Politico

Ideas about the future of bookselling


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two new initiatives to ponder as we end the year


Two announcements made in the last two weeks caught our attention.

One was Simon & Schuster’s deal with Author Solutions, creating a new Archway Editions publishing imprint. This was the third such major deal with a publisher for ASI, following similar arrangements forged with romance publisher Harlequin and Christian publisher Thomas Nelson (now owned by HarperCollins).

The other was Publishers Lunch’s deal with Random House, creating the new online bookstore-lite, Bookateria. This was the second such major deal with a heavily-trafficked website for Random House, following a similar arrangement forged with the political site, Politico.

Of the two, the S&S-ASI connection offers less obvious benefits. ASI has apparently built a remarkably efficient engine to get a book delivered from a manuscript. And every publisher has many times more authors knocking at their door than they could possibly consider publishing. And many of them will never find a publisher so would be good candidates for self-publishing services.

But there are both ethical and practical commercial challenges to converting author aspirants who come looking for a deal to customers willing to buy self-publishing services. ASI seems to have persuaded publishers that the conversion works enough of the time to make the connection between publishers and ASI worth making. Let’s remember that the Harlequin and Nelson deals preceded both the acquisition of ASI by Pearson and the deal announced last week with S&S. Presumably, S&S and Pearson knew something about the results from those prior deals and were proceeding with some evidence that using a known publisher as a front door for self-publishers was an idea that works.

On the other hand, neither Nelson nor Harlequin has trumpeted the results of their ASI deal and authors may notice that the legions of successful self-publishers (John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, and more than a few others) seems bereft of ASI clients.

There are more questions than answers generated by these deals so far. It appears that the publishers really have nothing to do with their new customers aside from bringing them into the tent. (S&S says in the press release that they’ll be watching the sales of Archway books to see what authors it might want to sign for the house. But isn’t that what every big publisher should be doing across the self-publishing landscape right now?) Will the association with self-publishing damage the core publishing brands? Will the publishers feel some ownership of the self-publishers from whom they profit? Will real synergies develop between the publishers and their ASI connections, or will this remain largely a branding trick?

While all of that remains to be seen, if the ASI-publisher connections deliver revenue to publishers with little or no effort on their part, other publishers will be open to doing the same thing. The question is whether they do.

It is not difficult to discern the value delivered by the collaboration between Publishers Lunch and Random House to deliver Bookateria, a search-and-shopping experience with a Publishers Lunch perspective. It gives Lunch an easy way to deliver real convenience and value to its audience and modestly monetize it at the same time. And it further tests and proves the concept Random House first demonstrated with Politico. By delivering the tech around a pretty complete catalog of available books able to be monetized through affiliate relationships, Random House has created a “product” that any web site with substantial traffic can benefit from in the way Lunch now will.

Publishers Lunch, because it is constantly reporting book news, has more opportunities than the average site to link to purchase pages for a book it is mentioning. It regularly refers to various and sundry lists of award winners and top sellers and it makes nothing but great sense for them to make purchase of these books easy (and make a little money at the same time.)

It may be (and I’m not on the inside of any of these deals; aside from our partnership in Publishers Launch Conferences, Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch runs his businesses and I run mine) that Publishers Lunch is taking a more active role in merchandising books than Politico is. That would make sense. Books are PL’s business, and they have to both be thoughtful and appear thoughtful about how they present them. And since this capability is probably at least as much about providing utility to site visitors as it is about increasing revenue, the merchandising would want to reflect the site’s knowledge and point of view.

I have long believed that book and ebook distribution would ultimately follow the web’s innate tendency to verticalize audiences. Why wouldn’t you buy your political books or sports books or knitting books where you learn about them and be guided more by recommendations of “domain experts” than “book experts”?

I had visualized this verticalization working out from a publisher, which would use its content to attract audiences which it would then monetize many ways, including by selling them books and ebooks of its own and from other publishers. To varying degrees, this is what I saw unfolding with Hay House, F+W Media, Osprey, and Harlequin with the most highly-developed Big House example being Tor Books inside of Macmillan.

Some new propositions — notable among them being the still-promised book retailer Zola and the distributed sales “apps” from Impelsys and Ganxy — were built around the understanding that book curation was most effectively done by the experts and communities functioning in any domain and it made sense to deliver a way for them to enable their own ecommerce for the content they suggested or reported on to their audiences.

