Nook

If Amazon pricing of ebooks is the problem, is agency actually the right solution?


In the past week, I’ve had conversations with leading executives at two of Amazon’s competitors in the ebook space. They had strikingly different takes on whether the agency pricing regime, which is now in place by contract with all five of the biggest trade publishers, helps keep competitive balance in the ebook marketplace or prevents it.

Agency pricing was promulgated by Apple for the opening of the iBookstore in 2010. What it meant was that publishers would set a price that was “enforced” across the retail network. Apple liked this because it meant both that they didn’t have to price-compete with Amazon and because they didn’t have to think about pricing hundreds of thousands of items on a daily basis. (And it fit the model Apple used to sell other media.) Publishers liked it because they feared the erosion of print sales that cheap ebooks might lead to and because it seemed that level prices might reduce what was then Amazon’s stranglehold on the ebook market.

As we know, the Department of Justice interceded because they saw the Apple-publisher agreements as collusive. The DoJ cares most about price; discounting is a good thing unless it is “predatory”. If companies get together to prevent low prices, that’s clearly bad. So the short-term remedy was to enable retailers to discount off agency prices. That pretty immediately stopped the decline in Amazon’s ebook market share, which started to grow again once discounting was reinstated.

Now the big publishers have replaced the original agency agreements with new ones that appear satisfactory to the court because they were obviously separately negotiated. And the new ones seem to allow at least some of them more flexibility to set and enforce higher prices than the numbers in the original Apple-promulgated deals. And all of that has led to a reconfigured marketplace.

The good news for the publishers is that print sales erosion — at least for the moment — seems to have been stopped. (Print sales started to grow even before “new Agency”; when higher prices hit the ebook market, print was immediately assisted.) A variety of industry and company sales statistics seem persuasive on that point. The percentage of revenues coming from ebooks for big publishers has declined and the sales of print have risen. And there is even some anecdotal evidence suggesting that bookstore retail shelf space is increasing again. Even if that is true, it is an open question whether it is sustainable, or whether it is a delayed and temporary marketplace response to the shuttering of 400 giant Borders stores, which occurred in 2011. Bookstores might also be helped by the diminishing book shelf space at mass merchants, a venue where print continues to lose ground.

But there is also some good news for Amazon in how all this has worked out. Their market share on the ebook side is rising. Their margins on the ebook side must have gone up even more, since they’re being “forced” to keep the margin they earn on Big Five ebook sales. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if Amazon’s internal calculations are that they can afford more losses on their Kindle Unlimited subscription program because of the margin they’re earning on the Big Five single-title sales? We can only guess…) And certainly Amazon benefits from the increased sales of print.

In fact, they could be partly responsible for it. All the searches on Amazon for Big Five books show an agency-priced ebook with a highly-discounted print book, often cheaper than the ebook, alongside of it. How much of the print book sales increase is due to the reaction of consumers being presented with that choice?

(Let’s remember how much of a “better deal” it is for the consumer to buy print if the prices are the same or close. The print book can decorate a bookshelf. It can be resold, which the ebook can’t be, or at least can’t be yet.)

Only Barnes & Noble can even attempt to meaningfully compete with Amazon in this environment. The price-sensitive book consumer needs to see both the ebook and the print book to make a wise purchasing decision. They won’t see that at Kobo, Google, or Apple’s iBookstore.

So competing with Amazon on price is confined to B&N on print and confined to non-agency titles — which means only a sliver of the bestseller list — for everybody else. So, is everybody happy? Publishers are selling more print, which they wanted. There’s growth in the indie store base, which publishers also wanted. But Amazon continues to grow market share in relation to Barnes & Noble and now threatens to open bookstores to compete with B&N and the indies. And that is most definitely not what publishers wanted.

Is there any way to achieve both robust competition for Amazon and also to protect print books from being cannibalized by much cheaper ebooks?

The conversations I had this past week with two of the competitors to Amazon surfaced diametrically opposite opinions about whether agency was helpful or not in that regard.

One ebook executive suggested that the Big Five publishers should stick to the agency pricing margin but should do it on wholesale pricing terms. That person encouraged me to think through this proposition: what if those ebooks were sold to the accounts at 70 percent of the publisher’s price (or even a bit more), but without any restrictions on discounting?

The other believes that price-competing with Amazon is a game that is impossible to win and that there is clear evidence from the experience in the UK market, where several ebook players tried to undercut Amazon on price, that it is not an effective strategy.

The advocate for the wholesale model, which would allow discounting by retailers up to whatever the authorities decide is “predatory” (and that definition is anything but clear), believes that Amazon is being given a free ride. Of their competitors, it would seem that only Google and Apple would have the deep pockets to fight Amazon by sacrificing margin, but either of them certainly could and it would certainly be, at the very least, a big nuisance to Amazon if they did.

This raises again the question of what discounting would be permissible before the discounting would be labeled “predatory”. There is no definitive answer. Some believe that retailers are not permitted to discount below their own cost (although, even then, it is not clear whether that means on a per-title basis or across all their ebook purchases and sales or some other basis). By that interpretation, if an ebook were listed at $15.99 and sold at a wholesale price of $11.19 (70 percent), there could be a legal risk that pricing below that point could be considered “predatory”. In fact, ebook pricing flexibility is such that publishers could make that same ebook $18.99 for the first month ($13.29 wholesale), when the print is fighting for bestseller status.

(It should be noted here that Amazon sold Kindle ebooks at well below cost in the days before they had competition, as a carrot to get customers to buy Kindle e-readers, which were originally priced at $400. By doing so, they made the reader-and-content equation attractive to the people who bought the most books. The DoJ and Judge Cote said that Amazon’s pricing at that time was not predatory, but the Supreme Court could, at least theoretically, change that understanding. And, in fact, Amazon has continued to behave as though the $9.99 price point is the “right” ceiling for ebooks, even as the device-and-content equation has changed with considerably lower Kindle device prices and a plethora of multi-function devices having changed the market.)

Big 5 players going to wholesale could change the ebook marketplace in two ways. One is that it would unleash Google and Apple — both of which have plenty of cash — to discount aggressively to compete with Amazon. At the very least, that would diminish Amazon’s margin as they compete on price and it might also reduce their unit sales. It could also lead to the smaller publishers now selling wholesale to attempt to reduce their discounts. And that could lead to Amazon using its market power to resist a reduction in margin. That could be construed as an abuse of marketplace power, which is another test for anti-trust.

An anti-trust lawyer explained it to me this way. The analysis is more nuanced than just looking at whether prices are lowered. Generally, the antitrust enforcers do look favorably on practices that result in lower prices.

That being said, the goal of antitrust is broader: it is to protect the competitive process. It can get complicated in two-sided or multi-sided markets where prices might be low on one side of the market, but the platform uses its power on the other side of the market to harm competition. In the case of Amazon, one side of the market faces the consumer and the other faces the publisher.

It’s particularly problematic if the conduct locks in participants, raises barriers to entry, or results in the platform extracting more than its fair share on the other side of the market.

By that measure, perhaps the most problematic aspect of Amazon’s commercial terms could be the requirement for exclusivity to be part of the Kindle Unlimited subscription program. That keeps titles away from competitors.

But going to wholesale is not viewed as a solution by all of Amazon’s competitors. One of them thinks having agency in the marketplace is a big boon to competition. That executive saw the UK market as a “test bed”, because over the last three years a number of companies have tried deep discounting to buy share. It was tried pre-agency and during the post DoJ “agency lite” period. From this executive’s perspective, the results of those efforts make discounting looks like a pretty futile competitive strategy.

Unlike the “wholesale” advocate who thought the agency publishers were helping Amazon by preventing price competition from the other deep-pocketed players, this executive presented a completely different analysis. By their lights, market share comes from two sources.

Access to cost-effective customer acquisition sources. Amazon and B&N have their own existing customer bases. Kobo has retail partners. Apple and Google have pre-loaded apps and registered customers for iTunes and Android. So everybody has a pool of customers to draw on. (We pegged this as an advantage Scribd had over Oyster when those two companies started selling ebook subscriptions.)

Then the trick is to retain customers and capitalize on lifetime value.

What this executive believes is that price-cutting as a way to recruit customers is a fool’s errand. The customers who come aboard for a cheap deal will abandon you just as fast for somebody else’s cheap deal. They don’t stick. On the other hand, offering pricing advantages based on customer loyalty is a better bet. This player thinks that having agency in the market makes it easier to hold onto customers once a platform has acquired them. As evidence, that person pointed to the loss of market share by Nook that occurred once the DoJ restored discounting under agency.

It has seemed to me from the very beginning that making ebook discounts mirror print book discounts was a major strategic mistake by publishers. The two products are not comparable from the standpoint of the store’s economics. Stores don’t have to buy ebooks in advance. There is no “shrinkage”; they don’t get lost or stolen. They don’t have to be handled. Rent doesn’t have to be paid on the space they occupy before they’re sold. With such a different commercial reality, aggressive discounting by retailers should have been a predicted outcome when they were given so much more margin than they needed to operate.

So the division of the customer’s dollar instituted by agency is more appropriate to ebook realities and probably takes things back to where they should have started.

The wholesale versus agency question is more complicated. But it does certainly seem like the time would be right for one of the Big Five publishers to break ranks, as Random House did when agency was originally instituted, in their own selfish interest. They’d achieve what Random House did then (before the Penguin merger): collecting the same or a higher price from the retailers and seeing them peddled to the public at a lower price. (Of course, nobody is doing this anytime soon. The current round of agency contracts which went into effect over the past two years still have some years to run.)

The same executive who analyzed the marketplace for me offered another observation that really matters. Less than half of the reading public has made the switch from reading print to reading digitally. There are a lot more future converts left in the pool. There is a lot of ebook growth left for retailers whether they’re attracting their competitors’ customers or not.

And so it would seem that the stability we now see in the ebook market is a temporary thing.

Thanks to Teleread for the Q&A with me they just posted.

And Digital Book World is just around the corner. I hope we’ll see you there.

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Now Kings of ebook subscription, what will impede the ebook share growth for Amazon?


