Publishers Lunch

Subscriptions are in the news this week


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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Publishing in the Cloud is the next big important subject


Much of the change we are living through in publishing is plain as day to see. The shift from print to digital, like the shift from stores to online purchasing, is evident to all of us, inside the industry and out.

But there’s another aspect of the change that is not nearly as visible and that’s around systems and workflows. Publishing, even in the pre-digital age, was a systems-driven business. The big companies are producing 3,000 to 5,000 titles a year: each one with its own unique contract, metadata, editing requirements, and (in most cases) market. I like to observe that “each book published presents the opportunity to make an unlimited number of decisions, which must be resisted.” Most of the time the systems don’t help so much in making the decisions, but it takes a lot of support just to keep track of them all and report them to each person who needs to know!

Over the years, the companies with stronger systems have tended to acquire the companies with weaker ones. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it has most of the time. And over the years there have been stories about when publishers almost lost their business because systems broke down. The original Macmillan (now a division of Simon & Schuster) almost died in the 1960s when they fell so far behind on returns processing that they couldn’t properly dun bookstores to pay their bills. In the late 1980s or early 90s, Penguin had a warehouse crisis that was a similar existential threat. A friend of mine with a process-oriented consulting practice really made his year working on that problem.

In the digital age, systems are once again front and center. Every publisher is facing new requirements and seeing the parameters change for the old ones. Most of a trade publisher’s revenue, for at least a while longer, comes from print but the digital side is where the growth is. Systems have to support both.

Until recently, publishers ran on systems that were, primarily, housed on their own computers, either created or heavily customized by their own IT departments, and the operators in the publishing house (editors, production people, marketers, salespeople) were at the mercy of their IT department queues. If they wanted something done, they had to get on line for tech support.

And smaller publishers doing 50 titles or 100 titles or 200 titles a year had to make do with less robust, less customized, and often less capable systems even though their outputs also required thousands of decisions to be tracked and they are no less affected by the shift from print to digital.

But this is changing. Or maybe we should say it has changed. The new systems in publishing are Cloud-based. They are frequently referred to as SaaS: software as a service. They don’t live on a company’s own computers but are hosted by the service provider. They often don’t require an IT department to customize them and they certainly don’t require an IT department to keep them up to date. And the best news of all is that they are cheaper to acquire and faster to install in a company’s workflow than the systems of the past.

Within this change, there is enormous opportunity. Big publishers can sidestep the tricky question of scaling down their print-based systems and scaling up their digital ones. Small publishers can now use systems and workflows that give them capabilities equivalent to their much larger competitors.

But nothing comes pain- or hassle-free and neither do Cloud systems. Executives in big companies find their IT-led systems configuration challenged. When an operator in the production department decides they need a Cloud service like Dropbox to move files around, they don’t need to get IT support to put it in. But IT departments are still responsible for providing support and integrating all of a house’s technology. So “unsanctioned technology” starts to abound and IT departments don’t like that.

They might also not like the fact that Cloud systems could result in cuts to their budget and headcount. Can non-technical executives feel comfortable that their IT departments will look at cost-reducing Cloud systems the same way the CEO or CFO would?

In smaller companies, Cloud systems are a much less ambiguous benefit providing, as they often do, capabilities a smaller house would never be able to afford as a stand-alone system. But without an IT department, how do you know which Cloud offering is best? And how does a company without much in the way of inside tech knowledge and almost no surplus labor cope with implementation?

It was these questions that moved us to stage our first technology-centric Publishers Launch Conference. It is called “Publishing in the Cloud” and it will take place at Baruch College on 25th Street and Lexington Avenue on July 26.

Our conference really has three groups of resources for attendees: big publishers, smaller publishers, and suppliers of Cloud services. For the most part, the publishers will speak from the stage and the suppliers will be available at breaks and during a 2-hour “conversations with the experts” session when both the suppliers and the speakers will be available to talk in small enough groups so that all the conference attendees can get their own specific questions answered.