But it is in a trade publisher’s DNA to work with aggregators and intermediaries (which is what bookstores, mass merchants, libraries, wholesalers, and special sales outlets are). Random House applied the same vision of distributed and vertical curation but decided that they didn’t need to offer the entire ecommerce solution to execute on it.

So Politico and Publishers Lunch — and, one presumes, more to follow — use Random House to provide their catalog and metadata and some level of curation and they all rely on the existing retail network to complete the transactions and do the fulfillment. Random House and their partners (presumably) share affiliate revenues from the retailers, not the “full margin” on the content sales.

This could be viewed as a bit klunky from the customer’s perspective and it definitely will be for some. You wouldn’t be “shopping” and then “checking out” as two discrete and serial experiences. Each “buy” decision would take you to a retailer choice and then deep-link you to the purchase page for that book at the retailer you choose. Anybody who wants to purchase multiple titles would definitely find this less convenient than just shopping on a retailer’s site.

But if the retailer were delivering the curation and information that Politico or Publishers Lunch is offering in the area of vertical interest, then the customer would probably do their multiple-title shopping at the retailer anyway. The Random House-powered strategy is more opportunistic than that. It’s more about facilitating impulse purchasing than attracting a shopper.

And when you stop and think about it for just a minute, you realize that conversion is likely to be much higher by offering customers a choice of their favorite retailers than it would be if you were signing them up to a new account with a retailer (web site) they hadn’t purchased from before. This is true even in the case of Publishers Lunch, which has credit card numbers for a large number of its most regular visitors because they’re members of Publishers Marketplace. It would be even more of a barrier to making a purchase at Politico and other non-membership sites.

One veteran publishing marketer told me that conversion on clickthroughs to Amazon were very high in his experience, ranging from 8% to 17%. He really doubted whether any fledgling retailer could achieve anything like that rate of conversion.

That constitutes evidence that the revenue achievable as an affiliate could well be higher than what could be gained executing the sales and keeping “full margin”, which brings along with it full responsibility for maintaining an infrastructure and providing customer service. None of that is necessary working as an affiliate.

There is a superficial similarity to these two initiatives. Both involve a company offering tech at scale to help another company monetize its existing network in ways that it doesn’t now. How effective that monetization really will be is still an open question. But it would appear that the ASI service to publishers entirely depends on that: aside from whatever revenue it can yield, there’s no other real benefit to the publisher and, in fact, it could confuse or cheapen the perception of their core business.

The Random House offer to websites, on the other hand, has all sorts of “soft” value. The partnering web site unambiguously offers a service to its site visitors by enabling rapid purchase of relevant content encountered while pursuing their vertical interest. Selling content and earning revenue is only one way to win; they also benefit from more traffic and more stickiness, the inevitable by-products of improving the value being offered any site’s visitors.

What is also interesting to contemplate about the Random House-powered distributed curation is what its potential impact will be on the retail network. Enabling the content purchaser to choose her retailer would, one assumes, distribute the sales from their site in pretty much the same proportions as the market had already.

On the other hand, it might also make it easier for consumers to switch. It could dilute the advantage Amazon has built through their usually superior (compared to other retailers) curation and presentation. It would make it much easier for a supporter of independent bookstores to make the choice to buy from them. (The choices presented are obviously flexible. Politico offers “Politics and Prose” bookstore, an indie based in Washington that specializes in political books. Bookateria instead offers Indiebound, the ABA’s way of sending you to an independent retailer.)

One more observation. There have been two retailers expected to make their appearance anytime now for the last six months: the big publisher-created Bookish and the previously-mentioned Zola Books. The rumors about both of them say that they are having a really hard time making the metadata we have in our industry work well enough to execute on ecommerce. Obviously, Random House had to overcome that same problem to deliver their proposition (although perhaps the bar was a bit lower since they execute sales as an affiliate rather than transacting themselves). An informational page for Bookateria makes it clear that metadata improvement will be an ongoing work-in-progress.

As the other big publishers look at what Random House is doing and wonder if they should be doing the same, they might want to rethink the digital aphorism that anything, once done, can be replicated in half the time and for half the cost. Even if that’s true, starting now to replicate the Random House capability could take a year or more; this is not something that Random House dreamed up last week. In a year, Random House could pick off a number of very desirable large sites and improve their metadata organization even further. I don’t think any competitor who takes this concept seriously will be able to afford to wait for proven success or failure to start developing if they want to be in this game.