With the news this morning that Scribd has thrown in the towel on unlimited ebook subscriptions, Amazon is the last player standing with an “all-you-can-eat” ebook subscription offer for a general audience. The juxtaposition of the publishers’ insistence on being paid full price for ebooks being lent once and the late Oyster’s and the now thrice-hobbled Scribd’s (they did a reduction of their romance offering last summer and then cut back on audiobooks to stem prior waves of over-consumption) pursuit of customers with an unlimited-use offer was always doomed. The only hope for the subscription services was that they would grow so fast that publishers wouldn’t be able to live without their eyeballs and would relent on the sale price.

That didn’t happen.

When Digital Reader reported the Scribd news this morning (the first place I learned of it, although I learned a lot more when I saw the Pub Lunch account an hour or two later), they also linked back to a story I’d missed in October explaining that Amazon was fiddling with what they put in their own unlimited sub offer, Kindle Unlimited.

Because Amazon couldn’t get cooperation from agency publishers (which, at a prohibitive and ultimately suicidal price, Oyster and Scribd did), they exploited their ability to deliver ebooks from the non-agency publishers to the max. Or, they did that at first. What Nate Hoffelder of Digital Reader uncovered last Fall was that Amazon was selectively removing those titles as they saw fit, which lowered their costs. (The information that led to this discovery was originally posted as a comment by Kensington’s CEO Steve Zacharius on this blog.)

A lot, if not most, of what Kindle Unlimited “lends” are ebooks compensated for by a “pool” of cash Amazon puts in each month. The size of that pool is solely determined by them and the per-page compensation for those books has inched downwards. Nonetheless, in the aggregate it amounts to a lot of money that is available only to ebook “publishers” (usually indie authors) who give Amazon an exclusive ebook license for the title. The publisher can sell print and audio elewhere, but if they want to share in the KU pool their ebook has to be Kindle only.

The disruptive news that I had missed last October is that a handful of smaller publishers — not just indie authors — are now seeing it as financially beneficial to be Kindle-only for ebooks.

This next bit is reporting what is still a rumor. But I have just been told by somebody who would know that Barnes & Noble will be withdrawing Nook from the UK market. That news is unrelated to the subscription business, but it is additional good news for Amazon.

For anybody concerned about a diverse ebook marketplace, these are ominous developments. With both the biggest ecosystem and the deepest pockets, Amazon can afford to continue to reward ebook copyright owners with increased compensation for exclusivity. As their share grows, it will be increasingly tempting for ebook publishers, be they indie authors or something a bit larger, to take the higher rewards for cutting out the other ebook vendors. And so Kindle progressively builds a better catalog than any of its ebook competitors. Which leads to more market share.

Etcetera. Or, in the modern parlance, “rinse and repeat”.

With Kindle Unlimited now the only “unlimited” ebook subscription play left (although Scribd can still claim a better selection of titles, at least for a while longer), presumably its market share will also continue to grow. As that happens, even big publishers may start to see financial benefits in putting some titles from their backlist into it. (Who knows? Authors, working on a percentage of the ebook revenues, might start insisting on it!) If and when that starts, the challenge for iBooks, Nook, Kobo, and Google to maintain a competitive ebook title offering will escalate.

Presumably, there is some percentage of the ebook market that Kindle could control that would lead to anti-trust concerns. Their share has been growing almost inexorably since the Department of Justice and Judge Cote put their thumbs on the scale a few years ago to punish the publishers and Apple for what they saw as price-fixing.

We will look for enlightenment on this subject from anti-trust attorney Jonathan Kanter at Digital Book World. Is there any percentage of the ebook market that if one entity controlled it would constitute a prima facie monopoly that calls for government action? Or even of the total book market, including print?

Even before we get to whether they plan 100 or 400 bookstores beyond the one they’ve got and the one more they are apparently planning, it is hard to see what will impede the growth of Amazon’s ebook market share. Inexorable growth by Amazon? That’s a topic we’ve been thinking about for years.

I was kicking this post around with Pete McCarthy before publishing it. I’m really struck by a point he made to me. Pete points out that buying and owning units of content has become anachronistic behavior for music and video. Kids today don’t stuff their own iTunes repository. They eventually move from streaming YouTube to subscribing to Spotify. (And that’s why Apple started Apple Music.) Nobody buys videos anymore; we just subscribe to Netflix or take temporary custody of content through an “on demand” service.

So book publishers are probably fighting a rearguard action trying to perpetuate the “own-this-content” model, particularly at relatively higher prices than they could command last year or five years ago.

Of course, that’s what Scribd and Oyster were thinking about when they built their repositories and committed themselves to invest to build a user base. Oyster ran out of time. Scribd has had to trim their sails. Subscriptions seemed like a natural business for Google, but they haven’t gotten into it. (Although they hired much of the Oyster staff, so perhaps that’s a chapter not yet written.)

But Amazon continues with Kindle Unlimited, able to shift their economics without disrupting their business. And, if Pete McCarthy’s insight about the direction of consumer behavior must inevitably extend to books — and renting access to a repository becomes the dominant model replacing owning-your-content — that’s another way they’re better positioned than anybody else to dominate the last mile of book distribution in the years to come. Publishers should always be aware that it’s a risky business to have a business model that contradicts the trends in consumer behavior.

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Can crowd-sourced retailing give Amazon a run for its money?


Although it has always seemed sensible for publishers to sell their books (and then ebooks) directly to end users, it has never looked to me like that could be a very big business. In the online environment, your favorite “store” — the one you’re loyal to and perhaps even have an investment in patronizing (which is how I’d characterize Amazon PRIME) — is only a click away. So however you learn about a book (or anything else), it is very easy to switch over to your vendor of choice to make the purchase.

There is a concept called “the fallacy of last click attribution” that is important in digital marketing. You don’t want to assume that the place somebody bought something (the last click) was the place they decided to buy it (attribution). If you’re a marketer, you want to aim your messages where the decision gets made and you need to know if that wasn’t where the purchase was made. You learn quickly that the two are often not the same.

There are a variety of reasons why direct sales are hard for publishers. One is that their best retailer customers — Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, but many others as well — don’t like their turf encroached upon by their suppliers and they have power over their suppliers’ access to customers. They particularly don’t like it if suppliers compete on price.

But it isn’t just publishers who have trouble competing with the online book retailers and ebooks are just as hard as print. On the ebook side, many readers are comfortable with specific platforms — Kindle, Nook, Kobo — and are uncomfortable “side-loading” content into them. And when you get away from the owner of an ecosystem, the complications created by the perceived need for DRM — some ability to either lock up or identify the owner of content that might be “shared” beyond what its license (which is what a purchase of ebooks is) allows — makes things even more complicated.

Because it appears so superficially simple to transact with trusted customers, attempts to enable book and ebook sales by a wide variety of vendors are nearly as old as Amazon itself. In fact, Amazon began life in 1995 leaning almost entirely on Ingram to supply its product and began discounting in earnest when Ingram started to extend the same capability to other retailers through a division called I2S2 (Ingram Internet Support Services) in the late 1990s. The aggressive discounting by Amazon quickly and effectively scared off the terrestrial retailers who might have considered going into online sales.

When one company, a UK-based retailer called The Book Depository, organized itself to fulfill print books efficiently enough to be a potential competitor, Amazon bought them. Nobody else ever really came close. Borders didn’t try, initially turning over its online presence to Amazon. Barnes & Noble partnered with Bertelsmann in the 1990s to create Books Online, which has continued (to this day) as BN.com. But they have not (to date) managed to achieve a synergistic interaction with the stores to give themselves a unique selling proposition. And the Amazon discounting strategy, designed to suck sales away from terrestrial retailers and partly supported by Amazon’s reach well beyond books, was never a comfortable fit for BN. As a result, Amazon has never been threatened as the online bookselling king.

Barnes & Noble dominates physical retail for books; Amazon owns online. One channel is shrinking; the other is growing.

Trying to do retail for print books without a substantial infrastructure is just about impossible, but ebooks are tempting because, at least superficially, those challenges appear to be much smaller. That may have been behind the attempt by three publishers — Penguin (before the Random House merger), Hachette, and Simon & Schuster — to launch Bookish a few years ago. By the time it opened, Bookish was touted as a “recommendation engine”, but its true purpose when it was started was to give its owning publishers a way to reach online consumers in case of an impasse with Amazon. They get points for predicting the impasse, which Hachette famously suffered from during ebook contract negotiations with Amazon in 2014. But the solution wasn’t a solution. Bookish never had the juice to build up a real customer base and probably never could have, regardless of how much its owners would have been willing to invest.

There are currently two noteworthy players in the market enabling any player with a web presence to have an ebookstore selling everybody’s titles. One is Zola Books, which started out two or three years ago promoting itself as a new kind of web bookstore. They were going to let anybody create their own curated collection of books and profit from their curation. And they were going to host unique content from brand name writers that wouldn’t be available anywhere else. It didn’t work, and now Zola, having acquired much of the defunct Bookish’s tech, is trying to be an enabler of online ebookstores for anybody who wants one.

That same idea is the proposition of Hummingbird, an initiative from American West Books, a California-based wholesaler that provides books to leading mass merchants. They have created technology to enable anybody with a web presence to sell ebooks. The company told us that their internal projections suggest that they can capture 3% of the US ebook market in 24 months from their imminent launch. They promise an impressive array of resellers, ranging from major big box retailers (many of which are their customers for books) to major publishers themselves.

There are others in the space, providing white label platforms and other direct sales solutions, including Bookshout, Enthrill, Bluefire, and Impelsys. And there are distributors, etc. who support their clients’ D2C efforts — Firebrand, Donnelly/LibreDigital, Demarque.

Then, yesterday (Tuesday) morning, Ingram announced that they have acquired Aer.io, a technology firm based in San Francisco headed by Ron Martinez. The Ingram-Aer.io combination will probably motivate the owners of Zola and Hummingbird to rethink their strategies. It is motivating me to reconsider whether, indeed, a large number of Net points of purchase for books could change the nature of the marketplace.

Disclosure is appropriate here. Ingram has been a consulting client of ours for many years. In that role, I introduced them to Aerbook, the predecessor to Aer.io, two or three years ago and I knew that Ingram had invested in it. But I didn’t know about the integration the two were working on until literally moments before they announced the merger on Tuesday. It is extremely powerful.

What Martinez and Ingram have built with a simple, elegant set of tools is the ability for anybody — you, me, a bookstore, a charity, a school, an author — to build its own branded and curated content store. You can “stock” it with any items you want from the millions of books and other content items Ingram offers. You can set any prices you want, working with a normal retail margin and paying “by the drink” for the services you need, namely management of the transaction and fulfillment. And while there is certainly “effort” involved in building your selection and merchandising, there are no up-front or recurring charges to discourage anybody from getting into the game.

