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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.


The book world keeps changing, so Digital Book World has to change too

This post invites you to help us shape the agenda for Digital Book World 2015.

It was five years ago this summer that David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media took me out to lunch and said they thought the book business could have a more useful digital conference — one, in their words, that would give you things you could go back to the office and use — than the existing set of conclaves, led by Tools of Change, then provided. And they flattered me and provoked my imagination by saying “we think you’re the guy to program it”.

At the time, I was in a partnership with O’Reilly Media, the owners of Tools of Change, working on an initiative called “StartWithXML”. We had a conference in London coming up as part of our team effort that was only a few weeks away. I wasn’t looking for a way to compete with them.

But, when I thought about it, I realized that by changing the focus of our conference from “technology and publishing” (which was theirs) to “the business challenges created by technology for trade publishers”, we would be able to do something quite different than they had. Agents would be included, and, this being long before the agents were hiring people with digital publishing expertise to help their authors, they weren’t invited to be part of Tools of Change. I knew their voices were important when you talked about how the business of publishing would be affected by digital. And real challenges around resource deployment and marketing, which weren’t strictly-speaking about technology but which were top of mind for trade publishers, would make our agenda when we framed it this way as well.

They named the new conference Digital Book World.

This recommendation really just followed my own advice. I had been observing that book publishers needed to become more “vertical”, by which I meant “audience-specific”, in their thinking. Tools of Change was horizontal; it was about all publishing and technology. We’d focus Digital Book World on a particular segment of publishers and therefore be able to make it more meaningful for them.

Now we are planning our sixth Digital Book World conference for January, 2015. A lot has changed. Tools of Change shut down in 2013. Perhaps partially aided by the disappearance of its biggest competitor, Digital Book World has continued to grow, with more than 25 percent growth in 2014 over the year before.

But a big part of the distinction that guided us as we built DBW, the emphasis on trade publishing, is eroding in importance as the trade itself — which means the bookstores and libraries and the wholesalers that serve them — become less robust paths to the consumer. The challenges for an industry beginning to move from physical goods in stores to virtual goods online are different as the new paradigm becomes the dominant paradigm.

Except for self-published genre fiction (and perhaps even for publisher-issued genre fiction too), that paradigm shift hasn’t really happened yet, but the day when it will is in sight. At some future Digital Book World — not 2015, but maybe 2016 and almost certainly before 2020 — we will be looking at a “trade” book industry which does most of its business online, not through brick-and-mortar stores.

(In fact, the world has changed so much that one thing on my list to discuss is a DBW 2015 panel that would reconsider the whole StartwithXML premise. When we were thinking about this in 2009, we figured the biggest payoff from going through what could be a painful workflow change was that you’d be able to make ebooks of complex books much more efficiently. That’s probably still true, but the ebooks for complex books also haven’t sold very well and their future is a bit cloudy. Knowing that, how important was that change to make, really? We’ll ask some publishers who have gone through it and, depending on what reports we get, perhaps put it on the program for discussion in January.)

All of this not only means that what we have called trade publishers may be renamed, they will also find themselves with new channels to consumers and a new set of competitors. The prospective new landscape will get a great deal of attention from us next January and we are beginning to interact with players that wouldn’t really have belonged at DBW in 2010 or 2011 but who might be smack in the middle of our business by 2017 or 2018.

Who are they? They are educational publishers, both K-12 and college. They are newspapers, magazines, and advertising agencies. And they are digital-first publishers, coming out of web sites and other content creators and brands, who see the opportunity to reach audiences efficiently through a book business that no longer requires a big investment in printed inventory and an organization reaching thousands of small sales outlets for meaningful participation. And they are start-ups and technology companies too.

We are going to start this year by looking for the Venn diagram “overlap” between these new audiences and the trade publishing audience we’ve served for half a decade.

For newspapers, magazines, and advertising agencies, that means we’ll be looking for the players who have already found opportunity in the book publishing ecosystem. Although for all of them ebooks are really a highly complementary opportunity, it looks like newspapers have made that discovery more rapidly than the others. Newspapers and magazines, particularly, have content and consumer-facing brands that create a natural fit for ebook creation and marketing. For advertising, the stretch is a little greater and, frankly, we’ll be looking for pioneers that see the opportunity to promote their clients’ wares using ebook discovery and word-of-mouth as tools. It is inevitable that they will but finding the early visionaries will be the first challenge.

There is a new component of the advertising business called “content marketing” which also, ultimately, seems like a fit for the ebook business. What it means today is that a digital ad agency creates content which promotes a client or product; content which is meant to be found online and delivered for free.

There are two ways that book publishing could — and almost certainly will — be part of this new component, although neither seems to have happened with any regularity yet. One is that the agency-created content could be delivered as an ebook, not just as discoverable web content. This has probably not been the first instinct of the agencies for two reasons. One is that they figure that nobody would “buy” what they’re willing to give away for free. The other is that there’s a bit of a learning curve about how to process content into an ebook and put it into distribution. (Frankly, if you’re willing to live with the ebook being made available only through Kindle — which gets you much more than half the market — the learning “curve” is just about a straight line. Amazon makes it pretty damn simple.)

My niece, Kailey Moran, writes a blog about cars for women for a marketing company called Reynolds and Reynolds. It seems to me like a short step for her to put together an ebook for the same audience on the same subject. Her company isn’t doing that yet. I’m betting that within the next couple of years, they will.

There will also be new interactions occurring between college textbook and school publishers and their counterparts in trade. The educational publishers are moving from being primarily creators and distributors of “textbooks” to becoming creators and managers of “learning platforms”. These not only attempt to contain the syllabus and pedagogy that was in the textbooks, they also provide teachers with monitoring and assessment capabilities. And they will also be the environment in which the required and supplementary reading — often of trade-published books — will take place.

That will increasingly put the educational publishers in the role of aggregators for their institutional customers. This is likely to be a difficult and contentious area for the next several years because trade publishers will have to be satisfied with a new business model. They have historically sold printed books either to institutions (the normal way things happen with public schools) or to the student end-users (the normal way things happen in private schools and colleges). In the latter case, they often are able to make a sale for every user. Doing so is an artifact of the physical world and will get increasingly difficult to do, but trade publishers are understandably reluctant to move quickly to models that pay them less for each use, even if they already sell one printed book for multiple users (over time, because the books don’t wear out) in school situations now.

So the school and college publishers and trade publishers are going to have to talk and I think interaction at Digital Book World could jump-start some conversations.

We are guided in our programming at DBW by our Conference Council, a group of leading industry thinkers — some independent but most of them executives within the industry — who meet with us to discuss the program and then provide suggestions on an ongoing basis for speakers and topics. To prepare for the meeting we schedule to discuss the agenda, we offer our Council the opportunity to offer their opinions about each of the sub-topics we’ve identified under the major headings. (It’s a 2-hour meeting with 30 people or so; we can’t discuss everything and I need the guidance to put things in priority order for time allocation.) This year, for the first time, we are seeking that same input from readers of The Shatzkin Files.

