Simon & Schuster

It is not news to publishers that they have to engage directly with their readers


Since the merger that has created Penguin Random House, there has been precious little speculation (except by me, as far as I can tell) about what this new behemoth in trade book publishing could do to exploit their scale in new and innovative ways.

Their scale advantage is huge. PRH has something in the neighborhood of half the commercial trade books published, bestsellers and below. (You see numbers as low as 25% for this and most of the time estimates put it around 40%.) For several decades, the big US book clubs — Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild — demonstrated that having about half the books was “enough” for very large numbers of people to feel comfortable that their choices of what to read from within that group of titles would be sufficient for most of their needs.

My initial hunches, still totally unrealized, were that PRH would launch a subscription service with just their own books and, through the use of vendor-managed inventory, create exclusive channels of store distribution that wouldn’t be available to any of their competitors. (One senior executive from a competitor to whom I described this scenario said candidly, “we’d make our best books available to them for their proprietary channel if it were the only way for us to get the distribution”.)

One PRH executive kindly explained to me the company’s inherent resistance to the subscription model, which would seem to appeal most to the heaviest readers looking for a bargain. As the largest player in the market, PRH isn’t looking to reduce the spending by the people who are the biggest sources of industry revenue, which a successful subscription offer would inevitably do. (That subscription model, or “Netflix for ebooks”, is complex in ways that are often ignored, but which Joe Esposito spells out very clearly.) Of course, that doesn’t mean the company wouldn’t consider it in an environment where subscription services were taking a big part of the audience (certainly not the case yet, but watch what happens if Scribd or Oyster or Entitle or the new Rooster succeed). It does seem to say that they won’t be pioneers in this field. And there is no sign yet that they’re taking up my idea to use VMI to create their own bookstores, either.

But PRH UK — echoing what was said to me by RH US CEO Markus Dohle some years ago — has now announced it is becoming a consumer-focused publisher. Hannah Telfer, who was made “group director, consumer and digital development” in January, says discoverability depends on “building a direct relationship with consumers”. And she claims “our scale” is a key enabler of doing this “properly”. This is refreshing, since most of the industry thinking about how they would use scale seems to be more about consolidating warehouses than getting smarter about talking to consumers.

One article in The Bookseller details staff changes and initiatives around this goal. (And another expresses some skepticism about whether their plans are adequate to the task. That second piece suggests they need to think about selling direct, a recommendation I have expressed some reservations about.) On the one hand, the first article suggests some really broad, company-wide objectives, including “the potential for Penguin Random House to be a cultural and entertainment powerhouse; a home for all audiences”. At their recent sales conference. CEO Tom Weldon described the opportunity for PRH “to create the blueprint for a publisher brand as a consumer brand and, in doing so, capture the attention of the world for the stories, ideas and writing that matters”. That sounds like one big brand.

At the same time, there was clear acknowledgment of the importance of what we call “verticality”, or “audience-centricity”. An “audience segmentation project” was announced. So was cross-imprint attention to specific subjects, with “cookery” and “crime” cited. One tool that it is clear Penguin Random House has and will use is called Bookmarks, described as “the Random House readers’ panel”. New plans call for it to “become a PRH resource, giving all parts of the business access to over 3,500 readers through surveys and focus groups”.

Of course, the more different ways the company wants to use that panel, the more difficult it will be to get meaningful data from it. In fact, it would seem that what is really called for is an ongoing “panelization” process, by which new people are being added all the time to a number of panels that can answer questions about different communities of interest. One panel can’t serve all purposes.

This brings two topics into bold relief that have not historically been part of a book publisher’s thinking or skill sets.

1. It calls for new and nuanced thinking about brands.

2. It calls for a multi-faceted plan for engagement with individual consumers.

Advice directing publishers to think about branding for consumers is plentiful these days. Since I first started thinking and writing about publishing and brands, something disruptive occurred which I wasn’t thinking about at the time: self-publishing. My original notion was that the challenge was establishing brands with clear vertical, audience-centric identities. Probably the best example of doing that successfully in the big US houses has been Macmillan’s establishing of Tor as a brand for science fiction and tor.com as a destination site for science fiction devotees. It is well over two years since I wrote about tor.com having hundreds of thousands of email addresses that they could address with promotions that got very high open rates.

Tor.com gives Macmillan’s science fiction list a clear label of not-self-publishing. But outside Tor, for their general list, Macmillan uses many imprint names. A novel might be published as St. Martin’s, Holt, Farrar Straus, or Thomas Dunne Books (among others), each of which probably has “meaning” to buyers at major accounts, big libraries, and major book reviewers, but which means precious little to the general public. Does the average person know those names better than they know, let’s say, Thomas & Mercer (the new imprint of Amazon) or Mike & Martha Books (a name I just made up)?

(Please note that Macmillan is being used here for illustrative purposes; every major house has the same issues with imprint brands that are really intended as B2B signals, not for the consumer.)

But ultimately, it is important for Macmillan, and for every publisher, to stamp “major publisher” on their books to let the public know “this is from a long-standing and established book publisher” on the assumption, which I would share, that people who don’t know the names would still trust an institution rather than a self-interested individual to “pick” their books.

(Obviously, most people choose their books because of the author, the subject matter, a recommendation from a friend, or even based on some combination of the cover, the description, and the price. How much of the audience would be influenced by knowing that a major publisher was behind the book? We don’t know that, and we don’t know whether that number will grow or shrink based on the always-increasing output of self-published material that has not gone through a publisher’s editing and formatting rigor. And, by the way, doing aggressive branding means the publishers need to pay even more attention to their editing and formatting. Each instance of an inferior branded product hitting the marketplace will weaken the value of the brand.)

So here’s the rule about branding. Each major house should pick one name that is an umbrella. It goes on every book to establish the company as a major source of quality literature, enjoyable reading, and book-packaged information.Trying to target more precisely than that should be the job of the “imprint” brand under the umbrella brand. And that brand should be vertical, identifying subject or audience. That’s Tor in the Macmillan example above. Note that right now Macmillan is not a brand being used by any of the US companies in the Macmillan family.

The plan for engagement with consumers is much more complicated and has many components. One is simply collecting email addresses and permissions to ping people and then utilizing them. Turning almost all the marketing efforts you can into components of an email-gathering machine is a big part of this. This is a game everybody should be playing: all the retailers, all the publishers, and all the authors. We know from recent assignments at our digital marketing business that the smartest literary agents are figuring out how to help their authors do this. We can’t be far from the day when an agent will routinely ask a publisher “how many relevant email names do you have to promote my author’s next book to?”

