The week I spend each year at the Frankfurt Book Fair is always the most stimulating week of my professional year. The concentration of the best thinkers and most powerful people in publishing always seems to lead me to a new burst of understanding about our global publishing world, particularly in these times of rapid change.
I saw one Big Six CEO who noted that I had said last week that I expected the US publishers to be living in an 80% ebook world pretty soon although the global head of another of the Big Six companies had just stated the belief that the switchover to digital would stop, or slow down significantly, at 40%. I respectfully disagree, but will save that argument for another post. The one I talked to, who chuckled about the wide disparity in these two predictions, didn’t express an opinion about which of us was right, but the implications of the two predictions are so different that it behooves the people running the biggest companies to at least consider mine, even if they believe his.
I also talked to a business development executive for one of the tech companies that has been converting backlists from print and pdf to epub. He made the point that his business remains robust but moves around the world as new markets discover serially that they need to get their intellectual property into digital form. We agreed that those of us who make a living on the digital transition — and that certainly includes me at the moment (what are you reading this blog for?) — have a few more years ahead of us before we’ll have to figure out how to make a living on the new reality (if we need to keep making a living when it arrives…)
With the deals announced at Frankfurt by Kobo with the English retailer WHSmith and the French retailer Fnac along with the quickening pace of store openings by Apple and Amazon, the future shape of the ebook retailing landscape has been more clearly defined. It looks to me like we’ll have three principal global players that will be active in every market — they being Amazon, Apple, and Kobo — plus perhaps a local contender in each market as well. Barnes & Noble has played the latter role extremely successfully so far in the United States; Waterstone’s will attempt the same in the UK starting next Spring; there is local competition in Germany; and certainly there will be in many other countries as the ebook revolution laps at their shores. Google, being Google, will not go away, but they will remain a relatively marginal player unless and until they put considerably more energy into their solution and into promoting what they have.
The Kobo deals are the game-clarifiers, if not game-changers. A sage observer of the digital scene stopped at my stand here in Frankfurt to discuss the WHSmith-Kobo arrangement with me and he wondered whether this was the best deal for both sides. Should Kobo have been trying harder to make a deal with Waterstone’s? Is it wise for WHSmith to be making a deal where they sell the devices but connect them to a Kobo-branded store?
But that, of course, is the key to the deal. The economics of the devices don’t work unless you also can sell the ebooks to go into them. (That’s the answer to all the geniuses who think Barnes & Noble is being thick not implementing an international rollout of the Nook!) Neither WHSmith nor Fnac is principally a book retailer: books are just another product line in stores that sell other things and have a broader identity. By selling a reader attached to an ebook store that serves customers well, they buy themselves relevance to the book consumer during the transition and extend their lives as booksellers. They demonstrate recognition that building and maintaining a ebook store is not a trivial undertaking and, in the face of several global competitors, not something they want to undertake from their position as a country-specific, and more general, retailer.
By tying up with Kobo, both WHSmith and Fnac can get into the market with ereading devices at about the same time as Amazon brings in the Kindle. And WHSmith launching for Christmas 2011 should be terrifying Waterstone’s, which will be months behind with devices and almost certainly delivering a less consumer-friendly store off the bat than the experienced Kobo offering will be.
Barnes & Noble has achieved startling success at establishing a strong second-place position in the US ebook market, but their situation may prove to be unique. First of all, they’re in the biggest single ebook market (by value, even though poorer markets may pass them sometime sooner in units) we’re likely to see for a decade or more. Second, they are a very serious book retailer that has built strong relationships among book publishers worldwide over many years. And third, their execution was nearly flawless. Even with their precedent as an example, there is no guarantee that Waterstone’s, or anybody else, can pull off what they did in another market.
So if it is a global game and you have to be a global player to be competitive, as well as a “whole ecosystem” game that requires devices attached to a well-stocked and well-presented econtent retailing environment to succeed, we can see the steep uphill fight to be waged by the other players trying to compete with Amazon, Apple, and Kobo, whether they be Google, Copia, Sony, Baker & Taylor’s Blio, or the new entrants financed by publisher collaboration: Anobii in the UK and Bookish in the US.
All other things being equal, I can see a global ebook marketplace that some years from now is 90-95% controlled by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and a local player in each country, with Google getting most of the rest. Google may punch above its weight on the long tail because discovery of the obscure or highly niched content might be their forte; one scholarly publisher told me at Frankfurt that he is already seeing some real growth in his Google sales, which no trade publisher has said in my earshot yet.
But all other things may not remain equal. One informed member of the European digerati told me he believes that the European Competition Commission may outlaw the agency model in the European Union. Were that to happen, that would tilt the playing field substantially toward Amazon. It is ironic that the biggest, strongest, and most deep-pocketed competitor for global ebook sales could be handed an enormous competitive advantage by bureaucrats ostensibly trying to foster a competitive marketplace. Publishers may have deficiencies in their understanding of the digital transition, but it would appear that the government bureaucracies the world over might be far more confused than the publishers are.
I’m posting this before I leave the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday afternoon, European time. I won’t have the opportunity to respond to any comments until at least Monday night London time. I drive with a friend and the charming little hotel we stay at in Monschau doesn’t have wifi and I don’t have the digital dexterity (with “digital” in this case referring to “fingers”) to do lengthy replies on my iPhone.