The Atavist

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Book World Week | January 15-18, 2013

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

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New publishing companies are starting that are much leaner than their established competitors


“It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.” — David G. Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, quoted in The New York Times on September 24, 2012.

The magazine business isn’t the book business, but…

For the better part of two decades, many people have seen the potential quandary the digital transition posed to big successful full-service publishing organizations. If distribution no longer requires scale, what does that mean to the companies that not only succeeded by creating distribution at scale, but which also are largely locked in to their high-cost, high-maintenence infrastructures?

This was one of my concerns when I delivered my “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech at BookExpo in 2007. When bookstores go away, I figured, it would become absolutely necessary but would be very hard for publishers working across audiences to adjust to being multi-niche. And it seemed to me that the big organizations built to deal with thousands of dispersed retail outlets at scale would be far too expensive to maintain when the outlets weren’t there. And stepping down the overhead level wouldn’t be easy.

There’s no shortage of understanding of this challenge. All big publishers are looking for new ways to apply scale to gathering names, analyzing data, improving discovery, social marketing, and creating partnerships with others that can provide audience reach.

Several companies have built business strategies around the expectation that traditional publishing organizations are going to have to get smaller and change the way they staff their print value chain. Among the biggest players, Donnelley, Ingram, Perseus, and even Random House fit that description: offering a variety of ways for publishers to offload everything except the functions that are absolutely core to publishing: editorial selection and development, rights management, and marketing.

The companies that offer the print value chain solutions also have digital services, of course, but they have competitors in that space that specialize in providing what demands scale for digital publishing. The competitors tend to start their service offerings further up the workflow than those that started by focusing on scalable distribution. Two new partnerships announced last week suggest the emergence of new commercial models for publishing.

The big eye-catching announcement was that Barry Diller and Scott Rudin, both with Hollywood roots, are putting substantial investment — announced as $10 million, but they could certainly add more when and if they want to — behind a new commercial trade house called Brightline to be led by publishing veteran Frances Coady. Brightline will partner and build its books with The Atavist.

Perhaps less noticed, but pointing in a similar direction, is that agent and entrepreneur Jason Allen Ashlock has set up a new niche publishing imprint to do crime and suspense books, working on the PressBooks platform created by Hugh McGuire.

The publishing ambitions here are quite different, but the point they make about the direction of publishing’s future are very much the same.

Diller and Rudin backing Coady would appear to be poised to compete with major publishers for major books. You don’t put $10 million into play as your initial investment to sign up a bunch of previously self-published or genre fiction authors. And The Atavist’s bookbuilding capability was built with a Hollywood consciousness in mind. They have not only designed what they do so that it rather elegantly accommodates links (allowing them to be made either very obvious or very unobtrusive), The Atavist always envisioned that its own publishing of serious topical non-fiction would have a potential cinematic or TV iteration. Their standard contractual agreement cuts them in on those rights which it was very much in their vision to reserve for themselves and develop.

This is not to imply that Brightline will need in any way to depend on The Atavist’s original commercial vision or contracts; they will certainly have their ideas about both.

Ashlock’s ambitions, at least initially, appear to be more modest. As the proprietor of a young and developing literary agency, he would need to acquire titles that don’t have the kind of advance-against-royalties requirement that Brightline would feel comfortable with. So he’s announced his publishing enterprise, called Rogue Reader, which will do “crime fiction”, apparently only one title per month and also apparently previously little-known or unknown writers.

The message here is that we see a similar answer coming from the opposite ends of the continuum of investment and power of what the genesis of a successful future publisher might look like. Both an ambitious well-funded highly-commercial list headed by a publishing veteran and fledgling authors publishing in a niche under the direction of a young entrepreneur with much less seasoning are being launched on new publishing platforms which have copious capabilities to do digital publishing efficiently. These new publishers can treat the diminishing print-in-store marketplace as a bit of an afterthought because there are more and more sources from which to purchase those capabilities for as long as they are needed.

And since the need for those capabilities is diminishing, and since there are so many companies that own them and can’t suddenly not own them, the chances are that the cost of obtaining those capabilities from somebody else is likely to just keep going down.

We are getting closer to the day when all a publisher really will need to “own” is the ability to acquire and develop good books and ways to reach the core audience for them persuasively and inexpensively. Diller and Rudin, with their Hollywood roots, certainly have access to many of the great story-creators and storytellers. Through connections to lots of people with marketing platforms plus the extensive network of connections through Diller’s IAC collection of web properties, they also have the capabilities to promote them.

