Publishers Lunch

Conferences are thermometers recording the level of fear about publishing changes

In the latest sign that the need for information about digital change in publishing has undergone a sea change in the past few years, it was announced today that Nielsen will not stage an independent conference in London this April, but will instead join forces with the London Book Fair to do an event there in March.

This reminds me that the best salesperson I ever worked with had a mantra 40 years ago that is proven over and over again to be true. “I never sell with logic,” he said, “unless I find no way to sell with fear.” Nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the rapid ups and now apparent downs of the digital change conference business in our industry.

We had done conferences intended to be profitable about digital change in the early 1990s in conjunction with other consultants and sponsored by industry publications, first Publishers Weekly and then Knowledge Industry Publications. (KIPI published the newsletter BP Reports, back when you could make money selling printed newsletters!) Then we worked on a series of conferences sponsored by VISTA Computer Services, now part of Ingenta. Those were free events which VISTA staged to promote their services. Before the enterprise giant SAP entered the publishing space in the late 1990s, VISTA was the dominant provider of enterprise software to book publishers in the US and UK. They decided they needed to learn about digital change, driven by fear.

As their then-chairman Denis Bennett said at the time, “we sell software to help publishers keep track of books in warehouses. What if there are no books? What if there are no warehouses?” He decided his customers needed to explore the same questions, so he funded a team led by Mark Bide of the UK and me to do research on digital change. First the findings benefited VISTA’s strategic planning and then they were turned into conference presentations to help publishers.

Meanwhile, Amazon grew, Barnes & Noble — first with Bertelsmann and then on their own — competed for online sales and ebooks reared their head through initiatives by Sony, Palm, and Microsoft. It became evident to many people that the industry might change a lot. And the era of digital conferences throughout the publishing calendar began. We did a conference at Frankfurt in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2001. Soon every industry gathering had to have some sort of digital show. Tim O’Reilly, a publisher of computer books, launched the Tools of Change conference in 2007. It was geeky, but opened the door to discuss business change, not just tech change.

Then in 2009, David Nussbaum and Sara Domville of F+W Media conceived Digital Book World and recruited me and then Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch to program and market it. That began a run of seven years for us, which had a bit of a bell curve. The first few years we were up and the last few years it got increasingly difficult to maintain the level of success we’d reached.

And that was because publishers lost the fear. This was for a variety of reasons. One is all to their credit: they hired in people who knew digital even if they didn’t (yet) know publishing. But it was also that circumstances changed. The surge in ebook sales taking share from print slowed down, then apparently stopped. New marketing procedures, still driven by major accounts but also now using new tools like NetGalley and ever-improving techniques and software assistance to find the right keywords for discovery, were developed to address the new marketplace.

What had been been a disruptive and frightening pace of change became a much slower boil. As the metaphorical frog in boiling water demonstrated, not feeling a change doesn’t mean one isn’t happening. But feeling the change drove the fear and fear drove the need for education and validation.

Now the challenges are more subtle. Amazon is past 50 percent of the sales for many publishers. That’s comprised of a lion’s share of online print sales and almost as much of the ebook sales. Not only does Amazon have a multiple of the biggest share of the book business any prior account had ever achieved, they aren’t shy about using their clout to claw back margin.

(Old joke of mine from a few years ago, but still true. “Amazon is every publisher’s most profitable account. That was never their intention and they’ll be inclined to change that fact as fast as they can.”)

If Amazon has consolidated the path to reaching half the US domestic market, Ingram has done very much the same thing for the global market. But while Amazon’s build-out has been largely at the expense of an ecosystem US publishers already reached (the most notable fatality being the Borders chain, which expired in 2011), Ingram has created a market expansion for many publishers by providing ready access to offshore sales opportunities that were previously very hard to access.

Global marketing channels — which is any way you use the Internet — and ubiquitous use of English means that the potential customer base for English-language books extends far beyond what US (or UK or any other English-language) publishers consider their home territory. Ingram has long been a supplier to bookstores and libraries all over the world. They distribute ebooks globally. They’ve complemented their capabilities with a growing print-on-demand network, making it even more efficient for them to put the books of their vending publishers anywhere there’s demand.

So, in 2016 publishers can literally reach most of the customers in the world through two intermediaries, Amazon and Ingram. Obviously, a publisher who calls on stores locally and around the world will stimulate sales that the best relationship in the world with Ingram can’t deliver entirely on its own. It still definitely “pays” for a publisher to push to get books in stores in the US and around the world on their own. And it is likely that books on display and selling in brick-and-mortar stores in the US and elsewhere actually stimulate sales at Amazon as well. But a publisher with no more organization than relationships with Amazon, Ingram, and a talented digital marketing team can publish successfully in today’s world.

One example is Diversion Publishing Corp., created by Scott Waxman, composed of Diversion Books, EverAfter Romance and Radius Book Group, which has developed a real business and marketplace presence working closely with Ingram’s organization for its brick and mortar distribution reach and Amazon for online sales. And it is worth noting that O’Reilly Media is among the companies that has for years reduced its fixed overhead by publishing its books leaning on Ingram.

The fear that is left in the marketplace can’t really be addressed by a conference. That would be the fear many publishers have about what Amazon will do to claw back margin in the future. Probably the greatest comfort publishers have is that they will be “even-handed” about it; looking for pretty much the same concessions from everybody. At the same time, there is fear around the other biggest domestic account for most publishers, Barnes & Noble, which is experimenting with ways to turn around their declining business but also has its hand out looking for more support. New independent stores continue to open, but others also close and, anyway, all of the indies apparently amount to about 8 percent of the total business, according to anecdata provided to us by a number of publishers.

