Philip Jones

Some ideas for publishers that will help bookstores; other suggestions that make us skeptical


This is the fourth of a series of posts on bookstores and their future. The previous posts have covered the challenges of buying (proposing VMI as a possible solution), explored what we should expect for the future of Barnes & Noble, and envisioned what the world of brick-and-mortar book retail might look like in the years to come. I promised previously to review the list of suggestions for publishers to help bookstores recently rounded up by Bookseller editor Philip Jones. He’s written more about this since, but the “original” list from Philip included:

1. Publishers offering books to retailers on consignment. That means the store pays when the book sells rather than on a date based on when it was shipped to them.

2. Publishers offering books to retailers with higher discounts. That means giving stores more margin between the price they pay and the price the publisher “suggests” as the retail price.

3. Bookstores taking advantage of Amazon’s “weaknesses” as an online bookseller. That would apparently be about localized curation as opposed to algorithmically-based suggestions.

4. Bookstores becoming something more (or less, but different) than bookstores. This suggestion may be inspired by B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores.

5. Publishers creating special print editions for stores. This was done in Canada by the device of Random House creating Indigo-specific editions for Canada’s biggest bookstore chain.

And since then, in a radio interview, Harper UK MD Victoria Barnsley added a sixth suggestion:

6. That bookshops should charge “admission” to allow browsing (and perhaps credit the admission charge against a book purchase.)

We’re going to dismiss suggestions 3 through 6 pretty quickly. They either don’t scale or don’t help.

The notion that indie stores can beat Amazon at online selling is nothing short of preposterous. What indie stores can do, and should do, is offer an online sales capability to allow the customers they have who want to express their loyalty to do their online shopping with them. And they should do that in the simplest and easiest way possible. To the extent that the store has done curation work (store bestseller lists, recommendations from staff or customers), those should certainly be reflected online. But the notion that a single player can beat an online behemoth at the behemoth’s own game is a delusion and no great effort should be wasted on it.

The idea that bookstores become something other than bookstores, which is how I’d interpret suggestion number 4, is also not really much help. If not a “bookstore”, what, exactly? And if you can’t tell somebody “what, exactly”, then how is this advice anything more than a suggestion to keep throwing stuff at a wall until something sticks? That’s a strategy? Bookstores have already and always been “community gathering centers”. Playing up that piece of it is never a bad idea, but it hardly seems like an original one.

Similarly, the idea that publishers can save stores by offering them “unique” product is not really a solution at all. Yes, Random House (the biggest trade publisher) can do it for Indigo (a dominant retailer that owns the Canadian market). Even if it is adding value for Indigo, and we really don’t know if it is, there are precious few situations in the world where it could be applied.

And the suggestion that stores can save themselves by charging admission is one that can be very rapidly be disproven by any store that cares to try. It actually strikes me as a very good Candid Camera sequence. Put a toll booth at the front door of a retail store (any retail store, but a bookstore will do) and record the reaction of customers when they encounter something that makes absolutely no sense to them. I suspect wild enthusiasm for the idea will be rare.

However, the first two suggestions — to provide the stores inventory with more time to pay (consignment or extended payment terms) or more margin to work with — are worthy of more analysis and thought.

For publishers to consider easing the financial burden for bookstores based on their importance as a marketing component of the supply chain is a reasonable idea. But neither expanding retail discounts nor applying consignment is without complications.

Expanding margin needs to be done carefully, so that the margin expansion accomplishes the purpose that publishers seek: to increase the display of books in retail stores. Simply increasing discount is a difficult way to do that. What needs to be applied is an expansion of an existing principle.

In the book business, “coop” is the heading under which publishers purchase display for their books in prime locations. Coop was originally used for publishers to purchase space for their titles within a local bookstore’s newspaper ads. (Sometimes that “local bookstore” was a branch or group of branches of a chain.) But recently it has been applied to getting prime display locations, often near the cash register, as part of a promtion. The convention is for the payment for the space to be calculated as a percentage of a “supporting order”. This process imitates what happens in other classes of trade and is referred to outside the book business as RDA (retail display allowance) or MDF (marketing development funds). Another application of the same idea is for publishers to pay for “pockets” (sometimes called “slotting fees”). Under an arrangement like that a non-book retailer (like Michael’s, the craft store chain) can get an additional subsidy over and above what the discount schedule calls for on every title they carry.