Some context and stage-setting will come from my Publishers Launch Conferences partner Michael Cader, whose Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace enterprise has been a heavy user of Cloud services, which he will explain. Ted Hill of THA Consulting, who was the one who first clued me to this topic, will sketch out the landscape, segmenting the service offerings, spelling out the suppliers in the various niches, and providing a “checklist” for publishers looking into these services. And our Platinum sponsor TCS, Tata Consulting Services, did a survey of hundreds of companies using Cloud services from which they will deliver useful insights.

Looking at this from the perspective of big publishers, we have Ken Michaels of Hachette and Yuvi Kochar of The Washington Post. Michaels will kick off the day with his take on why Cloud services are critical to publishers at this time. Michaels is the Chair of Book Industry Study Group, so he speaks from an industry-wide perspective. In fact, he was instrumental in persuading us that the overall topic of Cloud services for publishing was worthy of an all-day conference, which it never had before.

Michaels will also talk about tools that Hachette developed because they needed them and they didn’t exist which they are now able to offer to other publishers on a Cloud model.

Kochar is the CTO of The Washington Post companies. He uses a Cloud model to distribute both internally-developed and outside services to his constituent companies, which include the newspaper and Kaplan Publishing. Kochar will talk about his company’s service model and the organizational structure it takes to make sure things will all work a level removed from the solution provider.

Another presentation from a large company discussing an implementation will be from Alfredo Santana of John Wiley. They have just put in the RightsLink capability offered by our global sponsor, Copyright Clearance Center, to automate the licensing of permission requests directly from the publisher’s website. RightsLink, which is used by many top publishers, can be a big labor-saver and revenue-producer, but it takes planning and work to do a proper implementation, particularly at a company like Wiley that has such a range of markets to serve.

And we’ll have a panel of big publishers, including Ralph Munsen of Hachette, Rick Schwartz of HarperCollins, Bruce Marcus of McGraw-Hill, and Chris Hart of Random House discussing “The Changing Role of the IT Department”, addressing the many issues I referred to earlier in this piece.

We have two speakers who have a broad view of the challenges smaller publishers face. Rick Joyce of our global sponsor Constellation serves the needs of more than 300 publishers who use their services and, among other things, rely on them to vet Cloud offerings for them.

Michael Covington will call on his previous role with the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association where he was responsible for vetting and inking partnerships with various cloud-based service companies such as Firebrand Technologies, Metacomet, and Bowker.  Now serving as the Director of Digital Content for David C Cook, an international non-profit which publishes trade books, music and curriculum for the Christian church worldwide, Covington will also discuss the opportunities and challenges publishers face in moving from legacy systems and “tribal knowledge” to a “Service Oriented Architecture”.

Andrea Fleck-Nesbit of Workman has an interesting case history to talk about. Workman is taking the Title Management capabilities developed as an in-house system by its Canadian distributor and helping turn it into a hosted offering so they can use it too.

Covington and Fleck-Nesbit will be joined by Patricia Gallagher of Liberty Fund and Bonnie Russell of Wayne State University Press, both of which have just completed their own switchover to a Cloud service for core functions. As a panel they will extend the discussion about smaller publishers finding and implementing Cloud services.

For two hours in the afternoon, our attendees will be able to meet with our expert speakers and our sponsors in small groups to facilitate more focused discussions, In addition to CCC, Constellation, and TCS, event sponsors for “Publishing in the Cloud” include Firebrand Technologies, IBM, Klopotek, and Virtusales.

Cloud computing for publishing is a big subject and an important one that has gotten no focused attention before now. We think our conference will give our attendees, and the industry, a quick start getting a handle on the opportunities and how to take advantage of them.

On this coming Wednesday, July 11, we will have a FREE 1-hour webinar on this subject. Michael Cader and I will be joined by conference speakers Ken Michaels of Hachette, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Ted Hill of THA Consulting as well as by John Wicker of TCS. The webinar will touch the high spots of this very important topic. And, as I said, the webinar is free!