So Amazon and Ingram, for different reasons, are the most reliable accounts of any in a publisher’s account base to grow. Increasing their understanding of how to make the most of the opportunities those two accounts present is the most important commercial task for publishers for the foreseeable future. That should be driven both by logic and fear.

Maximizing Your Potential With Amazon and Ingram. Now, THAT is a good topic for a conference!


Barnes and Noble faces a challenge that has not been clearly spelled out

The sudden dismissal of Ron Boire, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, follows the latest financial reporting from Barnes & Noble and has inspired yet another round of analysis about their future. When the financial results were released last month, there was a certain amount of celebrating over the fact that store closings are down compared to prior years. But Publishers Lunch makes
clear that store closings are primarily a function of lease cycles, not overall economics, and we have no guarantees that they won’t rise again this year and in the years to follow when a greater number of current leases expire.

With B&N being the only single large source of orders for most published titles for placement in retail locations, publishers see an increasing tilt to their biggest and most vexing (but also, still their most profitable) trading partner, Amazon.

Although PW reported immediate dismay from publishers over Boire’s departure, there has been plenty of second-guessing and grumbling in the trade about B&N’s strategy and execution. Indeed, getting their dot com operation to work properly is a sine qua non that they haven’t gotten right in two decades of trying. But one thing Boire did was to bring in a seasoned digital executive to address the problem. This is presumably not rocket science — it isn’t even particularly new tech — so perhaps they will soon have their online offering firing on all cylinders.

The big new strategy they revealed, one they’re going to try in four locations this year, is what they call “concept stores” that include restaurants. And, although it was a bit unclear from their last call whether the store-size reduction they’re planning extends to these restaurant-including stores, they have said that the overall store footprint they’re planning will be 20-25 percent smaller than their current standard. These two facts both make the point that B&N is facing a reality which has become evident over the last decade, and which questions a strategy and organizational outlook that was formulated in another time. If this new challenge is properly understood, and I haven’t seen it clearly articulated anywhere, it would make the restaurant play more comprehensible. (Note: I have to admit that my own recent post, where I traced the history of bookstores in the US since World War II, failed, along with everybody else, to pinpoint the sea change that makes B&N’s historical perspective its enemy while trying to survive today.)

Here’s the change-that-matters in a nutshell. A “bookstore” doesn’t have the power it did 25 years ago to make customers visit a retail location. Selection, which means a vast number of titles, doesn’t in and of itself pull traffic sufficient to support a vast number of large locations anymore. This changes the core assumption on which the B&N big store buildout since the late 1980s was based.

This has been true before. One hundred years ago the solution to the problem became the department store book department. Post-war prosperity grew shelf space for books, but the department stores remained the mainstays for book retail. The first big expansion of bookstores started in the 1960s when the malls were built out, which put Waldens and Daltons in every city and suburb in America. The mall substituted for the department store; it delivered the traffic. In fact, department stores “anchored” all the malls to be sure they’d get that traffic!

(Here are a couple of additional factoids to illustrate the importance of the department store channel in the mid-20th century. When Publishers Weekly did an article about the Doubleday Merchandising Plan in 1957, the stores they used as examples were the book departments of Wanamakers and Gimbels! When I came into the business fulltime in the 1970s, there were two significant “chain” accounts in Chicago: the bookstore chain Kroch’s & Brentano’s and the Marshall Field department stores.)

Bookstore customers came in many flavors, but they all benefited from a store with greater selection. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, first noticed that selection was a powerful magnet when he was overseeing the Brentano’s chain (no relation to K&B in Chicago) in the 1960s. Their Short Hills, New Jersey store was an underperformer. They doubled the number of titles in it and it became their best performer. Whether the bookstore customer knew what they wanted or just wanted to shop, the store with more titles gave them a better chance of a satisfying result.

Over time, that understanding was followed to a logical conclusion.

By the late 1980s, it appeared that standalone bookstores outside of malls could become “destinations” if their selections were large enough, and that created the superstore expansion: B&Ns and Borders. But, only a few years later when it opened in 1995, the universal selection at Amazon mooted value of the big-selection store, especially for customers who knew before they shopped what book they wanted. Selection as a traffic magnet stopped working pretty quickly after Amazon opened in 1995 although it was not so immediately obvious to anybody.

I had some experience with B&N data that demonstrated pretty emphatically by 2002 that the action on slow-selling university press titles had shifted overwhelmingly to Amazon. (At that time, the late Steve Clark, the rep for Cambridge University Press, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for CUP than all other US retail combined.) It took the further hit of expanded Internet shopping at the consumer level, which grew with increased connectivity even before ebooks, to make what had been a great business obviously difficult. Then, as if to emphasize the point, we lost Borders…

What just doesn’t make it anymore, at least not nearly as frequently, is the “big bookstore”. Although there is no scientific way to prove this, most observers I’ve asked agree that the new indie stores popping up over the past few years tend to be smaller than than the Borders and older indie stores they are replacing. We are seeing book retailing become a mix of pretty small book-and-literary-centric stores and an add-on in many places: museums, gift shops, toy stores. These have always existed but they will grow. And true “bookstore” shelf space will shrink, as has space for “general” books in mass merchants. The indie bookstore share will definitely continue to grow, but whether their growth will replace what is lost at B&N and the mass merchant chains is doubtful. Every publisher I’ve asked acknowledges significant indie store growth in the past couple of years, but they are also unanimous in saying the growth has not replaced the sales and shelf space lost when Borders closed.

