Oyster

The Digital Book World program this year covers the waterfront of the digital transition for book publishing


(This is a longer-than-usual Shatzkin Files post reviewing the topics and speakers for the 26 breakout sessions at DBW 2015. It serves as a checklist of “things to think about right now” for book publishers living through the experience of digital change. The entire program is here. We decided not to link to each and every speaker.)

The main stage speakers get most of the promotional attention leading up to Digital Book World. That’s just good marketing because there are many important names. Some have written big books (in addition to many other things they’ve done) like Ken Auletta, Seth Godin, and Walter Isaacson. We have a number of CEOs on the main stage as well, including Brian Murray of HarperCollins, who has just been named PW’s “Person of the Year”.

But half of Digital Book World is the six breakout session slots, at which attendees select from several choices. I take some pride in saying that we’re requiring some of the toughest decisions our attendees will have to make in 2015 very early in the year when they decide for each slot which session to attend and which ones they have to skip.

What we tried to do was to schedule things so that our “tracks” — two or more sessions on marketing, data, global, transformation, kids/education, technology, and new business models — are set up to allow people to attend all the sessions in that track. But there is overlap, of course.

“Marketing” is definitely the marquee subject for DBW 2015. We have seven sessions under that heading. On the first day we have a conversation about the skill sets required for marketing today, chaired by my Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy and featuring Jeff Dodes of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Hannah Harlow of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Since two of the panelists are recent imports from outside publishing, presumably hired precisely because they had skill sets that publishing training wouldn’t have produced, this group is bound to help all publishing marketers identify what they need to bring on board.

That will be followed by a session on Smarter Video Marketing, which will be chaired by Intelligent Television founder Peter Kaufman, leading a discussion among video marketers Scott Mebus of Fast Company, Sue Fleming of Simon & Schuster,  Heidi Vincent of National Geographic Books, and John Clinton of Penguin Random House. In a world where authors are making their own videos and YouTube is the second leading search engine, this is a topic that suddenly needs to be on everybody’s radar.

The third marketing track session on Day One is on mobile marketing. Since tracking data is now showing that people now do more searching on mobile devices than on PCs, making sure books are optimized for mobile discovery has rapidly become essential. Thad McIlroy, a consultant with a long history in publishing, did a report on mobile for Digital Book World and will present some of his findings to kick off the session. Then he will lead a discussion including Nathan Maharaj of Kobo, Kristin Fassler of Penguin Random House, and CJ Alvarado of Snippet, a reading app that has been specializing in creating mobile reading experiences for branded authors/musicians /personalities, to detail how publishers and retailers are responding to this new reality.

Also related to marketing and also running on Monday, we’ve set up a break-out session for Joe Pulizzi, head of the Content Marketing Institute, who will have done a presentation on the main stage. Content marketing is something publishers need to learn from. Certainly all the techniques that are employed by non-publishers to market themselves with content created for a marketing purpose should be employed by publishers who have tons of content available for marketing. Pulizzi knows all the tricks and will have talked about many of them from the main stage. The breakout session will give attendees that want to learn more, and ask questions, an opportunity to do that.

The marketing track continues on DBW’s second day. One session, being moderated by my Idea Logical colleague, Jess Johns, will examine case studies of successful marketing campaigns. We’re featuring representatives from two of the platforms publishers can work with for marketing: Ashleigh Gardner of content platform Wattpad and Alex White from marketing data aggregator Next Big Book. They’ll each be joined by a publisher who has worked with them (about to be announced). Wattpad and Next Big Book, along with their publisher partner, will walk through what they’ve done in marketing that would have been impossible to imagine a couple of years ago.

Also on Day 2, we’ll be examining the new world of digital paid media. This has been a big challenge for publishers. Digital media is apparently cheap; you can do marketing that matters for hundreds of dollars in “media” cost, it doesn’t require thousands. But there’s also a lot of work and management involved to using digital media right. We were glad to get digital marketers from three leading publishers, Alyson Forbes from Hachette, Caitlin Friedman from Scholastic and Christine Hung from Penguin Random House as well as Tom Thompson from Verso Advertising. This session will be moderated by Heather Myers of Spark No. 9.

A marketing topic that has become top-of-mind for many publishing marketers is “price promotion”. A business has been built around it for the ebook business called BookBub, and its founder and CEO Josh Schanker will be on our panel discussing it. He’ll be joined by Matthew Cavnar of Vook, Rachel Chou of Open Road, and Nathan Maharaj of Kobo. We went for three retailers and service providers here because publisher experience with price promotion is still pretty limited, although the ebook pioneers at Open Road are an exception. Laura Hazard Owen of GigaOm will moderate this session.

Our data conversation begins on the main stage on the second morning of DBW with data scientist Hilary Mason, the CEO and Founder of Fast Forward labs. She started looking at Big Data at Bit.ly, the link-shortening and -tracking service. Mason is going to look at data across a content set that is the only one more granular than books: the content on the web. Her presentation will help us all understand how to interpret audiences for very small portions of the available content. Because we expect her presentation, like Pulizzi’s on Day One, to generate lots of questions, we also gave her a breakout session to facilitate questions and further explanations. DBW sponsor LibreDigital, which has a new offering to help their client publishers turn data into business intelligence, will help Hilary manage the Q&A.

Our panel on “Authors Facing the Industry” will be prefaced by two presentations.. Judith Curr, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Publishing Group, will have done a main stage presentation on the choice “self-publish or be published” that authors face. Then the breakout session will begin with a short presentation from Queens College Professor Dana Beth Weinberg of DBW’s annual “author survey”, giving a data-grounded underpinning to the panel discussion that will follow. Bianca D’Arc, an extremely successful writer of paranormal sci-fi and fantasy romance (and a former chemist), will be joined by two non-fiction writers for this conversation. Both David Vinjamuri, a marketing professor, and Rick Chapman, a computer programmer, have marketed their books themselves because they make more money doing it that way to their highly-targeted audiences. The panel will be moderated by Jane Friedman, one of the industry’s thought leaders about self-publishing.