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Publishers Launch conference at BEA will cover a wide range of digital change issues


What are the important topics to discuss today concerning publishing and digital change? I think we’ve got most of them covered at Publishers Launch BEA, the one-day conference we’ll stage at the Javits Center next Monday, June 4.

Our all-day event has sixteen distinct presentations and panels. There may be a topic of interest to somebody somewhere that we won’t cover, but we’re definitely not missing much.

The day will begin with a review of recent industry developments from Publishers Launch co-founder Michael Cader. As I write this, the news of the moment is “Waterstones will sell Kindles”. That event, and others that may follow between now and then, will be put into context by the man who prepares our daily Publishers Lunch. Michael likes to point out the topics we spend more time discussing than they’re worth. Those observations are always amusing and insightful.

We’ve noticed that cloud solutions — commonly called SaaS, “software as a service” — are becoming increasingly important in the operations at publishing houses. We think the topic is so important, in fact, that we’ve scheduled an all day conference called “Book Publishing in the Cloud” for July 26 in New York. Ken Michaels, the COO of Hachette Book Group USA, is a big proponent of SaaS and believes it could change the way we work, together and separately, as an industry. He’ll kick off our conference describing what he sees as the opportunity for publishers represented by cloud solutions.

Then a panel of four publishers will talk about a very much related subject: how publishing houses are remaking their processes and workflows to respond to the demands of the digital age. Publishing veteran David Wilk will chair that panel, which will include Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks, Sara Domville of F+W Media, Joe Mangan of Perseus, and Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins. All of these companies are doing some very basic things quite differently than they did only a couple of years ago and these executives will discuss how things have changed, how hard it was to change, and what benefits have come to them because they did change.

We like to feature short conversations with industry players who have a unique view. One of these is Molly Barton, who is the global digital director for Penguin. Molly is the only digital head I know today who started out inside the publishing house as an acquiring editor. Now she has a view of digital change around the world from the top of one of the world’s biggest book publishing empires and within an even larger publishing company that has many digital irons in the fire. I’ll have an onstage conversation with Molly, and we’ll cover a wide range of topics from DRM to enhancement to whatever might have arisen earlier that morning.

After Molly, we’ll move to a new feature of Publishers Launch Conferences: the Publishers Launchpad sessions. Launchpad is our slot for introducing new products and services. When we debuted it at Digital Book World last January, we were pleased to recruit a consulting client of my Idea Logical Company, Linda Holliday of Semi-Linear, to moderate the sessions. On June 4, Linda’s own new product will be the kickoff Launchpad subject.

And Linda’s new product, Citia, has as its objective nothing less than reinventing the presentation of high-concept non-fiction in the digital age. It is a shamelessly ambitious undertaking, literally deconstructing and then reconstructing the ideas in a book. The debut Citia title will be “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly, from Penguin, the house of the previous speaker, Molly Barton. Barton is one of the biggest fans of the new Citia presentation of material. Michael Cader will interview Linda and they’ll show you how the complex ideas we previously could only access through narrative text and illustrations can be rethought and made clearer with what I call, for simplicity, “Cliff’s Notes for the Digital Age” but which is really much more than that.

Then Linda will bring on two other new propositions as part of the Launchpad session. Both of them are new SaaS services to make ebooks.

The simpler proposition is from Hugh McGuire and is called Pressbooks. It is a free XML ebook-making tool built on WordPress that enables users to produce epub and PDF files on the web.

The other tool is called Aerbook Maker, created by Ron Martinez of Invention Arts. Aerbook makes enhanced ebooks and both HTLM5 and native apps. It is a tool that allows mixing in audio and video and interactive elements without advanced programming skills.

Then, before lunch (aren’t you hungry already?), we’ll have our agents panel. Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent will moderate a great agent group that includes Laura Dail of Laura Daily Literary Agency, Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, and Jennifer Weltz of The Jean V. Naggar Agency. They’ll be discussing both the changes in the business of agenting and the dynamic negotiating climate with the publishers. We’ll learn what they’re thinking about managing their digital backlist and what new skill sets they think their authors will be demanding of them.

