Scholastic

Taking book marketing where the book readers are likely to be


Digital marketers who want to sell books are increasingly turning to the virtual places where readers cluster. This includes marketing through the major social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.), using the data mining tools available to target within those networks, as well as marketing in niches and online communities of readers (in some cases publishers are even building vertical communities themselves). Publishers are also increasingly turning to book- and reading-focused social sites to get the word out about their books. These vehicles carry an additional bonus in the digital age: they’re global and give publishers a one-stop opportunity to reach markets beyond their natural national audiences.

Goodreads, recently acquired by Amazon, has built a network of book-oriented conversation. Now with 19 million members, they have been for the past few years trying to show publishers how to use the platform as a marketing tool. This was, of course, their original reason for being. They have overtly built a site around books and conversation about books. Since the book business routinely deals in “comps” — books that are like the book I’m trying to sell you — Goodreads has a firm foundation from which to sell publishers marketing services. They’ve been doing that for some time.

What is not clear is whether that business will be reined in by their new corporate owners in any way. Amazon’s prior history doesn’t demonstrate great interest in marketing that isn’t Amazon-centric. And we know that big publishers are generically nervous about Amazon and not inclined to spend any more promotional money than an already aggressive large account with lots of coop buckets already squeezes out of them.

Whatever the extent to which Goodreads maintains its mission as a marketing vehicle for publishers to reach book audiences regardless of where they shop (and, as of this writing, the B&N link is actually above the Amazon link in their drop-down menu of “online stores”), publishers are bound to be looking for alternatives to work with as well. We think we see two of them emerging, although neither of them started out in life aimed at being a marketer of books available to publishers.

Wattpad is a Canada-based startup that is a reading and writing community. It preceded Penguin’s “Book Country” , started with social reading of public domain titles, and doesn’t have Book Country’s overtly commercial focus, nor its stated emphasis on genre fiction (although, perhaps inevitably, Wattpad’s strongest areas are YA, paranormal, romance, and fantasy), but the sites are similar in that they give aspiring writers the opportunity to have their work commented upon by a community of other aspiring writers. Wattpad has grown to over 10 million users. And it is a very active and engaged community. They publish stats suggesting that that users spend an extraordinary amount of time on their site, something like half-an-hour, twice-a day. And they have attracted such luminaries as Margaret Atwood to post content on the site.

There are already several examples of aspiring authors who have published on Wattpad, built audiences, developed their stories, and gotten a book deal including Beth ReeksAbigail Gibbs, and Brittany Geragotelis. And PW just did a piece on up-and-comer Nikki Kelly.

With its large number of highly-engaged readers and a track record of being successful promoters for undiscovered talent, Wattpad has recently started to call attention to the opportunity for publishers to market to its audience. It is now encouraging publishers to connect with its audience by posting teaser or attention-getting content in advance of the launch of a book. Random House, Scholastic, and Macmillan (for Amanda Hocking) have already taken advantage of this.

A similar opportunity is now also being seen by Scribd. Scribd is a repository of documents. It is often used as a “convenience”: a place to post court decisions or company reports or anything somebody wants to make accessible to a broad audience. In its early days, Scribd was seen as a pirate-enabler, but it has aggressively worked with publishers to make sure unauthorized copyrighted content is taken down. Meanwhile, it has built a vast treasure-trove of documents from 200 countries in 70 languages and is getting 10 million unique visitors a month.

That’s a lot of people looking at a lot of documents, giving Scribd a lot of knowledge about who they are and what else they might like to read.

Our view is that the marketing opportunities through all three of these companies should be understood by publishers. It is early days for all three of them, really, but as marketing entities Wattpad and Scribd are really just getting started. Some things have been “proven” to work at Goodreads, but, really, all three of them are like jungles still being hacked through with superhighway travel still in the forseeable future, but not around the corner.

There’s quite a bit of marketing activity by US-based publishers on Goodreads; it’s beginning to happen on Wattpad and it is a gleam in the eye at Scribd. But they all have big numbers of readers paying attention to their site and they’re all looking for ways to make themselves more valuable. It looks like Wattpad and Scribd are seeing the possibility that marketing for publishers could be a very significant revenue-generator, if not their principal one. (Goodreads started out with that hope.)

Painful aspects of the digital transition — the diminution of bookstore shelf space and the reduction of room for book marketing in the established press — are just beginning to bite in markets outside the English-speaking world. With all three of these communities teeming with non-English-speaking members, they all become tools publishers around the world will need to know about.

And that’s why we have them all speaking at our Publishers Launch Conference at Frankfurt, focused on what meaningful marketing reach they can offer to publishers outside the US. As conference programmers, we look for those win-win situations where what the presenter wants the audience to know is information they will find immediately useful. For our Frankfurt conference audience, which last year had c-level executives from 25 countries, this would appear to be a bull’s-eye.

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What to watch for in 2013


Although “digital change in publishing” has a year that lags the calendar year and this year won’t “end” until we have a read on how post-Christmas ebook sales were affected by the new devices consumers got for Christmas, the dropping of the ball in Times Square is the signal most of us respond to when timing our look ahead.

The signals about what to expect when the “digital year” ends are mixed, but not wildly encouraging. There are anecdotal reports of strong sales by US indies selling Kobo devices and Amazon has bragged about their Kindle Fire sales. On the other hand, B&N does not seem to be meeting its targets on the digital side and we’re learning that we don’t get the ebook sales surge from replacement devices that we get when a consumer first switches over from print. Most of the devices being sold now are replacements. And we’re also seeing tablet sales surging past ereaders. Prior analysis has told us that people spend more time reading books on ereaders than they do on tablets.

But quite aside from precisely where Digital Year 2012 ended up, there are five trends I think will be increasingly noticeable and important in trade publishing that are worth keeping an eye on in 2013.

1. Overall migration of sales from print to digital will continue to slow down.

We have already seen this clearly in data that has been reported throughout 2012. After ebook share growth that was in triple digit percentages for four years (2008-2011), this year we saw that switchover slow down considerably to substantially less than a 50% increase over last year.

Although the slowdown was pretty sudden, it shouldn’t really have been that surprising. Since the ebook era began in earnest with the arrival of Kindle in November, 2007 (5 years and a few weeks ago), it has been clear that heavy readers were early adopters. Both price and convenience were drivers that made the reader of a book a week much more interested in the new way of purchasing and consuming than the reader of a few books a year.

There appear to be those out there who believe this is a temporary lull and that the ebook switchover will shortly accelerate again. I really don’t think so. Although I don’t think the various surveys of reading habits have captured this, my hunch is that there are relatively few heavy readers left to make the change and those are, demonstrably, extremely resistant.

It is entirely possible that the death of Borders and changes at B&N reduced the amount of shelf space for books by as much as 50% in the two years that ended with 2011, a year ago. (That emphatically does not mean that print sales declined by that amount, or even that print sold in stores did.) That adjustment of shelf space to the reality of the purchasing shift consumers had made was a sudden over-correction, with the result that the remaining booksellers got a bit of wind at their backs. The data is hard to interpret, but it is possible that the indies benefited from that more than B&N did, perhaps as a result of B&N’s more intense focus on its NOOK business compared to the indies, who (despite the lift they got from selling Kobo devices this past Fall) are more focused on print.

This does not mean the digital switchover has ended. My gut (I don’t think there’s a great empirical substitute available here) tells me that store sales for books will continue to lose ground to online (print and digital) at a rate of 5-to-10 percent a year for some years to come. But that’s a much more manageable situation than the one bookstore owners had been dealing with for the several years leading up to 2012.

This is good news for big publishers. Their model is still built around putting print on shelves and managing a marketplace that works around a publication date focus and the synchronized consumer behavior that store merchandising really stimulates. It is good news for B&N too, if they can take advantage of it.