NPR did a great job of choosing four minutes of me to sound wise on All Things Considered as part of a publishing roundup. Or you can read a summary of my bit instead of listening to it. We start with the Random House and Penguin merger and meander a bit from there.

This is the last post for the fourth calendar year of The Shatzkin Files. Our annual rhythm is that our quietest week of the year (this one) is followed rapidly by our most intense: the 7-1/2 days of conference programming in four days on the calendar that comprise Digital Book World  2014 and the two Publishers Launch events that bookend it. 

Happy New Year to all my readers, and especially the many of you who take the time to add to the conversation here in the comment string. Double-especially to those of you who dispense your wisdom in concise doses.

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Full-service publishers are rethinking what they can offer


At lunch a few months ago, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, expressed dissatisfaction with the term “legacy” to describe the publishers who had been successful since before the digital revolution began. For one thing, he felt that sounded too much like “the past”. “We need to come up with a different term,” was his assessment and he suggested that perhaps “full-service” was more apt.

I find I keep coming back to “full service” as an accurate description of the publisher’s relationship to an author. That’s what the long-established publishers have evolved to be.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that publishing organizations were deliberately created as service organizations for authors. They weren’t. In fact, as we shall see, the service component of a publisher’s DNA was developed in service to other publishers.

My Dad, Leonard Shatzkin, pointed out to me 40 years ago that all trade book publishing companies were started with an “editorial inspiration”: an idea of what they would publish. Sometimes that was a highly personal selection dictated by an individual’s taste, such as by so many of the great company and imprint names: Scribners, Knopf, Farrar and Straus and Giroux, for examples. Random House was begun on the idea of the Modern Library series; Simon & Schuster was started to do crossword puzzle books.

That is: people had the idea that they knew what books would sell and built a company around finding them, developing them, and bringing them to market.

And the development and delivery to the market required building up a repertoire of capabilities that comprised a full-service offering.

The publisher would find a manuscript or the idea for one and then provide everything that was necessary — albeit largely by engaging and coordinating the activities of other contractors or companies — to make the manuscript or idea commercially productive for the author and themselves.

The list of these services describes the publishing value chain. It includes:

select the project (and assume a financial risk, sometimes relieving the author of any);

guide its editorial development (although the work is mostly done by the contracted author or packager);

execute the delivery of the content into transactable and consumable forms (which used to mean “printed books” but now also means as ebooks, apps, or web-viewable content);

put it into the world in a way that it will be found and bought (which used to mean “put it in a catalog widely distributed to opinion-makers or buyers” but now largely means “manage metadata”);

publicize and market it;

build awareness and demand among the people at libraries and bookstores and other distribution channels who can buy it;

process the orders;

manufacture and warehouse the actual books or files or other packaged product;

deliver;

collect;

and, along the way, sell rights to exploit the intellectual property in other forms and markets, including other languages.

It has long been customary for publishers to unbundle the components of their service offering. The most common form of unbundling is through “distribution deals” by which one publisher takes on some of the most scaleable activities on behalf of other smaller ones. It has reached the point where almost every publisher is either a distributor or a distributee. Many are depending on a third party, quite often a competing publisher, for warehousing, shipping, and billing and perhaps sales or even manufacturing. All the big ones and many others, along with a few companies dedicated to distribution, are providing that batch of services. It is not unheard of for one publisher to do both: offering distribution services to a smaller competitor while they are in turn actually being distributed by somebody larger than they.

An assumption which influenced the way things developed was that the key to competitive advantage for a publisher was in the selection and editorial development of books and in their marketing and publicity, which emerged organically from their editorial efforts. All the other functions were necessary, but were not where many editorially-conceived businesses wanted to put their attention or monopolize their own capabilities.

About 15 years ago, working on VISTA’s “Publishing in the 21st Century” program, I learned the concept of “parity functions” in an enterprise. They were defined as things which can’t give you much competitive advantage by doing them well but which can destroy your business if you screw them up. This led to the conclusion that these things were often best laid off on somebody else who specialized in them, leaving the publisher greater ability to focus on the things which truly and meaningfully differentiated them from competitors.

Another driving force here was the way that bigger and smaller publishers look at costs and scale. If you’re very big, it is attractive to handle parity functions as fixed costs: to own your own warehouse, have a salaried sales force, and to invest in having state-of-the-art systems that do exactly what you want them to do. If you’re smaller, you often can’t afford to own these things anyhow and, on a smaller base, fluctuations in sales could suddenly render those fixed costs much too high for commercial success.

