Sony

Sony exits and the ebook business loses an original player


Sony has thrown in the towel on the ebook business and turned its customers over to Kobo. This has unleashed speculation that Nook will soon do the same. If B&N were really forced to choose between the investments they need to make in their stores and the investments required to compete in digital delivery, it would be hard to see them making any other choice but to save the stores. The notion of another retailer, perhaps Walmart, buying the whole thing seems eminently logical, but one can’t account for the role that a sentimental attachment to the stores by B&N’s principal owner, Len Riggio, might play in these decisions.

Despite the hopes and expectations of upstarts like Zola Books (which itself made an acquisition lately, taking Bookish off the hands of the three publishers that started it) and Baker & Taylor’s Blio or longtime competitor Copia or the originally phone-based txtr, it feels to me like we’re seeing the beginning of consolidation of the ebook business. Verticalization may work, as it has seemed to for Allromanceebooks but just being “indie-curated” wasn’t enough for Books on Board, a pretty longtime player that expired last year. (So far, Diesel, a comparable indie, is hanging in there.)

Sony is a big company with a very tiny ebook business. They were also really the “first mover” in the modern era ebook device space. The e-ink Sony Reader is more like the Kindle and Nook than any other thing that came before. But if the ebook play ever fit into a larger objective for Sony, it is not clear what that was.

Apple opened their ebook store because they thought they had a suitable device for book consumption (the iPad), but they also had experience with selling content before (iTunes). They also see potential for iPads in the school and university markets, so they have developed technology to enable more complex books — the kind that haven’t been successful commercially yet — to be developed for their platform. Establishing their devices and the iOS ecosystem in the education market would be a big win for them.

Google recognized over a decade ago that books, being repositories of information that contained the best response to many searches, were a world they wanted to be in. With their growing position in devices — the Nexus 7 phone and Chromebook computers — and as the developers of the Android ecosystem that competes with iOS in the app market, there are many ways that being in the ebook business complements other endeavors, including, perhaps, competing with Apple and iOS in the schools.

In the last post here, I posited (among other things) that ebook retailing just wouldn’t work as a stand-alone business; it has to be a complement to other objectives and activities to make commercial sense. Sony has found that it doesn’t fit for them, almost certainly because it doesn’t add value to any of their other businesses.

Of course, ebooks definitely complement Barnes & Noble’s core business. You have a pretty obvious deficiency if you run a bookstore and don’t sell ebooks, so everybody manages to do it somehow or other. Among the mistakes Borders is accused of having made before they disappeared was turning their ebook business over to Kobo. Doubts about the future of Waterstones in the UK include whether it was wise to turn their ebook business over to Amazon. If Barnes & Noble didn’t have Nook, they’d have to make a deal with whoever did have Nook, or with somebody else.

I’m sure Apple or Kobo or Google would be just delighted to have their ebooks integrated into Barnes & Noble’s suite of offerings, and probably Amazon would too, although they would almost certainly never be asked. All of them have shown interest in affiliating with indie stores, with Google having gone in and out, Kobo now trying hard with them, and, even Amazon, which can’t penetrate indies effectively with their own published books now offering them an affiliate program to sell Kindle ebooks called Amazon Source. But surely all of them would jump at the chance to expand their distribution to Barnes & Noble customers.

It is likely that B&N believes that the Nook business can only be truly successful if they keep investing in improved devices and create a global presence. That may be true, but it also might be that Nook can be a useful adjunct to their store business without continually adding devices or creating a presence outside the US where there are no B&N stores. More and more people are comfortable reading on multi-function devices through apps. Maybe B&N could profitably hold on to a core Nook audience by emphasizing synergies with the stores more (bundling print and ebooks, like Amazon does with its Matchbook initiative and as has been tried on a smaller scale by some publishers, would be one such way) and not worrying so much about making Nook competitive with the other ebook retailers as a stand-alone business.

The wild card here is if some big outside player — Walmart being the most frequently mentioned — saw benefits to having the ebook business (or even the whole book business) in its portfolio. That’s happened in the UK, where supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bought a majority stake in Anobii (a UK-publishers-backed startup, analogous to Bookish in the US) and Tesco bought Mobcast because the ebook business was one that they thought fit in well with their offerings and customer base. (Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco made statements about strengthening their “digital entertainment” and online retailing propositions. Tesco is investing in devices as well.) Kobo has made it a pillar of their strategy to find brick-and-mortar partners all over the world.

On a global basis outside the English-language world, the ebook business is still in its infancy. But it is hard to see how any player without a strong English-language presence could develop the scale to compete with those who have it. Every nation and language will have local bookstore players who have “first claim” on the book-readers in their locality. Some might harbor ambitions to also own their local ebook business, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that ebooks cannibalize bookstore shelf space. But the cost in cash and time of doing it, combined with the competitive advantage of having English-language books in the offering no matter what language your target market reads, will make a build-it-yourself strategy increasingly unattractive. So it would seem that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo are positioned to grow organically and partner ubiquitously. And it will require some seriously disruptive event, like Walmart buying Barnes & Noble, to break the hold that quartet will have on the global ebook market over the next decade.

A potential disruptive development which this piece ignores is the possibility that ebooks become largely a subscription business over the next decade. I have two overarching thoughts on that.

One is that the book-by-book purchasing habit is sufficiently ingrained that it will not be changed drastically around ebooks in the next ten years. I have no idea what percentage of the ebook market is now subscription, but I think it is safe to say “far less than 1%”. So my instinct is that it would take wild success for it to get to as much as 10% in the next ten years.

The other thing to remember is that any ebook retailer can always develop a subscription offering. Amazon effectively started already that with Kindle Owners Lending Library. You can be sure that if Oyster or 24Symbols starts gathering a substantial share of the market, all of the Big Four as we see them here will find a way to compete for that segment. (It is considerably harder to go the other way around; it is much less likely that Oyster or 24Symbols will open regular stores.)

So whether subscription grows faster or not, the giants of ebook retailing will remain the same.

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Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off


When Larry Kirshbaum, the longtime head of TimeWarner Publishing (purchased right after he left in 2007 by Hachette and now the company called Hachette Book Group USA) joined Amazon many people thought — I among them — that Amazon was about to become a threat to take big titles away from the major publishers and, by doing so, also put pressure on competing retailers who would either have to buy from Amazon or do without major books.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal spells out just how futile have been Amazon’s efforts so far to upend the Big Six. Their two biggest headline acquisitions — a celebrity bio from actress Penny Marshall and the latest from bestselling non-fiction writer Tim Ferriss — are achieving paltry sales outside Amazon as measured by BookScan.

Michael Cader does some deeper digging to suggest that the high-profile books are not the place to be looking for the successes in Amazon’s publishing. They’re publishing lots of genre fiction and buying up some backlists.

Yet, I can’t believe that the high-profile output from the New York office meets Amazon’s original expectations or Kirshbaum’s. If they miscalculated the impact they could make, maybe it was for the same reason I did. An abrupt slowdown in ebook switchover took hold at about the same moment the Kirshbaum era at Amazon began. Big publishers are reporting that ebook sales are now approaching 30% of their revenue, which is about a 50% increase from what they said last year. That follows several years when ebook uptake increased by 100% or more.

(It is important to note here that the reported figures are a percentage of all revenue. Many titles are not “ebookable”: they’re illustrated books or little kids’ books and, if they have ebook equivalents at all, they don’t sell nearly that percentage. So the digital sales of immersive reading would constitute a somewhat higher percentage than that.)

Amazon as a publisher has advantages and disadvantages against more traditional competitors. They have the advantages of direct customer contact, which pay off in two ways. They can send you an email pitching a book as the logical next one to the one you just read; general publishers can’t do that. And, as the publisher, they have more margin to either pay the author more or charge the customer less, which, either way, increases an author’s revenue through online channels.

But their disadvantages are also significant. For most books, and particularly non-fiction (as both of which the high-profile releases the Wall Street Journal wrote about are), more than half of the sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. Despite their attempt to secure that exposure by a licensing deal with Houghton Harcourt, the resistance to Amazon from Barnes & Noble and many independent stores and mass merchants has curtailed that distribution.