2. “Other-than-immersive” books will continue to lag in digital transition.

The commercial realities of ebooks and print are very different for immersive reading than they are for reference books, illustrated books, and picture books for kids. This difference is unfavorable for other-than-immersive books both in their creation and their sales appeal.

For immersive reading — books that are all text where you basically start on the first page and read through to the last — the “adjustment” to ebooks is both technically simple and uncomplicated for the consumer. Make it “reflowable” and it works. And the additional “labor” to make the two different versions (print and digital) is minimal.

But for books that aren’t consumed that way (reference) or which have important content that isn’t mere words, a single digital version might not work effectively (think of the difference in screen sizes and what that could do to a picture and caption or a chart). And compromises we make for a printed book — using six still pictures instead of a video or a flat chart instead of an animated one — can be downright disappointing in a digital context.

There are ongoing efforts to make creating good complex ebooks cheaper and easier, the most recent one coming from Inkling. Apple offers tools to do this, but then you can only sell the output through Apple. Vook was on this trail, although their most recent pivot seems to be away from reliance on illustrated books. The ebook pioneers at Open Road Digital Media have been making deals with illustrated book publishers — Abrams and Black Dog & Leventhal among them — and appear committed to solving this problem

But it seems to me that it might not be readily solvable. The inherent issue is that precisely the same intellectual output in both formats, which works fine for immersive reading, almost never does for complex books. So the core realities that have cushioned the digital transition for publishers of novels and biographies — that the cost of delivering to the digital customer is really very low and the appeal of the content is undiminished in digital form compared to print — don’t apply for illustrated books for adults or kids.

Will the how-to or art book in digital form ultimately be as close to its print version as has been the case for novels? Or will the how-to or art digital products in the future come from book publishers at all? Will there be any real synergy there? I don’t think we know that yet. As pressure grows in the retail marketplace, it gets increasingly urgent for illustrated book publishers to find out.

3. Mergers and consolidation among publishers are likely to become more common, after a long period when they haven’t been.

I have been a bit surprised about how little imagination has been evident from the kommentariat about the pending merger of Penguin and Random House. It seems like it is being viewed primarily for its cost-cutting potential (and that will be real), but I think it could actually be transformative.

I see two very big immediate wins for the combined company. They’ll be able to launch a credible general subscription, book-club-type offer using their own books exclusively (print and digital, although the big opportunity is digital). And they’ll be able to serve no-book-buyer retail accounts with a commercially-appealing selection of books working with a publisher’s full margin, not the thinner revenue available to a third party aggregator.

This is the two biggest of the Big Six joining forces. The other combination that is believed to be under discussion, putting together HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, would be something like half the size of Penguin Random House and it wouldn’t have an equivalent reservoir and flow of highly commercial titles.

While Macmillan, according to the year-end letter from its CEO, John Sargent, remains determinedly independent, it is hard to see Hachette staying outside the merger tent as a stand-alone if Harper and S&S were to execute on the current rumor. The three of them together would present a competitive challenge to PRH and would have similar opportunities to open up new and proprietary distribution channels.

The merger activity will not be confined to the big general players. Both F+W Media (our partners in Digital Book World) and Osprey are building out the “vertical” model: providing centralized services to enable development of “audience-centric” publishing efforts for many and diverse communities. F+W has more than 20 vertical communities, most recently having acquired Interweave. Osprey, starting from a base in military history, has added science fiction (Angry Robot) and mind-body-spirit (Duncan Baird) to their list by acquisition.

The key in both cases is being able to add revenue channels to an acquisition as well as the time-honored objective of cutting costs through a combination. In different ways, all of the mergers we’re talking about here accomplish that.

4. Platforms for children’s books will become increasingly powerful gatekeepers.

Publishers discovered the power of platforms when Kindle showed them that they, not the publishers, controlled the customers and they, not the publishers, controlled the pricing. It took less than a year for Kindle to “own” enough customers that it would have been very difficult for any publisher to live without their sales, even without the leverage Amazon had as a significant customer for print.

Now we suddenly have a plethora of platforms that want to convince parents and teachers that they are where kids should be doing their reading. This is coming from the retailers: Amazon has a subscription offering for kids’ content and both Kindle and NOOK have parental control features. It is coming from the people who have been in this market all along: Storia from Scholastic and Reading Rainbow’s RRKidz. It is coming from outside enterpreneurs: Story Town and Ruckus.

And, before long, I think we’ll see branded digital subscription offers from the biggest publishers. (Why not?)

This suggests that a lot of shopping and purchasing decisions for young reading are going to take place outside of any environment that one could say now exists. And that’s going to be true pretty soon.

There are a lot of moving parts here. Sometimes the content has to be adjusted in some way for he platform, or can be enhanced for it. Sometimes the platform can facilitate a sale of stuff that is pretty much as it already was. Some of the platforms work on subscription models and others on discrete product sales models. But publishers (and agents) are going to be thinking about what those deals ought to look like. For now, platform owners are eager to engage the content so they have something to capture an audience with. When the audience is captured, the power shifts to the platform owner for anything but the most highly visible and branded content.

This will be an interesting arena. (And one that will be discussed at length at our conference, “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” on January 15.)

5. Marketing for publishers will be a constant exercise in learning and reinvention, and increasingly difficult to separate from editorial.

I spent a post recently trying to describe an “audience-driven” rather than “title-driven” or, worse, “title-on-pub-date-driven” approach to marketing. When you get down to actually trying to use the biggest new tools publishers have in the digital world — the top two coming to my mind are using email permissions and social media for dirt-cheap communication and lots of data sources with more and more tools for analyzing big data — you very rapidly realize that it is very limiting to think about using them on a per-title basis.

Rick Joyce of Perseus presented some ground-breaking thinking at our Frankfurt event about using social listening data tools for publishing marketing; he learned that the tools were most effectively applied across categories rather than for titles. (Part of the reasoning here was that using the tools is time-consuming and therefore expensive; part of it is that you just get more actionable information categorically than you do title-by-title because you’re crunching more data.)

So when publishers start to conform their publishing and marketing to what the new tools can do best (we’re still in the stage where we’re mostly trying to make the tools do what we did before), it will mean an explosion in the number of marketing decisions that have to be made (because the age of the book will not be a central factor in the decision to include it in a marketing opportunity.) This is accompanied by the big increase in decisions required to respond to the near-instantaneous feedback marketing digital initiatives deliver.

All of this will continue to be very challenging to the structure and workflow practices in large companies.

I think the clearest indication that marketing is reaching its proper 21st century position in publishing will be its increasing importance in driving title selection. As publishers become more audience-centric, it is the people who are communicating with the audience (the marketers, but also the editors, and the line between them will get fuzzier, not that it hasn’t sometimes previously been blurred) who will see what’s needed that isn’t in the market yet. In a way, that’s always happened. But in another year or three, it will be a formal expectation in some structures, and will have a defined workflow.

One obvious trend I’m not discussing here is “globalization”. In fact, one analyst sees exploiting global opportunities as one of the big wins of the Penguin Random House merger. With all the retailers publishers know well (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google) expanding into new countries every month, there will be no shortage of reminders that publishers should clear rights and price books in all territories for which they possibly can. But the problem starts further upstream than that, with the licensing practices of agents, who still often maximize advances-against-royalties by selling books market by market. There is a long gestation time on deals, so even if the dealmaking changes, it will take a while for that to be reflected in more ebooks on sale in more places. That’s why I am not expecting globalization to have a major commercial impact in 2013 and it is also why I see it as a more distant opportunity for the new PRH business than the ones I suggested in this piece.

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Seven-and-a-half days of conference programming coming up during 4 days in January


Blog posts have been scarcer for the past couple of months because I’ve been so engaged with a major responsibility: putting together what amounts to 7-1/2 days of conference programming that will be presented on four days next month in New York City.