Could any publisher build scaled web marketing capabilities more effectively than IAC? Diller’s team seems to be figuring they can rent everything else besides the core capabilities and be competitive. I think that’s right.

Ashlock doesn’t have their reach, but by sticking to “crime fiction” he thinks he can build a community around what he’ll do that will enable effective and efficient marketing. And as an agent, he’s in a good position to recruit good projects, although he will deal with the conflicts involved in turning somebody who comes to him as a literary agent seeking a publishing deal with another house into his own author. The ethics of this question have been hotly debated. One prior experimenter of this type — agent Scott Waxman who started ebook publisher Diversion Books — seems to have given up agenting in favor of being a fulltime ebook publisher. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Ashlock.

Both Brightline and Rogue Reader will undoubtedly be building out their development. We can expect them both to announce soon how they’ll handle putting books in stores. One would imagine that the business development teams at all the companies with big distribution capabilities are knocking on Brightline’s door. One book a month isn’t necessarily as attractive and publishers won’t want to encourage agents to become competing publishers, but I would imagine Rogue Reader will be able to find more than one company with these capabilities willing to answer their phone calls as well.

Rebecca Smart, the CEO of Osprey, was at our office last week let our friend Hannah Johnson of Publishing Perspectives capture a couple of minutes of video about what she’ll be discussing at Publishers Launch Frankfurt on October 8. It’s a quick example of the out-of-the-box thinking which will be coming from 18 different presentations at our 10:30-6:30 event. 

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Subscription models seem to me to be for ebook niches, not a general offer


Another fledgling ebook retailing venture came through our office this month touting a subscription proposition. I told the entrepeneur “I’m skeptical of the subscription model for ebooks,” and he said, “I know”.

We had a great chat, but I’m still skeptical. When I say that, I mean I’m skeptical that a general offering subscription model can work.

There certainly is a logic to subscriptions, particularly for those who think the book business should learn from other content businesses. Cable TV really started with subscription and then only later moved to pay-per-view, which is more like the ebook sales model (but not exactly). We have Netflix for movies and TV, Audible for audiobooks, and a host of services for music, the most successful of which seems to be Spotify.

I have a Spotify subscription, even though I don’t use it much. Perhaps foolishly, I’m comfortable spending $119.88 a year (which is what $9.99 a month comes out to) to have access to just about any song I might ever want to hear instantly when the urge (or suggestion) to hear it arises. (Spotify very seldom disappoints me by not having the song.) And that’s even though most of my listening needs are satisfied with the 6,000 or so songs I have in my iTunes repository of which the best 1,000 are on my phone.

Spotify was cited by the entrepreneur I met as a motivation for him to start his ebook subscription business. As he correctly pointed out, “sharing a playlist” with a fellow Spotify subscriber enables them to immediately — with no additional cost or friction — “consume” that music. Sharing an iTunes playlist with somebody just leads them to having to make purchases which, quite aside from the money, put time and (a considerable) effort between receiving the playlist and enjoying it.

So, it is posited, this logic should apply to books. With a host of very explainable exceptions, I’m not sure it does, at least not anytime soon.

I’m fresh off a speech in Washington about what the DoJ doesn’t understand about publishing. The answer, if boiled down to a single word, would be “granularity”.

According to the MPAA, North American movie releases for 2007, 2008 and 2009, were 609, 633 and 558 respectively. There are foreign films and perhaps some below-the-radar indie films that must be added to that number to reckon what’s being made available, but it gives you an order of magnitude.

The Big Six publishers average more than 3,500 titles a year each. And there is far more production of titles beyond the Big Six in publishing than there is production of movies beyond the Hollywood studios. It would be very conservative to estimate that there are 100,000 new professionally-produced book titles a year intended for consumers. (Many more are published for professionals or as school or college texts and were you to add in self-published ebooks, which sometimes reach big audiences, they would multiply that number.)

Commercial releases of music would fall in between movies and books in number, but much closer to movies.

That’s the short answer as to why most people share music and movie experiences with far more friends and acquaintances than book experiences. It is also the short answer to why people outside the book business just can’t grasp it; each one of those books is a separate creative and commercial endeavor, down to having its own contract, its own development path and schedule, and its own marketing requirements.

(It also helps explain why many people who use libraries for some of their reading don’t use it for all. No library will have all the books a voracious patron would want to read.)

In the days before Amazon.com and digital books, there were two kinds of subscription services that worked for consumer books.