One of our observations in the past couple of years has been that Amazon’s competitive set is limited because most of their ebook competitors don’t sell print books. It seemed to me that the one chance to restrain their growth — and every publisher and bookseller that is not Amazon would like to do that — was for Google to get serious about promoting and selling print as well as ebooks. But that won’t happen. Google is a digital company and they’re interested in doing all they can with digital media. They don’t want to deal with physical, even — as I suggested — doing it by having Ingram do the heavy lifting.

Whether any publishers or booksellers or other merchants or entities can build a big-and-profitable business selling books using the Aer.io tool remains to be seen. But it would seem that many can build a small-and-not-unprofitable sideline to their current activities and it would be one that would underscore their knowledge, promote their brand, and provide real value to their site visitors and other stakeholders. Thousands of these businesses could be consequential; millions could be game-changing. How many will there be? That’s impossible for me to predict, but the Aer.io proposition is totally scaleable, so the answer depends entirely on how enticing it is for various entities with web traffic and brands to have a bookstore.

And, depending on the uptake here, there will be some strategic conversations taking place around this at Amazon as well. When they have a handful of competitors selling print and ebooks, as they have, price-matching (or price-undercutting) can be an effective, and targeted, strategy. But how do you implement that when there are thousands of competitors, some of which are discounting any particular title and many of which are not? And does the customer care if they’re paying a couple bucks more to buy the book “directly” from their favorite author, particularly if the author offers a hand-signed thank-you note will be sent (separately, of course) to acknowledge every purchase?

How this will play out is something to watch over the next few years but there is at least the potential here for a real change in the game.

We already had John Ingram, Chairman and CEO of the Ingram Content Group slotted as a keynote speaker for Digital Book World 2016 to talk about one of our main themes: “transformation”. More than half of Ingram’s revenues come from businesses they weren’t in 10 years ago. We’ll see how things look as they start to roll out Aer.io, but it would seem likely Aer.io would be an appropriate add to the program as well.

If you haven’t signed up yet for DBW (which runs March 7-9), the Publishers Lunch code gets you the lowest price.

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Barnes and Noble results and the latest news from Perseus


The most recent Barnes & Noble financial results — which appear to have discouraged Wall Street investors — aren’t good news for the book business. They show that the sale of books through their stores is flat at best, as is the shelf space assigned to books. And it would take a particularly optimistic view of their NOOK results to see anything but an accelerating slide to oblivion for what was, for a time a few years ago, the surging challenger to Kindle.

It is safe to say that every book publisher wants a healthy Barnes & Noble. I asked the CEO of one large publisher recently whether the touted recent growth of independent bookstores was making up for the loss a few years ago of Borders. The response was “not even close”. Less dramatic than all the Borders stores going out at one time is that B&N must logically be reducing its shelf space for books, since some stores — though not many — are closing and the presence of toys and games is growing in those that remain.

In some ways, changes in the merchandise mix makes sense. Borders and B&N were, for quite some time, in a competition to provide the greatest possible in-store selection. With Borders out and most indies a fraction of the size of superstores, B&N can have the biggest selection available to most consumers with fewer titles in stock than they had before. (They do not publish any data that shows makes it explicit that there is a reduced title selection. One can only intuit that from the fact that other products have a growing presence and that some publishers report anecdotally that midlist is harder to place in the stores.) In any case, since the slowest-selling books are really barely selling at all, it would make sense that replacing them with other products could add to the store’s margins.

If B&N is successfully weeding only the slowest selling books, they should be removing titles that are turning so slowly that, after the initial hit of taking the returns, the publishers’ revenue line shouldn’t be too seriously affected.

But the overall store experience is definitely diminished. When big store selections were being built up in the 1990s, it was widely believed — or understood — that the books that didn’t sell brought people into the store to buy the books that did sell. And some book categories have so few strong sellers that eliminating the slower-turn books means you don’t have much of a section at all.

And all this ultimately drives sales online and that usually means to Amazon. (I did a calculation several years ago that suggested that Amazon had picked up several times the amount of once-was-Borders business that B&N did. It was Bowker data that I based it on.) It could well be the case that Barnes & Noble has held close to the same market share over the past few years, but they were the logical inheritors of the Borders brick-and-mortar business, and that is not what happened.

The real failure we see at B&N, which almost certainly affected the NOOK business as well as the stores, was that the customer knowledge within the dot com and NOOK operations apparently has never been used on behalf of the store business. This might be blamed on organizational silos that ran these three components as separate businesses. The failure is otherwise hard to explain. How hard can it be, really, to dig up email addresses of people who bought a book by a particular author to let them know s/he’ll be autographing books near where they live sometime soon?

Or, putting that in terms Barnes & Noble should relate to, might you not be able to charge the publishers a promotional fee for doing that? (AND you’d drive more traffic and sell more books!)

We had a recent conversation with Sergio Herz of the Livraria Cultura chain in Brazil. They are much smaller than B&N, 17 stores rather than many hundreds. But they started a dot com business in the mid-1990s, about the time Amazon did and before BN.com (which started as a joint venture between B&N and Bertelsmann called Books Online, or BOL). Their dot com is by far their largest single store, doing 28 percent of the chain’s total sales. (We don’t see how to discern from B&N’s public numbers how they compare with Cultura in that regard, but we’ll admit to being something less than the best analyst of financial reporting.)

One thing that distinguishes Cultura is the success of their in-store events, which are frequent (thousands per year) and take place in theater-like spaces within their stores. When I asked Herz whether Cultura drove dot com customers to store events he told me they do, and have done so “from the beginning”. Cultura’s management sees the integration of their stores and their dot com presence as an important competitive tool, becoming increasingly important as Amazon makes inroads into the Brazilian market.

That should be B&N’s secret sauce as well: delivering an integrated branded experience, with customer loyalty payoffs that encourage book readers to stick with B&N for both in-store and online purchasing of print and their branded ebooks, applying whichever would work best for them for each book they purchase. And while they do not appear to use their email lists on behalf of store events, B&N does enable online purchase for in-store pickup. The offer to do that appears on book product pages; it isn’t particularly featured. You can also buy in a store for dispatched delivery as if bought online. But there is almost no promotion of that capability either. I would guess that if you asked loyal B&N customers, many wouldn’t even be aware those choices exist. And if you are not a B&N customer, you certainly would have no idea. Promotion of those capabilities to former Borders customers (which would have been a highly targetable group when the Borders demise was still fresh) might have enabled B&N to do better at picking up their business instead of having the lion’s share of them apparently go to Amazon.

The people who own and run B&N are plenty smart. Before the game changed and was complicated by the online option, they had organized their supply chain to give them real competitive advantage over Borders and all other book retailers. But they were tripped up by a combination of Amazon’s longer-term view as an upstart in the 1990s and early 2000s when B&N was an established and profitable company. This was a classic “innovator’s dilemma”, failing to employ a new technology to maximum advantage because a legacy position was being defended.

Amazon was willing to lose money for many years to build its customer base. That was how they could build their stock price. B&N was a profitable company at the top of their category. Profits were how they grew their stock price. This not only discouraged deep investment in the early years of online bookselling, it discouraged the kind of discounting from their online store that Amazon did. Both of them knew that discounted books online put competitive pressure on the brick-and-mortar business. That was fine with Amazon. It was not appealing to Barnes & Noble.

In fact, long before NOOK, Barnes & Noble tried to be in the ebook business. At the turn of the present century, they had such ambition in the ebook space that they built a capability that was later spun out to be a company called Publishing Dimensions (now owned by Jouve) to help publishers with the digital conversion from print books to ebooks. But in the early part of the last decade, the ebook business wasn’t ready yet. There were three formats: PDFs (we all know about them), Microsoft Reader, and Palm Digital. Most ebooks were read on Palm, but Palm’s strategy was to sell the content themselves rather than let retailers do it.

Mobi was invented as a solution to the formats problem, to be one that could serve both MS Reader and Palm. By the time Mobi was created, B&N had expended a lot of cash and effort on an ebook market that didn’t materialize. They never took the next step of using Mobi. Amazon, bought Mobi in 2005 and effectively buried it for a while, only to bring it a couple of years later as the format that ran on the Kindle.

The ebook decisions B&N made were not crazy. Launching the Kindle business was a big roll of the dice for Amazon in 2007 when there had been no empirical evidence that there would really be an ebook market. Once again, as with the deep discounting of print books for online sales in the 1990s, the heavy investment in building a customer base made more sense for a multi-product retailer whose stock price responded to customer base growth, regardless of revenue or profitability, than for a more conventional legacy retailer.

When B&N decided to go after the ebook market with the NOOK, organizationally they did it with a dedicated and largely independent effort, not an integrated one. That might have been necessary. But it also might have been B&N’s last chance to build on its one distinctive advantage: having a strong store base and a real dot com business. (Borders never had the latter and Amazon, of course, doesn’t have the former.)

Doing the integration among the three strands of their business — stores, dot com, and ebooks — should still be Barnes & Noble’s top priority. That’s their biggest lever. There potentially are others. Moving from a sale-and-return purchasing paradigm to consignment terms with publishers, which would also almost certainly require allowing vendor-managed inventory, would also really help their financials by removing a large capital requirement. But it would also require rewriting the rule book on buying and substantial changes to their systems. There is also a potential opportunity getting indie authors to pay the cost of putting printed-on-demand copies on the store shelves on consignment as well, with potential profit in the printing and sales as well as new positioning with the growing base of indie authors and their readers. The recent attention Walmart got for stocking one indie title tips to the potential PR and merchandising advantage of that tactic.

But the time B&N has to change the reality that they can’t seem to grow their market share continues to shorten. The one big advantage they are likely to retain over their competitors in Seattle — who are certainly growing theirs! — will be a cooperative attitude from the publishers, who live in fear of Amazon’s growing power. But even that advantage has its limits.

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The news comes this week that Perseus has engaged bankers to help them sell their company. This follows the collapse about a year ago of the sale of Perseus to Hachette with the simultaneous handoff of Perseus’s distribution business — many times the size of its publishing operation — to Ingram.

