You are missing some good fun if you don’t know those AT&T commercials where the grown-up sits around a table with a bunch of really little kids and asks them questions like “what’s better: faster or slower?” There always seems to be an obvious “correct” answer. Those kids could answer some important questions about ebook retailing in the future like these:
“What’s better? Selling just ebooks or selling ebooks and print books?”
“What’s better? Selling in just one country or in all countries?”
“What’s better? Selling just books or selling books and lots of other things too?”
“What’s better? Having one way to get revenue, like selling books with or without other stuff, or having lots of ways to get revenue so that books are only a part of the opportunity?”
And the answers to those simple questions, so obvious that a 5-year old would get them right, explain a lot about the evolving ebook marketplace and, ultimately, about the entire world of book publishing.
Book retailing on the Internet, let alone an offer that is ebooks only, hardly cuts it as a stand-alone business anymore. The three companies most likely to be in the game and selling ebooks ten years from now are Amazon, Apple, and Google. The ebook business will not be material to any of them — it is only really close to material for Amazon now — which is why we can be sure they will see no need to abandon it. It is a strategic component of a larger ecosystem, not dependent on the margin or profit it itself produces. And the rest of their substantial businesses assure they’ll still be around as a company to run that ebook business.
Kobo is owned by Rakuten, a large Japanese online retailer. They started a global expansion in 2005, buying up ecommerce companies in different key markets, including Buy.com in the US. They also have invested in Pinterest. I don’t know what it is, but I have to believe that deep in Rakuten’s strategic consciousness there is a larger reason for them to have Kobo, probably based in the opportunities inherent in having a consumer’s email address and credit card information and knowledge of what s/he reads. So they also have a base bigger than the ebook business.
Barnes & Noble demonstrates the principle that books alone and one market alone just aren’t enough. They were able to use their US store presence to jump-start the Nook, but after they grabbed the low-hanging fruit among their store customers for digital reading, they quickly ran out of steam. Without a global presence and without a strong online store (BN.com has been deficient, and an albatross, for years), they just don’t have the ballast to be competitive. And that’s a shame, because B&N is the player that could make the most powerful consumer offer in the book space. They have online and offline, print and digital, but it really hurts them that the execution of offline print isn’t up to competing with Amazon and the overall coordination that would maximize the power of all these capabilities is not in evidence.
This is a totally conceptual theory being posited here, not one with any data to support it. And it is not based on the value of the consumer proposition, although it does seem to me that the “right answers” to the questions in the lead can be formulated strictly from the consumer perspective. The thinking is that book retailing, and particularly ebook retailing, is doomed to being a low-margin business. As such, it is much easier to sustain and support if there is benefit to be gained that goes beyond the margin that can be captured from those sales.
This has really been Amazon’s secret sauce from the beginning. The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.
Google and Apple are similarly situated in that way and profits (or losses) from ebook retailing don’t even rise to the level of a rounding error for them. Their ebook retailing operations exist in service to larger initiatives: search and Nexus 7 and the whole Google Play content offering in Google’s case; making devices more useful and complementing the iTunes and apps offerings in Apple’s. Their ecosystems are much larger than their ebook businesses and they benefit just from the ebook business being there.
And they’re global. As is Kobo, and Rakuten presumably has an ecosystem play in mind, although it isn’t evident yet.
This is a paradigm that leaves Barnes & Noble out in the cold. Their business, on which they must make money, is selling books. They are trying to diversify their merchandise selection a bit in their stores, but that’s a strategy that is both difficult to execute and has nowhere near the upside that Amazon, Google, and Apple have with their other businesses. This is an unfair fight where B&N is dependent on margins from their ebook (and book) sales while their competitors, if perhaps not totally content to break even on that business, aren’t materially affected if they do, or even if they lose a bit of money on that aspect of their business.
All of this is good for publishers, who benefit from having lots of retailers.
But publishers are bound to face the same problem due to atomization. As the share of the book market — print or digital — reached by online retailers grows (and it is perhaps past 50 percent for fiction already), it makes it easier and easier to put book content into the marketplace and have it reach a substantial percentage of its potential audience. Ambitious self-publishing authors have been reaping the benefits of this reality in growing numbers for the past several years; now entities ranging from newspapers and magazines to ad agencies and colleges and manufacturers are discovering the same opportunity.
In other words, publishing — like book retailing — is likely to become a subsidiary function pursued in strategic support of larger goals. Unlike in retailing, this will not be consolidated among a few players, but as widely scattered as the subjects about which books are produced. But the core challenge for the legacy publishing establishment, that they will increasingly face competition that doesn’t need the profits from that activity as much as they do, will be the same. Book publishing as a stand-alone industry with most of its significant players earning all their profits within it is in the process of morphing into something quite different, starting with the retailers.