It is therefore more attractive to smaller entities to have these costs become variable costs, a percentage of sales or activity, that go up when sales go up but, most importantly, that also go down if sales go down. And the larger entity, by pumping more volume through their fixed-cost capabilities, subsidizes its own overheads and improves the profitability and stability of its business.

One of the things that is challenging the big publishers — the full-service publishers — today is that the unbundling of their, ahem, legacy full-service offering has accelerated. You need scale to cover the buyers and bill and ship to thousands of independent accounts. If you’re mainly focused on the top accounts — which today means Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor for most general trade publishers — you might feel you can do it as well or better yourself with one dedicated person of your own.

And if you’re willing to confine your selling universe to sales that can be made online — print or digital — you can eliminate the need for a huge swath of the full-service offering. Obviously, you give up a lot of potential sales with that strategy. But the percentage of the market that can be reached that way, combined with the redivision of revenue enabled by cutting the publisher out of the chain, has made this a commercially viable option for some authors and a path to discovery for others.

So the consolidation of business in a smaller number of critical accounts as well as the shifting of business increasingly to online sales channels has been a challenge for some time that larger publishers and distributors like Perseus and Ingram have been dealing with.

But now the need for services and the potential for unbundling is moving further up the value chain. The first instances of this have been seen through the stream of publishing efforts coming directly from authors and content-driven businesses like newspapers, magazines, and websites.

To the extent that the new service requirements are for editorial development help and marketing, it gets complicated for the full-service publishers to deal with. The objective of organization design for large publishers for years has been to consolidate the functions that were amenable to scale and to “keep small” the more creative functions. So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.

That means they are not designed to be scaleable and they’re not amenable to getting work from the outside. It’s much less of an imposition for somebody in a corporate business development role to ask a sales rep to pitch a book that had origins outside the house than it is to assign one to an editor in an imprint. The former is routine and the latter is extremely complicated.

But what does this mean? Should publishers have editorial services for rent? Should they try to scale and use technology to handle editiorial functions — certainly proofreading and copy-editing but ultimately, perhaps, developmental editing — as a commodity to assure themselves a competitive advantage on cost base the way they do now for distribution? Should publishers try to scale digital marketing? Should they have teams that can map out and execute publishing programs for major brands?

The way Murray sees it, a major publisher applies a synthesis of market intelligence and skills that can only be delivered by publishing at scale. He believes that monitoring across markets and marketing channels along with sophisticated and integrated analysis of how they interact provide an unmatchable set of services.

The scale challenge for trade publishers to collaborate with what I’m envisioning will be an exploding number of potential partners is to find ways to deliver the value of the synthesized pool of knowledge and experience efficiently to smaller units of creativity and marketing.

There is plenty of evidence that publishers are thinking along these lines. The most obvious recent event suggesting it is Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions. Penguin had shown prior interest in the author services market by creating Book Country, a community and commercial assistance site for genre fiction authors. Penguin suddenly has real scale in the self-publishing market. They have tools nobody else has now to explore where services for the masses provide efficiencies for the professional and how the expertise of the professionals can add value to the long tail.

There are initiatives that stretch the previous constraints of the publisher’s value chain that I know about in other big companies, and undoubtedly a good deal more that I don’t know about. Random House has a bookstore curation capability that they’ve coupled with editorial development in a deal with Politico that could be a prototype. Hachette has developed some software tools for sales and marketing that they’re making available as SaaS to the industry. Macmillan has a division that is developing educational platforms that might become global paths to locked-in student readers. Scholastic has a new platform for kids reading called Storia that involves teachers and parents that they’d hope to make an industry standard. Penguin has a full-time operative in Hollywood forging connections with projects that can spawn licensing deals. Random House has both film and television production initiatives.

These developments are very encouraging. One of the reasons that Amazon has been so successful in our business is that our business is not the only thing they do. One of the elements of genius they have applied ubiquitously is that every capability they build for themselves has additional value if it can be delivered unbundled as well. Publishers were comfortable with that idea for the relatively low-value things that they do long before they ever heard of Amazon. It is a good time to think along the same lines for functions which formerly seemed closer to the core.

Speaking of which, many of publishing’s most creative executives will be speaking as “Publishing Innovators” at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on Monday, October 8, 10:30-6:30, on the grounds of the Book Fair. 

We did a free webinar with a taste of the Frankfurt conference last week and it’s archived and available and worth a listen. Michael Cader and I were joined by Peter Hildick-Smith of The Codex Group, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Marcello Vena of RCS Libri.

Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, Helmut Pesch of Lubbe,  Rebecca Smart of Osprey, Anthony Forbes Watson of Pan Macmillan, Ken Michaels of Hachette, Stephen Page of Faber, and Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore (as well as Joyce and Vena) will all be talking about initiatives in their shops that you won’t find (yet) going on much elsewhere. And that’s just part of the program. There is a ton of other useful information — about developments in the Spanish language, the BRIC countries, the strategies of tech giants and how they affect publishing, and much more — that will make this the most useful single jam-packed day of digital change information you’ll have ever experienced. We hope to see you there.

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Going where the customers are might be an alternative to selling direct


The news that Faber in the UK has partnered with a company called Firsty Group to offer direct-to-consumer services to their distribution clients again calls the question about publishers selling direct. In my recent post about the likely outcome of the DoJ settlement being accepted by the Court, I said I was re-thinking my admonition that all publishers should sell direct because it would appear that Amazon (and all retailers) will now be free to discount ebooks to their heart’s content and therefore can undercut any publisher’s prices if they want to.

It would appear that the wholesalers would have the most to gain from publisher-direct selling. The win for them would be complicated, because the ones with the most to lose would be the retailers who are the wholesalers’ best customers. But, ultimately, as Amazon demonstrated clearly nearly two decades ago and, most recently, F+W Media proved again, anybody can become a retailer of a large selection of print and digital books simply by setting up an account with Ingram or Baker & Taylor. (Amazon started out by having the wholesalers ship the books to them which they then re-shipped to the consumer. F+W works with Ingram on the same model, probably because their own books are combined in many of the orders and they’d lose margin unnecessarily if they had Ingram ship their books.)

Ingram brings a staggering selection of printed books through its warehouse holdings and the millions of titles available to print-on-demand through Lightning, as well as the Ingram Digital ebook wholesaling capability that represents most of the ebooks published. (Setting up distribution for an agency publisher through Ingram also requires the active cooperation of the publisher.) Baker & Taylor is trying to couple its Blio ebook platform, which handles illustrated books but does not have anything like the title selection Ingram has, with its warehouse print inventory, to provide a slightly different combination of titles.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to own inventory to offer a wide selection.

Phil Ollila of Ingram expanded on their approach to direct selling. They provide what they’re good at: inventory and fulfillment and the database of titles. They refer publishers to other service providers for the “cart and card” component of ecommerce. There are a variety of reasons, including potential tax issues involving “nexus” and the requirements of PCI compliance, the rules about what you have to do if you’re storing consumer data, that Ingram prefers to leave that portion of the business to specialists.

But Ollila also reports that Ingram found recently, surveying the top 100 web sites for which it does digital fulfillment, that about half of the top sellers were publishers. A few of them are selling books from other publishers, but most are just selling their own ebooks very successfully. So either my theory about Amazon undercutting these publishers on pricing is just wrong, or they haven’t turned their attention to these “competitors” yet.

Any business the size of a major publisher which has the ability to sell digital downloads (with or without the ability to sell printed books too) would find useful opportunities to employ it. Or, put another way, not having the ability to complete transactions with consumers would constrain a publisher’s ability to build the direct relationships with end users that so many believe are essential to the future of publishers. Being able to offer distribution clients what might soon be seen as an essential capability for publishers is probably what motivated the Faber deal with Firsty.

One vision of the future that appeals to me is that every web site that has any substantial traffic could offer books and/or ebooks as a combination service to its audience and enhancer of its revenues. I thought this would be the proposition we’d get from Open Sky when they first came on the scene but they changed the business model away from providing that capability. A fledgling retailing platform called Zola Books has a variation of this idea — individually curated “stores” that they host — built into their planning. I liked the idea when Open Sky had it originally and still do; it will be great if Zola can pull it off.

The creative minds at Random House have come up with a different approach to capitalize on the potential for the widely distributed retailing model. They’re prototyping it with Politico, which has a huge audience of the politically-interested.

Random House now merchandises Politico’s “Bookshelf”: its hosted bookstore. The store displays a wide range of titles from all publishers, divided by political category, on which you can click through for additional information. Then you can buy, offered a choice of retailers. I saw the choices Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Politics & Prose (a local store in Washington, DC) and Apple’s iBookstore.