But what we may be learning is that every book in a bookstore, or perhaps any retail location, has its discovery enhanced, not just the ones on promotional tables. So perhaps a publisher (followed by others, in time) might consider extending the idea to pay a “shelving fee” for every book in a “qualifying” bookstore. Consider a little math.

Let’s imagine a store that does $2 million in annual sales. If their average discount is 40% (which is a reasonable number; discount schedules would say it is higher than that, but it is reduced by freight costs, including for returns), the value of the inventory to make those sales is $1.2 million at cost. If they turn their stock three times a year, the average cost value of the inventory in the store is one-third of the total, or $400,000.

The two million in annual sales means shifting about 133,000 books (if the average retail price of the books is $15), and the average inventory is about 45,000 books. If publishers paid ten cents per book per month to be shelved, that would deliver an additional $4500 a month — $54,000 a year — to the store. If publishers paid 25 cents per book per month to be shelved, the store would get an additonal $135,000. Since a bookstore would be doing quite well to earn 10% on its sales, our notional $2 million store would be happy to earn $200,000 in profits now so, in either case, the “shelving fee” would be adding a meaningful increment. Certainly, for some stores it could make the difference between staying open or closing down. For others, it would encourage a bigger book inventory. In either case, that’s what publishers want to accomplish.

Publishers could, if they chose, make the “shelving fee” applicable whether the store bought the book directly from them or from a wholesaler. It actually makes it less tricky to apply if the wholesaler-supplied books are included. Invoicing now is done when publishers ship books, not when they arrive at the store so the time lag in between works in the publishers’ favor. For a “shelving fee”, publishers wouldn’t want to pay for time the book is not on the shelf: while it is in transit, or in a box waiting to be unpacked, or in a stockroom unavailable to a browsing customer.

In order to collect “shelving fees”, a store would have to deliver much more robust data than they now have to publishers about stocking and selling. But modern technology can make doing that not terribly difficult (systems don’t routinely do it now, but they surely could) and, in fact, stores should want to know about the efficiency of their shelving practices for their own reasons. And doing things this way would put publishers and stores on the same side around returns, because both would have good reason to get books that can’t sell off the shelves (and replace them with ones that have better odds).

Increasing the margin as a reward for a brick-and-mortar store being open and stocking books is doable and it is doable without cutting the wholesalers out of the picture. Consignment is definitely more complicated. And perhaps less helpful.

Sometimes the sale-and-return convention that has prevailed for nearly a century in the US book business is thought of as equivalent to consignment, but it isn’t. Although bookstores sometimes use returns as a tool to diminish the payments they have to make to publishers, they also “own” (and, in many cases, have paid for) a lot of books on their shelves at any particular time. And a non-trivial side effect of sale-and-return is that “shrinkage”, books that don’t sell but for whatever other reason may disappear from a store, are very much the store’s problem, not the publisher’s.

Under consignment, the payment from stores to publishers would be based on what passed through the cash register, not what was shipped from the publisher’s (or wholesaler’s) warehouse. “Shrinkage” would only be detected if a publisher called for a return of a book it had previously shipped and the store was unable to send it. Since even with the best of intentions, a store wouldn’t necessarily know a book was missing and certainly couldn’t pull a missing book for a return, the payments for those books would, at the very least, have to wait until some inventory check or returns protocol was invoked and discovered it.

The big question in consignment is when and how often a store pays. I recall having a discussion about consignment with a very large book retailer ten years ago. The top person there was thinking in terms of paying publishers every six months or so. It is safe to assume that no publisher would be excited about offering consignment on that basis. Allowing a store to “pay on sale” is one thing; allowing them to pay six months after sale is much more costly to the publisher.

