Peter Brantley

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoffelder offered his take on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More thoughts on libraries and ebook lending


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An ebook experiment stirs up conversation


The Wall Street Journal was the first to announce, on Monday, (behind a pay wall, but Google “Publisher Delays E-book Amid Debate On Pricing” and you’ll get it) that Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah was holding back the ebook publication of a new hardcover YA novel, Bran Hambric, scheduled for release this September. Raccah’s explanation to the Journal was that she was trying to preserve the perception that the $27 hardcover price was reasonable. Since she knew that any ebook would hit the street at just under $10 (the Kindle promotional price is $9.99 and B&N has suggested that their promotional price will be $9.95), Raccah felt that sales of the hardcover would be undermined.

What was left unsaid in the Journal piece was that Raccah might have been leaving money on the table with this decision. After all, the publisher still sells ebooks on roughly equivalent terms to printed books and has lower costs. So, depending on the royalties Raccah is paying the author, she is (most likely) realizing more margin for Sourcebooks on the ebook sale than on the printed book sale, regardless of how the retailer prices it.

Even more startling (in this day and age) is the possibility that the author’s royalty is higher per copy on the hardcover, so Raccah might be protecting author royalties, to the extent that withholding the ebook restrained cannibalization and resulted in more hardcover sales. I mention that possibility because the agent for author Kaleb Nation is Richard Curtis, one of the most ebook-friendly agents in town (and, indeed, the owner of an ebook publisher called EReads), who was quoted in the Journal supporting Raccah’s decision.

On Wednesday, Motoko Rich and Brad Stone published a piece in the Times on the same story (in which I was very briefly quoted.) Rich and Stone added some nuance to the story. The Journal said that agent Robert Gottlieb resisted simultaneous ebook publication “when he can prevent it.” In the same graf, they said that only one book of the Times’s Top 15 fiction bestsellers was not available in the Kindle store. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Kindle editions were available at any particular time in relation to the first release of the hardcover, just that they are available now.

The Times reporting went further than the Journal, speaking to several publishers of upcoming major books about their ebook timing plans. Doubleday hasn’t decided yet about Dan Brown’s book but acknowledges that the impact of ebook sales on the hardcover was a consideration. S&S won’t reveal their ebook release plan for Stephen King’s November novel, Under the Dome. Ditto from Hachette imprint “Twelve” on the Ted Kennedy autobiography, True Compass, coming on October 6.

So the fact that everybody is thinking hard about this is confirmed by the Times’s reporting.

But Cader, who as an industry expert and blogger has more scope and credibility to report unattributed information than reporters at WSJ or the Times, went further in Publishers Lunch on Thursday. He ridiculed the notion that Doubleday was (according to a spokesperson)  “[more] worried about…security…than particular vendors” and he sees the motivation from publishers being to control the behemoth, Amazon. As Cader reports it, Kindle sales surged when the new device(s) came out, becoming as much as 50% or even 70% of Amazon’s sales of many important books.

Everybody (in the industry, but maybe not outside of it) knows that Amazon pays a standard discount for ebooks, which is about 50% off publisher suggested retail, and that Amazon actually takes a loss on a $25 or $27 hardcover book it sells through Kindle at $9.99 (as B&N will do if they follow through to sell books like this as ebooks for $9.95.) Nobody expects Amazon to do this forever although, as Cader points out, they are temporarily subsidized by the profit they make selling the Kindle devices. The widespread fear among the big publishers is that Amazon will soon demand lower prices for the books they put on Kindle so they can keep the $9.99 price point profitably.  As the Kindle unit sales grow, of course, the muscle behind such a potential demand would grow right along with it.

Cader makes the very important point that sales migrating to ebooks, and particularly to Kindle, weaken the brick-and-mortar channel that publishers depend on for most of their sales and profits. The Times reported that publishers could well be making bigger unit profits on each Kindle sale than on each printed book sale (a fact that I explained to them when I was interviewed and which appeared not to be clear to them before I did). Cader (who of course knew that without needing to be told by me or by the Times) makes the point that publishers do this because they are “looking out for what they believe to be their long-term interests — and are trying to protect the entire system of physical book retailing which supports the whole industry.”