Kelly Gallagher of Bowker will kick things off after lunch with with the latest report from their new Global eBook Monitor (GeM), a global look at ebook uptake around the world. Gallagher will feature “country level data” to a degree that hasn’t previously been revealed. We’re looking forward to it.

One key premise about digital change is that the world is getting smaller and publishers will find it easier to sell books, particularly ebooks, in territories other than their own. Our panel called “Sales Across the Borders — Import” will look at the increased penetration of ebooks from abroad, particularly in languages other than English. I’ll moderate a group of three panelists: Patricia Arancibia, Editorial Director, International Digital Content, for Barnes & Noble, consultant Javier Celaya from Spain, and Spanish publisher Blanca Rosa Roca of Roca Editorial. Blanca Rosa is doing some very innovative things to get her books into the US market in both Spanish and English. (She’s just created an English language ebook publisher called Barcelona eBooks and forged a partnership with Open Road for marketing and distribution.) Javier consults to companies throughout Europe and will report on how publishers, particularly in Spain, Italy, and France, are viewing this opportunity. And Patricia wrangles content for B&N to sell from all over the world. There are very few people, if indeed there is anybody, who knows more about this subject than she does. One wrinkle on this topic is that other-language publishers are now translating their own books into English to hit the English-speaking ebook market. One thing we’ll want to learn from our panelists is how commonplace they expect to see that practice become.

The complementary panel, which will be moderated by longtime sales executive Jack Perry, is “Sales Across the Borders — Export”. For this one we’ve gathered three experienced export sales executives: Chris Dufault of Random House, David Wolfson of HarperCollins, and Dan Vidra, who has just this month left Simon & Schuster to work for the new German-based (but global and multi-language) ebook platform, textr. They’ll be joined by David Cully, the President Retail Markets/EVP Merchandising for Baker & Taylor, the US wholesaler that has long been a global leader helping US publishers sell their books abroad. This panel will tell us what markets are showing the most promise for US publishers, how the sales growth of ebooks is affecting the sales of print, and how the growth of export might be impacting the related business of selling foreign translation rights. (We’ll be able to cross-check what they say with what the agents will have told us a couple of hours before.)

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo is always a popular speaker at publishing events because he shares interesting data. This time we’ve asked Michael to focus on what Kobo has learned from its recent experience in new markets, particularly the UK and France where Kobo tied up with major retailers. What we’ll want to know for non-English markets particularly is how powerful the draw of wide title selection in English is. Will ebookstores in other countries really expand the sale of our books in English around the world? Tamblyn will certainly get us started on answering that question.

Our final chunk of programming in the afternoon is all about change.

Fritz Foy is Macmillan’s EVP for digital. Macmillan made news a couple of weeks ago when they announced that they would be going DRM-free with their Tom Doherty Associates imprints including Tor, Forge and other related sci fi and fantasy imprints. We immediately called him and got him to agree to talk about that on the program. Foy is going to do a presentation that recaps Macmillan’s thinking about this question, which he says goes back several years. Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the anti-DRM crusader who is one of Tor’s key authors, Macmillan had already experimented with it. Foy promises us there will be surprises and at least one news announcement coming from his presentation. We’ll be surprised right along with you when we find out what it is.

Phil Ollila of Ingram Content Group accepted our challenge to comb their sales data for clues about how bookstores and other retailers have been changing their stocking decisions in recent years. The short summary of Ollila’s findings, which are summarized in an article he did for our conference book (all Publishers Launch Conferences have a printed conference book!), suggest that fiction is down, some surprising categories are up, and that what publishers can expect is more titles in more different stores with fewer sales per store per title.