But email lists, as the PRH UK statements suggest, are just one aspect of consumer engagement. And the statements from PRH also implicitly claim that a much bigger company has advantages in pursuing it. Aside from their ability to analyze existing email addresses among their signups or that they find through other means (hitting their web sites, self-identified in social media) to understand and reach audiences better, large companies can create special interest verticals to pull traffic (driving email signups) and give themselves a range of promotional opportunities. We see Simon & Schuster doing a lot of that kind of work. I’ve become a daily fan of “250 Words”, an email from their new business book web vertical that summarizes the core proposition of a business book every day. Whether that, or other vertical efforts of this type the house is trying, can turn into a remunerative web community or even a good place to get a book launched, is still an open question. But it is the kind of experiment that could produce a launching pad that could really help S&S with business books.

We touched on the notion that creating dynamic panels of consumers to tell you things — things you can ask all the time — is also a real value. We are aware of a niche magazine which routinely uses Twitter to ask its readers for opinions about various things, like what angle to take on a story. They get very fast responses that way. We know that Osprey, the military history publisher, routinely asks its audience for opinions when they are choosing among subjects for development of a book. (And it is relevant to note that Random House UK has hired Osprey’s energetic and visionary CEO, Rebecca Smart, to run their Ebury imprint. That’s another way to employ scale: hire away the best smaller-company executive talent!)

A good approach for a big house that can harvest large numbers of email addresses would be to routinely ask consumers whether they would like to be polled about questions that will guide the house’s publishing and marketing strategies. Doing that would give them fresh names all the time. What Osprey does with their specialist audience could become routine practice to a house with a big enough email list. Consumers could be asked about whether a topic is a good one to sign up before the house makes a commitment. They could also be asked about packaging and pricing. And if that kind of interaction were built into the house’s practice, over time they’d learn when consumer opinions are a good guide to follow and when they’re not (because they won’t always be!)

We are in the earliest days of big publishers changing from near-total dependence on intermediaries to reach their markets to having direct relationships with consumers. For now, most houses are pretty quiet about what they’re doing, partly because they think they’re inventing something and partly because they don’t know how well any of this will work. But relative silence shouldn’t be interpreted as relative inaction or inattention. It isn’t news to the big publishers that they need to talk to audiences directly. Penguin Random House has advantages of size relative to the others in the Big Five, but the rest of them have advantages of size relative to everybody else.

Note to readers: because of glitches and fiddling not worth detailing, the last two posts didn’t go out through our normal email distribution (which makes some people refer to this blog as my “newsletter”!) If you didn’t receive posts entitled “Getting Mark Coker Right This Time…” and “Sometimes One More Calculation…” they are linked here for your convenience.

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Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing


The digital transition of the trade book publishing business, which I would date from the opening of Amazon.com in 1995, enters its 20th year in 2014. Here are some of the ponderables as we close out the first two decades of a process of very rapid change that is far from over.

1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable “floor” for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.

2. Illustrated book publishers are likely to be the most attentive of all to the bookstore shelf space question. Six years into mass ebooks (as dated from the Kindle) and three years into good hand-held delivery of graphics (as dated from the iPad), the digital version of illustrated books have not found the market that the digital version of novels have. The illustrated book publishers learned to be global over the past four decades, so many have avenues to market that aren’t changing as fast as the US bookstore network has. But the reduction-in-shelf-space line on the graph or the sales-of-these-books-as-digital-products line, or both, have to start moving in the opposite direction or there’s a major problem brewing in that very large segment of our business. Will 2014 be the year that somebody cracks the code for delivering how-to or art-book material in a digital form that will replace shrinking print revenues?

3. As 2014 dawns, we have a host of ebook retailing models that deviate from what the book business has always done: sell one book at a time for a price for which the starting point of reference is one set by the publisher for that book. Safari, created by O’Reilly and Pearson, showed a subscription model more than a decade ago but it was for professional books. 24symbols, based in Spain, is a sort-of granddaddy of this business in the trade segment, being about three years old. They are joined by Oyster, a new start-up dedicated to ebook subscriptions and Scribd, an old start-up originally dedicated to being YouTube for documents. And Entitle, formerly called EReatah, has a slightly different subscription proposition that is more like a “book-of-the-month-club” in its structure. An even newer start-up called Librify has an offering for reader-organized book clubs in the offing. Amazon already has a lending library for its PRIME subscribers, which amounts to the same thing, and a subscription of content for kids on Kindle Fire. With so many experiments in play, we ought to get a picture by the end of 2014 of the degree to which this model appeals to consumers and whether the economics are enticing enough to get big authors and big publishers to play with more enthusiasm than they have demonstrated so far.

4. It is accurate, but misleading, to describe the Penguin Random House combination as a merger of “two of the big six”. It is actually a merger of the two biggest of the former Big Six, and it creates a publisher that is nearly as big as the four others combined. So we now really have a Big One and a Following Four, rather than a Big Five. The big question is what PRH can do to apply what is a huge difference in size as a scale advantage. The hunch here is that proprietary distribution channels can be created by a company that controls approximately half the most commercial books in the English-language world. Whether that will manifest itself as ebook subscriptions, special retail distribution using vendor-managed inventory, or the creation or purchase of marketing channels for its exclusive use — or all of the above and more — will be one of the most important things to watch in 2014.

5. The financial reports from big publishers in 2013 have been mostly encouraging. It looks like the shift to ebooks has had the impact of improving publisher margins and profitability. But can those good times last? Publishers now face a world where there is a single dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer, a single dominant internet retailer, and, as noted above, a single dominant publisher. Agents want to keep competition alive, so they’re going to be sensitive about pushing the Following Four too hard or allowing too quick a migration of authors to the industry leader, but the retailers won’t be so accommodating. Another pressure point on margins will be ebook pricing. It has been driven down by successful self-publishing and the the court’s elimination of agency as a protection. Now big publishers have discovered “dynamic pricing” — lowering prices on a book temporarily to spike sales and awareness — adding their own activity to the list of forces reducing margins. Both the top line and the bottom line will be harder to maintain in 2014, but how it will turn out is an open question. After all, most of these things were true in 2013 and margins still improved.

6. Literary agents have been dabbling with publishing for the past several years since ebooks and POD have made it possible to do it without inventory or an organization. Agencies have started publishing operations (E-Reads, Diversion, Rosetta) and many more have brought on the expertise to give authors help with digital services (Curtis Brown, Writer’s House). Publishers have expanded into author services with speaker’s bureaux, but, so far, none has thought to add literary agenting services except for the time-honored practices of selling rights (foreign, paperback, book club), which was part of their publishing process. Might a publisher either create or ally with a literary agency to create a way to “own” an author’s entire career? If one tried this in 2014, it wouldn’t come as a total surprise.