We will be looking to create good programming under seven major themes:

Publishing in a global economy
The changing publishing ecosystem (roles and relationships)
Data-driven publishing
Rethinking marketing
Developing business models
Technology and living on the cutting edge
Education and book publishing are developing a new relationship

If you want to help us decide what are the most important sub-topics under these headings, you can see how we break them down and register your opinion about them on our survey monkey poll. When our Conference Council meets, we will make them aware of the results of this voting, as well as the separate tally we’re keeping of the vote by the Conference Council itself.

And an extra robust thank-you for anybody who can suggest a sub-topic that should have made the list and didn’t.

We don’t really understand the ways of Feedburner, our current (but soon to be past) distributor of the email version of this blog, but it didn’t distribute my last post about when an author should self-publish. So if you’re getting this one by email and didn’t get the last one, we’re trying to make it easy for you to read it now by clicking this link. We will soon be moving over to Mail Chimp so these problems will be in the rear view mirror.

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Ideas about the future of bookselling

There is a vision of online bookselling, which I share, which is that it will become increasingly atomized. Books (and, ultimately, other content too) will be merchandised in unique ways across countless web sites curating and presenting content choices for their own communities and audiences. One early prototype of how this might work is the Random House initiative powering “bookstores” for Politico and Publishers Lunch’s Bookateria.

This is not a new idea. I remember a meeting more than five years ago hosted by O’Reilly Media in New York City to plan the first Tools of Change conference at which Brian Murray of HarperCollins, not yet their CEO, talked about how a way should be found to merchandise books on current affairs topics around and adjacent to today’s news stories that were relevant. The Random House capability, among many other things it can do, readily enables just that.

This is not necessarily bad news for the biggest online retailers like Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Kobo. The Random House execution delivers “their” customers to one of the others to consummate the sale and they’re rewarded for having pushed the “discovery” by collecting referral fees from the etailer  which processes the sale. (How the revenue is split between Random House and the web site providing the screen real estate is not known to me, and presumably only one of a number of moving parts in the negotiations between them.) Doing things this way allows both Random House and their clients to avoid the two biggest (and closely-related) headaches of online bookselling: managing DRM and customer service. In addition, the costs for what is called “card and cart”  — handling credit cards and providing shopping cart technology — are also avoided by handing off the actual transactions.

Bookish, the new discovery engine and bookseller which was financed by three of the Big Six, also offers referrals in addition to their own fulfillment (which is provided by Baker & Taylor).

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex, our go-to guy for understanding the concept of “discovery”, says that bookstores offer discovery combined with availability, a “twofer”. In effect, web sites offering ebooks (and possibly print too) alongside their information and conversation are doing the same thing.

In fact, the same approach makes sense in the brick-and-mortar world, but it is a lot harder to do.

Merchandising is the bottleneck for any retailer, online or in stores, trying to sell books. Which books do you offer? Which books do you feature? What do you discount? This is a challenge online, which is why Random House believes it can build a business helping web sites do it. But it is even more challenging in a physical environment, which requires actual printed books to be displayed, sometimes to be sold and sometimes to be returned.

But smaller and more targeted displays of print books in stores — whether a general selection or one targeted to store’s other customers — also make more sense than big book superstores in the digital era. Physical bookselling locations can offer consumers convenience and speed. If you’re shopping, you can see more titles faster than you can online and you can walk away with your purchase rather than waiting for delivery.

Publishers gain access to their audience through retailers. Non-book retailers, just like web sites, are specialized in some way and they both attract and serve customers if they offer appropriate books.

The challenge for non-book retailers who would like to carry books is stocking them. Almost no matter what a store sells, from clothes to hardware to specialty food, there would be a selection of books that would please their customers and perhaps increase their sales of core items. This is obvious in, say, a crafts store or hardware store where just about everything that’s sold is part of a project (selections of which and instructions for which are often found in books) and could require instruction about how to use it most effectively (also content well suited to books).

Picking the right books is hard work. If the retailer buys them from publishers (whose sales representatives would know their content and could actually guide one to the best title choices for one’s audience), it is a hopelessly fragmented challenge. In many areas, you might find 25 good books that could require you to buy from 10 or more different publishers. The publishers’ sales terms will be one problem (minimum order sizes) and the administrative costs would be far too big to justify considering the small sales the store would get from ancillary merchandise like this. Wholesalers have the books of many publishers, but their teams don’t have the kind of title-level knowledge the store needs to make the selections.

Meanwhile, bookstores labor under a similar constraint. We pointed out in our recent B&N analysis that the cost of their supply chain gets harder to bear as sales of books diminish. Independent bookstores have also always been constrained by the cost of buying, although they don’t really see it that way because it is part of the landscape.

The core point is this: the responsibility for getting the right books onto retail shelves is one that has always belonged to the retailer. That reality encouraged, even required, large book retailing operations: big independent stores and large chains could amortize that cost across far more sales than a small bookstore or a little book department in another retailer.

There is one established way to reduce those costs: vendor-managed inventory. With VMI, the cost of negotiation — of conversation between a “buyer” and a “sales rep” — plummets. In addition, it is actually easier to stock the right books at the right time. A key component of making better decisions is making more decisions that cover shorter prediction times. Ordering more frequently makes it much easier to avoid over-ordering as a protection against going out of stock. That increases stock turn (the key to bookstore profitability) and reduces the need for returns (leaving more margin for both the retailer and the publisher).

As I’ve written previously, a long-standing client of mine called West Broadway Book Distribution has been operating a VMI system in a small number of non-book retailers for a decade. They have a system which interprets the sales reporting and makes restocking decisions based on them automatically. They also have a system to test new titles in a sample of a chain’s outlets to decide whether or not to roll them out. Their automation has enabled them to manage a lot of granularity — thousands of potential titles in more than a thousand stores with the books coming from more than a hundred publishers — profitably and with workable margins for both the retailers and the book-providing publishers.

West Broadway started because its owner had a few books of their own that they wanted to sell to a couple of “women’s hobby” accounts where they already had relationships. We encouraged them to be more ambitious and they were willing to try. So they aggregated the books from many of their competitors, larger and smaller, to add to their own and invested in the VMI system (which they might not have needed to make sales of their own books alone).

That’s a path we should expect to see other specialty publishers taking in the future. Subject-specific knowledge is helpful in doing that (although it can be done successfully without it).

Stocking a general interest store with VMI is much more complicated and will take more time to evolve. But bookstores can take steps in the right direction by consolidating their buying to a smaller number of suppliers and pushing all their really small vendor ordering to a wholesaler (or two) to gain efficiencies from managing fewer vendors.