Apparently Amazon led at least some people to believe with their success on the recent Barry Eisler book that they could sell more copies through their own channels than big publishers could through the entire network. The claim that they had outsold all his previous NY Times bestsellers was made to literary agents in a letter that also cited other great successes, all with genre fiction. Without questioning anybody’s numbers, I was skeptical about the significance of the relative Eisler sales because, it seemed to me, whatever they could do for Eisler (whom they published) they could do for any other book they wanted to, whether they published it or not. So it seems illogical to me that they would somehow magically sell more than the whole trade combined on a book because they were publishing it.  It seems apparent that Amazon isn’t succeeding at persuading agents that the Eisler case, even if it is as portrayed, is replicable.

I saw reports of bitter comments from Tim Ferriss, complaining about Barnes & Noble’s apparently-effective boycott of their competitor’s publishing program. Maybe he would be doing that even if Amazon is selling more than his conventional publishers did before. But I doubt it.

This is not a final answer. Amazon’s share of the trade market — ebooks and online print combined — is still growing and shows no sign of abating. Most publishers would still report that Amazon is their fastest-growing account.

But shelf space erosion — a metric with no reliable index anywhere — seems to have slowed down. That means that, at the moment, we have a more stable book trade than we’ve had for at least five years. It is smaller, but it is more stable. In the US at least, our market of three big ebook players (Amazon, B&N, Apple) and two sturdy and persistent upstarts (Kobo and Google) is still welcoming some new entrants. Zola eBooks, promising some interesting merchandising innovations, and Bookish — the repeatedly postponed effort from three major publishers — are expected to join the fray soon. Sony and Copia and Blio are still trying to gain traction, but they’re also still here.

Amazon definitely has the most advantages. Their Kindle ecosystem is still the best-functioning, deepest in title selection, and benefits in numerous ways from having more readers and selling more ebooks (and books, for that matter) than anybody else. The growth in their genre title base that Cader points out increases their market share of dedicated genre readers, who read other things too. They have the most self-published titles and the best ecosystem for self-published authors to make money. And the big title growth enables them to build subscription or subscription-like capabilities like KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) which do take customers out of the game for everybody else.

As their share of the market grows — as long as it continues to grow — their argument to authors to cast their lot with them gets stronger.

But, for now, it would seem that B&N definitely did the right thing for their own good by boycotting Amazon’s titles. And, for now, it would seem that most of the authors Amazon will get for their general list will be those who are annoyed at the publishing establishment like Konrath and Eisler or curious about working with a tech-oriented publisher like Ferriss.

Authors who want bookstore exposure or to maximize their total sales across the US bookselling universe will remain hard to persuade for the forseeable future. But probably a little less so with each passing day.

I note with sadness the passing of Senator George McGovern. I am proud to have worked on all three of his presidential campaigns: 1968 at the Democratic National Convention working for Pierre Salinger, two years on the 1972 campaign, and a weekend in New Hampshire trying to light a fire in 1984.

What motivated us to join Senator McGovern was primarily his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his personal and political appeal went far beyond that. He was extraordinarily decent and straightforward. In my stretch of two years working for him in the early 70s, it was remarkable how consistently he took issue positions we young idealists could be proud of. A poorly-vetted choice for vice-president will always be part of the explanation for why he was crushed, but my friend Professor Wade — one of McGovern’s top strategists — told me years ago that it was the assassination attempt that crippled George Wallace that actually was responsible for the defeat. 

Nixon had won the 1968 election with a little over 40% of the vote. Wallace had taken a share in the high teens. The McGovern planning from the beginning assumed a similar race in 1972. When Wallace was eliminated by the assassination attempt, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” made him the heir to the Wallace vote and a landslide victory.

In the end, of course, it was Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who went to jail and his administration that ended in disgrace. McGovern was always gracious and never bitterBut, as a country, we’ve never spent enough time contemplating how different things could have been if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot in 1968 or if McGovern had won in 1972.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kobo’s new deals propel them into the top tier of global ebook competitors


The week I spend each year at the Frankfurt Book Fair is always the most stimulating week of my professional year. The concentration of the best thinkers and most powerful people in publishing always seems to lead me to a new burst of understanding about our global publishing world, particularly in these times of rapid change.

I saw one Big Six CEO who noted that I had said last week that I expected the US publishers to be living in an 80% ebook world pretty soon although the global head of another of the Big Six companies had just stated the belief that the switchover to digital would stop, or slow down significantly, at 40%. I respectfully disagree, but will save that argument for another post. The one I talked to, who chuckled about the wide disparity in these two predictions, didn’t express an opinion about which of us was right, but the implications of the two predictions are so different that it behooves the people running the biggest companies to at least consider mine, even if they believe his.

I also talked to a business development executive for one of the tech companies that has been converting backlists from print and pdf to epub. He made the point that his business remains robust but moves around the world as new markets discover serially that they need to get their intellectual property into digital form. We agreed that those of us who make a living on the digital transition — and that certainly includes me at the moment (what are you reading this blog for?) — have a few more years ahead of us before we’ll have to figure out how to make a living on the new reality (if we need to keep making a living when it arrives…)

With the deals announced at Frankfurt by Kobo with the English retailer WHSmith and the French retailer Fnac along with the quickening pace of store openings by Apple and Amazon, the future shape of the ebook retailing landscape has been more clearly defined. It looks to me like we’ll have three principal global players that will be active in every market — they being Amazon, Apple, and Kobo — plus perhaps a local contender in each market as well. Barnes & Noble has played the latter role extremely successfully so far in the United States; Waterstone’s will attempt the same in the UK starting next Spring; there is local competition in Germany; and certainly there will be in many other countries as the ebook revolution laps at their shores. Google, being Google, will not go away, but they will remain a relatively marginal player unless and until they put considerably more energy into their solution and into promoting what they have.

The Kobo deals are the game-clarifiers, if not game-changers. A sage observer of the digital scene stopped at my stand here in Frankfurt to discuss the WHSmith-Kobo arrangement with me and he wondered whether this was the best deal for both sides. Should Kobo have been trying harder to make a deal with Waterstone’s? Is it wise for WHSmith to be making a deal where they sell the devices but connect them to a Kobo-branded store?

But that, of course, is the key to the deal. The economics of the devices don’t work unless you also can sell the ebooks to go into them. (That’s the answer to all the geniuses who think Barnes & Noble is being thick not implementing an international rollout of the Nook!) Neither WHSmith nor Fnac is principally a book retailer: books are just another product line in stores that sell other things and have a broader identity. By selling a reader attached to an ebook store that serves customers well, they buy themselves relevance to the book consumer during the transition and extend their lives as booksellers. They demonstrate recognition that building and maintaining a ebook store is not a trivial undertaking and, in the face of several global competitors, not something they want to undertake from their position as a country-specific, and more general, retailer.

By tying up with Kobo, both WHSmith and Fnac can get into the market with ereading devices at about the same time as Amazon brings in the Kindle. And WHSmith launching for Christmas 2011 should be terrifying Waterstone’s, which will be months behind with devices and almost certainly delivering a less consumer-friendly store off the bat than the experienced Kobo offering will be.

Barnes & Noble has achieved startling success at establishing a strong second-place position in the US ebook market, but their situation may prove to be unique. First of all, they’re in the biggest single ebook market (by value, even though poorer markets may pass them sometime sooner in units) we’re likely to see for a decade or more. Second, they are a very serious book retailer that has built strong relationships among book publishers worldwide over many years. And third, their execution was nearly flawless. Even with their precedent as an example, there is no guarantee that Waterstone’s, or anybody else, can pull off what they did in another market.

So if it is a global game and you have to be a global player to be competitive, as well as a “whole ecosystem” game that requires devices attached to a well-stocked and well-presented econtent retailing environment to succeed, we can see the steep uphill fight to be waged by the other players trying to compete with Amazon, Apple, and Kobo, whether they be Google, Copia, Sony, Baker & Taylor’s Blio, or the new entrants financed by publisher collaboration: Anobii in the UK and Bookish in the US.

All other things being equal, I can see a global ebook marketplace that some years from now is 90-95% controlled by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and a local player in each country, with Google getting most of the rest. Google may punch above its weight on the long tail because discovery of the obscure or highly niched content might be their forte; one scholarly publisher told me at Frankfurt that he is already seeing some real growth in his Google sales, which no trade publisher has said in my earshot yet.