The data we’ve never had before that is just beginning to be appreciated is the subject of our “How People Read” panel. It has become obvious that the platform owners know more about how consumers “behave in the wild” around reading than publishers do. Multiple device use, response to free samples, whether people read more than one book at a time, and how fast they read various books are all clear to those who serve up the ebooks, as well as differences in behavior that are geographically based, including uptake of English-language ebook reading. In a panel which will be moderated by Chris Kennealley of Copyright Clearance Center, Micah Bowers of Bluefire, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Jared Friedman of Scribd, and David Burleigh of Overdrive will share data insights their companies have gained by seeing many consumers of many genres in many contexts. Evan Schnittman, who had senior executive positions with Oxford and Bloomsbury and most recently with Hachette, will be moderating.

Of course, that last session is not just about “data”, it is also about “global”, which is another track at DBW 2015 with two sessions on Day Two.

The first of these, moderated by BISG Executive Director Len Vlahos, is on “Global Publishing Tactics”, designed to help publishers know what to do to sell outside their home territory. Speakers from three companies that provide global ebook distribution — Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct, Marcus Woodburn of Ingram, and Amanda Edmonds of Google — will talk about what it takes to make your ebooks discoverable and get them purchased outside your home market. All of these entities distribute to just about every market in the world on behalf of a wide variety of publishers large and small. They see what works in metadata, pricing, and marketing, and they know what doesn’t. They are in a unique position to help publishers hoping to expand their global sales know what it will take to do that.

Our other dedicated global track session is the “Global Market Spotlight”, which will help our US- and English-centric audience understand the opportunities in four of the biggest emerging digital markets. It will feature local experts Carlo Carrenho from Brazil, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair speaking about Germany, Marcello Vena from Italy, and Simon Dunlop of Bookmate, the ebook subscription service from Russia. Following a general introduction about how to look at new markets from Gareth Cuddy of ePub Direct, each of them will talk about how both online and ebooks are taking hold in their market, what local competitors are doing (and there is a very interesting ebook competitor coming from Germany), and what the prospects are for English-language sales in their market. This session will give very directed advice to publishers trying to get sales in four of the most promising new digital territories in the world.

Education is a subject on the agenda for trade publishers because how their books will get to students is undergoing dramatic change they’ll need to understand.

College textbook publishing has been remade in the past decade. In a panel moderated by veteran industry executive Joe Esposito, we will have the four giants of college textbook publishing talk about what that has meant in each of their shops. Simon Allen of Macmillan, Ken Brooks of McGraw-Hill, Clancy Marshall of Pearson, and Paul Labay of Wiley will discuss how their businesses have changed over the past few years, and why. Each of the biggest college publishers has changed their organizational structure, their workflows, and even their products themselves in the past decade, sometimes responding to and sometimes anticipating the changes taking place in the market. All of them have essentially switched from selling textbooks to selling learning platforms. Publishers that sell content into the college market will want to understand the new platforms these players have created and how outside content will now make its way to this market.

The school market is also undergoing extreme change. Partly spurred by the new Common Core standards but also by the fact that digital devices are increasingly integrated into the lives of today’s youth, the classroom experience is being changed dramatically. Neal Goff, who has had senior executive positions in several companies, most recently My Weekly Reader, and who is currently consulting with Highlights, will moderate the discussion about the changing K-12 environment. Three companies with very different perspectives on the market will participate. Chris Palma of Google will describe the operating system that works on the district, building, and classroom level that Google is making available free to school systems, achieving remarkable penetration very quickly. Of course, Google also provides hardware (Chromebooks) and content (through Google Play). Neil Jaffe is the CEO of Booksource, which has been providing print and digital content to schools for many years and sees a continuing need to provide both in the future. And Erica Lazzaro speaks for Overdrive, the company that has dominated the ebook library lending business and is making its way in the school market through its penetration of school libraries. They each have a unique view of how this market is changing. Publishers who sell books read by K-12 students will find this session invaluable.

It is becoming increasingly understood that “gamification” is a way to engage a lot of people who might choose non-reading content, particularly potential readers among the young. Our panel on this subject includes two publishers that are using gamifying to create more engaged “readers”. Keith Fretz will speak for Scholastic, which has made this work more than once already, most notably with “39 Clues”. He is being joined by Greg Ferguson of Full Fathom Five, a collaboration created by James Frey among HarperCollins, Fox, and Google’s Niantic Labs. Another way to employ gamification to engage younger readers is being employed by panelist Thomas Leliveld of Blloon, a subscription ebook service that uses “virtual money” both to reward its users and for them to use to pay for what they read. Also on the panel will be Sara Ittelson, Director of Business Development at Knewton, an adaptive learning company that has developed a platform to personalize educational content and which has lots of data showing how students engage with educational content across ages. This session is moderated by publishing attorney Dev Chatillon.

You could call it “education” or you could call it “tech” (another one of our tracks), but either way DBW attendees will learn about some important new propositions on our Publishers Launchpad session on ed-tech. Our Launchpad sessions are moderated by Robin Warner, a tech investor through her role as Managing Director of Dasilva & Phillips. Launchpad seeks to feature companies that many won’t yet have heard about, but we think they should. Johnjoe Farragher, CEO and Founder of Defined Learning has a new approach to mapping skills to curriculum for the K-12 market. Neal Shenoy, CEO of Speakaboos, will explain his subscription platform for digital picture books which is pedagogically designed to promote education. And Jason Singer, CEO of Curriculet, will explain how his company provides a rental model combined with enabling teachers to annotate and structure the student experience. All of these companies effectively become “gatekeepers” for trade content in schools, making their models very important for publishers who want their books delivered to K-12 students to understand.

The other Launchpad session, also moderated by Robin Warner, is more clearly “tech”-centric. Kevin Franco, the CEO of Enthrill, will talk about how his company “makes ebooks physical” by the use of cards with codes, which is now being trialed in Wal-mart in Canada. Peter Hudson of BitLit enables publishers to provide a free or discounted ebook to people who own a print copy and, along the way, has also developed a really nifty technology that will identify the books on anybody’s shelf from a picture (which they call a “shelfie”). Andrew Dorward of BookGenie451, will explain how his company uses semantic search to make books more discoverable. Beni Rachmanov of DBW sponsor iShook, which has a social ebook reading platform for readers, authors, and publishers, will also present at this session.