There has never been any official or public explanation of what caused the Hachette deal to be called off a year ago. But the tricky part of selling this company is definitely that the distribution component will likely need a different home than the publishing assets. It will take a Big Five or other very large publisher to be able to absorb the publishing assets of Perseus. Those companies do distribution deals, but they seem to prefer much larger publishers for that service than many of the hundreds of Perseus distribution clients are.

Ingram was the logical home for the distribution business because it has the ability to scale, has been developing the automation of its distribution service offering through Ingram Spark, and it already handles smaller clients routinely. If Perseus’s estimated $300 million in distribution business yields about $40 million in revenue (as we’ve seen in one estimate), that’s a pretty small business for one of the Big Five to take on as a separate operation. But the many small publishers wouldn’t necessarily combine very well with the current distribution activities of the big houses.

So whichever big publisher might want the Perseus publishing operations (primarily Basic Books, Running Press, Da Capo, and the travel publisher Avalon) might well need an Ingram in the deal the same way Hachette did. It will almost certainly take a combination of two companies to swallow this particular elephant. Presumably the publishing components lean on some acquirer’s overhead, but the distribution piece would probably take a bit of a margin hit as a stand-alone.

There are, presumably, some companies who might want to break into the publishing business with a fully operational scaled entity like Perseus distribution. So maybe a new entrant will be enabled by this opportunity.

Of course, Ingram was interested the first time because they want to add clients to their existing distribution operation. Presumably, they still do. Perhaps they get back in this game again as somebody’s partner, like they did last time. But in the short run, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to tell Ingram that Perseus clients, knowing the company is on the block, might be receptive to switching and at least some of the growth Ingram sought might be attainable through salesmanship rather than through acquisition.

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Two pieces of news last week that foretell changes in the ebook marketplace


Two pieces of news this past week and how things play out with them might foretell some things about the direction of the ebook market.

One news item is that reading on phones is really taking off.  More than half of ebook consumers use their phones at least some of the time and the number that primarily read on phones is up to one in seven.

The other is that the German ebook market will shortly be predominantly DRM-free. With Random House fast-following fellow global publisher Holtzbrinck in ditching the digital locks, one of the largest non-English markets in the world is going where the English-language market has determinedly refused to tread. [There are exceptions, of course — O’Reilly, Tor, Harlequin’s digital first imprint Carina, Baen, and other small, primarily genre publishers.]

It was less than a month ago that Holtzbrinck made that announcement and we figured Random House wouldn’t be far behind.

A lot of theories about ebooks are about to be tested.

My personal reaction to the switch to mobile phone reading is “what took so long?” I started reading ebooks on a Palm Pilot in 1999. I got excited about it because it brought books to a device I was already carrying all the time anyway. In the beginning to me, that was the whole point to ebooks: I didn’t need another device beyond the one I already had on my person all the time anyway. In 2002, there was a meme active for a little while which questioned the value proposition of ebooks. Why would anybody want them? I spoke at a Seybold Conference about that with a simple answer:

If you really use a Personal Digital Assistant each day, are among the growing number that carry one with you all the time, you don’t need anybody to explain the value and utility of ebooks. The converse of this is that if you don’t use a PDA regularly, ebooks are of very little value to you. There is some minor utility to having a book and reader software on your notebook, but not much.

It might have been that search for more “value” in ebooks that drove years of experimentation in making them something more than screen-fitted rendering of text, trying to add functionality using digital capability in a long succession of commercial failures.

My friend, Joe Esposito, one of publishing’s more imaginative thinkers, identified and named the concept of “interstitial reading” some years ago, by which he meant grabbing a few minutes with a book on a check-out line or waiting for the movie to start. I remember a former neighbor of mine who always had a book in hand when he got in the elevator on the 14th floor and read a page or two as we descended to the lobby. That was a peculiar habit with a printed book; it is going to be increasingly common practice as more of us read on hand-helds we always have in our possession.

It could be that publisher Judith Curr of the Atria imprint at S&S is hitting the nail on the head when she predicts that the future of reading is on phones and paper.

An important question going forward is how reading on the phone will affect the shopping patterns. Here we have an interesting dichotomy which depends on the individual use case. What kind of phone do you have, Apple or Android? And which ereading ecosystem do you prefer, Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, or somebody else’s like Google or Kobo or Nook?

Here’s why it matters. When you use the iBooks app on an iPhone, you can shop for books right in the app. I haven’t done it except to buy a book I knew I wanted. I usually read on the Kindle app and occasionally on the Google Play app. In both cases, I do my shopping from my PC on the Kindle or Google Play site. My purchase is instantly accessible on my phone after I make it, but it is a two-machine process for me to buy.

Of course, I can also go to the Kindle or Google Play sites through my phone’s browser. Going outside the app is a requirement, but using another device is not. (Frankly, it is just easier to do the shopping with a real screen and keyboard.)

The limitations on iOS devices are created because Apple insists on its 30 percent cut for sales made within their apps. Android doesn’t, so the Android versions of apps do allow shopping within the app. Still, as with almost everything, it appears that more content-purchasing and consumption takes place among iOS users than Android users.

One would expect that as phone reading increases, it will tend to favor the “home stores” for the phones themselves. Those are iBooks and Google Play. This is obviously not any sort of mortal blow to Kindle if my own experience, maintaining the Kindle habit almost uninterrupted, is any guide. But it is definitely a bit easier to buy within the app you read in than to have to go outside of it.

If is an often-made point that phones come with built-in distractions of email and text messages arriving all the time. But tablet computers — which have steadily been taking ereading share from print and dedicated ereading devices for some years now — have email arriving all the time too. And tablet computers offer the whole web as a potential distraction too, just like the phones do. I’m not sure that the distraction component has changed that much recently during the rise of phone ereading.

And there are already lots of writers who do very short chapters (like the bestselling one of all, James Patterson) that readily satisfy the “interstitial reading” windows. It will take an analysis that there is probably no obvious metadata for to decide whether books that are already “chunked” benefit from the movement to phone-reading.

New reading habits do spawn publishing initiatives. Our friend, Molly Barton (longtime Penguin digital director), has a publishing startup called Serial Box that plans to parcel out long-form novels in self-contained chunks.

The German ebook market is much a smaller part of total book sales than ours, estimated at around five percent of sales rather than in the mid-20s. That is due to a combination of economic factors — including that Amazon is hobbled by fixed pricing that places ebook discounting off limits — as well as any cultural ones. (Online book sales in Germany are variously estimated between 15 and 25 percent — perhaps half what it is in the US. Amazon does have the lion’s share of that. Bookstores have half the business; the rest is split among direct sales, mass merchants, other non-bookstores, and catalogs.)

But one publisher after another has concluded that watermarking (what is often called “soft DRM”) is all the restraint on pass-along and casual sharing that is needed. Now all the big publishers will work that way.

My friends in Germany tell me that there are still small publishers who want to keep DRM, which they will probably be enabled to do for some time. In fact, the Adobe DRM holds the information about who is a valid purchaser, so it might not be simple for retailers to walk away from it even after the locks are no longer required if they want to do more than guess whether a customer wanting to re-download a prior purchase is actually entitled to. And it might be very difficult for the market to totally dismiss DRM, if the English-language publishers still want it applied to the English-language books sold in Germany. That’s substantial business and the retailers — particularly Amazon — wouldn’t want to force a situation where the output of US and UK publishers must either be DRM-free too or not available in the German market.

It has always been the concern of many publishers, agents, and big authors that removal of DRM would result in unfettered sharing which could really hurt book sales. A longtime DRM skeptic, publisher and industry thought-leader Tim O’Reilly, once characterized DRM as “progressive taxation”, which would seem to validate the notion that big authors have something to worry about. (O’Reilly publishes professional content which changes and updates often; precisely the opposite, from a fear-of-sharing point of view, of what James Patterson publishes.) Clearly, German publishers observing what has happened in their market don’t share that fear. American publisher and part of the Holtzbrinck publishing group,Tom Doherty, has also talked publicly about the (lack of) impact of Tor’s switch to DRM-free: “…the lack of DRM in Tor ebooks has not increased the amount of Tor books available online illegally, nor has it visibly hurt sales”.

Aside from increasing the potential to lose sales through pass-along, the other impact of removing the DRM requirement could be to make it easier for anybody to be an ebook retailer putting content on just about any device. The necessity of providing DRM has always been blamed for cost and technology barriers that kept retailers from going into ebooks in any casual way. Theoretically, the cost of being an ebook retailer in a DRM-free environment could be much lower, including a claimed and hoped-for diminution of customer service requirements. If true, that could be especially important for ebook sales in verticals, where a range of content could be a sensible add-on for a retailer’s offerings. People who sell hard goods don’t want to deal with DRM and the customer service requirements it creates.

The tech details of this run deeper than my personal knowledge, but people whose sophistication about it I respect caution me not to expect that much change in this regard. Watermarking (“soft” DRM, or DRM without “digital locks”) is also non-trivial from a tech point of view. New reading systems could proliferate without DRM-discipline, which could also create customer service requirements. It could be the claims for ease-of-use without DRM will turn out to be overblown. We will see.

It has always been my contention that the DRM discussion was more heated than the effect really warranted. Since I never really wanted to move an ebook from one ecosystem to another, or pass an ebook along to somebody else, DRM never got in my way. But it was also obviously blocking entrants from joining the ebook retailing ranks and creating major customer service issues for any independent efforts.

The two things to watch in Germany are whether ebook sales, particularly for top titles, are maintained or softened in any way by pass-along and, at least as important, whether new ebook retailing really is enabled by ditching the DRM requirement. The watermarking will help publishers find the source of ebooks that end up being publicly pirated or posted. I wouldn’t expect some explosion of piracy, but there will certainly be a lot to learn.

The chances are pretty good that what will be learned will lead to DRM-free coming to the English language as well in the next couple of years.

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The publishing world is changing, but there is one big dog that has not yet barked


Recent data seem to show that, for the publishers, the growth in the retail ebook market has slowed down or stopped (at least for the moment), while Amazon’s ebook sales apparently continue to grow. The share of the market controlled by the publishing establishment — the Big Five publishers and others — is starting to be slowly eroded. This does not yet suggest that an author’s best bet is to go out on his/her own and we may be a very long way from that. But it does suggest that life may get increasingly difficult for publishers.

