Writer’s House

When an author should self-publish and how that might change


There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?

The answer is certainly not “never”, and if there is anybody left in a publishing house who thinks it is, they should think a little harder.

For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is. It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing. And it’s great to have an organization turning your present book into more dollars while you as an author focus on generating the next one, and start pocketing the next advance.

Publishers have heretofore really had only one model for working with authors. They acquire the rights, usually paying an advance-against-royalties, and own and control the entire process of publishing. It is generally understood that all efforts to make the book known can show benefits in all the commercial channels it exploits. So publishers have generally insisted on, and authors have generally accepted, controlling all the rights to a book when they pay that advance. The two pretty standard, time-honored exceptions have been cinematic (Hollywood) rights, which are rarely controlled by the publisher, and foreign territory and language rights, which are only sometimes controlled by the publisher.

Since publishers until very recently effectively monopolized the path to market, they could effectively make the rules about what an author could publish. That usually has meant no more than a book a year. It has also usually eliminated anything that isn’t “book-length” or that needed to reach the market very quickly upon completion of the writing. And in a practice that ultimately has had painful consequences for publishers, it meant backlists went out of circulation when a title wasn’t worth printing in bulk.

And these make up a very good starter list of when even an established author might want to consider an alternative to the conventional publishing arrangement. (It goes without saying that a fledgling author with a completed manuscript might choose self-publishing as a way to start their commercial career in preference to canvassing for an agent and then, if that quest is successful, waiting for the agent to find a publishing deal and the publisher to get the book out. Self-publishing could conceivably speed up the whole process of finding a publisher!)

Although most of the Sturm and Drang around how digital changes the publisher-author relationship have been about the royalty rate — publishers tend to want contracts that specify a royalty of 25 percent of revenue on ebook sales, various upstarts and digital-first publishers pay 50 percent and an author going directly to the retailers can get even more — that is, for most authors, less of a problem than it might first appear. For authors who don’t earn out advances, it isn’t a real number and the effective royalty is higher than what the contract says. And whatever the difference is in dollars, it doesn’t come without the requirement of work and sometimes costs — like a copy-editor or a cover designer or a marketing advisor — that would otherwise be borne by a publisher.

Where royalty rate is most consequential is for authors with a substantial reverted backlist. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher. Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started. Others have followed in his wake. And although the work required to self-publish and market yourself effectively is not trivial even if some readers know you and some of your work, it is also considerably more likely to result in a useful financial reward than trying to self-publish from a standing start. And certain chores, like editorial development and copy-editing, are eliminated by starting with already-published material.

In these cases, the loss of inventory-in-place at stores is less of a handicap to discovery than it would be for a new book and the additional margin on ebook sales could well leave the author making much more money, even without a promotional print sale.

But, for many authors, the frustration with publishing the conventional way might not be about money at all. Writers often write just because they have something to say, or a story to tell, and they want both to express it and have people read and react to it. That’s where the “shorter than a normal printed book” or “must get this published in weeks, if not days” barriers publishers have always presented become mere annoyances that anybody with a modicum of initiative would simply brush aside.

All of these motivations — monetizing previously dead backlist and getting to the public with material even a successful author would have difficulty getting a publisher to do — are behind the fact that the big literary agencies are staffing themselves to help authors navigate the digital world. In different ways, we have seen this emerge at Writers House, Trident, and Curtis Brown, among others. And another way this can work is demonstrated by the Waxman-Leavell Agency, which has spawned a new ebook publisher called Diversion. Diversion followed a path blazed more than a decade before when agent Richard Curtis started EReads (recently sold to Open Road) and lawyer-agent Arthur Klebanoff founded the still-operating Rosetta Books.

In other words, the gap between pure self-publishing and traditional publisher-author deals grew wide enough that the agents saw the need to fill it.

The strength of the traditional publishers and the traditional deals is directly related to the amount of the market that is served by inventory in stores. When that proportion was “nearly all”, the power allocation was “nearly all” to the traditional publishers. During the period when this was shifting quickly and the online share was rapidly depleting the in-store share — a few years ending a year or two ago — there was what felt like a rush to self-publishing combined with the growth of digital-first publishers, the reigning giant among them being Open Road.

