Oyster

Subscriptions are in the news this week


Subscriptions for ebooks are certainly in the news this week. Amazon just announced their Kindle Unlimited offering, taking its place beside Oyster and Scribd as a “one price for all you can eat” Netflix- or Spotify-for-ebooks program. And the Book Industry Study Group has released a lengthy and fact-filled report from Ted Hill and Kate Lara covering subscriptions across publishing segments.

It is hard to quarrel with the report’s contention that “subscriptions are here to stay”. The report makes clear, and documents extensively, that there are a great variety of ways subscriptions can be offered and that tools making it easier to manage them are becoming cheaper, better, and more ubiquitous. The report suggests that subscriptions could occur for as narrow an offering as one author’s works. As technology enables subscription offers to be economically viable with less and less revenue, the tendency for more and more publishers to want to “own” their customers, combined with the tendency for publishers to build up their intellectual property inventory in an audience-centric (vertical) way, either organically or by acquisition, it is easy to see how they could proliferate.

When I have expressed skepticism in the past about the commercial viability — or commercial importance — of subscription services, my intention was (is) to confine my skepticism to broad-based services like KU, Oyster, and Scribd. In other segments, the viability of the model is obvious. Safari has operated successfully for a decade-and-a-half. Journal publishers figured out in the 1990s that selling annual access to the whole catalog of their publications, including backlist, was an opportunity presented by digital delivery because of the value of being able to search across the catalog. The science-fiction publisher Baen has had an apparently successful subscription offering for years. And patron-driven acquisition, which the BISG report calls a form of subscription (loose defining, to be sure), allows a publisher’s whole catalog to be exposed to a library’s patron base with purchase decisions to follow (rather than patrons only being able to see what a library had already bought) just makes sense for everybody.

But the consumer ebook business is a different animal and it is far from obvious (to me) that a model can be constructed that will satisfy all the stakeholders and provide profits for the model owner. But the pieces are certainly in place for us to find out.

It is clear from the catalogs presented by KU, Oyster, and Scribd that the jury on subscriptions is still out because big publishers are still reluctant to participate. No Big Five house has put books into Kindle Unlimited. Only HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster are (as yet) participating with Oyster and Scribd. Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Hachette have — so far — held out. What those houses do in the next few months will tell us a lot about how likely the concept of the broad-based ebook subscription is to succeed in the future.

The BISG report surmises, and I agree, that only PRH could possibly deliver a general subscription offer on their own. I “predicted” some time ago that they would. A top Random House strategist tried to set me straight on that some months ago. This person asked the rhetorical question: “why would we want to turn $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers?” Last week, an even more senior executive, recalling that s/he had read this speculation from me told me directly and assertively, “we aren’t going to do that.” (Random House executive Madeline McIntosh is quoted in the Hill-Lara report issued by BISG saying “Many people who are buying our books today are spending more than they would with a subscription.  If that amount starts to dip, then subscription services will become more interesting to us.”)

These people are straight shooters. I believe them when they describe their current intentions. But what if Scribd and Oyster and KU build big subscriber bases? And what if those subscriber bases tend to buy fewer books outside the subscription offering? It is in a publisher’s DNA to push books into any channel that will take them. They have resisted the subscription offers so far because they don’t want to empower an aggregating intermediary the way Amazon is now empowered (which is why KU has the hardest time pulling big publisher books into its aggregation) to beat them down on terms. This is good forward thinking if staying out stops the subscription services from reaching viability. But what if it doesn’t? How long can publishers refuse to participate in revenue opportunities for their books and authors?

The offers (as we understand them) by Scribd and Oyster, and in other ways by Amazon, have been very generous. Scribd and Oyster are apparently paying 80% of the cover price (to the big agency publishers; others don’t get that deal) once a book is deemed “bought”, which requires a threshold amount of the book — often suggested to be 10% for the Big Houses, which is where Amazon put the bar for Kindle Direct Publishing authors within Kindle Unlimited — has been perused by the subscriber. (Not everybody gets that deal either.) 

Amazon presumes the right to include books in Kindle Unlimited from its wholesale trading partners (everybody but the Big Five), but it considers the ebook “sold” when it is cracked, a far more generous interpretation of when a book has been consumed. (Nor is that deal for everybody. For authors and pubs participating in KU via KDP Select, the threshold for a “sale” is 10% like Oyster. Then they are compensated from the “KDP Select Global Fund”.) The introduction of KU and the various terms around it have been met by initial grumbling in Amazon’s indie author community, according to both Publishers Lunch and Hugh Howey.

Agents will be seeing what the subscription revenues mean to their clients. It will be harder for them to get a handle on whether those subscription services are cannibalizing regular per-copy sales, but they will have ample information from which to form opinions about that as well.

Part of what holds back the big publishers from participation in subscriptions is a fear that agents share. Today Scribd and Oyster offer 80 percent of cover price, and Amazon pays the minute an ebook is opened, because that’s what they have to do to get books in their service. And the books in the service are what bring in the subscribers.

But if one of these services has a million members three years from now, each individual book won’t be quite as important anymore. Just as Amazon can get along without maximizing their sales of Hachette books today, the subscription owners will see a different, and lower, value for each book and each publisher then. Amazon gambles today that the customers of theirs who don’t find the Hachette book they’re looking for will often just buy something else rather than go shop somewhere else. Their own subscription lock-in, PRIME, shifts the odds in their favor there.

Amazon will be in this game to stay. Offering Kindle Unlimited is relatively painless for them. They have the books and they have the audience; it is just another way to keep their customers loyal. The big questions for the industry are whether Oyster and Scribd succeed in taking a substantial number of single-purchase customers out of the market and, if they can, whether they have a sustainable model with the prices they charge customers and the way they compensate publishers.

If what they have works for them, then all publishers will eventually have to play. That will mean that HarperCollins and S&S will be joined by Hachette and Macmillan. And despite what their executives tell me today, I’d bet a steak dinner that Penguin Random House will see more opportunity and less risk in creating their own service than in joining one of the existing ones. In fact, a Penguin Random House “backlist only” subscription offer today would constitute the most robust commercial assortment in the marketplace if it existed.

It has seemed to me for a long time, and I said in a public forum over a year ago, that all the Big Five (and others) should immediately create a subscription service for kids’ books. Parents want their kids to be able to “shop” without actually delegating to them the decisions to spend money; many would love a service of this kind, even if it were publisher-specific. As the support services Hill and Lara describe get cheaper and better and better known, perhaps that will start to happen.

We will cover subscriptions at Digital Book World with a panel chaired by Ted Hill. Scribd and Oyster have already agreed to participate.

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It is hard for publishers to apply even Harvard B School advice in their struggle with Amazon


Harvard Business Review published an article recently by Benjamin Edelman called “Mastering the Intermediaries” which gives advice to businesses trying to avoid some of the consequences of audience aggregation and control by an intermediary. The article was aimed at restaurants who don’t want their fate controlled by Open Table or travel companies who don’t want to be beholden to Expedia. The advice offered is, of course, scholarly and thoughtful. It seemed worth examining whether it might have any value to publishers suffering the growing consequences of so much of their customer base coming to them through a single online retailer.

The author presents four strategies to help businesses reduce their dependence on powerful platforms.