Barnes & Noble is clearly rethinking its strategies, but this is one component that I have never seen clearly articulated. Back when I had my “aha!” moment about what was happening with the university press books, I suggested to one B&N executive that they had to figure out how to make the 25,000-title store work.

He said, “that’s not where we are. We’re thinking about the million-title store!” In other words, “we want to manage big retail locations”. This is thinking shaped by what we can now see is an outdated understanding of what the value of a big store is. So now they’re trying to sustain slightly-smaller big locations with things other than books. (Whether they plan to go as low as 25,000 titles in stores that used to stock four or five times that many is not clear. But they did say in their recent earnings call that the new concept stores would get 60 percent of their revenues from books, rather than the 67 percent they get now.) They have added non-book merchandise; now they’re thinking about restaurants. All of that is to increase traffic and to increase sales from the traffic they already get.

But there is another way to attack the challenge that “books alone” doesn’t work the way it used to. Barnes & Noble’s core competency is book supply to retail locations anywhere in the United States. Nobody, except Ingram, does this as well. (Although Amazon clearly is now planning to give it a try.)

Other retailers are suffering the same Internet sales erosion as booksellers, and a properly-curated selection of books can work for just about any store’s customer profile. Might Barnes & Noble complement its own stores by offering branded B&N Book Departments to other retailers? Let them bring in the traffic (although the books will undoubtedly bring in some more) and then B&N could manage those departments. (This is a variation of a tactic I suggested for Penguin Random House some years ago.) Let other retailers play the role the department stores and then the malls played for books in the past 100 years. Let’s not require the retail customer to come to a location strictly to shop for books.

The “trick” would be for B&N merchandisers to adjust their book selection to suit the specific customer base each store attracts. But is that a harder challenge than going into the restaurant business? And isn’t extending the B&N brand for books a more sensible tactic than trying to extend it to food? Or to create a new brand for food? And wouldn’t it be a good idea to get started on this tactic to expand book retail shelf space before Amazon, which keeps showing signs of wanting a retail presence, does?

This is not an easy market to just walk in and take over. There are already wholesalers providing books to retailers who don’t support a full-fledged buying effort for them. Those wholesalers are often getting more margin from the publishers than B&N is now, but that’s actually more of an opportunity than an obstacle. Presumably, a B&N-branded book section is worth something. (If it isn’t, that’s another problem.) Presumably, B&N has buying expertise and domain knowledge that would enable them to fine-tune a selection of books for each outlet’s customer base. And, presumeably, B&N’s supply chain efficiency would be superior to anybody else’s in the industry, except Amazon’s and perhaps Ingram’s.

The big bookstore model is an anachronism. Just making it big doesn’t pull in the customers anymore. So a new strategy is definitely called for. B&N is going part of the way to one by recognizing that they need to do more to bring in customers and, at the same time, they can’t profitably shelve 100,000 titles across hundreds of stores. Taking their capabilities to where the customers already are would seem like an idea worth exploring.

It should be noted that the Indigo chain in Canada, under the leadership of owner Heather Reisman, has apparently successfully transitioned to a “culture” store where books are the key component of the offering. She has apparently found a product mix, or an approach to creating one, that is working for Indigo. Every large book retailer in the world is going to school on what Indigo has done. Because Amazon and online purchasing in general have not taken hold in Canada the way they have in the United States, we can’t jump to the conclusion that the Indigo formula could be successfully applied here. But it sure wouldn’t be a crazy idea for B&N to buy Indigo to gain the benefit of Reisman’s insights and expertise, assuming that a) Canadian law would permit U.S. ownership of such an important cultural asset and b) Reisman herself would sell and then work for somebody else. Two very big assumptions.

It is also worth nothing that the Pocket Shop chain, the small-bookstore concept chain that we’ve written about previously, is going to start opening stores in the UK. 


Now Kings of ebook subscription, what will impede the ebook share growth for Amazon?

With the news this morning that Scribd has thrown in the towel on unlimited ebook subscriptions, Amazon is the last player standing with an “all-you-can-eat” ebook subscription offer for a general audience. The juxtaposition of the publishers’ insistence on being paid full price for ebooks being lent once and the late Oyster’s and the now thrice-hobbled Scribd’s (they did a reduction of their romance offering last summer and then cut back on audiobooks to stem prior waves of over-consumption) pursuit of customers with an unlimited-use offer was always doomed. The only hope for the subscription services was that they would grow so fast that publishers wouldn’t be able to live without their eyeballs and would relent on the sale price.

That didn’t happen.

When Digital Reader reported the Scribd news this morning (the first place I learned of it, although I learned a lot more when I saw the Pub Lunch account an hour or two later), they also linked back to a story I’d missed in October explaining that Amazon was fiddling with what they put in their own unlimited sub offer, Kindle Unlimited.

Because Amazon couldn’t get cooperation from agency publishers (which, at a prohibitive and ultimately suicidal price, Oyster and Scribd did), they exploited their ability to deliver ebooks from the non-agency publishers to the max. Or, they did that at first. What Nate Hoffelder of Digital Reader uncovered last Fall was that Amazon was selectively removing those titles as they saw fit, which lowered their costs. (The information that led to this discovery was originally posted as a comment by Kensington’s CEO Steve Zacharius on this blog.)

