting on the stores to discount their ebooks. The wholesale-priced ones were always set at levels that would look ridiculous to most consumers and now the agency lite players are similarly relying on the retailers making a margin sacrifice to keep their pricing competitive.

I still don’t think it will stay this way. I will admit in advance that I will be utterly amazed if Amazon lets Apple, or anybody else, steal their spot as the perceived low-cost provider. But in the earliest moments of this new ebook era we’re not seeing the discounting that I expected. And we’re not getting the result that was presumably what the DoJ sought: lower prices for consumers.

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