7. Simon & Schuster has made a number of pioneering deals for a publisher of its size. They offered print distribution service to bestselling indie author John Locke. Then they made a print-only deal — which the big houses pretty much said “we will never do” — with another indie with a hit, Hugh Howey. Now they’ve extended an idea they started a few years ago and signed a deal to give Yankee shortstop and icon Derek Jeter an imprint to be a publisher. Jeter has the ability to focus public attention on any book he wants (although certainly more with some topics than others) and he’s an articulate spokesperson with a strong personal following. S&S had done this in 2007 with 50-Cent; Hachette more recently gave an imprint to Chelsea Handler and HarperCollins gave one to Johnny Depp. Will celebrity imprints become a common idea? There will be plenty of attention paid to how Jeter’s initial efforts work. Or it may be that some other athlete or actor, musician or politician, will be the next experiment with this model. In any case, this is something else to watch in 2014.

8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?

9. And, in that same vein, we have what would seem to be an unsustainable dichotomy in the ebook marketplace as a result (I would say, editorializing here) of the Justice Department’s lack of understanding about where power really lies in the book business. Apple insists on “agency pricing”: publishers set prices, Apple keeps 30%. Amazon — for everybody except the former Big Six — insists on the wholesale model which gives them 50% of the publisher’s set price to divide as customer discount and margin as they choose. This has resulted in all publishers except the biggest being forced to put two prices on their ebooks: a ”digital consumer retail” price (intended to be a selling price, for Apple, and lower) as well as a “list” price (intended for the retailer to discount, for Amazon, and higher). When the distinction began, the agency price couldn’t be discounted. Now it can so the only real differences are the margins and the hard-to-explain-or-justify publisher-set prices. Only the biggest publishers have the clout to overcome the marketplace power of Apple and Amazon to dictate how the sales structure will work. Everybody else lives in an Alice in Wonderland world. I’d expect something to give on this in 2014.

Many of these questions will be explicitly discussed at the biggest and best Digital Book World ever, coming up in less than two weeks. It has become the premier global gathering of book publishers talking about the impact of digital change. We’ve counted them up and there are 156 speakers and moderators on the 2-day DBW program, plus dozens more in DBW’s workshop program and the Publishers Launch Kids conference hosted by Michael Cader and me and programmed by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International. You can’t spend that week with us without bumping into smart people who are getting great things done.

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No-inventory publishing changes everything for everybody and nobody will escape making adjustments


A somewhat overwrought article in Wired calling ebooks an “abomination” because they “price people out of reading” provokes thinking about how much the business models for the trade book business are changing. The article’s weakness stems from its focus on the pricing decisions publishers are making in selling print and ebooks to libraries when those changes are taking place in a larger and indivisible context. The industry is finding less and less uniting what it has been for the past 70 years, since the end of World War II and the advent of paperbacks, and what it will be in a future that is already being disruptive but not necessarily clear.

This is reflected on a micro level in a discussion that arose at our Marketing Conference last week from a question asking “what is a book”? That question used to have a physical answer which described an object, not necessarily describing what content it contained. We’re getting away pretty fast from requiring a book to be printed and bound; the words of an author feel no less real or worthy to many of us coming from a screen. Screen delivery is also relieving the need for a book to have any minimum length, which printed books transacted individually require for physical (we want them thick enough to bind with a spine) and commercial (selling and tracking an individual item practically requires a minimum price) reasons.

I think the questioner in this case was also trying to pull us into a disussion of video, audio, interaction, and linking, which I resist for two reasons. One is that, so far, the preponderence of ebooks that have sold any appreciable quantities have not had any of those attributes. They’re just the same words as in the printed books made reflowable for a screen. The second is that my world is the world of book publishing. My belief is that if books were to become something heavily dependent on video and audio, they won’t be made by people who today are book publishers. They’ll be made by movie studios and animation houses and digital game creators. In that case, discussion of them belongs on some other blog.

Restricting one’s thinking to assume that the future of books encompass only digital versions of what has existed as a book for the past several hundred years doesn’t, by itself, make the future clear. The changes in business models and in the configuration of the industry provide plenty of potential variation that, from my perspective, is more useful (and more fun) to think about than trying to redefine the book itself.

One of the things that has characterized books for me is the incredible diversity of markets they reach. Trade publishing has always had remarkably low barriers to entry compared to other media. It has always been easier to publish a book and make it work on some level than to launch a newspaper or a magazine, or make a movie or a TV show or a record. It costs less and the distribution channels have always been relatively democratic and accessible to outsiders. The cash comes back slowly, and profits are often elusive, but you don’t need a fortune to publish a book.

Because books inherently require a small number of sales to make money (the breakeven point gets raised by big advances to authors, but, if the author guarantee is low, most books will recover core production costs on the sale of a few thousand copies and, in some cases, less than that), they frequently target what any other industry would consider mini-markets. A publisher that mines a niche can profit on something incredibly esoteric. For example, the chances are that Osprey, a military history publisher, has made money on books about wars you’ve never heard of. But their audience has and, because they know their audience, everybody wins.

The giant general trade publishers have built big and expensive machines that can make a book a mass sensation and put it in front of the public in a big way. Other publishers have pursued other models. HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster might pay big money to an author and build an organization that can maximize marketing impact on pub date. Other companies have specialized in a market like craft books or art books or computer books, not paying the same advances and necessarily having a different emphasis in their distribution and marketing strategies.

But what has united all the business models was the commitment to make and market a book, which meant printing inventory. The minimum investment to publish a book was much less than the minimum investment to publish a magazine or a newspaper or to make a film or a record. But there still was an investment.

And that brings us back to something that made books special for their authors: the prestige conferred by somebody (preferably somebody highly professional with a brand name like some publishers have) making a unique investment in their content. That’s an investment that’s not sold as part of a magazine, or on the back of a star’s name, but in one person’s work: the author’s. When the subject of what a book was came up at our conference, one observation from a publisher of books about public affairs was how much the speaking fees of their authors went up when a book of theirs was published. The mere fact of the book conferred credibility on the author that raised their value in the marketplace, regardless of how the book sold. (Or didn’t.)

This is something inherent to the definition of a “book”. This is, also, likely to change.

The core change in publishing economics that will ultimately change the shape of the commercial industry is that the already-low investment required to publish a book has plummeted even further. As printed books become less important, then the investment required to fund them becomes less important too. Already we have seen many authors — I’ve written about John Locke and hosted Hugh Howey on the Digital Book World stage, but there are scores of others — build a career as an author without any significant print sales. We have seen other authors with long backlists, some who had only achieved modest success for publishers, turning the opportunity for higher margins and direct audience contact into financial bonanzas in digital publishing.