Book clubs offered price deals and curation (help with selection) but it was the price deals that really attracted members. Before ubiquitous bookstores (which arrived in the 1980s), Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild got the highest-profile books distributed to consumers who would have had a hard time getting to them (as well as those near bookstores who just wanted the convenience of mail delivery.) As bookstores spread, the Clubs found that “niche clubs” (around mysteries, science fiction, or subjects like gardening) were apparently more profitable than the big general interest clubs. (“Apparently” is a highly operative word, but the explanation of that will wait for another day.)

The other subscription concept that worked was the “continuity series”. The market leader there was Time-Life Books. These books were about a particular subject (World War II, say) and they were “packaged” specifically for the series and not available in stores. Continuity relied on the combination of intense subject interest and the “collection” mentality: somebody who started collecting the series didn’t want to have holes in their collection.

Both models were pretty much blown out of the water by online book purchasing which suddenly made every book available for home delivery to everybody everywhere.

In specific niches, subscription models can work very well. The granddaddy of them on the digital side is Safari Books Online, originally conceived and built by O’Reilly in partnership with Pearson. Safari serves a community of programmers and has a huge collection of instructional and reference books which they can use on the job. Most users of these books dip in and out of them, rather than reading them straight through. And they frequently like the idea of checking out what several books might say about a problem they’re tackling.

Safari pioneered the model of dividing the publishers’ share of the subscription fees by metering usage. The more your book is viewed, the more money you get from the pot. And since users of Safari will almost always find the answers they need within the service, leaving your book out means it won’t be found and used. Since at least some of the time Safari usage could lead to a sale of the book itself (even if not very often for most books), that discovery element is lost along with any Safari-generated revenue if the book isn’t included in the database. A publisher should feel pretty confident that they aren’t losing many sales being inside Safari.

(The model that looks like “all you want for a price” to the purchaser and like “pay per use” to the content owner in even purer form than Safari does it is the deal offered by Recorded Books for its digital downloading service for audiobooks to libraries. There are other subscription models in the library space; it is a distraction to the point of this post to get into them which is why they’re not covered here.)

O’Reilly saw at the beginning that their books alone wouldn’t be the strongest subscription offer so they were open to participation by others from the very beginning. Safari is exceptional in at least three ways: they are bigger than one publisher; they are built on a professional user base; and they deliver value primarily through chunks, not end-to-end reads.

But if a publisher is strong in a niche, a subscription service can work for them too: Baen Books (science fiction) and Harlequin (romance) are two niche publishers who have sold subscriptions successfully. (In fact, Harlequin recognizes sub-niches, further segmenting their audience for better subscription targeting.) The Osprey-owned sci-fi house, Angry Robot, offers subscriptions. eBooks by subscription are also part of the model for Dzanc, which does more literary books (fiction and non-fiction; they’re really less niche-y, except for “quality”) and it will be interesting if they can make the “quality” paradigm work the way “romance” and “science fiction” do.

Sourcebooks is a general trade publisher, but they have a robust romance list. They’re trying to establish a club and community called “Discover a New Love” which operates more like the old BOMC: subscribers can choose one of four featured titles each month in addition to getting other benefits from discounts on other books to early looks at some titles.

Subscriptions are offered in the children’s ebook area as well. Disney Digital Books has a monthly subscription service, as does Sesame Street eBooks. In both cases, the model is browser-based delivery rather than downloads.

F+W Media is a publisher that works across many verticals (niches). They had two big head starts. One is simply being vertical. They have audiences that are defined by their interest, which has been the key to making a subscription offer work in the book business. The other is that they were once publishers of magazines and operators of book clubs, so they have experience with direct customer contact and managing those relationships. They also had a lot of names. And F+W is managing subscription offerings for many things other than ebooks.

Most of F+W’s communities have been non-fiction (subject-specific) and they offer subscriptions for content in art, writing, and design. But they are also venturing into the romance market now and their Crimson Romance offer is an “all you can read” model. Baen introduces the wrinkle of releasing a novel in stages to subscribers, like a serial.

And we note in the recent reminder that the TED conferences started doing ebooks (sort of: only within an iOS app) that a subscription model is part of their thinking too. Once again: in a niche. The app that enables them to manage subscriptions is powered by The Atavist, which is another attempt to build a following for a publisher distinguishing itself by its content choices, like TED or Dzanc, rather than around already-established consumer clustering (romance, sci-fi, or a topic like writing or design.)

It is worth noting that there are “all you can eat” subscription offers and ones that are limited but which offer discounts on further purchases. That variation exists in other media too. Spotify is one price for everything; Audible and Netflix meter your use and you can pay more if you consume more.

There’s a pretty strong pattern here to the subscription offers we see.