Following the Launchpad session, we have our techiest session, moderated by my personal “go-to” guy for understanding tech development in book publishing, Bill Kasdorf, Vice-President at Apex Content Solutions. Bill’s panel’s topic is what might be thought of publishing tech’s “magic bullet”: HTML 5, a format that enables the nirvana of “write-once, use-many-ways” content creation. With the need to manage both print and digital formats and with digital now being rendered on what seems like an infinite variety of screens, the need for publishers to make use of this technology has never been greater. The panelists will include Bill McCoy, head of the International Digital Publishing Forum, and publisher practitioners Phil Madans and Dave Cramer of Hachette Book Group USA, Paul Belfanti of Pearson, and Sanders Kleinfeld of O’Reilly.

Because DBW is relentlessly “practical”, we don’t program much that is far from the current commercial mainstream. An exception this year is our “Blue Sky in the eBook World” panel, which will feature three perspectives that are clearly pushing the envelope beyond where we are today. Chris Kubica and Ashley Gordon have been convening a lot of industry thinkers around the invention of a new kind of bookstore, the publishers’ “dream” to compete with Amazon. They’ll be describing what they and their co-brainstormers have come up with. Peter Meyers, until recently at Citia, is author of “Breaking the Page” and the industry’s leading thinker about how straight-text ebooks can be improved. He’ll put forth his thoughts on that. Paul Cameron is the CEO of Booktracks, a company which puts sound tracks to ebooks and has evidence that the music along with the text improves recall and comprehension. All of these propositions are not (yet) commercially employed, but for DBW attendees who might be looking for the big things AFTER the next big thing, this is the session that will talk about those possibilities. This session is moderated by Professor John B. Thompson, author of “Books in the Digital Age” and “Merchants of Culture”.

Although what the educational publishers are doing might also qualify, we have a track dedicated to “transformation” that has three distinct groups of panelists, each demonstrating how radical change can occur in different ways.

The session on “building the trade publisher of the future” focuses on companies that are remaking themselves from what they were before. Carolyn Pittis, now Managing Director of Welman Digital and formerly on the cutting edge of change management with HarperCollins for over two decades, will moderate. We are proud to be the first industry event to host Daniel Houghton, the new CEO of Lonely Planet, a several-decades old travel book publisher, founded as an upstart, and now rethinking its publishing role in a very challenging travel book market. Lucas Wittman is at ReganArts, Judith Regan’s start-up venture which has an entirely different literary character than the art book publisher she’s working within, Phaidon. Andrea Fleck-Nisbet of Workman is in a company that has just reorganized to be better positioned for change. And Sara Domville, President of F+W (owners of Digital Book World), will describe the experience of turning a “book and magazine publisher” into a “content and commerce company” with a diminishing footprint in print and a growing dependence on ecommerce.

We aren’t neglecting publishing start-ups that are really entirely new propositions as well. Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners will moderate a session bringing together a few of them. Liz Pelletier is the publisher of Entangled, a publisher with new economics that rewards the service providers that support authors as partners in the projects they work on. Georgia McBride is the proprietor of Georgia McBride Media Group, a lean publishing start-up that is developing its properties for multiple media, not just books, taking advantage of her background in music and Hollywood. Jason Pinter of Polis Books is a bestselling thriller writer and has worked for a number of publishers (St. Martin’s, RH, Grove Atlantic, Warner Books) before he founded this digital-first genre book publisher with high author royalties (beginning at 40% of net) against advances. And Atria executive Peter Borland heads up an in-house start-up, Keywords Press, which seeks to leverage YouTube fame into bestsellers with the nurturing of an experienced publishing team.

But it isn’t just book publishers and entrepreneurs who are capitalizing on the digital transition. Former DBW.com editor Jeremy Greenfield, now with The Street, will moderate a session of media companies using digital as an opportunity to change their business models. Sometimes ebooks are very important to this effort and sometimes not so much so. The speakers in this session are Mike Perlis, the President of Forbes, Lynda Hammes, the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine, Jay Lauf, President and Publisher, Quartz (The Atlantic), and Kerry Dyer, Publisher and Chief Advertising Officer of U.S. News & World Report. The tactics being employed by these three media companies to take advantage of their content and their audiences are harbingers of what all non-book media will be thinking about and doing in the years to come. Publishers can find new collaborators in their ranks, or they’ll be facing these entities as new competitors.

The sessions in the track we call “transformation” are also really about “new business models”. But we have two sessions that are more strictly about publishers exploring new business models.

One of these is on “publishers selling direct”, something that made very little sense for any but the nichiest publishers before the digital era. Dominique Raccah, the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, pointed out to me that I needed that session (she surely was right!) and will appear on it. She’ll be joined by Eve Bridge from F+W Media, Mary Cummings of Diversion, and Chantal Restivo-Alessi of HarperCollins, the biggest of the publishers to aggressively pursue the direct sales option. The panel will be moderated by industry consultant David Wilk.

Publishers are also exploring new business models with their attention to “verticals”, audience-centric marketing that sticks to a topic in ways that might ultimately allow selling things other than books. This is also a big subject for DBW’s owner, F+W Media, and Phil Sexton, who runs their Writer’s Digest community, will speak about it. Mary Ann Naples, SVP and Publisher at Rodale, Adrian Norman, VP Marketing and New Products at Simon & Schuster, and Eric Shanfelt, Senior VP, eMedia, of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, show us that both specialist and general trade publishers are investing in building these enduring audience connections. Ed Nowatka of Publishing Perspectives moderates this conversation.

There are two panels that will be among the best-attended of all, but which don’t fit comfortably under any of the track headings.

Probably the two most-discussed digital change issues in 2014 have been subscriptions for ebooks and Amazon. We’re pleased to have breakout sessions on each that should really shed some new light on topics that have already been the subject of much conversation.