For consignment to be workable, payments would have to be no less frequent than monthly, and would have to cover sales pretty much up to the moment of payment. What might make sense, for example, would be payments on the 5th of the month for sales made through the end of the preceeding month. That would be 35 days after sale for some books, 5 days after sale for others, and an average of about 15-20 days after sale. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a publisher offering consignment to want payment more often than that, perhaps even as often as weekly.

The challenges of turning consignment into a workable commercial practice in our business include establishing a payment timing that makes sense and some method to catch shrinkage.

But the next problem is that the process of ordering would probably have to change. It is sometimes said that stores are now too easily tempted to over-order because, after all, they can return whatever they don’t sell. Imagine how much less restraint there would be on over-ordering if the store could hold books cost-free for as long as it took for them to sell! (There could still be the cost of freight in and out to discourage over-ordering, but that exists now.) Unlike the “shelving fee” concept, consignment puts the publisher and store in conflict around slow-moving inventory.

Let’s also take note of the fact that consignment is not all about paying later; sometimes consignment would require paying earlier. Bookstores get a boost when a bestseller comes in and flies off the shelves for the first week or two it is out. The revenue on those books is kept by the stores for 45 or 60 or 75 or 90 days (depending on how publishers enforce their collections) before they have to pay the publisher. Under a consignment arrangement, they’d have to turn over the publishers’ share much faster. (Of course, at the same time, they wouldn’t have to pay for some slower-moving books that might have come in the same shipment but hadn’t sold yet.)

There are other complications to consignment. The way things work now, publishers carry books in their warehouse on their balance sheet at inventory “cost” (something like manufacturing cost). When they sell them, they book the amount they sell to the store for, and keep some “reserve” for potential returns. On the store’s balance sheet, the books sit at the price the store paid, or will pay, the publisher for them.

But if the books are shipped to the stores on consignment, there has been no sale. So the publisher would have to continue to carry those consigned books on their balance sheet at the manufacturing cost and not credit themselves with the sale until the store reported it and paid them. What this would do to public reporting and bank covenants is a company-by-company proposition, and perhaps a knotty problem in some cases.

And sometimes there are state or local taxes based on “inventory”. IANAL (“I am not a lawyer”) but the taxing authority probably expects payment from the entity that ownsthe inventory. Under sale-and-returns, stores “own” it (whether or not they’ve paid the bill). Under consignment, the publisher certainly owns it. That would create complications, at the very least. Complications could also arise over insurance. (If a store had a flood or fire, would consigned inventory be covered by a store’s insurance?)

The bottom line is that publishers can help stores most by helping them carry their inventory less expensively and there are a great variety of ways to do that. The simplest way of all, of course, is just to extend the payment time from the current (as it often enforced) 60 days to something more. Thirty-five years ago, my father had me administer a program called “credit for overstock” where we gave stores 180-days extended billing for books left unsold after Christmas if they’d delay returning them. (Simple to do: issue a credit for what’s there dated today and an invoice for the same stock dated six months from now).

We’ve heard through the grapevine that at least one of the Big Six is experimenting with 180-day terms and that another might be a fast follower. That strategy is apparently offering competitive advantage (stores stock more of that publisher’s books, so they sell more of them too). That’s a way for a publisher to give benefits that are “like consignment” without the complications. From my perspective, it’s a shotgun, not a rifle, because it extends terms for everything equally. Credit-for-overstock targeted books that would very likely have been returned. The old “dated billing” plans targeted particular titles at particular times of year. Consignment requires that books that sell fast be paid for fast. A big across-the-board increase in time to pay is a far less targeted tool, but it still constitutes a big step in the right direction.

That’s because books on bookstore shelves are more valuable to publishers than books in their warehouse. Increasing recognition of that fact is occurring; more actions will certainly follow.