The first suggestion: exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.

The author cites the fact that American Airlines’ strong coverage of key routes made its presence on the travel website Kayak indispensable to Kayak’s value proposition. As a result, AA negotiated a better deal than Kayak offered others or than others could get.

Despite some suggestions in the late 1990s that publishers set up their own Amazon (which they subsequently half-heartedly tried to do with no success) and a couple of moves to cut Amazon off by minor publishers that were minimally dependent on trade sales, this tactic has never really been possible for publishers on the print side. Amazon began life by acquiring all its product from wholesalers — primarily Ingram and Baker & Taylor — before they switched some and ultimately most of its sourcing to publishers to get better margin. But the publishers can’t cut off the wholesalers without seriously damaging their business and their relationships with other accounts, and the wholesalers won’t cut off Amazon. So for printed books, still extremely important and until just a couple of years ago the dominant format, this strategy is not worth much to publishers.

However, the strategy was and is employable for ebooks, which are sold via contractual sufferance from agency publishers, even if the sourcing is (sometimes, not typically by Amazon) through an aggregator. That was the implied threat when Macmillan CEO John Sargent went to Seattle in the now-famous episode in 2010 to tell them that ebooks would only be available on agency terms. Amazon briefly expressed its displeasure by pulling the buy buttons off of Macmillan’s print books. (Publishers can’t cut them off from print availability, but they can cut publishers off from print sales!) In the meantime, Amazon’s share of the big publishers’ ebook sales has settled somewhat north of 60 percent, and those Kindle customers are very hard to access except through Amazon. This is considerably more share than Kayak had when American Airlines threatened their boycott.

In fact, it is likely that Amazon could live without any of the Big Five’s books for a period of time, except for Penguin Random House, which is about the size of the other four big publishers combined. The chances are that PRH’s size will prevent Amazon from treating them the way they are now treating Hachette. And the massive share that Amazon has of both print and ebook sales makes it extremely difficult for Hachette, or any other big house except PRH and possibly HarperCollins, to sustain an ebook boycott (with consequent print book sales reductions) for any significant length of time. In other words, for publishers dealing with Amazon, this horse has left the barn.

Where it has not yet left the barn is with the ebook subscription services, and for them many publishers actually appear to be following the strategy being suggested here. Only two of the big houses have put titles into Scribd and Oyster, and it appears that they got extremely favorable sales and payment terms in order to do so. Indeed, these fledgling subscription offerings must have the big houses’ branded books to have a compelling consumer proposition.

The second suggestion is to identify and discredit discrimination.

The HBS piece cites the complaints that eBay was giving search prominence to suppliers who advertised on the site forcing a reversal of the policy.

Although the search algorithms on powerful platforms are ostensibly geared only to give the customer what they’re most likely to want, it is probably generally understood that these results are jiggered to favor the platform’s interest. It is not surprising that Google has underwritten White Papers from UCLA professor Eugene Volokh and from Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defending that conduct. Volokh argues that the first amendment prevents the government from interfering with search results and Bork says nobody is harmed if Google favors its own interests.

Could we apply that same logic to Amazon? How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

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

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

This is the kind of an argument that can arouse the government which, so far, has shown scarcely more interest in Amazon’s dominance of book commerce than they would if they dominated the commerce in soft drinks or lawn fertilizer. Can they be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented? We don’t know, but we do know that Hachette sent lawyers to Washington early in the Obama Administration to call attention to Amazon’s growing marketplace power and their willingness to use it. That apparently had no affect (unless, in some perverse way, it contributed to the government’s interest in pursuing the “collusion” case).

There could certainly be some consumer blowback to the gaming of search results by a platform, perhaps including Amazon. The Harvard article says Google changed algorithms that seemed to be burying Yelp because consumer sentiment, partly measurable in search queries, showed dissatisfaction among the public. But in the absence of an aroused government, it would seem unlikely that this suggestion will do publishers large or small much good.

It is definitely worth noting here that Hachette authors are involved in just such an effort right now over the current Hachette-Amazon dispute. (And Amazon authors, also often called “indie authors”, are pushing back in the other direction.) There is a difference of opinion about how much this is “hurting” Amazon or whether it will push them to a quicker resolution of the dispute; I’m not sure anybody will ever know the answer to that.

The third suggestion is to create an alternative platform.

As the piece explains, when MovieTickets was on the verge of dominating phone and online ticketing, Regal Entertainment and two other large theater chains formed Fandango.

Unfortunately, this is a strategy that simply won’t work as an antidote to Amazon. In fact, trying it, which publishers have, demonstrates a failure to understand the source of Amazon’s power in the marketplace.

Amazon’s strategy is in plain sight and is the title of the best and most recent book about them: Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”. Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin. Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental. This is one of the reasons, perhaps even the principal one, why they operate their book retailing on margins so thin that the incumbent book retailers can’t match them. After all, B&N can’t make up the margin shortfalls created by offering books cheaply by selling that same customer a lawnmower. Nor do they benefit from additional scale provided by selling lawnmowers or cat food or server space.

The fact that Amazon did book retailing in a thorough and sophisticated way as they established their business to become an online Walmart made them different from omni-retailers in the past (going back to departments stores a hundred years ago) who sold some books.

The story has been told on this blog before about Amazon cutting prices more than fifteen years ago to discourage competition coming into the market. Although publishing is a profitable business for them, it is also a strategic component of larger objectives: getting an increasing share of its customers’ purchases across a range of physical products as well as to compete as a streaming content provider across the entire range of digital media.

No enterprise focused primarily on books can compete with that. Amazon takes too many customers off the table before whoever else is competing gets to begin and keeps them for a wide range of reasons. They’ve got the most admirable competitive position conceivable: a first-class operation supported by scale provided by myriad other enterprises, totally wide-ranging and broad knowledge of the details of book retailing, and the financial heft to accept diminished (or even negative) margins from time to time to support strategic objectives.

So, Bookish, the attempt to compete (although that objective was not explicitly stated) forged by three major publishers more than a decade after Ingram’s I2S2 attempt to create a broader base of online retailers, was never a serious threat. (It is now owned by another Regal, Joe Regal, whose Zola Books — an ambitious upstart ebook retailer — bought Bookish, apparently for its recommendation engine, from the publishers.)

This is probably the 20th year in a row, dating from their start in 1995, that Amazon has gained market share for sales of books to consumers. And that’s because consumers are making what for them is the obvious choice for convenience, total selection, and competitive pricing, as well as getting tied into Amazon through their PRIME program. Unless one of the other two tech giants in the bookselling world — Apple or Google — decides to make a dedicated effort to take some of that market share away from Amazon in both print and digital (and neither of them is much interested in print), it is hard to see where a serious competitor can come from.

As of this moment, there is no way for any ebook retailer except Amazon to put DRMed content on a Kindle, which eliminates a big part of the audience from play for any competitive platform.

The fourth suggestion: deal more directly. The article points out that people ordering takeout through online platforms like Foodler and GrubHub have often already chosen their restaurant so that restaurants that deal directly can afford to exit the platform.