We’ll have a bit of a change of pace with a presentation by David Steinberger, the one who is Founder and CEO of the Comixology platform. (There is another David Steinberger, of course, who is the CEO of Perseus.) Comics constitute a very big global business that operates in silos by language and by country. Will it stay that way? Will the rights and cultural issues that have kept the market from globalizing continue to do so in the digital age? As the creator of the most successful comics-selling platform in the US and a man with an eye for the world stage, Steinberger is in a unique position to speculate on the answers. And perhaps we’ll get some insight about how other highly-illustrated genres with strong localized content — travel and food come to mind — might change because of the digital transition.

There is a growing consensus in the industry around two points that would have been controversial only two or three years ago. One is that bookstores are declining rapidly and will, unfortunately and in the not-too-distant future, atrophy to the point that they are a subsidiary channel for book sales, not the primary one. The other point is that the marketing exposure that books get in retail stores is a critical component of their early exposure, leading to the “discovery” by consumers that is the key to getting commercial traction. Our last two sessions of the day will focus on that challenge.

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex has been conducting studies of book purchasers for a decade, including careful tracking of how they learned about the books they bought and read. Peter is one of the greatest champions of the bookstore’s role in discovery, and perhaps the leading skeptic that search engine optimization and social network marketing can be an adequate substitute. In this presentation, Peter will make his case thoroughly backed with data from the years of research his company has done.

Then Peter will join our final panel of the day, one focused on “The Future of Book Discovery.” Two publishers that are doing a lot of work in this area, Amanda Close of Random House and Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Scott Stein, who heads up the book coverage for USA Today, will be part of that discussion, which will be moderated by Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center. One of Hildick-Smith’s key points is that there is a Catch-22: if you don’t know something about a book, you’re not likely to search for it. And unless somebody gets the ball rolling for a book, there’s nobody to comment on Facebook or Twitter to get you started that way. The publishers on the panel and the overseer of one of America’s most widely read book pages will talk about their efforts to build something new that will tell us about books the way window displays and stacks and face-out displays have for years.

After that, Cader and I will wrap up the day. Very briefly. We’ll all be very happily exhausted!

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If the government makes agency go away


The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department has notified the Agency Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) and Apple that it plans to sue them for colluding to raise the price of electronic books. I have no standing to comment on the law here. But if this does mean the end of the agency model, it would seem to be a cause for celebrating at Amazon and a catalyst for some deep contemplation by all the other big players in the book business.

Agency pricing, for those who have not been following the most important development in the growth of the book market, enabled the publishers to enforce a uniform price for each ebook title across all retail outlets. This was Apple’s desired way to do business, and it addressed deep concerns the big publishers had about the effect of Amazon’s loss-leader discounting.

Although the WSJ article and Michael Cader’s follow up in Publishers Lunch make no “agency is dead” declaration and there are quotes from publishers and others indicating that there are a range of possible outcomes, including a version of agency that is modified to allow some discounting, everybody in the industry now has to contemplate what it would mean if the agency model is legally upended.

To Amazon, it would mean they would be free to set prices on all books again, including the most high-profile and attractive ones that come from the big trade houses. That is an opportunity they are likely to seize with loss-leader discounting of the biggest marquee titles.

To Barnes & Noble, it would mean they have to devote cash resources to ebook discounting that they might have preferred to dedicate to further development of the Nook platform, maintaining the most robust possible brick-and-mortar presence, and improving the user experience at BN.com. Unconfirmed stories abound that B&N is about to announce an international expansion. Whether that will produce cash flow immediately or require it for a while is not yet known. For B&N’s sake, it would always better if it were the former, but if they’re about to fight discounting wars, it might be critical.

To Kobo, it would mean that they also will need to devote cash resources to subsidizing price cuts to match Amazon. With their new ownership by Rakuten, they should have the capital they need to fight this battle. They must be glad that deal got done before agency was upended.

To Google, it would mean that the bookstore service piece of their ebook business will suddenly be highly challenged. Many independent stores might be pushed out of the ebook game completely; it certainly would be extremely difficult for them to support competition with Amazon’s prices. To Google itself, with their new Google Play configuration, it means they will have to both spend more margin and more management energy to be a serious competitor in the retail marketplace. There’s no clear evidence that they have the interest at the top to do that, although they certainly would have the resources.