Worth mentioning — and inadvertently neglected by me in the VMI post — is that VMI does not need to be, and should not be, at odds with bookseller-management of curation. A publisher can certainly manage lists of titles that are designated “do not stock” or “always have on hand” that are designated by the store. The point to VMI is not to take tastemaking power away from the store. Of course a store should be able to exclude books they find offensive or that they think their customers will find offensive. And their decisions about categories or authors to stock out of proportion to how well they sell — higher or lower — can also be accommodated. And so can their inputs about local promotions that a publishers’ central office would have no way to know about. VMI offers two enormous benefits in any case. One is that the publisher knows things about individual book promotions, and recent performance, that might not be factored into each store’s calculations. And the other is that most stocking decisions are routine and  best made — particularly in the age when we’re discovering Big Data — by a system massaging the maximum amount of information.

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More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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A debate across panels is coming at our London show on June 21


It looks like we’re going to have a bit of an unintended debate stretching across several of our panels at the Publishers Launch show in London. Since I’m the guy who put the show together, I can speak with authority to the fact that it was really unintended. But I consider it serendipitous and proof of Branch Rickey’s axiom that “luck is the residue of design”.

I first started probing the question of new business models for agents two years ago when I was organizing the first Digital Book World conference. I had been asked by F+W Media to create a program that would be (in their words) “more practical” than they found Tools of Change to be. I was in partnership with O’Reilly at that time working on a “StartWithXML” show to take place in London. I wasn’t really looking for a reason to compete with them; we were collaborators.

But as I thought about what they did (which I like) and what I might do, I realized that our approaches would be different and our shows would be different. In my mind, the clearest delineation of the difference was that I put agents squarely into the middle of our show planning. This move is a bit counterintuitive in the conference business since agents have never been big ticket-buyers for the industry’s digital education events. But I thought then — and events have subsequently confirmed — that agents were key actors in the digital transition. You can explore the tech challenges of digital change without them, but you can’t really think about the changing economics of trade publishing without bringing them into the conversation.

What seemed logical then — also confirmed by subsequent events — is that agents might become ebook publishers. This had actually happened a decade before, when agent Richard Curtis set up his E-Reads business at a time when most publishers just wouldn’t do ebooks for most titles, if at all. Richard had run into political problems with the agents’ association (AAR) which I believe he headed at the time. They have a code of ethics which could be interpreted to prohibit an agent-publisher such as he had become. In fact, I was a bit surprised (but definitely sensitized and enlightened) when a good friend of mine who is a successful and highly ethical agent told me she couldn’t possibly participate in a conversation that might be seen to endorse the idea of agents becoming publishers.

We put together a panel on “new models” for agents at DBW 2010. We repeated it last year (even though there’s a natural reluctance to repeat things year to year), and we surely are going to include the topic at DBW 2012 next January.

And that brings us to what is going to happen in London on June 21.

We have four prominent agents speaking on different panels on the program. At least three of them are likely to renew the conversation about whether an agent can become a publisher and still be a credible representative for an author.

One of the panels I’m most looking forward to on that day is called “An Emerging Opportunity: Selling into the US”. Charlie Campbell, an agent at Ed Victor Ltd., will participate on that one. We wanted Charlie on the panel based on a conversation we had with him a few months ago about the possibilities he saw for his office’s clients to capture sales in the US through ebooks. When Victor’s office announced the creation of a new publishing operation to handle their own authors’ books, our interest heightened. So Charlie will be explaining how that publishing operation will work and how it benefits the authors in their stable within the context of capturing US sales from a UK or Ireland base. His fellow panelists will be publishers.

Our last panel of the day has Michael Cader and me interviewing four leading luminaries of UK publishing. Three of them are publishers, but the fourth is the agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown is frequently rumored to be about to start an operation similar to what Victor has announced. (In the US, by the way, agent Scott Waxman — a member of the DBW Conference Council and one of the original participants in our conversations about this — has created a publishing adjunct to his business called Diversion.) Our focus in that panel was not intended to be on the ethics of agents starting publishing companies, but now I think the topic is likely to arise.