A lot, if not most, of what Kindle Unlimited “lends” are ebooks compensated for by a “pool” of cash Amazon puts in each month. The size of that pool is solely determined by them and the per-page compensation for those books has inched downwards. Nonetheless, in the aggregate it amounts to a lot of money that is available only to ebook “publishers” (usually indie authors) who give Amazon an exclusive ebook license for the title. The publisher can sell print and audio elewhere, but if they want to share in the KU pool their ebook has to be Kindle only.

The disruptive news that I had missed last October is that a handful of smaller publishers — not just indie authors — are now seeing it as financially beneficial to be Kindle-only for ebooks.

This next bit is reporting what is still a rumor. But I have just been told by somebody who would know that Barnes & Noble will be withdrawing Nook from the UK market. That news is unrelated to the subscription business, but it is additional good news for Amazon.

For anybody concerned about a diverse ebook marketplace, these are ominous developments. With both the biggest ecosystem and the deepest pockets, Amazon can afford to continue to reward ebook copyright owners with increased compensation for exclusivity. As their share grows, it will be increasingly tempting for ebook publishers, be they indie authors or something a bit larger, to take the higher rewards for cutting out the other ebook vendors. And so Kindle progressively builds a better catalog than any of its ebook competitors. Which leads to more market share.

Etcetera. Or, in the modern parlance, “rinse and repeat”.

With Kindle Unlimited now the only “unlimited” ebook subscription play left (although Scribd can still claim a better selection of titles, at least for a while longer), presumably its market share will also continue to grow. As that happens, even big publishers may start to see financial benefits in putting some titles from their backlist into it. (Who knows? Authors, working on a percentage of the ebook revenues, might start insisting on it!) If and when that starts, the challenge for iBooks, Nook, Kobo, and Google to maintain a competitive ebook title offering will escalate.

Presumably, there is some percentage of the ebook market that Kindle could control that would lead to anti-trust concerns. Their share has been growing almost inexorably since the Department of Justice and Judge Cote put their thumbs on the scale a few years ago to punish the publishers and Apple for what they saw as price-fixing.

We will look for enlightenment on this subject from anti-trust attorney Jonathan Kanter at Digital Book World. Is there any percentage of the ebook market that if one entity controlled it would constitute a prima facie monopoly that calls for government action? Or even of the total book market, including print?

Even before we get to whether they plan 100 or 400 bookstores beyond the one they’ve got and the one more they are apparently planning, it is hard to see what will impede the growth of Amazon’s ebook market share. Inexorable growth by Amazon? That’s a topic we’ve been thinking about for years.

I was kicking this post around with Pete McCarthy before publishing it. I’m really struck by a point he made to me. Pete points out that buying and owning units of content has become anachronistic behavior for music and video. Kids today don’t stuff their own iTunes repository. They eventually move from streaming YouTube to subscribing to Spotify. (And that’s why Apple started Apple Music.) Nobody buys videos anymore; we just subscribe to Netflix or take temporary custody of content through an “on demand” service.

So book publishers are probably fighting a rearguard action trying to perpetuate the “own-this-content” model, particularly at relatively higher prices than they could command last year or five years ago.

Of course, that’s what Scribd and Oyster were thinking about when they built their repositories and committed themselves to invest to build a user base. Oyster ran out of time. Scribd has had to trim their sails. Subscriptions seemed like a natural business for Google, but they haven’t gotten into it. (Although they hired much of the Oyster staff, so perhaps that’s a chapter not yet written.)

But Amazon continues with Kindle Unlimited, able to shift their economics without disrupting their business. And, if Pete McCarthy’s insight about the direction of consumer behavior must inevitably extend to books — and renting access to a repository becomes the dominant model replacing owning-your-content — that’s another way they’re better positioned than anybody else to dominate the last mile of book distribution in the years to come. Publishers should always be aware that it’s a risky business to have a business model that contradicts the trends in consumer behavior.


Are Amazon exclusives the next big challenge for everybody else in publishing?

Somebody smarter (or more patient about wading through data) than I am could probably figure out how far along this bifurcation is already, but Amazon is doing its very best to build a body of content that is desirable and available from nobody else but them.

This is something you can do when you’re in the neighborhood of 70 percent of ebook sales and already more than half the total sales for many works of fiction, which is where the self-publishing world is strongest. It is not an opportunity that is really available to any other retailer. Apple has given it a try for more complex ebooks for which they provide ebook-building tools and, presumably, offer the most productive distribution environment for complex content. But they’re playing on much less fertile ground and they don’t have anything like the audience share necessary to drive this strategy very far.

It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any other ebook ecosystem could offer benefits that would make it worth skipping Amazon.

Two recent developments call attention to this situation.

David Streitfeld in the New York Times reports that Amazon has held a private by-invitation-only conclave for writers the past four years. I knew about this before because I’m a subscriber to Publishers Lunch and they reported on it about three years ago. (I like to say about my conference business partner Michael Cader, proprietor of Publishers Lunch, that you go to him for the facts and you can come to me for opinions.)

It is a smart and sensible thing for Amazon to do. Amazon has been demonstratively aware of the ability of writers to promote their own books to their audiences but also to promote Kindle Direct Publishing among their peers. Bringing authors in for a private chat to exchange ideas is not only flattering to those invited (a benefit to Amazon in and of itself), it almost certainly also informs them about how to be more successful courting authors in the future. This shouldn’t be viewed pejoratively, although Streitfeld’s piece and a companion blog post seem to position it that way.