The traditional publishers are starting digital-first imprints now that can do deals with different splits and handle both shorter books and faster publishing than the classic model. The upstarts like Open Road, Rosetta, and Diversion have built lists and businesses on the gap — in business jargon, “the delta” — between the traditional deal and pure self-publishing. The hunch here is that gap is going to get progressively smaller. The big guys will figure out commercial models to do shorter books and get to market faster. They’ll raise royalties (or unearned advances, which amounts to the same thing) to keep proven writers in the fold. Eventually, houses will give their acquisition editors the suite of deal templates they need to keep diminishing the incentive for an author to step away from the house to get something done.

And while there will always be an opportunity for a known author to make a bit more per copy if s/he takes on many of the functions of publishing her/himself, the amount of backlist available to be capitalized on in that way will shrink inexorably over time.

Self-publishing and new-style digital-first publishing can grow more to the extent that the book-in-store share of the market shrinks more. But while that’s happening, the big publishers are also adding to their capabilities: building their databases and understanding of individual consumers (something that all the big houses are doing and which the upstarts seem not to believe is happening, or at least not happening effectively), distributing and marketing with increasing effectiveness in offshore markets, and controlling more and more of the global delivery in all languages of the books in which they invest.

It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals and the more powerful will be any incentives Amazon cares to offer for making the title exclusive to them.

There has always been — and will always be — a great diversity of publishers. But the commercial concentration will continue to be in a small number of big English-language houses for many years to come even if the number of self-publishers appears to continue to grow.

We are really excited at the enthusiastic response we’ve been getting to our new Logical Marketing Agency business. If you have anything to do with marketing books (or brands) online, you’ll want to know about what we’re offering.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They might.

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

I doubt it.

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

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Publishers Launch conference at BEA will cover a wide range of digital change issues


What are the important topics to discuss today concerning publishing and digital change? I think we’ve got most of them covered at Publishers Launch BEA, the one-day conference we’ll stage at the Javits Center next Monday, June 4.

Our all-day event has sixteen distinct presentations and panels. There may be a topic of interest to somebody somewhere that we won’t cover, but we’re definitely not missing much.

The day will begin with a review of recent industry developments from Publishers Launch co-founder Michael Cader. As I write this, the news of the moment is “Waterstones will sell Kindles”. That event, and others that may follow between now and then, will be put into context by the man who prepares our daily Publishers Lunch. Michael likes to point out the topics we spend more time discussing than they’re worth. Those observations are always amusing and insightful.

We’ve noticed that cloud solutions — commonly called SaaS, “software as a service” — are becoming increasingly important in the operations at publishing houses. We think the topic is so important, in fact, that we’ve scheduled an all day conference called “Book Publishing in the Cloud” for July 26 in New York. Ken Michaels, the COO of Hachette Book Group USA, is a big proponent of SaaS and believes it could change the way we work, together and separately, as an industry. He’ll kick off our conference describing what he sees as the opportunity for publishers represented by cloud solutions.

Then a panel of four publishers will talk about a very much related subject: how publishing houses are remaking their processes and workflows to respond to the demands of the digital age. Publishing veteran David Wilk will chair that panel, which will include Chris Bauerle of Sourcebooks, Sara Domville of F+W Media, Joe Mangan of Perseus, and Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins. All of these companies are doing some very basic things quite differently than they did only a couple of years ago and these executives will discuss how things have changed, how hard it was to change, and what benefits have come to them because they did change.

We like to feature short conversations with industry players who have a unique view. One of these is Molly Barton, who is the global digital director for Penguin. Molly is the only digital head I know today who started out inside the publishing house as an acquiring editor. Now she has a view of digital change around the world from the top of one of the world’s biggest book publishing empires and within an even larger publishing company that has many digital irons in the fire. I’ll have an onstage conversation with Molly, and we’ll cover a wide range of topics from DRM to enhancement to whatever might have arisen earlier that morning.