The headline data we saw last week is that Hachette’s ebook sales went down last year. All their sales declined, but ebooks fell faster and the percentage of their business in ebooks is diminishing. How much that has to do with their war last year with Amazon over terms is not clear.

What we’re also seeing and hearing is that publishers might have boxed themselves in with their return to agency pricing. When publishers first “raised prices” by instituting agency pricing for ebooks in 2010, they saw no reduction in ebook sales, which continued to grow. Michael Cader’s analysis (can’t find it in print, but he told it to me) was that publishers may have misread the real impact of price increases because they raised them in a growing market. The number of ebook readers was increasing every day, so those who were put off by the high prices were outnumbered by the new entrants who just wanted to read their books digitally on their shiny new devices.

Whatever is the reason, the anecdotal reports I’m getting suggest that the price increases aren’t being so easily swallowed in the current round of Agency pricing. Amazon may not care about ending discounting from those prices because they don’t need to or want to, but it would appear that the new deals won’t let them. They certainly don’t have the flexibility to do so that they did before Agency came to the marketplace. So the sometimes startlingly high publisher-set prices are prevailing. And, aside from the Hachette numbers that were reported, we’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher agency prices are activated.

Hugh Howey told me this was happening in a private exchange three months ago. I didn’t believe him. I do now.

We continue to see a shift in market share. Amazon’s share continues to grow, as does Apple’s. Nook’s share continues to shrink. Google and Kobo are harder to read, but both are smaller than the others anyway.

But this is not a zero-sum game and it isn’t simple. It’s Rubik’s Cube complicated.

Some of the change in the market could be due to subscription services taking a chunk of ebook consumption out of the by-the-book retail market. Although Scribd and Oyster appear to have very small market shares, Scribd was so “successful” with some readers that they had to cut back their romance offering; it was apparently costing them too much to provide all the books their romance subscribers could read.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited may be having a bigger impact on the overall market. In all these cases, it is the public understanding that the subscription services are “purchasing” the ebooks from the established publishers. (Kindle’s own authors are compensated with a “by the page read” division of a pot that Amazon arbitrarily decides.) But the Big Five aren’t participating in KU and they aren’t putting their new books — the biggest sellers with the highest prices — into the subscription services. So all the reader bandwidth and revenue going through those services might be coming out of the big players’ and big books’ share.

Our friends at Ingram told me another piece of anecdata which may also be at play. They keep track of the number of SKUs that sell 100 copies or fewer and those that sell 10,000 copies or more. The aggregate sales of the former group is growing; the aggregate sales of the latter group is not. What that suggests is that the sales of books that are not really commercial are taking share away from those that are, whether those that are come from publishers or indie authors like Hugh Howey. Whether that particular change is yet impactful, it is inexorable.

The reduction in ebook sales of hot new titles could be starting to affect future deals — one agent told me unambiguously that it is visible — which would be the next step in the indie vision of how publishers disappear. Publishers base their advances on revenue expectations, which, for ebooks, might now be diminishing. If authors can’t get the same big advance as they did before, might they prefer to go it alone and take the bigger share of ebook revenues they can (still) get with a do-it-yourself approach? Obviously, for some, as the equation shifts, that could happen.

But, at the same time, we’re seeing print book sales, and — at least for the moment — print book retail shelf space, holding their own. As long as that’s true, publishers still have a vital role to play. As long as the proposition “we put books on shelves” has value, so do publishers.

In fact, Ingram (not Amazon) offers the complete suite of services a publisher needs to provide, as does Perseus, whose distribution business Ingram tried to acquire in the 3-way deal with Hachette that went sour about a year ago. Both of them can get a book printed, offset in a print run or on-demand. They warehouse and bill and collect. They have a sales force. They do business with all the retail outlets that every publisher does. And they offer all those capabilities on a marginal cost basis. (The big publishers offer a similar suite of services, but generally are less interested in smaller players that Ingram and Perseus are happy to serve.) Whether you publish one book, 100 books, or have a long list, all you need is the rights to the book and the cash to pay your costs and you can buy the logistical capability to match any publisher.

But you won’t have two things that really matter:

the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;

the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.

For big author brands, the “sure to sell” component might well be in place, but the marketing complications, and the risk (because a lot of inventory could be involved) would not be trivial.

What this means for the future of publishers, or for what will constitute the best business decision for authors, is not obvious. Everybody trying to make money in the future from the books they write will suffer from the problem the data Ingram cites points to: the increasing share of the readers’ attention that will be taken by books not published with serious commercial intent. If publishers lower their prices to compete more effectively with indie-published books and the subscription offers, their revenue will go down but so will the indies’, who will lose some of the benefits they now gain from their pricing advantage.

It is sometimes suggested that publishers need to move out of Manhattan to be competitive, but, in fact, there are many ways to reconfigure aside from that. The service offerings from Ingram and Perseus (and others: one example is that Donnelley also offers publishers the ability to convert manufacturing management and warehousing overheads to variable costs) allow publishers to get leaner and more focused on their core missions of identifying, developing, and marketing content.

What is definitely true is that the share of the reading market held by commercially-minded publishers (not just commercial “for profits”, but also university presses) will diminish as both successful self-published authors and hundreds of thousands of others who don’t succeed (and maybe don’t even care) take their content to market on their own.

The university and academic presses, of course, have a defining characteristic that might well protect them. They require certified knowledge to underpin their books. (Whether you’re publishing about accounting or brain surgery, you need validated authority that will be an insuperable barrier for independent publishing.)

This is not a death-knell for anybody. This is a changing world for everybody. Of the current household names, only Amazon and Ingram are structurally positioned to grow quite naturally in a shrinking overall market. (The publishers can grow by acquiring each other, and PRH and HarperCollins would seem to be in the best position to take advantage of that.) Amazon will sell an increasing share of the books; Ingram will provide more and more services to more and more publishers while they remain the biggest supplier to everybody besides Amazon that sells books. (Perseus can also expand its distribution business.) The roster of publishers will continue to consolidate, as it has been doing pretty relentlessly (except for a recent decade of relative stability which seems to have now unleashed a more recent stage of more extreme consolidation) for at least 40 years. But as long as print is sold in stores and, after that, as long as half of the books are sold by somebody other than Amazon, there will be a need for publishers that most authors will be delighted to allow compensation for.

Let’s remember that there is a very big dog that has not barked. No major author of recurring bestsellers has stepped up to take charge of his or her own output. It is bound to happen someday, and if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been sure it would have happened by now. Five years ago I would also have figured that one of the big publishers by 2025 would be a version of United Artists, several major authors organized to share an organization and create their own brand. There have been no signs of that yet either. Indie publishing is still growing and it seems that established publishing is at a standstill. But we’re still many years — most likely a decade or more — from any real changing of the guard.

I don’t see myself as a sophisticated reader or analyst of fiction. But I want to offer the opinion that “Go Set A Watchman”, the controversial new release from “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, is a very worthwhile book. And, by my reading, both the story and the Atticus Finch character fit perfectly well with what we read in “Mockingbird”. What changed most between the two books was the circumstances of the south. “Mockingbird” takes place in a time of unquestioned white dominance. “Watchman” takes place in a time when white dominance is under serious threat. It is a more complex time and deals with more complex issues. It is easy to see why a commercial editor in the late 1950s would find “Watchman” a very uncomfortable book to sell and “Mockingbird” much easier to place in the market.

There are dueling opinions on this. I agree with novelist Ursula Le Guin (you’ll have to click on “newest post” if you go there before she publishes her next one; not sure how you’ll navigate after that), not with the bookseller who thinks the book is so bad that the store is compelled to offer refunds to disappointed readers.

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The publishing business as we have known it is not going away anytime soon


Regular readers, please pardon me for the unusual length of this post, but it covers a lot of ground that I think is necessary to make the point.

A friend who has actually been working fulltime in the book business since I was still in college and who remains active was speculating at BEA about the “next big disruption” in our business. He’s expecting it sometime pretty soon.

I don’t think I am.

Gareth Cuddy is one of the most practical service providers in the industry. His Vearsa ebook distribution company is providing global services to publishers large and small and he is a pioneer in reading and sales analytics. He recently wrote a piece that concludes “whatever emerges from this next phase will surely be a complete departure from what we understand today as an industry” with timetables around it wondering whether 2016 will be too late to respond and whether we’ll have an unrecognizable industry in 2020.

I don’t see it.

One of the disruptor-authors, one who studies the industry trends closely with special attention to indie author growth, told me he “is pegging 2019 as the year that major media outlets cover the collapse of the major publishing houses the same way they started reporting on newspaper declines last decade”.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a merger or two by then, but “collapse”? I don’t see that either.

The industry has a myriad of sales stats that are not rationalized in any way and don’t talk to each other:

BookScan (print sales, reported by select retailers)

BookScan data is compiled from reports of print sales by most, but not all, retailers. That data includes all the ISBNs (but perhaps not retailer- or indie-published books that don’t have ISBNs), but not all the sales. BookScan covers an estimated 85% of the print retail market in the US and 90% in the UK. (See the “About Nielsen Book” section.)

PubTrack Digital (ebook sales, reported by select publishers)

The PubTrack Digital data, compiled from reports by publishers, doesn’t include all the ISBNs — only those from reporting publishers — but they do include all the sales of those publishers’ ebooks.

AAP (cross-format sales, reported by select publishers)

The AAP tracks sales across all major channels and formats. Like PubTrack, AAP stats are based on reports by participating publishers. (Though all of the Big Five houses report in both cases, other publisher and distributor participation varies.)

Consumer survey data (purchases, attitudes, and behaviors, reported by consumers)

Market research firms and consumer panel surveys (Nielsen Market ResearchCodex Group, and PlayCollective among others) provide another look at how book sales are shifting.

Other survey data

Additional surveys, particularly of authors (e.g. DBW’s author surveyHarry Bingham and Jane Friedman’s author survey) help fill in some of the blanks. But as the survey organizers frequently note, these are not representative samples, so the conclusions that can be drawn from these surveys are limited and primarily directional in nature.

Proprietary data (publisher and retailer-specific)

We also get regular reports from publicly-traded companies and whatever data accounts happen to reveal to the public, which can provide useful benchmarks and comparison points. (The sales data from the accounts themselves includes self-published or retailer-published books that other two sources don’t, but no by-book sales numbers told to the public.)