Remember that one of the keys to efficient stocking is frequent ordering. Bookstores mostly understand that and order from wholesalers every day. But they probably also order directly from dozens of publishers. They do that to gain a little bit of additional margin and, perhaps, to reward the sales rep that calls on them to present the list.

I’m going to say flatly that the margin differential is almost certainly not worth pursuing for what it costs in stock turn (capital tied up) and risk (returns because people buy more copies when they’re tempted by the higher margin order). My father made that clear in numerous examples in his monograph, The Mathematics of Bookselling.

The rep reward is a little more complicated but most publishers these days figure out how to pay their reps for sales that go through the wholesalers.

Any store routinely dealing directly with more than 20 publishers and distributors will almost certainly improve their financial performance by cutting that back and consolidating. They might  lose a little margin; they might miss a couple of smaller-potential titles (but not big ones), but their lives will be simplified and that will save a lot of money.

And with daily ordering from wholesalers, which just about all stores do, it becomes unnecessary to carry more than a copy or two of most books, except for the purpose of display prominence.

Once a bookstore has taken those steps, it is in a position to start demanding some VMI help, even if just from the sales reps. This was an idea that was pioneered in around 1980-81 by an indie in Shaker Heights, OH, called Under Cover Books in a project on which I consulted.

We were too far ahead of our time (the computers were too klunky), but the idea was that we gave the reps reports of how their titles were performing: on-hand, shipments in, and sales. Then they had an inventory ceiling stipulated and were free to order more books, of their choosing, up to the inventory ceiling. We then calculated the inventory’s performance (beyond the scope of this piece to get into that particular detail, but essentially combined the impacts of discount and turn) and raised the inventory level for the most profitable publishers and reduced it for the less profitable.

What defeated us was the complexity of administration. Part of that was because there were so many more smaller publishers then. Part of it was that the only way to communicate the inventory data was by shipping spreadsheets by snail mail (slow and not cheap).

This would be infinitely easier to do today, and the ease would be multiplied if you were only trying to do it with a handful of big suppliers.

I am only aware of one publisher today that has worked corporately on a VMI system for books, and that’s Random House. I believe they initially developed the capability and implemented it for chains: first for Barnes & Noble and more recently for Books-a-Million. But they also seem already to be prepared to offer the service to independents. Since, when the Penguin merger is complete in a few months, stores will be able to get damn near half the most commercial books from Penguin Random House, having “just” them operating VMI would constitute a sharp reduction of the store’s operational demands.

Whether or not this is what they’re thinking at the moment, the new Penguin Random House is bound to find it sensible to employ its VMI capabilities in self-defense to open retail print book outlets in places that are bereft of bookstores in the years to come. Those outlets will have space for shelves, customers and cash registers, but no ability to discern what books they ought to stock or what the timing should be of ordering. They’ll be sought out as necessary because bookstores, which are carrying the requirement of making these stocking decisions, will have increasingly become uneconomic (and therefore defunct).

This vision of the future is of books being sold mostly in stores that aren’t bookstores, enabled by VMI systems that largely don’t exist yet. It would be even better if the VMI vision took hold in time to save some of the bookstores that exist today to survive to that future time when the demands on them to manage inventory will have been ameliorated by necessity.

In my last post, I cited a bunch of suggestions pulled together by Philip Jones for how publishers could help bookstores survive and promised to review them. This post was intended to get to that, but I couldn’t get there within a reasonable number of words. Next time.


Trade publishing isn’t one business and it needs more than one strategy

A dispute broke out on Brantley’s list this morning and I’m in a distinct minority. Maybe a minority of only a bit more than one.

The brouhaha started with observations about ebook pricing, with some very disdainful remarks about Agency pricing in principle and the big publishers’ execution of it in particular. The complaint was “ebook prices are too high” and there was support for Amazon’s protest to the ebook consumers in the UK and even a statement that one should choose what to read based on whether it was priced by Agency rather than wholesale.

Of course, I’m in the camp that believes Agency pricing has, at least (and probably) temporarily, slowed the (still) inexorable downward spiral of ebook prices for branded (big author) books. It has also contributed to breaking Kindle’s hegemony over the ebook market which is not solely a function of deep discounting (it is a great device and a great shopping experience!) As of the last time I checked (two months ago), two Big Six publishers reported to me that the Kindle share for their titles had dropped from the mid-80s to the mid-50s. They no longer dread “the call”, which is the metaphor for the message they feared would come one day from their biggest account saying “I can’t pay $15 for what I sell for $10 anymore; I’m going to give you $5.”

Now, it is possible that the Nook and the iPad would have created a lot of this market erosion under any pricing regimen, but I doubt it. I have heard that Barnes & Noble told publishers last year that Amazon’s ebook pricing was going to kill them and reduce their ability to keep bookstores open if they had to compete with loss leaders in the ebook arena. And Apple still gives a good imitation of an outlet that won’t play except on their Agency terms.

But what really caused the thinkers on the list to take issue was me was my contention that it is logical for the major trade houses to try to keep ebook prices higher in defense of print. From my perspective, the core value proposition of the major houses is “putting books on shelves.” That is the function that requires scale, capital, and a legacy organization with a lot of know-how. If that’s right, the fate of the big publishers is inextricably linked to the fate of brick-and-mortar stores. So of course, they would try to preserve them.

Not all publishers are in the same boat. O’Reilly Media, for example, has told the world that its second largest account is its own aggregated ebook platform, Safari. Print is still important to them, but they’re not nearly as dependent on bookstores as the major trade houses are; they probably sell a higher percentage of even their print online than the big houses do. (They say that Amazon is the one account bigger for them than Safari.) Perhaps it will even be to O’Reilly’s competitive advantage as bookstores diminish, raising the relative value of the customers they can reach directly. O’Reilly is an outstanding example, but not a unique one.

But without bookstore shelves to fill, I fear the major publishers have very little to offer. In their own defense, they tend to fall back on “curation” as their strong suit, but I’m afraid their curation is B2B and the B they curate for is the book trade! They have very little curation “brand” with consumers. I know there are efforts to build marketing capabilities that benefit from scale, but nobody has ever made a convincing case to me that they can do that. Generating robust metadata could benefit from scale if there were real verticality — tagging around the same subject matter again and again — but big trade houses don’t have that.

Another digital head at a big house, responding to my quest for power in scale, pointed out that they’ve been spending scads of money on tax compliance and lawyers. Of course, part of the reason they spend that money is because they have a lot to lose. But it is also true that the tax compliance issues can be offered at scale by third parties. In the US, at least, an outfit called RoyaltyShare is doing just that for publishers trying to live up to the requirements of Agency selling.