After Molly, we’ll move to a new feature of Publishers Launch Conferences: the Publishers Launchpad sessions. Launchpad is our slot for introducing new products and services. When we debuted it at Digital Book World last January, we were pleased to recruit a consulting client of my Idea Logical Company, Linda Holliday of Semi-Linear, to moderate the sessions. On June 4, Linda’s own new product will be the kickoff Launchpad subject.

And Linda’s new product, Citia, has as its objective nothing less than reinventing the presentation of high-concept non-fiction in the digital age. It is a shamelessly ambitious undertaking, literally deconstructing and then reconstructing the ideas in a book. The debut Citia title will be “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly, from Penguin, the house of the previous speaker, Molly Barton. Barton is one of the biggest fans of the new Citia presentation of material. Michael Cader will interview Linda and they’ll show you how the complex ideas we previously could only access through narrative text and illustrations can be rethought and made clearer with what I call, for simplicity, “Cliff’s Notes for the Digital Age” but which is really much more than that.

Then Linda will bring on two other new propositions as part of the Launchpad session. Both of them are new SaaS services to make ebooks.

The simpler proposition is from Hugh McGuire and is called Pressbooks. It is a free XML ebook-making tool built on WordPress that enables users to produce epub and PDF files on the web.

The other tool is called Aerbook Maker, created by Ron Martinez of Invention Arts. Aerbook makes enhanced ebooks and both HTLM5 and native apps. It is a tool that allows mixing in audio and video and interactive elements without advanced programming skills.

Then, before lunch (aren’t you hungry already?), we’ll have our agents panel. Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent will moderate a great agent group that includes Laura Dail of Laura Daily Literary Agency, Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, and Jennifer Weltz of The Jean V. Naggar Agency. They’ll be discussing both the changes in the business of agenting and the dynamic negotiating climate with the publishers. We’ll learn what they’re thinking about managing their digital backlist and what new skill sets they think their authors will be demanding of them.

Kelly Gallagher of Bowker will kick things off after lunch with with the latest report from their new Global eBook Monitor (GeM), a global look at ebook uptake around the world. Gallagher will feature “country level data” to a degree that hasn’t previously been revealed. We’re looking forward to it.

One key premise about digital change is that the world is getting smaller and publishers will find it easier to sell books, particularly ebooks, in territories other than their own. Our panel called “Sales Across the Borders — Import” will look at the increased penetration of ebooks from abroad, particularly in languages other than English. I’ll moderate a group of three panelists: Patricia Arancibia, Editorial Director, International Digital Content, for Barnes & Noble, consultant Javier Celaya from Spain, and Spanish publisher Blanca Rosa Roca of Roca Editorial. Blanca Rosa is doing some very innovative things to get her books into the US market in both Spanish and English. (She’s just created an English language ebook publisher called Barcelona eBooks and forged a partnership with Open Road for marketing and distribution.) Javier consults to companies throughout Europe and will report on how publishers, particularly in Spain, Italy, and France, are viewing this opportunity. And Patricia wrangles content for B&N to sell from all over the world. There are very few people, if indeed there is anybody, who knows more about this subject than she does. One wrinkle on this topic is that other-language publishers are now translating their own books into English to hit the English-speaking ebook market. One thing we’ll want to learn from our panelists is how commonplace they expect to see that practice become.

The complementary panel, which will be moderated by longtime sales executive Jack Perry, is “Sales Across the Borders — Export”. For this one we’ve gathered three experienced export sales executives: Chris Dufault of Random House, David Wolfson of HarperCollins, and Dan Vidra, who has just this month left Simon & Schuster to work for the new German-based (but global and multi-language) ebook platform, textr. They’ll be joined by David Cully, the President Retail Markets/EVP Merchandising for Baker & Taylor, the US wholesaler that has long been a global leader helping US publishers sell their books abroad. This panel will tell us what markets are showing the most promise for US publishers, how the sales growth of ebooks is affecting the sales of print, and how the growth of export might be impacting the related business of selling foreign translation rights. (We’ll be able to cross-check what they say with what the agents will have told us a couple of hours before.)