As I was working on this post, HarperCollins announced that they have redesigned their website to be consumer-facing which enables them to sell books directly to consumers. They’ve collaborated with their printer-warehouse partner, Donnelley, to handle print book fulfillment and have a white-label version of indie ebook platform Bluefire to deliver ebooks. They promise that authors will be able to use the capability very easily to connect their own web presences and they’re thinking about additional compensation to authors that generate those sales.

This bold move has a hole in it, though, and it is one that publishers so far have no easy way to fill. All the non-Amazon platforms use Adobe DRM, which HarperCollins/Bluefire supports, so they can put your ebook on a Nook or Kobo device with copy-protection. Of course, they have their own “reader”, which can be loaded with ease on most web-capable devices and can apparently also be squeezed onto a Kindle Fire. But, because HarperCollins wants to continue to use DRM protection for the content, they won’t be able to sell directly to users of Kindle devices that are dedicated e-readers.

Although publishers have certainly encouraged that competition to Amazon which exists, their direct efforts have for the most part been limited to cultivating direct interaction with the end user audience to influence awareness and selection. Many smaller publishers are willing to sell direct without DRM and other large publishers sell direct in a more restrained way, but this seems to be the first concerted effort by a major player to drive direct sales.

It will be interesting to watch the pricing interaction between Harper and Amazon and whether Harper can come up with “specials” (bonus content, some connection to the author, bundling) that Amazon or another retailer can’t match. Competing on price is the retailer’s first instinct, but for publishers competing with Amazon on price is a fool’s errand, fraught with the potential for retaliation in many ways (including that “discounts” from publishers, the retailers’ margin, is presumably based on the publisher’s price. What does “publisher’s price” mean if they sell for less?)

But HarperCollins doesn’t need to get a big volume of direct sales for this to be a worthwhile initiative for them. I’d expect it to be copied. Any sales they can get directly increase their power in the marketplace.

There is one other initiative we’re aware of that can perhaps help publishers disintermediate Amazon for direct sales. That’s Aerbook, which widgetizes a book or promotional material for a book so that it can be “displayed” in any environment. Aerbook’s widgets can contain the capabilities for transacting or for referring the transaction to a retailer, Amazon or anybody else. Putting the awareness of the book directly into the social and commercial streams can be a big tool for authors and publishers. But even Aerbook can’t put a DRMed file on a Kindle. They offer a version of “social DRM” — essentially “marking” the ebook in a way that identifies its owner — which can be loaded onto the Kindle. But big publishers and big authors have apparently not yet come to a comfort level with that solution; perhaps the need to get to the Kindle customer directly and the experience Aerbook develops with their method will encourage a more open mind on that question over time.

So, it would seem, the best thinking presented by Harvard Business Review for how producers and service providers can dodge platforms trying to lock in their audiences has precious little that can be usefully applied by publishers to escape the grip of Amazon. Having taken about half the retail book market over the two decades of their existence, they have given themselves a reputation, tools, and momentum that will make it very hard to stop them from eating into the other half substantially in the years to come.

The fact that competing with Amazon is difficult doesn’t stop smart people from trying to figure out how it might be done. A group of publishing thinkers are holding a 2-day brainstorming session at the end of this month to come up with ideas. Two of them, Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon, will be presenting at a session at Digital Book World in January called “Blue Sky in the ebook future”, which will include thoughts on how to improve the narrative ebook itself from Peter Meyers and somebody not yet chosen to speak about complex ebooks.

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Not all books and not all subscription services are created equal


Digital change has forced many book publishers to rethink the mix of their lists. The most obvious aspect of that is the need for increased vertical-, topic- or audience-consciousness. In the days when bookstores did most of the selling, all publishers could reach audiences in stores by being displayed in the right section (or sections). In fact, stores figured that out pretty well whether publishers guided them or not. What constituted a sophisticated capability for the very general part of a general trade list (almost exclusively for non-fiction) was recognizing any multi-section shelving opportunities and having the persuasive power with a store to get it. Of course, computers and the exigencies of managing stock in far-flung outlets made that very challenging — if not impossible — to do with bookstore chains.

But all publishers now to varying degrees are trying to execute digital marketing. Even for SEO alone, an understanding of the audience is essential. (Most publishers don’t accept this yet, but my Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy says you have to do a couple of hours of audience research to properly position just about every title!) But to really reduce per-title marketing costs, publishers have to “gather” audiences (through web sites or apps or by collecting email addresses) that can be addressed to sell book after book. That requires that the books be selected to allow for repeated marketing to the same groups of people.

Yet another prism through which to view a publisher’s list is breaking down which titles work as ebooks and which ones don’t. Many publishers are looking at illustrated books differently because they haven’t worked well as ebooks. That’s increasingly critical because the print marketplace is shrinking as ebooks replace print for a lot of immersive reading.

Publishers are justifiably nervous about this transition. As the market becomes more and more ebook-centric, protecting revenue is a growing concern. Top line prices and publishers’ net revenue per copy sold have come down already and will continue to. A powerful player we all know has a growing market share and seems increasingly inclined to demand a bigger cut. Publishers and agents have been worried that subscription services could siphon off parts of the market and further erode margins.

Their resistance has been so strong that the two biggest entrants in that channel, Scribd and Oyster, are apparently paying heftier-than-retail percentages to secure the rights to include major publisher books in their offering, which makes some people (including me) question the sustainability of their model.

While I think general publishers’ tentativeness about subscription services is sensible, I don’t think it is equally sensible across their lists. Publishers need another prism to sort this one out. They need to think about their “chunkable” books — the ones that are least likely to be read from start-to-finish and most likely to be useful in bits and pieces — separately from their immersive narratives.

It is the immersive narratives whose economics are threatened by subscription. And it is the chunkable books, which include most of the illustrated books they publish but also include many others in self-help, business, and reference, which don’t work as ebooks in the individual sale model. Because the Scribd and Oyster subscription compensation is only triggered by a minimum (but publicly unspecified) amount of the book to be read, they aren’t likely to be remunerative in that context either.

But there is actually a way for all publishers to deliver digital revenues for the chunkable content they own which has very little stand-alone ebook market. (I really never thought it would; it made me think about “the unit of appreciation and the unit of sale”.) And the fact that so few of them — none of the big ones — have employed it so far makes me think that they are neither making this distinction around their own content nor looking at subscription in the nuanced way they should.

The opportunity to which we refer here is the granddaddy of digital book subscription services, Safari. They are quite different than Oyster and Scribd. First of all, they are primarily B2B, not B2C. They are too expensive a service to be for pleasure or consumer use; they are intended to be a professional tool. Therefore, most of their subscribers access their content under an annual per-seat software license bought by a big company or government entity.

The second thing that makes Safari different is that they don’t expect full book consumption to occur very often, if at all. Most of the technical and professional books in the repository are extracted and read topically. The attraction of the service is not so much that you can read any book you want, but that you can get a variety of presentations about how to understand something or solve a particular problem.

And Safari’s business model is different from Scribd and Oyster too. The way they do it — paying from a monthly revenue pool on a pro-rata basis divided among the content consumed in that month — appears at first glance to be less attractive to trade publishers than the high purchase price Scribd and Oyster pay when the (unknown) theshold of use has been passed. But for chunkable books, which are very unlikely to be consumed in their entirety and would often, if not usually, serve a purpose to a consumer without triggering the purchase threshold, it should actually be seen as a better model for the publisher.