But all other things may not remain equal. One informed member of the European digerati told me he believes that the European Competition Commission may outlaw the agency model in the European Union. Were that to happen, that would tilt the playing field substantially toward Amazon. It is ironic that the biggest, strongest, and most deep-pocketed competitor for global ebook sales could be handed an enormous competitive advantage by bureaucrats ostensibly trying to foster a competitive marketplace. Publishers may have deficiencies in their understanding of the digital transition, but it would appear that the government bureaucracies the world over might be far more confused than the publishers are.

I’m posting this before I leave the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday afternoon, European time. I won’t have the opportunity to respond to any comments until at least Monday night London time. I drive with a friend and the charming little hotel we stay at in Monschau doesn’t have wifi and I don’t have the digital dexterity (with “digital” in this case referring to “fingers”) to do lengthy replies on my iPhone.

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“A Global Perspective on Digital Change” will be our first show in London


The first Publishers Launch Conferences show outside the United States, “A Global Perspective on Digital Change”, will be at the Congress Centre in central London on June 21, with the Publishers Association serving as our partners in putting on the event. We also owe special thanks to the PA’s group of Digital Directors, who were extremely generous with their time and insight. If you can be in London that day, you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than with us.

We’re still putting the finishing touches on what will be a one-day conference packed with illuminating conversation, but we can tell you quite a bit about it already. We aim to deliver strategic, practical, and focused discussion of near-term issues and opportunities. This won’t be a showcase for cool products or a venue to debate what the future might look like some day. We’re examining essential issues — ebook “export” opportunities; what happens to territorial rights; hiring and retraining to meet today’s challenges; revamping publishing systems for a dual print and digital paradigm; getting “found” on digital shelves — that publishing professionals should focus on now to thrive in the days to come.

The UK market is in between the US and the rest of the world in its migration from print to digital reading. Kindle and iPad sales really took off last Christmas and, while ebook penetration may be a fourth or less of what it is in the US, it has grown enough to be disruptive and to generate a consensus acceptance that very substantial change in the industry is inevitable.

On the one hand, my PLC partner Michael Cader and I have followed the developments in the US very closely so we have some firsthand experience with some aspects of what the UK trade is going through. On the other hand, we know history won’t repeat itself precisely. There are important differences in the markets and there is a substantial group of companies with experience and capabilities developed in the North American market that can hit the ground running in Britain or anywhere else in the world. That alone will make everybody else’s experience different than what happened in the US.

In order to be sure we were talking with the UK industry, not at it, we took some preparatory steps. In February, we put a large number of ideas for panels and topics up on Survey Monkey and invited 70 players in the UK book trade to express their opinions on them. In five days, 40 of the people responded.

Then we followed up by spending three days in London meeting with about 50 people to discuss our ideas and theirs. Our partners at the PA provided invaluable assistance, hosting our conversations and inviting us to join a regular meeting of the Digital Directors to get the insights of the most knowledgable people in the UK market. Those conversations were crucial in helping us focus properly on topics and in locating some key sources of insight. Frankly, despite our long experience working with the British publishing community (I have visited London on business three or four times a year for 35 years), putting this conference together would have been impossible without the help we got.

But because of that help, I think we’ll be presenting the UK publishing community with a lot of very useful discussion that hasn’t taken place at the many prior gatherings that have discussed book publishers and digital change.

One topic that we identified very early is the opportunity we see for publishers in Britain and Ireland to sell into the US market now without payng for a distributor infrastructure or taking an inventory risk. When we started to explore this topic, we learned that, of course, people are definitely starting to plan for it. Some are starting to exploit it. This was something we thought should be happening below the radar, and it is.

This is a peculiar opportunity, because it might be more important for independent UK publishers large and small than it is for the biggest global players. We’re still filling out the panel for this one, but we have Helen Kogan of Kogan Page, an independent whose company was already working in the US market (and therefore has some helpful experience to pass along) but who is seeing the expanded opportunity presented by digital, and Jean Harrington of Maverick House Publishers in Dublin. Jean is also President of Publishing Ireland and we invited her to join this particular conversation for a reason. The Irish diaspora in the US has a particularly strong identity with the old country and we expect books of Irish history and Irish fiction will find a substantial additional market through ebook sales in America.

We’re working on adding another British publisher and an agent to that dialogue.

Another topic arose out of a conversation that longtime UK consultant Mark Bide and I had while we were at Tools of Change in New York in February. How long will it be, I wondered, before half of UK sales are digital? Mark said he wasn’t sure about the timing, but he was sure that the publishers’ systems, overhead allocations, staffing, and infrastructure would require a lot of adjustment to be ready for that day. That’s a good conference topic, we thought.

Then, in our conversations at the PA 10 weeks ago, Anthony Forbes Watson, the MD of Pan Macmillan, told us he had charged his team with thinking through the question exactly as we had defined it. Anthony wants to know “what does 50% ebooks look like? What do we have to do to be ready for it?” The next day we talked to James Long of Pan Mac who told us that, yes, he was actually the person in the company with the primary responsibility for thinking this question through.

We decided the best frame for this conversation was “thinking about the future.” James, as he will tell us on June 21, is largely focused on what Pan Mac needs to do in systems development and integration, workflow changes, and skills development to be ready for a 50% digital world.

But there are two other aspects of preparing for the future we felt could be illuminated by other panelists we recruited.

Perseus, a US company whose Constellation division that provides digital services to smaller publishers is a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, is one of several companies in the world (Ingram in the US is another; so might Random House be in the US and the UK) that are investing in warehouses and print book distribution capabilities at precisely the time many publishers are disinvesting in them, precisely because they know that most publishers will have to disinvest in them. They’re trying to be there for publishers who want to dispose of fixed cost overheads for the shrinking print book market. We put Rick Joyce of Perseus into this conversation to cover the sensitive topic of consolidation on the physical side (a subject that Dominic Myers, the MD of Waterstone’s, famously put on the UK publishing community’s agenda a couple of months ago.)

Copyright Clearance Center, the US RRO which is also a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, has steadily called our attention to another industry-wide challenge: the need to manage rights more effectively and on a more granular level to take advantage of emerging opportunities to license chunks and fragments for apps, ebooks, and web sites. We thought that the voice for this topic in London should be local, and we were pleased that Sara Faulder, head of the Publishers Licensing Society, agreed to join this conversation.

Mark Bide has agreed to moderate this group in what I think will be a dialogue about publishers and the digital future unlike any the audience will have heard before. (Except, that is, if they are at our Publishers Launch BEA show on May 25, where we’ll have a different version of this conversation, one more focused on export and rights sales than infrastructure, but also covering the change we’ll see to selling more and more fragments.)

We’re not above stealing our own ideas and giving them a local spin. One panel that was extraordinarily successful at Digital Book World last January was one we describe in shorthand as “new skill sets”. It’s about capabilities publishers need to get that they don’t have and it is about process and workflow changes and the use of cross-functional teams as well as hiring in or training people with new skills. Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins did that panel for us in New York in January and is reprising it at our BEA show. In London, he’ll be joined by Juan Lopez-Valcarel of Pearson and Jacks Thomas, the CEO of Midas Public Relations, on a panel moderated by Jo Howard of Mosaic Search & Selection Ltd. One of the key elements in the New York discussion of this, which we expect will arise again in London, is “when is it best to hire in the skills and when is it better to retrain the people I already have?” This is a subject every publisher needs to be thinking about that isn’t discussed in public very often.

We’ll have three of the top digital leaders of UK houses — George Walkley of Hachette, David Roth-ey of HarperCollins, and Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan — joining Michael and me for a dialogue about the big companies who have cut their teeth on the US market and are now taking their capabilities worldwide, starting in the UK. We’ll be talking about Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Ingram, and Overdrive (the six clearly-declared and clearly-capable global ebook players) as well as Sony, aspirants like Copia and Blio, and US titan Barnes & Noble (which has shown no clear signs of global interest yet.) It looks to us like there is only one UK player with a global perspective, still-tiny cell phone provider Mobcast, but we’ll be learning from our panelists whether there are others we should be considering. And our audience will learn more about the North American companies which are bound to be a big part of the local market’s ebook life in the years to come.

We’ve reached a time when “metadata” is an important subject to discuss, no matter how dry or back room it has seemed. We were fortunate to get Graham Bell of EDItEUR to moderate a dialogue about this for us. He’s recruited Jon Windus of Nielsen and Karina Luke of Penguin to discuss it with him. We’re now looking for a retailer to join them. The condition of metadata in the marketplace is not good enough in enough places yet. This is costing publishers sales. This panel will explain why that is and what every publisher should do to make sure this isn’t a huge hole in the side of their boat as online sales, print and digital, grow and the impact of metadata grows right along with them.