In addition, on the bottom of many, if not all, of the Politico stories, there is a row of additional book offerings called “Related Books on the Politico Bookshelf.” The books in that row below the stories are all Random House books.

Aside from curating the store, which gives Politico both value-added information for its site visitors and an additional revenue stream from affiliate sales (which they presumably share, although I don’t know the commercial arrangement), Random House can help Politico publish.

Random House is developing technology to help them curate the offerings of all publishers for the Politico store. This is no small feat from a standing start. But building the technology that can curate from metadata has additional value. They learn how to combine the metadata associated with the title file with what they can learn about sales ranking and placement by observing what is happening at other retailers. And they’re learning about their competitors’ lists as well in a different way than they ever had before. It seems likely that this knowledge will someday help inform acquisition decisions for new books and the positioning — timing and pricing as well as marketing emphasis and metadata creation — of the books as they publish themselves.

This approach gives Random House what amounts to a gatekeeper position for book offerings to Politico’s substantial site traffic. If they’re acquiring a book appropriate to that audience, they have that marketing exposure and sales opportunity to factor into their revenue calculation (and into their pitch to the agent that they’re the “right” publisher). Other publishers’ books will be sold there too, of course. But they aren’t the gatekeepers, so they can’t be as confident of the boost, and they certainly can’t promise it to an author. And Random House has the exclusive opportunity to exploit the “related books” shelf on each story page.

Meanwhile, Random House is developing the curation and merchandising tools that will enable them to do similar things on sites that have robust traffic for different topic verticals. If the Politico experiment works, they have a very appealing capability to put in front of all of the most heavily-trafficked sites for which a curated book offering would be an attractive value-add.

Random House has essentially chosen to develop bookstores without cart and card. They’re not collecting customer names with their ecommerce or building an installed base of consumers whose credit cards they have on file. Rather, they’re organizing somebody else’s traffic to be distributed to the retailers they are already doing business with.

And, of course, in the same way that Amazon started out relying on the wholesalers for books before they went to buying most of their inventory direct, Random House can install the ecommerce engine any time they like and add a “buy direct from us” button to the choices.

I see this as building future distribution with a trade publisher’s mentality, which is “I don’t need to own the customer; I need to reach the customer and I’m perfectly happy doing that through an intermediary that does lots of work to attract the customer.” If the combination of curation and publishing tools that it can offer site owners like Politico is sufficiently attractive, one could imagine Random House building a network of high-traffic sites with very extensive consumer reach which would, in effect, comprise a new distribution model.

The Random House approach has opened my eyes. It has long been clear to me that the web would organize people by vertical, as it has, and that ultimately specialized content would be found and transacted within the verticals. I leaped to the conclusion that the publishers needed to be the vertical, or own the vertical, in order to thrive in that environment. That is essentially the strategy being executed by F+W Media and Osprey, to name two outstanding examples (both of which have recently made an acquisition that substantially increased their size, F+W of Interweave and Osprey of Duncan Baird).

But Random House is showing another way: becoming the book specialists for the verticals. It is too early to know whether the experiment being executed at Politico will turn into a replicable business model. But it sure is a smart idea to try.

While I was Googling doing some research for this post, I was stunned to see this on the site for the Firsty Group [see update below] that I refer to at the top. It was disturbing to see that they’ve been lifting my posts verbatim and posting them without attribution to their own site. (In fairness, there is a link, but you have to intuit that it is there to find and use it!)

On reflection, it appears that what they’re doing is just publishing our RSS feed, which a) does include the whole post and b) leaves out any “author” name. In that case, this copyright violation is actually being done “unconsciously.” I’m checking out whether that’s true with this post, because they certainly wouldn’t be posting something where I call them out for copyright violation except in an automated way!

Once we see what happens with this post and confirm my hunch that the behavior is automated, we’ll send a polite takedown notice and suggest that Firsty change its policy to post only the first X words of an RSS with a link through. (We are also exploring changing our RSS feed, but we actually don’t want to inconvenience people who are using it legitimately.)

I cast no aspersions on Faber here. They’re a great company and I’m sure they and Firsty deliver a solid service together.

***Very quickly as this post went live, we got an extremely apologetic note from Firsty explaining that, indeed, they were working from the RSS feed, and they indeed did have a protocol of cutting off the article and then linking through. For whatever reason, it wasn’t working on my stuff and, apparently, only on my stuff. They did a takedown while they investigate and fix and asked that we agree to allow them to continue to host our RSS samples after they had. Of course, we agreed. Great to know that it was a mistake and that they were alert enough to jump on it quickly. All’s well that ends well.