The subject arises because Andrew Savikas, the CEO of Safari, recognizes that the million of users he has at companies like Bank of America, Boeing, and Oracle (for example) are people as well as professionals. So while they need the technical content that motivated those companies to subscribe them to the service, they also have health, career, diet, and investment interests that it would be a great convenience for them to be able to satisfy within the service. This raises some obvious questions for Safari (“how would Boeing feel about this?” was the first one that occurred to me) but we need not be concerned about them. Savikas runs Safari, and he is convinced that he wants this kind of non-technical content to make his service more attractive and lucrative. He said his data shows much of the consumption of this kind of content happens “off-hours” and is seen as an employee benefit.

This presents publishers with a pretty sizable opportunity that is perhaps being lost in the generalizations about subscriptions and preserving revenue and what works in digital form. Since most big publishers have cookbooks, business and personal finance titles, reference books, and illustrated how-tos on their backlists that are starved for digital revenue, whether they’re likely to sign more of them as the industry changes is irrelevant. These backlist books could be producing cash for the authors and publishers right now through Safari and any “risk” involved is not apparent to me. Frequently the revenue would be significant. At the same time, Safari would be providing “discovery” opportunities for those books with very large audiences: millions of well-employed people, many of whom don’t shop in bookstores — online or physical — very often.

And the books that are discovered on Safari can be readily purchased. Safari invites publishers to give them a URL of their choice for a purchase link. (They offer as evidence that they move books in the long tail that the most-purchased book on their site right now was published ten years ago.)

I don’t quarrel with skepticism about the subscription business model for the immersive reading that constitutes most of a general trade publisher’s list. But holding back the chunkable books from Safari is depriving those books of revenue and exposure to audiences with intent in a way that will almost certainly not cannibalize other sales. Big trade houses will be doing fewer of those books in the future, but that’s no reason not to generate the most exposure and revenue they can for the ones they have.

The last three posts, the most recent one on what I thought was missing from the Amazon-Hachette coverage, one on subscriptions and the first one I did about Amazon-Hachette, were not sent out by the Feedburner service that delivers email versions of the posts to subscribers. I suspect this one won’t be either. Until we move to a new distribution capability, I’ll continue to link to the undistributed posts with each new one, as I’ve done here.

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Subscription services for ebooks progress to becoming a real experiment


My long-held conviction that broad-based subscriptions for ebooks were not likely to work is partly based on facts that are now changing. It is still by no means a slam dunk that ebooks must go where Spotify has taken digital music and Netflix has taken the digital distribution of TV and movies, but it looks more likely today than it did six months ago. Still, looks could be deceiving.

The core of subscription economics is to pay less to the content supplier than they earn other ways to give you some headroom to create a value proposition for consumers. That’s how Spotify and Netflix work. That’s how Book-of-the-Month Club works.

And what happens over time with subscription services is that the power of “brand” passes from the individual titles (and authors) to the subscription service itself. In order to attract customers, a subscription offer depends on recognizable branded product to bring people in. But, over time, the value shifts. Eventually, a subscriber-reader can become used to choosing from what the service offers and will either not know about, skip, or accept purchasing the occasional book s/he wants outside the service if it isn’t offered inside. (A varient of this reality is playing out now in the Amazon-Hachette dispute, where Amazon’s brand power, including people who have a subscription to PRIME free freight, makes any particular publishers’ books subordinate to the seller’s brand with the consumer.)

None of this is particularly startling or insightful. Every agent for a big author knows it. Until very recently, that has meant that big publishers did not put the big books from big authors into these services. When the first shoe — the HarperCollins shoe — dropped and the second biggest trade publisher (and by far the largest of the four majors who trail Penguin Random House) went into Oyster and Scribd several months ago, I should have taken on board that the perception of agents must be changing. Now, with S&S having joined them, and with major authors included in the offerings from both companies, it is clear that agents are withdrawing their objections.

There are three reasons for this.

One is that the incumbents in the book business are circling the wagons against the dominance of book retailing’s most powerful brand: Amazon. As the market share of and customer loyalty to the industry’s biggest player grows, other dangers — such as those posed by subscription services if they mature — look relatively less onerous.

The second is that publishers and agents love the opportunity to establish that if subscription services want to “play” in publishing, they’ll have to pay for each ebook on a purchase deal. That is: the subscription services are establishing their “model”. And the publishers and authors are also establishing theirs!

The last is that the two big current subscription efforts are disdaining the fundamental economics to get their services started. The current model, as outlined by S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy in a letter to agents announcing her house’s participation, is that the service buys a copy of the book at “full price” when a “a certain threshold of reading has been surpassed for a given title”. But her letter also suggests that authors make even more money on these sales than they do on normal sales, which implies that Scribd and Oyster are paying more than 70 percent of the retail price for the privilege of using these books. (I have heard a range of numbers for where the threshhold of use to trigger payment is, from 10% to 40%, but I have no idea what it is and how it might differ among publishers.) Whether they’re paying 70% of retail or more, that means that it would take no more than two full-priced S&S or HarperCollins (assuming they have the same deal) titles a month to cost the service more than the revenue from a full-freight subscriber. And if the subscriber came through iOS, Apple’s 30% cut off the top would mean that even one major publisher ebook being read in a month will likely put the service in a deficit position.

Even when the purchase model is favorable, which this one appears not to be, it has been generally understood that the viability of a subscription model depends on what is called “breakage” or “health club economics” to succeed. They count on the expectation that relatively few subscribers will read and trigger payments on two, three, four books a month compared to many who will read one or less than one, or who will choose from among books (like public domain titles) that cost the services less or nothing.

The first of the subscription services for books — Safari — used a model that is much safer for the services because it assures cost stability, assigning a percentage of the revenue as a pool to compensate publishers rather than guaranteeing a purchase for every read as Scribd and Oyster are doing. I expect the purchase model to be very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. But persuading the big players to come in depended on getting away from the safe “pool” model and purchasing the ebook anew for each new user.

A huge danger for the subscription services is the likelihood that subscriptions will be shared within families (let alone within dormitories!) That could drive up the average use per subscriber very quickly if it isn’t controlled.

Only now, with two of the Big Five in the game, giving the services about a third of the most commercial backlist titles in publishing, can they really find out whether the price-and-cost model they’ve set up will work to give them a profit. (It is important to note that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster only put backlist titles into the services, so the most attractive commercial titles, which are new, are not part of the offer. This also means that all shoppers and purchasers of new titles will continue to use the stand-alone purchase model.)

I’m sure Scribd and Oyster have data and analytical skills that I don’t have. But, intuitively, this seems like a tough proposition. Subcription services are attractive to consumers because they’re bargains. If you normally read a single ebook or month or fewer, the $8.99 monthly subscription charge would not seem attractive. But if you read an ebook or two a month or more, the services will likely lose money on you.

Meanwhile, there are two players currently sitting on the sidelines that could really disrupt the subscription incumbents (which also include Spain-based 24Symbols, which has been around much longer than Scribd and Oyster but which hasn’t succeeded so far at bringing in the big publishers and the big books.)