We really have at least two trade publishing businesses at the moment, the big houses and everybody else. The big houses pay almost all the substantial advances; they pay the highest royalty rates (which is actually, when you think about it, more than a little bit odd); and they generally get the best terms from their intermediaries. Their executives probably put their pants on one leg at a time (to quote an old baseball line) but, otherwise, they don’t have much in common with everybody else.

When one studies the industry and tries to analyze behavior, it is critical to keep that distinction in mind. It is appropriate that Random House and HarperCollins have a different strategy than O’Reilly or F+W Media for ebook and print pricing and for marketing. They really have different businesses.

All of this recalls the old cliche: where you stand depends on where you sit. If you’re a big publisher, every move you make should consider the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores and you should be doing everything you can to preserve them for as long as possible. That’s the first element of a survival strategy. The second element could be to try to be “last one standing”. Our client Ingram has demonstrated with two recent deals (with Macmillan and with Springer) how publishers can pull back from their massive bookstore-supporting infrastructures but, even so, a diminution in bookstore shelf space is going to force consolidation. Maybe big houses will merge their back offices (which is, in effect, what Ingram is offering as a third party) but I think it is more likely that we’ll see a lot of mergers in the next ten years.

The most important metric for big publishers to watch over the next few years is “total shelf space available for books in retail stores.” (I’ve even come up with a pretty simple way to track that and suggested it to one of the companies that could provide it.) That’s almost certainly not the most important metric for upstart and vertical publishers.

It is often said that the big mistake railroads made was not realizing they were in the transportation business, or they wouldn’t have let airlines pass them by. I don’t buy that; running a railroad in no way qualifies you to run an airline, let alone to invent one. One listmember in the discussion in which I appeared to convince nobody suggested that the big publishers should focus on how to be more upstart and more vertical. I am afraid that trying to be something that you’ve never been is a very hard path to follow.

All this means that you need to think about which publishers you’re talking to and about when you frame conversations. At Digital Book World, for example, we’ll have a panel on ebook distribution for small and midsized publishers. But we’ll also have some unique research about the ebook royalty deals being made which focuses on agents and big publishers. The experience of smaller publishers, who almost always pay higher royalties, would almost certainly just confuse the issue. Any “industry data” that doesn’t separate the bigs from the smalls has to be parsed very carefully or it could lead to wildly erroneous conclusions.


Introducing E2BU, indispensible for anybody investing in ebook enhancement

Last winter, before the announcement of the Agency model as the path to ebook price maintenance, some major publishers had acknowledged out loud that enhancing ebooks in various ways would be the way to keep the public paying print book prices for content.

That got me thinking. First I thought about the CD-Rom debacle of the mid-1990s. But then I thought: if publishers are going to be spending time and money enhancing their ebooks, maybe this time around it can be done thoughtfully and knowledgably. And that’s where the idea for Enhanced Ebook University, E2BU, came from.

E2BU is a partnership of The Idea Logical Company and Digital Book World, the unit of F+W Media with which we work on an annual conference. We are providing the content and our Digital Book World partners are providing the hosting, tech, and marketing. We’re delighted that, so far, Aptara and Copia have signed on as sponsors. We’re starting out with three core offerings which we hope the larger community of the ebook-interested will find of value.

Our White Paper, entitled “Enhanced Ebooks Today and Tomorrow: A Survey for Authors and Publishers”, is a soup-to-nuts survey of the possibilities inherent in enhanced ebooks, written for the publishing people, not the geeks. We hired Peter Meyers to write it. Pete is the former editor of O’Reilly’s Missing Manuals series and, as near as I can tell, the person on the planet who has done more thinking about how the ebook experience can be enhanced than any other. Pete was already working on his own project, “A New Kind of Book” when we met. He has written a really solid study, which itself was “enhanced” by peer review from more than two dozen industry professionals.

E2BU will also launch a series of nine webinars for publishing professionals on June 29. The first session in the series will be free. The kickoff program describes the “state of the art” for enhanced ebooks today. In later sessions, we will cover the complex rights issues that ebook enhancements raise, the complications of multiple platforms, the options for and challenges to producing enhanced ebooks, and issues of analytics and marketing.

Our webinar moderator is Kirk Biglione, whose Oxford Media Works advises publishers and others on tech issues. Kirk is also the Chief Technology Officer for the whole E2BU project. Joining Kirk for the kickoff session will be Jessica Goodman of Wiley (who will talk about their amazing How to Cook Everything app), Theodore Gray of Touch Press (behind the renowned iPad app, The Elements), and Rhys Cazenove of Enhanced Editions in London (the creators of one of last year’s most successful enhanced ebooks, Bunny Munro.)

In addition to the webinar series, E2BU plans a special session especially for authors who, we believe, will find it increasingly necessary to know what ebook enhancement is all about and to be preparing material for enhancement as they create their books.

The third offering will be the E2BU Resource Directory. The Directory will be an increasingly robust guide to services on offer to help publishers with ebook enhancement. It will cover app and web developers, software, a/v, development tools, digital conversion, media production partners, DADs, content management services, analytics, and social media/ereading platforms. The Directory will launch with over 100 company listings.

The entire E2BU project is overseen by Jess Johns of The Idea Logical Company, who will take charge of the blog and field what we expect will be many suggestions for more webinars and Directory entries.

So what is a guy like me, who is a skeptic about many aspects of ebook enhancement and who makes a living trying to get publishers to do “the right thing”, doing creating a program like this?

I see signs everywhere that, even though the initial impetus for ebook enhancement — that it would help maintain prices — has receded a bit, the impulse to explore the possibilities remains very strong. Our analysis of publishing’s “shift” includes the observation that format-specific publishing will yield to format-agnostic publishing. Format-specificity was a requirement of the physical world; you couldn’t distribute printed books through the airwaves and you couldn’t embed in a magazine.  When content creators and audience owners deliver to their customers through files, constraints disappear. Files can be anything: words, pictures, sound, moving images, amination, games, productivity software. Newspaper web sites have had an explosion of video content in the past few years; reporters are often carrying flip-cams these days.

And publishers are feeling an increased need to master video. On a recent tour of HarperCollins, I was shown the new TV production facility they have in the New York office. They do author interviews whenever authors come in. Last week, Peter Kaufman, a longtime TV and publishing veteran, was explaining his ideas about a holistic approach to video creation for publishers which he believes could save them lots of money and deliver them much higher-quality footage for various uses.

On the same day, I saw the Managing Director of an independent literary publisher in London who is currently hiring a video professor for his staff. Earlier in the week, we had a visit from a game developer who wants to develop game “apps” for publishers built around the characters and plots of books they are already publishing.

In other words, publishers are going to be spending money and effort enhancing their ebooks, whether Mike Shatzkin’s instincts say that’s likely to pay off or not. It would be best if that were a thoughtful process. Publishers investing in enhancement should do so understanding the full range of possibilities and having absorbed an informed dialogue about what their effors are likely to mean to the reader and the author, critical stakeholders who are sometimes a bit inconvenient to consult during development. We’re confident that the whole E2BU program: the paper, the webinars, and the directory, will help publishers make sounder — and less risky — ebook enhancement decisions.