While this was happening, Dominique Raccah posted her thoughts to Peter Brantley‘s Amazing List and Kassia Krozser, on that list and proprietor of the Booksquare blog, turned her space over to Dominique for a version of that post. Dominique made it clear that she considered what she was doing with Bran Hambric to be an experiment. Her focus was on a “sustainable author/publisher model”. She made the point (again, clear to most people in publishing but perhaps not to those outside) that the music business continues to present inapplicable analogies, but one of the most egregious is that authors should give it away like musicians to get performance bookings: in publishing, there are no performance bookings (and few t-shirt sales…)

Raccah made it clear that she supports early ebook releases and her house is going to a workflow that will enable that. But then she gets to what is really the heart of the matter. “Etailers are suggesting that the ‘right’ price point for an ebook is maximally $9.99.  And they are proselytizing the price $9.99.  We can’t control what retailers charge for books or ebooks.” The publisher’s choices are whether and when to make it available and whether to sell to any particular retailer.

From there she explains that exploiting formats with “windows” is an old book business strategy (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback) and a common film strategy (theatrical precedes DVD release, with TV licensing once part of that picture as well, but not anymore.) And she concludes by saying that publishers need to make these decisions on a book-by-book basis (“strategically”, she says, although I’d call that “tactically.”)

My quote, by the way, was to the effect that ebook readers and print book readers are increasingly separate markets, which I believe to be true but cannot prove. A C-level friend at a large house disagrees with me, as I’m sure many others do, and my evidence on this is highly anecdotal (including myself: I have read one printed book of the 50 or so I’ve read in the past 18 months.) But my friend would have no more evidence than I to support his contrary position, so publishers will have to make decisions without really knowing, for now, whether they can push a Kindle or Shortcovers or Ereader consumer back to paper by denying or delaying a book.

That concludes the summary. I have a few thoughts of my own to add on this. I’ll be posting those shortly, probably over the weekend. I hate going much over 1000 words on any single day, and I’m already past 1200.

An  earlier version of this post had a couple of errors misconneting agents and authors which have been repaired. So if somebody tells you about a mistake they saw that you can’t find, that’s what it’s all about. Thanks to Michael Cader for setting me straight.

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The Google settlement and the alternatives


Thanks to Peter Brantley and his work spotting items of interest, I was pointed to a post in Wired which is an FAQ on the Google settlement. It is, as far as I can tell, an accurate summary that leads people through the issues in a way that discourages support for the settlement. But I focused on one particular question and answer:

That’s ridiculous. Isn’t there a better solution to the orphan works problem?

Yes. For one, Congress could step up and pass a law about orphan works. But the last time Congress passed a substantial law about the length of copyrights it extended them for 20 more years — keeping more and more books from reaching the public domain. Don’t expect much help here.

This a neat summary of the problem with the whole Booksearch settlement debate. The ONLY better solution to the orphan works problem is for Congress to do the right thing. The author of THIS piece sure didn’t try to come up with anything else. Since that is so, the debate about the settlement should focus on two questions:

1. If Congress does nothing, are we better off with the settlement or with the status quo ante (no settlement and a continuing lawsuit where the plaintiffs are the parties in the settlement, NOT the public and NOT the libraries and NOT the orphan owners — ha! — and not anybody else?)

2. Are we more likely to generate constructive action from Congress in the environment we’d have after the settlement is rejected (status quo ante) or where we’ll all be if  it is accepted?

The now 7-month long debate about the settlement is highly asymmetric. Those advocating it are forced to defend something specific, as if it were the last word (which it isn’t.) Those opposing it are forced to defend nothing. For those who believe the settlement should be rejected, the questions I believe are relevant:

1. Do you have any suggestion of an alternative solution OTHER than Congress passing sensible new copyright law covering orphans?

2. If not, can you explain why it is any more likely that Congress will do that now, or if the settlement is rejected, than in the half-century just past?

As far as I can tell, and I have been asking, there is no solution to the orphan works problem except by changing the copyright law, if this settlement is rejected. And, of course, the is only the most partial solution. Congress has not only failed to act on this question; to my knowledge  not one Congressman or Senator has even expressed an opinion about the Google settlement or the orphan works question in general.

So, this settlement aside, there is apparently no solution BUT Congress and there is no solution likely to be coming FROM Congress. So the cost of denying Google the notional economic monopoly over some unknown quantity of previously buried intellectual property is to also deny it to everybody else. At least until this lawsuit wends its way through trial and appeals.

There is an irony in the current debate which has gone unremarked upon in any of the material I have seen. No polls have been taken on the subject, but appreciating the irony will depend on agreeing with me that there has been more opposition to the settlement from the library community than from publishers. That’s my very strong impression. 