The other is Hugh Howey’s very public rumination about whether to go exclusive with Amazon or not, in which Howey wonders out loud whether he should stay exclusive with Amazon beyond a 90-day trial period based on his calculation that his audience (perhaps counterintuitively) goes up while his revenue takes a small hit. I’ve had an off-line exchange with Hugh in which he emphasizes what his post says: he really can’t decide which way to go on this.

(It is worth noting, as Hugh does, that when he makes these decisions, they are only commitments for 90 days at a time. Of course, each time he switches he creates work for himself, either putting up the titles in other venues or taking them down. But he can get the benefits of Amazon exclusivity in 90-day chunks with no commitments beyond the 90 days and go in and out as many times as he likes. Hugh makes what I think is an unhelpful and invalid comparison to the life-of-copyright deals publishers ask for in return for advances against royalties and inventory investments that Amazon and other retailers do not make for self-published authors, but he’s right that it is much easier to make a decision when you only have to live with it for three months.)

His open thought process became the subject of a post by Chris Meadows on Teleread. One thing on Hugh’s mind was whether he needed to help keep alternatives to Amazon viable by contributing his content to their mix. Meadows says “that’s not your problem” and I agree with that. Each writer should be making the publishing decisions that are best for their personal brand and career. The first decision — if a publisher offers them a choice — is whether to take an advance and a deal or whether to self-publish. If they self-publish, they have to decide whether to be exclusively Amazon or go for the widest possible distribution.

The reflexive, intuitive choice is to get the most distribution possible. There are certainly readers who shop exclusively in non-Amazon retail environments. There could even be a growing number of those in light of the recent publicity around the Hachette dispute and the negativity directed at Amazon by Authors United. There are certainly people who make a point to avoid shopping at Amazon or buy from them as little as possible. (I’m even related to some of those people.)

But with Amazon’s enormous market share, their ability to promote both through normal commerce and special exposure like their subscription service Kindle Unlimited, and their willingness to put a thumb on the financial scales (KDP Select authors get higher royalties; they pay bonuses to top sellers and top titles being seen in KU), they can make up for whatever might be lost by eschewing other channels of distribution.

The idea that having content that is not available elsewhere can strengthen a retail offering is not the exclusive province of Amazon. It was a core component of the strategy originally announced by upstart retailer Zola Books.

Amazon has not yet ever suggested that “content only available here” was any important part of their customer-marketing strategy. (Update: I’ve been corrected on this. In fact, they do promote the exclusive content, both in press releases and in their Kindle Unlimited promotion online. They tout “over 500,000 digital titles you won’t find anywhere else”.) The exclusive-or-not conversation has been mostly (should be: largely) confined to their dialogue with authors. In fact, the rest of the publishing world has nudged them in that direction by being resistant to stocking books from Amazon Publishing. If at one time the author recruitment team at Amazon might have hoped to deliver ubiquitous distribution for their books, the path to bookstores was effectively blocked by their brick-and-mortar competitors’ lack of willingness to support their program.

The self-publishing revolution, despite the enthusiasm of its strongest advocates (which definitely include Hugh Howey), has only made small inroads among authors who have the option of a substantial advance from a traditional publisher. For that reason, the pool of authors exclusive to Amazon contains very few that could change a book consumer’s shop-of-choice (except perhaps one time for a particular book they wanted to get).

But if a big earner like Hugh Howey thinks he might be better off accepting Amazon’s standard terms for exclusivity, that’s a dangerous sign for everybody else in the book ecosystem. A traditional publisher still offers brick-and-mortar visibility and revenue that Amazon and any self-publishing effort will not. The transfer of market share from stores to online and from print to digital hasn’t ended. Every point of market share that shifts strengthens Amazon’s proposition for exclusivity and increases the likelihood that a high-visibility author will make the self-publishing leap. The combination of the two — highly branded authors and Amazon exclusivity — is among the most unwelcome inevitabilities the rest of the industry will probably face in the years, if not months, to come.

What is already the case is that Amazon is piling up a repository of content that nobody else has. When that hits a tipping point that starts influencing substantial numbers of consumers is another shoe waiting to drop.

Programming at Digital Book World that is highly relevant to this post will be a presentation by Judith Curr, president of the Atria division of S&S, on the math of the author’s decision whether to go with a publisher or publish on their own. Curr’s division works hard to recruit new authors and, in fact, Peter K. Borland, who heads up Atria’s Keywords Press partnership with UTA to publish books from highly successful “digital influencers” (people with big YouTube audiences, for example), is a participant on a panel of “new publishers” who are making their mark. The other participants on that panel — Entangled and Georgia McBride Media — don’t have Big Five roots.

As we were about to post, a rumor hit the Net of a new Amazon program to recruit more self-published authors. The idea is that submissions of manuscript and cover are given a crowd-sourced review; then the highest-ranked are “considered” for a new kind of Amazon publishing contract. This doesn’t seem to have been “officially” announced, but a conversation with an Amazon person is reported and the source, The Digital Reader, is normally reliable. This initiative would be further evidence that Amazon is using its platform to control the distribution of more and more of what authors generate.


Subscriptions are in the news this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Publisher margins today may be enviable, but it will be a big challenge to keep them that way

The major publishers have apparently worked themselves into a very strong commercial position at the moment with the transition to ebooks. I say “apparently” because the data that gives the most recent rise to that understanding — a presentation by HarperCollins of the current economics — is somewhat incomplete.