I would add that while all this is going on, I am currently reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my iPhone and wishing that they’d built in a way for me to identify all those Swedish proper nouns with a click. That would be enhancement I could really go for.


With new opportunities come new challenges

This blog and my speeches contain frequent references to what we see as the big shifts the book publishing industry, and some publishers more than others, are feeling. The horizontal and format-specific product-centric media of the 20th century are inexorably yielding to the vertical and format-agnostic community-centric delivery environment for content that will soon predominate.

In that context, we’ve observed that the most general publishers are the most challenged. The distinction between publisher and retailer is blurring; in a decade or two it will be a distinction without much difference. What has always been the source of competitive advantage to trade publishers is leverage; they could reach thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of customers for their wares through retail channels that aggregated audiences for content creators and curated content for consumers.

The non-trade components of the book business: publishers of textbooks, professional information, databases, and academic content already tended to specialize by subject so the challenge of being audience-specific, a prerequesite to creating community, had already been met. Non-trade publishers had never depended much on horizontal intermediaries. Even in college textbook publishing, which depended (and still largely does) on the college bookstore to actually deliver the product and collect the consumer’s money, the marketing component of the bookstore’s contribution was and is minimal. The publisher works vertically through a network of professors to drive adoptions, and adoptions are what drive the sales.

Trade publishers, which are called trade publishers because they reach consumers through “the trade” network of bookstores, libraries, and the wholesalers that serve them, have been generally alert since the 1970s to the importance of what are generically called “special sales”. Those are sales that come from outside the book trade, often from retailers in other channels. Special sales experts learned pretty quickly that you did better when you had a selection of books for an audience. If you had one book of Jewish interest, you couldn’t do much with it. If you had a dozen, it could make sense to buy a mailing lists of rabbis. If you had one home repair book, you couldn’t afford the cost of setting up relationships with retailers of hardware or construction materials (particularly thinking back to days before those outlets had consolidated into giant retailers like Home Depot and Loew’s.) But if you had a list, then the mutual interest in a relationship was obvious to both sides.

Some publishers specialized. When I was consulting with Wiley in the 1980s as they were developing their fledgling trade program, they brought their philosophy of really covering the needs of a vertical market from sci-tech to trade. They didn’t want just one resume book for job-hunters: they wanted one at every sensible price point and different ones for different kinds of jobs. One day a sales rep called in from the road to suggest that they deliver a book on the cover letters that should go out with resumes. They already knew they had a market through specialized customers of all kinds and through their direct mail efforts. The lists that worked for resume books would also work for cover letter books.

The most “general” of the general trade publishers tended not to develop the same depth of specialized lists. When Wiley considered that cover letter book, they knew they’d be able to sell it very efficiently and they knew it would enhance their relationship with individuals and channel partners through and to which they were already selling a lot of books. Would the cover letter book be big? Possibly not, but it didn’t have to be to make it clearly worth doing.

But the big trade houses were not built that way. And the biggest books, the sexiest books, the most exciting books, don’t tend to be in niches. In fact, niche identification can dampen sales in a general trade market. The CEO of a major house told me a couple of years ago that he didn’t want to label a book that could become a betseller a “mystery” title. Mystery was a “category” (read: “niche”) and, while those books tended to meet theshhold expectations more readily, he perceived them as harder to break out to the sales levels they could achieve if they were perceived as unique.

We are now seeing the early signs of what will soon be a tendency, then a trend, and then a stark reality: you just can’t sell as many copies of most books if you don’t have a proprietary position with a vertical audience. The early signs are evident through companies like O’Reilly Media (computer programming and technology), Hay House (mind body spirit), Chelsea Green (sustainable living), Harvard Common Press (cookbooks and pregnancy-childbirth), and F+W Media (several niches, including writers and crafts), which have special retail channels and huge email lists of individual customers that the big houses simply don’t. Niche by niche, the big houses will find it impractical to publish in areas that were once productive for them. Their need for each book to be “big” individually — for the single title to provide its own critical mass — works against what you must do to be “big” in a niche. To do that requires a more across-the-list kind of thinking that is counterintuitive to a company that makes the lion’s share of its sales through trade channels.

So for just about all the books that aren’t novels, memoirs, celebrity-driven, or epic works of popular history or politics, trade publishers are increasingly handicapped. Unfortunately for them, things are going to get worse.

The obvious problem is that the capacity of the general trade market to merchandise and move product is diminishing. I hate to invoke the old wisdom that many things happen “gradually, then suddenly”, but it is often true and we have been gradually losing bookstores for the past decade. What happens to the economics of the big publishers if we lose a big chunk of superstores pretty suddenly?

I recall a dinner conversation with the Chairman  of a large diversified multi-niche publisher two years ago. Even back then, we were speculating about the possible sudden demise of Borders. (Hey! It hasn’t happened; maybe we were wrong!) My dinner companion said, “you know, Mike, we’re as diversified as a publisher can be, but if Borders went out, we’d definitely feel it. It would really hurt us.”

“Temporarily,” I said. He needed me to explain.

“Sure, you’ll suffer a bad debt if they go out. That hurts right now. But over the next couple of years, you’ll get a lot of cheap and useful assets from competitors of yours that couldn’t withstand the blow. By a couple of years from now, you’ll be ahead.”

“You may be right,” he said.

So even with the obvious problem, a multi-niche publisher has a big advantage over a general publisher, just as it does over smaller niche players. But the ground for the general publishers is about to shift in ways that will be even more challenging.

Because “book publishing” in an increasingly vertical world is less and less about content sales in the unit of “books” (although that will be the lion’s share of revenue for a long time) and more and more about sales bigger than the book (databases that stretch across many books and other things too) or smaller than the book (chapters or fragments that naturally stand alone or which address a particular content need.) The iPhone app as a unit of delivery is accelerating the latter trend. The value of a database across titles has long been demonstrated by O’Reilly’s “Safari” offering, which generates more revenue for them than all but one trade account.

As the percentage of a publisher’s revenue that is generated by fragments and aggregations rises, so does the value of being vertical and, especially, so does the value of a direct relationship with the end users. The fragments piece is especially important, especially challenging, and requires new ways of thinking (and perhaps new contracts.) For example, Dominique Raccah, the visionary leader of Sourcebooks, whose Poetry Speaks is building a model for vertical community building, has found that many publishers of poetry aren’t sure they have the rights to license her vertical to sell individual poems! Does that mean she has to go directly to the poets for those rights? And how long will it be before it is more important to a poet to have their individual poems available for sale on Poetry Speaks than to have them available in a publisher’s collection bound as a book?