Why? Because a third agent on the program that day, Peter Cox of Redhammer, has placed it front and center with a post he published yesterday called “Your Agent Should Not Be Your Publisher”. Peter is on a panel about “Innovation in Marketing and Business Practice.” He caught our attention because he’s been training his authors in digital marketing for years and because he told us he was thinking that the agent’s model had to change to handle fewer clients for a higher-than-standard percentage of the revenue. We didn’t ask Peter at the time how he felt about agents becoming publishers.

It turns out he is very firmly against it and is very clear and articulate about why he thinks that. The moderator of that panel is Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association. I’m sure his membership will very much want him to invite Cox to expand on his ideas. Cox’s panel takes place after Campbell’s but before Geller’s. The juxtaposition of the commentary across the panels will probably be of great interest to the audience and should make for some very interesting tweeting. Maybe we’ll need a special hashtag just for #agentsaspubs!

It was the fourth agent on the program that we thought was going to have the trickiest assignment. David Miller of Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd. will be discussing “Territorial Rights and Open Markets” with Richard Charkin and Toby Mundy. Since the future of both practices depends very largely on what agents will agree to as the publishing landscape changes, I had thought David had the most politically challenging conversation of the group. It turns out that he’s excused from what will certainly be one of the most controversial aspects of the day’s discussions, although in our very open format, everybody’s free to say pretty much what they want. Perhaps Philip Jones, the moderator of that panel, will want to touch on this question with his panel as well.

It might be that at Publishers Launch Frankfurt we’ll stage this more directly as a debate (but that’s a crowded program and it might be hard to fit it in). You can bet it will be aired thoroughly at Digital Book World next January. And you can be pretty damn sure we’ll be generating some news on this topic (and others too, I’m sure) out of “A Global View of Digital Change”. If you’re in (London) town on June 21, you ought to be there.

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Are open markets for ebooks a race to the bottom on price? Maybe our London show will help me understand


Sometimes something seems very obvious to me, but other people — smart people I respect — don’t see it that way and it makes me wonder if I’m missing something.

What I’m thinking about that way today is the future of “open territories” in the ebook world.

When English-language rights are sold to US and UK publishers, some territories outside the home markets are “closed” and others are kept “open.” Closed territories are reserved to the publisher who owns them; in open territories a US edition and a UK edition can both be legitimately sold.

For most of my career in publishing, Europe was an open market. Both the American and British editions of a book would be available there. Although currency fluctuations came and went and could temporarily change these things, most times the US edition carried a lower cover price (when converted to the local currency) but the UK editions were usually more widely available. Sales reps from the UK tended to call on the once-small but persistently growing number of bookstores that carry English-language books. British publishers had warehouses that were closer, shipping costs that were lower, lead times that were shorter, and customer service groups that were more comfortable dealing with Europeans.

With the coming of the EU, British publishing has moved to formalize and make contractual what was previously just their natural advantage. British publishers pointed to the fact that once an American edition was sold in Europe, EU rules would allow its importation into the UK itself! So unless the European market were closed to US editions, Britain itself was not closed to US editions. And that, quite naturally, was not a situation that British publishing could accept.

Of course, for an American edition to wind up on a British shelf would require two trips across the water: one from a US warehouse to Europe and then another from Europe to the UK. It might seem that this double-shipping would wipe out any presumed US pricing advantage, and I don’t recall any evidence of US-published imports showing up in any number. Nonetheless, for the past several years, UK publishers have succeeded frequently, if not universally, in excluding the American editions from Europe.

As with all things in publishing this subject is being revisited as publishing adjusts to ebooks.

As we know, the ebook market started to take off in the US in late 2007 and has grown to be a solid double-digit percentage of publishers’ sales with much higher numbers, often 50% or more, of the units sold in the opening weeks for major titles. In the past few months, British ebooks have started on a similar, perhaps even more accelerated, growth trajectory. So ebook revenue is squarely on the radar screen of the English-language publishers who are increasingly cognizant of English’s position as the world’s leading second language. Nowhere is this effect more evident or the future sales expectations greater than in Europe.