We are also going to have a discussion of the future of territorial rights. Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury, a well-known skeptic about them, and David Miller, an agent with Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd., have agreed to participate. We’re looking for a full-throated defender of the current territorial regime to join them in what will be more of a conversation than a debate. We wonder whether territorial rights make as much sense in a 50% ebook world as they do in the 5% ebook world we might now be in. The agent’s voice in this conversation might be the most important one because, after all, they decide whether the deals are acceptable or not.

One thing that the territorial rights dialogue will certainly entertain is what we should expect to see in terms of author initiatives. That topic is bound to come up in two other discussions as well. There’s one we’re now calling “experiments, best practices, and out of the box thinking” which is really about innovation. But we are going to focus on innovation in business models and practices and innovation in marketing, not on product innovation. We are still working on putting this group together, but we were very impressed with our preliminary conversations with two of the panelists.

Marc Gascoigne is at Angry Robot, a sci-fi imprint started by HarperCollins and then bought by Osprey. Angry Robot’s better mousetrap is its community focus; Gascoigne will make the case that doing that right (which many publishers say they want to do) requires that everybody, and that means every editor and everybody else, communicate directly with the audience. It is hard to see putting that across in many established trade houses.

Richard Mollet of the PA will moderate the conversation with the innovators.

Also on that panel will be Peter Cox, an agent with Redhammer. Cox is changing his own business model (providing more in the way of services to his authors, but charging them more for it and looking to represent fewer authors, not more) but he’s effectively changing the author-publisher relationship as well by making the author an active marketer and community gatherer. He’ll have examples and he’ll have ideas that will challenge the thinking of many publishers and agents in the audience.

The last panel of our day is intended as a Grand Finale. Michael Cader and I will sit with Stephen Page of Faber, Rebecca Smart of Osprey, John Makinson of Penguin, and agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. We’ll get their take on the speed of the ebook takeup and its consequences.

How will British publishers cope in a market that may soon have no full-line bookstore chain? How will the industry cope with the rise of self-publishing? Is there any real danger of a consolidated English-language world in which London becomes subsidiary to New York? Or, in some companies, might it be vice-versa? Will both agents and publishers be changing the core business models which have prevailed for the past century over the next few years?

What excites me about the last panel — aside from the sheer smarts and savvy of the people we got to join us — is the diversity of their perspectives. The publishers run companies of different sizes and with very different approaches to building their publishing lists. The agent joining us has gained a reputation as one of the most digitally savvy players in the UK market. Michael and I thrive on spirited conversations with very smart people; we think we’re going to finish the day very stimulated and with big smiles on our faces.

And we think our audience will too.

Of course, before we get to London, we’ll be running our “eBooks Go Global” show aimed at international visitors and their trading partners at BEA. At that show, we’re particularly excited about two panels we won’t be doing in London. One is with a few booksellers already working with the new Google Ebooks capability reporting on how it is functioning for them. The other takes a slightly different approach to the “selling in the US” opportunity. Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, which has aggregated about ten times as many ebooks in Spanish as most people in Spanish markets will tell you exists, will open a lot of foreign publishers’ eyes to the possibilities that exist for them in the US market. We’ll also have a chat with Barry Eisler, the author who turned down half-a-million bucks to self-publish. And that’s not all. Tickets still available… And tickets still available for London as well.

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Eisler’s decision is a key benchmark on the road to wherever it is we’re going


I wasn’t planning to write a post this past weekend for Monday morning publication. But then Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler contacted me on Saturday to tell me what Barry is up to. I’ve read their lengthy conversation about Barry’s decision to turn down a $500,000 contract (apparently for two books) and join Joe (and many others, but none who have turned down half-a-million bucks) as a self-published author.

To use a metaphor that connects with the current news: this is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk-assessment. Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan. This self-publishing author will much more assuredly and directly spawn followers.

As news of Eisler’s decision spreads, phones will be ringing in literary agencies all over town with authors asking agents, “shouldn’t I be doing this?”

I submit a bit of perspective from another part of publishing: scholarly journals. A few years ago I asked my very smart friend Mark Bide, who knows that part of publishing much better than I do, how I’d know if the business model for journals — by which they publish work the university paid the professor’s salary to write and then sell the published version back to the university’s library — was threatened. Mark told me to watch their submissions. As long as the scholar-authors felt the need to be published in journals, the journal business model would continue to function.

I am not alone in having long known that self-publishing would ultimately present big authors with the opportunity to disintermediate their publishers, but I wouldn’t have thought when I asked that question that the sci-tech journal would hold its ground longer. Now I wouldn’t be so sure.

The decision for Eisler, at its core, was pretty simple. On the basis of what he’s learned from his friend Joe Konrath, who seems to be banking in the mid-six-figures self-publishing annually after a career as a non-bestselling author for established publishers, and what Eisler learned himself by self-publishing a short story, he figures he can earn more, much more, in the long run by publishing himself. This is not about ego or vanity; it is not about hating the publishing establishment. It is a coldly calculated decision (by an author who should make those well; he started out in life as a covert CIA operative) that says, in effect,  “it would not be smart to take half-a-million bucks considering what I’d have to give away to get it.”

In the conversation between them which they just published, Konrath and Eisler touch upon many aspects of the publisher-author interaction and the author’s self interest. The conversation is smart, sophisticated, and mostly entertaining (although it is definitely too long; should they have hired an editor?) It is a conversation that everybody in the industry thinking about its future will likely read more than once (particularly the highlights, which are sure to be extracted by many people from the entire text.) Contained within it are certainly a number of points made to which there are valid rejoinders that could be offered. And certainly some will point out that Eisler’s BookScan figures suggest a decline in commercial appeal. But, in the overall scheme of things, the contentious portions are minor and the fact that his sales through publishers have been declining would mitigate the expectations for him somewhat and make any success he achieves on his own even more noteworthy.

The overall thrust is that an author has just made an entirely rational decision to turn down half-a-million bucks of big publisher money to self-publish. And what is said in their dialogue, but perhaps not emphatically enough, is that the direction of change makes this decision likely to make more sense to more authors each successive week than it did the week before.

What we do here at The Shatzkin Files is try to provide insight about the implications of news events rather than be the best reporter of them. If the implications of self-publishing to the business models of established publishers interests you (and what are you doing here if it doesn’t?), then you need to read the entire exchange they’ve published and the reporting others will do of it. I will limit this post (longer than mine usually are as it is) to a few points which for the most part are intended to extend their discussion, rather than contend with or correct it.

1. They didn’t do the math on what the loss of print sales and print merchandising might mean in dollars and cents and how to address it.

One of the themes that I’ve been working on for some conferences I’m planning (more on that upcoming later this week) is how the arguments about rights, royalties, and publisher leverage change as the balance between digital and print sales continues to shift. What this conversation can make you forget is that far more than half of most books’ sales, perhaps more than 70% for the majority of titles, are still print copies selling because they’re on-hand in a physical retail location. And that’s in the US. The number is higher in the UK and is almost certainly more than 90% in most other places in the world. So even if the math Konrath and Eisler put forth showing that the author share of ebook sales can increase by three or four times through self-publishing; even if we ignore (as they did) the fact that the higher percentage will be on a lower retail price (they trumpet the lower retail price they can charge as a key motivation for the shift); and even if we forget about the costs in time and actual expense involved in self-publishing, the author who follows this formula has to take into account the loss of presence and revenue from the retail channel.

But, having said that, the shift to digital seems to be increasing in speed worldwide. The percentage of print sales will keep declining. Eisler would have been signing a contract for a book that would come out a year from now and digital will be more important then, perhaps twice as important then, as it is now. And, as he points out in the conversation, the book a publisher would put out a year from now will have been selling and delivering revenue for a year before the publisher would have had something in the marketplace. To paraphrase the great author and publisher, Mark Twain, “the self-publisher will be halfway round the world before the legacy publisher can get his boots on.”

And that leads me to…

2. I’d be amazed if Barnes & Noble doesn’t detect an opportunity here to do a completely different kind of deal. What if B&N went to Eisler and said, “we’d like to buy print rights to sell your books just to our own customer base”? I can’t see why he wouldn’t just say “yes.”