Bruce Shaw, the longtime empresario of Harvard Common Press, is demonstrating another aspect of this thinking that we’ve expected for a long time but hadn’t seen in practice before. He told us about a macaroni and cheese cookbook his house was considering for publication. Normally, Bruce reports, that’s a subject they’d skip because it just isn’t distinctive enough to make the ambitous sales targets he normally sets for print publications. But, in this case, he’s doing the book because his overall recipe database (all the thousands of recipes HCP has published in over 30 years in business) is light on mac and cheese recipes. So he’s willing to publish the book, knowing he’s going to make less profit than he normally requires, because it is a subsidized way to improve the value of his overall database of recipes.

The question of selling fragments opens up a host of other challenges: figuring out what is a saleable fragment, tagging it with an identifier and metadata, managing transaction costs for a much higher volume or low-value transactions, and retro-fitting accounting systems to process author royalties that will require increasingly complex analysis of smaller amounts of money.

In fact, there is opportunity on what might be viewed as a micro- or nano-level of transaction, too small for even a niche publisher to manage the customer relationship and the transaction. That is going to present new opportunities for our client, Copyright Clearance Center, which we’ll elaborate on in future posts.

There’s a great deal of new opportunity out there but a lot of it is in pennies, not hundred dollar bills.

Let’s hear it for Wifi in the air! This is the first post for The Shatzkin Files filed from an airplane. Boy, did I have fun at Spring Training!


O’Reilly’s Offer of Distribution Points to a Larger Change

One of the most significant pieces of news to come out of Tools of Change is that O’Reilly is going into the distribution business for ebooks. This is indeed, a “tool” of change. It is also a harbinger of times to come that threaten a lot of big companies: major publishers; the big distributors like Perseus, NBN, and IPG; the digital asset distributors including Ingram, LibreDigital, North Point codeMantra, and the fledgling operation at Bookmasters; as well as the digital wholesaling operations at Ingram, Content Reserve, and Baker & Taylor.

The O’Reilly offer is to do whatever conversion is necessary to deliver files to a wide range of ebook channels for free and then to make the ebooks available through that retailing network for a charge of 25% of the dollars received. One prospective client told me that O’Reilly is willing to do a one-year contract.

This both an object lesson and a serious shot across the bow of the legacy giants of the print book business.

We’ve made the point here before that big publishers have a competitive advantage built on print-world capabilities, among them being the ability to get fast printings and reprints; the ability to quickly move books in and out of a distribution center; the ability to ship books according to the receiving requirements of many intermediaries, large and small; and a strong sales network with accounts, mostly brick-and-mortar, that sell printed books. All of these things require pretty massive scale. You couldn’t consider doing them well yourself for a $1 million (in sales) company or a $10 million company and it would be challenging to be competitive doing them with a $50 million company.

The scale required to do effective print book distribution affects both the supply and the demand in the distribution business. It means there are a lot of companies too small to do it well for themselves (creating lots of demand) and very few companies with the scale to do it well (creating a limited supply of providers.) Even so, as the need for scale along with declining overall sales have driven the big publishers deeper and deeper into the distribution business (pushing up the supply of distributors), prices for distribution have fallen steadily for at least the past decade.

Of course, anything that requires expertise benefits from some scale to develop it. And that’s what O’Reilly has in digital distribution. Partly because of the nature of the company’s audience, but largely because they have been aggressive and innovative about exploring every conceivable avenue for ebook distribution and developing a tool set that makes it possible for them to try new channels and opportunities quickly, O’Reilly has more scale, and therefore more expertise, than anybody else in consumer ebook distribution (except, arguably, some publishers in the romance space.) It is quite believeable that they can put ebooks into more channels with more efficiency than anybody else. And that’s an expertise that is largely (but not completely) topic-agnostic.

So we have a real Man Bites Dog story here. In the print world, O’Reilly is distributed by Ingram, which has invested heavily in ebook distribution. But not only does Ingram not get to be the distributor of their client’s ebooks, O’Reilly is issuing what amounts to an open invitation for all other publishers, including their fellow distributees at Ingram, to use them for ebook distribution.

(In his wrap-up talk at Tools of Change, Tim O’Reilly referenced a remark John Ingram had made to him at dinner the night before. On reflection, one wonders how the part of the the dinner conversation about ebook distribution went.)

This new challenge is playing itself out all across the distribution landscape. In the past week I have had two conversations with smaller publishers who have distributors on the print side. One is repped by one of the big independent distributors and the other by one of the Big Six. Both are planning their ebook distribution strategies, and neither of them intends to use their print distributor to help in any way.

The one distributed by an indie distributor is seriously tempted by the O’Reilly offer. This well-established company is quite comfortable taking responsibility for its own sales if they don’t need scale to handle it, so they have already pulled Amazon out of their print distribution deal. They planned to do digital on their own. They’ve had a digital workflow for a while, so their current books are in XML documents that make ebook conversion pretty straightforward. (If the offer of totally free content conversion is correct, then O’Reilly may have developed some tools helping them automate the way to from PDF or epub to XML. And they solve the problem of getting from XML to anything else that comes along for all their books.) But this publisher still have an extensive backlist that needs conversion to XML. This company sees a 1-year contract with O’Reilly as a possible way to get the conversion done and to get a line on a large number of points of ebook merchandising that they might otherwise not have known. In any case, the big print book distributor — with all its sunk costs and infrastructure and years of performance and relationship — isn’t even getting consideration.

The other company, distributed by a Big Six publisher, has also decided that digital distribution through its print distributor is a non-starter. They have been looking at the many Digital Asset Distributors to handle their conversion and distribution and have been close to settling on one. This company also has a legacy conversion challenge. Might they now want to put the deal they’re close to on hold and explore O’Reilly?

I would if I were in their shoes.

Cader wrote Wednesday (behind his pay wall) about the smaller trade publishers who have been slow to enter the ebook marketplace. He springboards from the results of a survey Perseus did of its clients and which formed the basis of a presentation they did at Tools of Change. Cader observes that 2/3 of Perseus’s 300 clients don’t use their Constellation service, their digital publishing assistance program (book distributor as DAD), at all. And, of those that do, he says:

Making ebooks available at all though looks to remain the biggest challenge for the survey group. The largest segment, 33 percent, said that fewer than 10 percent of their titles would be available as ebooks in 2010. Another 26 percent said half or fewer would be available, with just 30 percent expecting to have 75 percent to 100 percent of their titles available.

As ebook sales climb to very desireable levels, publishers of all sizes will pursue the revenue opportunities they represent. Trade book distributors have always lived on the reality that they provide the necessary scale to enable publishers to do what they do well that needs no scale: pick, develop, and deliver books people want. What requires a bit more scale but less to the publisher that specializes, and most small publishers do, is marketing. Distributors have never been much help there, frankly.