Repeated demonstration of the fact that it is totally possible to achieve fame and fortune as a writer without a publisher does not escape the attention of any author. Many literary agencies, the players closest to the hopes and aspirations of narrative text book authors, have been gearing up to provide digital services, primarily at first for established authors who want to self-publish their backlists. But by doing this they also create leverage for their authors in their negotiations for bigger advances and better terms from publishers, and they stamp themselves as able to continue to serve an author who decides publishers are no longer for him or her.

That means that publishers, who would theoretically always have been interested in maximizing a book’s revenue for the author and themselves, are goaded more than ever to do so. That in turn means every aspect of the business model gets questioned. Are library ebooks cannibalizing the sales of ebooks from stores? Might they? The question has to be asked. Does the fact that ebooks don’t wear out with repeated lending, as printed books do, require some different policy to make a library pony up again for frequently-loaned book? (HarperCollins has introduced such a policy.) Should a library that uses its copy of an ebook to satisfy many readers pay more than an ebook reader who has practical (and contractual) barriers to sharing? (Random House is trying this.) While some authors are asking themselves whether publishers are essential for them anymore, which makes sense, doesn’t it also make sense for publishers to be thinking hard about how the digital revolution might change their relationship with libraries?

In fact, nobody in the value chain in between the author and the reader of a book can be complacent about their position: not the agent or publisher or library, but also, quite obviously, not the bookstore, online or physical. The printer and warehouse operator must expect a shrinking share of the book business. No-inventory publishing, by lowering the barriers to entry for a written book of narrative text nearly to zero, is assuring that an ecosystem built around the reality that book inventory was the industry’s greatest cost will change profoundly.

The assertion that ebooks are making books less affordable to most people is total hogwash. For every book not available to be lent as an ebook by a library, there are probably ten from established publishers that are half the price they were before, to the consumer and to the library. And there are countless others which would not have been published before available directly from authors, which their sales tell us are valued by many readers, that are dirt cheap, priced less than the commercial transaction system for print could even consider. And the books the author of the complaining article wrote about that come with higher prices or some sort of other licensing restrictions as ebooks, are still (at least for now) still available in print at the long-traditional prices and terms.

We’re going to see marketing departments of publishers expand and sales departments contract as book distribution patterns change. We’re going to see more and more commercially viable titles launched with a no- or little-inventory-in-place model, starting with ebooks and print-on-demand availability as a low-risk launch strategy. We’re going to see books launched as serials, growing to a length determined by audience response, not based on a pre-publication plan. We’re going to see booksellers and libraries publishing and publishers building on book audiences to sell other things. And we’re going to see more and more virtual sources of books for consumers: publishers selling direct, of course, but also did you notice that Tesco is now in the game?

We’re going to see a lot of change as players of all sizes, in all parts of the publishing value chain, adjust to the “weightlessness” of a business shedding and shifting its biggest capital requirement: inventory cost. Picking on one tactic or another by one player or another, particularly from the perspective of preserving legacy behavior, is not likely to be very illuminating or helpful. The ability to put a book into the marketplace in a way that can reach more than half its audience with no inventory investment, making it possible to sell books and rights globally and only later, if it is warranted, put a bigger bet down on the book — combined with the increasing number of entities that have knowledge that could inform content and direct contact with a real market — is going to be transformative. Everybody in the chain but the author and the reader are fighting for their lives.

Smart publishers recognize that they have to completely rethink their business models and propositions in a no-inventory publishing world. Authors and agents are doing the same thing. So are many bookstores and libraries. The players in the publishing ecosystem who don’t rethink their business practices in fundamental ways will probably be relieved of the burden of thinking about them at all before long.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anybody Press is the new member of the Big Six (for ebooks, at least)


Bowker reported last week that 12% of the ebooks being bought now are self-published. There was skepticism about the methodology from The Digital Reader and Good e-Reader says Bowker’s data should be taken “with a grain of salt”. But the exact number doesn’t matter; the trend does. The share of the consumer ebook dollar going to books that aren’t coming from publishing entities means that the new Big Six for ebooks are the ones we know well — Penguin Random House and the four (HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan) that among them add up to about their size — plus Anybody Press.

And Anybody Press is almost certainly growing faster in ebook sales than any of the other Big Six.

This is happening almost solely with individual authors and still mostly with authors who are not in demand by the commercial publishers. Although it does happen that authors turn down their next deal to self- or unconventionally-publish (which publishing with an Amazon imprint, even under advance-against-royalty terms, still is because there’s to date no effective retail distribution), it’s still rare for that to happen.

The self-publishing or Amazon-publishing route still requires pretty much giving up on bookstore or other retail distribution. (Or so it has seemed. The news that Amazon has sold a million of “The Hangman’s Daughter”, an unknown number through the paperback licensed to Houghton Harcourt, may be contradicting that notion. Except we don’t know how many Houghton Harcourt has sold.) But the ebook royalties are higher, so it is a balance that deserves, and gets, constant review by agents and authors as the share of sales through bookstore or other retail distribution continues to decline.

If I were the business development manager for Anybody Press (and, on some consulting projects we are working on, I am) I would see lots of target markets for growth. I’d encourage my targets to keep doing the calculation of what the sales times royalty rate is for the “bought online” portion of the market versus what the sales times royalty rate is for a conventional deal that gets you the “whole” market. As the “bought online” share grows, more and more genres and authors will find that giving up the retail sale in favor of a bigger share of the revenue per sale online is to their financial benefit.

And the way things are developing — “Hangman’s Daughter” aside — you might not have to give up the store sale forever.

The “Wool” deal, where Hugh Howey sold only print rights to Simon & Schuster, hasn’t really been replicated yet for anything else that big, but it will be. (Successful indie authors John Locke and Bella Andre have done different versions of the same trick.) Royalty rates on ebooks from big publishers are bound to go up (while royalty rates for print books will probably go down). These will change the details of the calculations as they transpire.

Another way to make the jump from purely online sales to a publication strategy that includes print in stores is to use print-on-demand technology from Ingram’s Lightning Source. That’s how Open Road, which began life as an opportunistic ebook-only publisher, has chosen to manage print beyond Amazon. As has Byliner. (You can always deliver print with Amazon by working through their CreateSpace capability.) Now, that’s not the same as being published with an advance sale in the stores on pub date, but it does mean that if somebody walks into a Barnes & Noble or an indie bookstores and asks for your book, they’ll be able to order it for delivery in a day or two.