What I’m envisioning here is something like a book club deal. B&N pays an advance and licenses the right to print its own copies for display and sale through its own stores and dot com. This could work many ways, but one might be for them to pay a royalty based on the actual selling price for every copy shifted. That would allow them to manage their downside risk on the printing because they could cut the price when sales slow down.

That might lead (or even trail) a wholesaler like Ingram or Baker & Taylor or Charles Levy to make a similar offer to print copies for sale through other retail outlets. The big publishers have taken a firm position (which, in my opinion, they’ll be figuring out how to walk back in a year or two) against buying print rights only, but one has to figure that a smaller publisher or a trade book distributor, looking at lots of underutilized capacity to handle print in the coming months, might see commercial merit in handling the print side of a major ebook bestseller.

Konrath does tout his sales through Amazon’s CreateSpace, which enables his books to be available in print for their online customer base. But he doesn’t talk about B&N’s PubIt program or setting up his title at Lightning Source, which would make it available as print online more broadly. None of these solutions put speculative inventory in stores, though, and that’s necessary to get the full marketing and sales impact for any book today (and probably for a few more years to come.)

3. Because Konrath has proved to be such a multi-talented combo do-it-yourselfer and finder-of-resources, the conversation doesn’t touch on the range of service providers that can help the potential self-publishing author for fees or for a much smaller percentage than a publisher would take. There’s mention of Smashwords, which is one, and of CreateSpace. But the self-publishing giant Author Solutions and lulu.com aren’t mentioned. Neither is BookMasters, a company we’ve worked with in Ashland, Ohio, which offers a range of self-publishing services, including access to all the editing requirements discussed by Konrath and Eisler along with some human-intermediary handholding that many authors will need. Perseus is building a similar set of services, extending its Constellation service, which began as the means to enable their roster of print distribution clients break into digital publishing. And Ingram has a suite of capabilities that could be extended, if they chose to make the investment, to be an author-service platform. The Scott Waxman Literary Agency is the first to have created a digital publishing arm that, with tweaking, could provide an author with the help they’d need. They won’t be the last.

The single greatest shortcoming of the Konrath-Eisler conversation, to me, was its Amazon-centricity, although there is one place in the conversation that begins to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble’s Nook sales are becoming significant. (Some publishers have told me that Kindle has declined from a share well north of 80% to one in the mid 50s while Nook is now accounting for 25% of their ebook sales in the US.) They don’t mention Kobo, which might have as much as a 7% share now. Sony is still a player. Apple’s iBookstore really shouldn’t be ignored. And Google ebooks is the lifeline for independent bookstores to sell ebooks. No author who wants to stay sweet with independents can afford to ignore putting their books into Google. In fact, Random House executives told us that the growing use of Google by indies was a factor in their decision to level the pricing playing field by moving to agency pricing last month.

And as the build-out of pathways for English-language books abroad continues, these non-Amazon, non-B&N players become even more important.

When Konrath started doing his self-publishing two or three years ago, working exclusively through Amazon made complete sense on an effort-to-reward basis. It is becoming increasingly important to cover more points of distribution, even digitally.

But that doesn’t change the calculation that much for Eisler’s decision. There are already helpers in the marketplace to extend beyond Amazon and there will, undoubtedly, be more. The conversation imagines this kind of service provision. And (if they’re competent) the ones now in the marketplace will be falling over themselves to introduce Eisler to what they can do for him.

4. OK, here’s what these guys really got wrong. They made a mistake about baseball. Their post is full of line drives off the wall, but their interpretation of baseball history is flawed.

I refer to Konrath’s observation about the Negro Leagues in baseball, suggesting that the reason the majors brought in black players was that Negro League baseball had become superior to Major League baseball. Actually, that wasn’t true at all. Although some integrated barnstorming over the years did result in black teams beating white ones from time to time, it was seldom suggested — and certainly no major league owners or fans thought — that the overall level of play was higher in the Negro Leagues. It wasn’t.

Beating a competitor that had somehow demonstrated its superiority was never the motivation for the major league teams to integrate. It was all about them competing with each other and not ignoring talent. The real history might contain a useful lesson for the legacy players in publishing today.

What drove Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson was pure competitive zeal. He wanted to win. He wanted good ballplayers to help him win. If he was missing some good ballplayers by ignoring blacks, he’d stop ignoring blacks.

When he did that, other teams followed. And, in pretty short order, the Negro Leagues were destroyed because the best ballplayers they had were playing in the Major Leagues.

A similar effect has weakened, if not quite destroyed, Christian publishing in the US. A quarter century ago, Christian publishing and bookselling existed in a parallel universe to secular trade: different publishers, different stores, different commission rep groups. Just different. Then superstore expansion and some major Christian bestsellers led to the major chains starting to carry the best titles from the Christian publishers. That weakened the Christian booksellers, who were the ones that carried the wider range of titles from the Christian publishers which, in turn, weakened them.

Of course, Eisler hasn’t succeeded yet. He has a book to put out this Father’s Day that he turned down $250,000 to have come out next Father’s Day. If the over-under is whether he’ll have earned his $250,000 by then, which way would you bet? It would strike me as extremely ambitious, but if he can sell at $4.95, not entirely inconceivable. And, of course, you could set the bar at which you’d call it “success” a lot lower than that.

If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that I was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?

Konrath made the point that self-publishing just gives him more time to write. He and Eisler both expressed frustration about living with the long schedules and companion limitations of traditional publishing practices. From their perspective, it is wasteful to not start monetizing IP quickly after it is finished in the digital age and it is unnecessarily constraining sales and income to publish only one book a year, or even one per publishing season.

I’ve tried to recruit Joe to speak at conferences, with a total lack of success, because he thinks the best marketing he can do is just to keep writing. New stories help him market himself more than public appearances do. Since he also enjoys writing more than speaking and would rather be home than on the road, it’s a pretty tough sell to ask him to lose a day of editorial output to have a conversation with a bunch of strangers.

The portion of their conversation about staying focused on generating editorial output was one of the most persuasive elements of it. A publisher would help itself a lot if it focused on that question too and thought of a writer’s time as a valuable resource that should be devoted, as much as possible, to doing what that writer can do that nobody else can. And that’s “write.”

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The other comparison: ebook royalties versus ebook self-publishing


My last post tried to lay out a comparison of royalties paid by big publishers to agented authors on ebooks against what they pay on print books. What it showed is that the authors suffer a bit on ebook sales that substitute for hardcover print sales, but that they do pretty well selling an ebook instead of a paperback. And the numbers also showed that a publisher selling ebooks under a wholesale arrangement pays the author a higher royalty than an agency publisher when the print is in its hardcover life, but that the agency publisher is actually paying more royalties if the printed edition is a mass-market paperback.

But this comparison has its limits. It helps an author or agent compare their economic prospects with an agency publisher as opposed to a wholesale one. But it doesn’t help an author understand the next comparison she’ll want to make, between doing her book with a publisher and doing it herself without a publisher at all

Fortunately for authors and agents, the benchmark for self-publishing revenue is clearly established by the ebook platform Smashwords, which I first wrote about at the end of a post 16 months ago. There are certainly alternatives to Smashwords: web-based solutions like Scribd, full-service offerings like our clients at Bookmasters, and things in between like Author Solutions. But Smashwords is the most automated, least expensive, and, at this point, most heavily used self-publishing solution for ebooks.

Smashwords pays authors 85% of the sales price for ebooks sold on its own site, and about 85% of the receipts for sales made through iBooks (Apple), Sony, B&N, Kobo, and the Diesel eBook Store. In other words, an author would get more than three times the “old” standard 25% ebook royalty offered by the big publishers and double the “new” possible 40% royalty implied as the new ceiling by the Random-Wylie agreement announced last week.

It is worth noting that Mark Coker of Smashwords says that all their deals will be agency going forward because control of the retail price is very important to their authors and publishers. The net to the author or publisher through their existing deals is 42.5% for sales made through Sony or B&N, 46.75% for sales made through Kobo, and 60% on their agency deals with Apple and the Diesel eBook Store.

And although Smashwords does not (yet) have an agreement to distribute through Kindle (though they’re working on it), the authors and publishers that use Smashwords would be free to make a separate deal with Kindle, giving them a possible 70% of their retail price if they can keep the potential discounters in line (that would be B&N, Kobo, and Sony.)