This perspective of the distributor was made very clear by the best-delivered presentation at Tools of Change, the one from Skip Prichard, the CEO of the Ingram Content Group. Skip was basically saying to the publishers: you do the content, we’ll do the rest. I know that Ingram’s perspective on a problem I’ve written about before — that publishers will have increasing trouble supporting the big infrastructures they have built for print — is that the publishers’ challenge creates opportunity for them.

And on the print side — the diminishing side — that is definitely true. What is not nearly as clear is whether on the ebook side — the growing side — they will face new, smaller competitors who have built a strongly competitive infrastructure without needing to be nearly as big. If that’s also true, then, one suspects, O’Reilly is not the only relative upstart that will be taking real business away from established players in the very near future.

There is actually a nice extension to this post that ties in nicely with my prior one on title P&Ls and the Motoko Rich piece in the Times about ebook pricing, but I’m going to leave that as a teaser for another one I may write someday because I’ve gone on long enough for now.

While I’m in Florida watching baseball games, as I am now and will be for the next few days, take a few minutes to respond the BISG survey supporting the “Points of No Return” Making Information Pay conference we’re organizing for May 6.


Some thoughts about piracy

As part of the program-creation process for Digital Book World, I had a round of conversations with the top executives of the Big Six companies to discuss the agenda, mostly with the CEOs. The purpose of the check-ins was to find out what topics the CEOs wanted their companies to speak about and, of course, which they wanted to avoid for reasons of diplomacy, commercial politics, or legality.

One topic I had left out of our program initially was “piracy”. Some of the executives I met with found this a very troubling omission. My first reaction was “what’s there to discuss? We’re all against piracy and there isn’t much we can do about it. So what else do we say?” Although there are two of the big houses where that view is, to some extent, shared, most of the others disagree, some vehemently. In fact, Macmillan has a “seven point program” to confront and combat piracy, which will now be the topic of a presentation by Macmillan president Brian Napack on the first morning of Digital Book World.

The topic of piracy is a part of the conversation about “digital rights management”, software that manages how a file can be used. DRM is a pretty standard aspect of software and DVD distribution but it comes in for a lot of complaint and criticism from very knowledgeable observers and participants in the ebook scene.

There is a “first sale” doctrine in copyright law that gives the purchaser of a book (or sound recording or DVD) the right to give away or re-sell that good. It does not give the right to sell or give away a copy, but it does allow you to “share” your book or CD or DVD with your mother, your sister, and your aunt and then to sell the used copy on eBay. Those rights have never really extended to software, which often knows if you’re trying to load it onto a second computer and won’t let you. Attempts to control sharing of music through DRM are commonly blamed for the piracy that became rampant in that sphere (although I don’t buy that; there are other explanations I find more compelling.)

The question of DRM-or-not in the ebook world is a very complicated one, although opponents of DRM often paint it as very simple. O’Reilly Media sells its ebooks “DRM-free”, as do some upstart ebook first publishers. The ebook self-publishing site, Smashwords, also sells only DRM free from their own site, although Smashwords-originated files might have DRM added by intermediary resellers, with which it is making more and more deals.

The opponents of DRM point to the incontrovertible fact that its existence does not stamp out piracy, which is transparent at a time when you can type just about any book title into Google with the word “file” after it and be directed to sites that offer you a free pirated download. In fact, even not publishing the book digitally is insufficent DRM to keep it from pirate distribution.

Mark Coker of Smashwords, despite the fact that he sells onlyDRM-free ebooks from his site, is an avowed opponent of piracy, and even of sharing. He suggests a boilerplate notice in his ebooks that tell you that you should go buy another copy of this book you’re about to read if you didn’t buy this one, or else you’re cheating the author. Mark believes the key to combating piracy is education; he admits to an unusually strong faith in consumer integrity.

But despite the lengthy introduction, this post is not about DRM; it’s to propose what is the ultimate defense against piracy: ebooks that aren’t static; ebooks that change.

The secret sauce behind O’Reilly’s DRM-free policy is that when you buy an ebook from them, you are entitled to the updates to that ebook…forever. The implicit message there is there will be updates.

There is no better antidote to piracy than this. If the pirated or peer-to-peer edition of a book is yesterday’s, or last week’s, and the book is changing, then it’s yesterday’s paper (which the Rolling Stones noted long ago, “nobody in the world” wants.)

This is beyond wrenching to publishers; it completely changes the workflow and it completely changes the business model. The rhythm of a publishing house is based on the fact that books are, at some point, finished. There is a Henry Ford assembly line aspect to how things have always worked. Whether you’re an editor, a marketer, or a sales person, new books have a pretty reliable “cycle” for you: their existence in your life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The conveyor belt moves the book away from you so you can’t spend too much time on it and can move on to the next one. Having authors not stop adding to or changing a book, even after it’s published, is totally disruptive. And what would we do about the ISBN numbers?

Yet, the possibility for ebooks to be totally up-to-date is one publishers can’t ignore. The Little, Brown division at Hachette has just announced that on December 1 it is publishing a 2,000 word update on the H1N1 (swine flu) virus in the ebook edition of “The Vaccine Book”, which was originally published in 2007. If something startling happened that should change that text on February 1, wouldn’t it make sense for them to update the book again? In October, Wiley published, as an ebook only, “The Swine Flu: The New Pandemic” because they wanted to get the most up-to-date information out quickly. By that logic, wouldn’t they also want to update their ebook if what was up-to-date in October isn’t in March?

And if they did that, what possible value would a pirated edition of yesterday’s ebook have?

Of course, swine flu is a dynamic subject. It isn’t a novel; it isn’t history. It isn’t even programming or software development or technology, the subjects O’Reilly publishes (and often updates.) But every editor knows plenty of authors of non-fiction books that wanted to keep writing and changing and adding past every deadline the house presented. Let the new process start with those; there will be plenty of candidates.

Furthermore, the biggest threat from pirated ebooks is to the most established franchise authors. I believe Tim O’Reilly is responsible for two cogent and pithy observations about piracy: that obscurity is a greater threat to most authors than piracy, and that piracy is “progressive taxation.” Both express the reality that the marketing for most books fails to reach most of the book’s potential audience. That Henry Ford assembly line conveys the book away from the marketers before the task of informing the entire potentially-interested public is anywhere near complete. So piracy, or file-sharing that may fall short of actual piracy, can serve the purpose of spreading the word about a book and triggering more sales. Except there are some authors, and those are the ones that sell the most books for the biggest publishers, who don’t need marketing to inform their audience; their audience, in effect, informs their audience! And those are the ones who would surely lose sales if there were no DRM and books could be freely shared or are made available through illicit channels.