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Will book publishers be able to maintain primacy as ebook publishers?


Being on the road in London and on my way to Frankfurt, where we have two Publishers Launch Conferences coming up on Monday and Tuesday, I don’t have time for what my British friends would call a “proper” blogpost, with a bit of research (I admit I never do much) and some links. But I’ve been thinking about something over the past month which I ran by a marketing VP at a major house last week. It looks like one of the really big questions facing the major houses in the next couple of years, so it seemed worth airing in the run-up to publishing’s largest global gathering.

Here’s an assumption that is not documentable; it is my own speculation. I think we’re going to see a US market that is 80% digital for narrative text reading in the pretty near future: could be as soon as two years from now but almost certainly within five. We have talked about the cycle that leads to that on this blog before: more digital reading leads to a decline in print purchasing which further thins out the number of bookstores and drives more people to online book purchasing which further fuels digital reading. Repeat. Etcetera.

We’re already at the point where new narrative text units sold are well north of 25% digital (percent of publishers’ revenue is lower than that, of course) and we are still in a period that has lasted about five years (soon to end) where the penetration of digital has doubled or more annually. (I italicized that to emphasize that what I’m talking about doubling is the percentage of sales that are digital, not the absolute number of digital sales. Several people misinterpeted that when I made to it previously.)

Of course, penetration will slow down before it reaches 100%. I’d imagine we get to 80% in 2 to 5 years, then then to 90% in another couple of years, with the last 10% stretching out a long time. How long did it take after the invention of the car before the last person rode their horse to town?

Now here’s a fact which is documentable, and would be documented right here on a day when time wasn’t in such short supply: brands that are not publishing houses are directly publishing their own ebooks with increasing frequency. Magazines and television networks and web sites are recognizing the reality that self-publishing ebooks is something they can do themselves without the complications (or revenue-sharing) that working with a publisher would require.

This is not a surprise to me, but it does really raise a point that major publishers have to consider: can book publishers add enough value to the ebook publishing process to persuade another brand with content credibility, one that has direct contact with the vertical community that is the audience for their books, to do their ebooks through the publisher rather than directly?

This is an existential question for big trade publishers. They have forged partnerships with other brands, even media brands, for many years based on their unique ability to deliver printed books competently and to put them on bookstore shelves. Those are things that a magazine, a broadcast network, a movie studio, or a packaged goods company couldn’t do for themselves.

Which leads to the conversation I had this past week with the marketing VP. We were discussing marketing topics suitable for Digital Book World this January. This house is doing some very important things that wouldn’t have been on their radar a few years ago: SEO, of course, but also developing vertical communities and organizing a corporation-wide effort to gather names and data and direct contact with readers (handicapped by the fact that they almost never actually consummate the transaction). I raised the question: “will publishers be able to persuade these non-publisher brands that it is worth giving up margin and some control to work with publishers in the years to come?”

“That’s a very tall order,” he said.

Random House has apparently succeeded in doing this a couple of times recently. They have made deals with two political web sites (Politico and Real Clear Politics) to do ebooks related to the 2012 presidential election. This is a big deal. It wouldn’t be a big deal if the principal output were print; Politico and RCP can’t do print. But they could do ebooks without Random House; literary agents all over town (among others) are lining up to offer the tools to enable that.

And the profound danger to the big publishers is that if outfits like Politico and RCP start by doing their own ebooks, who is to say they’d stop there? It would be a natural extension to start publishing other people’s ebooks themselves once they had built up a network and infrastructure to sell these files successfully. The thing for trade publishers to fear is that they would lose their role in the value chain, vertical by vertical.

Developing skills and capabilities that make their ebook-publishing ability superior to vertical brands is going to be essential for publishers’ survival as the skills and capabilities to do print publishing become less important commercially over time, as they will. Even if you disagree with my aggessive expectations for ebook market penetration, I think you’ll be able to substitute your own and come up with pretty much the same conclusion.

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Why publishers need to understand brand


In the Internet world, brands will be more important than they’ve ever been before.

Why?

Because as the number of choices available to anybody seeking anything proliferate, brand is the shortcut that allows choices to be made quickly and reliably. And the Internet does nothing better than presenting us with more choices for any quest than anybody can possibly consider carefully.

In the next 20 years or so, the brands that will dominate for a very long time will be created.

Why?

