The Bookseller

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself


On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Jeffrey Trachtenberg quoting Barnes & Noble’s retail group CEO Mitch Klipper on the company’s plans for shrinking its store footprint over the next decade. Klipper suggested only a gentle acceleration of what has been the pace of contraction for the past couple of years far into the future.

Klipper was quoted as saying that “in 10 years”, the chain would have “450 to 500 stores”. Trachtenberg reports that the chain had 689 locations operating as of January 23.

In addition, the chain operates 674 college stores. The college stores are, along with the NOOK device, BN.com, and the ebook business, part of “NOOK Media” which took recent investment stakes from Microsoft and Pearson.

As usual, Cader’s overview is a helpful summation of the facts.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a reporter who started out by asking me, in effect, “how will publishers manage with 200 fewer B&N stores in 10 years?”

That question jumps past what I think are the first two questions the WSJ story begs.

The first one is to please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.

Trachtenberg reports that sales of print books (as reported by BookScan) have declined 22% since 2008. Anecdata and intuition suggest that sales of print in stores have fallen more than that. Every time a store closes, online purchasing becomes the more convenient option left for some of its customers. Even if BN.com keeps some of that business away from Amazon.com, it doesn’t help support a physical store of B&N’s or anybody else’s.

The second one is “how likely is Klipper’s forecast to be right?” They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic?

Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.

Among the developments of the last five years has been the shuttering of Borders. That took something like 400 big competitor locations out of the market. There is no comparable subtraction of competition available in the future.

And while the migration to digital, as measured by what we can glean about what percentage of the publishers’ sales are ebooks, has slowed, we don’t know if that’s temporary. We also don’t know if the split we see between books of narrative reading and other books will continue. There is good news and bad news for stores if it does.

The good news is that stores will continue to be desperately needed for illustrated books. The bad news is that the readers of narrative books won’t be in the bookstores to have their eye caught by them anymore.

Forecasting of this kind is highly dependent on intuition and belief because there’s no data today on which to base a prediction for a product form that hasn’t evolved yet. There are still legions of techies and illustrated book publishers trying to find the formula that will enable the books which haven’t “converted” to digital to do so in the future. If somebody finds the way to make a digital rendition of illustrated books that consumers want, it might save the illustrated book publishers from their dependence on physical stores. But that would, at the same time, accelerate the reduction of stores.

I’m personally skeptical that there is an answer to this. I’m not expecting or predicting the demise of illustrated books anytime soon. To the extent that they are replaced by digital products, I expect something far from the 1-to-1 relationship between the print and digital iterations that has saved the publishers of narrative reading from far greater pain than they’ve felt so far. And if the digital products aren’t close to the books, then book publishers might have very little to do with making or selling them. Since we don’t even know what the replacement for books will be, I think we can assume all these questions will take a long time to answer.

It is clear that bookstores have an uphill battle in front of them even if we don’t know the steepness of the slope or how big the boulders rolling down on them will be. The questions that all publishers should be asking themselves now are “what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially”.

Michael Cader has made the point that B&N’s market cap (my app says it is $775 million at the moment) combined with B&N’s own valuation of its new business (nearly $1.8 billion based on the valuations of the Microsoft and Pearson investments) is worth pondering. One could interpret the numbers to mean that the stores are worth considerably less than nothing. Of course, that’s not true; the stores still generate more than $300 million in EBITDA annually (and that number was up slightly in 2012 over 2011). But it does suggest that having the legacy B&N store business in a common entity with the NOOK Media businesses (NOOK, the college stores, and dot com) is not making the investment community jump for joy.

So could somebody come along and do everybody a favor by buying the retail component of the B&N business? Would the market reward that move, or would it just reveal that the notional value of the new business is wildly inflated?

The businesses with the biggest strategic interest in keeping the stores alive, of course, are the publishers. So if publishers were to seriously ask themselves what they can do to help the B&N stores, buying them would have to be a recurring thought. One wonders whether the DoJ would like it better if one big publisher bought them or if a bunch of publishers got together to do it.