The entire corpus of scanned orphan works comes from library collections. Now the library community expresses the fear that Google, having obtained a “monopoly” on many of these scanned works through the settlement, will charge extortionate prices to libraries for access to the database beyond the one free terminal per library negotiated in the settlement. But at the time the Google library program was announced, it was publishers who were up in arms about whether the libraries – which were getting copies of the scans that Google was creating of their books with different “rights grants” from Google for what could be done with the scans Google had paid for — were exceeding fair use in their partnership with Google. If there hadn’t been deals between libraries and Google, there would have been no in-copyright material scanned, no lawsuit, and no settlement.

Of the people I have talked to who are opposed to the settlement, all agreed that a better solution could only come through a change in the copyight law. One particularly strong opponent said he believed that would be made more likely by rejection than by acceptance.  I don’t agree with him and he offered no logical support for that opinion.

Another, agreeing that we’d need an Act of Congress and wouldn’t be likely to get one, said that “not all problems have answers” and that orphan works might be one of those. And, anyway, he argues, the aggregate value of all the orphans was hardly worth the time and energy the industry is spending discussing them. He diverges from some fellow opponents who are offended by the dollar windfall presumably coming to Google from the sale of rights to the database of scans. 

This opponent of the settlement is arguing that the value to society of getting the “fair use” questions that arise in this case settled by a court is greater than the value of liberating several million books for consumption. That is a discussion worth having. It is not depending on things that won’t happen to make its case. Most of the arguments against the settlement don’t have that virtue.

And there is one more irony surrounding this debate. While the settlement is waiting for approval or disapproval from the judge, the registering of copyright claimants for the orphans continues. There have been no results announced, but I am led to believe that the number of c/r owners coming out of the woodword, because of the settlement, is much larger than anybody expected. This is, of course, shrinking the potential bonanza to Google and is also accomplishing what years of effort to influence Congress has failed to do: substantially reducing the number of orphan works.

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Welcome to The Shatzkin Files


When Joe Esposito first told me about blogs in about 2001 or so, there were very few. Michael Cader had PublishersLunch, but if Michael knew that it was an emailed blog, he didn’t tell me. And then blogs “happened”, as things do: gradually, then suddenly. And now I’m late to have one of my own. Really late.

I’ll admit that I fiddled with this a couple of times before. I started up at least twice, maybe it was three times. I decided I’d try it for a while, see if I could get into the pattern of writing regularly, and then reveal it to the world when I’d piled up a month or two of posts. But I never GOT to a month or two of posts. And because I was keeping what I was doing a secret, I had no traffic, no comments, and none of the rewards of interaction which provide the motivation to keep going. So I didn’t keep going.

I admired my friends Gwyn Headley and Michael Cairns for starting their blogs and sticking with them. Gwyn started by making a list of 365 things he could blog about, so he could refer to his list every morning if he needed to. It would take me five years to make a list of 365 things I could blog about.

But I’ve been getting some signs that “now’s the time.”

One follows from having been on Peter Brantley‘s mailing list for a couple of years. Twenty, thirty times a week, Peter sends us a link to something he’s found about publishing and digital change and invites comment. The posts and comments have increasingly sparked a response from me that amounts to a blog post. Once in a while Peter would ask me to extend a comment as a post to one of his blogs, PubFrontier. Then last week David Rothman flattered me by turning another Brantley list comment into a post on his Teleread.

Then, thanks to my friend Laura Dawson, I hired a really smart woman named Tess Strand Alipour and her partner Hamid Alipour to help me optimize traffic to idealog.com. They rebuilt the site so the speeches can accept comments, which was never the case before. They did other things that have boosted our traffic by a gazillion percent in the past two months. And they’ve told me that traffic will get even better if I post whatever I have to say to my OWN site rather than always to other people’s.

And then two weeks ago I started using Twitter. I was a bit slow to get it, but Tools of Change accelerated the process for me. The complementarity of Twitter and a blog seem pretty apparent.

On top of that, I’m involved with a large number of exciting new initiatives even in these troubling times. Filedbyauthor, a new venture I’m co-founder of being headed by my longtime friend and colleague, Peter Clifton, will be live with a web page for every author with an active ISBN in another month or so. FotoLibra, an open-source photo stock agency based in the UK that I’ve been involved with since its founding a few years ago, has achieved orbital velocity. We’re working out details, to be announced shortly, to take our StartWithXML project to London soon. We’re doing a research project on “Shifting Sales Channels” with BISG that has an online survey component and will culminate with the Making Information Pay conference on May 9.

So there should be plenty to write about.

Please write back.

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