One very lucky thing for those of us who are in the habit of predicting the future is that very few people keep score on us. We mostly keep score on ourselves. When I want to remind readers of something I said previously, I link back to it and call it forward it again.
But there is one belief I had and stated repeatedly early in the ebook era that was wildly wrong, hopelessly wrong, and then proven clearly to be wrong. I bring it up now because it belongs in this post identifying a more current error, one which hasn’t been proven yet but about which I’ve learned enough to want to walk back.
When I started reading ebooks in about 1999, there were a couple of dedicated ereaders just becoming available: the Rocket Book and the Softbook. Neither of them interested me or very many other people either. Both failed pretty quickly.
Just about simultaneously, ebooks were first being delivered to hand-held devices. I discovered the magic of putting books on my Palm Pilot, a device I had in my pocket all the time. I had started carrying a personal digital assistant in 1986; that was a Psion Organiser with a 2-, then a 4-line screen, which would not have worked for ebooks. But the Palm, which could carry a chunk not so different in extent from what I see now on my iPhone, worked fine.
The original dedicated devices came and went without much notice from anybody. Meanwhile, I continued to read on my Palm and its successors. The shopping experience at Palm Digital was terrible, the choice of titles was extremely limited, and the ebooks cost just about as much as the print books. But I shifted over, as much as I could, because I was hooked both on the utter convenience of always having books in my pocket and because I genuinely found it preferable to read on something so small and light and have book reading, for the first time, totally manageable with one hand.
When the Sony Reader arrived and didn’t do much, I wasn’t surprised. Sometime before it debuted, I wrote or said somewhere that if you carried a personal digital assistant, nobody should have to explain the value of ebooks to you. And if you didn’t carry a personal digital assistant, they might not actually have any value for you. At that point, most ebooks purchased were read on laptop and desktop computers.
That’s why I was pretty sure the Kindle wouldn’t work. Who wanted another device to carry around just to read books, I figured? What’s the advantage in that?
I neglected to think through that people do things for lots of different reasons. And I really underestimated the degree to which the book-sized page is a requirement for a lot of people, even though it might be a transitional one. Anyhow, I was really, really, really wrong. And even though I switched back from Kindle to iPhone reading the minute the vast selection available through Kindle (and now through Nook, Kobo, Google, and Apple) was available to me on the device I was always carrying, I fully accept that most people are willing to carry something around to do their reading on a regular-sized page. Lesson learned.
It is now clear to me that another concept that was an important part of my future view is in pretty desperate need of reassessment. It also appears to be being proved wrong.
It was evident pretty early that the Net facilitated the formation of communities around interests. Putting that together with my thinking about the distinction between the unit of sale and the unit of appreciation (shortcut to understanding: the former is the album and the latter is the song; the former is the cookbook and the latter is the recipe) made me think that the big online aggregation of content for sale would also ultimately be challenged. If you went to a web community to get advice about how to build a deck or plant a vegetable garden, I figured, you’d just pick up whatever were your content purchases — books or whatever else, physical or virtual — from that same site. You wouldn’t need a separate site to go buy content from.
In other words, I expected one of the ways to monetize a community would be that you could sell it stuff, particularly content.
Although I know that O’Reilly operates in a special marketplace, I saw the success they have had selling directly to their community — both their own publications and their subscription aggregation Safari — as a sign of what we could expect to develop in other verticals.
I don’t think so anymore.
The first rude awakening for me was when OpenSky changed its business model. OpenSky began with the proposition that they would facilitate just about any web site to sell just about anything. As I understood it, if you had a blog about cooking, you could arrange to sell your favorite pots and pans right off your own site. OpenSky would source the product and operate the back end. You’d just have to pick out what you wanted and decide how much margin you could demand.
Well, apparently that business model just didn’t work. They’ve switched OpenSky from a commerce platform for bloggers to a “social network for shopping” with celebrity, expert, and author curators. I’m not much of a shopper, online or offline, so I’m not one to judge how appealing it might be compared to competition. There is some evidence that the new model works and OpenSky feels like they are now taking off. But it isn’t any longer the perfect match for the vision that I had when I first saw it, and it probably didn’t work because my vision was wrong.