The subscription conversation will be moderated by Ted Hill, who co-authored a White Paper on subscription for Book Industry Study Group early in 2014 which has looked increasingly prescient as the year has gone along. The session will begin with a brief presentation by Jonathan Stolper of Nielsen Bookscan, who will deliver data from Nielsen’s recent research into subscription sales. Hill will be joined by the two biggest players in ebook subscription, Matt Shatz of Oyster and Andrew Weinstein of Scribd, to describe how their companies have fared building this new model in 2014. He will also have two publishers with books in those services, Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster and Steve Zacharius of Kensington, to talk about how it is going from the publishers’ point of view. As a bonus, Zacharius also has real sales experience with Amazon’s new subscription service, Kindle Unlimited. This will be most people’s first opportunity to get a wide-ranging view of how the subscription model is really working in the marketplace for the subscription services and the publishers themselves.

And, finally, we’ll have an Amazon conversation that is extremely timely against the backdrop of a year when contentious relationships between Amazon and their publisher-suppliers became a matter of public record. Our discussion is on the subject “Can Amazon Be Constrained? And Should They Be?” and it is moderated by Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, a journalist with several decades of experience tracking both media and tech. (Auletta will be appearing earlier that day on the main stage.) He will be talking with Barry Lynn, a scholar at the New America Foundation, who has recently proposed that Amazon be investigated for anti-trust; journalist Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, who has expressed skepticism about whether the anti-trust rubric fits; and Amazon and indie author Barry Eisler, who has been a full-throated supporter of Amazon’s position against the major publishers. No conference has ever presented such a balanced and provocative conversation about Amazon before; we’re proud it is taking place on the DBW stage.

So there’s a lot to choose from at DBW 2015. We probably won’t settle all the questions around where book publishing is going in the future, but we’re certainly providing engaged conversation about the issues that matter most. And remember after you read this: the highest-profile speakers are mostly not mentioned. We’ll talk about them in a later post about what’s taking place on the main stage.

PS: The last Early Bird discount for Digital Book World expires on Monday, December 15. Save money by registering now!

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Penguin Random House does its competitors a favor by walking away from subscription


I sometimes feel like I’m the only guy in town (NYC, but I’d include London too) contemplating out loud how Penguin Random House might use its position as by far the biggest commercial trade publisher to make life a bit more difficult for its competitors, which in the first instance means the Following Four: HarperCollins (which is much bigger than the other three), Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan.

What I mean, of course, is that PRH could use its position to either improve its margins in relation to everybody else or to create proprietary distribution. Either way, it would expand its ability to make money on books, fueling further its ability to outbid rivals for attractive properties. That’s why, when I looked at the Amazon agreement with Hachette and Simon & Schuster and the story of those negotiations, I thought first about whether they would tempt PRH to push for a better deal with Amazon than its rivals got.

The two most “obvious” opportunities for them to me, one of which appears to be anything but obvious to the people running PRH, are to build PRH-only general bookstores inside other retailers using VMI (vendor-managed inventory) and to start a PRH-only subscription service. They’ve never commented so I could hear it on my suggestion of the former; they continue to make it abundantly clear that they don’t share my opinion about the latter.

A NY-based executive of PRH told me a year ago that I had the subscription thing all wrong. From PRH’s perspective, it is unwise to offer a service and pricing plan that seems designed to give substantial discounts to your very best customers: those who buy and read many books. This is not a crazy perspective. If PRH sells about half the commercial books, then, on average, they get half the sales from these heavy book readers. Why would they want to help them reduce their book spending?

Last week, Tom Weldon, the CEO of PRH in the UK, issued an emphatic dismissal of the subscription idea. Weldon was speaking with Bookseller editor Philip Jones at the British digital publishing event, Futurebook. And The Bookseller reported it.

Weldon said: “We have two problems with subscription. We are not convinced it is what readers want. ‘Eat everything you can’ isn’t a reader’s mindset. In music or film you might want 10,000 songs or films, but I don’t think you want 10,000 books.”

Weldon also said the company did not “understand the business model”, and who made money. But he acknowledged that subscription could work “in certain markets around the world in emerging economies where access to books and bookshops is extremely limited”.

Nobody has more respect for the intellect and professionalism throughout Penguin Random House than I do, and that certainly includes Tom Weldon, whom I had the opportunity to meet once over a business lunch. But in this case, and assuming (as I do) that Weldon is speaking for his colleagues as well as himself, they seem just about 100 percent wrong. (And, of course, it is obvious that there are people in the home office at Bertelsmann who also don’t agree with him, since they power the German ebook subscription service, Skoobe.)

Weldon is absolutely right that the consumer case for a reading subscription is not as powerful as it is for subscriptions to music or video. Particularly when comparing with music, the point that having access to many thousands of choices all the time is not nearly as valuable for books is totally correct.

But making the leap from that that “it is not what readers want” is a totally unproductive generalization. SOME readers want it, and Oyster, Scribd, and Amazon (as well as 24Symbols, Bookmate, and others) are signing them up. The Oyster and Scribd subscribers will have HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster books to choose from but none from PRH. It won’t take a data scientist to prove that PRH will lose market share among those readers to competitors.

Perhaps Oyster and Scribd will fail. Is PRH essentially predicting that? Is PRH counting on that? Are they assuming that’s what will happen? It would certainly seem from the combination of their non-participation and Weldon’s remarks that they are. (Of course, it is also possible that Harper and S&S also think the subscription services will fail, but they don’t mind getting some revenue for themselves and their authors in the meantime.)

But it is the second objection that is most mystifying. Weldon is saying he doesn’t get the business model, which reinforces the idea that he doesn’t believe in it and expects the big subscription services to fail. But that is not an explanation for why Random House wouldn’t do this themselves. By definition, if a publisher starts a subscription offering for its own books, it is not the same business model as a third party offering it. There is one fewer entity feeding at the same trough. Oyster has to make enough money for themselves and for the publishers and authors whose works they peddle. Random House would only have to make sure their authors were whole, or maybe a little better than whole, and they could keep the rest.

Cutting out the intermediary supply chain, there’s a lot of vig in there for PRH to be able to give consumers a reason to subscribe to a service that provides only PRH books without costing authors a penny.

The joker in the deck, of course, which Oyster and Scribd would only be too glad to point out, is the customer acquisition cost. But even if PRH didn’t want to recruit subscribers for such a service by promoting it on the books themselves — certainly the most efficient and direct way to reach their customers — out of concern for how it would be received by the retailers selling their books, it has all sorts of ways to get the word out about what should be a bargain for many of their readers. Penguin Random House has been building its database for direct customer contact for years. It can reach literally millions of readers virtually free, and in many cases would know the names of their favorite authors which is nice ammo for the subject line of an email to get it opened and read. And it also has millions of page views through author sites, both those PRH controls and those where an author could be recruited to help.