Because the organization and delivery of stuff — including information — is being realigned into verticals; that is: subjects. The requirements of physical delivery required aggregation across interests that the Internet does not. So enduring horizontal brands of content like newspapers or book publishers but also outside content, among retailers, for example, that thrived across interest groups will find themselves challenged by new brands that are narrower and deeper. Being narrower and deeper permits a much more involved engagement with the audience. It strengthens the brand.

That’s how entities like Politico and Fivethirtyeight.com for political news suddenly challenged The New York Times and the Washington Post. That’s how Ravelry and Etsy arose out of nothing to become brands with real power in the crafts space, or how The Food Network or Epicurious became dominant in the web conversation about food.

The owners of the brands that matter will control access to the audiences that matter in the future. Content creators’ fates will be in the brands’ hands.

Publishers can compete in this environment, but only if they recognize the realities and try!

I am not an expert on brands (and I don’t even play one on TV.) But I have been paying attention this concept for about 15 years, since Mark Bide introduced me to it during our work together on the Publishing in the 21st Century program in the 1990s. There are a few simple truths that I believe are clear to anybody who spends any real time thinking about this.

1. For a brand to succeed, its message (often called its “promise” among the Brandanista) must be crystal clear and unconfused. You wouldn’t put the same brand name on toothpaste and tomato sauce. And if Ravelry wants to expand into gardening, they almost certainly should invent another brand.

2. Publishers particularly need to distinguish between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) brands. So a company’s name might be an acceptable B2B brand, communicating things about commerciality, quality, and its marketing effort to bookstore buyers, librarians, and reviewers who will be interested in its offerings across subject matters. But consumers require brands that are consistent as to subject matter, or as to the problems the content offerings solve (which is what makes “Dummies” work.)

3. Healthy brands reduce marketing costs. If you want to sell a romance book, you have to find the audience. In Harlequin’s case, the audience finds them! Yes, Harlequin is one of the exceptions to the rule that a publisher’s name is not a B2C brand. Why? Because they have a consistent product offering. If they decided to expand into mysteries or thrillers, they’d need another brand. Even within romances, Harlequin has sub-brands to give their readers shortcuts to the particular lengths and types of books they want to buy.

4. Precisely the same product with precisely the same marketing expenditure will sell better under some brands than it will under others, which is a corrolary to point 3 above.

5. We all well know that not all brand promises are about content. “Community” (interaction among the interested) and “service” (solving problems or providing help, which is what the content in Dummies books do) are important components of brand as well. My paradigm is to use content as bait to attract eyeballs, but then to use community and service to strengthen the hold of the brand on its adherents.

The overall vision presented in the Shift speech is that vertical communities are forming and that the stakes being planted in the virtual ground are analogous to the land claims made by settlers when Oklahoma was opened up. Each of those claims will ultimately be branded and many of those brands will endure for a very long time. Will important gardening brands be owned by publishers or seed and fertilizer companies? Will important cooking brands be owned by publishers or a food manufacturer or a restaurant chain? Will important travel brands be owned by publishers or a hotel or an airline? It depends on who delivers the combination of content, community, and service that pulls together the interested and then leverages that interest into an enduring brand.

Publishers have great tools to compete but they can only succeed if they know what the game is. Establishing enduring brands is the great opportunity of our time and book publishers are very well-positioned to win. If they play. Understanding content and how to deliver it to markets is a great start, but that’s all it is.

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Verticalization in action


Michael Wolff has written in Vanity Fair about Politico, which demonstrates many of the priciples of verticalization that I have written about often on this blog. He begins with a summary of a startlingly prescient piece Michael Crichton wrote in the fourth issue of Wired Magazine. Wolff writes:

“In the fourth issue of Wired magazine, in the fall of 1993, just as the Internet was entering public consciousness, Michael Crichton, the author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, wrote an essay arguing that newspapers were doomed because they were too dumb. As information became cheaper, more plentiful, and easier to get, consumers, he argued, would become ever more immersed in their specific interests and understand that their more generally oriented paper—at least in the matter of a reader’s special interest, but also by inference everything else—had no idea what it was talking about.”

As for Politico:

They are narrow and deep.

They have established a brand that trumps, or soon will trump, the formerly established brands in their niche.

They built an “Internet-first” model, but they have a “spinoff” print product that is a major contributor to their revenue.

They’re (apparently) profitable.

And if you publish a book on politics. I guarantee you’ll be knocking at their virtual door.

Have a great 4th of July weekend!

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