So aside from the market share fight big publishers will have with each other, there’s going to be a continuing market share fight between Anybody Press and the commercial industry. And for some time to come, Anybody Press is going to be winning. The question, like the question about online (and Amazon) market share growth is: where does it stop?

Big publishers do have ways to fight back. Putting together our upcoming (September 26) Marketing Conference with Peter McCarthy, who used to plot digital marketing strategy for Random House, I’m learning what can be accomplished when scaled technology and expertise are employed by engaged title-and-audience knowledge. And, particularly viewed in a global context and aside from straight narrative books, the print-at-retail component has a long way to go before it becomes irrelevant. But when I say that, I mean “many years”, not “many decades”.

This amorphous but growing competition is the “atomization” concept I wrote about recently in action. It can’t be neglected in the consideration of any branch of publishing’s future. In fact, indie entities, which is the way I think about atomization, are more likely to be disruptive on a larger scale than indie authors have been so far. So we might have Any Organization Press growing even faster in the next few years than Anybody Press has for the past few.

What people spend for books won’t necessarily shrink drastically, but where the money goes will shift drastically. The challenge for today’s leading revenue producers will be to find the ways their business models can adapt to the shift.

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Unbundling in the book business: the fourth big trend


A few weeks ago, I wrote that there are three big forces driving the future of publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization.

I was wrong. I had forgotten my own blogpost from last September when I identified another trend that belongs with the first three: “unbundling”. The book business, in the trade segment I follow most closely but in every other segment as well, is seeing its value proposition becoming unbundled in a number of ways.

Up until very recently, a trade publisher controlled just about every aspect of a book’s publication. The indispensible parts of the value publishers offered were two: the advance against royalties that often provided essential financing to enable the writer to create the manuscript and the network of relationships and infrastructure that put books on shelves for consumers to find and buy them.

Because the publisher was taking both a capital and reputational risk with every book published, it was natural that it would handle all the supporting steps: developmental and copy-editing, marketing and publicity, design and manufacturing. The publisher would commission the artwork for the book’s cover and determine what was the best foot forward on flap copy.

Until the turn of the 21st century, it was the exceptional author who had any kind of “platform” that could be employed for the book’s marketing: something like a TV show or newspaper column or fame achieved some other way that could be a springboard for promoting the book. In the cases where those opportunities existed, publishers recognized that the book was being “piggybacked” onto something that had its own commercial purpose and was not subject to the wishes or timetables of a book’s publisher.

What changed before the publishing business changed is that many of us have some sort of platform now, as in “a way to reach an audience”. And, although my platform isn’t comparable to Rush Limbaugh’s or Jay Leno’s, it is, indeed, mine all mine and I can do what I want with it. Many other people have platforms of their own that are far more powerful than mine.

It could be said that publishers themselves began the unbundling process as they got authors to use their platforms to market their books. With the advent of ebooks and driven by the CreateSpace services offered by Amazon, it became possible for any author to publish his or her own book and those with a platform, or even just building one, no longer had to get the assent of a publisher to put their book into the market.

My friend, futurist David Houle (whose new book “Entering the Shift Age” has been published by Sourcebooks), was frustrated in 2007 with his inability to connect with a publisher for his predictive thinking. He was just starting his blog, “Evolution Shift” and it didn’t have enough history or audience to persuade any publisher he found to put out his companion book, “The Shift Age”. So he did it himself, through Amazon, even before there was a Kindle. Over the years, David has sold about 7,000 copies of his book, many through Amazon but many more through his own public appearances as a speaker. (And what he’s made per copy is far more than what he’d have made in a publishing deal.)

Since Houle published “The Shift Age” several years ago, an industry has grown around offering services for publishing. This is referred to as the “author services” business. The core offerings are to take the creator’s file (in Word or InDesign) and make it accessible in various ebook formats at the front end and then to interact with ebook retailers (delivering the file and capturing the sales information and the revenue) at the other end. The services offered by the retailers themselves (and you can get this help from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) don’t push the ebook out to other ebook retailers. Amazon is the only one to offer a companion print option.

The first mover on these services in the ebook age outside the retailers was Smashwords. They’ve been joined by a host of others. Author Solutions, acquired about a year ago by Penguin, rolled up a number of companies that offered these services in the print-only world that existed before Kindle. They have all come to recognize that publishers provide more than the essential services at each end of the publishing process; they also provide editing and packaging and marketing services in the middle. So these have popped up as discrete offerings — “unbundled” — both through the complete service providers and as stand-alones.

Now there’s an aggregator of the stand-alone service providers, BiblioCrunch, which features a host of freelancers that any author can access. Another fledgling, NetMinds, which has made some news lately by publishing Nolan Bushnell’s book, makes provision of expert services in many categories a part of its model.

This unbundling effect plays out in interesting ways. When Hugh Howey sold the rights to his smash success “Wool” to Random House UK (before he had a US publisher), they worked with Howey and did some editing, including creating an additional chapter, for their edition. Howey took that component of Random House’s work and was able to make it available for the print edition he licensed in the US to Simon & Schuster and then incorporated it into the ebook version he sold himself.

All of this evidence that the publishers’ proposition is being unbundled leads to two strategic observations.

As the services game shifts from “authors” to “entities” (what I call atomization and of which there are new examples just about every single day), there is a critical job description missing from the service offerings. That job is “publisher”. The publisher makes the overall decisions about the editorial, production, and marketing resources that are committed to each book.

In the author services environment, this role can often be useful but would not be missed in many circumstances. There is no “what to publish” decision; the author has a book. There are very limited “resource allocation” decisions because the available resources to allocate are the author’s own.

But as entities of all kind take over from authors as the primary providers of books outside the industry itself, the role of publisher becomes critical. Decisions will need to be made.

There are 26 categories of helper available in BiblioCrunch. “Publisher” is not one of them.

I met last week in Los Angeles with a team of producers and development executives who are acting on an idea I have pushed: that Hollywood can become an important center for fiction book publishing. They have a core resource of thousands of great stories developed in the hopes that they will become a movie that ultimately doesn’t get funded, or as they say out there, “green-lighted”. This team has over 100 projects that are candidates for their book publishing efforts, but they can’t just “do them all”. They have to set up a company, pay to turn scripts into novels (or, at least, narrative stories), and put them into ebook and probably also print book formats. So, they asked me, which ones would you do first?

I said, “I wouldn’t ask me. I’d ask a publisher.” I named two very good and experienced ones immediately who are currently unemployed. These people have vast experience with all the decisions that are required: which stories are most saleable as books, what length the books should be, what style they should be written in, and how they should be titled, packaged, and promoted.