And unlike the other services. PRH wouldn’t have to maintain a whole apparatus to make deals to bring in the content; they’re already doing that! Presuming they could make the right white label deal to manage the subscription service, they wouldn’t really have a “critical mass” issue either. And instead of being on the outside looking in as the extant subscription services sign up readers they could only get access to by putting their books into somebody else’s proprietary platform, they’d be building their own unique distribution that nobody else would have.

And, frankly, a service offering all of Penguin Random House’s books, whether they put in the new ones or not, would deliver a selection at least comparable and perhaps superior to any existing subscription service.

Why they’d simply dismiss this idea is very hard to understand.

Reading tea leaves, I have gotten the impression that PRH is preparing a licensing program to make its content available for use in schools, another very disruptive thing they could do by themselves that could only be effective for their competitors in combination with each other somehow. Maybe my tea leaf reading is wrong; we’ll see if that comes down the pike in the coming months or not. Of course, this kind of subscription licensing is completely different, and they could well believe that the customers do want this and that the business model makes sense.

It has seemed to me for some time that all of the Big Five houses could peddle a subscription service for kids ebooks that would be a reliable generator of cash flow and customer acquisition as well. Many parents would love to be able to let their young kids take the iPad in hand and “buy” books, as long as they weren’t actually spending any money. The big houses all have extensive juvie publishing programs. Each one could offer a subscription service that would keep many kids amused for months. It could be a “totally cool” 6th (or 5th or 8th) birthday present. While it is true that there are others competing for the kids’ market, any of the Big Five could pull something like this together very inexpensively and, over time, build a customer base that would be both proprietary and lucrative.

With the number of ebook subscription services for consumers proliferating, surely the tech to try this out on a smaller scale is getting cheaper and more accessible. In fact, if Weldon is right, and the subscription business model is wrong, then maybe even Oyster or Scribd will want to build a service provision model into their next pivot. And if they succeed, imitators in many ways will follow.

Subscription is here as a tool to sell ebooks that any publisher totally ignores at its peril. And whether it ultimately becomes a significant channel for general trade ebooks or not, it will be tried in many forms and many ebooks will be moved that way in the years to come.

We have a great panel discussion on subscriptions at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. It will be moderated by Ted Hill, who co-authored a BISG study on subscriptions earlier in 2014 that is looking increasingly prescient. Ted will have both Oyster and Scribd on the panel along with two publishers providing them with books, Simon & Schuster and Kensington. Kensington, being a non-agency publisher with no choice in the matter, is also a provider to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. The discussion will be prefaced by a quick presentation from Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper around what Bookscan has learned about the reading patterns in subscription services. This should be a very informative discussion.

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The support infrastructure for entities to publish is growing but the most important piece may not yet be provided


I remember a song lyric from the early 70s for which the opening line was: “we don’t need more sailors, we need a captain”. (I can’t find the reference in LyricFind and I don’t remember the name of the band.) That song could be about the new publishing that is arising from the phenomenon of “atomization”, books that could come from just about anybody anywhere (that’s the “we”). They are supported by “unbundling”, the availability of just about every service required (those are the “sailors”) in the complex task of publishing books.

This is what we should call “entity self-publishing”, as opposed to “author self-publishing”. The success of indie authors has gotten a lot of ink lately, partly fueled by the Amazon-Hachette dispute which has brought into bold relief that authors can make a living self-publishing — mostly by exploiting the capabilities of Amazon — without a big organization of their own. But entity self-publishing is ultimately far more threatening to the publishing establishment trying to make a profit because it could, in time, bring a lot more content into the marketplace with a lot more marketing muscle behind it than individual authors will. And sometimes the motivations of those content providers won’t include the need for profit.

(It also can be seen to offer opportunity to the establishment, to the extent that they find it productive to craft their own service-offering on-ramps to be flexible partners for entities.)

Companies abound that offer the core services that support publishing. Big organizations like Ingram and Perseus are mainstream providers and deliver the full suite of capabilities, including putting printed books onto store shelves. (In fact, if you’re big enough, you can get a Big Five publisher to do this for you.) Digital distributors like Vook, INscribe, and ePubDirect can turn a file into ebooks and put them into distribution around the world. Lulu and Blurb will also deliver printed books for you. The subscription services like Scribd and Oyster (not to mention Amazon, Ingram, Overdrive, and the other ebook retailers) will give you distribution. And, both as part of those larger offerings and as stand-alone services like BiblioCrunch, it is increasingly easy for an author (or self-publishing entity) to find editors, cover designers, marketers and web site creators, and just about any other specific skill set that is required to publish a book successfully. In fact, publishers themselves have relied for years on freelancers for many of those functions.

But entities have challenges that individual authors don’t.

An individual author knows what is to be published: what they write. And because most authors are most comfortable in a particular genre, they don’t have to worry much about consistency as they build an audience. They are inherently consistent. (Authors who want to span genres or write outside what they’re best known for have a tougher row to hoe to make themselves commercially successful as self-publishers.)

Of course, they have plenty of challenges outside their writing skill set: editing, cover design, even pricing and marketing. And those challenges are enough to make many authors prefer to have a publisher who will take care of them, even if they would otherwise be willing to give up the marketing and distribution clout of a professional publishing house. There are big per-copy-sold margin advantages to doing it yourself as well as being set free from the constraints and delays that come with working with a larger organization. There are still plenty of “how” questions, but there are very few “what” questions.

But when an entity commits to self-publishing, even one like a newspaper or a magazine that knows how to create the intellectual property, they suddenly need decision-making they’re not equipped to do, and it begins with “what” to publish.

They need a publisher. In the metaphor of the song lyric, they need a “captain”.

The position of “publisher” exists within the magazine and newspaper worlds as well, but it means something subtly different than it does in books. In either case, the publisher governs the whole enterprise, not just the editorial decisions. Because the revenue for magazines and newspapers comes primarily from advertisers, the publisher’s time, bandwidth, and focus are directed there. The publisher certainly has responsibility for things like marketing and distribution, but those tend not to require a great deal of issue-by-issue attention.