Bestseller lists and scraped data

Author Earnings tries to translate ebook sales rankings (which are publicly visible at retail, and therefore “scrapeable”) into actual sales numbers. (The now defunct DBW Ebook Bestseller List, powered by Dan Lubart’s Iobyte Solutions, was based on similar principles.) And the major bestsellers lists (like USA Today and NYT) provide at least some context for relative sales performance.

And as a sign of how complicated it all is, the DBW Ebook Bestseller List was discontinued at least partly because the “noise” from Amazon reporting “sales” on ebooks distributed and read through their subscription service was making the bestseller status of many titles a bit contentious.

Despite and because of all the sources, the data is incomplete and scattered. There is inevitable ambiguity in interpretation so that a variety of conclusions can be reasonably drawn. From the big publisher perspective, it would appear that sales are about flat and that the ratio of print and digital sales has become pretty stable. This is true in an environment where publishers have experimented with even higher ebook prices and, for a variety of contractual and commercial reasons, discounting of ebooks has diminished. But that’s been true for a relatively short period of time, and the ebook reporting is routinely delayed by three months, so we don’t have enough evidence to know for sure that higher ebook prices are sustainable in this marketplace. And even if they are sustainable today, that doesn’t prove they will be in three months or a year.

On the print side, Amazon continues to be the largest single customer for almost every publisher. And even though they have managed to increase their discounts and various marketing fees and their returns have creeped up, they are still the most profitable large account for many, if not most, publishers. Since Borders went down several years ago, Amazon has, indeed, grown, but independent stores have also thrived and become more numerous. And although Barnes & Noble still slowly shrinks in sales, it remains the most important account for “breaking” many new titles and still provides more sales to most publishers than all the indie bookstores combined.

While I’ve been working on this piece, the AAP data has been being worked through. Nate Hoffelder (whose blog has been renamed “Ink, Bits, and Pixels”) scoffed at the Nielsen claim that their hard numbers constitute 85 percent of the book market. The AAP, which like Author Earnings, uses modeling and guesstimating to get from the data they have to a bigger industry picture, sees a much bigger trade industry. The point Nate wanted to make, using the AAP data (echoed by an indie author friend of mine who believes that the indies are toppling the establishment and we’d all know that if we knew the “real” numbers that didn’t leave out all the indie success stories) is that the ebook market is not shrinking or flattening.

But if you want to use AAP figures to prove that point you have to use this year’s AAP data. Because last year the AAP said the ebook market had shrunk. By the way, the AAP data was the first to offer some insight on how much ebook subscription offerings are changing the market. The answer, so far, is not very much so far. They account for about 2 million ebook units out of a market of 500 million!

I asked my knowledgeable indie author friend what he thought the consumer dollar volume was for indies last year. He reckoned it at $459 million (I love the presumption of precision: not $450 million or $475 million, but $459 million!) Since the AAP figures adult trade fiction and non-fiction at about $10 billion (and the juvie numbers, another $5 billion, actually have some big “adult” sales in them), he is implicitly acknowledging (but would never say explicitly) that indies are 5 percent of the adult business at retail, using what I’m sure is the most ambitious estimate of indie sales you’ll see anywhere.

The reality is that the business has been actually pretty stable for the past few years, after a period — about 2008 to 2012 — when the shifts away from print and from stores were dizzying and immediately disruptive.

That’s not to say we haven’t seen a lot of change or that change doesn’t continue to be much faster than it was in the period before 2008. But not all of that change is bad for publishers.

More sales at Amazon, less inventory in the physical store supply chain, more ebooks, and the outsized impact of ebooks on the inefficient mass market channel means that returns are lower and less capital is tied up in inventory, which makes publishers more profitable.

The promise that offshore markets can be reached efficiently with ebooks (which, indeed, might be masking a reduction in ebook sales domestically in the overall publisher-reported numbers) is increasingly being realized, partly through the growth in capabilities of the service offerings from old standbys like Ingram and new entrants like Cuddy’s Vearsa.

New tools and workflows are enabling publishers to package their content for both print and digital delivery much more efficiently than they did when ebooks were in their infancy.

Techniques that make it possible for books to be “discovered” through online means — search, social referrals, and growing book- and topic-based communities — are being mastered by publishers.

And a number of factors — consolidation of the accounts, more efficient wholesalers, consolidation of the publishers’ shipping through growing distributors — have reduced costs on the back end for most publishers as well.

So the publishers have, thus far, dealt with massive changes in sales, marketing, and distribution pretty effectively. They’re selling as many books as they used to despite growing competition from both indie authors (a million titles a year or more) and from Amazon itself, whose own publishing operation reportedly intends to issue 2,000 titles in 2016.

Trying to view things from the author perspective requires one to divide them into at least three big “buckets”: successful authors who know where their next totally-acceptable contract that pays them a living wage in advance to write a book is coming from; aspiring authors who either can’t get an agent or a deal or have decided that with self-publishing working as it does that they simply don’t want one; and the ones in the middle, who might have an agent or have had a deal or two, but aren’t really making a commercial success of authorship.

For those authors who find it hard or impossible to get an agent or a deal, self-publishing is a godsend. It gives them a way to really reach the global public at minimal cost and, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past decade, they can, indeed, break through and achieve commercial success. This is only a good thing for everybody. Even publishers benefit because they get to discover new talent that is surfaced by self-publishing.

For those authors who are working steadily and profitably for publishers, self-publishing has offered the possibility of greater control and bigger margins: more profit if they can achieve the same level of sale. This is not an opportunity very many authors in this category have pursued. That has surprised me a little bit, but probably it shouldn’t have. Being a publisher is a lot of work and no small risk. If an author is making a living doing the writing and letting a publisher handle the rest, that’s damn near nirvana. Very few in that position want to abandon it.

So that leaves the authors “in the middle”: getting deals or capable of getting deals, but not really making the living they want to make with those deals. Among those authors, if they have the skills to manage an enterprise and the personality to put themselves out there for promotion, self-publishing offers a real alternative to the legacy system. Particularly for those authors who have a backlist they can claw back rights to and use as a foundation for their efforts, this new opportunity has real possibilities.

And writing in genres, being able to deliver several books a year, and writing in a way that allows pieces of big books to “work” as self-contained smaller chunks, are all attributes that enhance the likelihood of self-publishing success. It is worth noting that, so far, publishers haven’t developed the techniques to make the most effective use of chunked stories or a voluminous output (unless you’re James Patterson!).

So another source of potential disruption — authors abandoning publishers to do it themselves to make more money per unit and claim greater control of their work and career — has also not really happened. I was among those who expected, during the era of dizzying change we experienced for a few years until a couple of years ago, that publishers could have a big problem holding on to their biggest stars.

Both the supply (authors) and demand (sales channels) sides of the equation appear more stable than they’ve been in recent memory. But there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way. The number of self-published titles keep growing by a million titles a year or more. They sell a paltry average per title, and a very small percentage sell a measurable amount at all, but cumulatively, their sales add up. Most of the revenue from that growing market segment goes to Amazon and a very small share of it goes to print or brick-and-mortar. Amazon’s growth in any way fuels their ability to be tough on terms, reducing publishers’ margins. (One big potential wild card is Amazon’s pressuring publishers to allow them to manufacture more and more of the inventory; that could be a paradigm-shifter if they succeed in making it widespread.) And more ebooks, particularly indie ebooks, and the subscription services for ebooks also tend to force down retail prices, which puts further pressure on publishers’ margins.

One other source of potential disruption — and this is one that I think many have in mind when they predict real danger for the establishment is around the next bend — would be some sort of disruptive product innovation. What if book readers suddenly demand video in books, or that stories be turned into games, or that books be enhanced by the margin notes made by prior readers? Would today’s publishers be able to compete? What would that do to margins?

There are areas of publishing outside trade where the “book” has either already become obsolete or could well be in a few years. As we have pointed out repeatedly over the years, ebooks have only really “worked” as substitutes for print books that one reads from beginning to end, narrative reading. The additional “functionality” that might be employed, such as those described above, has been pretty consistently and over a long period of time rejected — or, at least, not widely embraced — by the book-reading public.

But that’s not true in professional publishing, where books have often already been replaced by websites, online tutorials, and other uses of digital interactivity. (John Wiley, one of the biggest professional and trade publishers in the world, is largely exiting the business of “books”. O’Reilly Safari demonstrated over a decade ago that a subscription service was a great commercial proposition for professional books, long before it was even tried for consumer.) It is likely not to remain true in school and college textbook publishing, where the value of integrating testing and then adjusting what’s presented in the content delivery has enormous value and where institutions, rather than individual consumers, are in control. Predicting big disruption in these markets over the next few years seems like a much safer bet than in trade. Of course, those parts of the trade markets that look similar to those — cookbooks and travel in particular — have already seen wide-scale disruption.

Frequently, those who say they’re expecting disruptive change also promote the expectation that there will be some really substantial shift in consumer behavior. Quoting Cuddy:

So what is a book? What is reading? How will the millennials and children of the future consume stories? Will they even want to? I don’t think any of us know.

This is the big bugaboo: the death of long-form reading. That’s a reasonable thing to conjecture about, but not in the next three years or five years or even ten. In 2025, most of the books being read on the planet will be read by people who are reading them now. The most recent serious study about “designing books for millennials” (from Publishing Technology) seemed to conclude that millennials aren’t much different than the generations that preceded them when it comes to their book-reading habits.

Over the long run, things will almost certainly change in very big ways because of the inexorable forces eroding publisher margins described above. I wouldn’t be surprised to see only two or three big trade publishers as soon as ten years from now. I’d expect that the two recent plateaus we’ve reached, with ebook sales stabilizing in relation to print and with bookstores holding their own, will prove temporary. I wouldn’t expect ebook sales or online purchasing to grow by the leaps and bounds they did a few years ago, but it would surprise me if we’ve reached any long-term limit, particularly in ebook use. (The devices keep proliferating and people get increasingly comfortable reading for a long time on screens.)

More and more entities of all kinds will be using books, and particularly ebooks, to further their own missions through education or content marketing. They may not “flood” the market, but they’ll add a lot of product not necessarily priced with commercial intent that will steal sales and reader time from what publishers are trying to peddle.

For some time, I have figured that book reading might grow but that the industry that delivers books for profit might shrink. That would still be my expectation.