This necessity is even more evident when one thinks about non-fiction entities that might become publishers. If every museum, library, and department of a university is “a publisher waiting to happen” (and I believe all of them are), how could any of them proceed without a publisher?

If you were trying to get a museum started on becoming a book publisher, you’d begin with a discovery process that asked key questions. Who comes to the museum and what do you know about them? Who comes to the museum’s web site and what do you know about them? What IP do you already own that could be publishable as books? What good IP could you lay your hands on if you would publish it as a book? What is your relationship to sources of IP and marketing, like academic institutions, not-for-profits, or other museums? If you asked supporters of your museum for money to fund a publishing program, would they give it to you?

What the publishing program should be in response to the answers to those questions is something only a publisher has real experience figuring out. The publisher is the first service the entity needs. Renting a publisher takes precedence over renting an editor or a cover artist.

Ingram Publisher Services had a great success with a wildly expensive ($625) cookbook series (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Perhaps lost in the reporting of that story is the fact that Myhrvold’s first stop was to engage Bruce Harris, the former Publisher of Harmony Books and a former Random House sales executive. Harris has “publisher” in his DNA, and he undoubtedly shaped key decisions, probably including engaging Ingram in the first place, let alone directing their activites, that were instrumental to the success of the project.

So the first strategic point is that hiring all the services without hiring a publisher is like having a football team without a quarterback.

The second strategic observation is that the industry itself, but particularly the trade component of it, is also being unbundled. Disparate efforts that bookstores aggregated and welded together are now coming apart.

Here I’m not thinking about the value chain for each book, which is overseen by the publisher, but the value chain for the industry, which includes the supply chain. Although there have always been some vertical bookstores — in New York City until a few years ago they ranged from specialists in architecture to specialists in mysteries — most books were sold in general bookstores that sold everything. As publishers are forced to reach readers in different ways than they used to, the subject of a book, and the consistency of audience appeal within a publisher’s list, becomes a key to its marketing in ways it never was.

But ebooks are creating another distinction, between books that are meant to be read from start to finish and all other books: art books, illustrated instruction, references, and compendia. Narrative writing, particularly fiction, works as ebooks. The others don’t. That increasingly encourages publishers who depend primarily on narrative reading to stick to it and to not publish books of other kinds.

It is also creating a differentiated distribution problem for publishers, depending on their output. Publishers of novels and narrative non-fiction are seeing the decline in their print book sales compensated for by increases in their ebook sales. They have a new challenge reaching the audiences and making them aware of their books, but their problem isn’t exacerbated by the format change. Many of their readers simply switch over from print to digital on whatever device they want to use and one-color straight text printing enables reducing the print runs without costs getting completely out of line.

But that’s not true for publishers of other books. As bookstores close and readers switch to digital formats, they face existential questions. They can’t suffer the print run reductions readily. They can’t just make a digital version by copying the print. And, if they did, it won’t sell.

Some illustrated book publishers have robust distribution outside the bookstores, to museums or gift shops, for example. In some cases, the book trade was already a diminishing share of their business before the ebook revolution happened.

But the impact of digital change on publishers that used to all depend together on a healthy bookstore network is very highly variable. Their fates were joined. They’re now being unbundled.

Although the organizing theme of our Pub Launch BEA conference is “scale”, the other trends definitely get their moment. Ken Michaels of Hachette will talk about tools his company has developed that are being unbundled and delivered as services to other publishers. And the particular challenge of the illustrated book publishers as they lose the ability to piggyback on bestseller traffic in bookstores is the subject of the final chunk of the day’s programming. First, Ron Martinez of Aerbook will survey the new tools available to make putting an illustrated book into digital form cheaper and more effective. Then a panel of illustrated book publishers — Joseph Craven (Quarto Group), Tim Greco (Dorling Kindersley), Lindy Humphreys (Abrams), and Mary Ann Naples (Rodale) – will talk about how they are adjusting to the new retailing environment unbundling is creating in a panel discussion moderated by former Crown Illustrated publisher Lauren Shakely.

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“Scale” is a theme everybody in publishing needs to be thinking about, so we’ve made it the focus of our next Publishers Launch Conference


The overarching theme of our upcoming Publishers Launch Conference at BookExpo America on May 29 is “scale”. I thank my PLC partner, Michael Cader, for urging that we label that as a core concern worthy of being the centerpiece for a day’s discussion. (With that nudge, I identified “scale”, along with “verticalization” and “atomization”, as one of the three big forces driving publishing change in the current era of transition.)

We’re covering “scale” from many angles on May 29.

The program will kick off with a presentation from Pete McCarthy, formerly a digital marketing strategist at Random House, about moving beyond our standard understanding of “industry data” — what we learn about the industry in the aggregate from BookStats and Bowker and others — to mining and analyzing the massive amounts of public data about readers: who they are and where they are. The data we care about, and that can really help us, isn’t labeled “book publishing data” but is far more useful and actionable than much of what we try to decipher meaning from that is tagged that way.

The requirements of scale threaten to really change the business of literary agents. Since the rise of agents as intermediaries between publishers and authors in the 1950s and 1960s, it has always been possible for agents to operate as very tiny operations. Single-agent offices have never been terribly unusual, and agents could run a successful business with a handful of prosperous clients, or even just one! The unusual convention in publishing by which the buyer (the publisher) customarily pays for the lunch at which the seller (the agent) learns about the buyer’s likes and priorities has been a symbol of the viability of this highly decentralized world.

But those times are changing. The opportunities for self-publishing and the requirements for authors to be self-promoters have placed new demands on literary agency offices. It is often no longer sufficient to have knowledge of acquiring editors and what they want and a network of foreign co-agents who can help place projects in other languages and territories. Agencies large and small are adding self-publishing services, which can include capabilities as mundane as getting cover art designed and as sophisticated as distribution to a global network of ebook retailers. This adds the potential for “conflict” for the agents. In some cases, agencies have chosen a course that might present a choice for an author between a publisher’s deal and their agent’s deal.

These changes and the challenges they present will be discussed by three agents — Brian DeFiore of DeFiore and Company, Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media Group, and Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management — in a conversation that will be moderated by Michael Cader.

We will have presentations from three publishers about how they are employing scale. David Nussbaum of F+W Media (owners of our Digital Book World partners) will talk about how they support a variety of vertical businesses with central services providing ecommerce and event management that make it possible for all their communities to benefit from a wider variety of offerings and capabilities. Ken Michaels of Hachette will describe some of his company’s solutions to knotty challenges like digital marketing and metadata quality that they are then making available industry-wide as SaaS offerings. And Jeff Abraham of Random House will be talking about their efforts to utilize scale in a new publishing environment, to drive efficiency and reach in the supply chain and to reach consumers more effectively via their marketing programs.