But the nature of book publishing is that each book is its own separate marketing challenge as well as an editorial one, and the two are interrelated. If the right book for a market should cost $15, you make a different book than if the right book would be $30, or $8. If the book is ready for publication in September but the right time to bring that book to the market is February, it’s a publisher who decides to hold it back.

And if there are 20 or 30 or 100 books an entity could do, it is a publisher who decides whether to do five a month or five a season, which ones to do first, and which ones should always come out in June.

In a post over a year ago, I cited the example of what publisher Bruce Harris did for Microsoft founder Nathan Myhrvold’s audacious (and successful) $625 cookbook. Myhrvold had the concept and the intellectual property and the business acumen to make key decisions. But it took Bruce, or somebody with his considerable experience and publishing sophistication, to orchestrate the inputs from marketers and publicity experts, coordinate it to the realities of the publishing calendar, and provide the direction to make best use of Ingram’s industrial-strength services.

This kind of expertise is even more important to structure lists within an ongoing publishing program.

Vook has certainly experienced some of that. Their new website announces them as “author-centric” (and they’ll move more and more in that direction), but they have totally cottoned to the idea that entities are a big part of the self-publishing future. They’ve provided critical infrastructure services to enable ebook publishing for The New York Times, Forbes, Thought Catalog, Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report, Frederator Studios, and The Associated Press.

Providing business intelligence has been a crucial part of Vook’s strategy for working with entities. Matt Cavnar of Vook told me:

“We’re tracking data on over 4 million books — print and digital — and we use that information to generate pricing recommendations to maximize revenue for the books our partners publish, to then adjust the books within the marketplaces, and to find specific categories where they will more be likely to rank on bestseller lists. We also coordinate the standard digital marketing and merchandising with the retailers. Thus, we’re acting as the infrastructure and data backend platform for these partners to be as successful as possible — allowing them to focus more on the creative and developmental side of their publishing program.”

But, of course, that data needs to be acted upon by a publisher at the other end. Vook’s client list is heavy with media organizations that can provide some version of that title-by-title, list-by-list decision-maker to make use of Vook’s tools. Because Vook  thinks hard about offering services to authors, Cavnar knows what it is like having focused direction and acknowledges the point.

“That’s right. That coordinated/creative decision maker on the partner side plays the role of the author in a sense.”

The news arrived over the weekend that Blurb, the publishing services company that grew out of an initial print-on-demand offering, had hired veteran publishers Molly Barton and Richard Nash to help them build a network of support services that they will, presumably, operate as a stand-alone business and as an on-ramp to their core business. Blurb has seen this coming for a while and the move made made sense: two publishers with vast experience know how to find and vet all the service offerings for every component of what it takes to publish a book successfully.

But I suspect that for most of the newbies who find editors and cover artists and book marketers in the network Barton and Nash will help Blurb deliver (and, one wonders, how much overlap and qualitative distinction there will be with what BiblioCrunch and a Google search would offer), it would be Barton and Nash themselves, and people like them and Bruce Harris and other veterans with experience with many books and many lists, who would be the most valuable service providers. The most ambitious of the new entrants to book publishing, coming to it to build on knowledge and a reputation established in some other ecosystem (even one that is “media”), would be wise to see that, like all the other tasks, the orchestration of a publishing program is best done by somebody with experience. And the person providing it doesn’t necessarily have to be on staff.

*********

And another, not unrelated thought.

In the world outside book publishing, a lot of content is being generated for “content marketing”. It has been part of my job in programming Digital Book World to understand how the world of content marketing and the world of book publishing connect.

The way a publisher instinctively wants to think about it is “if people are getting paid for content, can I sell some?” Of the three possible interactions with the world of content marketing, that’s likely to be the least productive one. The content marketing world is all about creating precisely the right content for a brand’s marketing needs. It’s not a particularly efficient approach to search the world of existing content for that, then have to license it and live with the licensing restrictions, and almost certainly have to modify it for marketing use. So, with some limited exceptions, scratch that.

Another potential interaction might be around distributing what is or starts out as marketing content as ebooks. I first made this suggestion to a law firm that had created a white paper on Trademark Law. Why not publish it as an ebook, I said? They said, why bother? I thought, don’t you want to show it to people who search Amazon for “trademark law”?

But when I talked to Joe Pulizzi, the head of the Content Marketing Institute, about ebooks, he said “well, sure, they might make sense in some cases, but there are so many other things that are more important to a marketer.” He’s talking about blogs and Pinterest and YouTube and the wide world of web and apps where content can be made to show up for the people who would be most interested in it exactly when they need it. In other words, “I see your point, but frankly, we usually have much bigger fish to fry.”

And that points to what publishers most have to gain from the business of content marketing. Publishers have tons of content, but they are far from having figured out every best way to use that content for marketing. That’s an adjacent science for us, not one in our experiential wheelhouse. That’s why we have Pulizzi speaking on precisely that subject — using content to build an audience and how to apply all those things that work better than ebooks — from the main stage at Digital Book World. We even gave him a breakout session to follow because there are going to be tons of questions from publishers (and their marketers) who will want to put these capabilities in their arsenal.

Many of the companies mentioned in this post are speaking at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. Blurb and ePubDirect are sponsors who will also be on the program. Speakers from ForbesIngram, OverdriveOysterPenguin Random House, PerseusScribdUS News & World Report, and Vook are on panels. From the main stage, we will hear a presentation from James Robinson, who does web analytics in the newsroom at The New York Times, and Michael Cader and I will have a conversation with Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.

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The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out


Once again this morning we wake up to a piece by David Streitfeld in The New York Times about Authors United and their ongoing effort to discredit Amazon. The message coming loud and clear from the legacy publishing establishment is that Amazon doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, the value that agents, publishers, and chain and independent bookstores bring to authors and readers and, by extension, to society as a whole. The challenge they face in this ongoing discussion is that many of those values — multiple (agent, publisher, bookseller) levels of curation, investments in quality editing, giving worthy authors the financing to do the creative work that must take place well before the IP will generate any revenue — are pretty esoteric and hard for most people to relate to. And they apply to a small and possibly diminishing number of writers.