Cader has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller tried to sum up the ideas that have been offered from around the industry about how publishers could help booksellers be more profitable in an emailed post entitled “Books Need Bookshops”. What he covered were sales on consignment (the store doesn’t pay the publisher until they sell the book); higher discounts (more margin); a suggestion that bookstores could somehow exploit Amazon’s “weaknesses” in online selling (good luck with that one!); that bookstores themselves should change into something slightly different (based on B&N’s claim that they are creating new “prototype” stores); and creating special print editions of particularly high quality (which Random House has done for Indigo in Canada).

Examining whether any of these suggestions point the way for publishers to make stores more profitable will be the topic of another post, maybe even the next one.

 

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Somebody please tell me the path to survival for the illustrated book business


My eye was caught at the end of last week by a story in The Bookseller that acknowledged that ebooks just haven’t worked for illustrated books. It appears that the publishers of illustrated books they spoke to for the piece think that situation is temporary. The Managing Director of Thames & Hudson, Jamie Camplin, is quoted as saying “you have to make a very clear distinction between the situation now and the situation in five years time.” And Dorling Kindersley CEO John Duhigg emphasized that his team is being kept up to date with digital workflows and innovations, so they can “be there with the right product at the right time.”

But maybe, except for an opportunity that will arise here and there, for illustrated book publishers trying to exploit the same creative development across both print and digital, there won’t ever be a “right time”. There certainly is no guarantee there will be.

Duhigg characterized what he called “the black and white digital business” (but which I think would more accurately be described as “the immersive reading digital business”) as “flowing along” while admitting it is “very different” for the companies with “fully-illustrated lists”.

That’s accurate. Expecting that to change could well be wishful thinking.

Illustrated books in printed form depend on bookstores more than novels and biographies do. If the value in a book is in its visual presentation, then you might want to look at it before buying it, and the view you’d get of it online might not be doing justice to what you’d see if you held the book in your hands.

Camplin sees that optimistically. He has an aggressively modernist view of what will happen with novels. “I don’t see why print should survive at all for fiction, beyond the odd bibliophile” which he apparently believes could open up more bookstore display space for illustrated books.

But if the buyers of Patterson and Evanovich and 50 Shades of Gray aren’t visiting bookstores to make those purchases anymore, will there be any traffic to look at the illustrated books, however prominently they are displayed?

This problem has been nagging at me for a while. Books are illustrated for two reasons: beauty or explanatory purpose, more the latter than the former. When they’re illustrated to better explain, such as showing you how to knit a stitch or make a candle or a piece of jewelry, wouldn’t a video be a better option most of the time? If the illustration is a map, isn’t it likely that being able to manage overlays digitally (for the movement of the weather or the troops on the battlefield or the adjustment of borders over time) will deliver more clarity than whatever stills were in the book?

Of course, these things can be done by book publishers for the digital versions. But they require creating or licensing and then integrating new content assets and rethinking and redesigning the presentation. And that’s not even accounting for the work involved in adjusting the content to multiple screen sizes, a problem that just keeps getting more challenging as more different tablet and phone screen sizes are introduced.

One major publisher I know really endeavors to make ebooks of all their new title output, which includes some imprints that do a lot of illustrated books. Like everybody else, they frequently see ebook sales of 50% and more of their fiction, and 25% or more on immersive-reading non-fiction. But the illustrated books are in the single-digit percentages most of the time, with some of the more successful categories in the very low double-digits.

This is in the US — two years or more after the launch of the iPad and Nook Color and nearly a year after the launch of the Kindle Fire. Poor sales of illustrated ebooks can no longer be attributed to a lack of devices that can deliver them effectively.