By extension, I had been figuring that publishers needed to sell direct as well. Big publishers had good reasons to resist that idea which I understood, but which in themselves make me question the idea. Big trade houses are highly dependent on the goodwill of Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as other retailers, and going into competition with your key channels is risky and problematical. And my vision of the future wasn’t really built around general publishers, anyway.
This month, J.K. Rowling opened her Pottermore site, which is intended to be the exclusive vendor of Harry Potter ebooks. Now, there’s a vertical. It appears you won’t be able to get them at Amazon, B&N, or Google (although Google checkout is “the preferred third party payment platform”); if you want them, you’ll buy them from the Pottermore site (or, as some would point out, get them from a pirate source if that’s easier.) In a ‘d’uh” moment, I read this piece making it clear that this kind of fragmentation didn’t work for musicians and ultimately wouldn’t work for authors. (The book business isn’t the music business, but some lessons do carry over.)
So mark me much less bullish on publishers selling direct than I used to be. It can add value and margin to a vertical site if the costs of running the store can be tightly managed, but it is not likely to produce much in sales very quickly.
In fact, I’m quite sure that fewer Harry Potter ebooks will be sold by the Pottermore strategy than if they were just made available through the standing ebook retail network. The margins might be higher with no retailer to pay, assuming that advantage isn’t completely swallowed up by their own costs of infrastructure (and it probably won’t be.) But not everybody who buys a Harry Potter book from Amazon or B&N (or a Nora Roberts book or a Janet Evanovich book or a James Patterson book) is a devoted fan. Some of them are just choosing their next read and if Roberts or Evanovich or Patterson wasn’t shown to them, they would have bought something else on offer.
There is evidence out there to contravene this post and confirm my original thesis. Our friends at F+W Media, with whom we deliver the annual Digital Book World conference, report success building their retailing business through their communities. A senior executive there tells me they are selling “tens of millions” in content, product, and services through 25 stores attached to the community sites they have developed over the past few years. They achieve an average order value of $40 — not too shabby — and credit a combination of true community focus which builds them large and powerful databases of names, unique curation that includes offering things that aren’t available elsewhere, selling content in multiple forms (book-like, video, webcasts), delivery of “online learning”, and special bundled packages for their success.
F+W is not unique. A smaller company that is their competitor in some spaces, Interweave, also has a community focus and sells direct. Both companies have the content to build a number of different verticals to amortize the cost of a common merchandising and retailing platform.I don’t doubt F+W when they say they’re making it work, and apparently Interweave is too, but that still leaves the question of whether they, like O’Reilly, are sufficiently unusual cases that it would be very hard for other publishers to follow their lead.
I still have my fingers crossed that the Google ebooks program could spawn some unique shopping experiences that will make a difference to the ecosystem in the long run. (This is taking powerful faith at the moment because Google has only barely detectable sales in their first half-year of operation.) By offering the opportunity for curation with personality to be done by a large number of different entities (about 300 bookstores have already started with the program in the US), the Google initiative still offers the possibility of a wide variety of curation choices, or bookstore front ends.
Of course, none of these individual Google ebook stores will have the resources of the big retail players to apply technology to their merchandising. But perhaps they can provide selection and positioning that will create its own following. Whether they apply what they know and their own unique intellectual resource base (because every bookstore has one) to highly local subjects or other verticals with global appeal, they have the opportunity to create online stores that at least some people will prefer to shop. Thousands of such entrepreneurs around the globe might produce hundreds — or dozens — of survivors with large enough customer bases to create the kind of diversity in the ebook retail network that would offer publishers the kind of opportunity they need to add value for a long time. And to do it the way they always have, by managing intermediary opportunities, not by selling direct.
This is not to suggest that publishers don’t need to be building direct contact with as many consumers as they can. Just as authors should do. But forget the idea of a huge number of vertical purchase points for ebooks all over the net. I will.
Google also announced an affiliate program for Google ebooks. That will enable any web site to sell their ebooks and get paid, extending a concept that both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have employed successfully for print books. It looks to us like Google pays more. An affiliate can earn 6-10% from Google, 6% from B&N, and 4-8.5% from Amazon.
This isn’t the original OpenSky vision, however, because that was about all kinds of products, not particularly (or even necessarily including) books or ebooks. Of course sourcing could always have been done through Amazon, but there were differences in the merchandising and pricing opportunities in the original OpenSky model.