They’re usually done by publishers. (Safari isn’t a publisher anymore, but it was started by publishers.) That means they’re working with the publishers’ margins (bigger than an aggregator’s margins). Controlling the product flow means they can make good use of intereaction with their audience, learning through data and conversation what they should be doing next. And, most important of all: from a product offer point-of-view, they’re focused.

They’re precisely the opposite of Spotify or Netflix or Audible who all want every single song, movie or TV show, or audiobook they can lay their hands on.

So, what about a more general model for ebooks?

It hasn’t happened yet and I don’t think it will anytime soon, despite the ambitions of my recent visitor. The challenges of putting together the title base for one are daunting and, as I hope this post makes clear, so is providing and demonstrating persuasive value.

I can see only one player that might be able to pull off a more general subscription offering in the near term. (You can guess who that is.) The “whys” of that will be the topic of a future post.

One thing that is pretty certain is that when there are many publishers offering subscriptions in their niches (and someday there will be), they’ll each be powered by a Cloud-based service of one kind or another. None will be asking the IT department to create the software to handle it.

I will admit that I haven’t programmed anything specific about “subscriptions” into the “Book Publishing in the Cloud” program we’re running on July 26, but if that’s what any attendee wants to find out, they’ll have a great opportunity at our “Conversations with an Expert” session to get the answers. Almost all of the speakers will be available during structured chat time, as well as representatives from the great companies that are sponsoring the event. 

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What retailers know that publishers need to know


The Wall Street Journal ran a piece last week about what the ebook retailers know about how we are all reading. In fact, all the ebook retailers who manage ecosystems that include apps for using their platform on multi-function devices can see every move their consumers make. We all have the sense that they know something on a per-customer basis because they recommend what we should read next when we visit or through emails they send (and even that gives some consumers the heebie-jeebies). The piece focused on the analysis of aggregated data way beyond just purchases to understand the interaction between many readers and books.

Much of what was cited in the article would be intuitively assumed. Readers of fiction tend to finish the books more often than readers of non-fiction and to read them more continuously. Readers of genre fiction tend to read the books faster. Readers of literary fiction tend to have more than one book going at a time.

This kind of stuff, in my opinion, actually doesn’t help a publisher or a retailer much more than sales data at the ISBN level already can. Barnes & Noble reports launching Nook Snaps (shorter books) for non-fiction, it is implied in the piece, because they observed that readers often quit non-fiction books before they’ve completed them. But there’s already plenty of data in all retailers’ databases about the performance of shorter works. Kobo started as “Shortcovers”, thinking they’d be the pioneers of shorter stuff. There are independent efforts to publish shorter books like Byliner and The Atavist.

And, of course, there are Amazon Singles. Research by Laura Owen at paidContent points to some robust successes there, with over 2 million Singles sold in a year and at least a handful of authors making some pretty decent money from them. In other words, anybody monitoring the sales of shorter works or cheaper works can draw their own conclusions about how they sell without regard to data about the consumption patterns for longer books.

But the Journal piece did suggest one kind of data that is extremely worth noting: when consumers show heightened interest in a particular author (by reading that author’s book faster and with fewer interruptions than others) or declining interest (by reading more slowly or abandonment before completion) in one that has had prior success.

It isn’t actually the retailer that is most in need of that data; it is the publishers who will bid on the next book by the author who most need to know that.

And that brings us to the crux of the matter which is mentioned, but only lightly touched upon, in the story: only Amazon (so far) is really both a retailer and a publisher.

This has been on my radar screen for a long time. It was several conferences ago — well over a year — that I asked Michael Tamblyn of Kobo to talk about “what retailers know that publishers would want to know” about ebook consumption. Kobo, which works hard to promote its publisher-friendliness and willingness to share data, readily took up that challenge.

Then last Fall I was counseling a purveyor of ebook sales data about how a service that I thought would be of value to publishers. “Aggregate the usage stats from the ebook retailers.”

“Why would they give them to me?” he asked.

“Because, if they’re smart,” I said, “they won’t want Amazon to be the only publisher who knows what retailers know. Books Amazon signs up might well be lost to them for sale; they want publishers to keep signing up all the important books. To the extent that this data can only be used by a publisher and they aren’t using it, they’re well served if the data is used well by publishers who look to them for distribution.:”

Then, as the Journal story reported, Jim Hilt of Barnes & Noble excited our audience at Digital Book World last January by promising that B&N would share data with publishers going forward. I took that as confirmation of my judgment about smart retailers. There have been false starts on that promise since then, but the Journal article says that B&N is now sharing analytics data with publishers.