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo is always a popular speaker at publishing events because he shares interesting data. This time we’ve asked Michael to focus on what Kobo has learned from its recent experience in new markets, particularly the UK and France where Kobo tied up with major retailers. What we’ll want to know for non-English markets particularly is how powerful the draw of wide title selection in English is. Will ebookstores in other countries really expand the sale of our books in English around the world? Tamblyn will certainly get us started on answering that question.

Our final chunk of programming in the afternoon is all about change.

Fritz Foy is Macmillan’s EVP for digital. Macmillan made news a couple of weeks ago when they announced that they would be going DRM-free with their Tom Doherty Associates imprints including Tor, Forge and other related sci fi and fantasy imprints. We immediately called him and got him to agree to talk about that on the program. Foy is going to do a presentation that recaps Macmillan’s thinking about this question, which he says goes back several years. Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the anti-DRM crusader who is one of Tor’s key authors, Macmillan had already experimented with it. Foy promises us there will be surprises and at least one news announcement coming from his presentation. We’ll be surprised right along with you when we find out what it is.

Phil Ollila of Ingram Content Group accepted our challenge to comb their sales data for clues about how bookstores and other retailers have been changing their stocking decisions in recent years. The short summary of Ollila’s findings, which are summarized in an article he did for our conference book (all Publishers Launch Conferences have a printed conference book!), suggest that fiction is down, some surprising categories are up, and that what publishers can expect is more titles in more different stores with fewer sales per store per title.

We’ll have a bit of a change of pace with a presentation by David Steinberger, the one who is Founder and CEO of the Comixology platform. (There is another David Steinberger, of course, who is the CEO of Perseus.) Comics constitute a very big global business that operates in silos by language and by country. Will it stay that way? Will the rights and cultural issues that have kept the market from globalizing continue to do so in the digital age? As the creator of the most successful comics-selling platform in the US and a man with an eye for the world stage, Steinberger is in a unique position to speculate on the answers. And perhaps we’ll get some insight about how other highly-illustrated genres with strong localized content — travel and food come to mind — might change because of the digital transition.

There is a growing consensus in the industry around two points that would have been controversial only two or three years ago. One is that bookstores are declining rapidly and will, unfortunately and in the not-too-distant future, atrophy to the point that they are a subsidiary channel for book sales, not the primary one. The other point is that the marketing exposure that books get in retail stores is a critical component of their early exposure, leading to the “discovery” by consumers that is the key to getting commercial traction. Our last two sessions of the day will focus on that challenge.

Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex has been conducting studies of book purchasers for a decade, including careful tracking of how they learned about the books they bought and read. Peter is one of the greatest champions of the bookstore’s role in discovery, and perhaps the leading skeptic that search engine optimization and social network marketing can be an adequate substitute. In this presentation, Peter will make his case thoroughly backed with data from the years of research his company has done.

Then Peter will join our final panel of the day, one focused on “The Future of Book Discovery.” Two publishers that are doing a lot of work in this area, Amanda Close of Random House and Rick Joyce of Perseus, and Scott Stein, who heads up the book coverage for USA Today, will be part of that discussion, which will be moderated by Michael Healy of Copyright Clearance Center. One of Hildick-Smith’s key points is that there is a Catch-22: if you don’t know something about a book, you’re not likely to search for it. And unless somebody gets the ball rolling for a book, there’s nobody to comment on Facebook or Twitter to get you started that way. The publishers on the panel and the overseer of one of America’s most widely read book pages will talk about their efforts to build something new that will tell us about books the way window displays and stacks and face-out displays have for years.

After that, Cader and I will wrap up the day. Very briefly. We’ll all be very happily exhausted!

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Are open markets for ebooks a race to the bottom on price? Maybe our London show will help me understand


Sometimes something seems very obvious to me, but other people — smart people I respect — don’t see it that way and it makes me wonder if I’m missing something.

What I’m thinking about that way today is the future of “open territories” in the ebook world.