To Apple, it would mean that their entire iBookstore model is in question. They apparently didn’t want to take on all the normal responsibilities of a merchant, which would include setting prices. Now they may have to.

To all the big publishers, including Random House (the one of the Big Six not being sued, because they stayed out of agency for the first year and therefore were not considered part of the “collusion”) it would mean that they will have to painfully reverse the re-pricing and systems adjustments they went through to implement agency in the first place.

Smaller publishers and distributors might be beneficiaries if agency is eliminated, but they might not. The agency model is a great advantage for those publishers who are able to fully implement it. But that is only six publishers — the Big Six — because Amazon has simply refused to let anybody else sell to them that way. That creates problems for the smaller publishers but an even more threatening one for distributors. All but the Big Six, if they want to sell to both Amazon and Apple, must operate a “hybrid” model, selling Apple on agency terms and Amazon on wholesale terms. The two are inherently in conflict. What is ultimately a threat to the distributors is that distributees that desire agency terms, and many would. might seek distribution deals from one of the Big Six. (It might be coincidental, but it is worth noting that IPG, the company having a fight with Amazon at the moment over terms, is a distributor.)

Of course, we don’t know how the Big Publishers will respond if they’re forced off agency. It’s long been my opinion that the 50% discount for ebooks is unworkable. It leads to ridiculous and unrealistic retail prices. (Publishers operating on the hybrid model have to have two retail prices: one on which to base the wholesale discount and another at Apple operating agency-style. It’s crazy.) Would the big publishers, if they couldn’t do agency, keep the 30% discount and their current prices? Would they go back to the 50% discount and jack the suggested retail prices back up? If they did the former and nothing else changed, the smaller publishers could be at a much greater disadvantage than they are now.

Over time, the biggest losers here will be the authors. The independent authors will feel the pain first. Agency pricing creates a zone of pricing they can occupy without much competition from branded merchandise. When the known authors are only available at $9.99 and up, the fledgling at $0.99-$2.99 looks very attractive and worth a try. Ending agency will have the “desired” effect of bringing all ebook prices down. As the big book prices are reduced, the ability of the unknowns to use price as a discovery tool will diminish as well. In the short run, it will be the independent authors who will pay the biggest price of all.

But, in the long run, all authors will just get less. They will join the legion of suppliers beholden to a retailer whose mission is to deliver the lowest possible price to the consumer.

Seth Godin has recently made the argument that this is simply inevitable. Perhaps it is. The laws of supply and demand would support that contention. But from my personal perspective, I don’t like seeing the government hasten the process along.

But what about the reader? The reader gets lower prices, cheaper reading. What the reader won’t see is that s/he’s not getting what s/he won’t pay for. Some of the best books won’t get written and the biggest casualties will be in the area of highly-researched non-fiction, like major biographies, in my opinion. Twenty years ago they used to say that a conservative was a liberal who’s been mugged. I’m not about to become a conservative, but I sure see how easy it is for the government not to understand how their decisions might affect the dynamics of a business. Or, in this case, a culture.

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True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare


Getting ready for our eBooks for Everyone Else conferences, I discovered an author named Bob Mayer who impressed me with his self-publishing zeal and apparent success. Bob has written lots of military fiction, science fiction, even a romance novel, and some non-fiction: dozens of books over the years for major publishers. Most of it was mass-market, most of it reverted relatively easily and Bob systematically secured those rights reversions for years.

He caught my attention with the bare bones of his story. He started putting his work up as ebooks in January, when he sold a few hundred books. By July he had more than 40 titles available and was selling a total of over 100,000 units a month. I had long wanted to put an author before my conference audiences who had achieved self-publishing success to talk about how s/he’d done it.