But those authors are also the ones who have the biggest personal followings. They are the most capable of adding material: notes about what they’re working on, correspondence with fans or critics, even observations about other people’s books, that would add some value for many of the readers of their stories. In fact, a regular “update to my readers” from a top-flight author that is available only in their ebooks, or to purchasers of their ebooks, would be an attraction to many and could serve as a constant reminder that downloading their books from illegitimate sources is cheating them.

I’m not against DRM in principle and I’m all for combating piracy any way we can (and I have a couple of thoughts on that subject I’ll save for a subsequent post.) But I am far from certain that piracy represents the same existential threat to book publishers that it did to record companies, although we have others: the music business isn’t nearly so threatened by the shift to vertical.

One of my favorite people in the digital book business, who once worked in the music business said to me: “I don’t worry about piracy. I did in the music business because music was bought by kids. My customers are 53-year old ladies. They don’t go to pirate sites. They’d be afraid of getting a virus!” She’s right about that, at least for today. But for those who are concerned about piracy, I am not sure this problem can be attacked with toughness and muscle as effectively as it would be with creativity and delivering to the market something the pirates just can’t keep up with.

We have observed previously that the day will likely come when Big Authors will go straight to electronic distribution for some ebooks, bypassing the publishers to collect bigger royalties. What could be the first shot of that battle, and a reflection of the ideas in this post as well, may have been fired in the UK where Sony has announced a special edition James Patterson ebook which will contain the new book, “Cross Country”, a month before its general release plus other excerpts and a special letter from James Patterson. Of course, that deal was probably made by the publisher with Patterson’s cooperation, but it points to possibilities that should make publishers nervous.


“Vertical” versus “service”: semantics, nuance, or dueling metaphors?

Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly Media and I definitely agree on some things, the principal one being that it is going to get harder and harder for people to get paid for content. And it is going to become more and more necessary for a publisher to be branded as “of value to the community” to have any business at all. But Andrew sees the governing paradigm as “service”, and he, sometimes very logically and sometimes tautologically, can explain content purchases as actually being service purchases. And, indeed, sometimes they are.

We all are prisoners of our experience and Andrew draws heavily on O’Reilly’s. O’Reilly is a unique publishing company because its audience — its community — is as tech-ept as the publisher itself. O’Reilly has a coherent product offering, which is, in and of itself, a “service.” It is also, in and of itself, a “vertical.” And that’s where Andrew and I differ in our interpretation of what we’re seeing when we look at the same thing. O’Reilly is actually serving a vertical (so we’re both right). But the question for the larger publishing world is, “which (“service” or “vertical”) is the real core concept?” Which is the one that best enables other publishers to visualize and build a business model that will work for them?

Of course, either paradigm breaks down if you try to suggest it is universal, and particularly that it is universal today. To defend the “nobody pays for content, just for service” meme, Andrew must attribute your willingness to pay for a movie as the price for a social experience, or the price of having somebody put it on a big screen for you and sweep up the popcorn that you spill while watching it. I’d say you’re just buying the content in different forms whether you go to the movie or rent the DVD, but that wouldn’t fit the meme.

The clinching metaphor in Andrew’s piece is that we aren’t actually buying food when we go to a restaurant (because, if we were, we’d just buy it at the grocery store.) This is tricky, because, indeed, you do want that hamburger cooked and served on a bun and you want a place to sit while you eat it and maybe some ketchup supplied. So, in fact, you’re buying both food and service. You wouldn’t patronize the restaurant if they didn’t give you the food, so it seems a bit of a stretch to say it isn’t what you’re buying!

But Andrew wants to explain a phenomenom he sees over and over again at O’Reilly: that they are able to sell their content even though it is available free in some other form. He sees the indispensible component that allows that to happen that the content is somehow packaged to be more useful and therefore performs a “service.”

I’d say the indispensible component is that O’Reilly has a trusted brand in a community, which means the community looks to O’Reilly for answers. That enables the company to sell their content in contextual ways that would not be accessible to a publisher that had the same content but did not have the same community attention, the same brand.

Andrew believes that service is what the O’Reilly customer “is paying for when they buy one of our Cookbooks (which contain “Recipes” for how to accomplish specific tasks with a particular computer language or technology, often culled and curated from material and techniques previously published in blog posts, mailing lists, or help forums). I asserted that rather than the content itself, people are paying for the preparation of that content, to the extent that it helps them solve their problems more quickly and conveniently. When you think about what we do as a service business, then it makes perfect sense: readers are paying us for the service of finding a bunch of great and interesting stuff, and putting it together in a convenient package. It’s the convenience of not having to find it themself, and the concise package that saves them from having to dig through a bunch of web bookmarks or search results.”

First of all, distinguishing between “paying for content” and “paying for preparation of content” is a pretty fine line. Every piece of content bought and sold in the history of man has been “prepared” in some way. Repackaging, recombining, and repositioning content — selling the same content with different preparation — is within the experience of every publisher of any size.

And it is also nothing new for content to provide a service (and, it is not necessary to be cute about it, like claiming it provides the “service of entertaining you.”) It isn’t a stretch to say that any Dummies book is providing you a service, just like any other how-to book. A book that shows you how to get start a corporation or get a divorce is providing a service. Those books had been around for decades before there was an Internet.

But how does the capability of O’Reilly to sell that content (as a service) look when viewed through the “vertical” lens? Like a natural, I’d say. When you’ve got the attention of a community, you can present the same things to them in different ways and at different price points, in context, because you are familiar with them and their needs in a very immediate way.

Andrew’s piece concludes with a lengthy quote by Kevin Kelly defending the enduring role of PSLs (publishers, studios, and labels) in a paragraph that starts, rather confusingly, with touting the value of two aggregators who are not Ps, Ss, or Ls (Amazon and Netflix.) The point to the graf is that creators (of content) need aggregators “for the distribution of the users’ attention back to the works.” Kelly and I are in solid agreement on that: the publisher’s main job (and “service” to the writer!) is that the publisher makes the user aware of the work.

So Kelly’s point, which is the final summation quote from Savikas, is about marketing, not about service. And marketing, as we have said repeatedly, most recently and elaborately in the Shift speech, is the reason that publishers have to get vertical.

The distinction between what Andrew is saying about “service” and what we say here about “vertical” is nuanced. Rarely can”service” be delivered broadly; it has to be targeted so vertical becomes a sine qua non. And anybody really trying to build a vertical will do it by offering service and tools, which they would hope would also lead to the ability to sell content.

Our vision has been that content should be used as “bait” to attract community members and, indeed, that services are a key component to keep communities involved. We believe that, before long, very few publishers who don’t have real brand identification to communities will be able to profitably sell content.

Without disparaging the notion that service needs to be a much more important component of publishing thinking that it has ever been before, I am still convinced that the “vertical” lens, rather than the “service” lens, is the place publishers have to start to understand how their businesses will be changing in the 21st century.