When English-language rights are sold to US and UK publishers, some territories outside the home markets are “closed” and others are kept “open.” Closed territories are reserved to the publisher who owns them; in open territories a US edition and a UK edition can both be legitimately sold.

For most of my career in publishing, Europe was an open market. Both the American and British editions of a book would be available there. Although currency fluctuations came and went and could temporarily change these things, most times the US edition carried a lower cover price (when converted to the local currency) but the UK editions were usually more widely available. Sales reps from the UK tended to call on the once-small but persistently growing number of bookstores that carry English-language books. British publishers had warehouses that were closer, shipping costs that were lower, lead times that were shorter, and customer service groups that were more comfortable dealing with Europeans.

With the coming of the EU, British publishing has moved to formalize and make contractual what was previously just their natural advantage. British publishers pointed to the fact that once an American edition was sold in Europe, EU rules would allow its importation into the UK itself! So unless the European market were closed to US editions, Britain itself was not closed to US editions. And that, quite naturally, was not a situation that British publishing could accept.

Of course, for an American edition to wind up on a British shelf would require two trips across the water: one from a US warehouse to Europe and then another from Europe to the UK. It might seem that this double-shipping would wipe out any presumed US pricing advantage, and I don’t recall any evidence of US-published imports showing up in any number. Nonetheless, for the past several years, UK publishers have succeeded frequently, if not universally, in excluding the American editions from Europe.

As with all things in publishing this subject is being revisited as publishing adjusts to ebooks.

As we know, the ebook market started to take off in the US in late 2007 and has grown to be a solid double-digit percentage of publishers’ sales with much higher numbers, often 50% or more, of the units sold in the opening weeks for major titles. In the past few months, British ebooks have started on a similar, perhaps even more accelerated, growth trajectory. So ebook revenue is squarely on the radar screen of the English-language publishers who are increasingly cognizant of English’s position as the world’s leading second language. Nowhere is this effect more evident or the future sales expectations greater than in Europe.

Right now, the European ebook market is still miniscule. Germany, one of the countries with the most advanced local-language digital infrastructures, recently reported ebook sales of one-half of one percent of the market. But it is not uncommon for German bookshops to see double-digit sales percentages of English-language books in their shops so we know there’s an English-language market there. English-language publishers, with the experience of explosive growth in their home markets under their belts, have good reason to expect the same thing to happen in Europe and for them to be among the principal beneficiaries.

But there’s a problem. Or, at least, I think there’s a problem.

The open-market competition for print books is waged primarily around service. The reps that call on the stores tend to take business away from the companies that call less often. The advantages of proximity and familiarity favor the British; sometimes the advantage of price can favor the Americans. But no trade publisher in either country tries to create cheaper, locally-priced editions of trade books for the European market.

In the ebook market, the competitive factors that prevail in print are moot. If a store sets up to sell ebooks, it will list every one in the catalogs it offers. As the ebook market matures, that will mean that, if the territory is open, both the UK and US editions will be available to the consumer. And with no other basis on which to make the decision of which to buy, the customer will almost certainly choose the ebook edition with the lowest price.

The logic of this seems inexorable to me. As the market grows, as the publishers become more aware of it, and as the consumers learn more about what is on offer, offering a lower price will be the only effective way to grow share in an open territory. This is damaging to everybody except the ebook consumer, who will get windfall price cuts. The publishers will gain share, but lose revenues. The authors, operating on a piece of the sale price, will lose revenues. And the lower prices for these English-language ebooks will further erode local-language sales and further undercut brick bookstores.

(European bookstores are extremely vulnerable to sales erosion as the market shifts to digital because the English-language selection they offer will look increasingly paltry compared to what will be available online.)

But some very smart agents seem to see something different from what I see. At our “eBooks Go Global” conference at BEA last week, Simon Lipskar of Writers House specifically declined to insist on closed markets and celebrated the virtues of “competition” on behalf of his writers. In another BEA session, Stephanie Abou at Foundry was quoted by one reporter saying “our goal to get authors the best shot at being published the best way. what that means is we have this fight to keep Europe non-exclusive.”