Joe Konrath and, more recently, John Locke had politely turned me down. I booked a 1-on-1 conversation with Barry Eisler at our Publishers Launch Conference at BEA right after he announced his decision to turn down a 6-figure advance to self-publish. Alas (for this objective of mine), the morning of the event Barry signed a contract with Amazon to do his next book with them. Although he has self-published some short fiction. Eisler’s story became that he is an Amazon-published author, not a self-published author. That’s a good story and we had a good session on-stage that the conference audience benefited from, but it was not a a self-publishing report from an author who truly did it on his or her own.

(Eisler’s wife, the literary agent Laura Rennert, reported at eBEE in San Francisco that Amazon is succeeding very well with Eisler’s current book, The Detachment — which I read and enjoyed – and that his substantial advance has already been earned out.)

So I was pleased to learn with a phone call that, not only was Mayer an enagaging talker, but that he was willing to make the journey from his home in Seattle to San Francisco to discuss his success with a conference audience.

But what became clear when I had a further conversation with Mayer the day before our conference, buttressed by what was said by many other participants at the event, is that the Hocking-Konrath-Locke story — an author managing all the pieces of their publishing program and and achieving a totally private success — is a Dodo bird. Unless we consolidate down to an only-Amazon ebook world, which, despite Amazon’s best efforts, doesn’t seem likely anytime soon but would undoubtedly create a whole new rule book if it ever arrived, the work and expertise required for successful publishing will lead inexorably to one of two results.

Either an author will get help to publish their own material — a distributor like Constellation or Ingram or a publisher — or they’ll find what they built to serve themselves would be better and less-expensively maintained with the work of additional authors to go along with their own. There’s enough work and expertise involved in what had first seemed to many such a simple process that it requires building a bit of a machine to do it. And once a machine is built, it is just wasteful to leave it idling between the works generated by any one writer.

This point was made by Mayer when he told me that he is now recruiting other authors to publish. He started out by finding a partner to handle the technology component and mechanics of his efforts. In his already-substantial experience in less than a year, he has learned that proper editing is essential, as are eye-catching covers, as is the right metadata. He told me and our audience that a single complaint from a reader to Amazon about a typo in one’s book can result in the ebook being taken down for a required correction. He has learned, as others have, that maximizing revenue requires changing and re-changing your prices, which is more work.

Bob says he has even fixed plot errors that were pointed out by Kindle readers.

(Another view of this aggressiveness to satisfy customers was offered to me by a Big Six executive a few months ago when he related the story of a book published by his house that had been taken down. There the “culprit” was vernacular language that was interpreted by a reader as poorly copy-edited grammar. There was nothing wrong with the ebook, but one reader thinking there was resulted in a takedown that cost everybody sales for several days until the ebook could be put back up!)

Bob says books can disappear from major retail sites for no apparent reason as well. He says that anybody who believes that ebook publishing is like “sending the book to a printer, after which you can forget about working on it” is mistaken.

And he believes that any author whose work is good and wants to take a self-publishing route would be wise to cede a percentage of sales to him, or somebody else, who has learned what he has and equipped themselves to prepare books properly for sale and manage them after they’re launched.

This is establishing ever so much more clearly that publishers are right when they say there’s a role for them in an ebook world. Amazon itself makes that clear by the difference in the deals it offers self-published authors and authors it signs for its imprints. Although authors will continue to self-publish, the debate that matters in the future is what the basket of services will be that authors require and what will be the right price for them. The lines are drawn for that discussion and the opinions are really all over the lot.

There are ebook publishers — the granddaddies eReads and Rosetta, Scott Waxman’s Diversion Books, and the giant in the space: Open Road — who are saying the “right” ebook division between author and publisher is 50-50. (We should make clear that this is the division of the revenue obtained from the retailer or “sales agent”, which would normally be 65-70% of the selling price or 50% of a publishers suggested list which could be discounted, depending on what kind of sales arrangement is in place.) Smashwords, an entirely automated service, and BookMasters, a service provider, provide distribution for 15% of the take. Two agents speaking on our panel in San Francisco, Deidre Knight and Laura Rennert, are capping their agency’s take at 15% of the revenue as well, as they walk the ethical line that is perceived by some to require that they make no more money self-publishing an author than they would selling the rights to a publisher.