One thing very much in Smashwords’ favor is that the barriers to use them are very low. All you need is a doc file and a bright person to pay attention to quality control as you work through your conversion. They make metadata management simple.

What might give big authors pause about using Smashwords is that they distribute DRM-free (although the retailers listed above will be adding their own unless the publisher tells them not to) and that they depend on trust. Each retailer selling Smashwords titles has the content file and the metadata file in their possession and the sales reporting cannot effectively be audited.

But whether or not Smashwords is everybody’s solution, they certainly are establishing that pure automated ebook conversion and distribution services are worth 15% of what is collected from the consumer or from the intermediary selling to the consumer.

Smashwords is already pretty big and growing fast. They have 18,000 titles on offer from 8,000 different authors and publishers at the moment and Coker says they’ve added 2,500 titles in the past 30 days!

And I can personally attest to the fact that Smashwords has some books people will want. I found a title on iBooks called “A Year in Mudville” about the Mets first season — baseball history being a subject I know well and read broadly — which is terrific. It is well-researched, well-written, and well-edited. I found some presentation glitches (type fonts changing for no apparent reason) and pointed them out to Coker. He showed them to the author who then corrected the file. (The glitches didn’t interfere with reading the book at all.) And that book was priced at $8.99 on iBooks, which means the author was getting $5.40 from the sale! Look at that against the chart in my prior post! On a $9 list-price ebook, the author would be getting $1.125 from a wholesale publisher and $1.575 from an agency publisher at 25% royalty; $1.80 and $2.52 at 40%. (And, assuming they did an Amazon deal separately and could meet the restrictions required for the 70% royalty, that author would be getting $6.30 for each sale on Kindle!)

At per-unit revenues from ebook sales anywhere from 2.5-to-6 times what they could get from a publisher, and ebook sales rising inexorably as a percentage of total sales, authors and their agents are ultimately going to be doing their math against this option for each new book they have to offer. Some may be doing it already.

There are a few things publishers can tell authors to try to keep them from jumping.

1. “Don’t forget: we give you an advance!” That is the first, and for many authors the most powerful, argument. Agents like advances too, so they’re likely to be sympathetic to the publishers’ point here. But, of course, with that advance comes the publisher’s claim to more than half of what would otherwise be the author’s ebook profits.

2. “Don’t forget: print books are still 90% of your market!” This is really the reason established authors will be reluctant to jump to Smashwords. And as long as print is 90%, or even 80% (and it is falling to that level on many immersive reading books now), getting a multiple on the ebook sales still leaves a shortfall of revenue to the author unless they figure out how to also have the book available in print. The big publishers won’t be doing print-only deals for quite a while, but smaller publishers will certainly be available to work with brand-name authors on that basis. And when the print share falls to 50% of the total sales, which many of us believe it will over the next few years, this argument won’t be effective anymore. (There are many ways for the author to self-publish print too, but only the print-on-demand solutions don’t require big investment or risk, and you aren’t going to get what a publisher would deliver with POD alone.)

3. “You’ll have to do your own publicity and marketing.” This is true, but it is also true that publishers have wanted authors to do a lot of their own publicity and marketing already. From here, it would seem that the author’s marketing efforts will be critical either way. If the author is already big and branded (likely due at least in part to the prior efforts of a publisher, but that’s not necessarily relevant here), it’s less of a barrier than if they’re not. It might be no barrier at all. This is an uncomfortable point for publishers because the authors who need the least help are the ones they want to publish the most.

4. “If we publish you, you’re legitimatized.” I think this point carries almost no weight with any author who has had a bestseller already or has already had more than a couple of books published by established houses. I think it will carry less and less weight with everybody else. I just found my first great book by an unknown author on Smashwords. Sooner or later, you will too.

5. “We’ve built email lists and other direct contact with the consumers you want to sell to, plus we have relationships with the book retailers to get you more attractive placement and promotion through them than you can get without us.” Now, that would be attractive. Can any big publisher justify that claim?

6. “We will pay you 70% of receipts on ebooks to keep you in our stable. It isn’t the 85% you get from Smashwords, but with our advance, our print book sales, and taking all the admin and management off your hands, it’s a better deal for you.” That will probably work, but no publisher wants to let it get to that point.

Publishers better work on number five.

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Three new ebook platforms nearing their debut


A year ago — even six months ago — it seemed like Amazon and its Kindle device had an insurmountable advantage in the ebook device and platform competition. Despite our admonition that Amazon’s dominance of ebooks was much more fragile than their dominance in online print bookselling, even we were impressed and sometimes daunted by the enormous percentage of ebook sales that were being made through the Kindle ecosystem.

Then Barnes & Noble introduced the Nook through their 700 stores last December and Apple brought the iPad to market in April. Nearly overnight, it seems, Amazon has gone from the dominant player to the leading player with a share that was often in the 80s for many titles having fallen to the 50s.

Three entirely new ebook platforms are now poised to make their debut. Each of them has an angle, or a USP, that the others don’t and that the vendors, devices, and platforms that preceded them — notably Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, and Sony — don’t. The three new platforms are Google Editions, Blio, and Copia.

Google’s special proposition is ubiquity; Blio’s special proposition is enhanced feature sets; and Copia’s special proposition is building social networking right into the content consumption platform.

The new entrant that is subject to the greatest anticipation, of course, is Google Editions. Whenever they go live (which they say they “hope” will be sometime this summer, which has another 6 weeks or so to run), they are likely to be offering the largest selection of ebooks from any single source. Google has a staggering number — millions — of public domain books but they will also have professional and scientific books not published on most of the prior ebook platforms. Their well-promoted proposition is their cloud model, which will allow their ebooks to be read on any device that can support a browser.

Google is also offering a wholesaling service to enable any bookstore or any web site to sell their ebooks. (What that means, of course, is that their “largest single source” claim could be usurped by their own resellers, who might have added other titles from other places.) Their arrival adds another option for potential ebook sellers who had previously been served by Ingram’s wholesaling operation or their competitor, Content Reserve, which has also reached the book trade through Baker & Taylor.

Google is working the OEM channel as well and not limiting themselves to Android-powered devices in doing so. They’ll have apps available in multiple marketplaces, including Apple. And they are offering to power sales on publishers’ own sites. We’ve seen no announcement of publishers who have accepted this proposition, but it would seem likely that some, particularly smaller ones, will find it attractive.

Baker & Taylor has been developing its own ebook platform, Blio, in concert with futurist Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind. We were first shown Blio last December and were really impressed with its crisp presentation of integrated text-and-pictures pages. They showed us a tool kit that made it pretty easy for publishers to enhance their print books for electronic delivery with sound and video, and even to fiddle with the design in the Blio platform. Because of Blio’s roots as a tool to bring reading to the sight-impaired, the ability to adjust font sizes, a capability which all ebooks offer, had to be integrated into their delivery of complex page layouts.

We have been expecting Blio’s debut in the market for some time, and we’ve been expecting to see many highly-illustrated books, like college texts, that have not previously been in the offerings of Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Highly illustrated books would work fine on the iPad, of course, but they were not a priority for initial inclusion for iBooks (the dedicated Apple ebookstore) and they were not what publishers would put into the eink-reader platforms that didn’t handle that material well.

Blio has announced that it will power the store Toshiba is creating to support its tablet release. Since that is expected in the next month or so, Toshiba’s offering of Blio titles will probably be their debut in the marketplace.

The tool set for Blio was what really captivated us when we saw it last December. When we saw it at the time, Blio was delivering a Blio-ready ebook from the publishers’ print PDF, and then, within Blio, the publisher could enhance the ebook. At the Untethered conference in June, Blio announced a partnership with Quark by which Blio files could be created directly from Quark. Blio says they expect the Quark release to be in beta later this Fall. Blio plans to integrate its tools into other creation software in the months to follow.

Blio introduces another format into the ebook world: rather than epub or PDF, they are using Microsoft’s XPS platform. Right now, Blio itself is handling the conversion of titles from either PDF or epub into XPS, but the Quark arrangement and the others that will take place will allow publishers to deliver XPS-ready files to Blio, cutting past the conversion queue that now exists.