As most readers of this blog probably know, we’re responsible for the programming of the two-day extravaganza that is Digital Book World. DBW 2013 — taking place on January 16 and 17 at the Hilton New York Hotel — will be the fourth iteration of the event, which aims to explore the commercial challenges facing trade publishing in the digital transition. DBW is not about technology per se; it is about the business problems publishers must cope with in an age of technological change.

DBW’s main two days are divided between morning plenary programming — all 1500+ people in one big room — and afternoon breakouts. We’ll have up to five simultaneous breakout sessions in each of three slots each day. So we have what amounts to 4-1/2 days of programming in the breakouts plus one on the main stage.

Because people really do come from all over the world to attend DBW, we were delighted to agree when they asked us at Publishers Launch Conferences (the conference business I own with Michael Cader) to add a show on each side of theirs to build out a week of programming. (The team at DBW itself are also putting together some pre-conference workshops that will run on Tuesday.)

So on Tuesday, January 15, we’ll do our second annual “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” conference at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium (put together with the invaluable assistance of our Conference Chair and close friend, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners). And on Friday, January 18, we’re presenting (in conjunction with the DBW team) a new program called “Authors Launch“, a full day of marketing advice for publisher-published authors. (Self-published authors are welcome and will learn a lot, but the program is framed for authors who are working with publishers, not looking for ways to avoid them.)

Programming the “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital” show revealed what we think will be the most important theme in the children’s book space for the next few years: the development of  digital “platforms” that, like subscription offerings (which some, but not all of them, clearly are), will “capture” consumers and make them much less likely to get ebooks and other digital media from outside of it. The list of platform aspirants in this space is long and varied: Storia from Scholastic; RRKidz from Reading Rainbow (the TV show brand); Poptropica from Pearson (which launched Wimpy Kid before it was a book); Magic Town; Disney; Capstone; and Brain Hive. All of them are presenting, as well as NOOK, which, like Amazon Kindle, has announced parental controls on its platform that encourage parents to manage their kids’ reading experience there.

There are other big issues in children’s publishing, particularly the creation of original IP by publishers so they can better exploit the licensing opportunities that follow in the wake of successful kids’ books. We’ll have data presentations from Bowker and from Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex to help our audience understand how kids books are found and selected outside the bookstore in today’s environment.

But we know that the digital discovery and purchase routines will be markedly affected by the platforms as they establish themselves. Publishers are faced with an interesting conundrum. They can’t reach the audiences that are loyal to a platform without going through the platform. But it is the presence of many publishers’ books that strengthens the attraction of the platform and, once it gains critical mass, the value of the content to it (and probably what it will be willing to pay for the content) is reduced. So publishers licensing content to these platforms may be strengthening beasts that will ultimately eat them. I think the roundtable conversation Lorraine and I will lead at the end of the day, which will include publishers Karen Lotz of Candlewick, Barbara Marcus of Random House, and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, will have interesting things to say about that paradox.

We’ve developed some “traditions” in the four years we’ve been doing Digital Book World. As we’ve done the past two years, the plenary sessions will open on Tuesday with the “CEOs’ view of the future” panel organized and moderated by David Nussbaum, the CEO of DBW’s owner F+W Media and the man who really dreamed up the idea of this conference. David will be joined this year by Marcus Leaver of Quarto, Karen Lotz of Candlewick, and Gary Gentel of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Michael Cader and I will — as we have every year at DBW — moderate a panel to close the plenaries, “looking back and looking forward” with agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House; Harper’s new Chief Digital Officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, and Osprey CEO Rebecca Smart.

Among the presenters on the main stage who will be unlike what our audiences usually hear at a digital publishing conference will be Teddy Goff, the digital director for the Obama campaign, who will talk about targeting and marketing techniques that might serve us well in the publishing world; Ben Evans of Enders Analysis in London, who will tell us how publishing fits into the strategies of the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) that he tracks regularly*; ex-Macmillan president and now private equity investor Brian Napack, talking with Michael Cader about the investment climate in publishing; and Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing from Carnegie-Mellon, talking about a study he and his colleagues have done on the real commercial impact of piracy.

(We’ve also scheduled a breakout session for Teddy Goff so he can talk more about the Obama campaign for those in attendance who want to learn more of its lessons to apply.)

We’re also delighted to have gotten Robert Oeste, Senior Programmer and Analyst from Johns Hopkins University Press, to deliver his wonderfully insightful, entertaining, and informative presentation on XML, the subject so many of us in publishing need to understand better than we do. And we will after he’s done. (We’re also giving Oeste a break-out slot to talk about metadata which I’ll bet a lot of our audience will choose to attend after they’ve heard him on XML.)

(*Late edit: Ben Evans had to cancel.)

Some authors have had remarkable success without help from publishers in the past year, but few or none more than Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool”, who has just signed a groundbreaking print-only deal for the US with Simon & Schuster. His dystopian futurist novel has sold hundreds of thousands of self-published ebook copies and rights all over the world and to Hollywood. We’ll have a chat with Howey about how he did it and we’ll be joined by his agent, Kristin Nelson, for that dialogue. Kristin will stick around to join a panel of other agents (Jay Mandel of William Morris Endeavor, Steve Axelrod, and Jane Dystel from Dystel & Goderich) to talk about “Straddling the Models”: authors who work with publishers but are also doing some things on their own.

We will have several panels addressing the challenges of discovery and discoverability from different angles. One called “Closing the New Book Discovery Gap” teams Patrick Brown of Goodreads with three publishing marketers — Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Angela Tribelli of HarperCollins, and Rachel Chou of Open Road — and is chaired by Peter Hildick-Smith. That will focus on what publishers can do with metadata and digital marketing to make it more likely their titles will get “found”. Barbara Genco of Library Journal will share data on library patron behaviors and then helm a panel discussion with Baker & Taylor, 3M, Darien Public Library, and Random House exploring the role of libraries in driving book discovery and sales. Another session called “Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable” introduces three new propositions from Matt MacInnis of Inkling, Linda Holliday of Citia, and Patricia Payton of Bowker, along with SEO expert Gary Price of INFODocket. Publishing veteran Neal Goff (who is also the proud father of Obama’s digital director) will moderate that one. MacInnis, Holliday, and Payton offer services that will help publishers improve the search for their books. Price will talk knowledgeably about how the search engines will react to these stimuli.

We’re covering new business model experimentation (with Evan Ratliff of The Atavist, Brendan Cahill of Nature Share, Todd McGarity of Hachette, and Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks) where publishers discuss ways to generate revenue that are not the old-fashioned ones. We’ll underscore the point that we’re about changes caused by technology rather than being about technology with our “Changing Retail Marketplace” panel, featuring publishers and wholesalers talking about the growth of special sales (through retailers that aren’t bookstores and other non-retail channels).

The future for illustrated books will be discussed by a panel with a big stake in how it goes: John Donatich of Yale University Press, Michael Jacobs of Abrams, Marcus Leaver of Quarto, and JP Leventhal of Black Dog & Leventhal. Two publishers who have invested in Hollywood — Brendan Dineen of Macmillan and Pete Harris of Penguin — will talk about the synergies between publishing and the movies with consultant Swanna McNair of Creative Conduit.

We will have major US publishers and Ingram talking about exports: developments in the export market for books — print and digital. And we’ll have some non-US publishers joining Tina Pohlman of Open Road and Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble talking about imports: non-US publishers using the digital transition to get a foothold in the US market.

One session I think has been needed but never done before is called “Clearing the Path” and it is about eliminating the obstacles to global ebook sales. That one will start with a presentation by Nathan Maharaj and Ashleigh Gardner of Kobo where they will enumerate all the contractual and procedural reasons why ebooks are just not available for sale in markets they could reach. And then Kobo will join a panel conversation with Joe Mangan of Perseus and agent Brian Defiore to talk about why those barriers exist and what might be done in the future to remove them.