Then there are many other service offerings with prices that fall in between 15% and 50%.

Amazon’s rules offer some insight on this. If you work with them through their KDP service, you get 70% (if you set your price within their accepted bands). But, as Mayer and others at our conference made clear, through KDP you can’t even purchase any special merchandising or promotion. But if you are published by Amazon’s imprints, the take is cut in half and the author gets 35% of retail, but you get lots of promotion by positioning. (Deals are private, and the details of Eisler’s deal have not been revealed, but the presumption would be that he earned out his rumored six-figure advance from Amazon at the 35% rate.) Thirty-five percent matches what a 50-50 publisher could deliver if they had an agency-like deal with the retailer.

Amazon agreements also come with the requirement that you participate in their other programs, including library lending in cooperation with OverDrive and, presumably, the new subscription program they have just announed. (It appears they chose not to include all KDP titles in the subscription program; there are only 5,000 titles announced for that initiative and since we know that Smashwords has nearly 100,000 titles, it is likely that KDP has more than that. On the other hand, late reporting by Publishers Lunch on Thursday spells out that Amazon will simply “buy” copies of any non-agency titles it wants to lend. That means they make one purchase for each loan, so it is expensive for them, but it demonstrates again that only publishers with agency arrangements have control of their distribution and how their books might be used to strengthen any one distributor’s ecosystem.)

The comparisons get complicated, but, if a conventional publisher is providing the full range of services that our speakers said is needed to maximize sales: good covers, changing covers, dynamic pricing, constantly improved metadata, monitoring to catch glitch take-downs, as well as developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, the author wouldn’t be doing badly at all to get 35% of the consumer’s dollar for an ebook. Throw in real print book distribution and sales and the royalties and marketing from that, plus a publisher’s core marketing effort (being part of a “legitimate” list gets attention from reviewers, bloggers, library collection development, and other places that matter), and, perhaps, some dedicated marketing as well, and it can be a relatively profitable exercise for an author to be with a publisher for even less than that.

When agency publishers pay 25% royalties, they are giving the author 17.5% of the paying customer’s dollar. Everybody will draw their own lines, deal by deal, but that doesn’t strike me as totally crazy as long as print sales remain more than half the total and the publisher is paying an advance that carries with it some risk that the actual royalty paid will be higher than what the contract stipulates.

That’s a moving target, of course, I personally don’t expect print sales to remain at half the total very much longer. But if major publishers were paying 50% royalty on a 70% agency sale, they’d be matching the 35% Amazon pays the authors it publishes. Amazon can do much more to promote on Amazon (which panelists at eBEE said is what really moves the needle); but publishers make noise in a lot of other places Amazon (yet) doesn’t. Presumably Open Road and Diversion and eReads and other 50-50 ebook publishers can’t match the agency terms with Amazon (they can get 70% through KDP, but that comes with pricing restraints and required agreement to those other deals we discussed earlier), so only the Big Six, who can apply agency across all accounts, can offer a comparable deal with a manageable percentage payout.

Amazon is demonstrating what they see as the value of securing the loyalty of digital book consumers for its ecosystem by their willingness to pay full wholesale price for an ebook that will then get lent once, as well as their penchant for pricing for sale well below their cost. The evidence that agency pricing is the only wall between a multi-channel ebook business and a single-retailer monopoly continues to grow. But as long as print in stores matters, and it will for a while longer, the Big Six have a legitimate commercial argument to defend ebook royalties between 25 and 50 percent. After that, everybody except Amazon will be hoping that that the Nook, Kobo, Google, and Sony market share is enough to keep it essential to an author to cover them all. And that means of discovery and merchandising will emerge that are a meaningful alternative to what is provided by the world’s biggest virtual retailer.

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