The biggest threat to publishers as we have known them would be consolidation among the intermediaries who sell their books. My hunch today would be that Amazon sells more than 40 percent of the books in the US. Indeed, their own publishing operation is growing despite the fact that they face continued resistance from their competing retailers to carrying their books. That suggests that books can be profitable, and authors made happy, on sales made to the Amazon audience alone. The bigger their share gets, the more that presents a real danger to publishers.

The whole point of publishers is “many to many”. They handle the output of multiple authors to give them the scale necessary to provide services to multiple sources of revenue for both books and rights. Amazon consolidated a big enough share of the audience that what they alone could sell constituted a viable market. That, combined with the elimination of inventory investment enabled by ebooks, created a robust indie publishing business. (Yes: iBooks and Nook and Google and Smashwords and others are part of it, but Amazon created it, and it might not be much of anything yet if they hadn’t!) Amazon could afford to pay a higher share of the consumer price than any publisher selling through them could and that created the marketplace in which indie authors could thrive financially and have a logical basis to express incredulity that other authors would take a publisher’s deal. During the days when both Amazon’s share and the ebook market were growing without any obvious limits, predicting that they would one day soon put a bullet in the heart of the publishing business might have been an overambitious projection, but it wasn’t entirely illogical.

But those days have passed. In retrospect, the big threat to publishers probably ended when Larry Kirshbaum’s efforts to get big name mainstream authors to leave legacy publishing in some numbers for Amazon failed, largely (I’d conjecture, we’ll never really know) because the competing retailers refused to play ball. Their outspoken refusal to carry Amazon books escalated the risk to an author’s career if they took any amount of money to be Amazon-published. That was not necessarily a deal-killer to a genre author who could reach a big share of their market with Amazon alone, but it made it just about impossible for Kirshbaum (or anybody else who might have occupied that seat) to use a checkbook to persuade an author already successful with legacy publishers to, essentially, risk their career.

Since then, despite Amazon Publishing’s continued growth (primarily in genres, not general trade) and what appears to be the continued growth in self-publishing have not really threatened the legacy publishing business. As long as the big authors don’t abandon the publishers, they’re safe. And as long as there is a complex demand chain for publishers to manage and service to pull in the revenue, they probably won’t.

So figuring out whether or when the industry turns upside down depends on figuring out whether or when the demand consolidates at Amazon to such an extent that the rest of the market can be lived without.

There will be fewer bookstores. There will be more titles competing from outside the commercial publishers. There will be continued downward pressure on prices. There will be diminishing interest in having a narrative book in printed form. And despite publishers’ efforts to add value by reaching distant markets and learning how to do digital marketing at scale, the publishing industry will, indeed, shrink.

But an apocalypse is probably not around the corner. And the book business as we see it today will still be recognizable in 2020 and even in 2025. I suspect that the business environments for all other media — music, movies, TV, and games — will change more than the business for narrative trade books over the next ten years.

Remember that we are conducting two surveys of industry opinion to inform the programming we’re doing for next March. Click here if you want to express yourself on the topics for Digital Book World 2016 and here if you want to register opinions on the program ideas for Publishers Launch Kids. 

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Asking whether Amazon is friend or foe is a simple question that is complicated to answer


I’ve been invited to join a discussion entitled “Amazon: Friend or Foe” (meaning “for publishers”) sponsored by the Digital Media Group of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (only in England!) and taking place in London next month. I think the answer must be “both”, and I suspect that my discussion-mates — Fionnuala Duggan, formerly of Random House and CourseSmart; Michael Ross from Encyclopedia Britannica; and Philip Walters, the moderator for the conversation, will agree. This is a simple question with many complicated answers. I am sure that Fionnuala, Michael, and Philip will introduce some perspectives I’m not addressing here.

The first thoughts the question triggers for me are three ways I think Amazon has profoundly changed the industry.

Although just about every publisher has headaches dealing with Amazon, very few could deny that Amazon is their most profitable account, if they take sales volume, returns, and the cost of servicing into consideration. This fact is almost never acknowledged and therefore qualifies as one of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Because they’ve consolidated the book-buying audience online and deliver to it with extraordinary efficiency, Amazon must feel totally justified in clawing back margin; it wasn’t their idea to be every publisher’s most profitable account! But since they are effectively replacing so many other robust accounts, the profitability they add comes at a big price in the stability and reliability of a publisher’s business, which feels much more comfortable coming from a spread of accounts. Publishers strongly resist Amazon’s demands for more margin, partly because they don’t know where they’ll stop.

It is also true that Amazon just about singlehandedly created the ebook business. Yes, there had been one before Kindle was introduced in November, 2007, but it was paltry. It took the combination that only Amazon could put together to make an ebook marketplace really happen. They made an ereading device with built-in connectivity for direct downloading (which, in that pre-wifi time, required taking the real risk that connection charges would be a margin-killer). They had the clout to persuade publishers to make more books, particularly new titles, available as ebooks. And they had the attention and loyalty of a significant percentage of book readers to make the pitch for ebooks. With all those assets and the willingness to invest in a market that didn’t exist, Amazon created something out of nothing. Everything that has happened since — Nook and Apple and Google and Kobo — might not have worked at all without Amazon having blazed the trail. In fact, they might not have been tried! Steve Jobs was openly dismissive of ebooks as a business before Amazon demonstrated that those were downloads a lot of people would pay for.

The other big change in the industry that is significant but might not have been without Amazon is self-publishing. The success of the Kindle spawned it by making it easy and cheap to reach a significant portion of the book-buying audience with low prices and high margins. Amazon added its skill at creating an easy-to-use interface and efficient self-service. Again, others have followed, including Smashwords. But almost all the self-publishers achieving commercial success have primarily Amazon to thank. It appears that, in the ebook space at least, self-publishers among them move as many units as a Big Five house and, in fiction, they punch even above that weight. Without Amazon, this might not have happened yet.

So, in the three ways Amazon has really changed the industry — consolidating the bulk of online book buyers, creating the ebook business, and enabling commercially-viable self-publishing, publishers would really have to say the first two are much to their benefit (friend) and the last one they could have done without (foe).

The second big heading for this Amazon discussion is around the asymmetry between what Amazon knows about the industry and what the industry knows about Amazon. Data about the publishing industry is notoriously scattered and because of the large number of audiences and commercial models in the “book business”, very hard to interpret intelligently. Amazon, on the other hand, has its own way of making things opaque by not sharing information.

The first indication of this is that Amazon doesn’t employ the industry’s standard ISBN number; they have their own number called an ASIN. So whereas the industry had a total title count through ISBN agencies that required its own degree of interpretation, the titles published exclusively by Amazon, which only have ASINs and not ISBNs, are a total “black hole”. Nobody except Amazon knows how many there are or into what categories they fall.

Another piece of Amazon’s business that has critical relevance to the rest of the industry but is totally concealed from view is their used book business. There is an argument to be made that the used book marketplace Amazon fosters actually helps publishers sell their new books at higher prices by giving consumers a way to get some of their money back. But it is also pretty certain that people are buying used copies of books they otherwise would have bought new, with the cheaper used choice being offered to them from about the first moment a book comes out. One would intuitively assume that the effect becomes increasingly corrosive as a title ages and the supply of used copies keeps rising as the demand for the book is falling, inexorably bringing the price of the used books down. But none of us outside Amazon know anything about this at all, including how large the market is.

And, by the same token, we have no idea how big Amazon’s proprietary book business is: the titles they sell that are published by them exclusively. Beyond not knowing how many there are or what categories they’re in, the rest of us can’t interpret how the sales of Amazon-published titles might affect the prospects for titles a publisher might be signing up. Amazon has that perspective to inform their title acquisition, their merchandising, and to gauge the extent of their leverage in negotiations with publishers.

Going back to the original question, except for the possibility that some new book sales occur because the purchaser is confident of a resale, this is all foe!

In retrospect, it is clear that Amazon’s big advantage was that they always intended to use the book business as a springboard to a larger play; they never saw it as a stand-alone. This was an anticipation of the future that nobody inside the book business grasped when it was happening, nor was it imitated by book business pure players. But it was the key to Amazon’s economics. They didn’t need to make much margin on books; they were focused on “lifetime customer value” and they saw lots of ways to get it. Google and Apple have the same reality: books for them are in service to larger purposes. But they started with the larger purposes and, for that and other reasons, have never gotten as good as Amazon is with books. (One big deficiency of the Google and Apple offers is that they are digital only; they don’t do print books.) And B&N and Waterstone’s never thought beyond books; it appears that Waterstone’s scarcely thought beyond physical stores!

But it could well be that Amazon is approaching its limits in market share in the book business. What they did worked in the English-speaking world — for printed books two decades ago and for ebooks almost a decade ago — because they were first and able to aggregate an enormous customer base before they got any serious challengers. They will not find it as easy to dominate new markets today, particularly those that have rules that make price competition harder to employ. Language differences mean book markets will remain “local” for a long time and strong local players will be hard for Amazon to dislodge.

Amazon has powerful tools to keep their customers locked in. PRIME is the most effective one: once customers have paid a substantial fee for free shipping, they’re disinclined to buy elsewhere. Kindle is another one. The devices and the apps have broad distribution and, because of self-publishing, Kindle remains the ebook retailer with the biggest selection.

The marketplace is changing, of course. Amazon’s big edge is having the biggest selection of printed and digital books in one place. That’s been known for decades to be the best magnet to attract book buyers. But now a lot of book reading is done without the title-by-title shopping in a bookstore that it always used to require. We are at the beginning of an age of “distributed distribution”. Many different tech offerings — Aerbook, Bluefire, De Marque, Page Foundry, and Tizra among them — can make it easy for publishers to sell ebooks directly (and Aerbook enables that and promotion in the social stream). The subscription services Scribd, Oyster, 24Symbols, and Bookmate (as well as Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited) are pulling customers away from a la carte ebook buying and Finitiv and Impelsys make it easy for any entity to offer digital reading by subscription. All of these sales except Kindle Unlimited come primarily out of Amazon’s hide, since they are the dominant online retailer for books. Publishers mostly see this dispersal of the market as a good thing for them, even though some of the same opacity issues arise and, indeed, the big general subscription services are a new group of potentially disruptive intermediaries now being empowered.