Hilt cites the case of a series where interest from the readers seems to be flagging and suggests it might be a hint that publishers should juice it up, perhaps by adding a video. Of course, he has the analytics data and I don’t, but I wonder if that’s the right reaction. Do videos get clicked on and viewed? Would they add interest or create a distraction?

I’d suggest there are three responses more likely to be valuable. The pretty obvious one is to lower the price of the ebooks. (Surely the retailers’ analytical capabilities would show the efficacy of that pretty clearly.) I suspect one thing retailers see more clearly than publishers is the price-banding of their customer base. To the extent that’s true, you can revive a tired backlist title by introducing it to a “new audience”, those who buy in a price-band and don’t consider books above it.

Another would be to change the configuration of the offer, such as putting three (or more) books together for a special bundled price. That would gain some attention for the “event” value of a new edition, as well as presenting a price-offer.

And the last, totally in the hands of the publisher, would be to offer the author advances based on a lower sales forecast going forward or to stop publishing him or her at all.

What would be of even more interest to a publisher, and almost certainly something that Amazon has set to be flagged for their publishing arm, is when a less-known author or book is being read very avidly. That would signal an opportunity for a publisher — one the author herself wouldn’t know about, even if she checks her sales figures and ranks regularly.

One conjecture that would seem to be worth confirming is that ebooks make continuous series, or multiple ISBNs that form a reasonably seamless and continuous story, more commercially attractive than in the days of print. The Journal story opens with B&N’s observation that the first thing most readers of the first book in The Hunger Games series do when they finish it is to order the next one. And, of course, they can start reading it right away.

We already know that ebooks are lifting genre fiction over literary fiction and all fiction over non-fiction in relation to print. If the series is lifted by comparison to the print-in-store past, it would suggest some changes in the creative output (novels that leave plenty of hooks for successor books rather than ones that neatly resolve all the loose ends) and dealmaking (publishers wanting stronger option clauses and, perhaps, more multi-book deals even for first-time authors.)

Successes like the self-published “Wool” by Hugh Howey might be instructive. We spent some time learning about it last week in conversation with Howey’s agent, Kristin Nelson, as background for our Publishers Launch Hollywood conference on October 22 (at which we’re hoping that Howey will appear). “Wool” is a novel compiled from five novellas. Howey and Nelson have publisher deals in place in 10 markets including the UK and Brazil (with sales in Germany and Russia imminent) and the movie rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox. But Howey is doing so well with his self-publishing ebook sales (and a handful of print sales through Amazon’s CreateSpace) that he has so far turned down six-figure offers from US publishing houses.

Howey introduced what is now his phenomenon as a single novella on Amazon without particularly high expectations. A combination of reader reaction and Amazon’s response to it, promoting him in various ways, led to Howey writing further installments as novellas. Eventually, five of them were collected into an “omnibus”, which is the novel “Wool”.

I suspect that some good analytics at Amazon led to the promotion which contributed to Howey’s success, which he has extended to other ebook platforms. I also suspect that at some future time Amazon will adjust their tactics so they give their publishing arm a crack at an author like Howey before they promote him into stardom.

It is worth noting that during the time that Howey’s writing, his readers, and Amazon’s marketers were combining to create what might be a new commercially giant mega-saga, he wasn’t publishing on the Nook or Apple or Kobo platforms. Only after he proved that “Wool” was actually a sensation, did he even bother to make his work available through the other retailers.

I think I might find a lesson or two in that if I worked for any of Kindle’s competitors.

Now Howey is working on his next two novels, which will also be issued as a series of novellas before they are collected. He’s no secret to anybody anymore.

I’m involved in two events this month about very different topics that will both profoundly change publishing.

I’m speaking at George Washington University at their 5th Annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing on July 9 about the danger to the publishing industry posed by the DOJ’s suit and the settlement agreement apparently about to be ratified by the Court. 

And on July 26, we’ll hold our “Publishing in the Cloud” conference at Baruch in Manhattan. We see “hosted software” as a key tool for publishers to cut their overheads and pre-production costs (as they will have to) by almost unimaginable percentages in the next few years. Our conference is the first dedicated to this topic for publishing and we’ll be hearing from publishers large (Hachette, HarperCollins, Perseus, Random House, Washington Post, Wiley) and not-nearly-so-large (David C. Cook, Liberty Fund, Wayne State University Press, Workman) about how they’re employing these new capabilities. A great roster of sponsors will not present from the stage, but our  “speed-dating” and “expert session” format will enable all attendees to get their very specific questions answered both by the people they’ll hear present and from many of the suppliers who provided them the capabilities they will have talked about.

 

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