Oh, yes, there’s much much more: audience-centric (what I call “vertical”) publishing; the changing role of editors; the evolving author-publisher relationship; and a conversation about the “gamification” of children’s books. David Houle, the futurist and Sourcebook author who wowed the DBW 2012 audience, will return with his Sourcebooks editor, Stephanie Bowen, to discuss their version of “agile” publishing: getting audience feedback to chunks before publishing a whole book.

We will also do some stuff that is more purely “tech”. We have a panel on “Evolving Standards and Formats” discussing the costs and benefits of EPUB3 adoption, which will be moderated by Bill McCoy of IDPF. Our frequent collaborator Ted Hill will lead a discussion about “The New Publishing IT Department”. Bill Kasdorf of Apex will moderate a discussion about “Cross-Platform Challenges and Opportunities” which is about delivering content to new channels.

But purely tech is the exception at Digital Book World, not the rule.

And purely tech won’t show up at all at Authors Launch on Friday, January 18, the day after Digital Book World.

Authors Launch is what we think is the first all-day marketing seminar aimed squarely at authors with a publisher, not authors trying to work without one. It is pretty universally taken as a given that authors can do more than they ever have before to promote themselves and their books and that publishers should expect and encourage them to do that. But, beyond that, there is very little consensus. What should the publisher do and what should the author do? That question is going to be addressed, in many different ways, throughout the day.

The Authors Launch program covers developing an author brand, author involvement and support for their book’s launch, basic information about keyword search and SEO, use of metrics and analysis, a primer on media training, when and how to hire a publicist or other help, and a special session on making the best use of Goodreads. We’ll cover “audience-centric” marketing, teaching authors to think about their “vertical” — their market — and understand it.

The faculty for Authors Launch includes the most talented marketers and publicists helping authors today: Dan Blank, co-authors MJ Rose and Randy Susan Meyers, journalist Porter Anderson, David Wilk, Meryl Moss, Lucinda Blumenfeld, agent Jason Allen Ashlock, and former Random House digital marketer Pete McCarthy.

We have assembled a group of publishers and an agent to discuss how an author should select the best places to invest their time from the staggering array of choices. (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etcetera.) That panel will include agent Jennifer Weltz of The Naggar Agency as well as Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, Rachel Chou of Open Road, Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Kate Stark of Penguin. Matt Schwartz, VP, Director of Digital Marketing and Strategy for the Random House Publishing Group, will conduct the session on metrics.

A feature of both our Kids show on Tuesday and the Author show on Friday are opportunities for the audience to interact with the presenters in smaller groups so each person can get his or her own questions answered. At Kids we’ll do that at lunchtime, seating many of our presenters at tables with a sign carrying their name so our attendees can sit with them and engage. At Authors Launch, we’ll be conducting rounds of workshops, crafted so that the authors can get help in their own vertical (genre fiction, literary fiction, topical non-fiction, juvies, and so forth), and on the topics of greatest need for them.

We are sure the week of January 15-18 will prove to be an energizing and stimulating one for all of us living in the book publishing world. We hope you’ll join us.

Digital Book World Week | January 15-18, 2013

Children’s Publishing Goes Digital | Tuesday, January 15, McGraw-Hill Auditorium
DBW Pre-Conference Workshops | Tuesday, January 15, Hilton New York Hotel
Digital Book World Conference + Expo | January 16-17, Hilton New York Hotel
Authors Launch | Friday, January 18, Hilton New York Hotel

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“Platforms” are not exclusively the purview of Kindle, NOOK, and other retailers


I am recently awakened to the importance of “platforms” in our dynamic digital publishing world. Some could say I’m slow on this one (and they’d be right). Perhaps it is the “to the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail” syndrome in action, but my belated awareness reminds me once again that the most important single concept publishers need to take on board to succeed in the digital future is “vertical”.

Here’s what woke me up.

We’re working on the Publishers Launch Kids conference on January 15, our second annual exploration of the world of children’s book publishing. We rapidly discovered three (there are more) propositions which create the environment within which kids  might well be encouraged by parents and teachers to read digitally.

Storia comes from Scholastic. They worked with 200 pilot teachers to build personalized reading experiences for each child: age-specific and with a personal bookshelf. The business model is individual title purchases; kids make “wish lists” and parents approve and enable the purchases. And there are tools to allow parents and teachers to track the kids’ reading.

RRKidz grew out of the successful TV series, Reading Rainbow, which was purchased by actor LeVar Burton and Hollywood producer Mark Wolfe. They robustly augment with video, use gamification to entice the kids to read more (badges for completion, for example), and provide a dashboard for parents to track the kids’ activity. Reading Rainbow works on a subscription model rather than individual purchase. They start you out with one free book but then go to an all-access model for $9.99 a month, or you can buy six months for $29.99.

And Magic Town is an international platform that also creates a controlled environment for kids reading. They push English language books all over the world, and offer a combination of a subscription and individual purchase model. They have different levels of engagement: “watch” (which is “read to me”), “play” (hot spots in the books with interactivity), “explore” (quizzes to test comprehension), and “read together” (stripping out the narrator so parent-child or early readers can do it themselves).

The light bulb that went on for me when we talked to these companies was that they were providing good and valid reasons for the gatekeepers for children’s reading to steer the kids over whom they have sway to one of them. To do all they can do, the platforms require some customization of the content. Storia would seem to have a head start in this platform competition because of the power of Scholastic’s reach and the enormous amount of content they already own, but all of these players have unique features.

And there are others building variations on this theme, including Ruckus and Capstone, the latter with more of an educational focus.

This provides a lot for publishers to be thinking about. Intuitively, one assumes the job of the publisher is to make the investments necessary to get their content onto all the platforms where it might sell, particularly if the customers there wouldn’t find or acquire it any other way. But it also means that the platform owner would control the audience and could, conceivably, not allow all competing content access. Or they could, over time as they gain a stronger hold on a larger audience, reduce the payments to outside content owners.

This raises a business challenge much like what we see as the problem (for publishers and authors) of subscription services. Subscription services might not have other characteristics of platforms (like providing metrics or context), but they “encourage” their subscribers to restrict their choice of content to what is provided within the service.

Both platforms and subscription services constitute a land grab, or, more precisely, a customer-control grab. Is it wise for publishers to allow their content to be used to strengthen the grip a gatekeeper has on an audience, whether or not they start out as a competitor? Whether or not it is wise, do publishers have any choice?

While I was pondering this, Kindle and NOOK both announced modifications of their own platforms to accomplish some of what Storia, RRKidz, and Magic Town are trying to do: get parents to see them as the preferred environment for their kids’ book consumption.

Kindle’s offer, called FreeTime, enables parents to manage the media access their kids have on the new Kindle Fire line. So they can specify 30 minutes of video, 30 minutes of games, and unlimited reading time (for example). That’s pretty powerful, and one can readily see parents choosing the Kindle platform just to get that capability. Kindle does this by allowing multiple accounts on one device and giving the parents that level of control on their kids’ accounts.

Barnes & Noble also now offers multiple accounts on the NOOK so a parent can have a naughty romance ebook and be sure that their kids won’t stumble across it while reading the material in their account.

Now sensitized to the power of the platform, I’m seeing more of it everywhere. B&N and Kobo have created tools for consumers to save treasured content and to enhance discovery. B&N calls their saving capability “scrapbooking”. Their new discovery capability, which they call “channels” uses humans (what a concept!) to create lists of “what to consider next” from various triggers (books, authors, subjects).