Of course, timing is everything in life and in dealmaking. There really is no European market for ebooks to speak of yet. There are structural impediments to growth. A panel including Google, Kobo, Ingram, and OverDrive at “eBooks Go Global” spelled out some of the complex local compliance issues that make it take time to set up a store in each new country. My concern about a “race to the bottom” assumes a much more developed market than we have today, with both US and UK editions made ubiquitously available in a European ebook market that resembles what we’re seeing today in the UK, if not in the US. That may be two years away, or even more.

So maybe Simon and Stephanie do see what I see but they might also see it as far enough away not to be relevant yet for deals they’re making now. But maybe our difference is more fundamental. They both referenced “competition” in expressing support for open territories. It is precisely my concern about the effects of price competition that it seems to me they’re ignoring.

It feels to me like I must be missing something somewhere. Not only do I think the agents should be moving to close markets in the interests of their clients, I think publishers in both New York and London should be moving to close markets because they’ll ultimately make no money on the books for which the markets are open. I’d say it is better to control a closed market for half your list (or even a third of it!) than have an open market for all of it.

This subject is of great interest in the US but it is existential in the UK. Sales made in Europe are already critical to UK-based publishers, on titles where Europe is open as well as on titles where they control it contractually. Since UK publishers are already trying to close the market in their favor for print, one can hardly expect them to be less zealous about closing it for digital books. But their leverage to close Europe, for digital or print, is primarily based on their ability to sell print in the UK. Those are the sales they can make that nobody else can. And those are the sales that finance serious advances that nobody else will pay.

But will that leverage vanish as bookstores diminish and the sales of print become less important?

The panel that will explore this subject at our “Global Perspective on Digital Change” conference in London on June 21 will be my next chance to be enlightened on this subject and shown the flaw in my thinking if open territories for ebooks are not a race to the bottom. We’ll have publishing CEOs Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury and Toby Mundy of Atlantic Books and agent David Miller of Rogers, Coleridge and White discussing this topic with Philip Jones of Future Book moderating. I’m sure this panel, along with many others on that day, will be opening some minds. Mine is lined up to be among them.

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The subscription model for ebooks hasn’t emerged yet, but it will


From the beginning of Digital Change Thinking Time, which for me goes back to the mid-1990s, “subscription” has been high on the list of future expectations. That’s natural. The subscription model has emerged as the dominant one for cable TV (although there is still some pay-per-use) and Netflix works that way as well. Lots of people subscribe to satellite radio. Rhapsody is a successful subscription service for music. Pandora for music has a free model and a paid model, as does Spotify.

Subscriptions actually have a history in trade publishing too, where they were called “book clubs”. The print book club model, which also depended heavily on the club’s role in curation (or title selection), was doomed by the arrival of online bookselling. But O’Reilly has demonstrated the common sense (and worked out the mechanics) of a subscription model for ebooks with their wildly successful Safari program for the past several years.

In the past week, Publishing Perspectives offered up a thoughtful piece by Javier Celaya speculating on a free subscription, ad-supported model for ebooks like Spotify is for the music business. PP’s editor, Ed Nawotka extended the speculation to a model of piecework sales: buying a book in chunks or chapters.

Neither of those is what I have in mind. This piece by John Konczal, building on what’s being done in the textbook business, comes closer.

We’ve reached the point where Amazon with their Kindle and B&N with their Nook are perfectly positioned to make a subscription offer. Publishers will have mixed feelings about it and the agents for the top-selling authors have good reasons to be against it, but the proposition seems (to me) to be one that will be compelling to many consumers and will offer tremendous advantages to the retailer that offers it. In fact, I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t happened already.

Here’s how I imagine it working.

The retailer creates a pool of content that will be offered through the subscription service. The proposition to the consumer will be that for a price (let’s say: $50 a month), they can read all they want from the content pool. In turn, the retailer divides 70% of that money (or 75% or 80%) among the publishers in proportion to how many “pages” (a somewhat arbitrary but internally consistent measure) of their material have been read. Of course, all available public domain content will be in the pool.