The open questions have been: when will Blio arrive and what will be the retailing environment for it when it arrives? They say they have 200,000 titles committed to their platform. (They can’t just pick up the ebooks of others; they’re not vanilla epub.) The Toshiba store won’t contain them all because titles are coming in faster than the conversion process can ramp up. Blio, like Google and Copia, expects lots of OEM installation. They project that Blio could be on more than 50 million devices by the end of 2011 and that they will be working with “traditional retail partners” in 2011 as well.

Copia made a splash last week when they announced their line of ereaders, including a larger-than-a-phone-screen color model which will be $99 when it comes out in September. Since Copia is a creation of DMC, and DMC is historically a hardware company, using their own hardware to launch the platform makes great sense. But OEM relationships, and an ability to deliver their platform to any device through client apps as well as through web browsers, are part of the strategy too.

The Copia platform’s unique proposition is that they combine social networking right into the platform in which content purchasing and consumption take place. Amazon’s announcement of an integration with Facebook moves them in a similar direction, but Copia would seem to be going much further than Amazon: enabling the sharing of the content consumption experience itself among friends or a personal network. This could be critical for reading groups, areas of common (vertical) interest, or for educational applications. Inside the Copia network, users can readily share their notes and annotations. And to make it easy for people to get started on their platform, Copia enables the import of existing contacts from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Other ebook platforms have demonstrated the power of syncing the reading experience across platforms; you can pick up your book on one device and it will tell you where you left off on the last device. Copia takes that a step further, syncing the social experience, including the sharing of notes and recommendations as well as the reading itself, across all the devices you want: smartphones, tablets, computers, or ereaders. We saw this demonstrated on their forthcoming iPad app.

What also impressed us about the last Copia demo we saw is that they have apparently licked the problem of allowing an epub file using Adobe DRM to move painlessly into their platform, regardless of from what ebook store it was purchased.

In addition to the hardware plans they revealed last week, Copia has also announced that they will be a launch partner for Windows Phone 7, the mobile operating system Microsoft is putting forth to compete with iPhone and Android. [Maybe we know a bit more about Copia than others do because they are our client, but like all the players in this very competitive market, they're not tipping their cards before they play their hand any more than their competitors. Even to us.]

All three of these operating systems come from substantial players. Blio is being delivered by one of the two book wholesalers in America with true national and international reach and relationships with every publisher in the country. Copia is being delivered by a company with long hardware development experience and a long history of partnership with consumer electronics retailers and phone companies. And Google Editions, of course, is coming from a tech company that has had deep involvement with virtually every book publisher in the world as it has developed Google Book Search over the last seven years.

Of all the current players, Sony would seem to be the most challenged. They have the weakest device, the weakest store, and the weakest strategic position with the industry and with the public. All of the rest either have something important and unique for the developing ebook marketplace and, in many cases, they also have an outside proposition that will keep them in the ebook game regardless of how well they do in it. Whether Google’s ebooks sell 10% of their projections or 10 times their projections, they won’t be going away. Same with Apple. Same with Amazon. So I think we can expect a multi-player ebook market, with some incompatible formats and a lot of incompatible DRM for some years to come. And the players currently in the game can expect their sales to go up but their market share to go down when the three new entrants join the fray this fall. That much seems certain, but very little else does.

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What will be the big digital issues in January 2011?


I have found a way to describe the difference between the Digital Book World conference we organize for F+W Media and the O’Reilly conference Tools of Change which I believe is accurate and is certainly not intended to be a pejorative description of  Tools of Change. I go to TOC and I find it very valuable, but different from what we’re trying to do.

Tools of Change explores developments in technology that have impact or can have impact on publishing (in general) and helps publishers (of all kinds) understand how to apply them. Digital Book World explores business challenges to trade publishing (defined as book publishers who work primarily through the retail network, or “the trade”) generated by digital change and helps publishers address them. So if I were organizing Tools of Change, I’d want to scan the horizon for technologies that could have an impact and ask “how?” Because I’m organizing Digital Book World, I’m looking at trade publishing’s commercial environment and operations for the impact of technology and asking “what should we do?”

The next Digital Book World Conference is set for January 25-26, 2011. That obliges us to ask: what will the hot digital change questions be eight months from now? What should we be planning to discuss then that will be immediate and relevant to the attendees we’re targeting: the editorial, marketing, sales, and digital strategy people in trade book publishing houses?

To help us figure that out, we’re in the process of recruiting the DBW 2011 Conference Council. That group of about 30 people — CEOs, digital strategists, and marketers from publishing houses large and small, agents, retailers, and independent industry thought leaders — will help us define the panels and choose the speakers that can enlighten and inspire. I’ll introduce you to that group in a future post; the team is in formation at the moment.

Today’s blog is to recruit the readers of The Shatzkin Files to help too. I hope you will.

Here are 15 topics, or speculations, we’ve identified to start building an agenda for discussion next January. Do you have any thoughts on any of these to refine our thinking? Some of these are ideas looking for examples: do you know particular people or companies doing things suggested here (or not suggested here) we should be highlighting? And, most important, what are we missing?

1. What’s going to be in an ebook? We’re definitely moving past the stage where the ebook is a “straight lift” from the print: half-titles, blank pages, and all. As ebook sales are rising, publishers are paying more attention to presentation and quality control. And there have been a few experiments with “enhanced ebooks” that contain added content and features, some of which are presenting books as “apps” to increase the functionality that can be offered. Where will we be drawing the line between “standard” new ebook features — dictionaries and linked notes, for example — and enhancements that might be worth extra money? And what enhancements will we see working in the sense that consumers see them to be worth paying for?

2. What will ebook sales channels look like eight months from now? In addition to the main ones we have today — Kindle, iBooks and the App Store, Nook and B&N, Sony, Ingram Digital and Content Reserve — will we be seeing substantial sales through Google and the Android marketplace, B&T’s Blio, and Copia as well? Will the mobile phone service providers be creating retail outlets that matter too? Will the retailers newly in the ereader game — Walmart and Costco and Best Buy — also be motivated to create a branded outlet of their own to sell ebooks?

3. To what extent will publishers view single-title marketing as a practical endeavor? We’ve maintained that title-by-title marketing is the Achilles heel of general trade publishing and that the steady erosion of book-format-oriented marketing opportunities (book review pages in newspapers, radio and TV talk shows) and verticalization call for different marketing strategies. Where will publishers’ thinking be next January on the challenge of launching each new title into the marketplace?

4. How much progress will publishers be making on establishing direct-to-customer contact? What has characterized trade publishing is its dependence on intermediaries to reach the market. And what has made trade publishing possible is the leverage provided by those intermediaries, allowing publishers to reach millions of readers through mere thousands of touch points. But all publishers today acknowledge that the intermediary structure is breaking down and direct contact with end users is necessary. How is that working out? We may need two panels to answer that question: one of niche publishers that will find it pretty natural to do and one of general trade publishers who will undoubtedly find it very hard and complicated.

5. How important is the mobile phone market? How fast is it growing? What kind of books work best on it? And what do publishers have to do differently to please that market than what they do for larger-screen PCs, tablets, and ereaders?

6. How are publishers tackling the shrinking marketplace for printed books? Are they shedding warehouse space or considering consolidation with other players? Are they renegotiating printing contracts, reconsidering what constitutes a “minimum run” or acceptable print book margins? Are they developing new short-run and POD models to complement their prior pressrun models? Are they launching any new books with a no-pressrun strategy?

7. How much progress are publishers making toward changing their workflow, so that we have “ebook first” editorial processes? Since the beginning of ebooks over a decade ago, the standard technique has been to make them after the print book has been completed, and for the editor and author to focus their efforts on making the best possible print product. There is an increasingly widespread belief that this is backwards, and more complex ebooks help make a compelling argument for reversing the order of things. How far will we have moved in that direction by next January?

8. Does the growth of ebook sales change the thinking of publishers and agents about the efficacy of dividing up the territories for single languages? Do publishers start to see a growth in offshore sales facilitated by ebooks? Anecdotal reporting by O’Reilly, which owns global rights in all its titles, suggests that they’re seeing big sales growth in digital from markets that are hard-to-reach with print.

9. Do non-US publishers start to establish more of a sales presence in the US exclusively through virtual means? We’ve been suggesting on this blog that the growth of online sales — print books and digital books — will soon enable reaching a majority of the US sales potential without inventory, which means without the need for a warehouse or a distributor. That should lead to greater penetration of our market by offshore publishers, in all languages. Will we see enough signs of this by January 2011 to build a discussion around it?