Kobo has tied the saving and discovery together in a very alluring way that, I must admit, makes me think about buying their new ARC device when it becomes available. What B&N calls “scrapbooking”, Kobo calls “tapestries”. You can “pin” (very much like the new web sensation Pinterest) digital items of interest — books, songs, web pages, whatever — together so they are visually nested for viewing. But what is really captivating is that ARC then runs a crawl along the bottom of the page with suggestions for other content that might interest you, based on what is in your tapestry. I am pondering a book idea; it seems to me that Kobo has just created a tool that could really help with the research.

That could provide me with a reason to buy their device and to use them regularly for content purchases. And that’s the point of a platform. Note that the capability only makes sense if it is applied to a vertical. The unique tool Kobo has built delivering automated search essentially looks for the people, places, and things suggested by the content in your tapestry. In other words, each reader creates his or her own verticals.

But it isn’t necessary to be a global retailer with devices, or even a children’s book specialist with an understanding of how kids learn and read, to apply the principal of vertical platforms. If a publisher thinks vertically — about niches — they can do it themselves. Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks demonstrated that with the two new initiatives she just announced and which she explained at our Publishers Launch Conference at Frankfurt on October 8.

One of Raccah’s ideas is also a children’s book initiative. Called “Put Me in the Story”, it is a way to really enhance one of the most common parent-child experiences: reading a book together at bedtime. The capability Sourcebook announced takes a kids’ name and picture and inserts them inside a well-known children’s book presented digitally. Raccah wants to restrict the “Put Me in the Story” title base to well-known children’s books. Fortunately for her, Sourcebooks has had a number of big sellers in that genre recently so she can start with her own books.

But what really impressed me, and should make all publishers think, is Sourcebooks’ new “Shakesperience” line.

I did some acting in Shakespeare as a teenager. I always read the Washington Square Press Folger Library editions because they had the play’s text on the right-hand page and definition of terms and other notes on the left. I didn’t care if what was available from Penguin or Dell Laurel was cheaper or had a clearer typeface or was reputed to have a better introduction. I wanted the version that made the language of Shakespeare most accessible, and the Folger Library did that.

Sourcebooks has taken the idea of making reading Shakespeare easier and raised it to a new level using digital capabilities. They’ve added some audio and video, so you can hear and see how the pros do it. But what is most helpful is that they’ve taken the glossary idea and both extended and embedded it. They define individual words and phrases in context, and they put the definitions in so that you just mouse over what you want cleared up and get the definition in a little box. I spent some time with the Romeo and Juliet app — a play I know well — and found it really helpful.

Sourcebooks is starting with three plays (R&J, Hamlet, and Othello, which are apparently the three “most taught”) so this isn’t a platform yet, just the basis of one. But as they build out to the entire canon, it is conceivable that they will build a way to read Shakespeare that can establish itself as the one best way to do so. With a variety of community and informational features built around it (where every play is being performed, how different English teachers approach each play), there is a real possibility they can build a strong hold on franchise content that is in the public domain. That would really demonstrate the power of platform.

At the same Publishers Launch Conference in Frankfurt last week where Dominique Raccah talked about these two initiatives, we also heard from CEO Rebecca Smart of Osprey, a vertical publisher whose original niche was in military history. They have a dedicated audience of buffs with whom they communicate all the time. Smart, in an insight she credited to Seth Godin, said “I don’t look for audiences for my books. I look for books for my audience.” It is easy to imagine Osprey building a platform for readers of military history, with text and visual glossaries and other bells and whistles that make reading that content much more productive than reading it anywhere else.

This is an optimistic view of the future from a publisher’s perspective. What’s scary is the potential for one gatekeeper for all books. Many gatekeepers that are somehow vertical-specific — with overlaps, of course — is a much more cheerful prospect.

There are a lot of platforms and nods to platforms not included in this piece, which is trying to make a fairly narrow point. There are educational platforms like Blackboard, Moodle, and WebCT that are trying to control access to students in schools. (Ingram’s “Vital Source” digital textbook capability has joined forces with Blackboard to increase its power and relevance.)

At our Frankfurt conference, Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne made it clear that the platform capabilities they have built will be made available to other big brands.

There are applications that go in this direction in genre publishing. The AllRomanceEbooks web site isn’t a romance platform, but it could be the start of one. When HarperCollins announced (yesterday) that they were launching DRM-free and social reading capability for their romance line, they teamed up with AllRomance to do it. That’s platform-“like”.

The point is that it’s not just about the content itself; it’s also about the ancillary value the platform can add; it’s about the format/wrapper/technology that supports the objectives of the audience for that content.

Nobody has created a total genre “platform” per se yet. AllRomance adds value to the shopping/retail experience. Tor creates a place to talk and learn about new books. Baen has a subscription service. But none (that I know of) are adding sufficient context to the reading/consumption experience itself to qualify in the same way as the other examples. They’re not creating a virtual place/space where it’s more useful or enjoyable to consume the same content than it would be elsewhere. But I’m sure it’s coming.

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Hats off to Amazon


When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.

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Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, BN.com has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.

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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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DBW lets us look at ebook bestsellers by price, and things are revealed


Digital Book World unveiled its new ebook bestseller lists this morning. They put this effort together — I program the annual January conference for them; this work has almost nothing to do with me (although I’m over-generously credited with having provided “guidance”) — over the past couple of months working with Dan Lubart. Lubart owns Iobyte, which had been tracking ebook sales and rankings for over a year before he took a job at HarperCollins late in 2011.

It occurred to me a long time ago that ebook bestseller lists had a core flaw. Because many print book lists were sorted by format (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback) — USA Today’s is an exception — they were effectively “tiered” by price. But ebook pricing, famously a point of contention as publishers tried to maintain higher prices in the marketplace through agency agreements, varied widely and that variance was obfuscated in the lists.

So when four self-published authors land on the NY Times list, the stories saying so don’t even mention the big price advantage working at the back of two of them, whose books were 99 cents. All the more credit, of course, to Colleen Hoover, who scored with two books on the list priced at $7.99. She has since signed a contract with Simon & Schuster. (Bella Andre, who has books at $4.99 on the list, spoke for us at Digital Book World III last January.)

In the absence of prompt unit sales reporting by accounts, which doesn’t seem to be on the horizon any time soon, the only way timely lists of this kind can be assembled is with a certain amount of informed guesswork. (You can collect unit sales numbers through the publishers, but only with a very serious time lag.) The Lubart-DBW team can see the sales ranks of all these books on the various ebook vendor sites, but they have to take educated guesses about how to factor in the different rankings (power law curve; sales drop sharply as ranks drop) and different account sales power (number five on Amazon almost certainly sells more than number five anywhere else).

So nobody’s list can be above dispute.

DBW’s methods, which I have discussed with them and which Lubart lays out in a post, are objective and reasonable and constantly under review. So their lists deserve to be treated with respect and analyzing what they tell us is worth the effort.

First of all, there is a striking lack of self-published material represented. There is not one self-published ebook in the overall Top 25 and only two appear at all, both on the lowest price band (from zero to $2.99).

Secondly, there is a publisher I hadn’t heard of that shows up with two titles in the cheapest band and with one in the next one up ($3-$7.99). That’s “Entangled Publishing”, which has an interesting business model that Jane Litte talked about on her blog a couple of months ago. They’re also intriguing because one of their hits, a book called “The Marriage Bargain”, was on the Hollywood radar screen when I was out there talking to people two months ago. Now they know there’s a new publisher to watch.

The Top 25 break down by publisher this way: Random House 10, Penguin 5, Scholastic 3 (we know what those are), Simon & Schuster 2, Hachette 2, Macmillan 1, HarperCollins 1, Soho 1. (Soho is an independent New York-based publisher.)

But what is even more interesting to me, and which defies the notion that the big publishers aren’t aware of the value of lower pricing, is how the list breaks down in the lowest price tier (they list 10 titles): Random House 2, Self-published 2, Entangled 2, HarperCollins 2, Soho 1, Penguin 1.

Six of the top 10 titles under $3 belong to the Big Six.