Ben Evans of Enders Analysis studies big companies that operate at scale far beyond our industry but whose activities very much affect us: namely Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. His presentation will focus on how their strategies and activities influence the environment for the publishing industry, with insights as to how publishers can surf the waves of these giants’ activities rather than be overwhelmed by them.

As publishers have rethought their organizations in the past several years, the words “business development” have popped up in publishing job titles, which they never had before. We’ll have four publishers talking about what “business development” means to them: Peter Balis of John Wiley, Andrea Fleck-Nisbet of Workman, Adam Silverman of HarperCollins, and Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster, in a panel conversation moderated by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.

Brian Napack was President of Macmillan for several years; he’s now an investor at Providence Equity Partners. In a conversation with Michael Cader, Napack will discuss how he views the importance of scale as an investor and how his views have evolved since he was an operator in one of the large companies that might be challenged by the scale of even larger competitors.

The changes in publishing and the provision of services have also enabled publishing with less organization or investment and by the application of scale created outside publishing to new publishing enterprises. A panel of new publishers with roots outside the industry: Jennifer Day of the Chicago Tribune, Steve Kobrin of Wharton Digital Press, Alison Uncles of the Toronto Star/Star Dispatches, and David Wilk of Frederator Books will talk about how their organizations publish in ways that wouldn’t have been possible or even conceivable a few short years ago on a panel that will be moderated by longtime Harper executive and digital pioneer Carolyn Pittis.

Dan Lubart of Iobyte Solutions has been tracking ebook sales data for years and has been providing the data and analysis behind the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Lubart will present insights from “behind” the bestseller list data, including a deeper dive into the trends relating to ebook pricing. The ebook bestseller lists have been the evidence of strong challenges to the publishers who operate with scale on their side, as an increasing number of self-published authors have seen their work rise to the very top of the charts.

Our conference will also tackle the special problems facing illustrated book publishing. The success of ebooks has been pretty much confined to narrative reading made reflowable on devices of any screen size. No formula or format has yet proven to work commercially for illustrated books. We’ll address that question from two angles.

Ron Martinez of Aerbook is the best thinker we know around the question of making creative complex ebooks and apps more efficiently. His company has developed its own tool, Aerbook Maker, to address that challenge. But Ron is also knowledgeable about and respectful of other efforts, including tools from Apple and Inkling, that reduce the cost of experimentation for illustrated book publishers looking for ways to deliver an appealing and commercially viable digital version of their content. He will kick off our discussion of the challenges for illustrated book publishing by reviewing the tools and best practices for lower-cost experimentation. And in his quest to improve the margins for illustrated book publishers delivering virtual versions, he has also worked out what might be a marketing and distribution tool that can improve the equation from the revenue side.

Ron will be followed by a panel of illustrated book publishers talking about how they plan to thrive in an environment where the virtual solution hasn’t arrived and the store environment is becoming more challenging. Joseph Craven of the Quarto Group, Tim Greco of Dorling Kindersley, Lindy Humphreys of Abrams, and Mary Ann Naples of Rodale will discuss these issues in a panel moderated by Lauren Shakely, who faced these challenges herself as the longtime publisher at Crown Illustrated.

Our normal practice at Publishers Launch Conferences, which this review of our planned show spells out, is to put the smartest and most articulate players really dealing with the challenges of digital change in the spotlight to talk about what they’re doing and what they’re facing. This has the virtue of showcasing real solutions to real problems.

Frankly, our view is that very few of the outside disruptors, often tech- and private equity-centric start-ups providing “solutions” to the problems as they perceive them, have gained much traction or added much value. We’ll get more perspective on that from our “business development” panel, who are the ones in their companies charged with interacting with the aspirants, but we stick to the belief that there is more to be gained by watching what the established publishing players and the biggest companies in technology are doing than in tracking the theories spawned by industry outsiders who think their insights will change our world.

But we recognize a weakness to our approach. There are some things the established players just can’t discuss. We can’t expect Random House and Penguin — or their biggest competitors — to talk about what the merger of the two biggest publishers will mean to the marketplace. We can’t expect publishers who must trade with Amazon and Barnes & Noble to discuss the impact of their unique marketplace power — one in online sales and one in brick-and-mortar — on publishers’ margins. We can’t expect agents and publishers to talk candidly about when and whether established authors might be willing to eschew their bookstore sales in favor of higher margins on their online sales through a direct tie to Amazon.

But Michael Cader and I have informed opinions on these subjects and neither of us is looking for a job in the industry beyond the one we already have, which is, from our different perches and platforms, to call them as we see them. So we’re going to engage in a 30-minute 1-on-1 discussion of the topics we think it would be hard for the speakers we recruit to discuss as candidly as we will.

I think our discussion will be a highlight of what will be a stimulating day. Frankly, I’m looking forward to all of it. Join us if you possibly can.

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Atomization: publishing as a function rather than an industry


The announcement of what amounts to the first book publishing program spawned by Google demonstrates a paradigm we’re seeing repeatedly. It suggests a sweeping change in publishing from how we’ve known it. The bottom line is that most people employed publishing books perhaps as soon as 10 years from now won’t be working for publishing companies.

The trade publishing business over the past twenty years has been transitioning from what it was for a century. The Internet, which so many of us said two decades ago “changes everything” is ultimately responsible. Amazon.com has been the primary catalyst, with print on demand technology (especially Ingram’s Lightning Source) and ebooks (mostly Amazon, but others too) as supporting players. With so many more books to choose from and really available than there ever were before, the function of gatekeepers, which trade publishers and booksellers clearly and proudly were, becomes an anachronism.

The big question — at least for me — is what is trade publishing transitioning to? What does the trade publishing world look like when it doesn’t primarily reach readers through bookstores anymore, a day which one could say has already come in the past five years.

Overall trade sales today outside of special outlets, catalogs, and what remain of book clubs divide into three big chunks: one is printed books sold in stores, one is printed books sold online, and one is ebooks. The latter two are sold without stores, and far more than half of that is sold by Amazon. And that is the way it is most helpful to think about sales because it is only print-in-stores that requires (or benefits from) a big publishing organization.

What the latest Bowker information has to say, lumping ebooks into “online commerce”, is that 44% of sales are online, 32% through physical retail, and the remainder through book clubs and warehouse clubs (physical retail to me!) and “all other channels”. But they also report that 30% of sales are ebooks, which would mean that they’re only calling 14% of the remaining 70% online. There are a lot of ways to count these things, and the resulting calculation of 20% of print sales being online feels very low to me.