And the ubiquity of these highly-capable devices brings its own new set of headaches. We were discussing the recent Bowker reporting that more people are reading ebooks on multi-function devices than on dedicated e-ink readers with our favorite expert on reading habit data, Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. He concurs and says that, as a result, the ebook consumption per reader threatens to go down.

Hildick-Smith points out that the tablet is a sea change in the history of content and consumption. Up until now, each content form had its own delivery mechanism. Records and cassettes and even MP3s were delivered through devices made just for them, just like the programming on TV and radio. Books on Kindles and Nooks replicated that paradigm. When you turned on your Kindle, you were as buried in your book as you were when it was in paper.

This is no longer true. If the book you’re reading on an iPad or Kindle Fire or Nexus 7 gets boring or you get tired of it, you can switch to a movie, The New York Times, your favorite song, or Angry Birds with the same device. Or the chime on your iPhone will ring taking you out of your book to answer an email.

For the publisher of novels, this means the book is competing with other media that would accomplish a different purpose. For the publisher of illustrated books, the book also must compete with media accomplishing the same purpose (how many new instructional videos of knitting stitches or jewelry-making techniques are posted to YouTube every day?) But they can’t do it for the same price, because that price is free.

So the illustrated book publisher not only has to learn how to make videos (a skill they were never previously required to possess), they also have to come up with a business model that enables their videos to be part of a priced commercial product, competing with legions of them that are free. And they have to finance a substantial creative component that isn’t contributing value to the print version at all.

We know our industry is changing radically. Different business models are challenged in different ways. Most of our time on this blog, perhaps too much of it, is spent contemplating how that affects the biggest publishers and the biggest books. There’s a reason for that. Big books have always driven the consumer book business and that seems to be more true than ever, not less.

But the challenge for — very specifically — “general illustrated book publishing” seems much more severe. The big publishers I’ve talked to apparently see that. Nobody has been explicit about it, but it sure feels like they can see a profitable path to navigate digital change with immersive reading books but not with illustrated ones.

I’ve also talked to mostly-illustrated publishers. Nobody says “you’re wrong, Mike. This is how we’re going to continue succeeding using our content-development skills, marketing capabilities, and talent network when bookstore shelf space is insignificant.” A couple of them have said “I don’t agree” without specifics. Most admit that they see the problem but haven’t yet figured out a solution.

There may not be one.

Camplin of Thames & Hudson is quoted at the end of The Bookseller piece saying, “I think it’s sort of a waste of money to assume the market is there [at the moment]; however, it would be foolish to say it will be this way forever.”

It might be equally foolish to say, or bet, that it won’t.

Of course, there is one strategy that can work: a vertical one. If you’re using illustrated book output to build a community of the interested, then you’ll presumably be able to sell them other things (software, live events, databases, services) when illustrated books are past their sell-by date. That’s the Osprey and F+W strategy and you can see sense in it because books are only part, and almost certainly a diminishing percentage, of their sales portfolio.

In fact, it is companies like these that might use technology like Ron Martinez’s Aerbook Maker tools and be able to use their books as a springboard to digital products with commercial value. They’ll probably also want to discover fotoLibra’s “advanceImages” scheme for micropayment of royalties instead of advance licensing fees for photographs. What Aerbook and fotoLibra offer can reduce the cost of creating an illustrated or enhanced ebook by 80%. That would certainly help.

It’s been obvious to me for a long time that managing the cost side of enhanced ebook creation is critical, which is why I was a sucker for the original Blio pitch in December of 2009.

For any publisher who claims a vertical strategy is their solution, the metrics to track are the sales they make of things other than books and the sales they make outside of bookstores. That is: track what is sustainable and has the potential to grow, not what is bound to shrink.

Relevant piece of anecdata: I remember being told by somebody at Wiley a couple of years ago that a large portfolio of photographs added measurable revenue on their travel sites. For very little cost, they could make a selection of photographs available for browsing. People clicked through them pulling up a new ad each time they did. That’s the “illustrated book publishing” of the future, but it starts with having the audience.

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