The Big Six plus Scholastic have seven of the top 10 in the $3-$7.99 price band as well.

Above $8, only Kensington breaks the monopoly of the Big Six, with one title.

So it would appear that the notion that The Big Six are hurting authors by pricing their books too high is not borne out by this data.

It will be particularly interesting to watch how the lists change in the various price bands later this Fall if the DoJ settlement is approved and the retailers are free to set prices on the output of half of the Big Six.

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Barnes & Noble announced today that they’re going into the UK with partners they will name later. This was a move the industry has been waiting for. The expectations that B&N would team with Waterstone’s were dashed by the surprise deal the British retailer announced with Amazon earlier in the summer.

This is a very important move by B&N. They absolutely have to get global to be a long-run competitor in ebooks, and Britain is certainly the logical place to start.

I see two big issues for them. The obvious one is that they probably won’t be partnering with a signficant book retailer since Waterstone’s has their Amazon partnership and WH Smiths is partnered with Kobo. So they might get a lot of consumer reach — through one of the supermarket chains, say — but the core book market won’t be instantly accessible.

The less obvious one is that dedicated ebook readers, which is where Nook is strongest, particularly with the Glow, are losing ground to a plethora of tablets, led by iPad, of course, which is rumored to have a new smaller version coming. There is a reasonable theory that the eink device has “peaked” and that multi-function tablets will be the point of entry to the ebook market for new consumers in the future.

In fact, that theory is one we’re discussing at our Pub Launch Frankfurt conference on October 8, as Peter Hildick-Smith applies his Codex Group research data to the question of how digital markets will shape up in countries beyond the US and the UK in the future. At the same event, B&N executives Jim Hilt and Theresa Horner will appear as well.

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Explaining my skepticism about the likelihood of success for a general subscription model for ebooks


In a prior post, I observed that the apparently-successful subscription offerings for books were in niches. And I said I believed that a more general subscription model wouldn’t work for ebooks the way it has seemed to work for music (Spotify), movies and TV shows (Netflix), and audiobooks (Audible).

By that I meant two things. First of all, it will be impossible for any aggregator to secure the rights to anything like enough of the most appealing titles to deliver an offering comparable to what’s succeeded in other media. But even if they did, that kind of offering wouldn’t deliver nearly as much value to the book reader as general subscription offerings do in other media.

The latter point is based on intuitive speculation. The former is based on an informed view of the commercial realities.

Let’s briefly reiterate the case about consumer appeal. The number of songs, movies, and even audiobooks a subscriber might use in a month (the normal billing period for any subscription, so a relevant unit of measurement) dwarfs the number of books most people would read or refer to. And the heaviest readers — people who read several books a month — are often in genres (romance, science fiction) that already have subscription offerings. They don’t need a more general one.

So the price a subscription offering can command for general ebooks is almost certainly lower in relation to an individual book purchase than the price that can be charged in other media in relation to purchase. That was reflected in the thinking of the fledgling company that got me started writing these posts. They wanted to go to market with a subscription price of about $5 a month, which is less than Spotify, Netflix, or Audible!

(I may disagree with them about the overall viability of the subscription idea, but at least they recognize the necessity of a truly bargain price point.)

But it will be very hard for them, or anybody else, to put together a title base sufficiently appealing for that offering to work commercially.

Big books that consumers know about and want drive them to the points of acquisition for the title. When bookstores talk about how sales are going, they almost always cite the particular books that are driving traffic to their stores (or bemoan the fact that there haven’t been enough of them). That’s why booksellers heavily discounted Harry Potter titles the day they came out and why Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild promoted the availability of the biggest bestsellers they had rights for in their advertising.

Everybody in trade publishing understands this effect. Publishers “overpay” for big books because they know the control of them provides critical leverage dealing with bookstores and wholesalers. BOMC and Literary Guild would bid up the prices for rights to predictable bestsellers beyond what the books would “earn” in royalties on book club sales to gain the value those books had bringing members into the Clubs.

When consumers tie themselves into a subscription service, the power equation shifts for those people. Some of the power of the titles that brought in the consumer is transferred to the owner of the subscription service. If there is enough of value to keep the consumer from looking elsewhere for more content, that can provide great leverage.

It creates enough leverage that Audible can flip the 70-30 model and pay publishers 30% of the attributable revenue for digital downloads of their audiobooks. Since they are the content providers for both iTunes (Apple) and Amazon (their parent company), they have an effective monopoly on audiobooks sold that way. Any publisher that doesn’t want to agree to that split for the subscription business, and I know of at least one very big one that doesn’t, effectively has to live without most of the digital download market for their audio titles.

There have been expressions of dissatisfaction with the payment formula by which Spotify compensates the owners of the songs in their service. But how could there not be? With a combination of free and very low-cost offerings, Spotify is delivering music for far less cost to the consumer than purchasing a collection would require. (There is, theoretically, compensation on the back end because the subscription fee has to continue to be paid to maintain access, whereas older consumers — like me — get a lot of “free” listening to the music we purchased years ago.)

But less cost to consumers means less revenue to be divided by creators. And book authors can’t expect to collect on “repeat reads” the way music creators can collect on “repeat plays”.

So, from an author’s perspective, putting content into a general subscription service threatens to build up the leverage for a market channel that will almost certainly find it less necessary in the future to pay high prices for incremental content.

Simon Lipskar at Writers House, which represents a significant number of major bestselling writers, sees subscriptions as an inherently bad deal for successful writers. In our conversation about this, he echoed my thinking by saying, “Subscriptions by definition transfer the brand value of the author to the brand of the subscription service.”

Users of subscription services, he explained, are attracted to the services by the presence of authors they want to read. But once they are members and paying a monthly fee, their dollars are earmarked for the service rather than to the acquisition of individual discrete books by individual authors.

From Lipskar’s perspective, which is the author’s perspective, “these services act as a very expensive distribution model, inserting themselves between the publishers who license books from authors and the readers who read them, often taking a much bigger piece of the pie than traditional retailers.”

(This point by Lipskar makes me recall my Dad’s — Leonard Shatzkin’s — disdain 50 years ago for the “other” methods of selling consumer books — book clubs and direct mail — because they did, indeed, require more of the consumer’s dollar to execute than selling through stores did. Dad liked “efficient” and he’d argue until the cows came home that bookstores, including returns, were a remarkably efficient mechanism for distributing consumer books. This, of course, was long before the Internet. He started saying it before there were bookstore chains or national wholesalers.)

Lipskar can imagine a subscription service more along the lines of the traditional Book-of-the-Month-Club, in which readers are aided in their discovery of titles by a curatorial/editorial process that helps to select quality titles and, even more important from a commercial perspective, in which the reader’s monthly fee just funds a discount on a discrete monthly purchase.

Lipskar says that for a subscription service to be embraced by authors and publishers, the economics would have to favor authors and their publishers to a much greater extent than the models currently on the market. On that note, the one thing he said he simply could not imagine would be good for authors (or publishers) on any level would be the “all you can eat” model like Spotify, which he believes has spawned a broad feeling within the music business to be a very effective means of transferring the financial value of music from the creators to Spotify.

All the big publishers know that continuing to sign up the authors is what provides the oxygen that keeps them alive. The biggest threat from Amazon is not that they’ll extract another point or three of margin — although that is definitely a continuing concern — but that they’ll reach a point where their market share is large enough to enable them to start signing up really desirable authors on a regular basis and pull them from the rest of the distribution ecosystem. (It is worth noting that Barnes & Noble and Kobo and Apple have as much at stake in that regard as the major publishers do.)

Because of that, major publishers will never do anything that would distress the major agents. It doesn’t really matter whether a close reading of a contract would give a publisher the “right” to put an author’s work into a subscription service. If the publisher believes the author’s agent would react adversely to them doing that, they’ll be very disinclined to do it.  And some agents might well react adversely to their doing that for any book, not just one under contract to that agent, because agents for big authors who think the way I’m describing don’t want to see subscription services enabled at all!