I am guessing that a very high proportion of the owners of self-published and small press books will find the proposition attractive from the beginning. How the big publishers would react is less certain. My belief is that the smart ones will try it: put in some titles, perhaps from their deep backlist, to get some visibility as to how the program would work.

Meanwhile, the consumers who do this will determine the course of events from there. It seems possible that the impact of this offer will be similar to the impact of the e-ink readers: the heaviest book consumers will see the greatest financial merit in the proposition. And just like customers for Amazon Prime (one annual fee for shipping) and Kindle or Nook owners are highly resistant to buying outside those programs, customers for this subscription service would largely be lost to other book consumption. It will take a more powerful desire to read any one particular book to make it a purchase outside the subscription than it takes to buy it now.

So that, in turn, will drive more books into the program. Authors, and therefore their agents, won’t want to be left out. The early entrants to the program will reap a relative bonanza because they’re on a shelf with less competition which will drive further expansion of the title base.

The tricky part here is setting the right price. As I was thinking about this piece, a reader pointed out a conversation on the Internet about this subject from a different perspective. Here the question was: “what would you pay to read any book anytime you want?” The bidding seemed to begin at about $100 a month. That strikes me as high, particularly since the pool of titles would certainly lack most high-profile books, at least in the beginning.

But a retailer setting the price too low could cost itself a lot of money. Lots of heavy readers spend more than $40 or $50 a month buying books now and, of course, they’d be the first ones to enter such a program (to save money). The benefit for the retailer would be that those customers would be “locked in” to the service, not buying anything elsewhere.

Of course, this idea runs totally afoul of agency pricing. The publishers who are using agency will have the hardest time even experimenting with such a subscription program. On the other hand, if the subscriber base becomes large enough, it will force some reconsideration.

There are all sorts of wrinkles one can imagine beyond this initial idea. There could be a “premium” subscription that had the higher-profile books, creating a more robust revenue pool for them. There could be “vertical” subscriptions for genres or topics. There could be a special discount for subscribers to purchase books not in the pool (except for agency books, of course, whose terms would not allow it.) And a company like Harlequin or a sci-fi imprint of a major house could create their own in-house pool that might attract subscribers. (In fact, the innovative small sci-fi publisher, Baen Books, already has a subscription service!)

But with ebook consumption now climbing rapidly toward half or more of the sales for many titles, it seems inevitable that models that won’t require a transaction for each and every book must emerge. I’d be a bit amazed if conversations about an idea like this, or something like it, aren’t taking place inside the biggest ebook retail shops already.

We created a “thinking about the future” panel for both of our upcoming Publishers Launch shows. They will entertain the subscription question, among other issues, with an eye to the special complexities of international implementation. At our eBooks Go Global show aimed at international visitors and their trading partners at BEA, the panel will feature Tracey Armstrong, the CEO of Copyright Clearance Center; publishers Ricky Cavallero of Mondadori and Cyrus Kharadi of Random House; and agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House. This panel of four incredibly sharp and thoughtful people, moderated by Ed Nawotka, the editor of Publishing Perspectives, represents a real diversity of viewpoints and will explore the practical barriers to this and other innovations across international markets.

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A brilliant Conference Council helps make a great Digital Book World


We had a very successful debut annual conference for Digital Book World last January, even though we didn’t conceive the idea until June, put together a group of helpers (which we now call our Conference Council) until July, or draft the initial program until August. This year we’re way ahead of that schedule. We’ve put together a fabulous Council to advise us this year and we’re having a meeting of many of them next week to discuss the agenda and to start getting suggestions for speakers.

The Council gives us wide exposure and connections to the trade publishing industry. That way we make sure we don’t miss any ideas and we don’t miss knowing about any talented people whom our audience would want to hear.

We have several publishing company presidents and CEOs (Sara Domville of F+W, Marcus Leaver of Sterling, Maureen McMahon of Kaplan, Brian Napack of Macmillan, Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks) and some presidents and CEOs from other companies and support organizations in the industry (Kristen McLean of the Association of Booksellers for Children, Tracey Armstrong of Copyright Clearance Center, Peter Clifton of Filedby, David Cully of Baker & Taylor, Joe Esposito of GiantChair, John Ingram of Ingram Content Companies, Scott Lubeck of The Book Industry Study Group, and Steve Potash of Overdrive Systems.)