10. How does the future look for the brick-and-mortar bookstore marketplace? On this blog (and elsewhere), concerns have been expressed about the impact on bookstores of the increasing shift to online purchasing for both print and ebooks. Christmas 2010 is being viewed in the consumer electronics industry as the “ebook Christmas”. When we’ve had a chance to digest the sales numbers of new devices and we combine that with what we know about the impact devices have on a consumer’s print book purchases, how do we see the future of bookstores when next January rolls around?

11. Is “profitable self-publishing” an idea gaining credibility or is it a pipedream? In 2009, author J.A. Konrath made a bit of a splash when he blogged about the substantial revenues he was earning putting his short stories and out-of-print backlist on Kindle without a publisher. Will there be more stories like this by January? Will this look like a viable option for established authors?

12. What’s the best approach to ebook distribution for small and mid-sized publishers? Will the original DADs (digital asset distributors) like Ingram Digital and LibreDigital provide the full service suite and sales effort that smaller publishers need? Or will the publishers-as-distributors model — notably including O’Reilly, who went into the business last February, as well as trade publishers and trade distributors like Perseus and NBN and Ingram Publisher Services, be the better option? How much is effective ebook distribution dependent on technical competence and how much of it requires sales competence?

13. After many years of discussion, are we yet beginning to see some new revenue models with any impact, like subscriptions (Disney has tried it now, in addition to O’Reilly’s Safari), selling books by the slice, or new models to compensate for library lending? We know that publishers need metadata-labeled fragments of their books for marketing purposes, but, for trade publishers, is there yet any indication that there’s a real payoff for that kind of tagging in sales revenue?

14. How much of the print backlist is still locked up by rights issues and what impact can different royalty offers have in clearing it up?Jane Friedman’s Open Road has had some success signing up established backlist for higher ebook royalties than the majors want to pay. Is the reservoir of candidates for this treatment substantial? How are agents and big publishers going to resolve these issues?

15. Is the notion of publishers building vertical presences on the web, so often expressed and promoted on this blog, gaining any significant traction in the real world? How are Poetry Speaks and Oxford Bibliographies Online and the forthcoming Pixiq from Sterling doing at establishing a new publishing model? What other examples are emerging or will emerge of publishers using delivering vertical solutions to create new business models?

At the Digital Book World conference, we want to be strategic and we want to be practical. And we want to be focused on the real-world problems digital change is forcing trade publishers to face. Have we left out any of yours?

I have finished this but not posted it yet and am already thinking of things I left out. A substantial publisher I spoke to last week learned from having his trip to the London Book Fair cancelled that he doesn’t need to go there anymore. This company has already given up its BEA floor space in favor of a meeting room. And this CEO himself is no longer going to go to Frankfurt and can see the day not far off when his company will no longer take space there either. Are trade shows  an anachronism in the age of digital communication? I have a feeling you readers and the Conference Council will think of a lot more.

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Tech companies need to look like they understand publishing, which they don’t always do


I showed up Tuesday morning at the gorgeous Cipriani restaurant and ballroom on 42nd Street for The Future of Publishing Summit, not knowing what to expect. I had been invited to attend this in an email last month which promised an interesting program (lots of big tech companies plus a book publishing “track” led by the always-interesting Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins) at an all-day conference. I was invited because of my status as a “thought leader”; an all-day event like this with no fee is not unheard of, but it also isn’t common. I accepted.

Then when I heard from my friend Evan Schnittman of OUP over the weekend that he’d be going, I decided I should look at “what is this” more carefully. So I went to the web site for it and I found it almost impossible to figure out who was staging this thing and what they hoped to get out of it. My prior experience with free events — many I helped organize that were run by VISTA Computer Services (now renamed Publishing Technology) in the 1990s and several since hosted by MarkLogic — tended to have the organizer highly branded and visible. This one was opaque. “About us” on the “The Future of Publishing” web site described the conference, the agenda, and the goal of “setting the agenda for publishing’s new business model amid digital disruption”, and it led to a link listing the sponsoring companies. But nowhere did it say, “I’m the organizer of this event and this is why I want you there.”

When I got to Cipriani in the morning, I started to see some people I knew: Evan, David Young and Maja Thomas from Hachette, Peter Balis from Wiley, Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks. “What is this about?”, I asked them. “Who is behind this?” Nobody really seemed to know.

As the day developed, it seemed that the two parties in charge were Tim Bajarin, President of Creative Strategies and Colin Crawford, former EVP Digital at IDG Communications, Inc. Bajarin kicked off the session recalling a critical meeting at UCLA in 1990 that really charted the course for CD-Rom development.

Uh oh, I thought. I wonder if these guys know what “CD-Rom” calls up in the mind of anybody in the room who was in trade publishing the 1990s.

What I had walked into took me back to the early 1990s when I went to a conference sponsored very openly sponsored by Microsoft for book publishers. The message then was, “here are the amazing things we are going to be able to do with CD-Roms in the very near future. To realize the true value of this technology, we need content. We’re not sure exactly how you make money from the content, but, hey, guys, get creative.” And, in fact, that was the message that the five key sponsors of this Summit — Sony, Adobe, Marvell, Qualcomm, and HP — had for their publishing audience.

This was the takeaway. Consumers are going to be navigating their content on faster, smarter, lighter, and cheaper devices that will open up more flexible and robust content delivery and consumption models. Publishers should take advantage of this! But “taking advantage” in this case often meant “more sound, more pictures, more video”. And that recalls the veritable disaster of CD-Rom development for book publishers: largely uncontrolled spending in development of new kinds of products, ostensibly but loosely rooted in books, that had no established market and never found one. The iPad had already unleashed several sparks of enthusiasm for enhanced ebooks; this conference wanted to pour fuel on those sparks and start a real fire burning.

The format of the day was that each of the primary sponsors got a half-hour to present their technology, following 30 minutes from Tom Turvey of Google on the forthcoming Google Editions. (Turvey joked about the fact that he had given the presentation to just about everybody in the room before in their office or his.) I’d say that most of the 30 minute presentations packed at least 5 minutes of useful information into them. There were definitely people buzzing about the fact that Adobe has a workaround to enable Flash-like content on the iPhone, which doesn’t support Flash. We all got the message that connectivity will be more robust and more routine; that both LCD color and e-ink (and before long, color e-ink) will be available in a staggering number of devices (or “form factors.”)

With all that capability in your hand, you can pull up just about any content you want. “Why would you read a plain old book” was certainly part of the message.

Then after a really terrific lunch, about half to two-thirds of the audience (I’d reckon; couldn’t really see because we were broken into three groups in different rooms for books, magazines, and newspapers and no more than a fourth of the audience was there for the final part of the program after the breakouts) remained to hear the content-based presentations. The intention here was “the tech guys will explain what’s coming in the morning; the publishing guys will explain where they are in the early afternoon; and then our experts will ‘pull it all together’ at the end of the day, allowing us to leave with a new plan for publishing.” The “experts”were additional sponsors, of course, and creators of tools or platforms for products or presentation: Zinio, Notion Ink, ScrollMotion, Vook, and Skiff. These are all very worthy companies with substantial propositions that have made real inroads working with established media.

But are they qualified to chart a commercial course forward for complex publishing enterprises? Frankly, I don’t think so.

Cader said privately on Monday that he had joined Conferences Anonymous. He wasn’t going. Admittedly, these guys had a rough row to hoe trying to tell people something new following on the heels of Digital Book World in January, Tools of Change in February, Pub Business Conference and Expo earlier in March, and an ABA meeting on digital change in between. People who are really junkies for this stuff were out at SXSW, which apparently also didn’t seem as revelatory to some savvy book practioners as it did last year (or so said my buddy from the Microsoft conference two decades ago, Lorraine Shanley.)

My sense of this one was “nice try”, but it didn’t work. The superficial logic of putting the tech and publishing people together, laying out the picture from each side and then coming up with “answers” within a single stimulating day is appealing, but it is ultimately impractical. Book publishers (and, I suspect, other publishers as well) aren’t going to do much today based on what they see tech might deliver two or four years from now. And book publishing isn’t one business anyhow. As Turvey of Google, who understands the publishing business better than any other tech company representative I know and, frankly, better than most publishers, spelled out in the beginning: “book publishing is about five different businesses that don’t have much to do with each other.” We in publishing know that very well. Tech companies that want to get our attention need to make clear that they know that too.

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