What Michael Cader reported in Publishers Lunch on June 4 — about which agent Brian Defiore commented on the Aardvark blog the same day — is that HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray had laid out the standard revenue and cost structure for hardcovers versus ebooks for shareholders. What it showed very starkly is that:

1. (Even though) revenues (the top line) for ebooks are lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;

2. (And) royalties for ebooks are also lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;

3. (Still) unit margins for publishers net of manufacturing, distribution, returns, and royalty costs are considerably higher for ebooks than for hardcovers.

So the authors working on the contractual rates make less per unit on the ebooks than they do on hardcovers and the publishers make more. The joker in that last sentence is “working on the contractual rates”.

The biggest authors don’t, and that’s how this situation has been allowed to happen.

The savviest agents for the biggest authors don’t negotiate contracts in the same way the rest of the world does. They figure out in concert with the publisher how many copies they think the book should sell (big authors with long track records are somewhat more predictable than the rest of the universe, which is one more reason their books are so desirable to the publishers) and get an advance that is equal to a startlingly high percentage of the revenue that sales level would produce.

The advance is not expected to earn out (and, believe me, with advances calculated this way, they almost never do). That means the royalty rates are irrelevant. So they can have their star authors sign the boilerplate contract, permitting the publisher to say — almost truthfully — that they don’t pay more than 15% of cover price royalty on print or more than 25% of net royalty on ebooks (among other things).

So Murray’s chart is accurate, except that it doesn’t cover the commercial reality — even though it reflects the actual contracts — for all the biggest books.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, the chart being out in the open, there’s an adverse reaction from beyond the agent community to what looks very much like big publishers improving their financial position at the expense of authors. What other reaction could there possibly be? The Authors Guild is upset and blogger-reporter Porter Anderson catches some additional commentary from Defiore.

At the same time, publishers are doing battle on the other side of their business, with retailers looking to increase their margins as well. This is not just about Amazon. They dominate online sales and are indispensable for that reason. But Barnes & Noble is nearly as dominant in terrestrial retail and have apparently been engaged in a dispute with Simon & Schuster for months which has reduced the presence of S&S’s books in their stores. The just-announced financial results for B&N make it very clear that they’d be motivated to be extremely covetous of any additional margin they can squeeze out of their trading partners.

When ebooks started to become commercially important, which we date to the launch of the Amazon Kindle in the fourth quarter of 2007, publishers faced the challenge of reducing overheads required for print publishing as the demand for print declined. Quite aside from what was (and is) the unpredictability of the rate of the change, this is not an easy challenge. The printing you’re ordering may be smaller, but you still need to set type, design a book, and order a printing. The number of copies you’re shipping and processing as returns might be smaller, but most big publishers owned their own warehouses so it wasn’t a simple matter to reduce the cost of that component either.

In fact, it would appear that returns may have declined more than print sales have, and even more drastically as a percentage of overall sales since ebooks don’t get returned at all. All of this has been good for publisher profitability. In fact, seeing the data we see now, one might wonder whether the publishers were being self-destructive when they went through great gyrations (including everything that landed them in the lawsuit Apple just finished for them all alone and which was expensive for them to settle) to preserve print sales at the expense of ebooks. They tried windowing — withholding the ebook from the market for a while — and then, famously since the DoJ involvement, maintaining somewhat higher prices on ebooks at retail.

But, of course, they weren’t being self-destructive. As I’ve written repeatedly, putting books on shelves is the publisher’s primary value proposition; as the need for that declines in importance, so do they. The bigger margins of the current environment will be extremely difficult to maintain. Agents for the big authors will be looking for an even higher percentage of the projected revenue as it shifts to digital. Since advances from publishers for other-than-the-biggest titles are also declining, those next-tier authors will find self-publishing or publishing with smaller houses that pay lower advances but higher ebook royalties an increasingly tempting alternative. Most of all, the biggest retailers will keep pushing for more margin. And most publishers won’t have the stomach for the lengthy fight S&S has undertaken (particularly since there is no evidence, yet, that S&S will prevail in the argument).

The big publishers who are reinvesting their current margins to develop the value proposition that will be important in the future — and that’s “digital marketing at scale” — might still be able to prosper as the transition progresses. But their trading partners on both sides — authors and retailers — will be relentless at chipping away at any “excess” margin they perceive. Michael Cader has pointed out that Amazon, making a margin of less than 1% of sales, has little reason to be sympathetic to publishers complaining about how hard it is to achieve double-digit margins. Barnes & Noble will need more margin from publishers every year to keep stores open in the face of declining sales.

Authors will be tempted to try something other than the old-style deal in direct proportion to two factors: how much the sales move online and how effective they can be at getting the word out on their books on their own digital backs. The first factor is out of the publishers’ control (and difficult to predict); the second means that the most desirable authors below the very top tier will become the hardest to retain.

I offered the advice some time ago that publishers should raise their author royalties as insulation against being hit up for margin by the retailers. At the time, one major publisher CEO said to me that there was merit in the advice I was giving, but it was “pretty hard to make changes like that with the DoJ in your shorts”. So perhaps we’ll see some overt moves to raise that 25% ebook royalty rate sometime soon since the DoJ problem seems to be in the past.