There are rumors that Amazon is already canvassing for participants to deliver a subscription service of their own. Of course, they really already have one. Their PRIME subscription offer, for which the headline attraction is free shipping of hard goods, also includes access to the “Kindle Owners Lending Library”, which is effectively a broad-based ebook subscription service with some limitations and a far less robust title selection than Scribd and Oyster. Amazon could find ways to expand that. Will they match the implied compensation from Scribd and Oyster and pay more than the 70 percent which is the current standard for sales by agency publishers (which, therefore, becomes the basis for royalties to big authors)? One would suspect they would want something in return for that: exclusives, perhaps, or earlier access to the titles than Scribd and Oyster have.

Of course, Amazon (or Google or Kobo or Nook or Apple) would have an automatic advantage over the subscription incumbents if they decided to compete with them. Because they already sell all the books, they could sell you the books you wanted that weren’t in the service as part of a single offer.

The other future player of consequence is Penguin Random House, which by itself has well-known commercial titles that exceed in number what the services would have even if they signed up one more of the remaining big publishers. Hachette’s chief marketing and sales officer, Evan Schnittman, is quoted by the Wall Street Journal saying that this model is “not for us”. That leaves Macmillan, but even if Scribd and Oyster get them, PRH could have the most attractive title base on offer all by itself.

When I speculated some time ago about the opportunity PRH had to do this, one of their executives set me straight about why they wouldn’t. What I was told was that PRH was not thrilled by the idea of turning $500 and $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers. Of course, that calculus changes for them if others are succeeding at doing that, and those new $100/year customers are then one step further removed from buying PRH books.

If PRH did this, they’d have one big decision to make: do they attempt to include the biggest titles from the rest of publishing in their offering or not. They’d already be starting with the most attractive title selection, but the Scribd and Oyster assortments would be competitive. If they went for some of the rest — even if only the top 10 percent of the rest — PRH could present a noticeably more attractive selection than Scribd or Oyster.

Would other publishers go in with them? I’d say, “probably”, because they can’t afford not to have their biggest books exposed to all possible substantial audiences, and PRH would almost certainly have the biggest subscription audience.

Would Penguin Random House want them? I’d say, “probably” again. It would stamp their offering as by far the best, and they’d still be advantaged dealing with authors because they’d be the only publisher not paying a third party to get the subscription revenue.

If “fear of Amazon” is the factor that made big agents relent in their opposition to subscription, would they also support joining an Amazon subscription service? That’s a trickier call, but as noted above, Amazon would have the capability to sweeten their offer to make it more compelling if that’s what they had to do.

But the main thing that works in favor of participation, now that the dam may have broken, is the psychology of trade publishing. Every big trade publisher has grown to be what they are today by selling their publications through intermediaries. Bookstores and then Amazon became the “gatekeepers”, owners of the customers. There was a symbiotic relationship: the retailers depended on publishers to deliver products to please their consumers and the publishers depended on the retailers to merchandise their offerings and manage the transactions. Access to a retailer’s customers first depended on getting your offerings into their store and then on having them be seen by the largest possible number of the store’s customers. That meant front tables and face-out display in the physical world; it means the right screen real estate, recommendations, and response to search terms in the virtual one.

That’s why the current hegemonies of Barnes & Noble and Amazon are so disconcerting to publishers. And that’s why the potential control of customer access by Scribd or Oyster might now look more like counterweight than threat.

Of course, it is also possible that the price-and-payment models Scribd and Oyster have begun with will prove unsustainable and that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — and their authors — will simply be the beneficiaries of a short-term bonanza financed by money that took a flyer that didn’t pay off. (And they’re not done taking those flyers.) That seems to me at least as likely as an outcome as these broad subscription offers becoming a permanent part of the bookselling landscape.

A lot going on around our place, so we haven’t had the time to switch away from what has become the horrendous service from Feedburner distributing The Shatzkin Files to its email subscribers. This one from last week on Amazon and Hachette (which is also linked to above) never was sent. (Of course, as I write this, who knows if this one will be or not?) It was written before the latest escalation where Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from Hachette book, a nasty blow that makes getting books on the bestseller list the week they come out very much harder. A lot has been written on this subject, but I think it still delivers some consideration of what it all means that hasn’t been picked up anywhere else.

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Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same. If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business. Verticalization may work, as it has seemed to for Allromanceebooks but just being “indie-curated” wasn’t enough for Books on Board, a pretty longtime player that expired last year. (So far, Diesel, a comparable indie, is hanging in there.)

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

Apple opened their ebook store because they thought they had a suitable device for book consumption (the iPad), but they also had experience with selling content before (iTunes). They also see potential for iPads in the school and university markets, so they have developed technology to enable more complex books — the kind that haven’t been successful commercially yet — to be developed for their platform. Establishing their devices and the iOS ecosystem in the education market would be a big win for them.

Google recognized over a decade ago that books, being repositories of information that contained the best response to many searches, were a world they wanted to be in. With their growing position in devices — the Nexus 7 phone and Chromebook computers — and as the developers of the Android ecosystem that competes with iOS in the app market, there are many ways that being in the ebook business complements other endeavors, including, perhaps, competing with Apple and iOS in the schools.

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

Of course, ebooks definitely complement Barnes & Noble’s core business. You have a pretty obvious deficiency if you run a bookstore and don’t sell ebooks, so everybody manages to do it somehow or other. Among the mistakes Borders is accused of having made before they disappeared was turning their ebook business over to Kobo. Doubts about the future of Waterstones in the UK include whether it was wise to turn their ebook business over to Amazon. If Barnes & Noble didn’t have Nook, they’d have to make a deal with whoever did have Nook, or with somebody else.

I’m sure Apple or Kobo or Google would be just delighted to have their ebooks integrated into Barnes & Noble’s suite of offerings, and probably Amazon would too, although they would almost certainly never be asked. All of them have shown interest in affiliating with indie stores, with Google having gone in and out, Kobo now trying hard with them, and, even Amazon, which can’t penetrate indies effectively with their own published books now offering them an affiliate program to sell Kindle ebooks called Amazon Source. But surely all of them would jump at the chance to expand their distribution to Barnes & Noble customers.

It is likely that B&N believes that the Nook business can only be truly successful if they keep investing in improved devices and create a global presence. That may be true, but it also might be that Nook can be a useful adjunct to their store business without continually adding devices or creating a presence outside the US where there are no B&N stores. More and more people are comfortable reading on multi-function devices through apps. Maybe B&N could profitably hold on to a core Nook audience by emphasizing synergies with the stores more (bundling print and ebooks, like Amazon does with its Matchbook initiative and as has been tried on a smaller scale by some publishers, would be one such way) and not worrying so much about making Nook competitive with the other ebook retailers as a stand-alone business.

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.) Kobo has made it a pillar of their strategy to find brick-and-mortar partners all over the world.

On a global basis outside the English-language world, the ebook business is still in its infancy. But it is hard to see how any player without a strong English-language presence could develop the scale to compete with those who have it. Every nation and language will have local bookstore players who have “first claim” on the book-readers in their locality. Some might harbor ambitions to also own their local ebook business, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks cannibalize bookstore shelf space. But the cost in cash and time of doing it, combined with the competitive advantage of having English-language books in the offering no matter what language your target market reads, will make a build-it-yourself strategy increasingly unattractive. So it would seem that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo are positioned to grow organically and partner ubiquitously. And it will require some seriously disruptive event, like Walmart buying Barnes & Noble, to break the hold that quartet will have on the global ebook market over the next decade.