So that’s why I believe that fledgling subscription services have practically zero chance to get major publishers to commit major books to their pool of available titles.

Of course, there is one entity that might make subscription for general books work and that’s Amazon. They are actually already trying to pull this off even though their efforts have apparently been unanimously rebuffed by the biggest publishers.

The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is offered to “subscribers” to Amazon Prime, the retailer’s overall package of “loyalty” benefits offering that start with free shipping. KOLL allows a loan of an unlimited length, so it is, in effect, a cat’s paw for an ebook subscription program.

Amazon is only now able to offer a robust selection in that program because of a combination of its willingness to spend and the ebook contracts it has with most publishers aside from the Big Six, as well as a very large pool of self-published titles in Kindle Direct Publishing KOLL has not — so far — noticeably damaged the ability of the publishers to sell their “branded author” ebooks successfully. The ebooks from successful authors are still benefiting from a “power law” distribution of sales (things tend to move that way in the Internet world) that favors the biggest SKUs.

Amazon has marketplace clout that dwarfs that of any fledgling with a great idea and they went to great lengths to build up a robust title repository for the KOLL debut. Still, when they launched in November 2011 they only had 5,157 titles which they said included “over 100 current and former New York Times Best Sellers”. It wasn’t an impressive selection.

But the wholesale purchasing terms under which Amazon acquires the ebooks of all publishers except the Big Six apparently enable Amazon to lend any title it wants to, as long as it purchases a copy to lend each time it does so. And it is in the ether that Amazon offered publishers a lot of money to put titles into this program. They have an impressive list of publishers whose work they are offering — including Scholastic, Norton, Bloomsbury, Grove/Atlantic, Workman/Algonquin, F+W Media, Lonely Planet, Rosetta Books as well as their own publishing imprints — but there’s no way to know how many of them went for the deals being offered or which ones are included simply because Amazon is buying a copy of any ebook from them each time a customer wants to borrow one.

And while agency pricing rules are definitely a barrier that makes it more difficult for a Big Six publisher to participate, there seemed to be no burst of creativity on any publisher’s part to figure out a way around it.

So Amazon is, in effect, conducting an experiment testing my theory that a general subscription offering won’t be a powerful magnet. For now, the test is to see how many of the Prime customers find it possible to live largely or entirely within the selection of titles that KOLL offers them, and particularly whether they are weaning those customers away from the higher-profile offerings of the Big Six. Perhaps we’ll see Amazon extend the reach of KOLL sometime by offering a Kindle feature package that is cheaper than what Prime has to be to offer free shipping. I’d sort of expect that. Wouldn’t you?

Will Amazon have an argument to make in a year or two, to publishers or to authors, saying that there is a substantial pool of desirable readers they that they can only reach by participating in KOLL?

They might.

But can anybody else but Amazon put together the combination of the audience and title base they have, piggybacking as they are on Prime and willing as they are to buy an ebook just to lend it once to demonstrate that they can?

I doubt it.

It was been called to my attention by Pam Boiros of Books24x7 that in my prior piece I gave Safari Books Online credit for pioneering the subscription model and the payment by metered usage and that actually credit for both should go to Books24x7. Safari came along a few short years after Books24x7 had started the model which they operate today across a wide range of verticals, serving a mostly institutional customer base. I thank Pam for refreshing my memory, which was the source of the information. Safari is still a great service and the closest thing to a trade subscription model outside the single-publisher efforts, but they followed a path that was originally cut by Books24x7.

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Show me the data!


One thing we try to do at Digital Book World is to present our audiences with useful, relevant, and, when we can, original data. It is a familiar complaint in our industry that we drive blind. Part of that is due to the sheer diversity and granularity of the “book business”. And another part is due to the blistering rate of change. The net result is that we are constantly trying to read tea leaves. We do our best to deliver some useful tea leaves to our DBW audience.

I make no pretension here to telling you all you’ll hear at DBW (which would be bad business even if I were able to do it!) But here is a roster of the data presentations and a small taste of what the DBW audience is going to get from each one.

We’ll start off with James McQuivey of Forrester Research doing a reprise of a high-level survey of publishing executives that they inaugurated at DBW 2011. Forrester got good participation in the survey, including getting fully filled-out responses from at least two of the Big Six executives.

One very interesting fact from the Forrester research is that the consensus for when the trade business will become 50% digital has moved up from 2015 to 2014. When Forrester announced the original number at DBW 2011, it seemed to many to be aggressive. A year later, it is not likely that the new prediction that it will come sooner is going to surprise a lot of people. We are apparently now used to the accelerating pace of change, but perhaps just in time to have to readjust to it slowing down. (More on that to follow.)

The team of the Milan office of A.T.Kearney (the big global consulting firm) and the Italian ebook retailer Bookrepublic have been tracking the spread of digital reading worldwide. They presented research at last year’s IfBookThen conference in Milan and followed it up with additional research presented at the Publishers Launch conference in Frankfurt. They’ve extended their investigation further — about devices, about internet purchasing, about ebook uptake, market-by-market around the world — for this year’s Digital Book World. They have added questions about self-publishing and piracy to the research they did previously and responses to them will be reported at Digital Book World.

One insight they’ve had is extremely provocative. They say, “We should stop thinking of self-publishing simply as a nice way for indie authors to be published. Viewed another way, measuring self-publishing activity calculates the amount of money Amazon (and others) are no longer sharing with publishers. And it’s growing.”

The data that will justify that insight will be part of the presentation we’ll see at Digital Book World.

We decided to take an intensive look at the romance genre because it is often considered to be the consumer segment that has moved most rapidly into the digital future. We were fortunate to enlist the help of the ebook retailer AllRomanceEbooks.com in our investigation. They circulated a survey that got responses from almost six thousand of their customers. The results of that survey will be announced at DBW and will be followed by a panel discussion with special attention to what other genres and segments of trade publishing can learn from what has happened in the romance market.

What caught my eye from the preliminary results was that only 4% of the ebooks All Romance sells have DRM. Since they carry the ebooks of all the major publishers, and all of those have DRM, what this statistic tells us is what a vast business exists in romance publishing outside the realm of the biggest players in the industry. I’ll leave the analysis to the experts we’ll have on stage for this discussion, but I personally wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that DRM-free is the only reason that 96% of the sales were of that category. Those books are undoubtedly cheaper as well. They may score higher on All Romance’s unique “flame” scoring system (which is all about how frequent and explicit the sex scenes are). But I would imagine that any big publisher hearing that statistic would, at the very least, have its curiosity piqued.

It turns out that a big component of All Romance’s sales success is that they took it upon themselves to add sub-categories describing romance — such as that flame index referred to above — that didn’t exist in the industry’s BISAC standard. That’s metadata!

Metadata isn’t ever going to be a “sexy” subject but it is certainly becoming an increasingly popular one. Our early polling of Digital Book World registrants indicates that our breakout session on metadata might be the most heavily-attended of the 30 breakouts on the schedule. (And everybody who goes will be glad they did. We just reviewed the content of the session with presenters Bill Newlin and Fran Toolan; it’s going to be great!)

Having been told for months and years that good metadata enables sales and bad metadata prevents them, I wanted to get some factual confirmation of that. So I asked Jonathan Nowell, the UK-based head of BookScan and the bibliographic source BookData, if he could do some research to connect the two (his being the only organization that has the information to tie metadata to sales data.) Jonathan did a presentation on this subject for Publishers Launch Frankfurt; he’s updating it for Digital Book World.