Right now, the European ebook market is still miniscule. Germany, one of the countries with the most advanced local-language digital infrastructures, recently reported ebook sales of one-half of one percent of the market. But it is not uncommon for German bookshops to see double-digit sales percentages of English-language books in their shops so we know there’s an English-language market there. English-language publishers, with the experience of explosive growth in their home markets under their belts, have good reason to expect the same thing to happen in Europe and for them to be among the principal beneficiaries.

But there’s a problem. Or, at least, I think there’s a problem.

The open-market competition for print books is waged primarily around service. The reps that call on the stores tend to take business away from the companies that call less often. The advantages of proximity and familiarity favor the British; sometimes the advantage of price can favor the Americans. But no trade publisher in either country tries to create cheaper, locally-priced editions of trade books for the European market.

In the ebook market, the competitive factors that prevail in print are moot. If a store sets up to sell ebooks, it will list every one in the catalogs it offers. As the ebook market matures, that will mean that, if the territory is open, both the UK and US editions will be available to the consumer. And with no other basis on which to make the decision of which to buy, the customer will almost certainly choose the ebook edition with the lowest price.

The logic of this seems inexorable to me. As the market grows, as the publishers become more aware of it, and as the consumers learn more about what is on offer, offering a lower price will be the only effective way to grow share in an open territory. This is damaging to everybody except the ebook consumer, who will get windfall price cuts. The publishers will gain share, but lose revenues. The authors, operating on a piece of the sale price, will lose revenues. And the lower prices for these English-language ebooks will further erode local-language sales and further undercut brick bookstores.

(European bookstores are extremely vulnerable to sales erosion as the market shifts to digital because the English-language selection they offer will look increasingly paltry compared to what will be available online.)

But some very smart agents seem to see something different from what I see. At our “eBooks Go Global” conference at BEA last week, Simon Lipskar of Writers House specifically declined to insist on closed markets and celebrated the virtues of “competition” on behalf of his writers. In another BEA session, Stephanie Abou at Foundry was quoted by one reporter saying “our goal to get authors the best shot at being published the best way. what that means is we have this fight to keep Europe non-exclusive.”

Of course, timing is everything in life and in dealmaking. There really is no European market for ebooks to speak of yet. There are structural impediments to growth. A panel including Google, Kobo, Ingram, and OverDrive at “eBooks Go Global” spelled out some of the complex local compliance issues that make it take time to set up a store in each new country. My concern about a “race to the bottom” assumes a much more developed market than we have today, with both US and UK editions made ubiquitously available in a European ebook market that resembles what we’re seeing today in the UK, if not in the US. That may be two years away, or even more.

So maybe Simon and Stephanie do see what I see but they might also see it as far enough away not to be relevant yet for deals they’re making now. But maybe our difference is more fundamental. They both referenced “competition” in expressing support for open territories. It is precisely my concern about the effects of price competition that it seems to me they’re ignoring.

It feels to me like I must be missing something somewhere. Not only do I think the agents should be moving to close markets in the interests of their clients, I think publishers in both New York and London should be moving to close markets because they’ll ultimately make no money on the books for which the markets are open. I’d say it is better to control a closed market for half your list (or even a third of it!) than have an open market for all of it.

This subject is of great interest in the US but it is existential in the UK. Sales made in Europe are already critical to UK-based publishers, on titles where Europe is open as well as on titles where they control it contractually. Since UK publishers are already trying to close the market in their favor for print, one can hardly expect them to be less zealous about closing it for digital books. But their leverage to close Europe, for digital or print, is primarily based on their ability to sell print in the UK. Those are the sales they can make that nobody else can. And those are the sales that finance serious advances that nobody else will pay.

But will that leverage vanish as bookstores diminish and the sales of print become less important?

The panel that will explore this subject at our “Global Perspective on Digital Change” conference in London on June 21 will be my next chance to be enlightened on this subject and shown the flaw in my thinking if open territories for ebooks are not a race to the bottom. We’ll have publishing CEOs Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury and Toby Mundy of Atlantic Books and agent David Miller of Rogers, Coleridge and White discussing this topic with Philip Jones of Future Book moderating. I’m sure this panel, along with many others on that day, will be opening some minds. Mine is lined up to be among them.

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