The critical services publishers provide are marketing and distribution and those functions, as we all know, are undergoing change and revision as part of the digital disruption. And because they are rapidly changing, there is even greater-than-usual variability to how well these things are done across publishers and, within publishers, across their imprints and lists. Indeed, many authors at legacy houses are not enamored of their publishing experience, but the ones who are defending the publishers are also defending something of their own.

What is equally loud and clear from Amazon’s own statements and those of their supporters (including many authors who would be less well known and less well off today if Amazon hadn’t built the tools and market share they have over the past several years), is that the legacy industry doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, that commercial publishing was built on an ecosystem which is rapidly being dismantled and will ultimately be irrelevant. And they point out that what is replacing what came before delivers much lower-priced ebooks (print is another matter) to consumers and a substantially larger portion of the revenue to the authors than published contract splits would give them. (The fact is that those splits are irrelevant more than 80 percent of the time for the most commercial books because big agents get big authors advances larger than what they “earn”, but that’s another story.) The authors that work in the new paradigm also gain unprecedented control of their professional lives: publishing when they want to, pricing and changing prices as they want to, and playing with marketing opportunities (bundling print-and-digital, entering subscription services) or not, as they and they alone decide.

The fact that both options are commercially viable today means we might actually now be living in a golden moment for authors. Publishers are certainly aware that a brand-name author has a truly workable self-publishing option (although, frankly, the biggest surprise to me so far is that basically no major author has taken it, which is objective evidence that the execs running the big houses are navigating at least some aspects of the digital transition very well). And Amazon started paying authors 70% when publishers switched to agency and extracted 70% for themselves, a connection that seems not to have been made by much of the publisher-bashing commentariat.

While there is a symmetry to the two sides’ dismay about what is appreciated or understood, there is a massive asymmetry here that is hardly, if ever, mentioned. And that asymmetry makes the motivation of the legacy defenders very clear — they’re fighting for their lives — but actually suggests that the “side” fighting them (to the extent that it consists of indie authors) is at least sometimes simultaneously fighting against their own interests.

Those who feel well served on the legacy establishment side have much to fear from Amazon’s continued growth and success. The clear self-interest of all the publishers, agents, and those authors fortunate enough to be continuously “employed” through book contracts — which includes many, and certainly the most recognizable, of the authors in the Authors United effort — who are fighting for Hachette to “win” (which means maintaining the publisher’s share of the sales that flow through Amazon) in the current dispute is obvious, if perhaps insufficiently emphasized or acknowledged.

Cynicism about whether it is really the greater societal “goods” that get so much emphasis in their appeals that are really motivating these authors or whether they’re just protecting their own gravy train is not unreasonable.

Assuming that the publisher-bashing commentariat, who could also be characterized as the “pro-Amazon” advocates, has a healthy number of authors whose revenue is as largely dependent on Amazon as James Patterson’s is on Hachette, one can see the emotional motivations to fight for the home team could be similar. But the practical side of it is precisely opposite. It is obvious that Amazon getting stronger weakens Hachette’s (or HarperCollins’s or Bloomsbury’s or Cambridge University Press’s) ability to pay advances and publish more books, which directly affects various stakeholders and particularly steadily-working authors. But if Hachette “wins” — or if Amazon’s margins on transactions with publishers are not improved — how does this injure the self-publishing authors who are working successfully that way now? Simple logic says that Amazon will treat them best when the possibilities offered by publishers are the best.

Do they really think that Amazon will offer them more if Hachette is weaker? History and logic would suggest the opposite.

In other words, publisher-published authors definitely lose if Amazon gains strength in relation to them. But Amazon-published or KDP authors (and the publisher-bashing seems to come from both flavors) lose nothing if legacy publishing remains strong. They are, allegedly, fighting for the “good” of those authors who are signing “exploitive” publishing contracts, but their own interests are not served.

This asymmetry plays out in another way in the Lee Child exchange on the Konrath blog. Child says, again and again, that he thinks it makes complete sense for authors to exploit the opportunities in KDP if it looks like the best commercial choice for them. Maybe I’ve missed it (and I admit that I am disinclined to read most of the publisher-bashing posts and I certainly don’t make a habit of reading the bloggers who specialize in them), but the message I keep getting from Konrath, Eisler, and Howey is not “choose the course that is best for you based on the choices you have in front of you” but is more like “never sign one of those exploitive publishing contracts!” (Howey tells me he blogs about that “all the time” and cites this post of his. You can decide for yourself what you think, but it seems to me that he is saying “only sign with a publisher after you’ve built yourself up by self-publishing first”.)

The motivation of the authors who spend a great deal of time and energy bashing big publishers has puzzled me before. Because “price-shoppers” are a core audience for indie ebooks, indies actually got a shot in the arm when the publishers and Apple put in agency pricing, which in its original form prohibited even the retailer from taking a loss to bring branded ebook prices down.

There’s no way for an outsider to compile the data to prove this, but the chances are very good that indie author breakthroughs were easier to achieve during the years when the price gap between the majors and the indies was greatest. But most of the voices now demonizing Hachette (and the rest of what is being called the Big Five “cartel”) also bashed agency pricing. I see the benefit to Amazon in that position, but I don’t see how crippling agency pricing helped indie authors.

It is not only Judge Cote’s decision which has changed things since, but also the growing awareness of publishers about the value of temporary price drops, or “daily deals” and services — most prominently BookBub — to amplify the effect of promotional pricing in the marketplace. But how did ending agency pricing benefit independent authors?

Hugh Howey maintains that he is better off if his books and those from the big branded authors are priced the same. Hugh’s a smart guy so maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it, but that makes no sense to me. Except in the luxury goods market, there is virtually no situation where you gain advantage with a higher price than the alternative pitted against you. The bigger the saving you can offer, the more you’ll sell. In fact, Hugh makes that argument himself when he claims that lower ebook prices will raise industry revenue because it makes the ebooks more affordable. It’s fine to argue that the big publishers are dumb not to lower prices and sell more, but, even if it is true and especially if it is true and they pay attention and obey, how does that do him any good? (The answer from Hugh, by the way, is that we’re all better off if all prices are lower.)