I’ve felt for a long time that what authors (agents) should work toward is a fixed amount-per-copy-sold as an ebook royalty and just get out of the percentages business on ebooks, which, as we know, can have their prices change on a frequent basis. I know that would be resisted by the publishers, but it makes a lot of sense.

But the current state of affairs says pretty emphatically what I’ve felt all along: the incumbent management of the big publishers is damn smart and has managed a very tricky transition extremely effectively. Where they’ve brought things as of today is an impressive feat, even if it will be almost impossible to sustain.


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.


Stats are often hard to interpret in our business

Stats are often hard to interpret in our business. The reported data comes, of course, after the fact (you can’t report things before they happen) and is often aggregated in ways that don’t tell us what we really need to know. So I tried an exercise last week of asking a few agents for their impressions of the evolving ebook marketplace. I wanted to get a handle on two things: where we are now in terms of books sold in stores versus books sold other ways and whether the transition from print to digital consumption is slowing down.

The picture I got from nine smart and well-informed agents seems to confirm that:

* sales of ebooks for fiction more often than not top 50% of the total sales, in both the hardcover life and the paperback;

* sales of ebooks for immersive non-fiction are at something like half the percentage of fiction;

* illustrated books do a lot less in their digital editions, which usually struggle to reach 10% of the sale;

* while the marketplace data seems unambiguous, the agents have not formed a consensus that the print-to-ebook switchover is slowing down.

Perhaps we can attribute that to the fact that the data presentation which most shapes the agents’ impressions is provided in royalty reports. This past year, and especially this past season, have not yet been delivered in the data they study most intensively. But it was still useful to check with them, if only to confirm that fiction ebook penetration is double non-fiction and that illustrated books lag far behind.

If 50% of fiction is selling now as ebooks, it is likely that only about 35% of it is selling as print in stores (because 25-30 percent of the print sale is online). Considering that number was more like 90% ten years ago and 80% five years ago, that’s all the explanation anybody needs to understand the reduction of shelf space we’ve seen. Every year when stores are interviewed about traffic and sales, they cite the presence (or absence) of “big books” as a key driver. The “big books” are most often big fiction. This year, the Fifty Shades family of titles may have provided that lift, which may be why stores (other than B&N) are anecdotally reporting a strong Christmas.

But what the industry should be most interested in, which will be reflected in the next round of royalty statements agents see, is that ebook sales growth appears to have damn near stopped. As Michael Cader pointed out on Lunch, Random House UK indicated a 13% increase this year over last, which mirrors Barnes & Noble’s reported rise of 13% in ebook sales in December.

Thirteen percent is a big increase in a stable marketplace.

But if you consider the heavy activity in the device field — the new iPad mini, Kobo devices being sold by independent stores, and B&N turning progressively their stores into NOOK showrooms (and not to mention the always-growing ebook title base, still adding backlist and formerly out-of-print books and small press and self-published books) — the rise in ebook sales seems like no rise at all. So perhaps we really have hit the point of resistance from print readers and a new stability in division of sales across channels.

The consequences of only about a third of fiction being bought in stores — and not all in bookstores — are still to play out. If it is true that independents did better than B&N this past Christmas, could part of the reason (as I speculated in a prior piece) be B&N’s prior success selling their customers NOOKs? Is the indie store customer somewhat less likely to have bought a Kindle or NOOK previously and therefore disproportionately in the marketplace for printed books?

It is quite possible that the disappointing B&N results could be a more accurate indication of the world we’re now living in than the reported success of the indies.

Under the heading of data being ambiguous, note that the reported big rise in sales by independents in 2012 appears to have taken place in the first part of the year so that sales at Christmastime might not have been as much better than B&N’s as first impressions on the data could lead us to believe. (Once again, thanks to Cader for doing some in-depth analysis of the raw data to lead us to see that possibility.)

And at the same time that we’re seeing an increase in ebook sales of about 13%, PW reports that BookScan US numbers show print unit sales having declined by 9%. What is interesting there, though, is that deeper PW reporting about BookScan says that non-fiction declined by 13% while fiction fell only by 11% in unit sales. Since we think we know that ebook penetration for fiction is much greater than for non-fiction, perhaps the reported decline in non-fiction units reflects lower sales of illustrated books, not because they’re being cannibalized by ebooks, but because of the store traffic decline B&N reported.And that’s exactly what I’d be worrying about if I were an illustrated book publisher. Their business isn’t transitioning to digital as fast as novels, but it is possible their sales were more interdependent on novels and their power to bring traffic into the bookstores that sell the illustrated books than they might ever have thought.

The data reported by PW also says that mass-market paperbacks have suffered by far the biggest decline among the book formats. The ebook sales by independents (self-published) are apparently underreported. Could the very cheapest ebooks, which are largely the indies, be cutting into the sales of the cheapest print books. It would stand to reason, wouldn’t it?

Both our sold-out (really and truly, we will have to turn people away if they show up trying to buy a ticket at the door) Children’s Books Go Digital conference on this Tuesday (Jan 15) and Digital Book World on Wednesday and Thursday (Jan 16 and 17) feature as much worthy original data presentation and analysis as we could find.

On Tuesday, we have Carl Kulo and Kristin McLean presenting data from Bowker’s survey of the kids book market, Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex with fresh information about children’s book discovery, and both our case study of middle-grade marketing from Simon & Schuster and a presentation from Random House about driving word of mouth with a YA audience will undoubtedly deliver some objective information that will help other publishers make sound marketing decisions.