The most arresting takeaway last October at the Frankfurt presentation was that adding “enhanced metadata” elements to a basket of backlist books not only stopped their normal sales decay, it reversed it and actually made sales of those books rise after the metadata was improved. Everybody will really be able to visualize the importance of metadata after they hear Jonathan’s presentation.

Verso Media is an advertising agency with high digital consciousness and a deep interest in book purchasing and consumption habits. They survey book consumers looking for insights about the digital changeover. The single most startling takeaway for me from the preliminary results I saw from this year’s research is that the number of people who actually resist the idea of reading digitally has gone up from 49% to 51% of respondents. This data point is in line with other tea leaves that suggest that we might have started to hit real resistance to ebooks, slowing down the digital switchover from the rates of the past few years. And that certainly would not have been what I would have predicted. Jack McKeown, who has held senior positions at three major publishing houses, oversees the Verso research and will present it.

At our Publishers Launch “Children’s Books Go Digital” show on Monday, Conference Chair Lorraine Shanley recruited two trend analysts who are offering interesting trend and data observations of their own.

Amy Henry, VP of Youth Beat, observes that parents and kids are sharing personal experiences more than we remember from our youth. More than 2/3 of teenagers listen to music with their parents! The takeaway is that parents can be marketing conduits to their kids; they’re not just gatekeepers you need to sneak your way past, which is how they have often been characterized in the past.

Ira Mayer, Publisher of Youth Market Alerts, delivers data that tells us that two-thirds of the apps Moms get for their kids are either free or under a buck. Fewer than 10% are more than $3. These are sobering facts, but anybody entering the app space to make money better know them!

Kelly Gallagher, Vice-President in charge of research at Bowker, will have important data to share at both shows. His team has been surveying a pool of book purchasers on behalf of BISG for a couple of years and has charted the growth of the ebook market for the industry throughout that time. The data he’ll be reporting from the latest fielding is so fresh that it misses the deadline for this post. But it would seem likely that the data will show that the ebook switchover is finally slowing down after about five years of doubling or more than doubling annually. That would be of meaningful interest to everybody in trade publishing and would tend to confirm Verso’s finding that the point of more determined ebook resistance grows nearer.

Bowker also runs a study of the children’s book market and he will share appropriate data from that research at the Pub Launch show on Monday. Kelly showed me a couple of slides that suggest that young children’s print could be around for a while. Parents like the idea that a book isolates kids from what are otherwise constant digital stimuli. And what attracts kids to digital is portability (having access to more titles) which, broadly speaking, is more important as kids get older. And he’ll reprise that data presentation at Digital Book World on Tuesday, followed by a panel discussion among participating publishers in the study, including Disney, Scholastic, and HarperCollins. That discussion will be moderated by Kristen McLean, founder of Bookigee and former executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children.

I don’t mean to suggest that data is all we do at our conferences, or even most of what we do. It isn’t. But we see it as part of our job to encourage the development of original information, such as we did in conjunction with All Romance and Nielsen, as well as to deliver information from efforts already underway within the industry, like the reports we’ll get from Bowker.

Digital Book World will also feature main-stage presentations from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo which we expect will also be data-rich (as well as one on business model experimentation from Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association), helping us all understand what happened this past Christmas. Keeping up with this pace of change is hard enough; doing it without data is impossible.

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Can big publishers actually do tech and make books at the same time?


Something caught my eye this week that has been very little commented upon elsewhere: the news that Hachette Book Group developed an app-making capability that they are now licensing out. Their first customer was Round Table Companies, a book packager.

I found this striking because big book publishers are not generally known for developing technology; they’re more likely to be buyers of it. This is not an ironclad rule: Scholastic has an ereading platform in development to satisfy the special needs of the children’s book market and it is trying to work with other publishers who might want to avail themselves of the platform.

But from the standpoint of one who has observed publishers wrestling with technology for many years, this deal is very unusual. When Random House bought Smashing Ideas, a technology company, that seemed like the likely course for big publishers to take: acquiring technology that could be useful to them after it had been developed by somebody else.

There are other companies and entrepreneurs developing app-making tools. Most big publishers would be trying those out and getting great deals to do so because the companies making the tools need the validation of having them used by major players. The fact that Hachette even attempted to develop this capability on its own is unusual; that they succeeded at making something useful and cost-effective to the extent that Round Table preferred their solution to one developed by technologists is why it is worthy of comment.

Even acknowledging that selling the tech to a packager is not quite the same as selling it to a direct Big Six competitor, I don’t know if this is a harbinger or an outlier.

But I do know that it challenges one of my long-held assumptions about publishers and technology.

When you invest in intellectual property, whether publishing a book or developing software, you normally want to monetize that investment across the widest possible range of customers which you can only do by distributing through the widest possible array of channels. That’s the handicap Amazon has right now being a publisher: they don’t have effective distribution to brick stores and, as long as they want to keep what they invest in restricted to the Kindle for ebooks, it is pretty certain that they won’t. Over time, the number of brick stores will diminish so that will matter less and less and, if Kindle retains its position of primacy among ebook retailers, what is a real handicap today may become trivial. But traditional or legacy or real (pick your adjective) publishers really do have a wider distribution base than Amazon for books published today. (That doesn’t mean they will necessarily sell more, but it does mean they should!)

By the same token, I never thought it made much sense for a publisher, on its own, to develop software for product development or distribution that should have industry-wide application. I figured it would be hard for one publisher to sell software to another; the buyer would be afraid they were just permanently strengthening the margins and the hand of a competitor.

That same fear of strengthening a competitor is the reason that other types of collaboration that would seem obviously synergistic, like for publishers who do science fiction books to join together to create a science fiction community, haven’t happened. There was a moment a couple of years ago when Macmillan’s Tor.com suggested they’d start selling other publishers’ books to their community and invite other publishers in to strengthen it, but that never happened, even though it can’t make sense in the long run for what are ostensibly genre-driven communities to be siloed by publisher. I felt the same logic applied to publishers doing software development.

But that long-held assumption of mine is being challenged, by Random House buying Smashing Ideas and planning to keep it going as a provider of services to competitors, by Scholastic developing its own platform for displaying digital content and recruiting other publishers to join them, by three US publishers combining to create the new retailer Bookish (and three UK publishers replicating that idea with a UK version called Anobii), and, most dramatically, by Hachette creating an app-maker that a leading book packager finds a cost-effective way to build apps.

We still don’t know what will work. Will Smashing Ideas thrive under Random House ownership? Will Scholastic succeed in establishing a new reading platform for children’s books that can find a prominent place in the market? Will Bookish or Anobii succeed at becoming an important force in ebook sales alongside Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Google, and B&N?

And will what Hachette has done with their app-making capability be a trick they can repeat, developing technology to meet other challenges publishers face? Will Hachette become a specialized software vendor, developing publishing-specific tools, as well as a book publisher?

If so, they have found at least one formula that can help them through what are bound to be increasingly challenging times for general trade publishers.

We’re staging a conference next week in San Francisco which is a reprise of the very successful and well-received eBooks for Everyone Else event that we did in New York on September 26. We have a great show in San Francisco, adding a talk with successful self-publishing author Bob Mayer; a presentation from Penguin’s Molly Barton about their new Book Country initiative; a very interesting group of agents that will be interviewed by Charlotte Abbott; and a reprise of our “speed-dating” 1-on-1 sessions for attendees with service providers and experts to enable everybody to get their specific questions answered.

One major highlight of the show is going to be a presentation by my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, which sorts out the myriad distribution and go-to-market choices facing today’s self-publisher. Michael did thorough research for this segment and, having seen the outline of the talk, I am certain it is the clearest and most complete survey of what has been a confusing and cluttered landscape of services that anybody attending will have ever heard.

Undoubtedly, Michael’s summary and analysis will make it to the web in the days after the conference, but if you’ll be in or near San Francisco next Wednesday, November 2, it alone will be worth the price of admission to eBooks for Everyone Else.

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