I have been persuaded in Howey’s case that he personally rises above self-interest in his industry commentary. Hugh’s a nice guy, a smart guy, and a socially-conscious guy. He and I have had many candid and mutually respectful exchanges. And I read “Wool” and recruited him to speak at Digital Book World long before he was such a celebrity on the anti-publisher side. I believe him when he says “I’ve made more money than I ever imagined I would; I’m grateful; and one benefit of that is I don’t need to be motivated by money in my decisions.”

Howey is a true believer and a crusader who is sincerely convinced that the standard publisher terms for authors are unfair and need to change. He has occasionally expressed skepticism and concern about some of Amazon’s decisions and behavior, particularly around the complex compensation schemes for Kindle authors with their KOLL (lending library) and Kindle Unlimited (subscription) initiatives which buys him a certain amount of credibility. But I still can’t understand why he’s in KU but not Oyster and Scribd and 24Symbols, a set of decisions that strike me as being in Amazon’s commercial interest but not his own. (One possible explanation is that going into additional distributions creates more “work”, but I don’t take that too seriously. Hugh can afford to hire people to do the work, and he does all kinds of other things, like his AuthorEarnings blog, purely to add to industry knowledge. It would add a lot of useful insight if he were in the subscription services and reported on it.)

Perhaps the problem has to do with Amazon’s KDP rules, which apparently require “exclusivity” to be in KU. That is almost certainly not a requirement visited on publishers. If that’s what is stopping Howey, it would be nice if he would say so. Could Amazon be preventing its authors from pursuing revenue opportunities? If that’s true, wouldn’t that belong in any discussion of an author’s choices?

Another persistent Amazon advocate is author Barry Eisler, whom I first encountered during a brief moment when he was going to eschew taking advances and being published by somebody in favor of doing it on his own. (In the end, he became an Amazon-signed author.) When I posed the quandary that is the subject of this piece to Eisler, he referred me to this post of his which I don’t believe addresses the question. You can check out the link and decide for yourself.

Trying really hard to understand this and think imaginatively about it, I can only really come up with two “selfish motivations” that make sense. One — and I think this is the one that is claimed — is that the publisher-bashing is designed to improve life for the victimized authors who choose those deals. Indeed, the content of the anti-publisher rants often includes specific suggestions, or demands: raise the digital royalty, make shorter contracts, pay royalties more often, etc. that are, no doubt, author-friendly. But it does seem a bit weird for people committed to demonizing, weakening, and ridiculing the big publishers to be the ones to tell them what they could do to stay competitive. If publishers accepted the suggestions, of course, perhaps Amazon would be pushed to improve author terms too, but that seems a pretty indirect and distant reward to explain all the time and energy some people expend on this. (Or are they promising to sign with the big publishers if they follow these suggestions? I don’t think so!)

Another conceivable legitimate motivation, of course, is ego. These publisher-bashers have managed to “do it” without them, and continuing a high-profile running criticism of the establishment they outdid and outmaneuvered, particularly when you can get a lot of applause, might be alluring. But even that feels weak to me. If self-aggrandizement were what motivated these people, it would be even more impressive if their frame were “this is hard, but I managed to do it” whereas the message feels much more like “anybody can do this and you’re a bit of a dolt if you don’t.”

None of this constitutes enough of an explanation to satisfy me. I am either missing something in plain sight or I’m not in possession of all the facts. Perhaps the “explanation” that the published authors defending Hachette pursue their selfish interests but that the indie authors who bash Hachette and the others do it out of public-spiritedness, even if their own revenue suffers, does it for you even though it doesn’t for me.

Amazon has a strong case to make for itself. They really made online book retailing work through strategic brilliance and excellence of execution, without being first and against industry entities that should have had competitive advantage. They made ebooks into a thriving business for everybody pretty much singlehandedly, also without being first. They’re entitled to feel that the powerful position they’re in is because of the virtue of their model and execution, and they’re entitled to feel that a different publishing industry than the one they came into is the future they have to work towards, whether or not they want to spell out that vision in full and whether or not the incumbents “get it”.

If every argument being made by the publisher bashing commentariat were coming from Amazon, I’d understand the motivation and factor it in, as I do with Authors United or Hachette when they speak.

But I need to understand a rational motivation to put anybody’s advocacy in context. And it seems to me the very best thing for indie authors is for all the existing publishers to retain their capability to hire authors on that model as much as they can for as long as they can. That’s not the best thing for Amazon, but I really think it is the best thing for authors, and as true for those who do-it-themselves as for those who are published.

A senior Amazon executive, in a meeting we had two or three years ago, complimented me on the fact that I “understand entities acting in their own self-interest.” My response then was, and my feeling now is, “I’m mistrustful when they don’t.”

After I wrote this, I found that blogger Chuck Wendig had asked a similar question, with far less editorial speculation than appears here, in what appears to be an undated, but recent, post. He framed it differently than I do and I’m not sure what I read at his attempt at irony (“why are self-publishers trying to save the Big Five?”) was seen that way by his many respondents. My focus is narrower: this fight is being carried by a handful of very persistent and energetic critics, spending time and energy that one would think takes more motivation than is required simply to  “have an opinion” on this subject one way or the other. “What fuels all this energy and vitriol?” is a different question than “which side are you on in the dispute?” 

Early Bird pricing for Digital Book World 2015 is only open until next Monday. There will be lots of programming that will provide context and insight around all things Amazon. Michael Cader and I will have a half-hour wide-ranging discussion with Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti. Judith Curr, the CEO of Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint, will present her view of  the “publisher-or-self-publishing” choice authors face. An expert on the school and college market, Matthew Greenfield of Rethink Education, will include an assessment of Amazon’s role in his review of what publishers need to know to compete for those sales as things change. Jonathan Nowell, the CEO of Nielsen Book, will use his company’s historical data to look at how the mix of what sells in print has changed since ebooks took off. Media veterans and authors Walter Isaacson and Ken Auletta will let us see the book business alongside other media undergoing technological change, which is necessary for any valid understanding of Amazon. We have a panel of publishers talking about selling direct. Oh, and of course, Founder/President Josh Schanker of BookBub will be on a panel on price promotion! There’s a lot more that is relevant, which you’ll find if you scan the entire program.

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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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