A potential disruptive development which this piece ignores is the possibility that ebooks become largely a subscription business over the next decade. I have two overarching thoughts on that.

One is that the book-by-book purchasing habit is sufficiently ingrained that it will not be changed drastically around ebooks in the next ten years. I have no idea what percentage of the ebook market is now subscription, but I think it is safe to say “far less than 1%”. So my instinct is that it would take wild success for it to get to as much as 10% in the next ten years.

The other thing to remember is that any ebook retailer can always develop a subscription offering. Amazon effectively started already that with Kindle Owners Lending Library. You can be sure that if Oyster or 24Symbols starts gathering a substantial share of the market, all of the Big Four as we see them here will find a way to compete for that segment. (It is considerably harder to go the other way around; it is much less likely that Oyster or 24Symbols will open regular stores.)

So whether subscription grows faster or not, the giants of ebook retailing will remain the same.

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Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing


The digital transition of the trade book publishing business, which I would date from the opening of Amazon.com in 1995, enters its 20th year in 2014. Here are some of the ponderables as we close out the first two decades of a process of very rapid change that is far from over.

1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable “floor” for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.

2. Illustrated book publishers are likely to be the most attentive of all to the bookstore shelf space question. Six years into mass ebooks (as dated from the Kindle) and three years into good hand-held delivery of graphics (as dated from the iPad), the digital version of illustrated books have not found the market that the digital version of novels have. The illustrated book publishers learned to be global over the past four decades, so many have avenues to market that aren’t changing as fast as the US bookstore network has. But the reduction-in-shelf-space line on the graph or the sales-of-these-books-as-digital-products line, or both, have to start moving in the opposite direction or there’s a major problem brewing in that very large segment of our business. Will 2014 be the year that somebody cracks the code for delivering how-to or art-book material in a digital form that will replace shrinking print revenues?

3. As 2014 dawns, we have a host of ebook retailing models that deviate from what the book business has always done: sell one book at a time for a price for which the starting point of reference is one set by the publisher for that book. Safari, created by O’Reilly and Pearson, showed a subscription model more than a decade ago but it was for professional books. 24symbols, based in Spain, is a sort-of granddaddy of this business in the trade segment, being about three years old. They are joined by Oyster, a new start-up dedicated to ebook subscriptions and Scribd, an old start-up originally dedicated to being YouTube for documents. And Entitle, formerly called EReatah, has a slightly different subscription proposition that is more like a “book-of-the-month-club” in its structure. An even newer start-up called Librify has an offering for reader-organized book clubs in the offing. Amazon already has a lending library for its PRIME subscribers, which amounts to the same thing, and a subscription of content for kids on Kindle Fire. With so many experiments in play, we ought to get a picture by the end of 2014 of the degree to which this model appeals to consumers and whether the economics are enticing enough to get big authors and big publishers to play with more enthusiasm than they have demonstrated so far.

4. It is accurate, but misleading, to describe the Penguin Random House combination as a merger of “two of the big six”. It is actually a merger of the two biggest of the former Big Six, and it creates a publisher that is nearly as big as the four others combined. So we now really have a Big One and a Following Four, rather than a Big Five. The big question is what PRH can do to apply what is a huge difference in size as a scale advantage. The hunch here is that proprietary distribution channels can be created by a company that controls approximately half the most commercial books in the English-language world. Whether that will manifest itself as ebook subscriptions, special retail distribution using vendor-managed inventory, or the creation or purchase of marketing channels for its exclusive use — or all of the above and more — will be one of the most important things to watch in 2014.

5. The financial reports from big publishers in 2013 have been mostly encouraging. It looks like the shift to ebooks has had the impact of improving publisher margins and profitability. But can those good times last? Publishers now face a world where there is a single dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer, a single dominant internet retailer, and, as noted above, a single dominant publisher. Agents want to keep competition alive, so they’re going to be sensitive about pushing the Following Four too hard or allowing too quick a migration of authors to the industry leader, but the retailers won’t be so accommodating. Another pressure point on margins will be ebook pricing. It has been driven down by successful self-publishing and the the court’s elimination of agency as a protection. Now big publishers have discovered “dynamic pricing” — lowering prices on a book temporarily to spike sales and awareness — adding their own activity to the list of forces reducing margins. Both the top line and the bottom line will be harder to maintain in 2014, but how it will turn out is an open question. After all, most of these things were true in 2013 and margins still improved.

6. Literary agents have been dabbling with publishing for the past several years since ebooks and POD have made it possible to do it without inventory or an organization. Agencies have started publishing operations (E-Reads, Diversion, Rosetta) and many more have brought on the expertise to give authors help with digital services (Curtis Brown, Writer’s House). Publishers have expanded into author services with speaker’s bureaux, but, so far, none has thought to add literary agenting services except for the time-honored practices of selling rights (foreign, paperback, book club), which was part of their publishing process. Might a publisher either create or ally with a literary agency to create a way to “own” an author’s entire career? If one tried this in 2014, it wouldn’t come as a total surprise.

7. Simon & Schuster has made a number of pioneering deals for a publisher of its size. They offered print distribution service to bestselling indie author John Locke. Then they made a print-only deal — which the big houses pretty much said “we will never do” — with another indie with a hit, Hugh Howey. Now they’ve extended an idea they started a few years ago and signed a deal to give Yankee shortstop and icon Derek Jeter an imprint to be a publisher. Jeter has the ability to focus public attention on any book he wants (although certainly more with some topics than others) and he’s an articulate spokesperson with a strong personal following. S&S had done this in 2007 with 50-Cent; Hachette more recently gave an imprint to Chelsea Handler and HarperCollins gave one to Johnny Depp. Will celebrity imprints become a common idea? There will be plenty of attention paid to how Jeter’s initial efforts work. Or it may be that some other athlete or actor, musician or politician, will be the next experiment with this model. In any case, this is something else to watch in 2014.

8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?

9. And, in that same vein, we have what would seem to be an unsustainable dichotomy in the ebook marketplace as a result (I would say, editorializing here) of the Justice Department’s lack of understanding about where power really lies in the book business. Apple insists on “agency pricing”: publishers set prices, Apple keeps 30%. Amazon — for everybody except the former Big Six — insists on the wholesale model which gives them 50% of the publisher’s set price to divide as customer discount and margin as they choose. This has resulted in all publishers except the biggest being forced to put two prices on their ebooks: a “digital consumer retail” price (intended to be a selling price, for Apple, and lower) as well as a “list” price (intended for the retailer to discount, for Amazon, and higher). When the distinction began, the agency price couldn’t be discounted. Now it can so the only real differences are the margins and the hard-to-explain-or-justify publisher-set prices. Only the biggest publishers have the clout to overcome the marketplace power of Apple and Amazon to dictate how the sales structure will work. Everybody else lives in an Alice in Wonderland world. I’d expect something to give on this in 2014.