We have other senior level executives, many with specific digital responsibilities (Peter Balis of Wiley, Ken Brooks of Cengage, Mark Gompertz of Simon & Schuster, Madeline McIntosh of Random House, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Larry Norton of Borders, Kate Rados of F+W Media, Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press, John Schline of Penguin, Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Maja Thomas of Hachette, and Tom Turvey of Google.)

We have agents (Sloan Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writer’s House, and Scott Waxman of the Waxman Agency) and industry consultants and commentators (Michael Cairns of Persona Non Data, Ted Hill of THA Consulting, and Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.) And because he is our media partner, we have help from Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace as well. And we also get great input from others on the F+W team: David Nussbaum, David Blansfield, Cory Smith, Guy Gonzalez, and Matt Mullin.

So we have all the Big Six represented, as well as small publishers, industry-wide associations and service providers, wholesalers, digital distribution partners, retailers, and agents. All of these people have real input into the topic list and speakers. Many of them are joining us for a meeting next week to review our ideas for the program, which we previewed on this blog about a month ago.

Because Digital Book World tries to be at the cutting edge of trade publishing and digital change, we often face one or both of two challenges. Sometimes we believe something should be happening, or be about to happen, but we may not know where or whether the publishers leading the charge will talk about it. Several topics come to mind that fit that description: vertical efforts inside general trade houses; what houses are doing to adjust to reduced expectations for print sales in bookstores; how houses are gearing up or changing their sales efforts to compete in and serve a growing list of digital intermediaries; how enhanced ebook and ebook first creation change the traditional order of things in product development.

The other challenge we have to work around is when people can say things privately but not publicly. One topic that is very tough to talk about is ebook royalties, which is a major point of contention between publishers and leading agents at the moment. The big houses are pretty adamantly trying to hold the line (publicly) at a royalty of 25% of net receipts. But upstart publishers like Jane Friedman’s Open Road appear to be willing to pay 50%; publishing through Smashwords yields 85% (but sells the books without DRM, which would frequently scare the copyright owners of valuable properties); and self-publishing through a distributor would deliver a yield somewhere in between. (Remember: self-publishing ebooks carries no inventory risk.) In that environment, some agents are able to wring some concessions from some publishers. But the agent can’t talk about that without jeopardizing her ability to get concessions for her clients and no publisher will volunteer to reveal the isolated concession and start turning that into a policy.

Some things are just hard to discuss. Do booksellers, or even the publishers and wholesalers who supply them, want to talk about the possibility of their impending demise? But how can one plan for the future and ignore that elephant in the room? If a publisher suddenly sees the necessity of developing direct selling relationships with end users, after years of telling booksellers he was against it, does that publisher want to talk about those efforts in public?

When competitors participate in industry education initiatives, they must draw lines around what they will reveal and what they won’t. One ebook-responsible executive we know at a major house is persistently reluctant to reveal what he’s doing or what he’s thinking. But he has a boss, one who is proud of what he does and what their house does, who pushes him forward as a speaker.

Frankly, I think these challenges are greater for us than they are for other conferences on digital change that focus more on technology than they do on business practices. Very few publishers are masters of tech; usually they’re working with outside suppliers who are happy to share best practices. But business practices are different; they’re more sensitive. Sometimes the reluctance to share them is sound. Sometimes constraints are even legally required. Since our job is to focus on business practices, we’re glad to have relationships with very knowledgable players who will candidly engage with us on these challenges so we can figure out the best way to protect true proprietary knowledge but still disseminate valuable information.

We’re really proud of the illustrious group we have gotten to advise our efforts, and we get great value from them even though their first responsibility is to the company they work for. We feel confident that this group helps us cast a net that is wide and broad enough to assure us that any major development in the trade book world will hit our radar screen and that we’ll know if there are informed people willing to talk about it.

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