For the foreseeable future — years to come — Amazon will remain dominant in most of the world as the central location where one shops online for books a la carte because they have the best service, the biggest selection, and they sell both print and digital books. But they now have their own new challenge dealing with the next round of marketplace changes, as what they dominate becomes a smaller portion of the overall book business in the years to come. Publishers face the same challenge presented a somewhat different way.

The event that gave rise to this post takes place the night before the London Book Fair opens. The entry fee is nominal. If you’ll be at LBF and want to attend, please do! I will, typically, have no real base of operations at LBF, but I’ll be there all three days with some time available to meet old friends and new. Email to [email protected] if you want to set something up. 

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What makes books different…


Before the digital age, retailers that tried to sell across media were pretty rare. Barnes & Noble added music CDs to their product mix when the era of records and cassettes had long passed. Record stores rarely sold books and, if they did, tended to sell books related to an interest in music. For those stores, it wasn’t so much about combining media as it was about offering a defined audience content related to their interest, like Home Depot selling home repair books. For the most part in pre-Internet times, books, music, and video each had its own retail network.

But when media became largely digital in the first decade of the 21st century, the digital companies that decided to establish consumer retail tried to erase the distinction that had grown up dividing reading (books) from listening (music) from watching (movies and TV). The three principal digital giants in the media retailing space — Amazon, Apple, and Google — all sell all these media in their “pure” form and maintain a separate market for “apps” as well that might contain any or all of the legacy media.

The retailing efforts for all of them are divided along legacy media lines, acknowledging the reality that people are usually shopping specifically for a book or music or a cinematic experience. Most are probably not, as some seem to imagine, choosing which they’ll do based on what’s available at what price across the media. (This is a popular meme at the moment: books “competing” with other media because they are consumed on the same devices. Of course, only a minority of books are consumed on devices, unlike the other media. Even though this cross-media competition might be intuitive logic to some people, it has scarcely been “proven” and, while it might be true to a limited extent, it doesn’t look like a big part of the marketing problem to me.)

It seems from here that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have a distinct advantage over all their other competitors in the ebook space because, with books — unlike movies and TV and music — the audience toggles between print and digital. And this might not change anytime soon. The stats are scattered and not definitive, but a recent survey in Australia found that ninety-five percent of Australians under 30 preferred paperbacks to ebooks! Other data seem to indicate that most ebook readers also read print. To the extent that is true, a book shopper — or searcher — would want to be searching the universe of book titles, print and digital, to make a selection.

It should be more widely understood that the physical book will not go the way of the Dodo nearly as fast as the shrink-wrapped version has for music or TV/film. It hasn’t and it won’t. There are very good, understandable, and really undeniable reasons for this, even though it seems like many smart people expect all the media to go all-digital in much the same way.

Making the case that “books are different” requires me to unlearn what I was brought up to believe. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, used to ridicule the idea that “books are different”, which was too often (he thought) invoked to explain why “modern” (in the 1950s and 1960s) business practices like planning and forecasting and measuring couldn’t be applied to books like they were to so many other businesses after World War II. In fact, Dad shied away from hiring people with book business experience, “because they would have learned the wrong things”.

But in the digital age, and as compared to other media, books are definitely different and success in books, whether print or digital, is dependent on understanding that.

First of all, the book — unlike its hard good counterparts the CD (or record or cassette) and DVD (or videotape) — has functionality that the ebook version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write margin notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate around back and forth through the text much more readily than with an ebook. There are no comparable capabilities that come with a CD or DVD.

Second, the book has — or can have — aesthetic qualities that the ebook will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.

But third, and most important, is the distinction about the content itself. When you are watching a movie or TV show or listening to music through any device, the originating source makes only the most nuanced difference to your consumption experience. Yes, there are audiophiles who really prefer vinyl records to CDs and there probably are also those who will insist that the iTunes-file-version is not as good as the CDs. And everybody who has watched a streamed video has experienced times when the transmission was not optimal. There are almost certainly music and movie afficionados who will insist on a hard goods version to avoid those inferiorities.

But the differences between printed books and digital books are much more profound and they are not nuanced. In fact, there are categories of books that satisfy audiences very well in digital form and there are whole other categories of books that don’t sell at all well in digital. That is because while the difference between classical music and rock or the difference between a comedy and a thriller isn’t reflected in any difference between a streamed or hard-goods version, the difference between a novel and a travel guide or a book of knitting instruction is enormous when moving from a physical to digital format.

For one thing, the book — static words or images on a flat surface, whether printed or on a screen — is often a presentation compromise based on the limitations of “static”. The producer of a record doesn’t think “how would I present this content differently if it is going to be distributed as a file rather than a CD?” But the knitting stitch that is shown in eight captioned still pictures in a printed book could just as well be a video in an ebook. And it probably should be.

In fact, this might be the use case for which a consumer would make a media-specific decision. If you know what knitting stitch you need to learn, searching YouTube for a video might make more sense than trying to find instructions in a book!

Losing the 1-to-1 relationship between the printed version and the digital version adds expense and a whole set of creative decisions that are not faced by the music and movie/TV equivalents. And they are also not a concern for the publisher of a novel or a biography. But these are big concerns for everybody in the book business who doesn’t sell straight-text immersive reading. The point is that screen size and quality are not — and never were — the only barriers in the way of other books making the digital leap.

So even though fiction reading has largely moved to digital (maybe even more than half), most of the consumer book business, by far, is still print. Even eye-catching headlines like the one from July when the web site AuthorEarnings (organized and run by indie author Hugh Howey, who is a man with a strong point of view about all this) said “one in three ebooks” sold by Amazon is self-published, might not be as powerful at a second glance.

Although Howey weeds out the ebooks that were given away free, the share of the consumer revenue earned by those indie ebooks would be a much smaller fraction than their unit sales. The new ebooks from big houses, which is a big percentage of the ebook sales they make (and that AuthorEarnings report in July said the Big Five still had an even bigger share of units than the indies), are routinely priced anywhere from 3 to 10 times what indie ebooks normally sell for. So that “share” if expressed as a “share of revenue” might be more like five or ten percent. It really couldn’t be more than 15%.

(In fairness to Howey, he tries to make the point that indie authors earn more from lower revenue because their cut is so much bigger and he makes the argument that they are actually earning more royalties than the big guys. He also tells me that he calls some S-corp and LLC publishers “uncategorized”, even though they are almost certainly indies, in his own attempt to be even-handed. In fairness to the industry, I will point out that his accounting doesn’t take unearned advances into consideration, and since most sales of big house ebooks are of authors who don’t earn out, that lack of information really moots the whole analysis about what authors earn. Another big shortcoming of the comparison is that most published authors are getting a much more substantial print sale than most indie authors.)

But indie authors on Amazon are the industry high-water mark of indie share and ebook share. They are almost entirely books without press runs or sales forces, so they are almost entirely absent from store shelves. And they are also entirely narrative writing.

The facts, apparently, are that even heavy ebook readers still buy and consume print. There is not a lot of clear data about whether “hybrid readers” make their print-versus-digital choice categorically or some other way. There is some anecdata suggesting that some people read print when it is convenient (when they’re home) and digital when it is not. There are a number of bundling offers to sell both (offered by publishers and one called “Matchbook” from Amazon), which certainly seems to say that publishers believe there’s a market of people who would read the same book both ways at the same time!

What that all would seem to say is that the retailer selling ebooks only is seriously disadvantaged from getting searches for books from the majority of readers.

Do we have any independent evidence that selling to the digerati only — selling ebooks only — might limit one’s ability to sell ebooks? I think we do. It would appear that B&N has sold roughly the same number of Nooks as Apple has iPads. (This equivalence will probably not last since Nook sales seem to be in sharp decline.) That is somewhat startling in and of itself, since Apple is perhaps the leading seller of consumer electronics and B&N was entirely new to that game. Nook also seems to have — at least for a while — sold more ebooks than Apple. (This “fact” may also be in the rear view mirror with the apparent collapse of Nook device sales.) I will be so bold as to suggest that this is not because Nook has superior merchandising to the iBookstore. More likely it is because the B&N customer is a heavier reader than the Apple customer and prefers to do his or her book shopping — and even his or her book device shopping — with a bookseller.

[Correction to the above paragraph made on 11 Sept. I misheard and therefore misreported something that was caught by a reader in the comments below, but I should also correct here.  Apple has sold ~200M iPads but are only roughly 12% of the ebook market whereas B&N has sold only about 1/20th the number of Nooks and are about 18% of the ebook market. That fact makes little sense to anyone in Silicon Valley but speaks to how book audiences really behave. We all know a very high % of Nook owners are active store buyers.]

There is one more huge distinction between books and the other media and it is around the motivation of the consumer. While sometimes TV or movies might be consumed for some educational purpose, most of the time the motivation is simply “entertainment”, as it is with music. While analysis of prior video or music consumed and enjoyed might provide clues to what should be next, figuring out what book should be next is a much more complex challenge.

And the clues don’t just come from prior books consumed and enjoyed. Books are bought because people are learning how to cook or do woodworking, or because they are traveling to a distant place and want to learn a new language or about distant local customs, or because they are going to buy a new house or have suddenly been awakened to the need to save for retirement. You can’t really suggest the next book to buy to many consumers without knowing much more about them than knowing their recent reading habits would tell you.

But not only do (most of) the ebook-only retailers not know whether you’re moving or traveling, they don’t even know what you searched for when you were looking for print. And, even if they did know, operating in an ebook-only environment would make many of the best suggestions for appropriate books to address everyday needs off limits, because many of those books either don’t exist in digital form or aren’t as good as a YouTube video to satisfy the consumer’s requirements.

Indeed, it is the sheer “granularity” of the book business — so many books, so many types of books, so many (indeed, innumerable) audiences for books — that makes it so different from the other media.

Of course, there is one company — Google — that is not only in the content business and the search business but which also handles “granularity” better than any company on earth, down to the level of the attributes and interests of each individual. Google not only would know if you were moving or traveling, they would be in a great position to sell targeted ads to publishers with books that would help consumers with those or a million other information needs. (They also know about all your searches on YouTube!) But because Google’s retailing ambitions are bounded by digital, they are walking past the opportunity to be the state-of-the-art book recommendation engine. They’re applying pretty much the same marketing and distribution strategy across digital media at Google Play. They aren’t seeing that book customers are both print and digital. They aren’t seeing that books are, indeed, different.

When the day comes that they do, this idea will look better to them that it might have at first glance.

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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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