Many of these questions will be explicitly discussed at the biggest and best Digital Book World ever, coming up in less than two weeks. It has become the premier global gathering of book publishers talking about the impact of digital change. We’ve counted them up and there are 156 speakers and moderators on the 2-day DBW program, plus dozens more in DBW’s workshop program and the Publishers Launch Kids conference hosted by Michael Cader and me and programmed by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International. You can’t spend that week with us without bumping into smart people who are getting great things done.

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Examining the relationship between start-ups and publishers


We are in another high-funding era for digital start-ups. The book business has always looked ripe for disruption, but never any more so than now. With bookstore shelf space shrinking, ebooks growing in very uneven ways across the types of books that are published, and everything about technology getting cheaper, everything is up for grabs.

It is not a new thing that the world looks different to the companies funded by the revenues from the legacy business than it does to outsiders, some of whom want to bring tech disruption into collision with the legacy business.

Publishers see an ebook business that has been very commercially unkind to the digital versions of books that aren’t immersive narratives. Start-ups and their funders see publishers too stuck in old forms, and unable to break away from a book-style presentation when the content and use cases would call for something quite different.

Publishers see a printed book marketplace that is dominated by Amazon with less and less room for books in stores. Start-ups and their funders see an opportunity to gain further digital discovery by making the content easier for people, and web crawlers, to “see” online. And they also see making digital versions of books easier to “share” as an aid to discovery; publishers often see it as an enabler of unauthorized distribution that could cut into sales.

Publishers see books as products driven primarily by interest in the author or genre (for fiction) or the subject (for non-fiction). Start-ups and their funders see reading as an activity at least partly driven by convenience and availability and the ability to share the reading experience.

Publishers see Netflix and Spotify and think, “How many people read more than a book a month? The subscription model doesn’t really apply to our business.” Start-ups and their funders see that the consumers of all other content really like the subscription model and they can’t see why it wouldn’t work in the book business, too.

So we have, for example, several serious initiatives around subscriptions: dedicated (and often well-funded) start-ups like Oyster, eReatah, Skoobe and 24 Symbols, as well as initiatives from the totally-established Amazon.com and the differently-established Scribd. At the same time, some agents are outspoken in their objection to the whole concept, seeing it as a way that commercial power will pass from the author brand to the subscription brand. Publishers generally pay close attention to what agents say. Whatever the reasons, as of this writing only HarperCollins has broken ranks among the Big Five to place any substantial number of books in subscription services.

If you get many of the start-ups to speak candidly about publishers, they’ll often accuse them of being hidebound, unimaginative, wedded to old ways and models, and still “experimenting” with things that should be well-established.

If you get many of the publishers to speak candidly about start-ups, they’ll bemoan the fact that they too often don’t understand how the business really works or the true commercial imperatives at the publishing houses, which must continue to sign up and please authors and harvest revenues that still come overwhelmingly from sales of one item at a time to one consumer at a time through intermediaries.

At Digital Book World in January, we have five elements in the program to address the relationship between start-ups and established publishers.

First: we are running a survey of start-ups and publishers to get them each to talk about what they expect from the other. If you work for a start-up or your job at a publisher includes meeting with and evaluating start-ups, please respond to the survey! We will announce the results at DBW.

Second: Ron Martinez, who has a start-up (Aerbook), partly financed and supported by an industry leader (Ingram) and a long background in tech, patents, and design, will speak about the relationship between start-ups and incumbents.

Third, Fourth, and Fifth will be three panels exploring the question from three sides.

A panel of start-ups, which will include Martinez and Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks and two others we’ll pick after we see the survey results, will talk about what it takes to get traction with publishers, what publishing, marketing, or ecosystem problem they’re addressing, and explain their own vision of a path to success for their enterprise.

A panel of publishing business development people, including Rick Joyce of Perseus Books Group and Leslie Hulse of HarperCollins, will talk about how they view start-ups. What makes them give start-ups a meeting? What makes them engage? How much buy-in do they need from the rest of their company to be able to work together?

Finally, a panel of investors in start-ups, three of which are owned or controlled by existing publishing entities (Ingram, Macmillan, and Harvard Common Press) will talk about what persuades them to fund a start-up and what disruption they see on the horizon for publishing from the start-up community.

Very good publishing minds from three continents around the world, including Arthur Attwell,  Javier Celaya, and Brian O’Leary, have expressed themselves recently on this very problem. Although I disagree with chunks of what each of them has to say (as Jeremy Greenfield’s interview with me on the DBW blog makes clear), they individually and collectively express the real challenge of finding both workable paths to the future and workable ways for innovators to work with incumbents to get there.

The post from Jeremy triggered an exchange on Twitter among Rhomberg (from whom it inspired a thoughtful post), Peter Turner, and me which surfaced another important point. An incumbent’s job is to continue to maintain economic viability. A start-up’s objective, often, is to “change the paradigm”. If the paradigm does change, the incumbent needs to roll with that, but they don’t need to be an instrument of change. A start-up often does. That is an inherent difference in perspective that a start-up can’t afford to ignore.

As a guy who questioned why anybody would want another device just to read books when Amazon introduced the Kindle, I’m the first to admit that predicting in advance how an innovation will do — including the observations I made with such conviction in the DBW piece — is rarely a slam dunk.

It isn’t likely that our sessions at DBW will help anybody predict which innovations will succeed in the future, but it might help both start-ups and incumbents develop more mutually productive approaches to engaging with each other. That’s certainly the intention.

Don’t forget to respond to the survey if you are either a start-up or in a role at a publisher that involves meeting with or evaluating them. We’ll be collecting responses through next Monday, November 18.

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More thoughts on libraries and ebook lending


On Thursday of this week, I’ll be at the Charleston Conference appearing in a conversation organized by Anthony Watkinson that includes me and Peter Brantley. Brantley and Watkinson both have extensive backgrounds in the library and academic worlds, which are the milieux of most attendees at this conference. I don’t. I am being brought in as a representative of the trade publishing community. Watkinson believes that “the changes in the consumer area will break through into academic publishing and librarianship.” I am not so sure of that.

I am imagining that what creates interest, and concern, among all librarians about trade publishing has been the well-publicized tentativeness of trade publishers to serve the public libraries with ebooks in the relaxed and unconcerned manner with which they have historically been happy to sell them printed books. Big publishers have expressed their discomfort with ebook library lending in a variety of ways. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, up to this writing, have declined to make ebooks available to libraries at all. HarperCollins instituted a 26-loan limit for ebooks with libraries a little over a year ago. They received apparently widespread — certainly loud — criticism when they announced the policy, but it seems now to have been accepted. Penguin and Hachette delivered ebooks for lending and then stopped. Now both are putting toes back in the water with experiments. And Random House raised their prices substantially for ebooks delivered to libraries for lending.

So, six for six, the major publishers have struggled publicly to establish a policy for ebook availability in libraries.

The concern, as I’m sure my conversation-mate Peter Brantley will point out, extends to what rights libraries have when they obtain ebooks. I’ve expressed my belief before that all ebook transactions are actually use-licenses for a transfer of computer code, not “sales” in the sense that we buy physical books. When Random House declared the opposite in the last fortnight — that they believed they sold their ebooks to libraries — it only took Brantley a wee bit of investigation to find that Random House’s definition of “sale” didn’t line up with his.

