Publishing in the 21st Century

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoffelder offered his take on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Full-service publishers are rethinking what they can offer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

publicize and market it;

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

process the orders;

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

deliver;

collect;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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