We have always featured original data presentations at Digital Book World. This year is no exception. We will kick off the event with Forrester’s snapshot based on interviewing executives; we’ll feature academic research from Carnegie-Mellon on the true impact of piracy; and Dan Lubart and Jeremy Greenfield will deliver a report based on close study of ebook bestseller data. That’s just on the first morning. We also will have insights from a survey F+W Media did to which more than five thousand authors responded; data about discovery in the general trade marketplace from Hildick-Smith; and a report from Bowker about book buyers and BISG about ebook buyers, based on regular surveying that has taken place over the past couple of years. Children’s Books Go Digital is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Digital Book World. 

I’m really proud of what we’ve put together for both events and I hope to see you there. If you can’t make it because of geographical separation, though, DBW is making live streaming available this year for the plenary sessions and some of the breakouts. If the plane won’t get you to New York on time, you should check that out.


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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Perhaps the revolution has reached an evolutionary stage

The dizzying pace at which US consumers were switching from print to digital couldn’t last forever. Based on the numbers being published by the AAP, with a huge assist in interpretation by Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, it seems that the slowdown has become very noticeable in the past 12 months.

Between late 2007 when the Kindle came out and late 2011, ebook sales doubled or more every year. Since September 2011, during which Cader reckoned sales were double the year before, the monthly numbers are showing much lower (and declining) year-on-year growth. The April numbers showed only a 37% increase from the year before.

I’ve been pondering this question about when ebooks uptake would slow down for a long time. In March of 2010, 17 months ago, I wrote that my hunch was that the switchover “won’t start slowing down until ebook sales are 20-25% of what a publisher expects on a new title.” And I guessed that would occur before the presidential election of 2012. That feels reasonably consistent with what appears to have happened.

Cader also cites reports from Penguin and Simon & Schuster to document the slowdown. Penguin says ebook sales growth was about 33% in the first half of 2012. And Lunch reports that Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, told them she expects about 30% growth in ebook sales during 2012. That would almost certainly constitute their (or anybody else’s) fastest-growing sales channel, but it sure isn’t the annual doubling and tripling (or more) we had seen for several years.

A couple of weeks earlier, Cader dissected the BookStats reporting of publisher sales numbers. As longtime readers of this blog know, what I think is the important metric to watch is “store sales versus online sales”, rather than “print versus electronic”. Store sales are all print, but online sales are not all electronic. The reason I think the channel distinction is more important than the format distinction is because scale is far more useful to deal with retail stores than it is to deal with any online account. The reasons are two: inventory and logistics.

BookStats reports that publisher-direct sales to online retailers — this includes both print and digital, but does not include sales that went through the wholesalers — were about 35% of the total of sales to store and online retailers combined. Online is said to have risen about 35% in the past year and brick stores have declined about 12.6%. My rough math says that the combined total of the two was pretty close to equivalent — down about one percent. Since ebook sales are rising and ebooks are generally cheaper than print books, this passes for “flat”.

The other thing to pay attention to is the difference in ebook sales by type of book. Based on anecdotal evidence, I believe that genre and commercial fiction sales might be approaching half ebook already. (BookStats reports that unit sales of all fiction are currently 64% print and 34% digital.) Narrative non-fiction is about half that. Illustrated books of all kinds are slivers of that.

There are many things we don’t know.

We don’t know how much of the sales growth decline in the past year is due to the publishers’ success at driving up ebook prices. To the extent that’s the cause, we might see the pattern change again when (as I expect) the DoJ settlement is approved and the shackles come off Amazon’s pricing policies.

We don’t know how much of the sales growth decline in the past year might be due to the consumer switchover from dedicated ereaders to multi-function devices that offer them other media and games — and email for that matter — to compete with books. To the extent that’s the cause, the slowdown trend might well be extended because it is likely that a lot of people will switch from eink readers to multi-function devices as those devices continue to get cheaper.

We don’t know to what extent store traffic is affected by the continuing shift of bestsellers, particularly in fiction, to digital consumption. In the short run, there is probably a positive impact on the display space and sales opportunities for illustrated books and children’s books. But, in the longer run, how many stores can survive if the bestseller business continues to move away from them?

We don’t know whether mass merchants will continue to see books as worthy of their shelf space. They sell a lot of genre fiction, which is the most challenged by inexpensive independently-published (and not all of those are self-published) ebooks. And they can switch square footage from one thing to another at great speed and with no sentimentality at all.

But, all in all, the slowdown we’ve seen is good news for the legacy publishing establishment and it will be better news if the trend continues. Anything that slows the decline in brick store market share and the rise in Amazon’s buys time for big publishers and competing retailers to adjust their infrastructures and build new business models that are more effective for the future.

Unfortunately for them, the denouement of this round of DoJ activity is about to give things a sharp shove in the other direction.

If understanding new business models and other new ways for publishers to do their business is important to you, our Publishers Launch Frankfurt event on October 8 should be on your calendar. We are featuring a number of Publishing Innovators from around the world: executives who are inventing those new business models that will enable publishers to thrive in our new digitally-influenced publishing environment.

This conference is worth a post of its own, and it will get it very shortly. But the bottom of this post felt like a good place to point that we are going to feature many outstanding industry- leading publishing executives (and not just from the English-speaking world) who are doing things almost nobody else is. Yet.

And we’ve changed our event time from the normal 9 to 5 to 10:30 to 6:30 to allow people to arrive in Frankfurt on that Monday morning and not miss any of what will be one of the most illuminating events we’ve done.