Of course, his doesn’t line up with mine. I believe (he’ll correct me on stage in Charleston, if not in the comments section here, if I’m wrong) Brantley accepts the one-file-transferred, one-loan-at-a-time limitation that has been part of the standard terms for libraries since OverDrive pioneered this distribution over a decade ago. That control enabled ebook practices to imitate print practices (except for the “books wear out” part, which Harper was addressing with its cap on loans). Without it, one ebook file transfer would be all that a library — or worse, a library system — would need of any ebook to satisfy any level of demand. The acceptance on all sides of that limitation says clearly to me, without resort to any other information or logic, that there is an agreement — a license — that the library recipient of an ebook file accepts in order to obtain it.

People who spend a lot of time with libraries and library patrons are quite certain that the patrons who borrow books and ebooks often also buy books and ebooks. (Library Journal offers patron data that supports that idea.) Although library services are many-faceted and not primarily designed to serve as marketing arms for publishers, the libraries themselves see the ways in which they aid discovery by their patrons.

And they also see the patrons that couldn’t afford to buy the books or ebooks they borrow and therefore wouldn’t and couldn’t read them if they weren’t available in the library. Since these patrons become part of a book’s word-of-mouth network by virtue of being able to read it, it looks like this behavior by publishers is not only anti-poor and anti-public, but also counter to the interests of the author and the publisher itself. (In fact, most publishers acknowledge the importance of libraries to the viability and marketing of the midlist although that, until very recently, was adequately addressed with print alone.)

And, the libraries point out, the one-book, one-loan limitation means that all the hot books have long waiting lists anyway, so many patrons just cut to the chase and buy the ebook rather than wait. (In fact, schemes by which the libraries themselves can sell the ebook are beginning to develop as well.)

The view from the publishers’ perspective (and, it is important to add, from the perspective of the agents of many highly-compensated authors, who have enormous influence over publishers’ thinking) is quite different. Libraries, which can be the core market for many books published by academic and professional publishers, are more likely to be around 10 percent or less of an adult trade book’s sale. So the risk-reward calculation starts with a sharp limitation on what is the expected “reward”.

The risks are harder to quantify because they are much more complicated than just trying to figure out how many of the loans of an ebook licensed to a library cost the publisher a sale of that ebook through retail channels.

The big publishers are acutely aware that the ecosystem of bookstores they’ve depended on for a century is giving way to something new, which appears to be a mix of retail ebook platforms, community book information sites like GoodReads, author-based marketing, and, of course, publisher efforts to reach potential book buyers through community- and list-building, SEO, and collaboration with other websites.

Consumers will, of necessity, be changing their shopping habits as they migrate from reading print books to reading ebooks. Right now, as ex-Random House marketer Peter McCarthy points out, the key decision is which retailing platform they use. If you buy a Kindle, NOOK, Apple, or Kobo device, you’d be inclined to buy from their platform. It would definitely be easiest and on a Kindle, Nook, or Kobo device, it is really the only practical choice.

But on an Apple device or a tablet computer (or a laptop or desktop, for that matter, although fewer and fewer people will read ebooks on them), the consumer is actually free to use any of the ecosytem apps and, if they want to, choose by price. McCarthy makes the case that doing that on a title-by-title basis will become increasingly unusual. He’s probably right.

But we’re nowhere near the final stage of ebook development. It is going to get easier and it is going to become more widespread. Ultimately what concerns publishers is a vast reservoir of ebook content available on one website (your local library’s, or even a not-so-local library’s) for free while the merchants are trying to make you pay. That’s why such programs as KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) have not gained favor with big publishers.

It really isn’t hard to imagine that in a pretty short time, libraries and KOLL (and some fledglings like the recently-announced “maybe we’re the Spotify of ebooks, or maybe we’re not” Oyster subscription service or Spain-based 24 Symbols) have robust selections available for free (libraries), as part of a broader offering (KOLL), or for very cheap (Oyster’s and 24 Symbols’ aspiration). If that happened, how many customers could be drawn away from the ebook retailer sites and effectively removed from the market for title-by-title purchasing of new books?

How many? Well, we don’t know how many. That’s precisely the concern.

Another thing we really don’t know is what is the future of public libraries. As the relative utility of a building full of printed books declines, libraries correctly point out that they serve many other functions. One that is often cited today, but which I think will be more dated than the printed books aggregation ten years from now, is that libraries provide hardware and Internet access for people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. As devices and bandwidth get cheaper, and the social and commercial benefit of having everybody connected grow and become universally acknowledged and appreciated, that deficiency is likely to be cured by other means.

What is an ongoing need that is not likely to go away is the need for librarianship. The more sources of information there are and the more sophisticated people become about demanding the right information for any task or need, the more that professional help navigating the choices has value. But how will that help be delivered? Online, I reckon, not in a building that you go to and seek out the help. I don’t know the business model yet, but I do know that communities are going to be sorely tempted in the years to come to devote the cash they now spend on public libraries with books and computers in them to providing wider access to more materials through the Internet and providing the information experts, the librarians, outside the confines of a building full of the materials. The materials — with a variety of access and payment models — will be virtual and the librarian will help you get what you need at the price you want to pay for access.

And all of that sounds, and seems, a lot like what booksellers do today (except a lot more complicated).

Which brings us back to publishers and their concerns. Right now, the biggest publishers’ biggest worry is that they will end up in a world where Amazon is the only path to a majority of their potential customers. (Right now, for trade publishers, that number is probably more like 20-30 percent.) That’s why three of the biggest publishers (one being Penguin, so ultimately, this could involve Random House as well) are continuing to struggle to launch Bookish, a strategy that looks increasingly dubious to me. It is why they were so eager to help Apple launch the iBookstore and why they root from the sidelines for NOOK and Kobo and Google to be successful competitors.

Anything that takes business away from the ebook retailing network might be depriving one of Amazon’s competitors of the oxygen they need to compete. (That’s one of the reasons Bookish is looking like a bad idea.) But, more important, with the Internet now making it pretty easy to deliver a selection of reading material larger than anybody will ever plow through at rock-bottom prices, having libraries offer and promote free ebook availability could foster habits that will cost authors and publishers customers in the future.

Of course, all of this is speculative. The library community’s belief that making ebooks available through them will stimulate sales of those books is speculative. But so is the fear of the commercial authors and publishers that libraries in the digital age will have a significantly different impact on reading and purchasing habits than they did for print.

When the problem is lack of information, one of the best antidotes is to enable flexibility and experimentation. That’s why I’m very pleased to be working with Recorded Books on a new ebooks-for-libraries program that will give publishers enormous flexibility in how they structure the license for each book: with granular, title-by-title control of availability, price, a number of loan limit, or a time limit. This requires RB to also give libraries the information and dashboards necessary to manage their ebook collections in ways their print book collections never required. The flexibility will mean that publishers can experiment with a variety of models. The multiplicity of models will be a nuisance for libraries — although RB can do a lot to mitigate it — but it will make a lot more ebook titles available by giving each publisher the ability to control the risks as they see fit. Recorded Books expects to put the program in beta early in 2013 and roll it out by Q3.

It is my hope and belief that the various models offered and the libraries’ reaction to them (agreeing to the licenses or not) will lead to some consensus-forming around particular formulas for these deals. Of course, everything is temporary because everything is changing. And that will continue to be true for quite some time.

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