It all depends on what kind of book we’re talking about, of course. I visualize the market breaking into thirds among the three chunks. Certainly, one-third ebooks is an understatement for fiction.

However we view the current division of sales, the trade book business was built in a completely different environment. Indeed, the central proposition that all publishers offered all authors is ” we put books on shelves.” The companion reality was “you can’t do this by yourself”.

As recently as 2007, before Kindle, there were no ebook sales and upwards of 85% of print was sold in stores.

The requirements to deliver on the promise “to put books on shelves” included the capital to invest and specialized knowledge to turn a manuscript into inventory, a physical plant to manage the warehousing and shipping of those books, and a network of relationships with the owners of the shelves (in the bookstores) to get the right to put your books on those shelves. These were the minimum requirements to be a publisher. If you had them, you could move on to being smart about selecting books (in the case of non-fiction, almost always before they were were completely written), being skilled at developing them, being capable of packaging them attractively, and being managers of another network — of reviewers and broadcast conversation producers and, more recently, bloggers and social megaphones — to bring word of them to the public.

All of this together gave a publisher the capability to pay authors advances against what amounts, for all but the very biggest authors, to a minority share of the revenue the book generated. But, in fact, the central proposition has lost its power. Only a quarter to a half of the sales now — far less for fiction and far more for illustrated books — require a publisher to “put books on shelves”. And that number is going down. For the balance, no inventory investment is actually necessary. Nor is a physical plant or a vast network of sales relationships.

And, without that requirement, the barriers to entry to becoming a “book publisher” have collapsed, particularly if you’re willing to start with ebooks and think of print as an ancillary opportunity. Google is becoming one. Amazon became one a long time ago. NBC has become one. The Toronto Star and The New York Times have become ebook publishers. And, of course, so have many tens of thousands of individual authors, a few of whom are achieving startling success.

Soon — in the next 5 or 10 years — every university (perhaps most departments within a university), every law firm and accounting firm and consulting firm, certainly every content creator in other media, as well as most manufacturers and retailers will become book publishers too.

Why not? Without the requirement of an organization to reach the public through bookstores and without the requirements of capital or knowledge to create printed books, any organization that is routinely reaching people interested in a common topic — whether or not they are creating content around that topic now, but especially if they do — will find it constructive to publish, and well within their reach and means to do so.

That is: publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. Think about it this way. If you had told every museum and law firm in 1995 that they needed a web page, many would have wondered “what for?” If you had told them in 2005 that they needed a Facebook presence or in 2008 that they needed a Twitter stream, they would have wondered why. We’ve reached the moment when they all need a publishing strategy, and that will be as obvious to all these entities in a year or two as web pages, Facebook pages, and Twitter streams look now.

This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years.

Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.

Publishing is not immune to the laws of supply and demand and the price of books is tumbling. Most self-published fiction is crap, but a small percentage of a very large number of self-published novels constitutes a significant range of good cheap choices for fiction readers, particularly in genres. That “diamonds in the dirt” effect has been becoming more and more evident with the passage of time. Recently, the Digital Book World bestseller list (compiled by ioByte’s Dan Lubart in conjunction with our friends at DBW) had a self-published book in the top slot for the first time. It won’t be the last time.

Publishers still have plenty of capabilities that are enticing to authors. There are still stores with shelves on which to put books. And big publishers can build on that increased presence very impressively; it is hard to believe that “Fifty Shades of Grey” would have sold the tens of millions of copies that it has as a self-published book. Random House made a quantum difference.

But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into that. The publishers’ power to use that capability to command a share of the “easy” (no inventory investment or sales force required) money from ebooks, which was a sine qua non for them until very recently, is evaporating.

When Hugh Howey was in the early stages of what has turned into his eye-popping success with the novel WOOL, publishers would only offer him a deal to publish print if he also gave them ebook rights. Howey and his agent, Kristin Nelson, found those offers easy to resist, since he was making so much money on ebooks and publishers would have wanted a healthy share of it. A few months later, Simon & Schuster (wisely, in my opinion) agreed to give Howey a print-only deal for US rights.

How far away can it be for the NBC News book on a national election or the Whole Foods book on cooking the organic way or the Home Depot book on how to build a shelf or the Boston Celtics’ own book on the history of their team to get the same treatment? (Or, of course, the “brand” can handle the whole job themselves, using services offered by many — most prominently Ingram, Perseus, and Random House — to handle the decreasing percentage of the business that is “books in stores.”)

Of course, there is, or at least there can be, a lot more to publishing than just making good content available and making the people you know already aware that it is there. (Although, increasingly, that will be seen as “enough”, along with ancillary benefits, to make it worth the effort to many entities.) There are rights to be sold. There are ways to market to “known book buyers” that are increasingly going to be the property of entities that have developed lists and techniques at scale.

So there will continue to be a trade book business and it is likely that the machinery of the biggest book publishing organization (or two) will be required for a very long time to maximize the biggest commercial potential, like “Fifty Shades of Grey”. But, without a robust “book trade”, from which trade publishing gets its name, there cannot be commercially robust trade publishing, at least not as we have known it.

I reflect on a pithy bit of wisdom offered to me in conversation a few years ago by David Worlock, who might be thought of as one of the originators of digital publishing, and who, in any case, is a wise observer of the publishing scene and by a few years my senior. Well before we thought of any self-published bestsellers — this must have been about 2005 — David said, to me, “surely, in time, the number of books created within the network must exceed the number of books created outside the network.”

The “network”, of course, was the Internet. He was envisioning direct-to-ebook publishing and automated blogs-to-books publishing as well as a lot of customization. He was right.

And the atomization I think may be the overarching trend of the next decade or two fits right in.

Once the concept of the atomization and dispersal of the publishing function becomes understood, you see it everywhere. Aside from the Google-spawned publishing program — which is built around their massive multi-player game activity, but there are many other applications once they get used to this idea — we had a library announce a new digital press last week.

We’d already been putting together a panel of new entrants to book  publishing for our Publishers Launch BEA conference on May 29. Of course, the atomization we talk about here is enabled by the scale being provided by others, including service providers. And the major houses are trying their hardest to build marketing at scale. Ken Michaels, the President and COO of Hachette, and David Nussbaum, the Chair of F+W Media, are our first two confirmed speakers about that. We’ll have a panel of literary agents talking about how they’re tackling the need for scale to help clients with an increasingly broad range of choices for publishing.

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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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Two new initiatives to ponder as we end the year


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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